these mesmerisingly surreal photos put the artist centre stage
TJ Boulting’s founder Hannah Watson talks the making of ‘Eye Body’, where performance and photography collide, for woo’s fortnightly culture column
image Atong Atem
words Gilda Bruno
Welcome to Stop Scrolling, where each fortnight arts and culture writer Gilda Bruno will be bringing you a roundup of carefully curated exhibitions, art fairs and photo books to check out, as well as exclusive conversations with some of today's most exciting emerging artists.
This week, Bruno speaks with Hannah Watson, founder and curator of London’s TJ Boulting gallery, to explore the inspirations behind Eye Body, a new thought-provoking group show by creatives working at the intersection of performance and photography.
A contemporary reinterpretation of groundbreaking performance artist Carolee Schneemann’s 1963 Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera (from which the show takes its title), Eye Body presents works by 12 artists whose practice combines performance and photography. Making use of the photographic medium as a means of overcoming the ephemeral essence of performative pieces, the exhibition immerses viewers in the surreal, humorous and at times freakish universe of a number of alter egos, from Daisy Collingridge’s candyfloss pink, monumental soft sculptures – called “Squishies” – to Trish Morrissey’s acute impersonation of a maternal figure in groups of strangers she infiltrated in her Front series (2005-2007).
In Rose on Horseback with Tail (1974) and Untitled – Rose and Porcelain Horses (1975), two of the photographs featured in Eye Body, influential performance artist Rose English makes a statement on the objectification of the female body by depicting herself naked in the saddle wearing a horse’s tail, being chased by a line of small white porcelain horses, respectively. American photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero’s Weight Bearing (2020) series translates her experiences of living with an undiagnosed eating disorder into shots that capture the sense of inadequacy at the core of body dysmorphia. Elsewhere, Sudanese-Australian artist Atong Atem breathes new life into her family’s old photo albums, reenacting scenes that speak of her quest for belonging; while visual artist Sam Keelan gives an eerie, unsettling portrayal of real-life obsessions in his fictional documentation of a divorcing couple’s legal fight over their toys collection.
To get to the bottom of this thought-provoking showcase of characters, we speak to TJ Boulting’s founder and curator Hannah Watson about the buildup to Eye Body, the necessity of rethinking the traditional understanding of self-portraiture, and how the artworks on display serve as a window into the truth of each participating artist.
How did you get started in the arts world?
Hannah Watson: I studied History of Art with Material Studies at UCL as I thought I wanted to be a conservator. Luckily for many works of art, I realised before I’d even started that I was not destined for this path when I stuck a painting to a table during a course in Florence. After my degree, I worked for an online art gallery (post dotcom boom) and in 2005 I went to Venice to do an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. It was there that I started working on the side for Trolley Books, having met the founder Gigi Giannuzzi back in London, who was out there for the summer. Trolley had begun in Venice and still printed near there, and he offered me a job at the publishing house and fledgling gallery back in London. We began working together, and the rest as they say, is history.
What was the vision behind TJ Boulting when it first opened its doors? How has that evolved through the years?
Hannah Watson: We moved to Fitzrovia from Shoreditch in 2011. We couldn’t believe that we had found such a beautiful space in the centre of London, it was a really exciting moment. We could offer an amazing exhibition space for our artists and expand, bringing in a new audience, artists and collectors. We really felt like we had arrived when we opened an exhibition by acclaimed Italian artist Alighiero Boetti, but just after it opened Gigi was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died six months later on Christmas Eve 2012. I had the legacy of Trolley and our new gallery TJ Boulting to keep going, both were very important to me. It took me a couple of years to find my feet, to get used to being on my own, and to use my own voice.
In 2016, I started working with Juno Calypso, and the following year Maisie Cousins – two really exciting young female photographers – and that’s when the identity of the gallery began to crystallise. I have a small group of artists who I represent, and I am very proud to still work with artists Gigi and I found together who did their first solo shows with us, namely Boo Saville, Stephanie Quayle and Juliana Cerqueira Leite. They are all women so far, but not exclusively: I just think their work is important, unique and amazing. Besides solo shows, I also present thematic group shows and often work with an external curator. Each exhibition is totally different from the other, and seeing different artists respond differently is hugely rewarding. Because TJ Boulting’s space is underground, it offers visitors a real sense of discovery and drama when they step downstairs.
What criteria guided you in selecting the artists to include in this exhibition?
Hannah Watson: Each artist had to have something unique about their work, and it had to stand on its own, whilst having a commonality with the rest of the show. I wanted to get a diverse mix of artists who call themselves photographers, performance artists and even sculptors. As it is a theme that is hard to pigeonhole, the artists had to represent that cross-section of disciplines too. During my research, the sub-themes of family, body image, gender, queerness, and abstraction emerged. It was like watching an image develop in a dark room. Other artists I represent are Juliana Cerqueira Leite, who is primarily a sculptor, and Poulomi Basu. Rose English is the most established artist and it was really exciting to be able to show her work. It was also great to get to know the work of new artists I had had my eye on for a while. A lot of the artists are young and emerging, so it was great to give them a platform not only with established artists like Rose English, but with each other.
How does the exhibition feed into the feminist discourse? What does Eye Body tell us about the experiential dimension of the participating artists?
Hannah Watson: The works presented in Eye Body are very empowering. Here, the artists are using their own bodies and image, and their own visual language. They are claiming their image and identity, using their gaze back on themselves, and with complete agency. A lot of the works have something to say, and I think a lot of it stems from the use of the photograph as a tool to capture the truth of the artist, their reality. The work is already there: all the ideas, the concepts, the activism, the humour, the composition – so many different elements are brought together that the photograph is representing their eye, and their body, in the most direct way.
Eye Body continues at TJ Boulting, London, through April 29
Scroll for an extra dose of art and culture news, curated for you by woo
When there's so much to see and experience, it can be hard to choose where to spend your valuable time. Below, Bruno picks a selection of standout shows and culture events to explore in the coming weeks.
Grenfell by Steve McQueen, film screening and solo exhibition, Serpentine Galleries, London, UK
Grenfell Tower – the North Kensington 24-storey residential block that was destroyed by the fire which took the lives of 72 people back in June 2017 – is the focus of a touching homage developed in the months following the event by British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen. On view at London’s Serpentine Galleries between April 7 and May 10, Grenfell is a 24-minute audiovisual piece that strives to cement the tragedy in people’s memory as a means of preventing similar disasters from happening in the future. Showing aerial views of the burned out shell of the tower before it was covered with hoarding, the film redirects viewers’ attention to the causes that led to such a calamity for which, nearly 6 years later, no one has yet been convicted. “I knew that once the tower was covered up, it would start to leave people’s minds,” McQueen, who was born in West London, said, reflecting on the intention behind his raw, haunting film. “I was determined that it would never be forgotten.”
Rising Sun: Artists in an Uncertain America, group show, African American Museum and Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts, Philadelphia, US
A collaboration between Philadelphia’s African American Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts, Rising Sun: Artists in an Uncertain America (through October 8) gathers an intergenerational group of 20 artists to ponder the state of US society today. Developed as a reaction to the question, “is the sun rising or setting on the experiment of American democracy?”, the artworks on display at both Philadelphia institutions spark reflections on themes of Blackness, equality, free speech, migration, uprising and more. With contributions from Black Audio Film Collective’s founder, artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah, American sculptor and photographer Petah Coyne, and conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, the showcase leverages the power of art to inspire us in moments of crisis and “expand our lived experiences”.
Beyond the Veil, group show, Guts Gallery, London, UK
Launching at London’s Guts Gallery on April 7, Beyond the Veil is an immersive figurative group show granting viewers a moment of deserved quietness amid the storm of ordinary life. Conceived as an exploration of interiority, liminality and solitude, the exhibition presents artworks by six international emerging artists whose contributions stand as an invitation into “the inner workings” of their emotional universe. Imbued with surreal, at traits dramatic undertones, Beyond the Veil (through May 5) immerses the public in an ethereal dimension where the “hushed loneliness, fervent desire and serene tranquillity” captured by the pieces on display become tangible in the visitors’ eyes. In a world that disregards people’s need for still, creatives Fabiel Adèle, Natalia González Martín, Aistė Stancikaitė, Ellen Akimoto, Preston Pavlis and Xiao Wang turn the magical which lies in our relationship with the self into artworks that transcend definition.
New Visions, triennial for photography and new media, Henie Onstad Art Center, Oslo, NO
A new showcase entirely dedicated to photography and automated image-making is coming to Oslo’s Henie Onstad Art Center on April 14. Titled New Visions and featuring 22 artists from Norway, Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the second iteration of this triennial exhibition positions itself at the forefront of the fight against climate change by zooming in on crucially relevant topics such as resource extraction, energy distribution and data harvesting. The impact of today’s social, political and ecological issues is scrutinised and mapped out in images capturing anything from underseas data cables to geological change and surveillance-driven use of new technologies. Elsewhere, the idea of national identity is challenged through the contemporary reappropriation of traditional symbols and customs. Curated by Susanne Østby Sæther, Inga Lāce and Reem Shadid, New Visions (through September 17) looks at photography as a means of both denouncing and understanding our growing relationship with machines and the influence those have on our lives.
Salone del mobile, design fair, Milano, IT
A new edition of Salone del mobile, among the most respected design fairs in the world, is set to inaugurate in Milan on April 18, reviving the Italian capital of fashion through a constellation of collateral events. Hosted at Fiera Milano and continuing through April 23, the 61th iteration of the acclaimed showcase will present the best of furniture and interior design with special attention to the latest trends, innovative techniques and sustainable practices. Running alongside the main exhibition will be Euroluce, a biennial event exploring the infinite forms and possibilities of light. This year’s Salone del mobile will straddle art and architecture in a dense public programme of creative showcases, talks, installations and workshops curated by Beppe Finessi.
Gabriel Moses, Regina, solo show, 180 Studios, London, UK
Thinking of heading to central London for the weekend? Don’t miss Regina, Gabriel Moses’ first exhibition at 180 Studios, where the local photographer and filmmaker will showcase a selection of 50 photographs spanning his eclectic career across fashion, music and sport, alongside two never-seen-before short films. Open through April 30, the event retraces Moses’ trailblazing artistic journey so far, casting light on his early inspirations – including pioneering Black image-makers Gordon Parks and Malick Sidibé – and the evocative atmosphere at the core of his visual craft. As one of the youngest and most influential voices on the contemporary creative landscape, the self-taught photographer has worked with anyone from Dior, Moncler and Burberry to late Louis Vuitton’s creative director and Off-White’s founder Virgil Abloh. With Regina, he confirms his extraordinary gift for storytelling, gracing viewers with intensely cinematic, beautiful snapshots of life inspired by memory, family and culture.
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