Thursday, May 24, 2018

London 2018: Contemporary Art - Damien Hirst, Charles Saatchi

Ever since my husband Rich and I went to a library talk given by Don Thompson, an economist and professor of Marketing and Branding, who was promoting his book “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art”, we have become much more familiar with and fascinated by contemporary art and artists.  We learned that successful branding involves creating a well-known and respected personality, distinctiveness and value to your product or service, usually achieved through marketing.  In the Contemporary art world, branding has significant influence on the value of art.  This can be seen by past sale prices of works created by branded artists such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, or Andy Warhol, sold by branded art dealers such as Larry Gasgosian or branded auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, purchased by branded collectors such as Charles Saatchi, and displayed at branded Contemporary Art Museums such as the Tate Modern.

I selected the $12 Million Stuffed Shark as my pick for our book club.  To get into the spirit of the topic, I asked each participant to create their own piece of contemporary art, using some famous work as inspiration.  I created 3 items, the first two as homages to Andy Warhol’s soup cans and his silk screen prints.  The third was based on a story from the book about Damien Hirst taking a red marker and drawing a red nose on an obscure painting of Joseph Stalin by an unknown painter.  Once Hirst signed the painting, its price jumped from 200 pounds to a final sale price of 140,000 pounds at auction.  Our book club dinner was also theme related, with an entrée of chicken casserole made with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup (Warhol) and a carrot cake decorated with Damien Hirst-esque dots (aka smarties) and blue and white gummy sharks.  We were thus quite excited about our plans for a Contemporary Art tour of London, including visits to Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery and Pharmacy 2 Restaurant, as well as the Saatchi Gallery and the Tate Modern.

Located south of the Imperial War Museum on the South Bank of the Thames River and open since 2015, the Newport Street Gallery offers free admission to the public and hosts exhibitions that show works from Damien Hirst’s private collection.  Taking over 3 buildings from 1913 that were originally used as workshops for producing theatre scenery, the Newport Street Gallery spans 37,000 square feet and includes six exhibition spaces spread over 2 floors. Hirst’s Pharmacy 2 Restaurant is also found on the second floor and we planned to eat lunch there after touring the gallery.   The façade of the gallery is noted for the triangular protrusions at the top of one building, that look to me like mountain peaks or the points of a crown.  Each peak or point contains a large skylight or window that allows light into the gallery.

Despite the spacious exhibition rooms, only two artists were featured on the day that we visited and their works were very sparsely hung in the large spaces.  I guess this is the preferred method for displaying contemporary art, unlike the old days of the French Salon where paintings were stacked closely side by side and one on top of the other.   The first exhibit was British artist Rachel Howard’s “Repetition Is Truth – Via Dolorosa” series, which according to the write-up is supposed to be inspired by Christ’s Stations of the Cross.  This bewildered me since what I saw was a bunch of large yellow hued canvases with some faint grey and purple vertical lines.  A couple of the pieces also seemed to include the tip of a paint brush, perhaps in the process of creating the vertical lines?  One of these paintings was hung all by itself in a large room with the three other white walls completely bare.  One work stood out from the rest, both in subject matter and its green and black colour scheme. For this particular piece, after reading the description I was able to see what the artist was depicting, which was a hooded Iraqi detainee in the Abu Ghraib prison with his arms outstretched as he is being tortured by electric wires attached to his fingers and genitals.  I wish I was able to understand how to interpret the rest of these works, but I couldn't and so they did not appeal to me.

I liked the second exhibit much more although my Contemporary Art appreciation knowledge was probably not vast enough to grasp its deeper meanings either.  It was American artist John Copeland’s series of acrylic and oil paintings called “Your Heaven Looks Just Like My Hell”.  Not quite in the same league as Damien Hirst (who named his iconic stuffed shark sculpture “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”), Copeland also uses curious, enigmatic names for not only his exhibition but his works as well.  His paintings have titles like “My Favorite Terrible Ideas” or “And I Cursed the Sun for Rising” which sound interesting but don’t have any obvious correlation to what you see in the works.  The first room of this exhibit contains what I assume is Copeland’s interpretation of the female nude trope historically prevalent in art works.  His females often have bright green or red hair and often come in pairs or doubles.  My three favourites were titled “A Difficult Set of Instructions” (girl with green hair), “Transmission - Imaginary Rules” (girl blowing bubblegum) and “The Bullet Screams Past” (pair of women rotated 45 degrees counter-clockwise each with her hand covering her mouth). 

Copeland often uses found photographic images from magazine pullouts as the starting point of his works.  The next rooms contain ambiguous or incongruent social scenes of people interacting.  They are often in the act of looking or viewing, as depicted in “Before the Beginning” where you see the backs of three people who seem to be viewing a large mural of biker gangs rumbling (possibly the Hell’s Angels?) , or “A Loud Silence” where a crowd seem to be inexplicably milling around in front of a reclining nude.  At first glance, his painting of two couples frolicking in the water seems playful and joyous.  But the ominous title “You Should Have Known How Things Would End” makes you take a second look, where you then notice the disfigured faces of the participants and grasp of the woman wearing the orange swimsuit, which now suddenly can seem menacing.  The strange point of view of the trope of a “table scene” in the painting “Wrong is Always Right” also gives one pause.  The viewer is looking down upon the table where the heads of half the participants have been cut off.  Focus is drawn to the woman turned away from the table and you wonder why?  Copeland says that his works are “a starting point for conversation or digression, like a riddle .. that raises questions that aren’t really answerable”.

The problem with having only one or two exhibits within your art gallery is that if the works of those few artists don’t resonate with your visitors, then there is not much recourse.  Luckily for us, while we did not connect either emotionally or intellectually with the works of Rachel Howard, we were intrigued by the paintings of John Copeland.  But the gallery visit was actually just a bonus since our real goal was to have lunch at Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy 2 restaurant, inspired by his works featuring medicine cabinets and the 1992 installation called “Pharmacy” which was first displayed in the Cohen Gallery in New York City before being installed at the Tate Modern.  His first medicine cabinet was called “Sinner” (1988) and represented the medicines that his grandmother used before dying of lung cancer.  The installation was a room-sized, site-specific representation of a pharmacy that included glass-fronted cabinets with pharmaceutical drugs on the shelves, desks and chairs behind a counter that holds four coloured apothecary bottles filled with coloured liquids representing earth, air, fire and water.  When this work was at the Cohen Gallery, visitors mistook it for a real pharmacy and frequently asked where the Damien Hirst exhibition could be found.

The Pharmacy 2 Restaurant expands on the concepts of Hirst’s Pharmacy art pieces with images and references to pills and drugs everywhere.  There is a glass case full of candy-coloured pills and capsules at the entrance to the restaurant, images of pills on the metal cupboards, the back of chairs and seating booths and inlaid in the marble floors.  Embroidered logos of pharmaceutical companies cover the walls.  An explosion of colour emanates from the stained glass windows depicting DNA strands in vibrant reds, whites and blues that can be seen from the street level at night. The side panels of a stainless steel and glass-topped bar are covered with multi-coloured pills that look like jelly beans from afar.  The backsplashes of the bar feature the similar DNA motif as the front windows and the seats of the bar stools resemble tablets of various types of medicines.

It was so much fun to sit in this restaurant that we would not have minded if the food was just mediocre, but it turned out that the food was actually really good.  Celebrity British chef Mark Hix collaborates with Hirst at Pharmacy 2 (the second Hirst restaurant after his original one in Notting Hill closed in 1998) and serves classic British and European cuisine made from fresh ingredients.  We were lucky to be in London during soft shell crab season and made the most of it by ordering it every chance we got.  We shared battered broccoli and buttered asparagus served with a hollandaise sauce, then each had the soft shell crab burger served with lettuce, kimchi and an aioli mayonnaise, with shoe-string potato fries on the side.  I'm not sure the Newport Gallery alone would be worth the trek since there is so little art on display, but if you want to experience this restaurant for the first time, then it is definitely a fun experience.

Charles Saatchi is the branded art collector and philanthropist whose endorsement and patronage of young, unknown British artists in the 1990s helped launch their careers.  He coined the terms “BritArt” and “YBAs” (Young British Artists), with the most famous member of that group being Damien Hirst, whose tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a large display case was funded and purchased by Saatchi.  Open since 1985, the Saatchi Gallery provides a space for Saatchi to share his large collection with the public, which he does free of charge, supported by a partnership with the auction house Phillips de Pury & Co.  The location of the gallery has changed several times since its original opening and now resides in the Chelsea district, housed in the Duke of York’s Headquarters, once the home of the Royal Military School.  The new Saatchi Gallery spans 70,000-square-foot (almost double the size of Newport Gallery) with 15 exhibition spaces.  Accordingly, Saatchi is able to display works from many more different artists than what is shown at Damien Hirst’s gallery.  Charles Saatchi’s goal is to make contemporary art accessible to the mainstream population and highlight relatively unknown artists in hopes of propelling them to become the next rising stars.

The Saatchi Gallery featured a slew of artists from around the world who we were introduced to for the first time.  The main exhibit running during our visit was titled “Known Unknown”, aptly reflecting Saatchi’s main goal for his gallery.  It showcased 17 diverse and eclectic international artists who are mostly unknown in the mainstream art world, but are admired and considered up and coming by their contemporaries.  We enjoyed and admired many of these works, but wish that they had been curated with explanation of what we were looking at.  Instead there was only the name of the artist and work as well as the materials used.  Even the descriptions found on the gallery's website were delivered in "artspeak", the practice of describing art pieces with high-brow, important sounding art jargon that is usually unintelligible to the casual viewer.  If Saatchi's goal is really to bring art to the masses, then the descriptions of the pieces should have been presented next to the works and in a manner that would be understandable by the layman.

My favourite artist from the Known Unknown exhibit was Hungarian painter Mona Osman, whose vibrant and fantastical works, made from oil, paper collage and resin on canvas, contained colour patterns and designs that reminded me of Gustav Klimt and featured warped humanoid forms that could have come from a Sci Fi movie, like the ones in Star Wars: A New Hope’s Cantina Bar scene.  Born in the Philippines, raised in Japan, studied art and now based in the U.K., the influences of Maria Farrar’s West vs East cultural background can be found in her oil on linen paintings.  While subject matters like the one depicted in “Baguette” exude a European flare, the flat perspective and calligraphy-like brush strokes of works like “Birthday” can directly be attributed to her time spent in Japan.  Farrar’s work is said to be personal and autobiographical, which makes you wonder at the title and the images found in “Saving My Parents From Drowning in the Shimonoseki Straits.”  Is the depiction of the turbulent waves, the orange life preserver and the upturned foot wearing a white high-heeled shoe supposed to be whimsical or is this a real and possibly traumatic event?

I was also intrigued by the abstract acrylic and oil on canvas paintings by German artist Stefanie Heinze which each seemed to feature parts of an elephant.  I have not found any reference to the significance of the elephant motifs in her work, but I started to think that I was seeing elephants everywhere when I inspected the ceramic sculpture “Sevres vase à Bobèches” by American artist Francesca Dimattio that was displayed in the same room as Stefanie Heinze’s paintings.  Made of overglaze and underglaze with gold lustre on porcelain, from a certain angle, I distinctly saw the head and trunk of an elephant!  I even thought initially that the ceramics were by the same artist as the paintings.  However after examining Dimattio’s other works including the one called “Confection”, I’ve decided that there was not a connection here and that I just had elephants on the brain.

Danish artist Kirstine Roepstorff creates large-scaled mixed media collages mounted on aluminum that are made from materials including paper, paint, wallpaper, glitter, pearls, sequins, cloth, vinyl, tinsel, silver leaf, wood, vellum, iron-on decals, magazine cut-outs and more.  The images in her work comment on politics and power. The piece ominously titled “You Are Being Lied To” presents a pretty green-space that could be part of a golf course with a water feature and sand traps, but the treetops are augmented with sparkly streamers, stars and flowers that give the setting a fantastical feel.  On top of this background, she layers a disparate mixture of images including a Mafioso dressed in a white suit and dark sun glasses, soccer player, boxer, folk singer with guitar, British “Bobby”, motorcycle rider, a policeman making an arrest, turbaned Indians, portaging canoeists, marching Asian militants, loggers, nudists, walking skeletons and a winged angel-like figure.  Interspersed with this are images of military force including fighter jets, armed soldiers, uniformed generals, as well as various religious symbols or rituals from various cultures.  This collage feels like a modern day version of works by Hieronymus Bosch, who also incorporated many different characters and small vignettes into his paintings.  Roepstorff’s piece is said to deal with the difference between the “reality portrayed in the media vs the reality or truth of a situation”, which seems to tie in with the title of the work.  By cutting out and repurposing or repositioning the realities portrayed by newspaper or magazine stories, Roepstorff is able to present her own message.  I also liked the collage called “Exercise Within the Frame” where the pasted fragments of leaves made from cloth or vinyl span beyond the frame of the work, giving it a 3-dimensional life beyond the usual boundaries of a non-sculptural art piece.

There were a few artists still on display from a previous exhibit called “Iconoclasts: Art Out of the Mainstream” that had ended before our visit.  The show featured 13 artists who strayed from artistic norms by creating their works using “ground-breaking experimental techniques”.   The artist whose technique I thought was most interesting was Italian-born Maurizio Anzeri, who takes vintage photographs and augments them by embroidering contemporary designs to create 3-D “photo sculptures”.   The multi-coloured embroidery and playful patterns pop against the sepia or black and white photos, turning old photos into new creative artworks.

French multi-media artist Thomas Mailaender’s creation of “sunburn photos” using the human skin as his canvas is in part performance art.  He places original negatives from old photographs onto the skin of his models and applies a UV lamp over them, resulting in the image appearing on the skin’s surface for a fleeting amount of time.  He quickly photographs his models with their “sunburns” before exposure to daylight cause them to disappear.  This unique and slightly creepy process definitely qualified Mailaender to be chosen for the Iconoclast exhibit.

Another interesting exhibit was award-winning Lizzie Sadin’s photography exposé  called “The Trap – Trafficking of Women in Nepal” which documents the prevalent issues of human trafficking and forced prostitution in Nepal and explores the causes which include economic poverty, lack of education and opportunities, as well as social and cultural beliefs and values which deem women as inferior to men.  Lured by promises of work, money, beautiful clothes and jewelry, young girls are lured by traffickers to cross the border from Nepal to India (sometimes via Sri Lanka) where they are enslaved, beaten, starved into submission and then forced into servitude in brothels or assigned as “maids” working over 20 hours a day where they are often sexually molested or raped.  It is estimated that in a year, over 15000 girls are taken into sexual or domestic servitude but less than 200 are reported missing.  Sadin’s photos show Nepal police and the anti-trafficking advocacy group KI Nepal boarding buses about to cross the border, looking for suspicious pairings of potential traffickers and victims.  She profiles several victims, telling their horrific but sadly similar stories.  Some of the most impactful photos of the series are the ones that Sadin took secretly, as noted by the caption “This photo was taken covertly”.  These seedy images include the owner of a dance bar simulating intercourse or rape of a dancer in order to excite his customers, a bouncer positioned in front of a dance bar to prevent the girls from escaping, and young girls summoned to private “cabins” within a brothel/bar where men are waiting to touch or initiate intercourse with them.

We saw many interesting exhibits at the Saatchi Gallery and found it much more enjoyable than the Damien Hirst Newport Gallery.  But surprisingly, our favourite part of this visit was the gift shop.  As usual, you are forced through the gift shop as part of the path through the building, but this time, we actually spent quite a while in there looking at all the cool items.  Rich was particularly amused by the oxymoron of the Karl Marx “Das Kapital” Money Bank.  There were some fun childrens’ books including LLAMAPhones (Homophones as depicted by Llama images) and Baby Duck/Baby Koala finger puppet books.  I liked the extremely “punny” Chairman Meow poster and the cards with visual puns including “mood swings”, “support bras” and “recreational drugs”.  I was really excited to see the giant gorilla sculpture, which I believe was referenced in the movie “The Square”, a hilarious satire mocking contemporary art and the practise of artists, curators and art critics to participate in pretentiously unintelligible “artspeak”.  In a scene in that movie, with no explanation, a gorilla enters an apartment, plops down on the couch and starts reading a magazine.  I was befuddled at the significance of the gorilla in the movie, but perhaps it was inspired by this one in the Saatchi shop?


My favourite item from the Saatchi Shop was the “Lenticular Bookmark” (also available as a ruler) which features a row of figures each in midst of performing an activity such as jumping rope, bouncing a ball, riding a unicycle or spinning a hula hoop.  As you rotate the bookmark forwards or backwards, the figures begin to move.  I bought one of these bookmarks as a souvenir, but wished I had bought a couple more to give as gifts. Our Contemporary Art Tour continues with a visit to the Tate Modern Gallery, which is even larger and more comprehensive than the Saatchi Gallery.  Since this blog has run on long enough and there is so much to describe about the Tate Modern, I will leave that for the next blog.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

London 2018: Notting Hill - Holland Park, Design Museum, Portobello Road Market

It seems like the districts surrounding Hyde Park and Kensington Palace are all affluent areas, including Bayswater to the north, Mayfair and Marylebone to the East and Belgravia, Chelsea and Kensington to the south.  This trend continues with Notting Hill, found on the west side of Hyde Park and also known as the setting for the 1999 romantic comedy of the same name starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.  From our rental apartment in Earls Court, it is a 6km walk directly north to get to Notting Hill, where we planned to visit the famous Portobello Road Market, with stops at Holland Park and the Design Museum along the way.  Holland Park is a 54 acre public park which was once part of the estate of Lord Holland, whose sculpture is prominently on display.  It includes the east wing and some ruins of Holland House, a Japanese (Kyoto) garden as well as other formal gardens, an orangery, a wilderness area, sports fields including tennis courts, cricket fields and a children’s play area.  The park is surrounded by a main street called Holland Park Avenue where many high-end restaurants, shops and spas can be found, as well as 3 smaller residential streets.  Confusingly, two of these streets are also called Holland Park, where rows of large Victorian townhouses can be found surrounded by mature trees.  The third is called Holland Park Mews, containing rows of smaller carriage houses, but these Mews seem much more upscale than some of the ones we have seen in other parts of London.

The London Design Museum focuses on graphics, product and industrial, fashion and architectural design.  A free exhibit called “Designer Maker User” offers an introduction to the history of contemporary design.  A rotating sign alternately displays the words “DESIGNER”, “MAKER” and “USER”, representing the three partners in the design process.  The first display at the entrance of the exhibit is called the “crowd-sourced wall” which consists of around 200 items from 25 countries which were suggested by the public to be items important to their daily lives.  Items found on this wall include the London underground sign, a bicycle, a jar of marmite, a hot water bottle, rotary phones, Levi jeans and more. Some of the interesting items in this exhibit included a Che Guevera watch designed and manufactured by Swatch (1995), a radio watch manufactured by Sinclair Research, the prototype of tap-able acrylic finger nails that could be used as an Oyster Card transit payment system (2015), and the 12-inch Keraclonic Sphere TV (1970) designed Keracolor.

Other design items included the Tritensil “Spork” (2014), a contemporary version of a portmanteau of a spoon and a fork, as well as a “grunge-chic” Mickey and Minnie Mouse top (1978) by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren that subversively depicts the iconic animated characters in a provocative pose.  The lightweight, lipstick-red “Valentine” typewriter manufactured by Olivetti is positioned in front of various poster designs.  The e-NABLE Raptor Reloaded prosthetic hand (2013-15) provide artificial hands for growing children, produced using a 3-D printer.  Various clock designs included the multi-coloured “Ball” wall clock (1947), the “Font” clock (2007) that displays the time and date in 12 different fonts and a “Formosa” perpetual calendar (1962).  The “Enorme” telephone (1986) by Ettore Sottsass has a playful shape and bold use of colour.

A very fun interactive application demonstrates Laver’s Law, conceived by fashion historian James Laver in 1937.  He theorizes that fashions of the distant past are admired as charming before being considered beautiful.  But trends of recent past are viewed as ridiculous, then amusing and eventually quaint.  Accordingly, we dislike the clothes that we wore a few years ago but become nostalgic about “vintage” clothing worn by our parents or grandparents.   A digital application based on Laver’s law offers visitors the opportunities to “try on” fashion trends from different centuries and decades.  You select the era from a keypad and pose in front of a screen that acts as a mirror with the instructions to place your hands on your hips.  The application superimposes the selected fashion on top of your body and after providing your email, it sends you a photo of what you look like “wearing” that fashion.  I think there is some validity to Laver’s Law since I liked the clothes from older eras much better than the silly harem outfit or tacky track suit from more recent years.  Another thing that I learned from this experiment was that my waist is way too wide to fit into some of these outfits from years gone by.  I would need to be strapped in like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind!

One of the two ticketed special exhibits on at the Design Museum featured the creations of Tunisian-born couturier and shoe designer Alzzadine Alaia.  While we chose not to buy tickets for this exhibit, we did get a feel for his works since there were two examples of his haute couture designs in the lobby of the museum, as well as a series of photographs taken during his show at the Paris Galleria in 2013.  Alaia creates technically complex, made-to-order clothes by draping fabrics over his models and cuts his own patterns.  One of his more unusual designs pictured was the “crocodile jacket”, aptly named for the scales and pointy tail forming the back of the jacket.

The special exhibit that we actually came to the Design Museum specifically to see was called “Hope to Nope – Graphics and Politics (2008-2018).”  The general theme of the exhibit illustrates how graphic design has shaped political messages in the past decade, in the form of posters, protest symbols and internet memes.   In many ways graphic messages have challenged, altered and influenced key political moments including the latest American election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

The show is divided up into three sections—Power, Protest and Personality.  Each section demonstrates how graphic design played a pivotal role in dictating and reacting to major political moments, including the Global Financial Crisis, Gay Rights, ISIS threats, Brexit and Occupy Wall Street.  The time span of the exhibition is not coincidental and references directly to the title of the show.  The years of Barack Obama’s presidency in the United States between 2008-2015 were seen as times of hope, poignantly symbolized by Shepard Fairey’s iconic red, white and blue “Hope” image of Obama.  The climate of the country changed dramatically in 2016 when the divisive populist Donald Trump was elected.  Fairey encouraged Obama supporters to create parodies of his “Hope” meme, using templates and social media filters, substituting other faces and words.  The results are hilarious, including the words “Nope” and “Grope” for Trump.  An image of Sarah Palin was also created with the word “Nope” while George Bush was rendered with “Dope” (although Dope would have worked for Palin also).  The one that I found most amusing and out of the blue was an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un with the label “Food”, while the appropriateness of the word "Truth" for Wikileaks secrets revealer Edward Snowden might be a matter of opinion.

The “Power” section demonstrates how graphic design can be used to assert or subvert authority.  The logo created for Hillary Clinton’s presidential election campaign identity played on the first letter of her name.  It consisted of the image of an “H” with an arrow through the middle.  Meant to look fresh and forward-thinking, the logo drew mockery with claims that she plagiarized the symbol from the FedEx sign, which has a hidden arrow between the “E” and the “x”.  Trump’s red cap with the slogan of “Make America Great Again” was more effective to the disgruntled part of the country that wanted change, as it gave him the image of the “everyman” candidate.  In the 2016 Spanish election, the left-wing, anti-austerity political party Podemos produced their manifesto in the style of an IKEA catalogue featuring its candidates in domestic settings.  This “culture jamming” or subversion of iconic brand identity was a strategy to connect and identify with the younger population of electorates.  Graphic design played a large part in the jockeying for position on both sides of the BREXIT debate.  The “Stay” side played with the word “IN” which was also the last two letters of the word “REMAIN”, and made visual reference to the UK flag.  A European magazine targeted the “LEAVE” side with inflammatory, propaganda-laced headlines including “Bloody Idiot” and “May Day” featuring Theresa May’s face.  One cartoon shows the shark from the movie Jaws about to devour the swimming Theresa May while she quips “I think we’re going to need a bigger minority.  As a counter-punch for the “Leave” side, JD Wetherspoon, owner of a chain of pubs, distributed 200,000 beer place mats to all his pubs with a post-Brexit manifesto written on it.  Statements on the manifesto included eliminating import taxes on food items and eliminating payments to the European Union (EU).

Two more graphic designs illustrate the fight for public opinion that occurred during the lead-up to the BREXIT vote.  Anglo-French designer Sarah Boris made a UK Union Jack flag using packaging tape with “Fragile” on it, making a visually impactful statement of the precariousness of the relationship between the UK and the EU. The “Leave” side made a spoof of the Bayeux Tapestry which depicts the Normans defeating the English in 1066.  The new version depicts UK’s Brexit victory over the EU, echoing the original in style and imagery.  The “Destination Pride Data Visualisation” graph, which emulates the “Gay Pride” flag, was developed to help the LGBTQ community travel more safely around the world by indicating the laws and attitudes of 195 countries and 2000 cities with respect to social rights and liberties.  The coloured bars measured Marriage Equality, Sexual Activity Laws, Gender Identification Protection, Anti-Discrimination Laws, Civil Rights and Liberties and Social Media Sentiment.  The display provides some sample charts for the U.K, Honduras, Jamaica, Syria, Sweden, and Singapore.  The “NEWBORN” monument is a prize-winning typographical structure that commemorates Kosovan independence from Serbia in 2008.  Initially made in 2013 with yellow lettering symbolizing hope, the sign was repainted with the flags of all the countries that recognized Kosovan independence.  In 2017, the “N” and the “W” of the sign were laid flat and along with more letters painted on the ground, formed the phrase “No Walls”, which referred both to Syria and to Donald Trump’s desire for a wall along the US-Mexican border.  A recreation of the “N” from the monument was shown in the exhibit.

The second section of the exhibit dealt with “Protest”, featuring campaigns against governments, corporations, and other organizations from around the world.  Some of the most provocative as well as evocative examples of propaganda in graphic design are found here.  The global Occupy Movement, which started in the Wall Street Financial District in New York,  protests against economic injustice and disproportionate political influence by banks and major corporations, especially during the Global Financial Crisis.  Posters and imagery allude to the assertion of the movement that 1% of the population controls all the wealth and power while the remaining 99% are economically and socially repressed.  The activists in the 2011 “Occupy George” campaign hand-stamped red informational graphics on bank notes with graphs and slogans highlighting the income distribution of the 1% vs the 99%, and a link to their website occupygeorge.com.  The group made sure that they did not cover any of the currency’s security features, thus ensuring that the bills were still considered to be legal tender.  In protest of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2013 banning of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”, which effectively silenced the LGBT community, a series of Russian Pride Propaganda posters (probably created by Western supporters) co-opted traditional Soviet-era Socialist imagery and rendered them with the Gay Pride flag.  Memes suggesting Putin is secretly gay appeared including ones depicting him in front of a Pride flag while wearing heavy “gay clown” makeup.  The example from Amsterdam shown in this exhibit is more subdued but still shows Putin wearing rouge, eyeshadow and lipstick, and the caption in Russian translates to “Tsarina Putin”.  In 2017, Bosnian-born designer Mirko Ilic’s “Toleranceposter exhibit commissioned illustrators from around the world to create works that incorporated the theme.  The example on display in the Hope to Nope show was Israeli David Tartakover’s self portrait wearing bright red lipstick, which was in direct reference to the “Gay Clown Putin” memes.  The world “Tolerence” is written in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

The Umbrella Revolution of 2014 protested against China’s restrictions on a free election in Hong Kong, resulting in mass sit-ins by tens of thousands of citizens.  Used to shield the protesters against the sun as well as from police tear gas, umbrellas became a symbol of the movement.  The 2015/16 “Chega de Pagar o Pato” (meaning “I will not pay the duck”) protest in Brazil used the iconic symbol of the yellow rubber ducky to decry government corruption and excessive tax rises.  The movement called for the ousting of President Dila Rousseff, who was indeed impeached in 2016.   On June 14, 2017, a fire in the West London Grenfell Tower resulted in the deaths of 71 people.  The fire spread quickly due to the use of flammable materials for external building renovations, a result of either incompetence or corruption.  Widespread anger arose due to the lack of response from government authorities when called upon for justice for the victims, rehousing for the displaced and remedies for the fire-safety hazards of the building.  Local artists showed solidarity with the residents through graffiti, murals, artwork and a 24Hearts community project, requesting people to make one heart for each floor in the tower.  As further protest, inspired by the Oscar-winning movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the action group Justice4Grenfell hired three billboard vans to tour London with the messages “71 Dead”, “And Still No Arrests?”, “How Come?”.

Other protest designs include a poster for gun control and several poignant drawings by the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo following the mass shooting in 2015 that killed 12 people and injured 11.  The images were each variations of the mantra that “The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword”.  North Korea’s propaganda campaign uses stylized, Russian-inspired patriotic posters with depictions of industrial, technological and cultural progress in its own country, while issuing anti-American stamps that use Hollywood movie narratives to show brave North Koreans battling and defeating their U.S. enemies.  Images of shredded American flags dominate in these stamps that are produced both for domestic use and to sell as collector items.  South Korea also participates in these propaganda wars.  A former North Korean state propaganda artist who escaped to South Korea is now satirically repurposing his earlier works and adding symbols of peace to them.  South Korean activists have sent helium balloons over the border to North Korea with messages including “Kim Jong-Il, aren’t you afraid of the truth?”.  The balloons carry sacks of leaflets about Western life, USB sticks containing Western film and flyers critiquing North Korea’s authoritarian regime.

Two contrasting depictions of Donald Trump can be found in this section.  A pair of similarly themed anti-Trump designs subtly (or not so subtly) compare him to Hitler and Nazi Germany. Created by the firm Design is Play, the letter “T” for Trump is positioned in gold on a black background in such a way that when you look at the space between the “T”s, you can see a swastika.  An even more overt reference to the swastika was created by artist Mike Mitchell, who created a digital image that rotates “45” (Trump being the 45th president of the United States) into the swastika with just a few short movements.  The message is strikingly clear.  By contrast, a “pro-Trump” poster titled “Rogue Won” re-imagines the poster for the Star Wars movie “Rogue One” and was released shortly after Donald Trump’s election victory.  The street artist Sabo depicts a heroic-looking Trump replacing the heroine Jyn Erso’s (played by Felicity Jones) spot on the poster, with his cronies including Steve Bannon and Ann Coulter depicted in the supporting roles.  Hillary Clinton appears as the shadowy villain in the top right corner, in place of Darth Vader.  British illustrator and provocateur Mr Bingo created a hilarious tea towel highlighting the bitter generational divide between the youth who want to remain in the European Union and the older population who overwhelmingly voted for BREXIT.  The tea towel depicts faces of old people along with the caption “People Who Voted For BREXIT Who Are Now Dead”.

Corporate protest came in the form of posters created by an International art collective with the clever name of “Brandalism”, a portmanteau that combines the terms Brand and Vandalism.  The group replaces actual advertisements with subversive messages of resistance against corporate control.  For example, the Volkswagen “Drive cleaner” ad was updated to add the phrase “Or just pretend to” in reference to the emissions scandal where six executives were charged for modifying the emissions outputs of their vehicles to make them appear to meet regulatory testing standards.  This concept of “Brandalism” has been used by other activists against corporations.  Greenpeace environmentalists created plastic bottles that looked like “Coke” in terms of shape, size, colour, lettering and font, but actually read “Choke”, in its “Don’t Let Coke Choke Our Oceans” campaign against plastic pollution.  The group “Space Hijackers” protested the London 2012 Olympics and its corporate tie-ins for encroaching upon public spaces by making a spoof of an Olympics T-shirt, which instead read “Official Protester”.  When BP Oil experienced an oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico, protesters marched in front of a BP-sponsored Shakespeare Festival wearing a green and yellow, folded paper ruff made to look like BP’s logo.  The ruff was dipped in black oil and protesters encouraged patrons to rip the BP logo from their programs.  A Black Lives Matters (BLM) quilt features the group’s logo and a raised fist, the symbol of the fight against white oppression of blacks, sits in contrast to  “Blue Lives Matter” version of an American flag in black, white and a blue stripe that highlights the risks and harassment faced by police officers and commemorates officers killed in the line of duty.

The third and final section of the Hope to Nope exhibit dealt with “Personalities” and of course, the major focus was on the outrageous and divisive nature of US President Donald Trump.  An entire wall of covers of magazines from around the world have featured caricatures of Trump, highlighting his distinctive “hair flip”, orange-tinged tanned face and trademark red tie.  The sentiments are quite similar as they depict Trump as a wrecking ball, tidal wave, ball of fire, Frankenstein-esque monster, Ku-Klux-Klan member, a shark under water, and more.  Many images depict his mouth wide open in mid rant.  Some of the covers morph Trump with images of Putin, Kim Jong-Un or Hillary Clinton.   Surprisingly, in contrast to all their other covers, there was one “Time Magazine” cover that seemed to portray Trump in a positive light.  This cover was displayed at several of his golf courses.  He is depicted in a dignified pose with headlines including “The Apprentice is a television smash”, and “Trump is hitting on all fronts .. even TV!”.  As it turns out, the Washington Post debunked this cover as a forgery created by Pentagram Design Consultants as a vanity project for Trump.  How egotistical and hypocritical of the man who so often cries “Fake News!”.

Other political personalities highlighted in the exhibit included Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party in U.K.’s 2017 general election.  To gain youth support, he copied the iconic Nike swoosh in his campaign imagery which led to a copyright infringement court injunction from the sports company.  Usually known as a “scruffy” politician, attempts were made to improve Corbyn’s image by dressing him in a power suit and putting him on the cover of British GQ magazine.  The airbrushed images drew mixed responses and some backlash.  The much maligned U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is featured in several unflattering caricatures by cartoonist Chris Riddell including ones about BREXIT where her opponent Boris Johnson doesn’t fare much better.  The cover of an anthology of comics dedicated to the rise to power of Jeremy Corbyn shows him about to slay “Maydusa” (Theresa May depicted as mythical Greek monster Medusa with the snakes in her hair).  A very funny work shows news images of German Chancellor Angela Merkel dressed in outfits that span a colour spectrum of 90 tones.  The images are laid out in a “Pantone” colour system used by graphic designers to specify print colours, and also looks like a series of paint chips.

Pulsar is an audience intelligence firm that uses a research team to scour the social media listening platforms to gather data on a given topic and then generates data visualizations in the form of charts and graphs to provide analysis and insight.  The Design Museum partnered with Pulsar to monitor the social media conversations of five political leaders including U.K.’s Theresa May, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.  One of Pulsar's line graphs map the number of Twitter mentions of each politician over a period of months from March 2017 through February 2018, with text explaining the political events that led to occasional spikes in traffic, such as when Macron, May and Merkle won their respective elections.

Pie Charts for each global politician track the words most associated with them.  The top chart focused on personality traits and it was interesting to see that both May and Merkel scored highest on the word “weakness” although for different reasons.  May was seen to be ineffective in navigating the road to Brexit while Merkel was seen to be weak on her immigration policies.  Macron’s most popular word was “youthfulness”, although it was debatable whether that was considered a good (new blood, change) or bad (inexperience) trait.  The major word or trait attributed to Putin was “corruption” .. enough said?

The Hope to Nope: Graphic and Politics exhibit at the London Design Museum was one of the most fascinating and informative shows that I’ve ever been to.  With over 160 objects and installations, there was so much information to disseminate that we didn’t have enough time to give every piece the attention that it deserved.  In many cases, I just took a photo of the object and associated explanation and did not actually read and understand what I was looking at until writing this blog.  So it was like seeing the exhibit all over again.  The best attraction in the exhibit was saved for last.  It was the “All-seeing Trump “Mis”Fortune Telling Machine”, modeled after the old carnival gypsy fortune telling machines (like “Zoltar” in the movie “Big”).  This one features a creepy, evil-red-eyed Trump automaton standing in front of a crystal ball with a white bird wearing a red "Make America Great" cap perched on his shoulder.

When you press the red button, the automaton comes to life and speaks in a voice eerily like the actual Donald Trump, spouting the type of racist, misogynistic or idiotic statements that the he is known for, and taking them to the next level of absurdness.  Eight different “misfortunes” promise that if Trump is elected president, he will deliver “a terrific nuclear war”, “racial profiling, recession,  so many guns that you will get tired of shooting”, “such an incredible wall” and more.  It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so frighteningly on point.

 *Tom Jamieson for The New York Times
A couple of months after we returned home from our trip, we read in the New York Times that the Design Museum was being protested against by about 20 artists who had provided works for the Hope to Nope exhibit. Given that many of their works promoted peace and arms reduction, the artists disapproved of the institution’s hosting of an event for Leonardo, an aerospace, defence and arms producing company and showed up at the museum to remove their works.  The show continued for another month with a sign reading “This artwork was removed at the request of the lender who objected to …” in place of the 29 missing works.  Free admission to the show was granted during this period.  This strange twist to the end of this exhibit’s run was such a surreal example of “Life imitating art imitating life”.

Because we were mostly visiting “off the beaten path” locations on this trip, and were traveling in the month of May ahead of the summer tourist season, we had so far not endured any large crowds.  This all changed when we hit the Portobello Road Market on the busy Saturday morning market day.  One of the highlights of Notting Hill, the Portobello Road Market is one of London’s best known markets, especially on Saturdays when a large antiques/ bric-a-brac market is open, in addition to the fruits and vegetables, food stalls, clothing and second-hand goods markets that are open the rest of the week.  As soon as we hit the area, we were sucked into a huge throng of shoppers so thick that we often had to push our way through to continue down the road.

Once again, my husband Rich was able to indulge his passion for vintage watches and clocks, as there were multiple antiques and jewelry dealers that stocked items that interested him.  His favourite discovery was the set of miniature capsule-enclosed Movado Emerto travel clocks (circa 1930-50s) that pull apart to review the clock face, and compresses together into its own storage case.  Measuring less than 2 inches closed and less than 3 inches open, the act of opening these mini clocks also winds them.  Ric also admired the driver’s watch (circa 1970) with the tilted dial that is made to sit on an angle on the side of your wrist so that it is facing you while you are driving with your watch arm holding the steering wheel.  I liked the fact that you could find stores selling Prada bags, Alexander McQueen dresses and Camilla Elphick “Royal Flush” designer sandals (decorated with playing cards!) in the same market as Street Art t-shirts with knock-off Banksy prints on them.

Other fun sightings at the Portobello Road Market included yet another version of a foursome crossing the Abbey Road Zebra walk that we visited during our Beatles walking tour.  This time it was the cartoon Simpsons family consisting of Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa.  There were some cool murals including one of the Michelin Tire Man (Bibendum) that we were immersed in when we had lunch at the Bibendum Oyster Bar in the Michelin House.   We also spotted the blue heritage sign marking the home of novelist George Orwell, who wrote the iconic books “Animal Farm” and “1984”.  Towards the northern end of Portobello Road were the hot food stalls offering choices from around the world such as curry, paella, fish and chips, bratwurst and more.  We were tempted by the big vats of Halal chicken based paella and seafood based paella and bought a mixture of the two to take home for dinner.  As a quick snack, we bought a meatball wrap and ate it right there on the spot.  This was a nice way to end a long day. The Portobello Market was an entertaining place to visit once, but it was a bit too crowded for my taste.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

London 2018: Chelsea in Bloom, Michelin Building, Bibendum

Held since 1912 by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show runs for 5 days in May and is one of the most famous flower and landscape garden shows in the world.  Despite the high cost of £105 for all day admission (£56 from 3:30;  £45 from 5:30), tickets sell out quickly and are difficult to obtain.  Wanting to spend neither the time nor so much money on this event, we did the next best thing.  During the Chelsea Flower Show, shops in Chelsea partake in a friendly competition, creating their own floral displays in a free event called “Chelsea in Bloom”.  The shop fronts are ranked as Gold, Silver, Bronze or Merit by a juried panel of floral experts, with awards being given for Best and Most Innovative Floral Arrangements, as well as a “People’s Choice” award which anyone could vote for online.  This year’s theme for Chelsea in Bloom was titled “Royal Wedding Meets Summer of Love” in honour of the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, plus the 60’s Flower Power Cultural Revolution.  The competition spanned the intersecting streets adjacent to Sloane Street from Knightsbridge down to King’s Road.  Self-guided walking maps were available at the main headquarters at Sloane Square, where the large topiary and floral piece spelling out the word L-O-V-E could be found.  You could also take a complimentary bicycle-propelled rickshaw ride to check out the competition, although we only saw one rickshaw so I’m guessing the wait-time for this would be long.

We chose to take the self-guided walking tour so that we could check out the participating storefronts up close and at our own pace.  The floral arrangements ranged widely in design and creativity.  Many stores including Nars, Collective+ and Club Monaco created massive floral wreaths to surround their entrances.  Other stores such as L.K.Bennett incorporated simple bouquets of flowers in midst of the products that they were promoting in their shop windows.  One such store used ball-shaped arrangements of flowers as the heads of their mannequins.  Other businesses went all out with elaborate, artistic botanical designs.  Several competitors including Artisan Du Chocolate, Moyses Stevens and DuBarry, all chose to depict their versions of camper vans or “love-mobiles” used to travel to Woodstock during the Summer of Love.

My favourite design won second prize in the People’s Choice contest.  Kiehl’s Since 1851, a vendor of natural skin care, beauty and cosmetic products, has a trademark skeleton in every store which is named “Mr. Bones”, in reference to the company’s historic associations with the medical and pharmaceutical industries.  So naturally, the floral display in front of the Kiehl’s store in Chelsea featured two giant skeletons reaching out to hug each other while they stroll through a summer meadow.  Large red hearts are pinned to their chests to further illustrate their affection for each other (as opposed to the appearance that they are attacking each other, which is what it looks like from farther away).  I also liked the “Chelsea Girl” in front of Kiki McDonough Jewelery, dressed in a hat and 60’s style jumpsuit.  Both of these designs show whimsy and imagination that transcends typical floral creations.  The major juried award winners included Monica Vinader Jewelry which won Best Floral Display for a “world of kaleidoscopic psychedelic surrealism featuring bright Chrysanthemums in contrasting colours and fractal patterns”.  Harry’s Dolce Vita Restaurant went all out with its Italian themed gondola surrounded by floral candles and a heart, winning it the People’s Choice award.  The classic red London double-decker bus in front of Hackett clothing store was awarded a Gold rating.

Other displays that were awarded the Gold rating included multi-coloured heart from Salon Sloane, a floral guitar, the word LOVE and an elegant floral gown on display at Cloud Boutique and the wreath of flowers and the shapes of flowers and hearts surrounded the front window of the clothing store named Poetry.  There were other displays of note that did not seem to officially be part of the competition, but were still fun and created in the spirit of the event.  There was a giant circular wreath topped by a plastic “diamond” to form the shape of an engagement ring, and a “grass-covered” car and gnome, which was used as advertisement for a company named EasiGrass.  The couch of one furniture store was decorated with a mannequin decked in a long flowing gown made of plants and flowers.  So despite not attending the Chelsea Flower Show, I did get to see many beautiful floral displays with my husband Rich patiently accompanying me, thus balancing out his debt to me for the hours I spent looking at aircraft, tanks, and wrist watches.

North-east of Chelsea, nestled under the east end of Hyde Park and next to Buckingham Palace, Belgravia is a wealthy neighbourhood known for elegant Georgian-style townhouses with garden squares, numerous foreign embassies and posh hotels.  Trying to hone in on the Chelsea In Bloom event, Belgravia In Bloom was more of a marketing ploy with hardly any floral displays to view, and none that even came close in comparison.  Walking between Chelsea and Belgravia, we saw some interesting sights, such as the Consept shop that sold “Fashion” mugs and plates with the images of twelve famous fashion designers including Victoria Beckham, Anna Wintour, Tom Ford and Karl Lagerfeld.  We laughed at some examples of clever graffiti works.  The puny phrase “Bill Posters is Innocent” is spray-painted in response to a warning not to post or paste bills ("Bill posters will be prosecuted"), while the rendering of a little bellboy is painted with an out-stretched arm reaching up to ring the real physical bell of an art gallery.  We admired the beautiful Art Deco sculpture of two winged figures that sits on top of the National Audit Office.

Also found in Chelsea and open in 1911, the Michelin House was built as the first permanent U.K. headquarters for the Michelin Tyre Company Ltd, which was founded in France in 1889.  The space contained a reception area, a fitting bay for installing tires, a basement storage of over 30,000 tires that were brought up by elevator and an office where the famous Michelin maps were distributed.  The ornate building has elements of Art Nouveau with its decorative metal work and tire-shaped ceramic tiles both surrounded by floral and plant motifs, colourful bricks and ceramic tiles painted with famous race cars like the 1908 Lautenschlager sur Mercedes or Sizaire-Naudin that used Michelin tires. There were also Art Deco influences with strong advertising images including the company logo depicted in Art Deco fonts, and most prominently, Michelin’s trademark symbol, the “Bibendum” or Michelin Tire Man depicted in large stained glass windows (now replicas as the originals were lost in WWII).  The domed shaped cupolas atop stone pillars flanking the front of the building resemble the belly of the Bibendum, which was modeled after a stack of tires.  The building was purchased and lovingly renovated in 1985 by designer, restaurateur and retailer Sir Terence Conran, who opened the Conrad furniture shop, as well as an Oyster Bar and a high end restaurant named after the Bibendum.

Since we had not allocated that much time for lunch, we decided to go to the more casual Bibendum Oyster Bar, which is a bright, airy and elegant French seafood bistro on the ground floor of the Michelin Building.  The walls are lined with Art Deco styled ceramic tiled mosaics with more images of vintage race cars traversing the countryside, matching the ones found on the front façade of the building.  A cutout of the Michelin Tire Man points the way to a cocktail bar area that is open all day, while the oyster bar is only open during lunch and dinner hours, and is known for oysters, seafood and champagne.  Sitting in this lovely space, we shared a bowl of fish soup, a crab salad, and "Crevettes Rose", which turned out to be a bowl of little, pink steamed prawns with the shells and heads still attached.

Had we more time, we would have loved to dine at the Bibendum Restaurant on the first floor, which features refined French cooking of meats and seafood with a modern twist by celebrated French chef Claude Bosi.  I also wanted to catch a glimpse of the dining room with high ceilings and large stained glass windows of the Bibendum.  But when I went upstairs to use the toilets, I was too shy to walk through the closed doors of the restaurant, and settled for admiring the décor in the hallway.  This included a series of posters depicting vintage images of the whimsical mascot, first designed by French cartoonist Marius Rossilon (known as O'Galop).  The Bibendum is one of the world’s oldest trademarks, developed in 1894 in the Universal and Colonial Exposition in Lyon, France.  My brazen husband Rich had no such reservations and bluffed his way into the restaurant with some concocted story about wanting to check it out for a possible dinner party in the future.  I was delighted with the photos that he was able to capture for me, but annoyed that he did not take me in with him!

Even Rich could not find a way to tour the high-end rental office spaces in the back of the Michelin House, which are managed by and rented from the company London Executive Offices or LEO.  However I did find a video on YouTube which gave us a flavour of what the luxury offices in the Michelin House had to offer.  There are 47 serviced office suites, an atrium with a spiral staircase, an executive lounge, ornate meeting rooms and a gorgeous rooftop terrace, all decorated in the Art Deco style and featuring the theme of the whimsical Bibendum, as his image is featured in many art pieces throughout the offices.

The Conran Furniture and Décor Shop is one of the leading lifestyle retailers in the world, offering an eclectic collection of furniture, lighting, kitchen and dining ware, textiles, fashion and beauty items, gifts and accessories from some of the world’s leading designers and emerging talents.  It features both vintage classics and bold futuristic modern designs.  There is access to the Conran Shop at the back of the Bibendum Oyster Bar.  Just inside Conrad Shop’s street-front entrance sits a beautiful light blue Citroen 2CV stuffed with flowers, turning it into a flower bed.  Although this was not an official entry in the Chelsea In Bloom competition, it was definitely in keeping with the spirit of the event.