In my last post I left the narrative of my trip to London at the end of last week ar the Royal Academy. What I failed to relate was my disappointment with the lack of interest and training in the staff at the RA. I have to say there is something odd about the RA to my mind.
The founding Royal Academicians in a painting by Johan Zoffany
I never feel comfortable there really, yet have never investigated why that might be. I avoided visiting for a long time. I started to get a bit of a feeling about it on this visit – and it’s not just because it is a different clientele to the Tate.
A friend once, in response to me voicing my unease, said “well they are a bit up themselves there aren’t they?” The clientele is definitely more conservative, more establishment, more old-money, more class-conscious and there is the sense of a posh club. I feel as if the RA as an establishment doesn’t really care about its visitors or it would have paid more attention to the basics of its retail/visitor-attraction offering. The terrible indictment I realised when I left was that in 11 interactions with Royal Academy staff only one was “good” (the lady in the cloakroom), one “adequate” (the person who checked my ticket) and all the rest were below the basic standard you would expect for day-to-day dealings let alone a major art gallery and visitor attraction. For example, I asked four different staff members (three at desks) where I might find the “Converse and Dazed” show “you know, the emerging artist thing” and they had no idea. Rather than taking responsibility the first three suggested asking someone else (“ask at the desk”, “ask downstairs”, “you’ll need to ask at the information desk for that”). The woman at the information desk looked at her screen and seemed not to be able to find it and treated me as if I was mad and not giving her enough information to go on! Whoever is responsible for visitor-facing staff at the RA really needs to visit Tate Modern to see how to improve; or the Whitechapel to make the visitor feel involved; or for a proper object lesson in how to do it properly they should take a look how they do it at the Turner Contemporary!
So I finally managed to get to the Converse and Dazed show (despite the poor signage, lack of information and aggressive security staff!) and had to take some time to calm myself before I was in a good place to look at the art. You enter the show through Jonathan Trayte’s “The Shopper’s Guide” and it is as good a place as any to shake off the irritation. It is fun, wry and quizzical: I can see why Grayson Perry picked it as his favourite. It didn’t hold my attention for long enough in the end and my rosette goes to Rachel Pimm’s “India Rubber” which is engrossing and subtle and, at times, quite beautiful. I can’t illustrate this as there are no relevant images on the RA website!
One of Klaus Staudt’s pieces at the Mayor Gallery
I then went for a little wander down Cork Street where Klaus Staudt’s show at the Mayor Gallery was quite interesting, especially the very minimalist pieces. I also found some Gillian Ayres work at the Alan Cristea not really to my taste. Her work is vibrant and colourful but my reaction to her work is often black and white: love it or leave it. I feel I would do well to spend some more time looking at her work to examine just why!
Captain Lord Balgonie, Grenadier Guards, Roger Fenton © Wilson Centre for Photography
Next stop was Tate Britain to see the Salt and Silver exhibition. I had been prompted to visit through the Tate’s marketing, Tate Etc and the (careful) selection of images I had seen. I was especially drawn to the statements about the “materiality” of these prints; the image being absorbed in the top layers of the paper rather than a surface coating giving them a more artistic sense compared with other early photographic processes. Sadly I was disappointed not to get any of this sense of the image becoming an object. Behind glass and in the subdued light needed to preserve them I found them pretty much the same as any other early prints and even the side-by-side display of three techniques failed to make much impression on me, though I am sure if I was holding them in my hand in normal light the differences would be obvious. That aside, the exhibition did illustrate the history of 20 years of early photography but what is it doing in an Art Gallery? This should have been a free show in the Science Museum where they would have done an even better job of telling the story of the process. I looked at the images (and I do find old photographs interesting and involving) and thought “so even back then people took boring snaps of old ruins!” I have dozens of old postcards and many wartime images, bought or taken by my father, which have similar poorly-composed, tonally-challenged images of random people, churches, ruins and the like. They too are not fit subjects to be in a paid-for show in a major international art gallery. And yes, there is a historical, documentary aspect to the show – 20 years of a few countries in flux – but that’s a job for a museum not the Tate. The photographers were, with a few exceptions, not artists and were not recording the world from an art perspective or intending to make aesthetic creations; they were lawyers, politicians, scientists and generally rich folk! I quite liked the uncropped ones where the edges are black in swathes from the excess silver salts exposed in full light. I didn’t have to pay extra as I have Tate membership but I would have been pissed off if I had to pay £12 to see it! Perhaps I am being harsh – and there were perhaps a dozen images that were a true delight – but frankly I would have been just as happy seeing them in a nicely printed book because behind glass I could not see that special “materiality” of the image as object.
Nick Wapplington image of Alexander McQueen creation
So after a few experiences where my expectation was higher than the exhibitions delivered, one that was the opposite. I wasn’t even intending to go to the Nick Wapplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process exhibition but I am pleased I did. By this time I was tired and had done a lot of art and wished I’d seen this earlier. If I had I would have spent a lot more time with it. It is a shame I won’t get a chance to revisit before it closes. What started out as a photobook collaboration has been transformed into a larger-than-life celebration of McQueen’s final 2009 “Horn of Plenty” collection. The photographs of every aspect of the working process of putting a major fashion show together are fascinating and involving and often movingly beautiful. These are juxtaposed with Wapplington’s huge images from landfill sites and recycling plants which act as a comment on the short life of consumer goods, fashion, art and the regeneration and constant reuse of ideas within the creative industries.