Nalini Malani’s work weaves together source materials drawn from different media and cultures in order to connect contemporary issues with history and myth. As the recipient of the National Gallery’s first Contemporary Fellowship, supported by Art Fund, she has created an Animation Chamber which critiques the tradition of paintings from the western canon in the National Gallery and in their partner museum, The Holburne in Bath.
The Animation Chamber is formed by nine large video projections which play in a continuous loop over 40 meters of wall immersing the viewer in the world of the work. 25 hand-drawn animations, made using an iPad, transform classical stories by revealing and concealing different aspects of the paintings in both collections to rediscover them from an alternative, and critical point of view.
Malani critiques the western canon from the perspective of one on the outside saying, ‘With this new animation chamber I make in a cross cultural/historical dialogue visible what happens with my gaze over these classical Western paintings. These works of art are not sacrosanct. They have to be looked at in a different way. I have the feeling it is a pressing necessity as Our Stories have to be Retold, to give us a chance to become a more humane society.’
The video’s soundscape gives us the voice of Cassandra, a prophet from ancient Greek myth who foretells the truth but is never believed, speaking over the sounds of a large sailing ship under the rain and storm of an ocean, combined with music references to the patriotic song ‘Rule Britannia!’. Integrated into each of the nine projection loops are fictitious portraits of those who are marginalised in society; faces of those people whose labour underpins the economies that connect us across the globe. These disappear behind colourful candlestick stock-market charts, and graphic examples of our complex financial systems. This is a multi-layered work which offers a visually striking critique of the assumptions that underpin much of the western canon of art.
Louis Carreon is another artist who is seeking to shake up the western canon. He takes ‘pleasure in waking up the giants of the canon’ – Caravaggio, Reubens, Bernini – and ‘re-introducing them to modern culture; opening the conversation on contemporary issues for future generations.’ Paintings from his Ryzantine series inspired by religious iconography have been on show in Mexico City as part of a joint show with Alfonso Mena.
Our contemporary issues and challenges certainly include the challenge of climate change, which is the focus of an exhibition at the Aga Khan Centre Gallery and an installation at Liverpool Cathedral. Seeds, Trees and Mountains is an exhibition with work by artists Veeda Ahmed, Samantha Buckley, Emily Ketteringham, Karim Ahmed Khan, Samanta Batra Mehta, Olga Prinku, Andrea Roberts and Diana Taylor. Their artworks include existing and new work, with the new work revealing an idealistic view of the abundance of biodiversity and produced during their residencies at the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat and Wakehurst – Royal Botanic Gardens Kew’s wild botanic garden in Sussex – home to the Millennium Seed Bank and over 500 acres of diverse landscapes and plants from across the globe. Over the next five years the Aga Khan Centre Gallery aims to curate imaginative and informative exhibitions and associated learning programmes focusing on climate change.
Coalescence is a new installation from internationally acclaimed British designer, Paul Cocksedge, which is currently at Liverpool Cathedral. Measuring six metres in diameter and featuring thousands of pieces of UK-sourced Anthracite coal, the sculpture is suspended from the ceiling of the Cathedral well and takes inspiration from Cocksedge’s calculations of the amount of coal needed to power a single 200W light bulb for a year. Illuminated, this over-half-a-tonne coal installation sparkles in the light. Cocksedge believes that this will engage with the public in a way that is thought-provoking, prompting bigger questions around energy consumption, the history of fossil fuels, and the need to reach net zero.
Julian Stair’s latest clay vessels were created in response to the global pandemic and explore contemporary society’s relationship to death and ritual. Themes of containment and embodiment have, since 2000, become central to his artistic practice including the making of cinerary jars and memorial-based commissions for individuals. Reliquary for a Common Man (2012) was, for example, created in memory of Stair’s uncle-in-law, Les Cox by close working with Cox’s bereaved family. Cox’s life was eulogised through text and video, and his death commemorated by incorporating his ashes into the clay body of an urn.
For his exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre, the artist has worked closely with the charity Cruse Bereavement and Norwich Death Cafe to facilitate open conversations about death and grief. Stair’s engagement with the local community led to the donation of ashes of people who have recently died, with donors expressing their wishes to have these embedded in the clay or contained within Stair’s figural jars to create permanent memorials to their loved ones. The embodied cinerary jars will be donated to the families following the exhibition.
Positive and uplifting, Stair’s exhibition reveals humanity’s reliance on art as a means to transcend death, loss and the unknown. Art, Death and the Afterlife is a contemplative experience, created to offer solace to those experiencing bereavement in these troubling times. His work invites the viewer to meditate on the intimate relationship between the clay vessel and the human body.
Taking inspiration from archaic pots and grave goods in the Sainsbury Centre Collection, Stair’s new works – around thirty in total – range from forty centimetres in height up to a colossal two metres. He uses the scale, proportion and material composition of his jars with great sensitivity to invoke the physical and spiritual presence of the deceased and is unique among potters in the UK to be working in such a monumental scale.
These new ceramics will be presented alongside objects from the Sainsbury Centre’s collection, such as ancient Cycladic marble figures and anthropomorphic vessels from Ecuador, Nigeria and Japan; twentieth-century drawings by Alberto Giacometti; and contemporary works by artists Magdalene Odundo and Imran Qureshi. All these works have been selected by the artist to communicate the universality of death as a subject of aesthetic inspiration and philosophical inquiry.
Sainsbury Centre Executive Director Jago Cooper says: “These powerful works bring to life the elements of people who are no longer with us. The exhibition is a testament to how great artists can help us think about the biggest questions in life, in particularly new and inspiring ways.” In different ways and by addressing different issues, each of the artist’s and exhibitions mentioned this month do the same.
Nalini Malani: My Reality is Different, 2 March – 11 June 2023, Sunley Room, National Gallery.
Duality: Louis Carreon, Alfonso Mena, 9 February – 10 March 2023, Galeria Urbana, Mexico City.
Seeds, Trees & Mountains, 24 February – 30 June 2023, Aga Khan Gallery.
Coalesence, 10 February 2023 – 12 March 2023, Liverpool Cathedral.
Julian Stair: Art, Death and the Afterlife, 18 March – 17 September 2023, Sainsbury Centre.