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Castles in the Air | Stephen Chambers : The Court of Redonda

State of the Nation, The Court of Redonda, Stephen Chambers

Princes, prefects, urchins and poets; these are just a few in a court of luminaries setting sail to Venice. But all is not as it seems, for this royal court is not to be found on the passenger list – all are actually cargo, nestled safely below deck. From May to November, The Court of Redonda, a solo exhibition by Royal Academy artist Stephen Chambers is due to be presented in the historic setting of Ca’ Dandolo, Venice, accredited as a collateral event of the 57th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale 2017. Curated by Emma Hill this installation of over one hundred imaginary portrait paintings will reimagine the extraordinary literary legend of Redonda, a tiny, uninhabited island in the Eastern West Indies.

It was while spending time living and working along New York’s East River that Chambers was introduced to the Redonda legend through the writings of the novelist Javier Marías. The mythology first took shape as a fantasy in the mind of Matthew Dowdy Shiell, a merchant trader who claimed the island in 1865 and elected himself monarch – effectively building castles in the air that others would add to and populate. His son M.P. Shiel, a writer of science fiction, determined that the kingship would be passed through a literary succession, and anointed the English poet John Gawsworth as his successor. Gawsworth went on to bestow honours to his friends, creating a court of writers, poets, artists and ne’er-do-wells. Marías himself was also a former king of Redonda, who appointed many creative individuals to his honorary court, including Pedro Almodovar, A.S. Byatt and W.G. Sebald.

Magda, la Encantada
Postmaster General









From the concept of Redonda flowers a labyrinthine weave of visual possibilities where Chambers found ‘the ignition point of unresolved narratives’. It took him fifteen months to create the portraits; at points he was inventing the characters quicker than he could produce them, such was the imaginative stimulation that the ‘mental collaboration’ with Marais expounded. Each character, from Magda the Encantada to Harold the Bum has their own back-story, a personal context and history created by Chambers. At the heart of the project was the ideal of wanting these faces to be regular people; interesting, not necessarily beautiful, extraordinarily ordinary and, perhaps most importantly, for creativity to be king, if in mind only. By elevating people who make thinks and think things, he hoped to emphasise how creativity, along with diversity and inclusivity, played a part in this mythical kingdom.

The themes of diversity and tolerance run vividly through Chambers’s work. Born in Notting Hill Gate in the 1960s, a time still much defined by the race riots of the late 1950s, he was bought up to see how diversity can be a cause of both celebration and segregation. He went onto study at Winchester School of Art from 1978 to 1979 and then at St Martin’s School of Art from 1979 to 1982. He graduated with a Masters from Chelsea School of Art in 1983 and went on to win many scholarships and awards, including a Rome Scholarship, a Fellowship at Winchester School of Art, and a Mark Rothko Memorial Trust Travelling Award. He was elected to the Royal Academy of Art, London, in 2005 and was awarded an Honorary Fellowship from Downing College in the University of Cambridge, in 2016, where he has been Artist in Residence. His career does imply a sense of being an establishment insider. Yet, his work would tell a different story. Here lies the intriguing contradiction of Stephen Chambers. He declares himself ‘a disobedient by default, a cuckoo in the nest’, a provocative outsider. These one hundred faces reflect the anti-court; those on the outside, looking in and are ultimately a reflection of Stephen Chambers himself.

The Principal Farrier
Harold the Bum, The Court of Redonda, Stephen Chambers









The project has an added universal poignancy, for Chambers was working on it parallel to the Brexit campaign. In this exhibition he wanted to elevate democracy and to show the benefits of tolerance and diversity. By exploring the creation of myths and the articulation of the role played by artists envisaging a world not how it is, but how it could be – the court shows us a world where we are all united by what we have in common. This court is open to all, not just the selected few. So it is only fitting that in these tumultuous Brexit days the Redondan ‘court’ is counterpointed with three large canvases entitled State of the Nation that were made before, during, and after Britain’s referendum about whether to remain in the European Union. The paintings hint at the precarious state of the modern world through their motifs of a falling rider (Chambers states that if the Remain vote had been victorious, the rider would have stayed on his horse). Rod Mengham captures the essence of this work in the following statement : ‘…his patterns refer us to the stories uniting us as a group, even when they are stories of division and rivalry: stories about islands, and their relationship to bigger land masses…’

This court, although seemingly mythical and far-removed are actually the faces we see everyday on the street and on the tube. Chambers work is strikingly relevant because he takes the familiar and puts it on a bigger scale. The personal and the universal are stories closely weaved and inextricably bound. In this exhibition each face has their own story and it is when they are bought together that they create a whole, for better or for worse. Although not overtly political, this exhibition is a seductively solicited and humorously surreal enquiry into these changing times. Maybe these one hundred faces could be any of us, in any group, on any island. In The Court of Redonda we find a self-portrait for all.

By Lucy Binnersley

Stephen Chambers will be exhibiting The Court of Redonda at the at Ca’ Dandolo, Grand Canal, San Polo 2879, 30100 Venice, 13 May – 26 November 2017.

An interview with Paul Benney

Speaking in Tongues, 2014. Oil and resin on board. By Paul Benney

If you walk along one of the leafy roads from Hackney Downs and turn down a little side street, you may just find yourself at an old printworks. Now known as Hackney Down Studios, the space houses a collection of creative studios and workshops, including that of the London-born artist Paul Benney. Stepping in from the bright street to Benney’s equally well-lit studio, one is immediately struck by how dark many of his paintings are in comparison to their surroundings. Speaking in Tongues, which is to be exhibited at the 2017 Venice Art Biennale, along with Benney’s Reliquary series, is an excellent example of what the critic Adrian Dannat has called the ‘sombre richness of Benney’s aesthetic’, and several of the works in his studio resonate with an intense, inky darkness.

Before Benney arrives for our meeting, his studio manager shows me Benney’s particularly dark series of mirror paintings. Displayed in oval white frames, the paintings appear to be almost completely black. As one moves closer, however, pale faces can be seen behind the darkness; an ever-so-slightly pulsating light above the works increases the sense of eeriness that emanates from the works. When Benney does arrive, dressed comfortably in a black shirt and trousers, he recounts how gallery-goers are often confused by the paintings, half-believing that there is somebody on the other side of the canvas. This unsettling feeling of not knowing which is more real – the self or the reflection – is something that has interested Benney since childhood. As a teenager, he explains, he was fascinated by the experience of staring closely into a mirror, getting closer and closer to the surface ‘until you weren’t quite sure who was looking at who’. I mention Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Mirror’, which seems to resonate with the images before us: ‘I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions. / Whatever I see I swallow immediately / Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike’. The poem ends unnervingly: ‘In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises towards her day after day, like a terrible fish’. Benney’s paintings have a similar feeling of something drowned or suspended within them – like insects embedded in amber – and are acutely haunting. It later transpires that Benney spent some time living and working in a disused abattoir, and later in a former morgue, and I wonder if this has somehow fed into aspects of his work.

Benney’s art, he hopes, strikes the part of the mind that exists subconsciously, perhaps accounting for its sense of mystery. He speaks about how feelings exist before we verbalise them, or voice them to ourselves, and it is these feelings that his work seeks to represent. When we look at his paintings, then, it is our ‘ancient brain, an animal brain’ that is engaged, although Benney notes, chuckling, that this appeal to the ‘wordless brain’ can make it difficult to talk about his work. One work that I am particularly keen to talk about nonetheless is Speaking in Tongues, the twelve foot by eight foot painting based on the story of the Pentecost in the New Testament, when the disciples are visited by the Holy Spirit and begin ‘speaking in tongues’. Interestingly, the work comes from a secular standpoint: Benney is not religious, although he was brought up in a Church of England context. Instead, the painting shows twelve friends of Benney’s, loosely representing the apostles, who stand and sit in various manners and poses. Each man has a bolt of fire emanating from his head, so that each seems alight with spiritual awakening. These flames are the brightest part of the work, the muted tones of which deliberately recall Goya’s Lunatics in the Yard (1794), and the work has an additional and unexpected sound element to it. Benney’s friends were recorded speaking about revelatory moments in their lives – births, deaths, betrayals, hopes – and their stories are relayed through holosonic speakers placed around the painting. The overall effect is of a low murmuring, a sort of spiritual chatter, although if viewers stand in a particular spot, sound-focusing technology allows them to hear individual voices with clarity. Benney worried that this extra element might distract from the visual impact of the painting, functioning as a superfluous ‘bolt-on’, but has come to see it as integral to the work’s engagement with contemporary spirituality. So far, the work has been seen by an estimated 40,000 people at Chichester Cathedral, with a variety of reactions: ‘some people were very moved by it, others were mystified’. Benney has come under fire for not including women in his re-imagining of the Pentecost, but he argues that he is being true to the representation of the disciples in the Bible, all of whom were male.

Benney is animated by the prospect of exhibiting at the Venice Biennale, one of the pre-eminent contemporary art exhibitions in the world, and enthuses about having two shows there at once. His Reliquary series will be displayed on either side of Speaking in Tongues, so that the church will be full of painted flames. Reliquary is a suite of six small canvasses, each depicting the type of candle used in votive offerings in the Christian church. The candle has been covered with a bell jar, and, unsettlingly, continues to burn. We see it decrease in size in each painting, until the last canvas shows the bell jar filled with smoke from its extinguished wick. Light plays such a strong role in Benney’s painting that I ask him how he feels about artists such as Hockney or Hodgkin, who respond to light and colour in such different ways to his own. Benney praises the illuminating quality of Hodgkin’s work, noting that it can considerably brighten the dull, grey days of London, and acknowledges some of Hockney’s earlier work as an influence (he is less keen on the artist’s more recent output). It is to Goya’s traditional technique of chiaroscuro – the tonal contrasts between light and dark – that Benney is most indebted, however.

For now, both Speaking in Tongues and Reliquary remain in London, ready to be transported to Venice in due course. Benney is a Londoner by birth and location, and he has spent the past three years in his current studio in East London. Prior to this, he was Artist in Residence at Somerset House for five years, and he has also lived in parts of West London. Being born in the city, he says, ‘allowed me to come back, in some way, because something deep within me was comfortable with city life, and specifically London’. His brothers and sisters, he notes, do not have the same attachment and were born elsewhere. Has London changed in the time that he’s known it as an artist? I know the answer to this before it comes, and Benney speaks about the inevitable process of gentrification that happens when artists breathe life into hitherto ‘no-go’ areas of town: ‘I’m sort of sick of it now, as I feel like I’m doing the job that developpers benefit from’. A similar thing happened when he lived in Manhatten, in an area where ‘you couldn’t pay people to visit you’. Illuminatingly, Benney sees the artist’s creative role as enacting a similar process. ‘You have to be prepared to go to places that other people don’t want to, or don’t dare to, and that can be an emotional place, a spiritual place, a psychological place, a philosophical place. And you’ve got to peer over the edge of that abyss, and come back’.

By Suzannah V. Evans

Paul Benney will be exhibiting Speaking in Tongues, along with his Reliquary series, at the Chiesa di San Gallo, San Marco 30124, Venice, 13 May – 26 November 2017. More information on Paul’s work is available here.

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