Space-Age Art Upstaged By Constable at Royal Academy

'Transcircle 1.1'
"Transcircle 1.1" (2004) by Mariko Mori. This is an updated version of a prehistoric stone circle, the individual stones changing color in a way that symbolizes the movements of the planets. Photographer: Ole Hein Pedersen/Mariko Mori Studio/Royal Academy of Art via Bloomberg

Imagine a futuristic version of the Stone Age, a transparent dolmen illuminated by ever-shifting inner lights.

If you can manage that, you’ll have in your mind’s eye something resembling “Tom Na H-iu II” (2006) by the Japanese artist Mariko Mori, the most impressive piece in “Rebirth,” her exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.

It is lit from within by hundreds of LED lights in patterns that fluctuate in response to neutrinos detected at the Kamioka Observatory, a cosmic ray research unit at the University of Tokyo (to which the work of art is directly connected).

Sit in front of it for a while, and it begins to take you over: The experience is soothing, bland yet simultaneously hypnotic.

Mori’s art is an odd, unclassifiable blend of eastern mysticism, science fiction and pop culture. She is interested in Shinto and Buddhism, and in the prehistoric cultures of Japan and Europe.

She’s also been a part-time fashion model and has a taste for pastel colors which, in combination with a liking for sparkling, bubble shapes, can give her art an unexpected resemblance to bathroom fittings.

“Transcircle 1.1” (2004), her updated Stonehenge, consists of nine monoliths which change color in a way intended to symbolize the movements of the planets. I must confess that, as I watched them morph from pink to lime green or powder blue, thoughts of bath salts and soap came into my mind.

Space Capsule

Mori has produced some compelling pieces in the past, including 3D film art and an astonishing cross between a space capsule and a traditional shrine. On the whole this show of more recent work is a disappointment.

Around the block, in the Fine Rooms at the front of Burlington House, is another Royal Academy exhibition: “Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape.” This consists of works from the RA’s own collection -- which is mainly made up of pieces presented by Academicians through the centuries.

Ostensibly, the focus is on the way 18th- and early-19th-century artists used the medium of prints to disseminate and publicize their work.

Before the coming of photography, the only way to get to know an artist’s achievement -- short of seeing the originals -- was to look at an engraving or mezzotint. Some of those on show are beautiful things, particularly the magnificent series done after Constable’s paintings by the print-maker David Lucas.

Time Capsules

For those not gripped by this rather specialized theme, there are two other reasons to go to this little exhibition. One is to take a look at the early-18th-century interiors by William Kent in which some of the works are hung: elegant time capsules of Georgian London.

The other is to see the array of paintings by Constable, who is too often dismissed and misunderstood as a specialist in studies of cozy English countryside but was in fact one of the supreme masters of the oil medium in the 19th century.

He is much better represented than any other artist in the show, completely outgunning his old rival Turner and also overshadowing a fine and little-known Gainsborough, “Romantic Landscape” (c. 1783).

On display there is a selection of Constable’s fresh, brilliant sketches done in the open air -- paintings that lead much more directly into Impressionism than anything by Turner, who is more often cited as a predecessor of Monet et al.

One picture would be enough make to the case for Constable’s greatness. “The Leaping Horse” (1825) is the Royal Academy’s finest treasure and one of the masterpieces of both British and European art.

“Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape” is in the John Madejski Fine Rooms at The Royal Academy until Feb 17, 2013.

“Mariko Mori: Rebirth” is at The Royal Academy, 6, Burlington Gardens, until Feb 17, 2013.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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