THE insistent groan of an industrial cherry-picker made for an odd siren song at the Royal Academy of Art over the weekend. Casual strollers wandered into the plaza, their curiosity piqued by the small army of construction workers unfurling and hanging a tapestry-like artwork across the façade of the RA’s Burlington House. “It reminds me of Klimt,” said one bystander to his friend.
Indeed, the piece—called “TSIATSIA – searching for a connection”—is luminous. Made especially for the RA and on view through August 18th, the 15 x 23 metre work is one of the largest ever created by El Anatsui, a contemporary artist based in Nigeria. In those fleeting moments when the sun emerges over London, the work looks as though it has been switched on. Yet closer inspection of the woven panels reveals that they are made entirely of rubbish. Sections that look like stones are made from used printing plates announcing births, deaths and weddings. Squares of vibrant colours come from discarded roofing material. What glitters like gold from a distance is actually a chain-mail of flattened aluminium bottle-tops advertising cheap African liquor: Romatex, Castello, First Lady Brandy.
“It’s almost alchemical,” observed Elizabeth Lalouschek of October Gallery, which represents Mr Anatsui. “He transforms ordinary objects into something extraordinary.” This is what makes Mr Anatsui’s work remarkable, even shocking: that something so beautiful can be made from the junk most people throw away, each object carrying the weight of a past life. This play on materials can feel loaded with cultural commentary, yet Mr Anatsui, who was born in Ghana in 1944, dislikes being pigeon-holed as an “African artist”. “People are free to have their own ideas,” he explained.
Amid the mild anxiety of the artwork’s two-day installation process—the droning cherry-pickers; the craned necks and folded arms of nervous gallerists and architects; the intrigued spectators, snapping photos on their phones—Mr Anatsui exuded a rare calm. A modest presence in jeans, trainers and a black windbreaker, he spent much of the time seated quietly on a chair in the middle of the plaza, occasionally taking pictures with his iPad. Ms Lalouschek was on hand to do his bidding, armed with a walkie-talkie. “Just push the material!” she told two men atop a cherry-picker. “Don’t worry, it’s strong.”
Mr Anatsui explained that his moment of fear came in the studio, when he was figuring out how the piece would work at this scale. Any concerns about the logistics of the installation evaporated Saturday morning, he said, when he saw two of the nine panels already up. He barely looked over when someone tripped over a swathe of the sculpted “fabric”, bending it out of shape. (“It’s really very robust,” reassured Gerard Houghton of the October Gallery.)
A glittering tapestry made from bottle-tops? It was this jolt of disbelief that made Mr Anatsui the darling of the 2007 Venice Biennale, when he draped the front of the Palazzo Fortuny with his first large-scale outdoor sculpture. “Every year [at the Biennale] the art world is talking about something. That year it was his piece,” recalled Edith Devaney of the Royal Academy. Since then Mr Anatsui’s rise has been meteoric, with large-scale outdoor installations in Berlin, Paris and New York (along the High Line), and a solo show now on at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Observing the crowd gathered at the RA, Zbyszek Plocki, an architect and old friend, slapped Mr Anatsui’s back. “You’ve grown up in the world, sweetheart,” he said and laughed.
The piece fronting the RA (“a dream come true,” said Ms Devaney) has been a year in the making, with not a few technical hurdles. The work itself arrived at the RA on Friday, the nine panels folded into unimpressive bundles weighing a surprisingly light 50 kilos each. “When I first saw it I thought ‘what is this?’” said a grizzled construction worker to Mr Anatsui. “But I really like it,” he added and shook the artist’s hand. Mr Anatsui smiled graciously.
After a Saturday spent hanging the piece, Sunday was devoted to creating a texture of ripples and folds. This, Mr Anatsui explained, adds an extra dimension to the work because the texture can never be replicated. “It’s like life,” he said, “it’s not a fixed thing, but a matter of trial and error. You don’t want a static form that stays flat. You want it to change each time.”
Source: The Economist