Today I awoke, stretched out my arms and rejoiced in the fact that it is just an ordinary day. By that I mean I have to do everything that I usually have to do, like write this column, and a multitude of other tasks, but also that this is the first day in more than three weeks when I haven't had to go to the Royal Academy, or when the Academy hasn't completely absorbed my thoughts. Even now, I feel my soul is floating around Gallery VIII.
A few months ago, I was asked if I would like to curate a room at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. I was in Australia at the time, and the month of June seemed a long way away. And then, suddenly, a few weeks ago, the month of June came charging towards me, like a deranged elephant flapping its ears and making loud gestures with its trunk, and the daunting task of having to curate anything, let alone something so public, quite overwhelmed me as I suddenly realised I had never curated anything before.
I began by thinking about the Royal Academy: what it stands for, its history, what the summer show represents – and what I could possibly bring to it. The obvious would be what is expected of me. The title for this year's RA Summer Exhibition is Man Made, so I also began to think about what the term "man made" meant to me: Luddites, the age of mechanical reproduction, the desire of invention, science; it all seemed quite distant from me.
So I turned the expression on its head and thought about the emotions that humankind make, from fantasy to jealousy, pain and fear. I thought about the mind and how it has to deal with everyday life's confusion and emotional instalments. I wanted to create a room that could show this, and at the same time I wanted to show work that could somehow excite and create discussion about art. Something that would entice the viewer, not just into the room, but maybe into the dialogue and opinions, and maybe a change of opinion once they had left the room. I wanted to create a room at the Royal Academy that would have a longer-lasting effect than the summer show.
I wrote down a list of artists and particular works of theirs that I liked. The artists ended up being multinational, their ages ranged from 27 to 97, and the works crossed over many different media. All of the works that I chose had to go through the official channels and be cleared by the RA Summer Exhibition Hanging Committee.
For people who don't know: the Summer Exhibition is an open submission. This year, there were more than 10,000 entries. It's a show where professional artists hang alongside amateurs and its reputation literally hangs on the fact that it is totally overhung, from floor to ceiling. This has always been the style, the salon hang. Personally I find it crazy, draconian, but somehow amazing. It doesn't mean to say I was going to hang Gallery VIII (my room) like that, but I have hung high into the gods and low to the ground, and I have world-renowned artists hung next to unknown artists.
I have also taken on the tradition of the shock of Varnishing Day. This is the day when the works are first unveiled: 200 years ago Turner would have been standing there touching up the last wave; Ruskin would have been strutting his stuff, removing any evidence of pubic hair (I like to image him on his knees with a little dustpan and brush).
In the olden days, every year, the Royal Academy was plagued with some kind of scandal or another; I am happily just returning to that tradition. There are some works in Gallery VIII that I feel viewers should be warned about in advance, simply because I don't want to have the blame of somebody having a visual heart attack because they have never seen a penis before, or a zebra mounting a woman from behind. These images are appearing in an art gallery. This is a safe environment for them to take prominence on the stage, and for the audience to create discussion around them. This is what art is about, forcing us to exercise our minds and our visual capacity, but I will accept that maybe not everybody wants to.
I would love to write about all the works individually, but there isn't space and there isn't time. What I know is the pleasure I've had over the last few weeks in putting this room together: working closely with the other Royal Academicians; dressing up in all my finery and beautiful silver medal; feeling actually very proud to be a Royal Academician and having wonderful conversation with the likes of Adrian Berg RA – finding out inside information on Barbara Hepworth that you could never read about, the kind of stuff where you had to be there at the time. It's good fun seeing history, seeing it unravel, and understanding that you can play a part, if only minor, in its evolution.
If there are any elements in my room that shock, I'm very happy about this. Shock is a base word used to describe a response forced by certain emotions. I really want people to start feeling art, not just looking at it. Art is a wonderful, fantastic thing. It exists halfway between man and nature. It rests on a strange plane, somewhere else where we can take our minds, outside of the daily realm. A place of a heightened spirituality, a place where the mind can feel free to explore, mentally, emotionally and, if it wants, without even having to utter a word. As we say at the Royal Academy, with glasses raised high: "Honour and glory to the next exhibition."
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