Government Art Collection ‘travelling light’ exhibition

Selected by Simon Schama

Whitechapel Gallery

Until 26 February

By Suzannah.Brecknell

25 Jan 2012

January is traditionally the month when, depressed to be back in the office after a happy week of festivities, we turn our thoughts to holidays.

What better time, then, to make a trip to the Whitechapel Gallery to view a selection of travel-inspired art from the Government Art Collection? The gallery has been showing art from GAC since June last year. Every few weeks the exhibition changes as a different selection of works is introduced, chosen either by a particular individual (in this case, art historian Simon Schama) or on some thematic basis.

In the introductory booklet, Schama says that he began the selection process largely by choosing works he liked. There is something to suit most tastes, and in the booklet Schama does his best to link the pieces together. However, the whole exhibition does have the sense of a perfectly nice rag-bag of art with a theme crammed in afterwards.

How you react to this will depend on your exhibition temperament. True art fans will no doubt be perfectly happy with the slightly tenuous thematic links. However, I was brought up (artistically speaking) on educative Royal Academy visits, and I like my exhibitions to have some clear theme or narrative. Without this I find myself flitting about feeling slightly adrift and purposeless.

Nonetheless there are some lovely pieces in this exhibition, particularly the photography. Tacita Dean’s moody Palast I-IV (a series of photos depicting views of Berlin’s skyline reflected in the windows of the Palast der Republic) contrasts starkly with Ori Gersht’s large-scale shot of the Judea desert, so pale under the bright sun that the image looks as though it has faded. This, in turn, contrasts pleasantly with the rain-soaked allotments fading into a misty horizon in Mark Edwards’ Allotments, Ely, Cambridgeshire.

Also on display is Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle – a smaller version of the sculpture which sat on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. Its brightly coloured printed sails are made of the fabric which is a trademark of Shonibare’s work and which reflects, he says, the way African and European cultures have mixed after centuries of trade, migration and empire.

Similar themes are evident in another exhibition which it’s worth popping into whilst you’re at the Whitechapel Gallery: Zarina Bhimji’s film Yellow Patch. This includes beautiful shots of decaying boats on the Indian Ocean, and a sequence in which the camera pans out from an extreme close-up of a statue to reveal a weather-beaten Queen Victoria, missing the lower half of her face and looking uncannily like a Dr Who monster. Perhaps not the deep theme on which one is meant to reflect, but amusing nonetheless. ?

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