Once a year, London Design Festival descends on my fair city. Installations are highlighted by red markers outside the doors of tiny shops, to world-famous museums. Best of all, most of it is free! So I made a point of making time to see world-class design for nothing.
Nestled among the wharf buildings and imitation flats in Wapping is the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station where, until 7th February, you can find Annie Leibovitz’s Women exhibition.
I’d never been to Wapping and I really enjoyed discovering it. I loved the architecture, its quietness, position right on the river, busy pubs and narrow main street. Wapping Hydraulic Power Station is a fantastic space and seems to have undergone the same sort of renaissance as many other power stations and gas holder sites across London. It is the former home of the Wapping Project which showcased several fashion photography exhibitions and a restaurant space. This Annie Leibovitz exhibition marks its first major arts use since the Wapping Project recently vacated the building.
Wapping Hydraulic Power Station is undoubtedly a London gem. I pray that this building isn’t going to go the same way as Battersea or Lots Road. It is cavernous, clad in red brick and mud-spattered white tiles with elevated, huge windows. Metal remnants and piping of the original power station usages are littered among the rooms. My good friend and I went after work on a Friday and it was pleasingly dark inside, the exhibition lit by retro-style lamps and enormous screens scrolling Leibovitz’s work.
The focus of this exhibition feels like the screen images. There’s a fair amount of seating for people to linger and watch the scrolls of Leibovitz’s most famous and not-so-famous images. One of the most striking was of a young and stripped back Venus and Serena Williams in black and white. The seating is contained by three sets of screens and one wall of prints where you can spot Aung San Suu Kyi, Meryl Streep, Malala’s autograph and probably Leibovitz’s most well-known recent piece: Caitlyn Jenner. This exhibition reads like a “who’s who” of unbelievably famous women. But it also seemed clear to me why these women allow themselves to be photographed by Leibovitz. Not having seen much of her work before, I felt like she really gets the best out of her subject. They all look so confident, but vulnerable, and real.
The second room in the exhibition is in a smaller chamber with a long wooden table on top of which are many, many Annie Leibovitz coffee table books and other art compilations. Spindly chairs are scattered around to take a seat and flick through these publications under the glow of minimalist lamps. There’s also a couple of copies of ridiculously large photography books featuring Leibovitz’s fashion shoots. This room feels like it’s more about Leibovitz’s full spectrum of work including fashion photography and Rolling Stone work. One of the most obvious examples of this are that there are lots of accessible pictures of men rather than just women as the “Women” title of exhibition would seem to indicate. I didn’t much enjoy this room because it was very crowded with people rifling through books quite frantically. I’m not sure anyone I observed was really taking in any of the work, which felt like a shame.
Yes, for me, the best part of the exhibition is in the main room. I enjoyed the lull of watching the scrolling photographs and the opportunity to see Leibovitz’s work outside of portraiture. I also loved the airiness and expanse of the main room juxtaposed against the omnipresent photographs. At the back of the room is Leibovitz’s famous portrait of the Queen which is the only digital static image. It’s like she’s watching over us all as we admire the many other great and good women that Leibovitz has been lucky enough to work with.
I would really recommend that you spend an hour at this exhibition if you can. It’s difficult not to be impressed by the sheer power that Leibovitz clearly commands in this field and to appreciate the common thread that connects these immensely famous women. I didn’t find it informative, but I enjoyed seeing first-hand the images I’ve subconsciously drunk in through my exposure to the media and thinking about them in a new way, without the burden of surrounding words colouring my perception of the person in the photograph.
You can find more information about the exhibition here.
[Full disclosure – expect a post with pictures that basically show, well, nothing! Apart from colour and the odd blurred object!]
A few weekends ago I visited the Wellcome Collection’s #yellowbluepink installation, a temporary contemporary visual arts exhibit by Ann Veronica Janssens. The concept is simple: a gallery full of opaque coloured mist removes the most normalised method of perception (i.e. sight). In doing so the individual cannot perceive distance, depth or surfaces and is effectively isolated, relying mostly on their other senses to navigate around the gallery. It is partly an experiment with consciousness, too; I had to wait for approximately fifteen minutes and there are iPads with some interesting exercises to do with how perceptions can be distorted based on your dominant expectations.
I found that much of the anticipation about this installation comes from the actual waiting itself! Secondly, the way in which staff facilitate entry into the gallery builds expectation, you’re put in an “isolation chamber” in between two doors to stop the coloured mist from escaping and you have to walk through some 70s style plastic door hangings to enter the gallery.
I found the experience really enjoyable and fun, although I spent much less time in the gallery than I thought I would. Realistically my partner and I spent most of the time disappearing into the mist and reappearing from another direction, and getting worried that we were approaching walls. In all seriousness though there is a lot that is very interesting and creative about this art. Some questions I left with were to do with the actual colours themselves – unsurprisingly the gallery is mostly filled with yellow, blue and pink mists, but they are extremely well defined with very little mixing. Visibility between colours is also non-existent owing to the opaqueness of the mist, so in certain spaces of the room you’re unaware that there is any other colour but the one you’re experiencing.
It’s strange also that voices are audible just as normal. Although the mist feels “heavy” around you, it doesn’t do anything to muffle or blur voices. This had the curious effect of making me whisper, partly because of the self-consciousness of not knowing who might be around you hearing how ridiculous you sound wondering if a wall is looming, and partly not wanting to disturb other peoples’ experience. The only niggle I have is that the room is, well, a room, with windows and strip lights and plug sockets et al. Up close you can still see all of these things and they shatter the illusion somewhat.
I would recommend stopping by this installation if you can, although my advice to you would be to go early. As with all free things in London, there are a lot of other people competing for the space. We arrived first thing on Sunday when the Wellcome Collection opened at 11am and had a very short wait which was fine. Be warned, they don’t have Disney style queues ready for no reason; during our 10-15 minute wait the wait joining the queue escalated to an hour and a half. They limit the number of people in the room for good reason though, so be prepared to be patient if you can’t get there early. I’m not sure I’d make the pilgrimage to Euston on a weekend morning for this as a standalone event though, so join it up with a look around the Wellcome Collection’s other galleries and their great shop, and have a weekend walk around Bloomsbury. It’s open until the 3rd January 2016 and you can find out more about the installation here.
Every summer the lawn outside the famous Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens is adorned by a piece of contemporary architecture known as the Serpentine Pavilion. It is described by the Serpentine Gallery as “an international site for architectural experimentation, presenting inspirational temporary structures by some of the world’s greatest architects”, and according to the website is one of the most visited architectural exhibitions worldwide. This year marks the 15th year of the Pavilion and, over the years, the lawn has been previously filled by architects such as Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. A duo called selgascano are 2015’s architects and are based in Madrid.
Every year the Pavilion brief is the same. It needs to use approximately 300 square metres of space, and should be a flexible, multi-purpose social space with a café. It also needs to be the designer’s first installation in the UK, hopefully to provide a highly-visible platform for their work.
Selgascano’s Pavilion is a series of polygonal structures encased by a translucent plastic (similar to that used at the Eden Project in Cornwall and Canary Wharf Crossrail station) and surrounded by coloured tapes. The steel structure supports the plastic which is stretched to create a series of interconnected “rooms” with a central space housing a pop-up Fortnum and Mason cafe.
There are several entrance and exit points and a corridor surrounding the central structure allows the individual to walk directly around the Pavilion and discover these windows and doors. The architects have indicated that they drew inspiration from London in their design, particularly from the Underground with its tunnels, access points and connectivity.
Across the internet it’s been described as a psychedelic cocoon, an Instagrammer’s paradise, beautifully childish, a kind of amoeba whose four blobby pseudopodia reach out across the grass, an eye-catching bauble, and a big bag of fun. Having read these reviews before visiting the Pavilion, and now having visited, I tend to agree with all of these characterisations!
The most important part of the Pavilion’s design to me seems to be the interaction between the structure and light. Clearly colour has been used liberally to create an eye catching, bright and playful landmark, and this is very obvious from the outside. The interpretation of the Pavilion from the inside however is very reliant on light conditions and the perspective of light depending on which part of the structure you’re standing in; the vibrant tapes throw different hues onto the internal plastic structure and the reflective surfaces mean that the internal colour seems to morph as you move closer or further from the walls. The Pavilion also simultaneously seems to complement, and contrast against, the surrounding green environment. It sits glowing among the green.
Internally I spotted pinks, oranges, yellows, blues, greens and purples. There are doors and windows to the structure that let natural light in, and there doesn’t appear to be any artificial light to tamper with this effect. The white floor has a reflectivity of its own (and, although it is a little battered after a whole summer of use), is a welcome canvas against the vivid walls. On the outside the plastic moves whimsically with the wind, creating a liquid, globular effect.
I actually enjoyed the exterior of the Pavilion the most. The plastic’s reflectivity is most obvious on the outside where light abounds and the contrast against the bright tapes was more striking. The whole structure also seems much larger when you walk around it in its entirety.
Dipping in and out of the corridor between outside and inside is fun too. A real childishness comes over me when I have the opportunity to play a bit of hide and seek or jump out and say boo. I think this was probably intentional by the architects as the whole structure seems to want to be utilised and explored.
The Pavilion isn’t given a budget by the Serpentine Gallery, but instead uses various sources of sponsorship and the sale of the eventual structure to fund its design and build. This year’s installation is going to become a performance space in Los Angeles and I think it really suits this function. The Pavilion is used for performance and events during the evenings in London and if I hadn’t have left it so late I would have loved to revisit and check out the effect of colour and light in the dark when the green-ness of Hyde Park isn’t all around. Its size means that any performance is going to be intimate and most likely quite organic and stripped back because there isn’t a whole load of space for props or staging. Acoustically, noise carries; the tinkles and chatter of a pop-up cafe is audible but doesn’t echo. When speaking out loud the absorption of sound makes it feel like there is a slight hush on your voice. Although part of the brief is for the Pavilion to host a cafe during the day, it does feel a little of a wasted opportunity the night-time cultural use doesn’t transcend into daylight hours.
Despite being colourful and appealing to my inner child, there isn’t anything comical about the Pavilion. It’s stylish, built at a human scale, and uplifting. It’s interesting and has a naturalness and simplicity about its design that makes the most of its surroundings using (what appear to be) cheap and accessible materials. There isn’t anything fundamentally groundbreaking or innovative about the design, and perhaps that makes it a little safe for selgascano’s first UK installation. I didn’t come away from the Pavilion feeling that I had experienced a unique and overly memorable piece of work, but it was certainly enjoyable, fun and a novel way to interact with colour, light and space as London’s autumn greyness starts to set in. I’ll be back next year.