All 11 entries tagged Art

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June 09, 2012

Etch Dance Company

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I have been meaning for a while to write about a dance company here in Pennsylvania called Etch Dance. I have been to see a few of their shows and I was really impressed by the choreography, much of which is inspired by literature – writers like Kate Chopin, Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Edwidge Danticat. The dances explore female identity and how to express different aspects of that psyche. What particularly struck me about the dances too was how they allow the female body to be athletic, muscular, strong in a way that is very female. Many of the shapes and poses reminded me of female dancers in art – the strong women of Paula Rego or Tamara de Lempicka.

(All the photos of the dancers below are publicity shots from their Facebook page: ).

Etch Dance 1
Etch Dance 2
Etch Dance 3
Tamara de Lempicka 2
Paula Rego

November 03, 2010

Visit to the National Gallery of Art in DC: The Age of Innocence, Gesture and the Fan.

Follow-up to Screening Intimacy Panel at 'Writings of Intimacy in the 20th and 21st Centuries'. from The Midnight Heart

When I was in Washington D.C. last week, I visited the National Gallery of Art where they have a show on at the moment: From Impressionism to Modernism – The Chester Dale Collection . There were some very impressive paintings on display, but what particularly struck me was a series of paintings that featured women in sumptuous surroundings holding fans.

Only recently, I wrote up a blog entry on gesture and intimacy from a paper that I saw by the film academic Steven Peacock at the Writings of Intimacy conference . In his paper, Peacock talked about Scorsese’s film The Age of Innocence based on the book by Edith Wharton. Both the film and the book focus on the scandalous Countess Elena Olenska, whose separation from her husband causes ripples in 1870s upper-class New York society. Newland Archer is fascinated by the Countess Olenska, in spite of the fact that he is about to marry the innocent, pure, beautiful May Welland.

What Peacock talked about was how Scorsese uses gesture as a kind of power play between Elena Olenska and Newland Archer. Here is what I said about it in my previous blog entry:

Peacock analyzed the scene in the box at the opera in which Elena’s gestures are both declamatory and intimate. Elena extends her arm to Newland to be kissed, but her hand hangs there while he hesitates. They start to make smalltalk and in discussing her experience of the opera, Elena extends her fan over the spectators. When she does so, she is expressing her fondness for the place, yet it is also a gesture that claims dominion.

When I was looking at paintings in the Chester Dale collection, I remembered Peacock’s reading of The Age of Innocence. I was fascinated to note too that many of the paintings from around the time when The Age of Innocence was set (1870s) featured women with fans, and in each case the fan seems to signify something different,

The first painting was Madame Camus by Degas (1869-70):

Degas - Madame Camus (1870)

Here, the woman, who might be another Countess Olenska, is sat up in her seat in sumptuous surroundings. We see her thoughtful face in profile, and the fan in reaching out and up from the chair suggests intention. The scarlet colours of the background, her dress and the fan suggest love, sexuality, passion even. Altogether, the picture presents a vision of someone on the verge of doing something and the fan is almost leading her there.

Next was The Loge (1882) by American artist, Mary Cassatt.

Cassatt - The Loge (1882)

A loge is a small compartment, a box at the theatre or a separate forward section of a theatre mezzanine or balcony. In this exclusive space sit two young women, a decorous spectacle for the theatre-goers, and the scene is very reminiscent of The Age of Innocence. The two women, however, seem uncomfortable with the situation, and one is almost hidden behind her fan. These female figures resemble the good, true and innocent May Welland more than Countess Elena Olenska.

Finally is another painting by Mary Cassatt, Miss Mary Ellison (1880):

Cassatt- Miss Mary Ellison (1880)

The title suggests that this portrait must have been a commissioned work, yet strangely the figure is picture of dejection. Staring into the distance, she is lost in her own thoughts, and the way that she holds the fan seems mechanical, as though she is merely going through the motions of proper manners and delicacy. There is also something very vulnerable about the figure, since reflected in the mirror behind her is the back of her head and her shoulders.

In each of these paintings, the fan works differently to suggest passion, shyness and dejection. It would be interesting to know whether Wharton or Scorsese were aware of paintings like these and to what extent they might have contributed to their renderings of The Age of Innocence.

October 14, 2010

Panel on Cinema, Feminism, Gaze at 'Violence and Reconcilation'

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Sorcha Gunne and I recently spoke at the conference ‘Violence and Reconciliation’. We were talking on narrativising rape and revising scripts of power in short stories by Isabel Allende and Rosario Castellanos. You can see our abstract here Alongside us were papers by Andrew Hennlich who spoke on William Kentridge’s film Ubu Tells the Truth and Xavier Aldana Reyes who discussed ‘Contemporary Horror and the Mediation of Violence.

Hennlich focussed on the links between Kentridge’s film about witnessing violence in South Africa (made in 1997) and Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1927). Hennlich analyzed the words FOR GIVE which appear onscreen and questioned whether to give is an act of compassion or an act of aggression related to the Afrikaans word ‘gif’ meaning poison. Often Kentridge’s imagery suggests that humanity is troubling, e.g. the pig’s head wearing earphones. One particularly interesting scene that Hennlich commented on was the moment when the camera becomes complicit in acts of violence itself; Kentridge shows it blowing up bodies, an act that was based on testimony from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Even for the camera, it is impossible to recover those lost in the violence of Apartheid.

Reyes also commented on the legacies of violence describing the plots and motifs of some very disturbing horror films. The films discussed included Funny Games (1997), My Little Eye (2001), _The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007) and Untraceable (2008). Most of these films have plots relates to recording extreme violence and Reyes described them as Sadeian. Reyes also suggested that the films were not as popular as horror blockbusters like Hostel, because the plots are far more uncomfortable. These films reflect a wound culture, where people stop to look at dead bodies on the pavement and internet users are given the choice whether or not a person dies horribly.

We had an interesting discussion after the panel about the representations of women in these films. Reyes explained that in The Poughkeepsie Tapes, an FBI film analyst tells the other agents that after his wife saw a short extract from one of the tapes, she was so traumatized that she couldn’t let her husband touch her for a year. Again in The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a victim of the murderer who survives, Cheryl Dempsey, is unable to function socially and ends up committing suicide. I had a look on YouTube after the paper and found this disturbing video related to The Poughkeepsie Tapes – disturbing because half way through the “interview” with Cheryl, it becomes clear that she has been severely physically damaged. I actually find the representation of Cheryl extremely objectionable. All it seems to do is reactivate the same old scripts of gendered power and domination. From what Reyes told us about Untraceable, it seems that similar scripts are at work in the representation of the heroine, Jennifer Marsh, who at the end of the film (spoilers!) is caught and tortured before she finally kills the murderer. I am amazed that these exploitative representations of women are still being used, even if it is the horror genre.

October 13, 2010

Art Text and Violence Panel at ‘Violence and Reconciliation’

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The first talk on this panel was on ‘Caravaggio and the Violent Event’ by Eva Aldea, and it began by highlighting Caravaggio’s painting The Beheading on John the Baptist (1608). Comparing this composition to paintings on similar subject matter by Cranach, Reuben and Tiepolo, Aldea pointed out that Caravaggio’s version was quite muted and that even though there is less gore, his imagining of the scenario is more violent. This beheading shows an audience watching while an executioner struggles to finish off the job. Aldea argued that Caravaggio’s work was far more violent than was normal in the traditions of painting at the time. She referred us to Raphael’s The Judgement of Solomon, which featured a similar grizzly scenario:

In this scene where Solomon orders his soldiers to chop the baby in half and give half to each of the mothers who claim the child as their own. Raphael’s painting, however, offesr a staged, idealized composition, quite different to the shocking realism of Caravaggio who drew from models. Caravaggio presents dark spaces and the people involved are ordinary not glamorous. Aldea also discussed the word that appears in the painting written in John the Baptist’s blood: Fra. Michelangelo. Aldea speculates that this name refers to Caravaggio’s membership of the brotherhood of Malta, and that it represents Caravaggio being cleansed of his sins, baptised in the blood of the Baptist.

Next, Catriona McAra spoke of ‘Sadeian Women’, focussing on violence in the ‘Surrealist Anti-Tales’ of Leonara Carrington, Angela Carter and Dorothea Tanning. McAra (quite rightly) considered the dialogue between Leonara Carrington (Max Ernst’s lover) and Dorothea Tanning (Max Ernst’s wife) and discussed their links to Angela Carter’s writing. All three creators use the Marquis de Sade as a way of unravelling conventional ideas about the female Surrealist artist; it is his influence that encourages them to create ‘anti-tales’. These women don’t read Sade literally, according to McAra, but use his work to enable a rebellion for women. The credo is, I fuck therefore I am. Yet this is not reproductive sex that maintains women’s value in a currency of male lineage and power. Instead what emerges is dark poetry, dark fairy tales, the black humour of Sade. Concurrent with Carter’s idea of ‘wise children’, Tanning offers a vision of child women that resemble Sade’s malicious Juliet. Take for example, Tanning’s painting Children’s Games (1942). McAra goes on to study writings by Tanning and Carrington: Tanning’s short story ‘Blind Date’ (1943) and her novel Chasm (2004); and Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet (1974) and her short story ‘The Débutante’. In many of these texts, McAra finds imagery of defacing, self-portraiture and violence figured as a dog or hyena, as in the paintings: House of the Dawn Hare by Carrington:

... and Tanning’s Birthday:

Natalia Font spoke last giving a fascinating talk on ‘The Bloody Museum’, which is if course a reference to Carter’s short story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and the aspect of the story where the narrator, the wife of the Bluebeard, tells of the works of art that is on the walls of her new home. This paper was particularly fascinating, because often in this particular story, Carter engages with art and its representations of women, and uses intertextuality to comment on gender. For example, the narrator tells us that there is a painting by Gauguin called Out of the Night We Come, Into the Night We Go, which does not exist. It does, however, appear to be an answer to Gauguin’s real painting Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?:

Another painting which is described as being on the wall is a vision of St Cecelia (by Rubens), which offers a picture of innocent charm. It is worth remembering though, Font insists, that Cecelia was beheaded, a story that hints at the fate of the wife of the Bluebeard. Another painting described of the Sabine women recalls David’s Les Sabines:

David’s painting shows the women trying to reconcile the fighters, suggesting male violence and women as beseeching supplicants. Font did refer to other artists as well as to illustrators of Carter’s work, but this is all that I was able to note at the time.

April 07, 2010

Battlestar Galactica and da Vinci's Last Supper.

I have now watched the entire series of the new Battlestar Galactica and I am hugely impressed by it. It is a wonderful example of serious science fiction, referencing the Iraq war, the ethics of torture and the corrupt machinations of government. Above all, I like the way in which Battlestar Galactica considers complex ethical questions about religion, culture and human interaction.

I had to like the programme makers’ style too, when I saw this ad referencing Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper

Battlestar Galactica

The Last Supper portrays the reactions of the disciples to Jesus’ announcement that one of them will betray him. They all react differently to the news. Replacing Jesus in the Battlestar Galactica ad is Caprica Six, who is a kind of mystical figure throughout the series, even though she is a robot.

March 19, 2010

Hospitality and the Rat: Irina Aristarkhova on the Art of Kathy High

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Warning: If you have a rat phobia, you might not want to read this entry!

This week, I went to see Irina Aristarkhova (Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies and Visual Arts at Penn State) giving a talk about “Hosting the Animal: the Aesthetics of Hospitality.” Aristarkhova was discussing the artist Kathy High and the artwork Embracing Animal (you can see her website here ). High created an installation using transgenic rats created for drug experimentation. High explains on her website:

Transgenic rats are different than wild type rats. Transgenic rats are rats that have foreign DNA inserted into their genome. This means one or more genes from a non-rat organism (i.e. human, fish, plant or jellyfish) has been added, through some tricks of modern molecular biology, to every one of a trangenic rat’s cells. Transgenic rats are walking around with non-rat expressible molecules in their bodies, minds and even in the cells that go on to make their children. Sometimes referred to as hybrids, cyborgs or chimeras, transgenic organisms are an interspecies mix of DNA, a targeted collage of two or more organisms. The most important thing to remember is that their alteration is permanent and inheritable. This means that their kids and their grandkids with have the same difference that they do.

To create her installation, High bought a number of transgenic rats and took them into her home. She looked after these rats with painstaking care, as she explains (again on her website):

I bought them to try and make them live as long as possible and to see if they could become healthy given their prior genetic conditioning. I will treat them holistically with alternative medicines such as homeopathy, environmental enrichment, also good food and play! Stress is one of the triggers for their conditions. I know because I, too, have autoimmune problems (in the form of Crohn’s disease and Sarcoidosis). Thus, I identify with the rats and feel as though we are mirroring each other. I feel a great kinship with them. When I see them feeling tired I recognize that kind of exhaustion. I know they need rest in a way that is total. If they ache when being touched, I understand this is from fevers. I also know they do not know how to behave as pets. They are not pets. They are extensions, transformers, transitional combined beings that resonate with us in ways that other animals cannot.

Aristarkhova finds High’s project interesting in relation to the ethics of hospitality espoused by Derrida et al. High does not see the rats as pets but ‘injured guests’ in need of care and she has an affinity with them because of their shared autoimmune problems. Aristarkhova compares High’s installation with The Temple of Rats, Karni Mata and with Jainist beliefs about respecting the life of nature . What seems to be most significant about Kathy High’s work is that in hosting the rat, an animal that has such an intense stigma about it, she pushes the boundaries of how we define hospitality and reformulates what it should include.


Further Reading

Aristarkhova, Irina and Faith Wilding (2009) ‘“My Personal Is Not Political?”: A Dialogue on Art, Feminism and Pedagogy’, Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 5.2. Access available online (accessed 19 March 2010).

High, Kathy (2009) Embracing Animal website. Access available online (accessed 19 March 2009).

March 18, 2010

Frida Kahlo – Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky

Writing about web page

Here is a photo from my visit at the wonderful National Museum of Women in the Arts in DC. Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait dedicated to Trotsky stands alongside a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth and other wonderful works by women artists:

Frida Kahlo

For more entries on Kahlo, see this link .

March 15, 2010

A DreamÖ But Not Yours: Three Turkish Films

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Last week, I visited the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC, where there is currently an exhibition of contemporary women’s art from Turkey titled ‘A Dream… But Not Yours’. I spent a summer in Turkey (mainly Istanbul) when I was a student, so I was interested to see the exhibition, and in visiting it, I found the quality of the films included to be particularly impressive.

Esra Sarigedik Öktem, who put the show together, has brought together some striking and fresh artwork with specific yet transnational feminist messages Canan Şenol’s film Exemplary (2009) had parallels for example with Nawal El Saadawi’s 1979 novel Woman at Point Zero.


As in El Saadawi’s fiction, Şenol’s animated narrative described a cultural situation in which the heroine never had a chance of being autonomous because of the institutions and traditions that regulate women and their bodies. Watching these women struggle in the mythical, fairy-tale stories of Şenol is extremely moving, as their desires and ambitions are rejected, broken, eradicated. What is perhaps particularly disturbing about Şenol’s commentary is that it is the mothers who force their daughters to submit to patriarachy’s norms.

Another fascinating film that featured in the exhibition is İnci Eviner’s Harem (2009), which is based on engravings by the German artist, Antoine Ignace Melling, who was invited by Sultan Selim III to produce sketches of life in Istanbul (or Constantinople as it was then known). Eviner cleverly uses the background of Melling’s Interieur d’une partie du harem du Grand Seigneur but transforms it:

Melling’s courtly vision is radically altered in Eviner’s version; the harem becomes more like a prison or mental institution than a vision of luxury. Eviner inserts animated women into Melling’s background, but rather than being engaged in domestic or courtly activities, Eviner’s figures are all dressed in a prison-like uniform and their behaviour is odd, eccentric and disturbing. One woman wields a pick-axe, reminiscent of chain gangs; another reads while conducting an imaginary orchestra; groups of women carry inert bodies, while others kiss or rhythmically thrust in sexualised movements. The sultan of Melling’s original becomes a figure dressed in a teddy bear costume, who is offered a silver sphere by one of the “inmates”. The whole effect is fascinating and of course it reminds us of the traditional Turkish miniatures. In this case, however, the harem is far from being a site of pleasure and decadence. Instead it is a place where women are driven mad by the restrictions imposed upon them.

The desire for freedom was a theme of the final film that I wanted to highlight: Nevin Aladağ’s Raise the Roof (2007). This film features a number of women on a modern cement rooftop, each listening to music on an Ipod/walkman and dancing alongside one another to a separate rhythm. The location of the film is suggestive. Why a rooftop? Were the women looking for a secluded place to express themselves? Why couldn’t they have danced in the middle of a street? What the film suggests is that the woman are able in this empty and abandoned space to be themselves in a way that would never be possible in a crowded street. The film zooms in on their legs dancing and their heels making indents in tar. Aladağ’s Stiletto is exhibited alongside Raise the Roof and features the indents that each women’s heels made. There is something very satisfying in the fact that each pattern is different: each woman danced with the others but all the time to her own beat.

March 05, 2010

Alison Bechdel and Fun Home

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Date: 4th March 2010
Venue: Paul Robeson Centre, Penn State University

Last night I went to see Alison Bechdel talking about her most recent book, Fun Home. In the eighties, Bechdel invented the comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For , inspired by the political and gendered issues of the time, and she has done a great deal of work since, including the 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

Thinking about why she became a graphic novelist, Bechdel suggests that it might have been because her parents had so many diverse interests in the arts; in poetry, literature, acting and interior decorating. Bechdel felt a little squashed by her parents’ interests, and rather than becoming an artist or a writer as their ambitions for her dictated, she became a graphic novelist/writer.

Bechdel gave us a great deal of insight into how she began to write and draw as a child. For her influences, she talks about the cartoonist Charles Addams and the clever slippage in his work between words and the images.

Charles Addams

Bechdel recognized this kind of slippage in her own family. It was a family that she would later question when she discovered that her father had been suppressing his homosexuality because he longed to be respectable. Like the Gothic houses of Charles Addams’ sketches, Bechdel’s family house was a lovingly restored Victorian mansion that her father took pains to perfect.

Bechdel kept a diary as a child but was always aware of the power and complexity of language. This awareness first manifested itself by Bechdel contradicting herself. As a child, she would write down events from the day, but would often include a tiny doodle of the words “I think” as if to admit that she might be incorrect or fallible. Later this uncertainty manifested itself in crossing out the names of people written about in the diary which worked as a kind of ritual to protect them. Even later, Bechdel was crossing out entire pages and obliterating entire entries.

In addition to this slippage of words, first recognized in Charles Addams, another influence on Bechdel as a child was the map in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows:

It is not the map itself that intrigues Bechdel, so much as the detail and the animation of the characters, e.g. Toad driving his car badly through the landscape. It is this kind of animation that Bechdel wants to achieve through her use of pictures. This ambition also explains why Bechdel, when she is creating a graphic novel, creates photographs of the poses and obsessively looks up images related to the subject that she is drawing on. She calls herself a ‘method cartoonist’.

After explaining her intentions as a writer/artist, Bechdel read the first chapter from Fun Home alongside a projection of images. She read to us about growing up with her father’s perfectionism, his frustration and his sudden bursts of affection.

Fun Home

Though there is a great deal of humour in the descriptions of Bechdel’s family life, the conclusion of the chapter is hugely moving when she describes her troubled relationship with her father and her loss of him to suicide in her early twenties. I would really recommend Fun Home to anyone interested in stories about the family.

November 11, 2006

Marijke van Warmerdam at the Ikon Gallery

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Marijke van Warmersdam

Today I went to the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham where I saw an exhibition by Marijke van Warmerdam called First Drop. This artist works mainly in photography and film although there are also some conceptual art pieces, but in general the feeling generated by her work is strangely uncanny. In her art, van Warmerdam works with the strange and the familiar recasting them in new and innovative ways.

Marijke van Warmerdam - Take a long break I and II

One of the first pieces that you encounter on the first floor of the Ikon Gallery consists of two large photographs featuring a cup and saucer which are suspended from the ceiling and which are turned by a fan. The piece is titled Take a long break I and II and it gives an idea of how van Warmerdam wants to recast familiar objects in unfamiliar guises. The suspended photographs pirouette alongside one another and it is no coincidence that the teacup and saucer go round in a circle as tea does when stirred.

Marijke van Warmerdam -Pancake

Take a long break I and II is a rather whimsical piece yet sometimes van Warmerdam’s mingling of the familiar and strange can be revelatory and inspiring. Pancake is a photograph dominated by the great white circle of a pancake thrown from half glimpsed pan held by a hand in the corner of the frame. Yet the pancake appears in the photograph to be a round orb, pitted and rough, like the face of the moon and it seems that despite the background of shelves and kitchen condiments, the moon has suddenly transported itself to appear like an apparition in the everyday kitchen.

The tea-cup appears again in Stirring in the Distance , a film of intensity and beauty that considers binaries of inside and outside, the familiar and strange. In the film, a cup and saucer sit on the edge of a table in the right hand bottom corner of the frame and behind it is a closed window and beyond the window is a landscape obliterated by snow. The silent falling of snow is beautiful in itself, yet the black horizontal shape of the horizon can be made out in ominous detail through the white flakes. Something is ‘stirring in the distance’, but the link to the teacup in the motif of stirring may suggest that it the creature stirring emanates from or is already present in the familiar interior.

Marika van Warmerdam - Catch

Nature can be very ominous in van Warmerdam’s photographs even though it is unmoving and static. Catch features a pair of outstretched hands and a brightly coloured ball suspended mid-air. On the index finger of the right hand is a ring, which initially seems to be a sign of maturity and wealth, yet there is no stone in the ring, but instead a child-like ladybird motif. Behind the hands and ball are winter trees drooping in a ghostly mist and behind the trees is the white orb of the moon that echoes the ball’s shape. The childishness of the game seems out of place in the ominous landscape and a feeling of tension is created by the suspended moment.

Throw is a kind of companion piece to Catch which features a length of lead pipe suspended mid-air and behind it are autumnal trees, a red tiled roof and one can just make out stacked logs in the dark space under the roof. The title is Throw rather than ‘thrown’; the lead pipe is still in the process of arcing through space and one wonders where it will hit the ground and what damage it will cause.

Marijke van Warmerdan - Underwater

Underwater I and II presents a variation on the themes of Catch and Throw. The concept of the piece is like that of Take a long break I and II as it features two photographs again suspended the ceiling and turned by fans. The two photographs are not identical and unlike Take a long break I and II, there are different compositions on the front and back of the turning pictures. The photographs on one side of the turning pictures present different angled shots of a similar photograph. The composition is quite simple; a tree branches around one corner of the frame with a bird box on its trunk. At the bottom of the frame is bed of autumnal leaves, above it a green stream before fields stretch out and the eye moves to sparse trees on the horizon. In the second version of the pictures, water has been thrown in the air and it twists and bends across the frame like an apparition. The swoop and swirl of it suggests violent movement, interruption of the passive scene and an expression of powerful human emotion as it has been thrown by a human hand. As in Stirring in the Distance, sentinel trees look on from the horizon as an ominous presence almost like that of Birnam Wood in Shakespeare’s Macbeth .

The culmination of the installation is a film entitled Wake Up! which again features water being thrown across a landscape. This time the screen shows a bed of yellow flowers freckled by occasional red poppies and further away a bed of paler flowers before one comes to rolling mountains and the blue sky. Butterflies fly across the screen yet like the water that swoops across the camera’s view, the landscape is immutable, reactionary and emotionless. It does not wake up, but rather like Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native it is ‘like man, slighted and enduring’.

Above all in this exhibition, there is a sense of uncanniness as tea-cups, trees and mountains seem to become animated and alive. First Drop after which the exhibition is named, features a cotton-wool cloud with a transparent orb embedded in it like an eye. The orb suggests the emergence of water from the nebulous obscurity, yet it also the emergence of existence itself as the cloud takes on a life of its own.


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