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Thursday, 29 December 2016

Ditch Rauschenberg for Lam at Tate Modern

'Oh you have to go too the Rauschenberg show at Tate Modern, what a visionary' - said probably all people ever judging by the number of people in the gallery when we visited last weekend. Without a doubt, Robert Rauschenberg is a pop art icon and the Tate's blockbuster exhibition highlights his epic career. But - is it good really? We weren't quite sure. Then we took a detour across the hall to pop into the Wifredo Lam exhibition - an artist working just slightly before Rauschenberg who we had never heard of. We were blown away. I'll take Lam over Rauschenberg any day, and you should too. 

People seem to really really like pop art. If you want to sell out an art exhibition, the pop artists seem to be a pretty good way to go, and we can understand why. Pop art is a movement towards accessible art, and its take on modern life is still accessible and engaging today. Robert Rauschenberg, a contemporary of Andy Warhol and part of a circle of American artists including Jasper Johns, is most famous for his mixed-media collages. He isn't technically a pop artist, more an abstract expressionist, but you'd forgive the confusion as Rauschenberg made an effort for his art to reflect the world around him.

Where Rauschenberg diverges from people like Hockney and Warhol is that his work is actually very conceptual. For example, he collaborated across his whole career with dancers, even performing himself in an experimental dance company in the 1960s. From his early days as an art student at Black Mountain College, Rauschenberg was an artist who questioned what art was. The first room of the exhibition features a completely white canvas painted by the artist which was originally shown alongside an original score by a composer friend, which was just 4 minutes of silence.

So to some extent, it is really interesting that Rauschenberg was working a time where someone could do live performances which included sticking pieces of found radio equipment to canvases, or just decide to become an experimental choreographer. But for me (as a non-art person) the whole exhibition felt- off-putting, self-indulgent maybe. The idea you could just travel for work and call the experience the 'Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange' shows a hubris which is both fascinating and uncomfortable. By the time we finished, I felt a bit like - oh this is why people don't like modern art.

Then, on a whim, we decided to walk across the hallway to visit the Wifredo Lam exhibition, an artist who, to be completely honest, we had never heard of. Compared with the ram-packed Rauschenberg exhibition, the Lam was practically empty. And we have no idea why. The exhibition starts with the quote 'My painting is an act of decolonisation' - a statement as challenging as Lam's work. Wifredo Lam is a Cuban artist born to a Chinese father and an Afro-Cuban mother in 1902. He studied art in Havana and in Madris, fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. In the 1930s he lived in Paris and joined the surrealist circle of Joan Miro and was friend with Picasso. In the Second World War he ended up in a French internment camp, before returning to Cuba. Lam lived through a lot - and his art has a lot to say.

Lam's paintings are mystical, joyful, and visionary. Much of his work draws on Santeria beliefs- a religion native to Cuba which combines Yoruba beliefs with Spanish Catholicism. The huge abstract pieces which dominate the exhibition blend African influences with surrealism. Lam worked head-on to address racism and poverty as he experienced it throughout his career. However, as an artist Lam was in his life time well received and well respected, not the least by his surrealist colleagues in America, Spain and France.

Where Rauschenberg's works feel in places self-obsessed, Lam's paintings are over-flowing with emotion and energy. His retrospective is a map of his interactions with the dynamic surrealist circle and his own personal journey (including the death of his wife and child and political upheaval). And yet its Rauschenberg's exhibition which is packed, and barely a soul in Lam's? It seems suspicious that so many people would line up for a white American and no one has seemingly heard of this Afro-Cuban genius. The art of decolonization indeed. Still, it is wonderful to see such a groundbreaking Afro-Caribbean artist showcased at the Tate, and indeed the Lam exhibition covers at least as much floor space as Rauschenberg.

So - go to see Rauschenberg if you must. His 'Mud Muse' installation is very cool, and of course his mixed media collages capture something of the adventurous 1960s- but Lam is the real star of the show. Better hurry and visit quick- Wifredo Lam closes on the 8th of January!

Friday, 16 December 2016

Ministry Guide to Holiday Exhibitions!

It's that time of year again- the city is covered in trees and twinkly lights and, for many of us, friends and family descend for the festive season. So whether you are stuck at home with extended family or have friends crashing on your floor to enjoy Christmas in the city, exhibitions are a great way to keep everyone entertained (and out of your hair). But what's good to see? Don't worry, we've got you covered with our Ministry top 10 holiday exhibition picks! From the Cuban Picasso to taxidermy to a Dickensian Christmas- London's museums are catering to everyone this Christmas season...  

1) Making Nature at the Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome's blockbuster offering for the Christmas season, Making Nature is a very different take on the natural history collection. Rather than just displaying animals by region or type, this exhibition tries to get to the bottom about how we see and think about animals. From taxonomic classification to modern attempts at cloning and genetic modification, the exhibition prompts us to think about how we have interacted with and changed the natural world. It's not for everyone, but a thoughtful and off-beat exhibition that will start some interesting conversations. It certainly will make you think differently about Planet Earth II!

2) Silent Night at the Dennis Severs House

If you can get tickets, this is absolutely one of our favourite annual festive traditions. The Dennis Severs house in Spitalfields is worth a visit anytime of year, but its especially lovely at Christmas. A cross between a museum and an art installation, a silent trip through the Severs house takes you through all the sights and scents of the holiday season across the ages. Start downstairs in the seventeenth century basement and finish with a riotous late Victorian celebration. Stop across the street at the Water Poet for a mulled wine after. A great date and a fun evening with friends.

3) Lives, Loves and Loss: Traces at Fenton House

If you have more of an artsy crowd to please, then this exhibition at Fenton House in Hampstead might be for you. Artists, designs and makers have taken over the 17th century merchants house for a special theatrical experience until the 23rd of December. Untold stories come to life through specially commissioned interventions, including an 8 course menu of scented napkins by Ministry friend AVM Curiosities! Plus you can even take an afternoon wander in near by Hampstead Heath. A lovely day out. Booking recommended.

4) Christmas at the Dickens Museum

Maybe you want to go a little more traditional, and nothing says Christmas in London like Charles Dickens. I mean, Dickens literally defined the Christmas spirit in a Christmas Carol right? Decked out for a mid-nineteenth century celebration, wander through the rooms of the Dickens family and feel transported in time. An annual trip for many, and a definite crowd pleaser.

5) Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery

This exhibition has been a big hit for the National Gallery and lucky for you, runs through the Christmas period. As the title suggests, the exhibition isn't solely about the famous Italian painter, although they have shipped in some of his most spectacular works. What the exhibition does so well is show how Caravaggio revolutionised art. Perfect for fans of his dramatic light and dark paintings. Worth it to see work by Artemesia Gentileschi - one of the most badass female painters of all time.

6) Emma Hamilton at the National Maritime Museum

We are ashamed to say we haven't actually seen this exhibition but have heard very very good things. We like the NMM's brave departure from the traditional 'brave men at sea' theme to tackle the life and times of Emma Hamilton's, arguably the most famous celebrities of the late eighteenth century. The maritime connection comes in with Hamilton infamously being Lord Nelson's mistress, but she is so much more than that. The exhibition explores not only Hamilton's fascinating career and unstoppable spirit, but also thinks more broadly about celebrity. Plus, you get to spend the day in lovely Greenwich, a great trip with the family.

7) Wifredo Lam at the Tate Modern

This underrated exhibition at the Tate Modern is definitely definitely worth your time if you are a fan of modern art. Don't worry, the crowds at the Tate Modern might be swarming for Robert Rauschenberg, but the Lam exhibition offers some welcome respite. Which is strange since it is (in our eyes) the superior exhibition. Lam, the son of a Chinese immigrant father and an Afro-Cuban mother, spent the 1920s, 30s and 40s witnessing some of the most tumultuous political times of the twentieth century. From the rise of Castro in his native Cuba, to the surrealists in Paris, Franco in Madrid, Lam even found his way into a French internment camp in the Second World War. His work reflects his Cuban culture and his relationship with the French and Spanish surrealists. Picasso loved his stuff, and we know you will to. A must see.

8) Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy

Ok so if we are in the artistic mood, we have to mention Abstract Expressionism at the RA. If you like the American abstract expressionists then you will not be disappointed by this exhibition which brings together works from the likes of Rothko, Pollock and De Kooning. A miniature MOMA in London. The RA provides a perfect space for the towering, chaotic work of these artists. Not as many female artists as we might like, but worth a visit for being an art history lesson in one exhibition. Plus the RA shop is always awesome for last minute gifts.

9) Christmas Past at the Geffrye Museum

Guys, we just had to do it. We know we talk about it every year, but nothing says Christmas like the period rooms at the Geffrye Museum. With displays covering the seventeenth century to today, find out more about how we celebrated Christmas in the past. Family friendly and always a hit with your older relatives, the Geffrye is always a gorgeous Christmas treat, complete with a lovely cafe. For something maybe not so festive, but equally interesting, check out their exhibition on teenage bedrooms.

10) The Design Museum

Ok maybe not an exhibition, but how often does a major museum get a complete refurb? The Design Museum has just relocated to South Kensington, taking over the old Commonwealth Institute and transforming it with a new avant-guard roof. Current exhibitions include Fear and Love- rooms installed to reflect on life, design and politics. You can even meet an industrial robot. Worth a visit for the new building alone.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Ministry Gift Guide: 2016 Edition

 The Ministry is here to provide the ultimate gifts for any museum lover this Christmas, whether it be your pal, sibling, partner or neighbour we've scoured the museum shops for our favourite treats for Christmas 2016. 

1. The Museum of Cathy by Anna Stothard £8.99. As a curator of Natural History in Berlin the protagonist sees her place of work Museum fur Naturkunde through the eyes of a museum worker and as a lover of objects uses her personal collection to tell her story. A great read for any museum worker or lover with a familiar look at the objects, practices and difficulties that museum professionals face alongside a very personal tale. 

2. Hendrix Candle £10 from Handel & Hendrix in London
You can visit the space that Hendrix slept in and now you can smell it too. Although this candle isn't scented the recreated room of the great musician - good museum practice there! - you can take home the suspected smell of the place. An interesting combination of Sandalwood and Whiskey its pretty special one by Lucy Annabella Organics. 

3. Guerilla Girls range at Tate 
Formed in the 80's this female activist group highlighted discrimination in the art world perhaps most prolifically in recent years with their 2004 'do women still have to be naked to get into the met museum?' poster. now you can take an exclusive to Tate poster home detailing 'the advantages of being a female artist' along with an air freshener with decorated like their iconic gorilla masks. This is like girl power mercy for adults, we'll take some! 

4. Elephant Mousepad, Design Museum 
The design museum has landed at its new site in Kensington, and no doubt their new shop is a winner too. we've only had a chance to check out their online merch so far and think any museum lover would love some desk junk from the great retailer. Even for £22 its a great addition to any museum desk. 

5. T-Rex Skull pendant
It's not a ministry gift guide without something from the NHM shop. This time its all about the T-Rex skull pendant for £50 why not walk around with a dino hanging around your neck? 

6. Feather pattern notebook, NHM Shop. 
Sorry not sorry, we love this shop too much to feature just one item (please give us everything from the boutique!) More stationary is needed with this multicoloured notebook as a stocking filler. Plus the print comes on a cushion too! 

7. Cross Stitch Map, £25, British Library 
For when you need to relax how about a bit of stitch work and learning about continents! Double learning = double fun! In conjunction with their maps exhibition check out this piece from the BL 

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

All of the lights: Gods own Junkyard

Walthamstow is on the up and we've been hearing about it for the past few years, but what makes a place really cool?  An unusual art gallery on a run down industrial park is often the ticket to a time out listing. But Gods Own Junkyard isn't the run of the mill addition to an up and coming area its been a stalemate display room for the local neon sign factory Electro Signs and artist Chris Bracey for sometime.

Known as the Master of Neon, Chris Bracey was the shining star of his family's neon light business Electro Signs where he specialised in the seedy lights of Soho sex shops. Inspired by the American light artist Bruce Nauman he saw the potential for creativity and artistic license in his lighting business and his unit in Walthamstow soon become a workshop and display space for his own handiwork and many others until his death by 2014. 

Not quite a museum or art gallery but an active collection, the unit features over 700 items made by Bracey and Electro signs available for purchase or perusal. The lights are not noted with details of their title, year make or description. Nonetheless this is a thrilling visual overload and one that should be experience while listening to this:

With faith playing a key part in Bracey's exploration into light art, many items feature contempt - models of Jesus with neon guns placed into his open palms, a Louis Vuitton encrusted Madonna placed carefully and messily next familiar cheeky sex shop signs or arcades. Nonetheless Bracey's work goes further than the unit in Walthamstow, as a skilled craftsman he was occasionally contracted to make the works of other artists including Martin Creed, Work Number 232 'the whole wold + the work = the world world' currently on display in Tate Modern. 

Visiting this unit in Walthamstow is a real visual treat and what's even better about this place is that you can enjoy a coffee or locally made beer, discuss the cost of their electricity bill whilst still sitting among all of the lights.  

God's Own Junkyard is open Friday and Saturday 11am - 9pm and Sunday 11am - 6pm. 

Monday, 14 November 2016

Hipster Museum: Handel & Hendrix in London

Museum offices are often fantasied about as dusty treasure troves with tomes of accession registers and objects adorning the desk, however we all know in reality they are like any other office environment but with less room hidden away in cupboards and basements museum offices aren’t as exciting as they may seem. But for the staff at Handel House Museum their office was once the space that Jimi Hendrix slept, played records and hosted. Now although unlikely to have contained any of his remnants that’s a pretty cool museum office.

Thanks to a heritage Lottery Fund Project, the Handel House trust received a grant to recreate Hendrix flat and improve visitor’s facilities as part of a three-year redevelopment – but where did the museum offices go?

The reinstatement of Hendrix’s flat has been a successful one and has bought a new vigour to the house museum and gives visitors an opportunity to further understand the lives of the two prominent musicians through the place that once called home. For 36 years Handel composed and lived in the Georgian house, opening in 2001 the Handel House museum aims to promote the knowledge and enjoyment of Handel through their creation of his home and his music and recently added to their mission the promotion of the continued diversity of the neighbouring house 23 Brock street through its association with Jimi Hendrix. Both houses are the only homes of both musicians that still exist!

Entering the property is an exciting escape from the busy side streets of Oxford street behind a brightly painted red door, up a crooked and squeaky staircase we explored the life of Handel – although interesting we were really there to see the Hendrix addition so a first glimpse into the costume room was an exciting and silly experience. Invited to try on costumes from both musicians, take selfies and pose as Handel and Hendrix alongside each other. A bit of fun but it was really interesting to see how some costumes could have been either personalities.

Making a final climb to Hendrix flat at the top of Handel’s house and across we were greeted into a room full of information, AV and graphics filled the room with facts about Hendrix life and time in London, noting its proximity to the bustling streets Hendrix has given his then girlfriend Kathy etchingham a wad of cash to go out and decorate the place with fabrics from Liberty and John Lewis. Fortunately, one of Hendrix guitars was also featured in the exhibition space as part of the introduction to his life.

The real thrill however came from the recreation of his bedroom, right down to the two telephones and cigarette trays, surprisingly tidy apparently from his time spent in the army many consultations were conducted with his then girlfriend Kathy to get the place just right - even a few last minute tweaks over skype! The room has a private and nostalgic feel even in its recreation. My favourite part however was the remaining treads of staircase let just outside the room that used to lead to the pink bathroom – a visual and practical remidnder of the space as a home and on longer as a museum office. 

Hendrix addition to Handel house has made it an accessible house museum and a great way to celebrate the diversity and richness of London’s musical history. 

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Bedlam at the Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome Collection's blockbuster offering for thus autumn's exhibition season takes another look at the asylum. Riding on a tide of interest in mental health issues, and the perennially popular Victorians, Bedlam has proved, yet again, that the Wellcome's brand is thriving. From it's own custom twitter bot, to lectures, blogs and even a photo-booth (#spiritbooth)- Bedlam is accompanied by all the best public engagement that a museum can offer. But, is it a good exhibition? The Ministry is very conflicted...

Guys, it has taken us a long time to sit down to write this review. Bedlam has so many strong points about it that it feels unfair to say we didn't like it. However, it definitely has some iffy parts about it as well so its difficult to say that wholesale it was great. 

Let's just take for example the Madlove Asylum. The Madlove Asylum is an installation at the end of the exhibition which is clearly intended to be the piece de resistance. It's even screened off from the main gallery space just so that you don't get lured in by exciting drawings and the scale model and miss the rest of the exhibition. Madlove is a separate (Wellcome funded) organisation composed of artists who have worked with a number of mental health stakeholders, including certified patients, to create a new vision for what the asylum could be. Is it possible to go mad in a safe way? If you designed your asylum what would it be like? Visitors are asked. 

The installation is dominated by a brilliant blue landscape model doted with cheerful angular pink structures and golden furniture. The Madlove asylum is like a site-specific piece of art but inspired by people in inpatient hospital care for psychiatric issues. A running track, an artist workshop, a library and even a market garden make this designer asylum sound an idyllic place for anyone dealing with any kind of mental health issue. Visitors are even invited to take a way a small 'pocket asylum' where they can write themselves reminders for when things get tough.

The Madlove Asylum is so good in fact, it kind of feels like the Wellcome wanted to have an exhibition about it and everything else was built backwards. The inclusion of patient art from Bethlem Hospital in the nineteenth and twenteith centuries is interesting, but doesn't really seem to have the same kind of narrative purpose. Is it an exhibition about asylum history, or asylum art? Asylums in art? The first room about Bethlem hospital in the eighteenth century seems a bit like that boring introductory bit your teachers make you write. (Why are there so many pictures of a hospital in Belgium - isn't this meant to be about English asylums? Or is about the development of the asylum system generally?)

I think the real concern about Bedlam is that it is a very 'Wellcome' exhibition. The brand has become so confident in fact that their exhibitions are becoming well, a bit predictable. A catchy artistic intervention to start, a room of historic contextualization, a room which blends objects and art in an unexpected way, and then some artistic interventions to finish it all off. Even the small bits of the exhibition which were trying to provide some historic narrative about the development of asylum treatment in the UK fade a bit into the background, overshadowed by the need to make everything COOL ART ALL THE TIME.

Let's be very clear about one thing- we love the Wellcome. We love the gallery, we love the exhibitions, the Reading Room, the events. We love how they have changed peoples minds about what exhibitions can be. We really really love their social media and engagement. Empathy Deck (a twitter bot developed just got the Bedlam exhibition) is about the greatest thing ever, and leaves you fun little messages on your twitter throughout the day. It's a cross between CBT and an art-installation (seriously follow @empathydeck). Our worry is just that, in terms of the exhibition design, the Wellcome might be getting a little too comfortable with the formula that has brought them such success. But what made a Wellcome exhibition so exciting was its willingness to be different and original. Let's hope is stays that way! 

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Colour and Vision

There’s a million extraordinary things about the Natural History Museum in South Ken, its stunning gothic building, it’s incredible permanent displays and of course dinosaurs but over recent years its failed me on the exhibition front,  although the images are great I’ve become a bit tired of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Corals was an interesting idea but didn’t live up to its posters on content (was I the only one who thought there would be more live fish?) but I loved the scenescape of the show.

But spending some time in their latest show Colour and Vision I was completed thrilled to see the density of the collection on display, the incredible design and detailed content – the exhibition really is a feast for the eyes. The shows intention is to ‘Follow a 565-million-year journey through the eyes of nature’ and it does just that.

The exhibition is instantly given an exciting feel as it opens with a light installation by Liz West commissioned by the museum for the exhibition, a great video on the museum website documents the artists journey towards making the work in thinking about the influence of the specimens and their presence in the space too.

Exploirng the evolution of the eye the richness of the Natural History Museums collection is showcased by a whole wall of pickled eyes checking out the visitors and even Darwin's pet Octopus (yep!) makes an appearence to show that the similarities between Octopuses eyes and humans.

The theme of colour is again explored with the richness of the collection and the incredible stacking of showcases in the later sections showing off the full spectrum and discussing how some colour in the natural world can stand the test of time.

This is a really great show from the Natural History Museum not only because of its extraordinary design and showcasing of permenant collections but also because of its presence outside the gallery space. The exhibition posters across London are striking and stimulating and luring to an adult audience. The online participation is for this too with a social media driven interactive where anyone can upload a picture of their eye to feature on the eye wall in the exhibition space and the website. And again the NHM's buyers out do themselves with a fabulous range in the shop including on trend colouring books and colourful homeware.

The exhibition really is a must-see this autumn!

Plus learn more here on the amazing Exhibition Developer Fiona Cole -Hamilton here.