It’s a numbers game, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (until 21 Aug). Now in its 248th year, it is the only open submission show in the UK, and the largest in the world. Twelve thousand submissions get whittled down to 1200 entries, two thirds of which are from Joe Public.
Last year’s exhibition was a riot of colour – not only did the works seemed brighter, but the walls they were hung on hummed with vivid shades of blue, pink and green, while the staircase itself was patterned in brilliant stripes. It wasn’t possible to top that, so instead sculptor Richard Wilson’s 2016 hang reverts to white or grey walls. Not surprising then that there isn’t quite the same zing as you enter, but if you can’t find work you like on this show, then you just aren’t looking hard enough.
It’s difficult to believe that the RA doesn’t allow a painting partnership to join their ranks; artists such as Gilbert and George or Jake and Dinos Chapman where two people combine to create the artwork. More radical then than changing the wall colour, Wilson breaks with tradition by inviting artistic duos to exhibit here. On the stairs Jane and Louise Wilson show large photographs from their Chernobyl series, finding beauty in the grim remains. Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s cute cat video from 2001 reflects the internet obsession with cats. Büsi silently laps up her milk in the first room, alongside the husband and wife team Emma Biggs & Matthew Collings, whose angular geometrics belie the rich texture they create in the simple design of Face, Pierre et Gilles take kitsch to new heights in Marie Antoinette, The Queen’s Hamlet, and Bill Woodrow and Richard Deacon present a playful triptych. Work by artistic duos is dotted throughout the exhibition. Gilbert and George, who never take part in group shows, broke that rule to present a large piece along their current theme of beards and barbed wire, while the Chapman brothers present an innocuous tableau of parents with young child, grouped around a mechanical contraption, until you peer closer to see the mannequins eyes are gouged out, and the machine is producing body parts.
Turkish filmmaker Kutluğ Ataman presents a monumental video installation that was shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale as a tribute to Turkish business leader Sakip Sabanci, which has 30 000 passport sized images of those who crossed his path displayed on 10 000 screens. The flickering images are suspended at ceiling height to create the impression of a blue flying carpet about to descend. It is indeed a tribute to one man that so many are keen to appear in his homage.
Another invited artist is the Japanese artist Aono Fumiaki, whose quiet work uses fragments of broken objects from the earthquake of 2011 and restores them to a new whole. It’s not loud and brash like so much else, but it offers a charming delicacy.
South African William Kentridge, one of the RA Honorary Academicians, shows two strong monochromatic works, demonstrating his amazing technical skills with a series of quick ink sketches on the leaves of a book in one of these. Another honorary Academician from Africa, El Anatsui, shows his trademark bottle-top cloth, this one shimmering in intricate colours and detail, while Anselm Kiefer shows a huge canvas with leaves of a leaden book, the grey palette interspersed with touches of vivid colour.
There is an interesting piece, a glass cabinet filled with what looks like beaded vases from Africa, which caught my attention. In fact it is done by David Mach, who also exhibits a stag – the sort of thing you may see in a Scottish castle – made of coat-hangers, and who is the winner of one of the main RA prizes for an enormous piece of wood which has been chiselled into a carbonated landscape.
Another carbonated work is the rather macabre self-portrait as skeletons from the husband and wife team Zatorski + Zatorski, with the blackened bones of a couple of similar height flung randomly across a white sheet of paper. Marina Abramović goes walking with a skeleton in a nearby photograph. Not everything is so dark though – the mounatainscape on a piece of toast proves that there is indeed something for everyone’s tastes!