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What makes a 250-year-old exhibition tick? RA 250th Summer Exhibition Review


Grayson Perry RA hanging the 2018 Summer Exhibition Photo: Philip Sayer

The sound of bickering and grumbling of artists like Turner and Constable about the hanging arrangement of their works seem to still reverberate today in the halls of Burlington House. For 250 years, this spectacle presents itself unceasingly during the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Yet the insubordinate attributes of the artist-run exhibition have sustained the tale for centuries to come.


Taking on the exceptional workload of this year’s Summer Exhibition is the self-acclaimed “worshipper of teddy bears” and the eccentrically talented ceramist Grayson Perry. On board with Perry’s curatorial Temeraire are fellow Royal Academicians (RA) including Phyllida Barlow and Cornelia Parker, to name a few (females). This year, the annual shindig at Burlington House occupies not only the usual first-floor galleries but the streets and the revamped extension that, at last, connects the House to the Royal Academy. With an overwhelming number of celebratory events, the Academy expects to deliver a show that justifies the £56million makeover cost while fulfilling insatiable artistic egos; of course, these are not on Perry’s agendas.



Installation view of Mike Nelson's 'Untitled (public sculpture for a redundant space)', Summer Exhibition 2018 Photo: David Parry

Grayson Perry is a collaborator. The exhibition is a result of an artist collaboration that reflects individual’s taste and preference, devoid of ideological fabric and institutional interest – a mega-personal art show. As I walk up the staircase which leads to the Wohl Central Hall with a gigantic floating sculpture, a pile of “stuff” on the staircase, for a moment, halts my gait; it is a work titled Untitled (Public Sculpture for a Redundant Space) by British installation artist Mike Nelson RA, who represented Britain at the Venice Biennale 2011 and has won this year’s Charles Wollaston award for the “most distinguished work”. The gigantic floating sculpture is a personal selection of Sir Anish Kapoor RA, who is a fan of Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos and longs for her works to be seen. Vasconcelos’ Royal Valkyrie takes the centre stage among thousands of works by artists ranging from art world darlings to Joe Bloggs. The summer exhibition has always been about making a statement.

Trump and Miss Mexico by Alison Jackson

As I stride across the politically-charged Gallery III painted in sulfur yellow, portraits of Kim Jong Un by Elva Peacock at £650, Trump and Miss Mexico by Alison Jackson at £9,000 and a Banksy painting Vote To Love with a hefty £350,000,000 price tag. Most of the works come with a price tag and visitors can make purchases at the front desk. The format is a hybrid of art fair and institution. It is not trade-oriented unlike art fairs, while in the meantime, it is free from institutional sacrality. However the Academy makes 30% from each purchase, the only sacrality is perhaps a woman (friendly) asking visitors not to take any photo of two monument new works by David Hockney in the Lecture Room. When a show and its ambience abdicate the presence of commerce and sacrality, there is a direct reciprocity between art and viewer. Works by David Hockney in the same room as Raymond Anderson’s drawing seem appropriate and harmonious whose colour palettes rival the likes of George Seurat.


There is beauty in excessiveness, something that is present in our contemporary society, yet one hardly notices. However, art crowds often complain that there are too many artists and artworks; not just on the gallery walls but Contemporary Art at large. The Royal Academy’s 250th summer show reminds me of Ngorongoro II during Berlin Gallery Weekend (see my review here). Initiated by artists and presented by artists, both shows amass hundreds of artworks regardless of artist’s fame, except works show at Ngorongoro II are not for sale, more platonic than the RA summer show. They rebel against contextualisation and institutionalisation of art, a conflicting phenomenon against the trend of contemporary art which consists of a plethora of “grassroot” art movements and trajectories. I seem to turn to a comment made by Slavoj Zizek quite often recently: “Something that is excluded from the content returns as a form…It’s that content is never simply a content in itself, there is something primordially repressed in the content itself and this repressed returns in the form.” If we contextualise contemporary art as form, and social issues as repressed, Zizek seems to sum up the complex relationship about contemporary art and society at large.

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© 2020 By Henrietta Y. Mansfeld