April 2009, Mythologies @ Haunch of Venison


Lee Hyungkoo, Animatus Series, 2006-2007,
photos: peter mallet, courtesy Haunch of Venison, London
Haunch of Venison

12 March through 25 April 2009
By Giovanni Aloi 
Haunch of Venison has reopened its doors to the public after a long absence. Located at the back of the Royal Academy at 6 Burlington Gardens, the exhibiting space now sits where once was (between 1970 and 1998) the Museum of Mankind: an outpost of the British Museum housing its ethnography wing.

With four venues now open in London, New York, Berlin and Zurich, Haunch of Venison now belongs to the rank of those commercial galleries like Gagosian and White Cube that are powerful enough to cross the boundaries of pure commercialism in the attempt of reaching museum-like standards. This transition is usually manifested by the staging of conceptually-grounded group exhibitions and the publishing of good quality catalogues featuring academic essays. Nothing wrong with this; and considering that Haunch of Venison has a past dotted with successful and challenging exhibitions, the transition seems most credible. The gallery was in 2007 acquired as a wholly-owned subsidiary company of Christie’s International; a move which enabled Haunch of Venison to substantially increase its dealings and commissioning on an international scale. The setting also plays big part in the success of the gallery’s new incarnation. 6 Burlington Gardens’ facade is imposing, the hall leading upstairs is rather grand and the brilliant white walls, wood banisters and stone stairs are solemnly-classical to say the least. Much larger than the nearby White Cube, and much more stylish than the newly reopened Saatchi Gallery, Haunch of Venison just never ends, generously presenting a journey that room by room, leaves visitors more than satisfied with the offering.

Mythologies, the first show of the gallery’s nuova forma, is an interesting one. It has gathered a number of mixed reviews: a commercial venture occupying a prime location (back to back with a historic art institution) presenting a culturally and conceptually engaged exhibition including some of the biggest names on the contemporary art scene should be mistrusted; so some critics seem to think. I don’t.

The legacy with the previous incarnation of 6 Burlington Gardens as the Museum of Mankind is employed here as a blue-print for the conceiving and staging of the show. The now closed museum presented a series of exhibitions illustrating the variety of non-Western societies and cultures. Its collections came from the indigenous peoples of Africa, Australia, the Pacific Islands, North and South America, and parts of Asia and Europe, and include ancient as well as recent and contemporary artefacts.

Matt Collishaw, Insecticide 12, 2006,
Color Photography, courtesy Haunch of Venison, London
Mythologies references this inheritance in a number of ways: the roster of artists on show is truly international; the works on show address different cultures and cultural paradigmatic sets; there is an emphasis on difference and diversity; an interest in pseudo-scientific display methodologies; a taste for the uncanny and the extraordinary; a defined sense for the theatrical.

Over its eleven galleries, the show is structured on interlinked themes like (Un)natural Histories, Memento Mori, Belief and History and Magic and capitalises on a stark multimedia approach.

On the ground floor we encounter the work of John Isaacs, an artist that for over a decade has challenged audiences with his hyper-real sculptures of mutilated animals. Here a cube made of meat and construction materials like bricks, beams and tiles, seems to question or suggest a blurring of boundaries between human and man-made, organic and inorganic, inside and outside, stability and change.

Keith Tyson’s The Block is exhibited directly opposite Isaacs’ cube and takes the idea of evolutionary process further (the main theme of this wing is loosely based on Darwinian notions) by combining sculpture and photography. Charting the ages of the universe from the Big Bang through the extinction of dinosaurs to modern day society, the bronze cube exhibited at the centre of the work, stands a silent witness to the repeated melting and re-casting immortalised in the photographic series.
Installation view, (foreground) Jochem Hendricks, Siblings, 2008,
(background) Rachel Howard, Totems, 2008,
photo: peter mallet, courtesy Haunch of Venison, London
Most notably, upstairs is a new installation especially created for Mythologies by Jannis Kounellis. The work consists of rows of dark coats orderly lined up on the floor, onto which iridescent lead plugs have been placed, and framed by a single row of worn shoes. Kounellis’ interest for the creation of new signifying sets within the paradigmatic concerns of Arte Povera is still in place; the work’s evocative nature speaking of universal absences, life journeys and past relationships.
The nearby rooms are dotted with works involving taxidermy, a subject that has increasingly gained exposure in contemporary art over the past few years. Different from Damien Hirst’s approach of slicing cows and housing them in formaldehyde cases, the taxidermy on show here is less spectacle and more subversion. Polly Morgan’s birds have been the centre of much interest last year, attracting the attention of celebrities like Kate Moss and Jude Law, her work re-addresses the use of traditional taxidermy by creating uncanny and unpredictable scenarios. In the glass-fronted bookcase presented in one of the galleries, two birds lie dead-looking in small jewel boxes, subverting the traditional function served by taxidermy of ‘keeping the animal forever alive’: here these birds are forever dead. The juxtaposition of life and death is also at the core of the other work by Morgan shown in another room where incredibly small baby birds burst out from a wooden coffin.

Not too far, two Dobermans each calmly hold by the neck, a dead-looking puppy. Jochem Hendricks Siblings, makes a new and unconventional use of taxidermy, asking us to reconsider our feelings and preconcepts about a notoriously dangerous and unfriendly breed. What is most unsettling about the piece is that both dogs look at you straight in the eyes with a typically canine-friendly and begging expression. Let’s face it, taxidermied animals are not famous for the expressiveness of their glass-eyes; the opposite is rather true – a beautifully taxidermied specimen can irreparably be ruined by the installation of outsized, crazed expressionless eyes. In front of these seemingly alive dogs that bring along a sinister and unwanted offering, we are at once moved and frightened, seduced and horrified.

The friction between beauty and horror continues in this wing with three majestic photographic prints of beautiful moths crushed by some unknown agent. The images by Matt Callishaw, (like other artists work before his), look at destruction as a creative process, by turning something beautiful into something horrible and back.
Matt Collishaw, Insecticide 24, 2006,
Color Photography,
courtesy Haunch of Venison, London
Shifting between the extremes of life and death, Mythologies also finds space for humour as the work of Hyungkoo Lee’s presents the extremely convincing skeletons of Silvester and Tweety in action. Suspended between popular culture and natural history museum exhibits, all bones faithfully reference real animal anatomy whilst accommodating for the idiosyncratic morphologies that distinguished both characters in their cartoonish presence.

Around the corner, Ed & Nancy Kienholz’s installation 76 J.C. s Led the Big Charade (1993-4) consists of representations of Christ from around the world hinting at the abuse of spirituality through iconographic reproduction and organised religion as the disillusioning of faith.

One of the last galleries titled Memento Mori, offers the opportunity for two large reproductions of Damien Hirst’s famous skull to make a reappearance (this was highly criticized in many reviews as unnecessary); studded in glass fragments and on a black background, the replicas of the original piece, which was purchased by an anonymous buyer for £50 million, and never saw again in public since is a myth in itself.

A rather sinister and low-tech puppet shadow theatre by Christian Botlansky is juxtaposed to the work of the most high tech video artists of all times, Bill Viola, whose high definition video installations blur the boundaries between still photography and video, printed image and moving image. Bill Viola’s work depicts a cyclical progression of images alluding to passages between life and death, awareness and unconsciousness looking back at the primordial subject of Adam and Eve.

Mythologies offers much more than expected. Some works are weaker than others; some are very entertaining rather than deeply engaging. However, the show works very well as a whole and the juxtaposition of art and thematics flows room by room in a highly convincing way. A highlight.


Giovanni Aloi

 Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He has curated art projects involving photography and the moving image is a BBC radio contributor, and his work has been translated into many languages. Aloi is Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture www.antennae.org.uk.

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