Colour And Culture

posted: Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Today is one of the highlights of my year.

It is when I get to visit The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Not only is it a day of seeing artwork, always enjoyable to me (all that colour!), but it is such a big tradition in my family and brings back strong memories of my childhood.

The exhibition is an unusual one as it is the Worlds largest open submission contemporary art show. Anyone can enter up to 2 pieces for consideration, and this year over 12,000 entries from 27 different countries were submitted. There is always a huge mix of quality and style and some years I see almost nothing I like, whereas others I find it hard to pick a favourite piece as there seems to be so much to choose from.

It is also unusual in that the art varies so much in price. The lowest price I noticed today was £55 and the most expensive £180,000 but there may be some higher than that.

Lots of the items are prints with small editions, and you know when a copy is sold as a red dot is added. Sometimes larger dots are added to show that 10 copies have sold, this makes it easier for you to work out if there are any left when there were 200 copies. If you like a piece, there is always the holding-of-breathe-moment as you count the dots to see how many have sold, and double-check the catalogue to see how many are available.

Will you be lucky and get one or, as has happened to me many times, has the last copy been sold but no-one had the time to place the last dot. This added tension seems to add a strange air of commercialism to visiting the event, but to me it's all part of the tradition. It wouldn't be the same without an air of disappointment. Every year we still talk about the ones that got away.

If you are interested in buying something then you need to go near the start of the exhibition as work sells quickly. But I have recently found that going towards the end, and completely reducing the chance of anything I like being still available, greatly reduces the stress of looking round and worrying if you will miss out. Putting myself in a place where I have already missed out, makes me look at the exhibition in a whole new way.

I don't know when my parents first went to the show, but in my mind they always did. I have strong memories from when when I was younger of them heading off to the preview all dressed up. My dad would wear his suit, and my mum a dress, high-heels and make-up. As my parents worked very hard, and rarely had time for such fripperies, these small details marked it out in my mind as a very special occasion.

Us children would stay at home and I would eagerly wait their return to not only hear all about anyone famous they might have seen, what they drank and if there were canapes etc but to find out if they had bought a piece of art and then spend hours sitting devouring 'the book' on the exhibition.

'The book' accompanies the show and one artist each year chooses which works from the show will feature in it. It is a record of the show but not a complete catalogue. I cannot imagine coming home from the show without a copy of 'the book' and whenever my parents have been unable to attend I ensure I buy them a copy as I know my dad gets as much pleasure from looking at it as I do.

It always seemed to be, and still does, that whatever pieces they, or I, like in the show never makes it into 'the book'. This year there are over 1,100 pieces in the show, and around 210 in the book, so the odds are stacked against you being able to take home an instant mememto of anything you like. Sometimes you can be amazingly lucky and find what you like being sold in the shop as a postcard, but as they seem to only do this with maybe 20 pieces, this is very rare. I think I have perhaps 3 postcards from all the years I or my parents have been.

If you do buy a piece at the show, you have to wait until the exhibiton is over, in August, and then for the artist to send it to you. This two month plus wait to me as a child, and as an adult, was almost unbearable.

Anytime my parents did buy something they would describe it to me and I would be driven wild by imagining it. If ever they bought something which was featured in 'the book' this would be unbelievably exciting to me, as not only did I get to see the piece before it appeared, but I always considered buying something which was in 'the book' meant it was more valuable and important. The fact that someone else agreed with my parent's taste enough to put what they liked in 'the book' also convinced me they were people of very fine taste. Which of course they are.

Sometimes the artwork would arrive by post, but sometimes we actually went to the artist's studio to pick the piece up. Can you imagine how exciting that was to me as a child? Not only was I finally going to see the thing I had been imagining for months, but I was going to see where it had been made, and who made it, and would often end up seeing more of their work. These mysterious artists, with their ability to depict things in ways I knew I would never be able to, always seemed so magical to me. Getting to meet them felt like an incredible privilege. Obviously as I was a child I wasn't able to express any of that, and instead probably just stared at them and poked around in places I shouldn't.

But I do remember the studios all seemed strange places filled with things I had no idea about and, as my parents usually bought prints, they would smell so strongly of ink. Thick black ink for screen-printing. The oily type which is hard to wash out of anything and smells so strongly and seems to fill your nostrils and stop oxygen from getting to your brain.

As I sit here now I can smell the ink so strongly. My sister pointed out today that 'the book' also strongly smells of ink and so it is doubly understandable that this smell is forever seared in my memory as the smell of art, anticipation and excitement.

Just lifting the book to my face and inhaling seems to transport me back in time to sitting in our family home, in my chair in the corner, browsing through 'the book'. The shelves behind me were filled with copies from previous years and previous purchases adorned the walls around me.

At some point it was decided that I was old enough to go to the show with my parents. I can't remember if all 3 of us sisters began attending the same year, or it was some kind of rite of passage when you reached a certain age. But now I would be part of the tradition and get to dress up and see all the extra pieces which never made it into the book. I was never disappointed going. Even now, if there is nothing I like in the show I don't care. I carry 'the book' home in my grubby hands and take surreptious sniffs of it on the tube on the way home, searching through it to see if I remember everything on its pages. Sometimes I am lucky and what I liked is on a postcard so I stare at that trying to work out what it is about it I like so much.

Twice I have been lucky enough to buy pieces for myself and then had the two months wait for them to turn up in the post at my front door. As neither of them were in 'the book' I spent that time worrying if I would still like it? Would it be as I remembered it? Both times the pictures were even nicer when I got them home.

Today 6 of us went, my parents came over from France especially, and the day out started with lunch, coffee, buying of chocolate, catching up and comparing of outfits. We even managed a visit to Minamoto Kitchoan which sells the most exquisite looking Japanese sweets, Wagashi. Not only does the food itself look amazing, but the display and packaging make it worth a visit. I have never actually bought anything here, as I suspect it will be far too sweet for my palette, but I love to go and look. You can see some more photos and descriptions here.

Then it was on to be cultural.

I have previously written of my love for the work of Jeff Koons (I'll say it again, all that colour!) and this year he has a piece standing in the academy's courtyard. It is incredibly colourful and I thought it was made of coloured perspex or somesuch material, but of course I was fooled and 'Colouring Book' is made of polished steel.

Also in the courtyard was 'Rainbow Division Memorial' by James Butler (a smaller version features inside). This is a very evocative and moving piece which contrasts perfectly with the Koons. In comparison the Koons piece seems trivial and without meaning. But having recently heard him talk about losing his son in a custody battle, and creating work to let him know he thinks of him, you realise behind the superficial surface there is a personal story.

In the exhibition this year there was much work I liked. One piece, a print of a wood-engraving of a hedgehog by Ann Tout took my heart as soon as I saw it. But I counted the red dots and realised it was all sold out...

My favourite piece was 'Storm ii' by Tim Hall. You can see it on his website if you look under 'gallery 1' then' seascapes' and then see image 6. Don't you just hate websites where you can't link directly to a page? But I think the picture is so good, it's worth all that fiddling around to look at it. I am already beginning to feel obsessed with the dark line that runs across the width of the picture and the rain cloud. Both of these transform what could be a bland 'colour chart picture' into something much more. This unfortunately was out of my price range, and will join the hedgehog in the category of 'my 2011 ones that got away'.

After the show it was time for shopping. With my sister's wedding in less than 5 weeks, outfits are still being worked on and my mum took advantage of being in London to look for a hat. Off we headed to Oxford street and in the end we visited about 8 shops in search of the pefect feather and fluff combination. I have no idea how many different hats, fascinators and things inbetween she tried on but I do know we lost all track of what we liked and didn't like after 4 hours of looking at them.

I wrote only yesterday of my hatred of clothes shopping, but I have to say when with someone else to chat to, and watching them buy things, it was much more enjoyable. I wasn't looking for anything for myself so the pressure was off. I could look at things with an unjaundiced eye and no thoughts of 'It won't fit, 'It won't suit me', It's a waste of money', 'Do I really need another pair of pink patent wedge shoes?' etc.

But I did find the time to try some things on... and I am very pleased to announce that, despite my recent final acceptance that I am not a hat person, I am totally a fascinator person!

I was born to wear ridiculous feathery creations in my hair.

Birds were created just to give their plummage to me, and they are happy to do so.

My lack of height is just so that when I wear such things everyone can see them clearly. If I was six foot tall, my fascinator wearing expertise would be wasted if I had to bend down to show people.

Now I just need a good excuse to buy the bright pink feather creation I have my heart set on. Everyone should have at least one ridiculous, feather creation in their wardrobe right? Come on, back me up on this people!