Saturday, 19 November 2011

Don McCullin War and Landscapes

  Two exhibitions running concurrently in London provide an excellent overview of the work of Don McCullin. At the Imperial War Museum, Shaped by War lays out his conflict photography thoroughly and towards the end touches on other aspects of his career. At Hamiltons Gallery "Platinum" focuses on his post-conflict work, a collection of landscapes, still lifes, architectural pieces and African tribes beautifully printed for the first time using the platinum process.

  Don McCullin is famous for his war photography and in Shaped by War we follow his path around the world and the different conflicts and countries he visited. He was young and driven and showed a restlessness whenever he returned to the offices of the Sunday Times. He was happiest with his trusted kit on a plane off to do what he did best. It was non stop – Vietnam, Cambodia, Biafra, Bangladesh, The Middle East, El Salvador. He was also lucky, many of his colleagues were killed especially in the Far East. McCullin took a round in Vietnam but his loyal camera took the force and he largely escaped injury. Apart from falling through a roof in El Salvador after which he was hospitalised, the physical injuries were light.
As the demands of newspapers and magazines changed, editorial decisions were beginning to weigh against McCullin, he found stories were delayed in publication, he threatened to quit and eventually the magazine parted ways with one of their greatest photographers. McCullin had time to ponder and as he did so his past started to catch up with him. Mental scars that up to then had remained hidden emerged. Bereavement, relationship breakdowns and the suffering he had seen all combined to leave McCullin exposed and mentally frail. He wrote in the last paragraph of his autobiography “I’m alone in my house in Somerset. The ghosts in my filing cabinets sometimes seem to mock me – the ghosts of all those dead in all those wars” The demons in his head needed exorcising and it was through photography that process began. Venturing out of his cottage with a camera he photographed the English landscape and it is through this work we can see those ghosts and his mind processing the past, the present and perhaps his future. He also found familiarity with the landscape at Hadrian's Wall and at the battlefields of France, photographs which placed war in context of history and memory.

The Battlefields of the Somme, France 2000. Photography by Don McCullin. Courtesy of Hamiltons Gallery.
There are echoes of other worlds and other peoples in his Somerset photographs. Water filled ditches, mangled trees and thick vegetation act as a backdrop which mirrors what he saw in Vietnam and Cambodia. The fields are shrouded in greyness, melancholy and a pervading timelessness which tries to see a way forward through the mist of painful memories. 

Shaped by War at the Imperial War Museum until 5th April 2012.
Platinum at Hamiltons Gallery until 29th November 2011.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

White Cube Bermondsey and Art Gallery Design in 2011.

The White Cube in Bermondsey is now open and has placed itself firmly on the map of Arts Institutions in the capital. It has placed itself self-conciously in South London marking itself as still at the cutting edge in terms of location and attempting to stay close to the creative roots of emerging artists. However it is not far from Tate Modern and in this respect these two have far more in common. 

White Cube, Bermondsey. Photo by Ed Sykes.

A multi million pound development by architects Casper Mueller Kneer fits perfectly to the brief of a serious gallery providing the ultimate viewing context. Of course it is the White Cube so maybe there was no chance it would stray from the description. It is a sterile environment, akin to a laboratory or a Formula 1 research space. It is cool, very cool and one expects people in white coats to appear from non existent doors with clipboards. They probably would be checking that all the boxes had been ticked in the completition of a contemporary art gallery. Instead there is a small army of black clad curators standing around immobile. ( This could be a new Ron Muerk installation of course) When I visited there were more curators looking at me than there were people looking at the art on the walls. It was Big Brother meets Stanley Kubricks 2001 (updated 2011)

Saatchi Gallery, Boundary Road, London. Photo by Ed Sykes.

Déjà vu. Saatchi Gallery 20 years ago had a lot of white and the only development since there has been the incorporation of a grey concrete floor.  So there you have it the ultimate experience in viewing art with nothing to distract you. It is hermetically sealed and devoid of contact with the outside world but galleries do not have to be this way. Indeed there are plenty of examples around the world where location and context have been used imaginatively. Martin Caiger Smith wrote an excellent article about this in Architecture Today. There are curators and architects who have embraced the challenge and indeed the potential for showing artworks in a new context can at times be thrilling and revealing, not only for the viewer but for the artist themselves.