‘The Humility Of Plaster’, Florian Roithmayr

HS Projects curated ’The Humility of Plaster’, an exhibition of recent work by Florian Roithmayr, following a two-year research and exhibition project exploring the materiality of collections housing plaster moulds and casts across Europe. This new body of sculptures was enabled through a partnership between the Museum of Classical Archaeology and Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, and Wysing Arts Centre, where Roithmayr has a studio. Initially shown amongst the collection of plaster casts of classical works at the Museum of Classical Archaeology and at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge; at 5 Howick Place the works acquire an abstract, almost futuristic quality.

Moulding and casting are widely used techniques of modern and contemporary art making. Their use and application can be found in many other areas of production and material transformations not immediately associated with art practices, and in times before casting became an acceptable form of sculptural production in its own right.

Roithmayr combines his intimate knowledge of the material with unpredictability, as he sets up experiments, teasing out unexpected results. To a certain extent, he is giving over control in this hidden operation, deliberately allowing space for accidents in order to learn from them through these processes. His work is about generating and tracking changes in the material. The ambition in his practice is to register the consequences of one surface or material yielding another through capturing the unexpected gestures that occur in the gap between mould and cast. His work consists of materials that create each other the moment they are put together.

‘I find that there is something very rewarding and comforting about doing the same tasks over and over. Or spending time in a place with only a limited number of elements, absorbing the environment slowly. This allows for a mental space where the daily processes can become routine, and create an intimacy and immediacy that is otherwise hard to achieve.’

Alongside the exhibitions of this body of work, Roithmayr has developed an audio blog that presents interviews recorded in different plaster cast collections across Europe, drawing attention to the materials and techniques still used in the moulding workshops, often operating in parallel to the collections displaying the casts.

‘The Humility of Plaster’ was at 5 Howick Place from January to June 2019.

‘What separates us’

HS Projects curated ‘What separates us’, a group exhibition by four Brazilian artists, Tonico Lemos Auad, Adriano Costa, Rodrigo Matheus and Matheus Rocha Pitta, funded by Arts Council England, at Sala Brasil, the Embassy of Brazil, London.

‘What separates us’ examines ideas of value systems and exchange mechanisms from cultural, social and economic perspectives. The exhibition explores ideas of international trade, travel and mobility, whilst examining the ‘real value’ of art and the system in which it is made and validated.

‘What separates us’ is located in the Sala Brasil, the former ticket hall for the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, the Titanic ship operator, now home to the Embassy of Brazil in London. The works enter into a dialogue with the Sala Brasil’s historic ties with shipping and international trade, as well as how new emerging markets and decreasing trade restrictions have been instrumental to exchanges within the complex circuits of trade. The exhibition questions value systems, relationships with commodities, products and exchange mechanisms echoing transatlantic enterprises dating from the sixteenth century to current international interest in Brazil as a commercial partner. As part of this debate the exhibition examines the notion of art as a commodity, capable of being marketable, sellable and collectible.

Tonico Lemos Auad presents a sound installation, ‘Desafinado/Out of Tune’, 2003/2008, played on a three minutes and forty second loop which is being shown in the UK for the first time. Auad recorded a well-known blind Brazilian singer whistling the recognisable Brazilian ballad Desafinado by Joao Gilberto continuously for several hours. Auad observes the performer’s inhaling becoming demonstrably more demanding, selecting a point where the tune begins to break down. The resulting sound is melodious and melancholic and immediately familiar to any Brazilian, but the pauses charge the empty spaces with a distinct longing. The artist was interested in mapping this emptiness through this work, although now the work has also become a reflective commentary on the current socio- economic situation in Brazil.

Adriano Costa is re-configuring ‘New Contemporaries / Novos Contemporâneos’, 2015, an installation first shown at the Modern Institute in Glasgow, in which he makes a humorous play on the commodification and distortion of indigenous cultural meaning. Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic decoction of ritual and sacred value to various native people in the Amazon, has become popularised as a pseudo-spiritual, recreational drug. Costa’s installation of white cotton t-shirts, for sale at £10 each, in a variety of fonts and paginations, displayed on clothing rails, echoes popular cultural merchandising and its commercial distribution, with the proceeds donated to the Guarani and Kaiowá indigenous peoples in Brazil. The work questions the boundaries between art and non-art and the distinction between the throwaway and the precious.

Costa is also showing a sculpture titled after the sixth king of the First Babylonian Dynasty, Hammurabi, known for creating one of the earliest surviving codes of law in recorded history. Centering on the dialectics of modernity and tradition, ‘Hammurabi’ is a marble work engraved with a joke, which is activated once the viewer stands over the piece and reads the inscription. Costa’s avoidance of the pedestal and the frame highlights the vernacular aspect of the objects he uses and emphasises their deviation from art-historical tradition.

Two new site-specific works, specially commissioned for the exhibition, ‘A Tale in a Thousand’, 2016 and ‘Workers’, 2016, are being shown by Rodrigo Matheus, made up of everyday objects seamlessly integrated into the track lighting system, tracing a thin border between fiction and functionality. The carefully selected and arranged objects create a multi-directional dialogue with the narrative of the ceiling’s paintings that crosses history, architecture, art and design. In the displacement and re-organisation of the hanging objects, Matheus considers their inherent qualities and the social and economic circuits they are attached to.

Matheus Rocha Pitta is showing his ‘Brazil Series’, 2013 for the first time in the UK, a sequence of eight photographs of red earth scattered with raw meat, taken in Brazil under the midday sun in 2013. The series is based on the story of 76 tons of boxed meat that was found unfit for human consumption and disposed of by the authorities in a ground fill site in Rio, and which was subsequently dug up and eaten by the local residents. The colour of the soil in Brasìlia, Brazil’s modernist planned capital, is famous for its redness and these photographs are an attempt to connect earth and flesh through colour, as well as trying to retrieve the archaic meaning of the word Brazil, which originally means ‘place for embers’.

Rocha Pitta is also showing a new work, specially commissioned for the exhibition, that relates to his ‘Brazil Series’. ‘Stela 18(carne viva)’, 2016, created by pouring concrete onto found objects and newspaper cuttings laid into a shuttered mould, this hybrid of cast and collage is based on the common and inexpensive method of manufacturing grave markers for the poor. In order to prevent the poured concrete from sticking to the wooden mould, the mould is lined with newspaper to enable the slab to be easily turned out. The underside of each concrete gravestone is lined with newspaper and the joke is to give the dead something to read. Rocha Pitta inverts this joke literally and metaphorically by turning the slab over to reveal the work.

A limited edition illustrated catalogue accompanied the exhibition with texts by Michael Asbury, Matthieu Lelievre and Kiki Mazzucchelli.

An In-Conversation with Rodrigo Matheus, Tonico Lemos Auad and Kiki Mazzucchelli, moderated by Oliver Basciano, Editor ‘International’ of Art Review, examined the value of cultural projects such as ‘What separates us’, in providing distinct cultural experiences and Brazil’s position within an increasingly globalised art world.

‘What separates us’ was at Sala Brasil, the Embassy of Brazil in London, from 20 May – 2 July 2016. It was funded by Arts Council England, Christie’s Education and the Embassy of Brazil, London.


‘Utopias’, Yinka Shonibare CBE (RA)

Following the commission of ‘Wind Sculpture’ for Howick Place, Yinka Shonibare’s first permanent work in the public domain, HS Projects presented ‘Utopias’, an exhibition of some of the artist’s emblematic works. An interesting dialogue is created between ‘Wind Sculpture’ and the works in the exhibition, continuing Shonibare’s focus on themes of colonialism, trade, race and his signature use of batik Dutch wax fabric designs, better known as ‘African Textiles’.

In ‘Ms Utopia’ (2013) Shonibare presents a tall female figure clothed in the artist’s signature Dutch wax batik fabric, with a celestial globe in place of a head. Conceived as a symbol of peace, she offers the viewer an oversized bunch of hand-made flowers. As in much of Shonibare’s work, the aesthetic allure and vivid patterns of the figure’s costume and bouquet serve as a façade to the complex truths that the artist is exploring. ‘Ms Utopia’ wears a brightly-hued dress with puffed sleeves and cuffs echoing the extravagance of the Rococo period, made from a fabric associated with African identity. However this cloth is in fact a mass-produced textile manufactured by the Dutch after original Indonesian designs. Having described himself as a ‘post-colonial’ hybrid, Shonibare questions the meaning of cultural and national definitions and employs the device of the Dutch wax batik fabric to demonstrate the complex and inter-related nature of industry, society and the modern geo-political environment.

The vibrant bunch of gardenias, camelias, peonies and roses is also created from this African cloth and appears to burst with life. However the flowers also serve as a memento mori and their ephemeral nature is designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the fragility of human life. This duality is typical of Shonibare’s work.

Shonibare’s ongoing fascination with the cosmos also plays a significant role in his work. ‘Ms Utopia’ bears a globe head which displays the planetary alignments, referencing the senses of wonderment and curiosity that epitomize the human condition and lending a sense of endless possibility to the sculpture. Shonibare’s mastery is in creating politically and culturally relevant work which seduces with its colour and beauty. Coined for the 1516 book of the same name, the term utopia describes a fictional island proposed by Sir Thomas More as an ideal society. Shonibare’s work frequently explores the theme of revolution, drawing a stark contrast between the utopian ideals inherent in anarchic action and the darker realities of its consequences. As the artist explains, ‘In the short term, on an individual level, you have to work to get yourself to a better position; even if it’s some kind of utopia, you make an effort, you don’t sit back and allow yourself to be oppressed, you fight. I think that’s important. People have to judge history later on’.

‘Adam and Eve’ (2013) is one of Shonibare’s most compelling tableaux, in which he brings to life the biblical tale of utopian ideals and the stark reality of their consequence. Shonibare often references historical moments, art history and well known stories to comment on today’s global climate of social and political disillusionment. He explores both historical and contemporary cycles of revolution, seeking to demonstrate the destructive patterns of human behaviour that repeat themselves through time.

Shonibare’s romanticised version of the story is reimagined in a theatrical form. The figures are headless, referencing the beheadings of the French Revolution, which has come to be a hallmark of the artist’s work. Their luxurious clothes are remade in his trademark Dutch wax batik fabric, which was inspired by Indonesian design, mass-produced by the Dutch and eventually sold to the colonies in West Africa. In the 1960’s the material became a new sign of African identity and independence. While the scene set may appear idyllic, Shonibare weaves in fragments of sin and decadence. The female figure’s soft bustle gown is beautifully embellished with bunches of flora, and capped with delicate ivy-shaped sleeves. At the same time, her pose cleverly mimics the diabolical snake cloying at her from above. The male dandy figure steps away, removing himself from the scene and permitting the destined act to take place. This work is a complex and nuanced comment on the state of today’s globalised world and how it is dictated by individual choice.

‘Totem Paintings’, (2011) combine Dutch wax African textiles with thick, impasto paint, juxtaposing vibrant patterns against an intense jet-black background. Shonibare’s tactile paintwork alternates between the side and front of the batik canvases. The tall and slender rectangular forms are framed with a multitude of colourful steel nails that pierce the edges of the canvas. The nails are a direct reference to African ‘minkisi’ voodoo figures made by the Congo people of west-central Africa. Notably, these ‘minkisi’ figures were seized from the indigenous peoples by the colonial forces as they were deemed sinister. As a pop interpretation of African fetish objects, the works speak of artificial exoticism. Through the use of industrially produced textiles, nails and paint, Shonibare explores the stigma associated with the emblematic form of a totem as a means to investigate cultural identities and histories and combines it with his usual ironic expression.

‘Utopias’ was at 5 Howick Place from January to June 2018.