It’s not every day a railway station welcomes you with the perfect example of its city’s art culture hanging from the roof; a juxtaposed equal dose of traditional modesty and modern confidence.
Arriving at St Pancras International station, the signature-style neon text sign of Tracey Emin glows brightly, greeting travellers, as it hangs from the famous Barlow Shed ceiling. I Want My Time With You, Emin’s largest text piece she has ever made, stretches 20 metres across the roof, hanging directly below the St Pancras clock. The public installation was installed earlier this year, celebrating not only the 150th anniversary of the train station, but also the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Arts. The unapologetically bold, pink neon in its informal Emin-scrawl, contrasts, yet also complements, the stiff, humble, lattice-structure of the traditional wrought iron roof; the display is quite possibly the perfect cultural portrayal of the UK’s capital.
London is consistently bubbling away and brimming-full of contemporary art culture. The biggest challenge for any visit to the Big Smoke, is simply how to fit everything in?
Well this season, the perfect place to start would easily be at the 16th edition of Frieze London, taking place 4th – 7th October. The return of Frieze has a wonderful cluster-bomb effect in the form of gallery exhibitions popping up across the city during this time and spoiling us with a grand selection of choice.
Every year, Frieze hosts two important art fairs side by side in the beautiful surroundings of Regent’s Park: Frieze London which showcases the best of contemporary art, and Frieze Masters which specialises in art from the past. Visitors of the Frieze art fairs are invited to view, browse and buy world-class art from the best international galleries, within the sophisticated surroundings of the Royal Park.
Last year, Frieze London featured works from more than 160 of the world’s top contemporary galleries, whilst Frieze Masters showcased 6,000 years of art history, including Old Master paintings and avant-garde works; as exhibited by 130 leading international galleries.
Furthermore, in addition to the two art fairs, Frieze Sculpture 2018, offers a fabulous opportunity to meander around a relaxing outdoor exhibition, featuring artwork by some of the world’s most famous sculptors. Despite London’s somewhat grey, industrial reputation, nearly half of Greater London (47%), is actually green, and Regent’s Park is a wonderful example of the beautiful outdoor space that is available to enjoy in the city. The large-scale sculptures are positioned throughout the English gardens until the end of the art fair, with 25 acclaimed and emerging contemporary artists featuring within the collection.
The appeal of London as a hub of international exchange cannot be ignored, and the return of Frieze to the city offers a nod to the city’s sustained power and relevance within the art world. Although two decades have passed it seems since the movement of the Young British Artists’ heyday, creativity has always been London’s strength and this continues to happen in art spaces beyond the financial power centres. Beyond the Central wealth, plenty of not-for-profit galleries continue to thrive across all ends of the city, like the South London Gallery in Camberwell, or the Chisenhale in Mile End. Upcoming art tends to feature within the large network of smaller galleries, mostly on display in areas of regeneration, predominantly around the East End. These spaces in particular and the artists involved in them, may not feature on any current power-list, but in creative terms it is here that you’re likely to find the power players of the future.
Beyond Frieze, there are of course a wide variety of contemporary art exhibitions to take your fancy across the city. Starting in the upmarket West-End district of Knightsbridge, the Victoria and Albert Museum (only ever really referred to as the V&A), is the best place to explore elements of design and fashion.
Until 27th January, the exhibition Fashioned from Nature, explores the complex relationship between fashion and the natural world, from 1600 to the present day. This exhibition presents fashionable garments alongside natural history specimens, to highlight various organic, naturalist and botanical inspirations; Innovative new fabrics and dyeing processes are also included, inviting visitors to think about the materials of fashion and the sources of their clothes. Some of the items on display include a mid-19th century muslin day dress decorated with beetle wing cases, and a Calvin Klein Green Carpet Challenge dress worn by Emma Watson to the MET Gala 2016.
In addition to this, other prominent exhibitions taking place at the V&A which are expected to be notably popular include Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, which will open on 2nd February, taking a look at one of the 20th century’s most influential couturiers. Meanwhile, one of the summer’s most popular exhibitions continues until 4th November, Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up. An exhibition which presents an extraordinary collection of personal artefacts belonging to the iconic Mexican artist, and a collection which has never before been exhibited outside of Mexico.
Following your visit to Knightsbridge, you can either head south towards Westminster and the renowned Saatchi gallery, or venture towards Piccadilly for The Royal Academy of Arts, where Act II of the free-entry exhibition, Invisible Landscapes, takes place from 5th October until 20th January. Invisible Landscapes makes visible, the often-invisible presence of digital technologies in our lives and everyday environments.
The installations of Act II: Environment, which is on display as part of a chaptered trilogy, explores how technological advances question what it is to be human and how that shapes the everyday landscape around us. Today, digital technologies are often presented as the ultimate solution for cooperating and living in a globalised world, connecting people and places, and making our landscapes and actions more efficient. However, the piece raises questions about how these new technologies affect our privacy, security, health and dependency.
Not too far from the Royal Academy, just past Leicester Square, is the National Portrait Gallery. Here, you can meander through many rooms to discover 11’000 portraits in the form of paintings, drawings, miniatures and sculptures, as well as over 240’000 photographs and negatives to discover. Until 21st October, one particular landmark exhibition to visit would be Michael Jackson: On the Wall. Here visitors can see an impressive collection of portrayals of the iconic singer, by more than 40 artists, in a display which examines how the King of Pop continues to fascinate the world, nearly a decade after his death. Featured artists include Andy Warhol, Grayson Perry, Maggi Hambling, Catherine Opie and Gary Hume.
On towards Charing Cross, The Peacock Theatre is located nearby. If time allows, a venture across the cobblestone hustle and bustle of Covent Garden is highly recommended. Frequently scattered with an array of unique and entertaining street performers, this area is perfect for a late-afternoon meal and tipple, if you enjoy a buzzing atmosphere and a cheeky spot of people-watching. The Peacock Theatre regularly showcases some spectacular dance shows, including everything from ballet to world-music and modern dance performances. The festive season here cannot be ignored, and it is dominated by the ever-popular stage adaptation of the much-loved book and film, The Snowman which takes place from 22nd November until 6th January. The live show returns for its 21st consecutive year and has transported generations of children to a wintery wonderland and a captivating mix of magic, dance and live music – including the renowned Walking in the Air. Those in search of some slightly more sophisticated yet fun dance entertainment will not be disappointed by Dein Perry’s Tap Dogs or German Cornejo’s Tango Fire, both of which are programmed during the winter season. Meanwhile, one particular highlight taking place 20th February – 9th March, celebrates the 25th anniversary for the Canadian Cirque Eloize, opening their exciting new show, Hotel, with a sophisticated blend of drama and circus acts, Set in an art deco grand hotel that never sleeps, Hotel reveals the intimate stories of its famous time-travelling guests and looks set to be highly entertaining.
Before venturing South across the river, don’t forget to visit the Tate Britain in Pimlico, for one of the best-known contemporary British art events of the year. The Turner Prize is surely a must-see event (£13 admission) and it returns to the gallery until 6th January for its 34th edition. Arguably one of the most recognised awards for visual arts in the world, the jury-judged prize is awarded to a British artist for an outstanding display of their work in the preceding year. Previous winners and nominees create a power list of contemporary artists, including Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing, Gilbert & George, Richard Long, Rachel Whiteread, Sam Taylor-Wood, Steve McQueen and Tracey Emin. Artists are usually known for tackling pressing issues in modern society. This year’s nominees are, Forensic Architecture, Naeem Mohaiemen, Charlotte Prodger, and Luke Willis Thompson.
Next, why not enjoy a stroll or boat trip across the River Thames to then take a leisurely walk along Southbank for the notorious sites of Hayward Gallery and Tate Modern. Walking along the river, don’t forget to take advantage of the various street food treats and delights to sample at the Southbank Centre Food Market, which is running until 23rd December.
The Tate Modern is one of the largest museums of modern and contemporary art in the world. Entering the museum is an iconic experience in itself, as you become exposed to the immense space of the six-storey high Turbine Hall, an open plan space which runs across the entire length of the building and represents the full height of the original power station. The collection of artworks on display here are packed full of prominent names of the modern art world, including Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas, Mark Rothko… and the list goes on!
If you’re fortunate enough to catch one of the exhibitions here, Shape of Light runs until 14th October and triggers a fascinating analysis spanning across a century to the present day, looking at how photographers over this period have responded and contributed to the development of abstraction, through the use of both shape and light (Admission £18). Key photographs are brought together from pioneers including Man Ray and Alfred Stieglitz, as well as major contemporary artists such as Barbara Kasten and Thomas Ruff; right up to exciting new work by Antony Cairns, Maya Rochat and Daisuke Yokota, made exclusively for the exhibition.
The riverside walk which stretches along Southbank is a poignant way to experience London. Busy enough to feel the excitement of the city, and yet scattered with plenty of interesting sights across the river to enjoy a leisurely, relaxed stroll, flowing at your own pace. Beyond the Tate Modern, the Hayward Gallery and performance halls of The Southbank Centre are well-worthy of a visit if you can.
The Hayward Gallery is possibly best known for being a landmark example of Brutalist architecture. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the building was designed by Higgs and Hill in 1968. The extensive use of exposed concrete construction is typical of the Brutalist movement, a style that so often provokes such strong responses at both ends of the love-hate scale when people review this specific era of urban architecture.
Inside the gallery, the highly-recommended Shape Shifters exhibition takes place until 6th January. This major thematic exhibition features artwork which alters or disrupts our sense of space and adjusts the understanding we have of our surroundings in both subtle and dramatic ways. Bringing together the work of over 20 international artists, much of the collection is constructed from reflective or translucent materials, eliciting responses that are both physiological and psychological on the theme of space manipulation. The collection features sculptures, as well as large-scale installations, ambitious architectural adjustments and a number of site-specific commissions that respond to the gallery’s bold layout and provide a dramatic and fitting conclusion to Hayward Gallery’s 50th anniversary year.
Continuing the heavy urban vibe of The Hayward Gallery’s urban concrete structure, just across from here, in the undercroft beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall, is the Southbank Skate Space; a world-famous skateboarding spot and free creative space.
First used by skateboarders back in 1973, this iconic space is covered in colourful graffiti and as the world’s longest continually used skate-spot, it has long been a regular hunting ground of activity for photographers and street artists alike.
During the first week of October, The Southbank Centre adopts a flavour for the Orient through its packed programme for China Changing Festival. The four day programme celebrates the creative connection between contemporary China and the UK, a selection of scheduled events, include theatre, contemporary and classical music, fashion and more. The festival culminates in Cloud Show, a spectacular experimental fashion show led by Academy Award-winning costume designer and art director Tim Yip (the talent behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The show will reveal designs that expand the possibilities of wearable art, created by London’s most experimental designers, in collaboration with young people.
Also scheduled to take place inside The Royal Festival Hall, fans of the life-sized puppetry seen in War Horse, may be curious to learn that fresh from the Paris Theatre in Las Vegas, Circus 1903 will visit The Southbank Centre for its European premiere between 19th December and 5th January. The show features a selection of dangerous, daredevil circus acts including acrobats, contortionists, jugglers, trapeze, high wire performers and more, in a show that intends to captivate and transport audiences of all ages to the mesmerising Golden Age of circus.
If you’re seeking something a little more raw, up-and-coming, and off the beaten track, then you may wish to venture eastbound to the likes of Whitechapel, Barbican, Rivington Place and some of the smaller surrounding galleries of the East End.
Until 13th January, Whitechapel Gallery has a curious exhibition, by the Scandinavian duo, Elmgreen & Dragset. This is How We Bite Our Tongue, positions emotional figurative sculptures against a large-scale installation that questions our future and civic space.
Meanwhile, at the Barbican Centre, portrayals of romantic modern love in all its forms; from the obsessional and fleeting, to life-long partnerships, all feature in the exhibition, Modern Couples which is on display 10th October until 27th January. Featuring some of the biggest names in modern art, the collection invites visitors to meet famous artist couples and reveal how relationships can become a playground for creativity across painting, sculpture, photography, design and literature. The collection includes portrayals of Dora Maar & Pablo Picasso; Salvador & Gala Dali, Camille Claudel & Auguste Rodin, plus many more.
A little further North of Whitechapel and the Barbican, a stop at Columbia Road on a Sunday will provide a real-life visual spectacle to enjoy. On Sunday, the street is transformed into an oasis of foliage and flowers, set amongst small art galleries, cupcake cafes, English and Italian delis, antiquities and furniture shops. The famous Flower Market here is open on Sundays from 8am until 3pm come rain, wind or shine. The air is intense with the scent of flowers and the chant of the barrow boys calling “Everythin’ a fiver”. The shops here have a common love of the flower market and its history, and a refusal to be dictated to by the retail world.
As you return from the East End and head back North towards Kings Cross, not far from where we began at St Pancras station, is Sadler’s Wells Theatre. For those visiting the city over the 8th and 9th of February, the theatre’s own production, Sampled will present an array of dance entertainment for a pick & mix selection of performance treats to entertain a variety of tastes. Over the two programmed days, the world’s best ballet dancers, b-boys and b-girls, tangoers and contemporary dancers will gather together for Sadler’s Wells’ annual celebration of dance, giving both dance fans and new audiences, the opportunity to experience new styles in a myriad of ways. This eclectic celebration of dance from across the globe, bringing together traditional and modern styles is the perfect example of how London embraces its identity and reputation as a cosmopolitan city, celebrating its collaboration of cultures.
Interior of St. Pancras station with Tracey Enim’s “I want my time with you”