Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2013: Prepare to be Dumbfounded

El Anatsui, TSIATSIA - searching for connection, 2013,  Aluminium, (bottle-tops, printing plates, roofing sheets) and copper wire, 15 x 23 metres.  © Benedict Johnson
El Anatsui, TSIATSIA – searching for connection, 2013,
Aluminium, (bottle-tops, printing plates, roofing sheets) and copper wire, 15 x 23 metres.
© Benedict Johnson

The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, for a Summer Exhibition first-timer such as myself, is a bewildering experience. Now in it’s 245th year, it is steeped in history and an institutional event I really should have attended before. But how are you meant to go about digesting the chocka-block walls of artwork, the rooms filled with sculptures and models and paintings? How, in fact, do you negotiate the hoards of visitors each peering precisely where you want to peer?

I recommend attending with a friend, particularly an artsy and knowledgable one, with whom you have double the chance of recognising the famous paintings and double the body space to barge, nicely, into spaces. The little guide book that lists all 1264 of the works is essential if you want to leave thinking that you have any chance of remembering anything you have seen. Write notes, scribble, circle and star, so then at least you can look up all the artists later. I’d say take some sneaky photos on your phone, but that’s definitely not allowed and the stewards will get very politely cross.

The highlights, this year have got to be twofold: the impressive installation piece by El Anatsu covering the facade of Burlington House and Vanity of Small Differences, the class satire tapestries by Grayson Perry. You can go and see wall hanging just outside in the court yard, for free. Of course, the recycling of materials in art is a trope that has been regurgitated about as many times as we would probably need to recycle plastic to be anything like sustainable. But nonetheless, it’s an impressive spectacle.

Grayson Perry’s tapestries are grotesque, with absurd and clashing colours that make me wince and revolting scenes with almost illegible writing. But they are brilliant, stupendous and incredibly funny, if you have a sharp and intelligent wit to appreciate the nuances. The artsy friend came in very helpful in the room dedicated to Perry’s class tapestries, as she’d seen the recent documentary. The satire is all down to the details about taste and class: the ditsy Cath Kidston handbag in the suburban middle class home, the puns abundant in the swirling, almost verse-like inscriptions (do you call it an inscription if it is on a tapestry?) and the trashy dresses worn by the women going out in the working class tapestry. Perry’s character Tim is based on Hogarth’s Rakewell from A Rake’s Progress. But while Rakewell ends up in Bedlam, Tim is killed in a car crash, that eternal symbol of the modern age, being photographed by witnesses with smart phones: that sadistic, distasteful streak we all know we are prone to. It’s all a matter of taste and Perry’s aesthetics aren’t to mine, but his humour certainly is.

The show this year has been co-ordinated by Royal Academicians the architect Eva Jiricna and the printmaker Norman Ackroyd. The weight towards architecture is clear in the room which perhaps is a delicate insight into the minds of (mainly City) firms and an emphasis on architecture as art. This is an emphasis, though, that gives architects a bad name and I know from second-hand experience that builders particularly bemoan the architect who lacks engineering skills. My Dad, who runs a small, country, green architectural firm (Mark Ellerby Architects) once did the working drawings for a famous London ‘arty’ architect, who shall remain unnamed, who had drawn up plans for a building where the stair cases didn’t match up between the floors. I rest my case. Some of the models on show, so implausible as to become almost unimaginable, were beautifully aesthetic, but to ask a pretentious question: were they architecture? (N.B. If you’re interested in viewing real architecture in an exhibition, RIBA is currently showing Charles Correa’s body of work, an architect who transformed the face of Indian cities.)

My random picks to look up, from the scribbles in my exhibition programme, would be The Road to Ithaca by Philip Sutton for it’s garish, turquoise frame; In The Garden by Alexander Vorobyev, an artist who experiments with dreamscapes and intriguingly uses typography which spills around his pale slate blue abstracts; and Adrian Kidwell’s two ingenious pieces Mr Pike’s Private Crazy Gold Course and One of Those Troublesome ‘Sink’ Housing Estates One Hears So Much About, an unknown name but whose intricate works look a little like the penrose steps, except they’re not.

If it wasn’t evident, then I suppose my key to seeing the Summer Exhibition was to take my time and get an aura of each room – all curated with something in particular in mind. Then to spend time on just what I liked the look of, without worrying about whether it was a ‘must-see’ work or a particularly notorious commission. The Summer Exhibition as well as being an open entry event, giving artists far and wide the opportunity to be shown at this infamous annual show, also gives the public free reign, almost permission, to like what they wish. By it’s very nature it’s open and let’s you peruse, preamble and amble at will.