Spencer Finch is no stranger to the Kent coastal landscape. In 2011 the American artist hoisted 100 flags, all dyed with variants of sea colour, in Folkestone and installed a colour wheel on the seafront as part of Folkestone Triennial. 2014 sees a return of the artist, this time to Turner Contemporary in Margate, for a medium-sized solo exhibition, The Skies Can’t Keep Their Secret, and his first in the UK in the last five years.

Turner Contemporary is currently celebrating a ‘Summer of Colour’ and the majority of the exhibition spaces are taken up with a look at the work of Piet Mondrian and his transition from landscape and figuration into abstraction. The gallery walls are painted grey and the spaces feel dark, rather serious. It’s clear that you’re there to look, to think about the looking. Heads down, exam begins. A relief then, to emerge from the warrens into the sea facing galleries and Spencer Finch, flooded with light.

Natural light with its shifts and changes is the main focus for Finch’s exhibition. The centre of the gallery is taken up by a large suspended ‘cloud’, Passing Cloud (After Constable) 2014. Made from ‘translucent filters’ but looking rather like the plastic sheeting you wrap paintings up in, the material is pinned together with wooden clothes pegs in an abstract cloudy bunch. The filters transparency alters with the changing light of the day apparently but unfortunately I did not witness anything during my brief visit. The same is true of another work Back to Kansas (2013) consisting of a grid of painted squares on the gallery walls. The size of the squares is scaled proportionally to the aspect ratio that the film, The Wizard of Oz, would have been projected and the colours replicate those from the technicolor scenes. As the light in the gallery fades as do the colours, turning the colour saturated squares to black and white. Again I did not stay long enough to witness this and I imagine the stewards in the gallery are the only ones really witnessing the works true effects. Lucky them. No wonder they kept asking visitors ‘Are you enjoying the art?’ for they, perhaps not the visitor, were getting the true durational effect.

Two series of paper works are hung on the smaller opposite and adjacent walls, Wave Studies (2014) which has white tape on white paper producing an almost invisible pattern and Sunlight on an Empty Room (2014) which barely perceptible watercolour marks are made on white paper. These along with Atlantic Ocean (Coney Island), 2014, an LED light-box with a Fuji transfer of colourful wavy shapes, are largely forgettable. The work that lines the large back wall of the gallery, however, is not. Thank You Fog (2009) consists of 60 archival inkjet photographs roughly 11” x 11” arranged in a one line series at head height. If you begin at the beginning, the photographs appear just black squares. As you progress and peer into them, something, somewhere, starts to emerge. A verdant forest seen from its canopy or perhaps just within its boundaries. The effect, as you move along has some magic to it, a little like a view-master souvenir clicking through its slides to reveal, at the end, the forest landscape previously obscured by fog in Sonoma County. This work is the delight of the exhibition and, playing at rich art dealer, actually inspired me to request the pricing details from his Chicago Gallery. A very nice email informed me, several days later, that it would cost $65,000 but I had to politely decline. I just don't think it would fit in with the decor of our Margate flat. That is the only reason of course.

AuthorSacha Waldron

Ebb and Flow takes the visitor on a selected zoom through the history of photographers enduring interest in Liverpool’s Chinatown and the communities that are connected to it. Liverpool established the first Chinatown in Europe in the 1860's and today there are more than 10,000 Chinese residents living in the city and its surrounding areas. 

The exhibition mines Open-Eye’s large print archive for roughly half of the exhibition but opens with a new 2014 commission from London-based photographer Jamie Lau. Lau was invited to make a new body of work based on his impressions of Liverpool's Chinatown, an area he had no prior experience or knowledge of. The resulting images convey a sense of isolation. They are often taken at night in a semi-creeping observational style. The isolation is Lau’s own with the images feeling like they are still a little wary of their subject matter. They capture facades and peep within, not quite confident enough to walk through the door. Windows of takeaways and restaurants, staff and punters are captured waiting for their order or in mid-bite. Detail is captured on signs (‘No Dogs. No Bikes’ on the door of the English Takeaway) or advertising (Holland’s Pies ‘As Tasty as Ever’), look closer and more layers of information are revealed. One man eats a late night dinner, his partners head amusingly obscured by a large roast duck. In another image. a waiter stands in silhouette at the window of the Peking Cantonese style Wong’s Restaurant lit up like a sparkling blue disco ball. He stares out into the streets. Perhaps it's a slow night, but we can’t see his face to know his true thoughts.

The photographs taken in daytime or dusk have a different and, perhaps, more successful quality displaying a sense of Lau’s photographic confidence. Lau captures the dazzling brilliance of light shining off supermarket shutters or the deep shadow of sunset as it envelopes Chinese dragons. They have a pensive atmospheric mood and a slower quality. Tendencies of light, times of day, are observed over time and then captured as opposed to the apparent quickness of the Takeaway shots. Shoot then run.

The second gallery presents another contemporary work from Liverpool-based duo ‘The Sound Agents’ (John Campbell and Moira Kenny). The two received Heritage Lottery Funding to create an audio-visual archive of Chinatown titled 'Liverpool Chinatown Oral History'. Interviews with locals and former residents play on a loop within the space alongside two cases with archival material like identity cards, alien stamp books, passports and photographs. The Sound Agents share this gallery with black and white and colour prints from Martin Parr who was commissioned by Open Eye in 1986 to document the connections between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester. He chose to focus on the two cities Chinese communities and, particularly, the daily life of the people who belong to them. Gatherings, social occasions, shopping and playing are the true focus. The colour shots are a little jollier and tend towards the older generation; a plump old couple sit together in their living room, a group of older ladies play Mahjong, two older gentlemen mind their shop which appears to sell only cheap crisps and sweets. Their heads pop up from the sea of quavers, space raiders and 15p Golden Wonder. Amongst the black and white images a woman sits crossly, arms folded, pouting underneath a dryer at a hair salon on Berry Street, it’s unclear what’s pissed her off – perhaps Parr himself. There are fewer images of the younger generation but one, in a dance hall, shows a group dancing in a nightclub. A girl, a little spaced out and lost in the music, wears a black t-shirt emblazoned with the word ‘NOIR’. Although several boys dance with her, she seems to dance alone in contrast to the groups of people playing or talking in other images.

The upstairs gallery is devoted to Bert Hardy (1913-1995), the prolific press photographer best known for his work with Picture Post (1941-57). The selection focuses on the Chinese seamen based in the city during WW2. Picture Post did not publish any of the images Hardy took of the seamen. To do so would have been damaging due to the poor living conditions they reveal and, of course, there was the looming crisis of the war and a push to keep up the country’s morale. This is a man’s world. The crew are captured eating, washing, cooking and smoking during their shore leave but this does not seem like much of a holiday. The men are packed into hostels or Seaman’s boarding houses, sharing bunks, washing in what look like horse troughs wearing raggedy towels. A huge amount of detail is captured in these images of their sleeping quarters, calendars showing pretty women, endless dirty mugs and bit of food. It’s pretty grim but thankfully there is some reprieve when out on the streets. We see the men smiling and joking in groups around town and outside Ale Houses. There is, however, the constant backdrop of conflict. One of the most interesting photographs weaves these narratives together as if it were a tableau; a group of men mill about on the street looking like gangsters in their suits, hats and long coats but they are not the real subject of this composition. In the foreground a British girl stands stricken by a shop front, her face a picture of misery. She stands on a shop cellar door and her abjection seems to ask it to open up and swallow her whole. In the background a Ballast Balloon lies like a giant whale on the road. This is an image to return to again and again.

Ebb and Flow runs at Open-Eye, Liverpool, until 22 June. Free Entry.



A comprehensive and illustrated pdf of a lecture given by Gregory Lee, Professor of Chinese Studies at The University of Lyon at Open-Eye in 2008 can be found here


(An shorter version of this article appeared in the June print edition of The Skinny North West)

AuthorSacha Waldron

Turning numbers into pictures is an increasingly important (and necessary) part of our contemporary existence. Big Data. We have tons of it and collect more every minute of every day. At school age we are given rather dry maps, charts and diagrams to help us to interpret data but today technology has changed and what we expect it to do has changed. Now we watch the weather forecast by way of speeded up clouds and moving rainy puddles, a far cry from Fred’s Weather Map which saw the TV host jump about a floating map to stick on a plastic sunshine (although this could be described as a type of performative data visualisation). Online, you can expect super smart, often interactive, data visualisations for anything from world populations to how popular Gangnam Style was compared to The Harlem Shake.

The free exhibition Beautiful Science, open on the mezzanine level of The British Library, examines both the modern day souped-up data visualisations and infographic in context with its much older, but no less relevant, printed paper ancestors. The exhibition is split into three sections, weather/climate, population/health and natural history.

Weather and climate seem to be a good place to start, as this is possibly the kind of visualisation we see most on a daily basis. The exhibition opens with NASA animation ‘Perpetual Ocean’ which charts the flow of ocean surface currents from 2005-7. The lines of water move across the surface of the screen in Van Gogh-like painterly swirls. The data presented allows scientists to better understand how ocean currents circulate over time, but it is doubtful that this was the main attraction for most visitors. During my visit, a varied audience of all ages stood mesmerised watching the shifting currents on screen.

Returning to the origins of this kind of data collection, several ship log-books are on display. From its beginnings in 1600, the East India Company ships kept journals. Captain of the HMS Beagle (in which Charles Darwin sailed as a naturalist), Robert Fitzroy’s ‘The Weather Book’ contains his theories of the evolution of wind patterns. The water colour hues of blue and brown cover the line maps within, both beautiful and remarkable they look like modern satellite images. A map from 1685 illustrates ocean currents as understood at the time. Created by British Astronomer, Edmond Halley, the map charts ocean trade winds and the thin hair lines appear woven into the paper giving the map a sense of gusty movement.

Away from just weather data, a log-book from 1709 shows the breadth of data that was recorded by crew. The Rochester, sailing from England to China via Batavia (now Jakarta), created written logs of weather, temperature and ship-life. The written information is punctuated with drawings of the animals they encountered along the way. On the page shown within this exhibition a bird, rendered delicately in black ink swims across the surface of the page popping out as a sign-post for the relationship between data and lived observation and experience. It is interesting to read that all of these log books and the data that is contained within them, are not artefacts of dead data. They are documents that are still referred to today by organisations such as the MET Office.

Darwin crops up again, of course, in the natural history section of the exhibition. ‘On the Origins of the Species’ is open to the only diagram that appears in the whole book. Rather spartan in its design of the taxonomic diversification of life, it has a minimalist beauty. This diagram and its tree-like structure is an opportunity to see the early roots of the physical shapes we use commonly use in the design of our infographics – the egg and the tree. As humans, we are endlessly fascinated by putting things in order, a way to define our place within the systems of life and conscious thought so it is no surprise that with both shapes man is at either the top (of the tree) or at the centre (of the egg).

Ernst Haeckel, inspired by the evolutionary ideas of Darwin created ‘The Pedigree of Man’ (1874) a tree which organises all life on earth in a more illustrative fashion. The twisted boughs of the tree’s branches are labelled from the bottom up with primitive worms, amphibians to man. Man is labelled at the top, crowning the ancient tree like a star on a Christmas tree. ‘The Great Chain of Being’ illustrates an ancient Greek concept that classifies life on earth in hierarchical order but circular shape. Each animal is given a band or rung and presiding over the natural world is Sophia, the goddess of wisdom, with little crescent moons protecting her modesty.

“Population and Heath” is, perhaps, the most fascinating section of the exhibition as we see very clearly how data visualisations can be a device of social change and potentially keep us alive. Charting the correlation between temperature and cholera deaths (between 1840-50) is  ‘Temperature and mortality of London’ made by epidemiologist and statistician William Farr. This plots cycles of temperature compared with cholera deaths between 1840-50. The circular diagrams are designed to look like eyes, they stare out from the page in reds and blacks, sometimes flaring up like fireballs.  An interesting modern map (2013) charts, in tones of blue, the number of fast food outlets per 100, 000 people in each local authority.  Cities like London, Bristol, Manchester are obviously dark blue, saturated literally in saturated fat but there are slightly more intriguing pockets of fast-foodiness for example the seaside resorts of Torquay, Southend-on-Sea or the area around Hull.

From 1603, London parish clerks began to collect health related population data to monitor plague deaths. They published the weekly ‘London Bill of Mortality’ and on display in the exhibition is the amalgamation of 50 years of this data from demographer John Gaunt (1620 – 1674). The causes of death are fascinating. Amongst the data we see that in 1647 there were 147 deaths caused by worms, a significant number of deaths from ‘Wolf’ (?) and, in 1660, a record number of deaths from ‘Kings Wolf’ a type of Scrofula (swelling of the lymph nodes due to tuberculosis) which was believed, in the Middle Ages, to be cured by the touch of a monarch).

The star of this section is, however, Florence Nightingale’s seminal ‘Rose’ diagram entitled ‘Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East’ which shows in a kind of circular histogram the causes of death in soldier patients in the Crimean War. The intention was to show how far more soldiers died of preventable diseases than of wounds obtained on the battlefield. Nightingale understood the power of visualisation as a tool for change and sanitary reform. She would go on to become the first female to be elected to the Statistical Society of London in 1858.

There is much contemporary technologically clever data visualisations on show and the visitor is encouraged to interact. ‘One Zoom Tree’ encourages you to use the touch screen to explore the evolutionary relationships between tens of thousands of animals. As you zoom further in more detail is exposed. Elsewhere ‘Epidemic Planet’ is based upon the Global Epidemic and Mobility model which researchers used to accurately forecast the 2009 pandemic influenza outbreak. The interactive model allows the visitor to use the touch screen to visualise different epidemic scenarios and forecast outcomes and reaction measures. The interactivity, however, does not overshadow the older documents. If anything the failings of the technology, the sometimes clunkiness of the touch screens, highlights how the earlier graphs and maps hold a more enduring power. The data is only as good as the paper it’s printed or plotted on.

Game-changing, culturally useful and graphically beautiful Beautiful Science opens an all too brief window into the world of data visualisations, their history and future. This small display could well be and, I would argue, should be, seed a much larger exhibition worthy of the main British Library display spaces. 

AuthorSacha Waldron

Coming up in May from the ever super Arcade gallery on Lever St (EC1) is an exhibition that pairs two Italian artists, painter Luca Bertolo and photographer Alessandra Spranzi. Exploring the commonalities of their practice which both have a tendency towards the impulsive chance action, everyday subject matter/material and an aesthetic style that shows the material making process (as the gallery  puts it – the tricks of the trade) – Arcade looks at the precarious midway point between image making and surface.

Spranzi is exhibiting several photographic collages from the series Nello Stresso Momento ("At the Same Time") (2012). Using images taken from 60’s and 70’s design magazines, she cuts out shapes, overlaying them with other images – creating coloured voids with jagged exacto knife borders. These uninhabited environments have been sliced open to reveal another world lurking underneath.

Bertolo new painterly collages use the tricolour flag as their starting point in the series Bandieres (“Flags”). The flags are not painted but are dirty paint rags that have been used by Bertolo to clean his brushes and then glued to the surface of the canvas. The work touches on ideas of the life of an object – the canvas becomes both a museum and mausoleum for the object, acting as both a tribute and the confining unescapable pin that holds down the butterfly. The collaged shapes constructed into the flag image also have a resonant ideological power - reminding the viewer that despite their muted colours – not specifically political in any way – they still have a potential energy – the potential after-life or perhaps just one moment in the moving trajectory of the world of a grubby cloth.

 Luca Bertolo and Alessandra Spranzi runs at Arcade from May 1 - May 31. Preview is 18.00-20.00 - April 30.

87 Lever Street, London, EC1V 3RA

For more information www.arcadefinearts.com

AuthorSacha Waldron