Vienna, 2 August 2019
amended 5 August 2019
A couple of months ago, a friend of ours told us that he had two spare tickets for the Bregenz Opera festival and asked us if would we like to take them. It so happens that I had been meaning to go and check Bregenz out ever since, many years ago, we had driven through it one wintry day on our way to visit my parents. So my wife and I gladly took him up in his offer. A write-up on that trip, though, will have to wait for another day. What I want to write about today is our little pre-trip to Munich.
It just so happens that a couple of days after we accepted our friend’s offer to go to Bregenz we read about an exhibition in Munich of the works of the Ghanaian-Nigerian artist El Anatsui.
We had come across his work in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art some five years ago, and had been hankering to see more of his stuff ever since. It also so happens that we had passed through Munich as well as Bregenz that wintry day of many years ago – as readers will ascertain looking at a map, Munich and Bregenz are in the same general direction from Vienna. There too, I had promised myself to return some day to visit the city.
So after a little discussion and a study of bus and train timetables, my wife and I decided that we would visit Munich for a few days before going on to Bregenz for another couple of days. Thus it was that two weeks ago we disembarked from the bus at Munich’s bus station to start our visit.
Since it was the primary reason for our visiting Munich, I will focus in this post on the exhibition of El Anatui’s work. I’ll deal with the rest of Munich and Bregenz in a later post.
Anatsui is best known for these kinds of works.
At first glance, they appear to be large sheets of textiles of some sort, draped on the wall. But actually, the sheets are made up of thousands of aluminum bottle tops, from bottled drinks, as well as of the aluminum bands or sheaths to which the unopened tops are attached.
Anatsui was driven to experiment with these waste objects by a principle he lives by: artists should use what they have around them to create their art. He buys these discarded pieces of aluminum from the informal recyclers who collect them. His large crew of assistants then flatten them, after which Anatsui has them lay the pieces on the ground, where he shuffles them around, using the brand colours of the aluminum pieces to produce an overall large-scale abstract design. Once he is satisfied with the design, his assistants “sew” the pieces together with copper wire. When Anatsui is setting up an exhibition, he will spend much time in “draping” the sheets on the wall until he is satisfied with the effect. Here are some other pieces in the exhibition.
Sometimes, Anatsui uses the aluminum pieces differently. He will have his assistants twist them into circles, which they will then sew together.
This gives him semi-transparent sheets with a gauze-like effect. He had one very large work of this type in the exhibition, filling up a whole room.
While Anatsui has mostly used aluminum bottle tops and their sheaths in these kinds of works, he has also used other metallic discards. This work, for instance, is made with the “Easy Open” can tops, the ones you can just pull off the cans.
Personally, I find his work with the aluminum caps and sheathes more interesting. Can tops are too big, so the textile-like effect of his other works is not really there. The brand colours are absent too, so he can’t get the abstract designs he creates with the bottle tops.
I have to say, I find these pieces fascinating. Not only are they beautiful to look at, they are also a wonderful example of how, with some thought and dedication, a waste can be given a new life. And what a new life they have been given by Anatsui! His works remind me of another African artist whom I have written a post about earlier, Abdoulaye Konaté. He also takes small coloured pieces of material, in his case pieces of textile, and creates beautiful abstract designs out of them.
Although Anatsui is best known for his work with aluminum bottle caps, he actually arrived at this quite late in his career. Before that, he worked, and continues to work, with wood. His basic approach is to first take a chain-saw to the wood, gouging out lines, often criss-crossing and of varying depths and orientation, and then taking a blow torch to the surface to selectively blacken it. He may then add touches of colour. The effect can be quite striking. Here are photos of a couple of his works in the exhibition.
Before that, he worked in clay. We are now at the start of his career, and as is perhaps often the case with artists this early work is good but not great. I include only one of these works here.
As I say, a really great artist. I’ve said it before, and I say it again: I think the best art today is coming out of the developing countries; In Europe especially, our art is dying on its feet. I’m afraid any readers who are interested in seeing this exhibition will no longer be able to see it in Munich. It closed at the end of July. But I think there is a chance it will go on to other places. Keep a lookout for it!