London’s winter art & design exhibitions (17/18)

Alan Kane for tate

The most playful Christmas lights decorations by Alan Kane for Tate Britain



Anya Hindmarch’s love letter to London around Valentine’s day: chubby hearts over different parts of the city


During the winter period, the best places to hang out in London are probably inside art museums and galleries. Although it is usually a busy period for me, I would still try to squeeze in some ‘art afternoons’ during the week as a way to escape from the stress.

This winter, there were/are numerous inspirational and exceptional exhibitions being shown in the city, and here are some of the ones I particularly enjoyed:



I loved the ‘Other Rooms’ exhibition by Milan-based French artist Nathalie Du Pasquier at the Camden Arts centre. It was bold, playful, enticing, and traversed the boundaries between art, graphic design, and architecture. As the founding member of the Memphis group, her works certainly reminds me of the designs by the group’s founder, Ettore Sottsass.


img_6646-min  Nathalie Du Pasquier

Nathalie Du Pasquier

Nathalie Du Pasquier

Nathalie Du Pasquier


As you walk through the rooms, you might ponder if this is art or design, but then you would realise that her alluring works are beyond these terms… through her works, I saw humour, curiosity, beauty, and hope for the future.


The One Two Three Swing! installation by superflex

The One Two Three Swing! installation by superflex

Danish design collective Superflex‘s The One Two Three Swing! installation at Tate Modern


Admittedly, I am not always a big fan of Tate‘s mega exhibitions; however, I thoroughly enjoyed the two Russian exhibitions at Tate Modern this winter. Russian avant-garde artists, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov‘s ‘Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future’ was delightful and imaginative, and the maze-like installation ‘Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) 1990’ was the highlight for me.


Ilya and Emilia Kabakov   Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s ‘Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future’ at Tate Modern


To mark the centenary of the October Revolution in 1917, almost every major museums/ institutions in London has had a Russian-related exhibition during the last year. After seeing three different exhibitions at the British Library, the Design Museum, and the Royal Academy of arts, I think that the ‘Red Star Over Russia A revolution in visual culture 1905–55′ at Tate Modern actually surpassing them all.

Perhaps the reason was that the exhibition showcased an extraordinary collection of 250,000 items from the turbulent period collected by one single person – the photographer and graphic designer David King (1943–2016) while he working for The Sunday Times Magazine in the 1970s. Behind all the items on display, there are fascinating or tragic stories which provided contexts and backgrounds for the viewers. Through the rare propaganda posters, prints, posters, letters, photographs and everyday objects, we could see David King’s passion and humanity that the other exhibitions failed to convey.


Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905–55

Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905–55  Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905–55

red star over russia

Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905–55  Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905–55

Red Star Over Russia A revolution in visual culture 1905–55′ at Tate Modern


From Russia to China: I often feel quite mixed about contemporary Chinese art, and I think that the hyperbolic auction prices are mostly inflated and artificial. But I was curious about ‘Zhongguo 2185 (China 2185)‘, an exhibition curated by by Victor Wang featuring ten young artists from China at Sadie Cole. The exhibition title was inspired by Liu Cixin’s 1989 ‘critical utopian’ Science Fiction novel, ‘Zhongguo 2185’, which was written during the rapid socio-political reforms of the 1980s, and remains unpublished to this day – circulating only on the internet.


Lu Yang, Power of Will – final shooting

Lu Yang, Power of Will – final shooting

Zhongguo 2185   Zhongguo 2185


I found the exhibition quite intriguing and thought-provoking. The most discernible was Xu Zhen‘s satirical ‘Supermarket’ installation located next to the gallery, which was filled with emptied grocery items that can be seen in most Chinese supermarkets. All the items (or packaging) were available for purchase, and I decided to buy an emptied water bottle just for fun. Then the cashier told me that I made a good choice, and said that their drinks were selling exceptionally well at this ‘fake’ shop!


Xu Zhen, XUZHEN Supermarket

Xu Zhen, XUZHEN Supermarket

‘Zhongguo 2185’ at Sadie Cole


The first time I saw American artist Mark Dion‘s work was at Frieze art fair, and I was immediately captivated by his nature-inspired art work. His new retrospective, ‘Theatre of the Natural World’ at the Whitechapel Gallery (until 13th May) provides a fascinating introduction to those who are not familiar with the artist’s work.


mark dion

mark dion

mark dion  mark dion

mark dion

mark dion


Mark Dion is an explorer, environmentalist, collector and activist, and his love for nature is palpable in his works. The playful exhibition is designed to be like the cabinets of curiosities, where visitors would wander and discover the wonders and oddities of the natural world.

There is an aviary containing 11 pairs of finches and an apple tree in room one, and a recreation of a museum’s backroom on another room upstairs. There is also a big cabinet that contains a vast array of bric-à-brac like bottle caps, fragmented ceramic pieces and shells etc that were excavated from the the river banks lead by Dion and local volunteers for the The Tate Thames Dig project in 1999.

The exhibition is fun and appealing, but not exactly provocative. While some activists/artists like to make strong statements or be persuasive, Mark Dion acts more like an observer and educator, and the exhibition is his invitation for visitors to explore and observe our relationships with nature.


mark dion

mark dion

mark dion

mark dion  mark dion

mark dion

Mark Dion’s ‘Theatre of the Natural World’ at Whitechapel gallery (until 13th May)


Leonor Antunes: the frisson of the togetherness

Leonor Antunes: the frisson of the togetherness at Whitechapel gallery (until 8th April)


The exhibition that I consider a must-see of the season is ‘Ocean Liners: Speed and Style‘ (until 10th June) at the V & A museum. This is a dazzling, comprehensive, and nostalgic exhibition that would transport you to a different era – an era when ocean travel was associated with glamour and luxury.

Honestly, my perception of mega cruise ship holiday was quite negative before seeing the exhibition; perhaps it was more to do with the clientele and how cruise ship holidays are being marketed these days. Although I won’t be rushing to book a cruise ship holiday soon, the exhibition has evoked some kind of curiosity and interest that I have never experienced before.


ocean liner  ocean liner


ocean liner  ocean liner





I think this is one of the best V & A exhibition i have seen in the recent years, and I was quite blown away by the scale and contents. There are rare posters, ship models, wall panels, furniture, dinnerware, fashion etc… and it even features a deck chair and a wooden panel fragment from a door in the first-class lounge on the Titanic – the most famous and tragic cruise ship of all time.



ocean liner  ocean liner

‘Ocean Liners: Speed and Style’ (until 10th June) at the V & A museum


Big names dominated the art scene in London this winter – including three excellent ones that at the Royal Academy of Arts: Jasper Johns: ‘Something resembling truth’ (a pleasant surprise), Dali/Duchamp (never knew they were friends!), and Matisse in the studio (who never disappoints).

I also enjoyed the small but lovely ‘Rodin and Dance: The essence of movement’ at the Courtauld Gallery, and the more conventional but still brilliant Cezanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. Perhaps it is only in London and Paris where you see solo exhibitions of all these masters within the same period.



However, the two exhibitions that I was most eager to see this winter were ‘Winnie-the-Pooh: exploring a classic‘ at the V & A (until 8th April) and ‘Tove Jansson (1914-2001)’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery. It is great to see that illustrations are being treated more seriously, at last.

I just can’t imagine anyone not being moved by Winnie-the-pooh and its adventures. I have always loved this bear (along with other bears like Rupert and Paddington) since i was young. This exhibition proves that its charisma has not diminished after all these years. V & A has done a remarkable job in creating a fun setting that resembles Ashford Forest for children and adults. Yet it was the original sketches by EH Shepard that I was most interested in – they are wonderful and spellbinding. I can’t wait to read the books again.


winnie the pooh  winnie the pooh

winnie the pooh

winnie the pooh

winnie the pooh  winnie the pooh

winnie the pooh

‘Winnie-the-Pooh: exploring a classic’ at the V & A museum (until 8th April)


Tove Jansson (1914-2001)‘s retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery was another pleasant surprise for me. The exhibition was not just about the Moomin characters, it also showed many Tove Jansson’s earlier works as a painter. The 150 works included a selection of self-portraits, paintings and graphic illustrations, which revealed Jansson‘s talents, determination and dark sense of humour. Like Winnie-the-pooh and friends, the Moomin characters are still loved by children (and adults) of this generation. How amazing.


tove jansson  tove jansson

‘Tove Jansson (1914-2001)’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery



After spending three years learning Arabic calligraphy, I would not miss the opportunity to see an exhibition of a contemporary master of this craft. Like my teacher, Hassan Massoudy is also Iraqi, and has been described by French writer Michel Tournier as the “greatest living calligrapher”. Massoudy studied figurative paintings at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in France, which I believe has had an influence on his calligraphy style.



img_6827  img_6822


His solo exhibition ‘Breath, gesture and light‘ at the October art gallery showcased a selection of beautiful and sublime calligraphy works that looked almost like abstract paintings. Yet as I have learnt, it takes years/decades to perfect those strokes, and unlike painting, you cannot rework a stroke (it would simply ruin it), so every stroke has to be precise. It is a very meditative activity that requires concentration, control, patience and skills. Arabic calligraphy is both an art and a craft, and Massoudy is a master of both.



img_6823  img_6839



I tried to visit the Jewish Museum in Camden twice before, but failed to get in because of wrong timing (tip: avoid visiting on a Friday afternoon). Finally, I arranged a visit with a friend to see the ‘Designs on Britain’ exhibition (until 15th April), and we were both impressed by the size of the museum and the curation of the exhibition.

It is a shame that we are living in a day and age when anti-immigrant sentiments seem to be spreading in the Western world. Yet when we look back on the history of the Western world, many developed countries not only relied vastly on immigrants, even their citizens’ ancestors themselves were also immigrants (e.g. the US). This design exhibition reveals how 20th century design in the UK was profoundly shaped by the arrival of pioneering Jewish émigré designers from continental Europe. There are many iconic designs that can be found here, but I think the graphic design part that stood out for me. The vintage posters and logo designs are fantastic – and it made me wonder what would U.K. be like today without the contributions of these and other immigrants? I simply cannot even imagine it.


'Designs on Britain'

'Designs on Britain'  'Designs on Britain'

'Designs on Britain'

‘Designs on Britain’ exhibition (until 15th April) at the Jewish musuem


It is quite rare to see a major graphic design exhibition in London, so ‘Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?‘ exhibition at the Wellcome collection was overdue and imperative. Curated by graphic designer Lucienne Roberts and design educator Rebecca Wright, founders of publishing house GraphicDesign&, with Shamita Sharmacharja, the exhibition explored the relationship between graphic design and health. There were over 200 objects including posters, signage, packaging, advertisements and printed matters etc.

There were several free workshops that accompanied the exhibition, and I attended two of them: one was on the functions of fonts and another was about creating awareness on dementia. I had great fun at both workshops, and I think the institute is a real gem in this city.


wellcome collection

wellcome collection  wellcome collection

wellcome collection  wellcome collection

Graphic design workshops that accompanied ‘Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?’ exhibition at the Wellcome collection


Photography & film

I have always been a fan of Wim Wenders’ films, especially his earlier works. His photography exhibition ‘Instand Stories. Wim Wender’s polaroids‘ at the Photographer’s gallery revealed his natural gift as a storyteller. The exhibition showcased a selection of his enormous Polaroid collection taken between the early 1970s and mid 80s. Some of Wender‘s photographs are stunning, and it is hard to imagine that they are taken from a Polaroid camera. And even if some of them are out of focus, they are able to convey certain emotions/moods. I found the exhibition very inspiring, and it made me want to use my mother’s recently repaired SX-70 immediately!


wim wender's polaroid

wim wender's polaroid  wim wender's polaroid


‘Instand Stories. Wim Wender’s polaroids’ at the Photographer’s gallery


‘Hiroshi Sugimoto: Snow White’ at Marian Goodman featured a collection of photographic works from Japanese artist Sugimoto’s Theatres series since 1978. The series began as an experiment in which Sugimoto used a long exposure to capture the thousands of moving images on a single frame of film. The aftermath of this process is one of a gleaming, pure white screen.

The haunting images of abandoned theatres and grand music halls around the globe suggest impermanence – one of the core principles of Buddhism. In recent years, there has been a growing cultural fascination with abandoned buildings, perhaps the decay, ephemerality, nostalgia, and faded beauty remind us that like these buildings, our time is also limited, and the only thing that we can do is to live fully in the present.


img_6604  img_6603

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Snow White at Marian Goodman


John Akomfrah: Purple at The curve, Barbican addressed some crucial issues of our times: climate change, human communities and the wilderness. Akomfrah chose to show this through hundreds of hours of archival footage, and newly shot film via six-channel video installation. The videos reveal how human’s relationships with nature have changed over the decades, and the damage caused in a short time period. Nonetheless, no matter how much we want to ‘save’ our planet, the most powerful people in the world don’t seems to care, which is quite disheartening.


John Akomfrah: Purple

John Akomfrah: Purple

John Akomfrah: Purple at The curve, Barbican


Two German photographers turned out to be the talk of town in 2017. One was Wolfgang Tillmans, whose first exhibition at Tate Modern divided many ( which I wasn’t particularly interested in); and the second was Andreas Gursky, whose retrospective was the first show at the Hayward Gallery after it reopened following a 2-year renovation.

This exhibition (until 22nd April) is about scale… almost all of his prints are mammoth in size, and yet the contents are detailed, beguiling, humourous and insightful. Capturing different corners of the world, his photos show us the beautiful, the ugly, the absurd, the hidden and the unwanted. Gursky is not only a brilliant story teller, he also manipulates, distorts and challenges the viewers. What is reality and what is fake? We live in a day and age where the boundary between the two is blurry and we no longer can trust what we see, hear and read anymore. We can’t even trust our own judgements… so what remains is our intuition.



hayward gallery


img_7741  img_7742


Beyond the exhibition, I was surprised to see how little the gallery has changed after the 2-year renovation. I asked one of the gallery’s staff about this, and she struggled to give me a definite answer at first. Later, she said that a new ceiling and skylights have been installed. Two years to change the ceiling and rooftop sounds a bit ridiculous, but there you go. At least, the new exhibition is better than all the ones I have seen before the closure – surely, that’s a good sign.



img_7755  img_7756





The most disappointing exhibitions:


Rachel Whiteread‘s retrospective at Tate Britain could have been excellent, and yet it was let down by the curation and lack of contexts. Apart from the area outside of the main exhibition room where her sketches, texts and photos were showcased, there was almost no information on the actual pieces inside. How were visitors supposed to relate to the few concrete boxes piled up on top of each other? Apparently, they were removal boxes from her mother’s house – I only learnt about this in the ‘Imagine’ programme before seeing the exhibition. Unlike ordinary sculptures, her conceptual concrete or glass pieces convey little emotion; they may appeal aesthetically, but without context, they seem cold and empty.

Like many other British artists of her times (think Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin), Rachel Whiteread has always been controversial. People seem to either love her or loathe her. I, on the other hand, feel quite neutral towards her, and I do find some of her concepts and works to be quite bold and thought-provoking. However, this exhibition has not done her much favour, and you can’t even blame her for it. Like the Barbara Hepworth exhibition, I feel that Tate Britain’s curators have missed the mark here.


rachel whiteread  rachel whiteread

rachel whiteread

rachel whiteread  rachel whiteread

Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain


My friend and I saw  Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican, and we both felt that Jean Michel-Basquiat’s works and talent have been overrated. Could it due to the fact that he died young? It was a popular show, and there were some interesting concepts and works, but that was about it.


gilbert & george


I am aware that Gilbert and George were relevant decades ago, but in recent years, their work seem repetitive, tired and dare I say – boring. How many times have we seen their trademark multi-panelled ‘photopieces’ featuring the two of them in different outfits or without any?

At theirTHE BEARD PICTURES AND THEIR FUCKOSOPHY exhibition, they added their Fuckosophy – using the ‘f’ word repeatedly… Is this meant to provoke or make us smile? I don’t get it. To me, they are like a once prestigious brand that made its name decades ago, but has failed to innovate or excite people as time passes. They may still be highly respectable in the art world, but honestly, I think it’s about time that they consider their retirement.


gilbert & george

gilbert & george

Gilbert & George’s ‘THE BEARD PICTURES AND THEIR FUCKOSOPHY‘ at the White Cube gallery


I felt quite disappointed after seeing ‘Beazley Design of the Year 2017′ exhibition at the Design museum. I was surprised by the shortlists and they made me wonder if the design industry has regressed rather than progressed. Yes, there were some interesting designs, but few were ground-breaking or truly innovative. I have visited the exhibitions over the past few years, and I have never felt as disappointed as this year.

The museum’s new home is also a let down. It feels cold, austere, and it doesn’t make me want to linger. I do miss the former smaller but more inviting museum spot by the Thames.


designs of the year 2017

Beazley Design of the Year 2017 at the Design Museum


I am sure that I visited Agadir in my early 20s during my first trip to Morocco, yet it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I remember Marrakesh, Tangiers, Essaouira and Ouarzazate well – and even the disappointing Casablanca – but I cannot recall much about Agadir. Could it be due to the fact that the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1960 and what we saw was a soulless city with little imprint?

The exhibition ‘Yto Barrada: Agadir ‘at The curve, Barbican (until 20th May) shows a complex portrait of a city in transition – how it dealt with the challenges after a seismic disaster. The modernist/Brutalist architecture drawn on the black curved walls looks interesting, but I am not sure if these buildings do look as appealing in reality. There are sketches, photographs, texts, crafts, as well as videos; but I felt that the exhibition is slightly incoherent and lacked cogency. Evidently, a lot of research had been conducted for this exhibition, so it is regrettable that it didn’t leave a strong impact on me… just like the city itself.


Yto Barrada: Agadir

Yto Barrada: Agadir

Yto Barrada: Agadir  Yto Barrada: Agadir

Yto Barrada: Agadir at The curve, Barbican (until 20th May)



Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner



Even if you are a born-and-bred Londoner, it is likely that there are neighbourhoods that you have yet to visit. I have heard of Pinner before, but to my surprise, I have never actually visited this village before. Located in north of Harrow in zone 5, it is not somewhere Londoners would pass by unless you live around the area. Soon after I got out of the tube station, I felt like I was visiting a village outside of London, and I was captivated by the historic buildings along the high street.

Yet, the purpose of my trip was not to see the architecture, but to visit the Heath Robinson Museum, which opened at the end of 2016.







Located in the picturesque Pinner Memorial Park, this new museum is dedicated the English artist, illustrator, humorist and social commentator, William Heath Robinson (1872–1944), who was a long term resident of Pinner.

Aside from a permanent collection, there are also temporary exhibitions being held regularly and the current one is ‘Heath Robinson’s World of advertising‘ (until 18th Feb).


heath robinson musuem

heath Robinson museum


heath robinson musuem  heath robinson




If you are unfamiliar with Heath Robinson‘s work, then I urge you to visit this museum and learn more about this talented and unconventional artist.

Although he had always wanted to be a landscape painter, it was his humorous drawings, illustrations and cartoons that brought him fame and recognition. He was also well-known for his illustrated children’s books, and at the museum, you can see his diverse skills and engrossing styles in drawings and illustrations.






heath robinson   heath robinson



One of my favourites is his series of “How to . . .” books which established his as The Gadget King. It began with the humourous How to live in a Flat (1936), followed by being a Perfect Husband, a Motorist, and Making a Garden Grow. Heath Robinson was an imaginative inventor, and you would find all sorts of weird and wonderful gadgets and mechanics in his drawings that are similar to some of the gadgets we use today. He was quite a visionary.


heath robinson museum  heath robinson


Heath Robinson’s World of advertising‘ exhibition


Although the museum is quite small, it is well-designed with interesting architectural details and a good museum shop. The museum is only open from Thursday – Sunday (11am – 4pm), so do plan ahead if you decide to pay a visit.





pinner  pinner


pinner  pinner




The historic architecture in Pinner