Tuesday, 12 March 2013

First Thursday Fail.

Casual research, typically conducted over a glass of wine somewhere suitably shabby or hipster or both, has led me to the conclusion that those that work in art are, for the most part, pretty shit at seeing art when it’s not en route to your desk or a meeting.

The exquisite Pae White en route to my desk...
Making the effort to see art for fun and/or cultural stimulation and/or intellectual enlightenment can be hard work – it’s rarely casual. By definition I don’t think it can be. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself for nearly five years now to explain the fact that I’ve never once been to First Thursday.

And you’d think First Thursday would be a breeze – the first Thursday evening of the month, late night openings across east London, booze, conversation en masse, a bus from Whitechapel Gallery if you’re organised enough to book in time. But I’ve never gone. I think because if you’re going to make the effort to see art – which, you should – then don’t dress it up with distracting temptations like booze and conversation.

I went to my first First Thursday last week with my friend Hannah. We met at Whitechapel, did an obligatory spin through the Gerard Byrne exhibition (I’m telling myself I saw his work at Documenta so five minutes here isn’t horrendously disrespectful) and then headed off along Commercial Street in search of some art. Except we decided to stop at the Commercial Tavern for a drink and by the time we were finished there it was time to head to Night Jar for a pre-booked engagement with some experimental cocktails. 

Did we see any art? Not really. Did we see crowds of people milling out the front of galleries drinking and talking and not seeing any art? Well yes. Perhaps I’ll have more luck with Last Fridays.

I think because on some level I knew I’d fail First Thursday, I made a concerted effort to get out not just on Friday, but Saturday too, to see a couple of events and exhibitions that had caught my attention.
On Friday, after a morning spent in-conversation with first year students at Central St Martins, I took the rest of the afternoon off and went to Southbank, to the Women of the World Festival. Chiefly I went to see my talented friend, the artist Phoebe Davies. She had a stall there, a development of her project Nailwraps: Influences that she started last year in collaboration with groups of women exploring ideas of feminism, female heroes, expectations and influence. All using the brilliant and quietly subversive medium of nail wraps. 

There’s so much I love about this project – not least the way it locates conversations about aspiration, inspiration and female brilliance within that intimate, very female space of the manicure bar, swapping Grazia gossip for ideas of empowerment and recognition and achievement. Unsurprisingly she was in high demand but I’m so excited to see how the project continues to develop.

Me and the Guerrilla Girls giving art world sexism the finger
On Saturday I met Nina for halloumi burgers at Borough before ambling along the river all the way to Pimlico for a Tate date. The beauty of this arrangement is that it not only exhausts a good ninety minutes of conversation before you get to the exhibition and can thus focus on the art-viewing task at hand, it also means you can have cake afterwards.

Kurt Schwitters, EN MORN, 1947
For as long as I can remember, since my earliest introductions to Dada, I’ve loved the work of Kurt Schwitters and the show at Tate is really wonderful. Seeing the textural quality of his many collages, his Merz pictures, up close and not reproduced in slick textbooks, which was how I first met them, was quite moving actually. To pick out snippets of discarded newspapers and bus tickets and magazine advertisements and have these mark them so explicitly of their moment of creation was incredible.  Their texture gave them a physicality, made Schwitters hand in their creation feel almost tangible even 70 years later. I think what struck me most, before you got to the vitrines with letters sent from the Isle of Man as a prisoner of war, was the thought of these many works being made against the rising, real threat of Nazism. Schwitters’ work was shown at the infamous 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich, the same year he fled to Oslo. 

Kurt Schwitters, Untitled (Relief within Relief), 1942-5
The politics and hideous reality of this time is only ever implied in his work, if even that, and yet it is unavoidably imbued with the gravity of its context. The end of the exhibition features installations by two contemporary artists, responding to the German artist’s influence and his famous Merzbau (his multi-room installations or environments). These works were commissioned by Tate and Cumbria-based Griezedale Arts (Schwitters lived out the last years of his life in the Lakes District) and were a clunky, tokenistic, disruptive end to the show. Which was a shame really but thankfully it didn’t diminish the overall poignancy and visual strength of the rest of the exhibition.

Kurt Schwitters, Untitled (Quality Street), 1943
It was a good weekend, one that mitigated the First Thursday fumble. And really, just proved my roundabout point, that occasionally it’s worth making the effort. And failing that point, my other one, that cocktails are a feasible alternative to anything. 

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