art in plain english

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Open For Business at the Science Museum ★★★

Rob Kidd, Editor

Nine international photographers visited 100 manufacturing businesses to document British industry in the 21st century. Although it’s not true to say ‘we don’t make anything anymore’, it’s all got rather more hi-tech than it used to be. Those lusting after our dark, satanic mills are likely to be disappointed. 

Some of the work is frankly rather dull, although there are several images that make this worth seeing if you’re in the area. Bruce Gilden’s portraits of staff at the Tate & Lyle factory make you question their human rights record, while Peter Marlow’s shots of heavy industry from the Midlands will make even the softest southerner proud of our nation’s industrial heritage. 

Open For Business is at the Science Museum until 2 November 2014. Admission is free. 


Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story at the Natural History Museum ★★★★

Rob Kidd, Editor

Who’d have thought there used to be hippos and lions roaming the banks of the Thames? 125,000 years ago, this would have been a common sight. This is just one of dozens of revelations visitors to the NHM’s blockbuster exhibition can uncover this summer.

The curators have done a brilliant job of making the information accessible and engaging. What could otherwise have been a great deal of flint has been brought to life with videos, maps, artists’ reconstructions and more. 

The real highlight comes in the final room, in the form of two life-sized (and incredibly life-like) models. One is Homo Sapiens, modern man’s great-grandfather, and the other is a Neanderthal, sort of like our great-uncle. They are presented nude (so we can ‘better understand their physique’, according to the text - no wonder the ice age did for them). Together with several hands-on artefacts, they bring to life a period of history normally incomprehensible to most of us. 

Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story is at the Natural History Museum until 28 September. Admission is £9 (£4.50 concessions). 


Sensational Butterflies at the Natural History Museum ★★★★

Rob KiddEditor

The novelty of nature’s tiny symmetrical works of art never seems to wear off. This beautiful exhibition on the lawn outside the museum has been running all summer and its popularity shows no signs of abating. There’s science for those who want it, with thoughtful displays and interpretation for junior lepidopterists. The real appeal, though, is seeing these amazing creatures. They seem to have an uncanny sense of when they’re about to have their photo taken, so the only way to see them in their full glory is in the flesh.

Sensational Butterflies is at the Natural History Museum until 14 September. Admission is £5.50.


Art on the Underground gets its feet wet

Already bringing a little colour to the grey commute of London’s subterranean commuters, the Art on the Underground programme is expanding - to the river. In a bid to double the number of people travelling by boat, TfL has begun commissioning work to brighten up London’s piers and jetties. The first commission, a pair of paintings from British artist Clare Woods, goes on display in poster form from this month.

Commenting on the new work, Clare said: “The view of the city and the river banks, the muted feel to the sound and the general chaos of London are all elements of travelling on the river. I was very much influenced and interested by the huge tidal range, in some places eight meters, and what this drop in tide exposes. It is a whole other part of London that’s unseen by most people. I wanted to paint where these human structures meet the river but from the river’s point of view.”  


To find out more about travel on the river, check out the TfL website.


Today’s Specials at Pace Burlington Gardens ★★★★

Rob Kidd, Editor

This food-themed collection of work features a group of artists, some well-known and others less so, working in a range of media. All the works have something to say about our uneasy relationship with food in the 21st century. 

Sarah Lucas’ powerful but unappetising Chicken Knickers is among the best known, but there are many other standout pieces. Mat Collishaw’s Last Meal on Death Row series documents the actual last meals of death row inmates in beautiful still-life style, while Yto Barrada’s Papier Pliés are oddly captivating. Keith Coventry’s Kebab Machine 2 sees a kebab machine, complete with rotating skewer of miscellaneous meat, rendered in bronze. Overall this is a great collection of work, both from an aesthetic as well as intellectual point of view. 

Today’s Specials is at Pace Burlington Gardens until 6 September 2014. Admission is free.


Martin Parr: Signs of the Times at Beetles + Huxley ★★★★★

Rob Kidd, Editor

This fantastic exhibition is a must-see for anyone who lived in Britain in the 1990s, but will be a treat for anyone. Parr worked on a BBC documentary from the start of that decade called ‘Signs of the Times’. This exhibition of stills from the series presents a snapshot of the nation at the time.

Floral prints, bad perms and ruched curtains feature strongly of course, but what really sets these images apart is the attitudes of the subjects. Each image is captioned with a quote from someone featured in the series. The quotes reveal how vain, self-absorbed and vapid they (we) all are. That said, the work is not in any way judgemental (Parr leaves that to the audience). It’s just a set of honest portraits of Brits at home. 

Martin Parr: Signs of the Times is at Beetles + Huxley until 30 August 2014. Admission is free.


Disobedient Objects at the V&A ★★

Rob Kidd, Editor

Disobedient Objects surveys the use of decorative arts in protest and demonstration. Badges, posters and placards all feature of course, alongside some more unusual pieces. A particular highlight is Carrie Reichardt’s Tiki Love Truck, a ‘mobile mosaic mausoleum’ dedicated to a death-row inmate.

While the content is interesting (and in some cases very moving), the curation is jarring and laboured. Lots and lots of fragmented text competes for viewers’ attention, while a booming soundtrack makes it hard to concentrate. A nice idea, but clumsy execution mean this is a disappointing show overall. 

Disobedient Objects is at the V&A until 1 February 2015. Admission is free.


Primrose: Early Colour Photography In Russia at Photographers’ Gallery ★★★★

Rob Kidd, Editor

Early black and white photographs in Russia, as elsewhere, were painstakingly hand-coloured using watercolour and oil paints. Several excellent examples are featured in the first section of the show, with results ranging from convincing to day-glo psychedelia. 

Tsar Nicholas II was keen to produce a visual record of the Russian Empire. Some of the photographs he commissioned to document the people, architecture and landscapes of this huge area are featured in the second section.

The third section focuses on the post-War period, when the government, under Lenin, saw photography as a powerful propaganda tool. State-sanctioned socialist-realist work appears alongside the work of talented amateurs, often working illegally. 

This is a comprehensive but accessible series of work, well chosen and thoughtfully interpreted. It sheds new light on a country that has long been shrouded in secrecy, and celebrates the work of its photographers working on both sides of the law.

Primrose: Early Colour Photography In Russia is at the Photographers’ Gallery until 19 October 2014. Admission is free.