In 1802 JMW Turner, the master landscape painter and the then professor of perspective at the Royal Academy of Arts London, crossed the channel in order to explore the exotic Europe for the first time. Like any tourist, Turner documented this, and his subsequent trips, by accumulating vast amounts of visual data — through in Turner's day, unlike in our Instagram present, this data came in the form of perfectly curated sketches, saturated watercolours, and oil paintings teaming with atmospheric exhibition value.

There has always been a human desire to document, store, and share life. And in our 21-century reality it has never been so easy to snap our hotdog legs, get a half-face next to some icon, or boomerang some hot ass frock (not that I do a lot of that…): we love to capture those moments that ‘matter.’ What strikes me, reflecting on Turner’s travel paintings (fig.1.) and the cascade of filter-smothered images that appear when I run an Insta search for #citybreak (fig.2.)

A sensuous citrus scent lingers in the air; and as I walk, I am enveloped by a soft pool of dewy fog. I’m warmed, I’m refreshed, but I’m about 5,000 miles away from an early morning stroll in Suriname… I’m in Venice at the 58th Venice Biennale and about to enter the Dutch Pavilion.

Titled The Measure of Presence, neither this alluring smell nor the fog are actually part of the Dutch presentation; though in a fitting irony, that evokes thoughts of the Netherlands history of industry and exploitation and exchange, these elements add to the Pavilion’s experience, as well as its conceptual depth. …

“We must respond to the aestheticization of politics with the politicization of aesthetics.” A now infamous line delivered by Walter Benjamin in 1935. Today, be it through painting, film, or four-year-old ghost ships, this sentiment continues to reverberate across the art world.

Far from emancipating the political subject from its didact bonds, the political in our contemporary art system is restrained by its proliferation: often through the white-cube. …

Beggarstaffs, Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge

I love visiting Cambridge, especially in late spring, not yet totally overrun by tourists, the romantic streets are filled with smart bods, in fancy gowns, dashing between ceremonies, balls and dinners.

The very performance of the Cambridge (read Oxbridge) lifestyle seems both idyllic yet troubling: behind a vale of quintessential Britishness, life in and beyond these institutions, is either perform well or fail. I am amazed by the neo-classical manner in which the Oxbridge performance is enacted, but I cannot help feeling a little sorry for these privileged buggers: now they have ‘made it’, performed perfectly — according to our hegemonic system — they can never stumble, miss a line, nor queue. …


Toby Upson

Curator and writer based in London. Researching cultural phenomena, exhibition design and the ethics of display.

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