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2016 Duos and Creative Renewal

When the Summer Exhibition opened in 2016, the focus of both the Royal Academy’s own publicity and wider media attention was Richard Wilson’s decision to invite twenty-two internationally celebrated artist “duos” to exhibit work in the show. Although the invitation was partially inspired by Wilson’s interest in collaborative processes of working, it was also a deliberately provocative act, a very public challenge to the Academy’s policy of not admitting duos as members.

Explore the 2016 catalogue

Commentators usually find the Summer Exhibition problematic, with too many artists working across a variety of styles and media, often at odds with current critical trends and without a coherent curatorial focus. The “duos”, in contrast, not only provided a clear narrative and news story, but also rebutted the often levelled criticism of artistic irrelevance and retrogradism with the presence of more challenging, “contemporary” works by the Chapman Brothers, Gilbert & George, and Noble and Webster.

The media emphasis on the “duos”, however, meant that other elements of Wilson’s curatorial vision received less attention. The most significant of these was his invitation to Fumiaki Aono, a Japanese artist he had met while installing a sculpture in Japan. Wilson had been immediately drawn to Aono’s delicate sculptures, made from simple everyday objects retrieved from the debris left by the 2011 Sendai Tsunami and the subsequent meltdown and leak at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Picking through the ruins of Sendai, Aono had salvaged objects to be “healed”. He had mended broken Sake bottles with books, cassette tapes with plywood, and notebooks with plastic vessels and acrylic paint (Fig. 1). For Aono, who describes himself as a “fixer” rather than maker, this was not just restoration and repair, but an act of creative reincarnation, giving new life and meaning to broken forms through an artistic “flesh”. This transformation of the ordinary, broken, or redundant through art resonated with Wilson’s own sculptural practice, which also uses overlooked materials such as oil, and “re-imagines” everyday objects and buildings into new spaces of wonder and delight.

The significance of Aono’s works in Wilson’s vision for the 2016 Summer Exhibition was clear from the prominent position they were given in Gallery VI, where they occupied one whole corner, and in the number of works that were shown, for where even Academicians are restricted to six works, Aono had eight on display. 

But Aono’s works were only one part of this narrative. On either side of the Staircase leading up to the Main Galleries, Wilson had deliberately placed Jane and Louise Wilson’s monumental series of photographs, Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum) (2010) (Fig. 2). Although it could be claimed that in doing so he was highlighting the theme of the duo, my own conversations with Wilson made it clear that he saw these works as a counterpoint to Aono’s sculptures. Where Aono highlighted the effects of a natural disaster, these striking images reflected on a “man-made” disaster, documenting the deserted Ukrainian city of Pripyat, which had been abandoned in April 1986 following the explosion and meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. In “high definition”, a once bustling city could be seen slowly disintegrating, its man-made order taken over by chaotic natural growth.

By deliberately placing Aono’s work in Gallery VI directly opposite the Staircase and the Wilson Twins’ photographs, Wilson established what I came to describe in the catalogue as an “‘axis of ruin and regeneration’, wonder and amazement through the centre of the Summer Exhibition”. This, even more than the duos, provided Wilson’s underlying structure for the show: a thread running from the entrance stairs to the heart of the galleries and beyond, taking the observant visitor on a journey from a decaying world reduced to its raw materials, to one healed and reconfigured through art.

Wilson continued this theme in his hang of the south-west corner of Gallery VI, adjacent to Aono’s sculptures. Here, in a densely hung selection of works, were a series of dystopian images that focused on the boundary between creation and destruction. These included a photograph by Adam Fowler charting the man-made demolition of a power station, a highly detailed etching by Ian Chamberlain portraying a radar tracking station rendered redundant by the end of the Cold War, as well as images of enormous storm waves and buildings laid waste by earthquakes and other disasters. Nearby, Jock McFadyen’s painting of a deserted high-rise block echoed the empty rooms and corridors of Pripyat, while the faint, disturbing sounds of the Chapman Brothers tuned-out radio, hidden within their centrally placed sculpture, echoed through the room, reinforcing the sense of dystopian unease. In contrast to the emptiness and bleakness of these visions, Aono’s sculptures seemed to offer the possibility of healing and restoration, as did the dynamic, affirming, colourful energy of the large painting by Christopher Le Brun, which dominated the gallery’s north wall.

This theme of artistic regeneration in a broken world lay largely hidden, however, except to Wilson himself, and was not really taken up by the other members of the Hanging Committee, who had their own curatorial agendas to follow. But it’s validity as an artistic manifesto could certainly be seen throughout the Exhibition, from the shimmering tapestry of the Honorary Royal Academician, El Anatsui, whose undulating fabric of beaten bottle tops reclaimed rubbish for iridescent artistic purpose, to Zatorski + Zatorski’s delicate drawing made out of the carbonised bones of a human skeleton, and Anselm Kiefer’s large canvas, where themes of destruction and creation, and the flux and flow of life were played out on a monumental scale.

The duos may have offered a good news story, but perhaps Wilson’s overlooked theme of creative renewal offered a more compelling and optimistic vision for the role of contemporary art and artists.

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Explore the 2016 catalogue