Art Quarterly spring 2016 out now

  • 1 March 2016

In this issue of our exclusive members' magazine John Akomfrah and Beatrice Gibson talk film, Lily Le Brun calls Capability Brown the godfather of land art and Charles Darwent discusses the life and work of Dan Flavin.

Art Quarterly spring 2016 featuring John Akomfrah's Tropikos © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Art Quarterly spring 2016 featuring John Akomfrah's Tropikos

This issue’s cover shows a detail from a still from Tropikos, a 36-minute ‘tetralogy on water and dreams’ by the artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah, who, on page 52, you will find in conversation with fellow artist Beatrice Gibson.

Shot between Devon and Cornwall in the Tamar Valley and Plymouth Sound, a watery landscape through which silent figures in 16th-century dress wander or stand frozen in tableaux, it’s a haunting work. There’s no clear narrative, but the film begins with a quotation from Calderón de la Barca’s great play of the Spanish Golden Age Life is a Dream, and the narration is composed of passages from Hakluyt, Shakespeare (The Tempest), Milton (Paradise Lost) and the 20th-century French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. So far, so mysterious, but its inspiration comes, at least in part, from Bertolt Brecht’s ‘distancing’ or ‘alienation effect’, which strove to make the familiar strange in order to provoke a reaction. Despite the elegiac beauty of its composition, the richness of its costumes and props, the lushness of the landscape, it is at heart a meditation on colonialism, displacement, maritime power, the slave trade and the role of Britain’s waterways in enabling it, especially those in the South West, where it can be seen at, at Bristol’s Arnolfini Gallery, till 10 April (after which it will tour). 

The English countryside provides more than a backdrop in Lily Le Brun’s essay on Capability Brown (page 60) too. The parks and vistas he designed may in many ways define what we think of as archetypal English landscape, but they were manipulations of nature every bit as much as works by artists such as Walter De Maria, Richard Long and Robert Smithson who use or used land as a medium.

Smithson and De Maria crop up again in Charles Darwent’s piece on Dan Flavin (page 40), who is the subject of a major exhibition of fluorescent-light works at Ikon in Birmingham, not least because all made work that can be seen near Marfa, site of Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation in the arid west Texan desert.

It is a far cry from the bucolic Veneto in northern Italy, the terra in the background of several of the 15 or so paintings known to have been painted by Giorgione, one of the artists featured, along with Bellini and Titian, in the Royal Academy’s survey of Venetian renaissance painting. 

Though very little is known about him beyond the fact that he studied with Giovanni Bellini and was revered by his peers, not least Vasari, as Rachel Spence writes on page 66, Giorgione may well have found inspiration in poetry. For what distinguished Venice from Florence in the late 15th century was the fact that it had established itself as the hub of Europe’s then nascent publishing industry and had produced about one sixth of the 30,000 books that had been published in Europe so far. So it is no coincidence, she writes, that his most famous painting, The Tempest, ‘was painted at the same moment as a wave of pastoral poetry swept across the Veneto’. Could Petrarch’s Laura – the ‘goddess in the grove’ – have inspired Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus? It’s a seductive thought.