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Inside the first-ever socially distanced Summer Exhibition

Published 4 September 2020

For the first time in its 252-year history, the Summer Exhibition will fall in winter. Amy Sherlock speaks to this year’s co-ordinators, film and photography duo Jane and Louise Wilson RA, who are steering the show into new waters.

  • In September 1940, during the most intense period of the Blitz, a bomb fell at the corner of Cork Street and Burlington Gardens, very close to what is now the entrance to the Royal Academy at 6 Burlington Gardens. The explosion and further blasts in November of that year badly damaged Galleries IV, V, VI and VII on the north-west side of Burlington House. With bombs still falling and a row of galleries out of action, the selection committee for the 1941 Summer Exhibition faced a difficult question: should the show go ahead?

    It did, of course, and the fact that the annual Summer Exhibition has taken place without interruption since 1769, the year after the Academy’s founding, has passed into the institution’s lore. This year, for the first time in 252 iterations, the show will open in the autumn, on 6 October, when London’s museums and galleries are usually abuzz with openings and events timed to coincide with the annual Frieze Art Fair. This year, although the fair has been cancelled, the Summer Exhibition endures. As Edith Devaney, the RA’s Head of Summer Exhibitions and Contemporary Curator, notes with a laugh, “We didn’t want to go down in history as the group that dropped the baton.”

    Devaney has been the RA’s internal lead on the Summer Exhibition since 2000 and can be justly credited as the driving force behind the show’s revival in recent years. When she took over responsibility, the show was at a low ebb, having floundered in the cultural doldrums for much of the 1980s and ‘90s. Meanwhile London, buoyed by the critical and commercial success of the YBAs and ahead of the opening of Tate Modern in 2000, was blossoming as a hub of contemporary art. Devaney’s challenge, as she saw it, was: “How do we make this show into something relevant for today?”

  • Given its unique structure, the Summer Exhibition is necessarily unwieldy. Each Academician is able to submit up to six works, depending on dimensions (there are currently 127 Academicians); the rest of the show is then selected from an open-submission process – ‘the send-in’ – plus a further number of established practitioners invited to participate.

    Tradition dictated the Academy’s longest-serving painter would be appointed Senior Hanger, allocating responsibility for specific galleries to members of the hanging committee on the first day of installation. Devaney decided to be more strategic. Starting with Peter Blake in 2001, smuggled in as Senior Hanger through a slight reinterpretation of Academy convention, she worked with Academicians who were part of the rapidly internationalising – and commercialising – art world to expand the show’s reach.

    High-profile contemporary artists were encouraged to submit new work – many of them for the first time. Works by Honorary Academicians, including superstars such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, also became integral. In 2003, reflecting the increased workload of a newly dynamic summer show, the title of Senior Hanger was retired. In its place the role of Co-ordinator was created, with the President inviting an Academician each year to take it on.

  • The Summer Exhibition is always a juggling act of sorts but this year, it has required an additional level of flexibility and quick thinking.

  • Logistically, at least, this year’s show presents a particular challenge to that spirit of internationalism. With air travel still massively reduced, and freight – specifically between the US and Europe – complicated by the fact that the couriers who accompany the artwork are often not able to travel, there are a number of question marks over certain pieces. However, this year’s Co-ordinators, the artist duo Jane and Louise Wilson, are confident that the show will continue to reflect, as Jane put it, “how the Royal Academy itself is moving forward”, as a “ringing endorsement of the enduring presence of the artistic community.”

    The twins, who have been working together since the late 1980s, were elected to the Academy in 2018, the second duo in the institution’s membership history. (Like the first, Gilbert & George, who were elected in 2017 and resigned earlier this year, the Wilsons are counted as a single Academician.)

    Working mainly in film and photography, their art often documents empty sites that reverberate with lingering social and psychological significance. Their photographs of coastal landscapes in this year’s show were taken during a residency in South Korea on the remote Gapado Island, home to an extraordinary group of female Haeneyo free-divers who make their living harvesting and selling seafood (detail of I’d Walk With You But Not With Her below). The continuity of these traditional practices, along with massive investment in sustainable energy technologies, mean that Gapado is on track to be the world’s first carbon-free inhabited island by 2030.

  • Jane and Louise Wilson, Untitled #8, I'd Walk With You But Not With Her

    Jane and Louise Wilson, Untitled #8, I'd Walk With You But Not With Her.

  • The Wilsons’ earlier projects have focused on the defunct Stasi headquarters in East Berlin, for example, and Victor Pasmore’s ill-fated Brutalist Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee New Town, Co Durham. In so far as their work deals with power and its aftermath, it is often inherently political and, from the outset, the pair were keen that the RA show would reflect on the most pressing topics of the day.

    Louise lists some themes that they were initially considering for the exhibition: “Identity, immigration, contested borders, ecological threat, climate change, pro-democracy protest, matrilineal communities, collectives, the young, the retired, the marginalised, and the professional and non-professional artists working with installation, painting, film, architecture, printmaking, digital, photography and sculpture.” She pauses. “I don’t think any of us foresaw pandemic among them.”

  • The Wilsons’ original ambition had been to disrupt the floorplan of Burlington House, but in order to observe safe social distancing, all interventions that might obstruct the flow of visitors were off the table.

  • Along with Devaney, the Wilsons assembled a hanging committee that brings together long-standing Academicians with more recently elected Members, working across generations as well as disciplines: Eileen Cooper, former Keeper of the RA (responsible for the RA Schools), is hanging two print galleries; Richard Deacon is leading on sculpture; while Sonia Boyce, Stephen Farthing, Isaac Julien and David Remfry are focusing mostly on two-dimensional works.

    David Adjaye, who is currently at his home in Accra, where strict travel restrictions were imposed in March, was set to curate the architecture gallery but has had to postpone his involvement until the 2021 show.

    The architect Eva Jiřičná, a veteran of the 2013 Summer Exhibition, which she co-ordinated with Norman Ackroyd, is stepping into the breach, bringing coherence to a display of projects ranging from Peter Cook’s imaginary citadel to a library for the French city of Clermont-Ferrand designed by the firm Stanton Williams. The Wilsons, for whom collaboration is an intrinsic way of working, were keen for the show to be a collective effort, with concepts and thematic threads emerging from discussion with the committee as a whole. “Hierarchy feels utterly irrelevant in this circumstance,” Jane asserts. “Conversation and collaboration is vital, given our new reality of social distancing. We need to act collectively and responsibly.”

  • Jane and Louise Wilson, 'I'd Walk With You But Not With Her’

    Jane and Louise Wilson, 'I'd Walk With You But Not With Her’, 2020.

    Pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper with acrylic paint.

  • We were speaking over Zoom in late July: Jane and myself from different corners of London, while Louise was in Newcastle, where the sisters grew up and where, since 2017, they have been professors in the fine art department at Newcastle University. Having closed its doors on 17 March, just before the UK went into strict lockdown, the RA had just reopened to the public a fortnight earlier, when we spoke. All tickets for the extended Picasso and Paper exhibition had sold out. With the RA open on fewer days each week and with entry times scheduled for all visitors, the galleries are running at only 20 per cent of usual capacity. Devaney’s light-hearted comments to the effect that ‘the show must go on’ belie the huge amount of logistical work that she and the Academy team have undertaken to allow the organisation to reopen safely. Regularly featuring more than a thousand works, the Summer Exhibition is always a juggling act of sorts – this year, it has required an additional level of flexibility and quick thinking.

    Under the working title ‘Rapture in Fracture’ for this year’s theme, the Wilsons’ original ambition had been to disrupt the floorplan of Burlington House’s neoclassical galleries. This is unsurprising, given their long-standing interest in how power structures are encoded in architectural space. “The salon-style hang is such a classic, very familiar encounter,” Louise explains. “We were thinking: how can we readdress that?” They had planned to exhibit artworks off the existing walls on invisible walls, suspending them from the ceilings and elevating them, to draw the eye upwards (the rapture of the title). Now, however, in order to observe safe social distancing, all interventions that might obstruct the flow of visitors through the space are off the table: tickets are timed and visitors follow a designated path through the exhibition.

  • Sir Anish Kapoor RA, 1 - SYMPHONY FOR A BELOVED DAUGHTER 2018

    Sir Anish Kapoor RA, 1 - SYMPHONY FOR A BELOVED DAUGHTER 2018, 2018.

    metal, fabric.

  • This poses difficulties for some of the exhibition’s non-gallery spaces, including the Annenberg Courtyard, which would typically contain a dramatic, large-scale work. (Remember Anish Kapoor’s monumental ruby disc, which welcomed visitors to the show’s 250th anniversary edition in 2018, or Thomas Houseago’s hulking forms from last year?) “We can’t have anything blocking the courtyard or the grand staircase because that’s where people will be queuing,” says Devaney. Instead, the Wilsons are considering stealthier interventions:

    “In terms of the existing furniture, in the courtyard – whether it’s barriers or tables and chairs – we are going to inherit something that’s already been set in place by the RA’s security team,” Louise explains. “I’m being a bit notional, but we have been thinking about something green that could resonate with the show’s themes. Not quite herbaceous borders – but perhaps something plant or garden-based.”

    Sound art is providing a solution on the staircase and in the vestibule (the space before one enters the galleries), where the pair are installing a new sonic work by Brian Eno. “We vividly remember encountering Eno’s sound work in 1996 at the Sonambiente festival in Berlin, inside the former State Council building of the GDR,” says Jane. “It had a transformative effect. We want people to come in and not feel anxious.” As an encounter that can be experienced ambiently, in a socially distanced way, the duo hope that a sound installation will provide the all-important transitional moment at the show’s threshold.

  • It’s important to support artists – and the Academy – at a moment in which it is very difficult for all museums to see their future. It’s a time to rally support.

    Isaac Julien RA

  • The selection process from the public submissions took place before the UK went into lockdown in March. More than 18,300 entries were whittled down to around 1,400 – comprising the bulk of the exhibition. Eileen Cooper RA, who is curating prints in Galleries V and VII, is unable to travel to the RA to hang her rooms in person, because of the pandemic. She is hanging her gallery over Zoom, giving her instructions via a large screen on site. Fellow members of the hanging committee, as well as the RA President Rebecca Salter, herself a printmaker, are acting as Cooper’s eyes on the ground.

    Prints are a popular and important part of the exhibition, both in terms of sales and in the quality of submissions from the public. “There is a vibrant print community. In general, you see a very high quality of printmaking from people who are not professional artists,” she explains.

    For Cooper, the print galleries are the best manifestation of the inclusivity of the Summer Exhibition: “I’d like to think that you can have the biggest names next to people who have really struggled to make it as artists. From the most immediate and basic processes to the most sophisticated – I’d like it all.”

    Certain thematic strands are emerging: mountains, and “for some reason” owls, which, if things work out as planned, will observe visitors from their positions dotted around the rooms. The Academicians number many eminent printmakers – including American Pop artist Jim Dine Hon RA, although, at the time of writing, several had not yet submitted their works. “I’m waiting to be surprised,” says Cooper, who herself has submitted small works this year: three prints alongside three paintings.

  • Eileen Cooper, Belong to Cats II

    Eileen Cooper, Belong to Cats II, 2020.

    Oil on canvas. 61 x 71cm. © Eileen Cooper RA. Photo: Malcolm Southward.

  • If Cooper seems fairly confident about the whole process, other elements of the Wilsons’ multidisciplinary approach are proving trickier to accommodate. Moving image was set to be a large part of the programme – one early idea had been to use one or two rooms as a dedicated cinema space, with a rotating programme of artist films. Likewise, the pair had been in discussion with David Adjaye, before he had to postpone, about the possibility of designing free-standing walls to house plasma screens, further integrating film and video into the Summer Exhibition’s traditionally painterly spaces. However, given the guidance advising against people congregating in enclosed areas, this plan has had to be rethought. “We’ve had to be quite flexible, on many levels,” says Louise.

    Devaney suggests that one approach would be to show short clips of moving-image works in the gallery spaces and have the full works available to view through the RA’s online platform. “We are thinking about ways to do justice to longer video pieces,” she explains. Shorter video works include Twice (2020) by the influential artist filmmaker John Smith. Made during the sixth week of lockdown, when Britain’s Covid-19 death toll stood at 25,000, the video shows the artist washing his hands while singing Happy Birthday twice, in line with Boris Johnson’s advice.

  • John Smith, TWICE #1

    John Smith, TWICE #1, 2020.

    still from film, Twice..

  • Another influential film artist on the hanging committee is Isaac Julien, who won the prestigious Charles Wollaston Award in the 2017 Summer Exhibition for his mesmerising five-screen installation Western Union: Small Boats (2007), by turns a lyrical and heart-rending portrait of migration across the Mediterranean. However, for the gallery he is curating in this year’s show, his focus is on a more traditional medium: “My initial proposal was very much connected to a homage to the late, great curator Okwui Enwezor, who died last year. Enwezor, late in his career, became incredibly interested in painting.”

    Painting has, historically, been the lifeblood of the Summer Exhibition – between 1769 and 1989, it accounted for almost three-quarters of the works shown. However, taking his cue from the Nigeria-born Enwezor, who dedicated his career to expanding the space of art beyond Western centres and histories, Julien’s focus is on artists who have historically been situated outside, or who work against, established painterly canons – specifically Black artists, many of them female or trans.

    For all the inclusive principle of the Summer Exhibition, it’s worth noting here that the first Black British Academician, Frank Bowling was only elected in 2005; it was not until 2016 that Sonia Boyce, who is representing Great Britain at the next Venice Biennale, became the first Black woman RA. Although individual works have yet to be confirmed, Julien has received positive responses from many of the artists that he has invited to participate, including major names such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Oscar Murillo, Zanele Muholi, Wangechi Mutu, Frida Orupabo and Yinka Shonibare.“As well as some surprise artists – it’s important to have artists who are less well known,” says Julien.

  • Isaac Julien’s focus is on artists who have historically been situated outside, or who work against, established painterly canons – specifically Black artists, many of them female or trans.

  • The gallery he is curating connects to some of the themes in an exhibition that he curated last year at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery. That show, whose title Rock my Soul was borrowed from a 2003 book by the influential Black feminist scholar bell hooks (the pen name of Gloria Jean Watkins), celebrated Black self-esteem as a form of affirmation and resistance in the face of marginalising power structures. These themes feel particularly urgent in our current moment of reckoning with racial justice – from protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police in May, to the revelation, closer to home, that Black and Minority Ethnic groups are up to three times more likely than White Britons to die from Covid-19. Julien has submitted Lessons of the Hour, London 1983 – Who Killed Colin Roach? (1983), an assemblage of photographs of the protests that took place after Roach was shot dead in a Hackney police station.

  • Isaac Julien RA, Lessons of the Hour, London 1983 - Who Killed Colin Roach?

    Isaac Julien RA, Lessons of the Hour, London 1983 - Who Killed Colin Roach?, 2019.

    Photographic assemblage of 32 Black and White Ilford Classic FB silver gelatin prints. 45 x 64 cm (each photograph). PHOTO THIERRY BAL/COURTESY OF THE ARTIST, VICTORIA MIRO, LONDON/VENICE, AND METRO PICTURES, NEW YORK.

  • Julien has spent lockdown in Santa Cruz, where he is Distinguished Professor of the Arts at the University of California, but is hoping to return to the UK specifically to install the Summer Exhibition. “I do see the Summer Show as a really important space,” he explains. “It’s less about historical continuity, because this situation with the pandemic is unprecedented. In a basic sense, it’s important to support artists and the Academy at a moment in which it’s very difficult for all museums to see their future. It’s a time to rally support.”

    As a selling show – with works up for grabs from prints at £150 to pieces with price tags over £100,000 – the Summer Exhibition is a vital fundraiser both for the Academy as a whole and also the non-fee-paying Academy Schools, which receive no government funding. With exhibitions cancelled and studios and production facilities shuttered during lockdown, the past few months have been brutal for many artists. As Devaney says, the Summer Show “is there to support artists – the RA takes a small percentage – and we felt we had a duty to continue that”. In order to make works available to as wide and international a group as possible, the Academy has accelerated the development of a digital sales platform. “That might have happened otherwise in a couple of years,” Devaney notes. “You have to seize opportunities.”

    It would be trite to invoke the spirit of London’s Blitz in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic; far from us all being in it together, this crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities. Nevertheless, speaking to the Summer Exhibition team, it is clear that there is a profound collective commitment – to one another, to the broader artistic community and to the general public who, after gruelling months of lockdown, may come seeking beauty, distraction, provocation and of course some joy amongst the show’s uniquely varied offerings. As Cooper concludes: “Everybody wants it to be successful.”

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