De La Warr Pavillion, Bexhill on Sea
The first thing that confronts the view of Renee So’s masterful new installation in the De La Warr Pavilion is a giant’s blue uniform trouser ending in a nasty military jackboot. Like the acrolithic statue of Constantine it is an uncompromising message of hierarchy.
The boot is an image that has resonated through So’s work. Here it symbolises male power, the dominance of the male masters at the Bauhaus, an image that resonates even more strongly today. It is a complicated symbol. Even within the context of the Bauhaus, the boot symbolised the external attacks on the school and all it stood for. In 1932 the Japanese artist Yamawaki Iwao portrayed a boot as a symbol of the facism which was about to close down the Bauhaus.
For many readers of Rhakotis magazine, it might draw on parallels with the idol of Nebichadnezzar in the Book of Daniel. Many idols have fallen, and many more will do so.
Perhaps it also symbolises the male mastery of the sea, the vehicle which lead to British dominance and colonialism. On the day I visited, it was as white and blank as the walls on the other side of the white cube. The imperial past is an ambiguous and complicated part of the national psyche, which is rarely explored.
Renee So was born in Hong Kong and raised in Australia. She studied at the Royal Melbourne Institue of Technology, with a stint at Cal Poly Pomona. She moved to the UK in the 2000s and has been exhibited in the Saatchi Gallery and Whitechapel Gallery, amongst other places.
She works with ceramics and textiles and draws inspiration from varied places including the ancient art of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and pre-Colombian America, as well as the tiles of the London Underground and Bellarmine jugs (“a decorative stoneware vessel” depicting a wild man with a beard and ” mockingly named after the Italian Cardinal and saint […who] condemned the drinking of alcohol”.
Weaving and gender
So’s exhibition at the De La Warr Pavillion explores the female artists of the Bauhaus. She writes:
After the women who were enrolled at the Bauhaus finished their foundation course, they went to specialise but were refused their choices and steered towards the weaving department. This attitude says so much about craft, gender, and ‘women’s work’. Interestingly enough, weaving was the most commercially successful department of the Bauhaus. It helped fund the school even though it was never prioritised or taken as seriously as the other departments.
The centenary of the foundation of the Bauhaus has allowed for a reappraisal of the art and culture of the Bauhaus. The gendered organisation of the institution has been brought to the fore in discussions of its legacy and artists like Anni Albers have been celebrated again.
So taught herself to weave in “sympathy and solidarity” with the women of the Bauhaus. Of all mediums weaving is closest to both painting and sculpture, with its focus on image and material, and craft-ship.
It was not always “female” work, with the societal connotations of less important. (The exhibition of medieval tapestry in the V&A in 2016 discussed the importance of the medium, economically and culturally. It was also male work).
Learn to Weave is a glazed ceramic tile piece which draws on a piece of art found on a tomb from Ancient Egypt. The grid shape of the tiles alludes to the grid shape of wearing. The person in the image seems to be a white women wearing a skirt and boots. The hairstyle and clothes however are very similar to that worn by men in Ancient Egypt art.
Renee So and Ancient Egypt
So’s exploration of the legacy of Egyptian art continues in Flow State: a pale blue and white glazed ceramic piece made from a mosaic of undulating tiles. The image looks like the bottom of a shallow pool of flowing or disturbed water (several ancient mosaics, like that of Palestrina were most likely placed in such situations).
The image shows the Pharonic goddess Nut, mother of Isis and Osiris. Her traditional image bending over the earth and forming the sky is transformed into a yoga pose. Just as the ancient practice of yoga was transformed into a modern wellbeing practice, or just as Twentieth century Scandinavian gymnastics was turned into an ancient practice of yoga to be sold across the west and then back into India.
Yoga with its goddess poses and Indian spiritualism has had a profound impact on spirituality, especially in the West. The Wests interest in India resembles the Greeks and Romans interest in Egypt. On one hand there is a profound respect and interest in traditional lore and in another a fetishisation or barely disguised disgust. Today the jackboot of control has become the barefoot of the yoga teacher.
The sea and the links of empire are never far below the surface.
Reflections of a Reclining Male depicts a man with a boot as a head. His image resembles Anubis, but whereas the jackal headed god was a protective figure portrayed leading the recently departed, this figure reclines like a Roman gorged on excess. The caption draws parallels to Jacob Rees-Moog’s shameful performance in the British House of Commons. Rees-Moog a deceitful man, out to make money on his country’s downfall, was so disdainful of anyone who disagreed with him he haughtily napped during an important parliamentary reading, waking up to lecture the assembled MPs about the arcana of Victorian political theory.
So’s work critiques those displays of power which are sublimated through leisure and are so often left uncritiqued. A recent example was the otherwise brilliant Last Supper in Pompeii at the Ashmolean which likened the slave society of Pompeii (with all its attendant sexual exploitation) to Downton Abbey.
Indeed Ancient and Modern is a powerful and much needed riposte to some of the presumptions of that show, but it of course does more. Much more.
The focus of any visitor to the exhibition will be the collections of objects on the plinth. A collection of ceramics that resemble pre-Columbian pottery, Belladrine jugs and even Egyptian pottery. This is partly a reference to Anni Albers, who collected pre-Columbian art.
Many of the pieces are tripods, the three legs resembling stylised limbs. The tripod forms are a reference to Chinese Neolithic pots. As a group they uneasily fluctuate between pot and statuette, between art and functional object. Some of them have human heads but pot handles, others have human arms but an open pot lid.
They are all female shapes, like much early art. Why did so much art from various ancient cultures depict females? Are they venerated objects or just depictions of motherhood, female beauty, strength, leadership? What was their function? Do they depict particular people and if so who: family members, ancestors or divinities?
The titles of these pieces acknowledge the unknown stories of these women.
So returns female artists to the status they deserve and her female subjects to their status as gods and queens. An intensely valuable show.