Friday, 29 March 2013

Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum

Verdict: Go see it
Where: British Museum
When: 28 March - 29 September 2013

Mosaic of a guard dog. From the House of Orpheus, Pompeii, 1st century AD. Copyright Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum

Most people are aware of the devastation wrought by Mount Vesuvius on the town of Pompeii in AD79, though some may be less aware of the other towns that were also overwhelmed such as Herculaneum.

This exhibition opens with a plaster cast of a dead dog curled up in a position that captures the agony of its dying moments. The collar signifying it was a guard dog - how poetic that it would die carrying out its duty of guarding the home. The information does spoil this romantic notion slightly by correctly pointing out this curled up position is actually due to tendons contracting from the heat but that doesn't take away the power of this opening. 

Yet this first exhibit is misleading, for this exhibition doesn't really dwell on death and devastation but focuses on the lives of the ordinary folk in the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Here's a chance to see how day to day Roman life played out, demonstrated by a set of remarkably preserved remains - right down to a roundel of bread where the bakers stamp still looks fresh, even if the bread itself has been carbonised.

This show is replete with well preserved artefacts from marble and bronze statues to furniture and even the sign of a local tavern. The way the two towns were destroyed by Vesuvius was slightly different so that Herculaneum has had all its wooden objects carbonised rather than destroyed. This includes a blackened baby's cot and we're told that the poor child's remains were found inside it. 

The main thrust of this exhibition is to show us the daily lives in an average town. Rome may have terrific records but it's a completely different way of living - akin to comparing London living with a sleepy Lancashire village. One major surprise is how much the towns were reliant on slaves emancipating themselves with the blessing of their masters and becoming citizens of their town - demonstrating that a slaves lot didn't have to be so bad nor permanent.

For me, the most revelatory aspect of this display is the similarities to society today. Sure the Romans were much less conservative around sex but there are lots of easy comparisons to make. The bars were known for drunken fights and the politicians commissioned posters of themselves giving out bread for free - the Roman equivalent of kissing babies.

We also see that many citizens had some amazing items in their possession. A mosaic of sea creatures and a table whose single leg has been carved into a panther are two stand out pieces but they are by no means the only exemplary items here.

This excellent exhibition ends with a look at the end, as you'd expect, showing us remains of a family killed together and items that have been recovered from people who tried to flee - some took their money, others treasured possessions. It's a harrowing reminder of all the lives snuffed out, but they also hint at there being much more to discover in the remaining debris. Despite the tragedy that befell these two towns, the insight provided from their well preserved remains is a unique look back at Roman life that we wouldn't have otherwise.

This exhibition does live up to the hype and is yet another success for the British Museum. The news suggests many tickets have already sold out and people are already queuing from 7am for on the day tickets, so make sure you plan your visit well as any history or art fan will want to see this show.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Art 13 - Highlights

London is replete with art fairs from Frieze down to the Other Art Fair - so much so, that my list keeps growing. Art13 is the latest to try and muscle in on this prime market and it has aimed itself squarely at the likes of Frieze and the London Art Fair.

It's cast its net quite wide including bigger names, emerging galleries and a significant international contingent including many from Eastern Europe.

Though the layout is very confusing to navigate, the opening night had a real buzz to it and here's my run down of the artworks that most stood out for me:

Zilvinas Kempinas, Fountain. Courtesy Galerija Vartai

The concept is so simple, a fan plus magnetic tape creating rhythmic pulsations. Yet it's amazing how closely it resembles a water fountain in fluidity and sound.

I've recently come across a Mayfair gallery specialising in contemporary photography called Brancolini Grimaldi. They had a particularly strong showing and I liked two of their artists:

Miles Aldridge, Like a Painting. 

This photograph reminded me of the pre-raphaelites in it's beauty and intensity. The model appears doll-ish and this enhances its surreality.

Peter Fraser, Untitled

Fraser manages to capture the light perfectly, so as to imbue the mundane with the magical. Here a simple plate of fruit glows with life.  Brancolini Grimaldi are also having a solo show by Joachim Brohm which I will be reviewing in a month's time.

Mat Colishaw has been featured in many publications for his current, and frankly average, exhibition at Blain|Southern, but here we see him on form:

Mat Colishaw, Last Meal series

Colishaw has photographer the last meals of prisoners on death row but has used dramatic lighting for a chiaroscuro effect.This was my favourite as the mundane coke and fries sits so uneasily with the overly dramatised representation, a technique usually preserved for the finer foods.

Ben Turnbull, Heroes III. Courtesy Eleven Fine Arts

I enjoyed how the background was made up of comic speech bubbles and the title mixes the styles of spider-man and Captain America. Despite all the comic book pretences, it's actually referring to real heroes such as firemen and how Hollywood glosses over them in preference of fictional characters. 

Carlo Gavazenni Ricordi, Gates of Rome. Courtesy Fine Art Society
The subtle use of collage photography overlays produces an impressive technical result that had us wondering whether it's real pictures overlaid or some trippy hallucination.

This sculpture (below) may not be subtle but we've all felt like this at some point in life, especially when stick as a commuter on the Underground.

Atoosa Vahdani, Mortar

There was also some flashbacks of the ongoing exhibition by David Breur-Weil in the tunnels near Waterloo station.

The Outsiders, as their name suggests, was one of the galleries that stood out with a real Shoreditch vibe. Some other street art galleries, like Lazarides with their amazing mock brickwork stall, made sure they didn't look too out of place. The Outsiders feature prints by Zevs (pronounced Zeus), but this was my favourite:

Zevs, Liquidated Olympic Rings

All of his works highlight the bleed in of consumerist culture into our lives but I particularly liked this one for acknowledging how the Northern hemisphere, especially the US and Europe bleed into other cultures in developing countries, which have no way of preventing it.

The Outsiders also attempted to rebel against the fact people have to pay to enter an art fair just to think about buying art. So they gave away a free print to anyone who wanted it. A noble gesture though not quite as anti-establishment as they were marketing it to be.

Galerie Paris-Beijing had a wide variety of artists from the subtle to the high impact, summed up neatly by my two favourite works.

Yang Yongliang, Moonlight. Courtesy Galerie Paris-Beijing

This ethereal backlit cityscape amongst the hills feels both familiar and like an alien world at the same time.

Kim In-Sook, Saturday Night

It's probably too small for you to see but each window is a microcosm of relationships form a simple hugging couple to a full blown orgy. It's not subtle but a reminder of how everyone behaves behind closed doors and it's very voyeuristic, making you want to see what's happening in each window.

Kim Joon, Drunken-Gone With the Wind

I liked this work as even though it's a massacre of broken bodies and outright carnage, the porcelain flower patterning gives it a contrasting sense of serenity and stillness. 

Ricardo Rendon, Area de Corte. Courtesy Zipper Galleria

I make no excuses in saying that I'm drawn to works that catch my eye, mainly because a busy and bustling art fair is not a great place for subtle pieces. But this one's mystery drew me in - the middle has been removed and lies in pieces on the floor, but what did it show us? Was it a detailed masterpiece or just a sheet of grey? There is a sense of loss, exacerbated by the leftover frame sagging forlornly.

And these are just the artists I didn't know of! Other returning favourites included Mela Yerka's varied and subtle portraits and the impressive door carvings of Vhils.

Clearly lots to like and I'm sure it and I will be back next year.