A Week in Washington: An Art Nerd Takes D.C

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to spend a week in the instantly-recognisable United States capital city, Washington D.C, and explore its nationally-important and internationally-renowned art galleries and museums. A LOT of my time in D.C was spent navigating the National Mall and deep-diving into America’s foremost art collections. They luckily did not disappoint. Here are a few of the things I saw from my week state-side.

The context of some of these to come.

The Freer | Sackler Gallery – Asia meets America and Whistler gets into Peacocks

First up: a visit to the co-located Freer and Arthur M. Sackler Galleries which together hold the Smithsonian’s collection of Asian Art, sharing the tagline, “where Asia meets America”. In true American style, the two galleries are the result of their founder’s specific creative visions and their lifelong effort to achieve it.

The Freer Gallery for instance houses the personal collection of Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer who began acquiring art from across Asia in the late 19th century, amassing a considerable number of works by the time he gifted them to the US government in 1906. This gift did not come without a strict set of conditions however.

Freer stipulated that his American art collection could not be expanded, no work could be loaned to another gallery, and no works from other collections could be displayed alongside his own. The gallery therefore remains true to Freer’s unique artistic vision and taste, which is best demonstrated by the collection’s flagship piece, The Peacock Room (1877), an extravagantly decorated interior merging English and Japanese aesthetics that, prior to the construction of the gallery, had been installed in Freer’s Detroit home.

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, James McNeil Whistler, The Freer | Sackler Gallery

The Peacock Room itself came into being as the result of one man’s compulsion to achieve his vision without compromise. The room was originally designed by architect Thomas Jeckyll as the dining room in the London home of wealthy Liverpudlian shipowner (would have been a great twitter bio) Frederick Richards Leyland (1831–1892). When Jeckyll fell sick, the task of finishing The Peacock Room then fell on American painter James McNeil Whistler, the man who would later become close friends with Charles Lang Freer and introduce the industrialist to the arts of Asia.

At the time of Jeckyll’s illness, Whistler had been decorating the entrance of Leyland’s home and, after Leyland decamped back to Liverpool, was left to make some “minor” alterations to the Peacock Room. Whistler of course went decidedly apeshit, covering the room in gold leaf paintings and lavish peacock murals evoking Japanese art. Upon returning to London Leyland was shocked by Whistler’s adjustments to the room, sparking a bitter feud between the shipowner and painter that only fuelled Whistler’s artistic vision.

On one of the dining room’s walls he painted a giant mural of two fighting peacocks in gold (I suspect Whistler was really into peacocks) said to represent himself and his embittered client. The Peacock room ultimately remained in Leyland’s London home until his death in 1892 and was then acquired by Charles Lang Freer twelve years later and brought to Freer’s home in America.

To save time, I’ve skimmed through the story of The Peacock Room. But if you have a spare moment and like me are obsessed with the lives and quirks of famous artists, I emplore you to look up the full story behind the room and the feud between Leyland and Whistler. It’s an extraordinary tale about just how bitchy artists can be. In one notable episode, after Whistler had declared bankruptcy, Leyland who was the artist’s chief creditor at the time, dispatched a group of creditors to conduct inventory on Whistler’s home for liquidation. When the creditors arrived they were greeted by a large painting of Leyland as an anthropomorphic demonic peacock playing a piano whilst sitting upon Whistler’s house. Yes, you read that correctly.

Sculpture of Tamon-ten, Guardian of the North and one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Japanese Buddhism, Freer Gallery of Art

An underground passage takes us from the house that Freer built to the Arthur M. Sackler gallery, another museum housing one man’s celebration of Asian art – this time physician and medical publisher, Dr Arthur M. Sackler. Unlike Freer however, Dr Sackler did not place any restrictions on his collection when he bequeathed it to the Smithsonian Institution, and so the gallery has a much more contemporary feel.

My visit to the gallery coincided with two new exhibitions, one showcasing the detailed ironwork of China’s ancient metal bells while the other displayed a collection of ikats, intricate dyed fabrics originating from Central Asia. It turns out you can spend a surprising amount of time staring at wall-size dyed cloth patterns and listening to an audio track consisting entirely of metallic hand bell chimes. To give time to the other artistic attractions along the National Mall though, let’s move on.

The Hirshhorn Museum – Pumpkins, Time and Space

Next up – The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. What better way to beat the summer heat  in D.C than with a sculpture garden? And a giant spotted pumpkin.

Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin, The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C

Of all the sculpture pieces I found in the garden circling the donut-shaped Hirshhorn Museum, Yayoi Kusama’s yellow polka-dot pumpkin was by far the most distinctive. The pumpkin has long been a key motif in the avant-garde artist’s work, stretching back to her childhood experiences in rural Japan, while her extensive, repeated dotted-pattern designs, often covering entire rooms, gallery installations, and even Kusama’s own clothes, link to her own experiences battling depersonalisation and hallucinations.

After spending much of the 1960s as a key figure of the New York art scene and establishment movements, Kusama returned to her native Japan and in 1977 voluntarily moved into a psychiatric hospital where she continues to reside today, producing new works from her adjacent art studio. She has expressed no desire to hang up her paintbrush any time soon though, stating that “I am determined to live to be 100 years old and continue to struggle with my art”.

Given the recent return to prominence her work has experienced, and the power of her all-encompassing polka-dot environments, I wouldn’t be surprised if I start seeing yellow pumpkins all over the place from here on out.

A quick trip around the circular gallery floors of the Hirshhorn brings us to Seascapes by Hiroshi Sugimoto. Through a series of abstract photos of the horizon above different water bodies around the world, Sugimoto squares in on the connection between water and air, two elements that in his words “vouchsafe our very existence”.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke in front of the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C

It’s a subtle yet effective photo series. The five photos in the Hirshhorn, taken decades apart at different points around the planet, form one continuous horizon line stretching across time and space. Sugimoto calls photography “a fossilization of time” but I also think his photos exemplify the art of simplifying that so many photographers, grappling with muddled compositions, changing light conditions and large apertures, try so hard to master. Also, his description of Seascapes contains what is probably the best phrase to use to try and hype a trip to a museum or art gallery – to “embark on a voyage of seeing“.

Seascapes, Hiroshi Sugimoto, The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C

No Spectators – A Trip Inside The Temple

Our voyage of seeing has one final stop – The Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum on D.C’s Lafayette Square to help satisfy anyone who has toured the eleven museums and galleries dotted around the National Mall and yet still demands more (if this is you that is genuinely impressive). First things first though. It’s time to pose like a moron by the monument to the Marquis de Lafayette and hug a 13 ft bear statue made out of coins.

Context – the Marquis de Lafayette (1757 – 1834) was a French aristocrat who fought with the Continental Army in the American revolution and has now been immortalised as the one who raps fast in the musical Hamilton. I’m a moron. The resulting Polaroid was inevitable. As for the giant copper-coin bear? Well that’s just part of the Renwick’s latest exhibition, ‘No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man‘.

If you haven’t heard of Burning Man, it’s an annual festival dedicated to self expression, reliance and individual creativity. Each year since 1990, tens of thousands of attendees (known as “Burners”) come together in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and create a temporary city filled with colossal wooden buildings and sculptures (including the eponymous ‘Burning Man’ statue). As you may have guessed, at the end of the festival following several days of revelry, creative endeavour, and self-organised desert living, the installations of ‘Black Rock City’ are set alight and all MOOP (‘Matter Out Of Place’) brought by the burner community is removed.

The Renwick exhibition holds several sculptures, installations and personal items from burners that have thankfully been spared from this incendiary fate (or have at least been recreated by some of the most prominent artists in the festival’s global community). Anamatromic, pulsating mushrooms, giant copper-coin bears, and cuboid light installations all attest to how diverse and ingenious this community is, but it’s David Best’s giant wooden ‘Temple’ interior that gives the best insight into the core values underpinning the world of ‘Burner art’.

The Temple at The Renwick Gallery, Washington D.C by David Best

‘The Temple’, the giant wooden structure constructed in the middle of each iteration of Black Rock City, is an instantly recognisable feature of the event, even though its overall design changes from year to year. Best has designed over half of the Burning Man temples since 2000, having built his first structure at the event as a memorial to his friend who died in a motorcycle crash on the way to the desert.

Just like a real-life place of worship, Best’s intricate installations provide the residents of Black Rock City a place for remembrance, grief, and renewal, and in keeping with the event’s “No Spectators” principle, participation by all visitors. The same can be said for Best’s Temple Room in the Renwick, where visitors can pick up a small wooden square, write a message on it, and slot it into the pre-fabricated temple walls. I’ll have to leave you guessing what I added to The Renwick Temple.

Hybycozo, Yelena Filipchuk and Serge Beaulieu

From the many photos covering the exhibition’s walls from throughout the event’s 32 year history, the festival looks like a mega-sweaty way to spend a weekend. But I’d missing the point here if that’s all I focused on. From the photos of Mad-Max style cage fights in the desert, to the steam-punk inspired everything, it’s not hard to be inspired by all the creativity and individual artistic labours that go into each year’s celebration of radical inclusion’, self-reliance and expression. The exhibition is a good reminder of how art works best – when someone brings their own vision or unique take on their surrounding to life and decides to share it with the wider world.

Come and see the work of the man who insisted that gold-leaf peacocks are the only aesthetic worth caring about, the woman who covers rooms in polka dots-to process her own experiences with mental health, or the guy who took to the high seas to embark on a voyage of seeing, and see what it makes you think about your own surroundings (and do it for free if you’re at a Smithsonian Museum.) It’s ok if you ‘don’t get it’, because that in itself can be a worthy opinion to have. Modern art is what you make of it, but there’s plenty to explore when you delve into why it was made.

Enjoy this weird Art Trip? Read more blog posts here:

 

Portfolio 2018: 10 Favourite Photos From The Last Few Years

This is a photography website, and yet somehow I have managed to go all this time without writing a single blog post actually about photography.

Yes, I’ve typed out my thoughts on GIF art, German food and literary wolf-children before even taking the time to discuss the very thing I would consider to be my main interest. Today I’m going to fix that and present you with ten of my favourite photos that I have taken over the past five or so years.

The list is a fairly personal selection and is presented in no particular order. I’m also loathe to label these photos as my ‘best’ ones because for me photography, like any skill, is all about practice, learning new things, and trying to improve. Photographer / Youtuber Jamie Windsor actually discussed reviewing your old work and learning to move past it in a really articulate way in his recent video. So, I’m going to add on to this by putting together a record of my favourite shots for now, so I can look back on them years down the line and hopefully see what I’ve improved on and what I’ve managed to develop further out of the aspects I like in these photos. Plus there are a few good stories from what was happening around me when I took them.

Get it? Where my fellow photography nerds at?

 

10. The Edge of the Crown, Lanzarote

IMG_8386-1(ee2)-1

The fun you can have at the top of an extinct volcano with a camera, a polarising filter, and half an island on view. La Corona (‘the crown’) in the northern part of Lanzarote, is the second highest point on the island, and because the rim of the caldera towers above so much of the surrounding landscape, it offers plenty of visual trails and vantage points to make arresting photo compositions out of. I chose this perspective, staring down the northern edge of the caldera as I liked to contrast between the steep, shadowy slopes inside the crater, and the gentle rolling vineyards and villages outside it. Not bad from an island with a undeservedly bad reputation (Lanza-grotty no more!).

See more Lanzarote photos here.

9. Twin Peaks, Busteni, Romania

One of the things I love about photography is that every so often, you can take a photo that authentically captures a particular moment or experience forever. For me this photo does that, taking me back to a hiking trip in Romania with my two friends, halfway through our first year of post-graduate, “real” adulthood. The soft, winter sun and exposed brown trees gave the scenery a desaturated almost muted feel, which was something I then tried to bring out whilst editing this photo in Adobe Lightroom.

The result was this ‘vintage postcard’ effect that I feel helps give off that nostalgic tone whilst also zoning in on the main features of the landscape that struck me the most at the point I took the photo. It’s also pretty representative of the main way I think about photo editing – as a way to bring out the qualities of a particular location or feature that made the biggest impression on me at the time I took the photo.

See the rest of the Romania album here

8. Night Monkey Encounter, Peru

The core challenge of wildlife photography is getting close enough to your subject that it takes up more than just a tiny dot in the picture, but not so close that it runs away, or – in the case of slighter bigger, toothier wildlife – goes into attack-mode. However the flip side of this is to photograph an animal within its natural habitat to give some detail or context to the encounter. This is what I focused on with this encounter with a Night Monkey in the Peruvian Amazon.

Night Monkeys, as their name suggests, are the world’s only truly nocturnal monkeys. However, this guy couldn’t help peeking out of the nest it had made in a tree trunk in full day light, to oogle at the humans like myself looking back from below. Photographing animals in rainforests is always tough. The dense foliage, variable light conditions and the acrobatic tendencies of most subjects provide plenty of obstacles to getting a good shot. With this photo though I like how it captures that feeling of being watched by something much more adapted to the surrounding environment than you are. A representation of another being’s life enclosed within a different world to yours – something I would love to try and capture again if I get another chance to lock eyes with an endangered species.

See more photos from Peru here

7. Flam Valley Life, Norway

Norway is probably a contender for the title; ‘earthporn capital of the world’ and out of all the many photos I took there (I got very liberal with my use of the shutter button) this is the one that I hope does the country’s beautiful landscapes justice. I took this photo from the cabin of a train hurtling down the Flam valley towards the shores of the Naeroyfjord. I had just a couple of seconds to capture this view of the valley before the train moved on, but luckily managed to get the town of Flam and its surrounding scenery in full. I like how the pylon cables, usually something I try to block out whilst photographing landscapes, actually guide you through the picture. Also who doesn’t love a bit of red Nordic architecture?

See more of Norway here

6. Glacial Mirror, Czarny Staw pod Rysami, Poland

Reflections are fun to play with, especially when they create trippy patterns like these. I took this photo in the middle of the Polish Tatra mountains by a glacial lake, having spent a couple of hours scrambling up a slope to it with a bunch of other hikers. And also a wedding bride. Yes to this day I still have tremendous respect for that woman I saw hiking up a mountain slope in a wedding dress and sneakers in order to get the perfect set of outdoor, lakeside wedding photos. Oddly enough this isnt the only photo on this list I took in the company of a high-altitude bride. I guess wedding couples in the Tatras love a scenic photo op as much as I do…

See other glacial lakes and landscapes from the Tatras here

5. The Forest Seat, Plas Brondanw, Wales

The most-recently taken photo on this list and also one of the most personal. I took this while travelling round Snowdonia and visiting my family there for the first time in nearly 10 years. It’s also part of my growing interest in architecture / portraiture photography, something I’ve been exploring more and more in the last year as I find myself jumping between different cities of late. With this photo though I was able to bring this new interest of mine to a more rural setting and give an urbanite gaze to the North Welsh landscape.

See the rest of the Snowdonia gallery here

4. On the Wing in the Alps

Of all the ways to beat the January blues, taking a 6am flight from the UK to Munich, and then one day later boarding a train up to a mountain top in the Bavarian alps, will probably go down as my most drastic. Luckily though it afforded me the chance to photograph the views from Mt. Wendelstein in all their wintery glory, and then play around with some new editing techniques after returning home. A little bit of exposure blending here and there and suddenly, with some alpine shots to pour over and post here, January seemed survivable.

3. Nunbird in the Jungle, Peru

Photography, like any art form, has its fair share of trends and motifs that get repeated widely. Stair trails, pastel backgrounds, Boyfriends of Instagram – the list goes on. So, sometimes you’ve got to acknowledge when you jump on the bandwagon for something, as I did with Bokeh. Remember Bokeh? That aesthetic quality produced when a camera lens renders an out-of-focus light source? It not exactly a dead trend but I think it definitely had a ‘moment’ in mid 2000s photography and media. Tumblr posts, wedding photos, that terrible student art film I made about ‘urban wonderland’ when I was 17 – all part of the great 2007 – 2012 Bokeh-fest. The photo above is no exception to this fad, taken in Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve in the Peruvian Amazon. However it’s probably my favourite black and white photo that I’ve taken, and five years down the line, I still like how it nicely encapsulates the sunspots and tree shadows you can play with when doing photography under a forest canopy – a nice distraction from the usual high humidity and ever present mosquitoes…

2. Sun in the Tatras, Slovakia

Yep, I saw a bride here too, this time whilst on a fairly suspect chairlift coming down from Lomicke Sedlo (the mountain slope in the top left of this photo). The bride-to-be and the groom where on the up-slope chairlift, with their mountain-savvy photographer perched on the lift in front of them, snapping away as both he and the happy couple ascended into the Tatras. I still don’t know if these marital mountain climbers were part of a great competition for the best outdoor wedding photo that Poland and Slovakia are bitterly fighting each other over, or just hiking addicts like me. Either way they have really raised the bar for if ever go into wedding photography.

Anyway on to the photo. Whenever I’m photographing landscapes, I sometimes try and focus in on a particularly vivid detail in my immediate surroundings, and use a wide angle lens to show that feature in the context of its environment. This is the photo where I feel like I did that best, zoning in on the rocks and reeds underneath the clear waters of Skalnate pleso in the shadow of some of the highest peaks in the Tatras.

1. Morning in Malaysia, Sabah, Malaysia

I’m honestly a little bit sad that I don’t wake up every morning being sassed by a hornbill stretching its wing out towards me. I guess I’ll always have the photo…(and these ones too…)

Finally, to make this a little less about me and my experiments with a camera, here’s are some photographers and photography blogs that have been keeping me inspired lately:

Blogs:

Photographers: