Today the 284th Summer Exhibition finally opens to the public after months of planning, sorting, hanging, processing and beef tea drinking. Richard Wilson RA and the committee have whittled 12,000 entries down to 1,200 in a process every bit as traditional as the show itself. This year the chosen works hang alongside works by fifteen artistic duos that Wilson has invited to display recent or new works.
As ever, the first work you are confronted by is the sculpture commissioned for the show in the courtyard. This year Ron Arad RA has created Spyre, a sixteen-metre-high steel cone; each segment moves at a different speed to create a constantly changing and unpredictable shape. At the tip of Spyre is a camera, the footage from which is shown on a large screen. It’s a simple work and not as imposing as some of the courtyard sculptures have been of late, but it becomes hypnotic to watch in the same way as a flag in the wind.
The exhibition itself is at once, and unfortunately, very familiar – hardly a surprise when each RA with their very unique (and rarely changing) style submits six works that are hung throughout, and the same types of works are picked each year from the submissions. This is not a new complaint, of course. Many have found that the exhibition has become stilted over the last few years. This year, however, there are reasons to rejoice.
Richard Wilson RA and his fellow committee members have clearly put a lot of thought into how to address the issue of rooms becoming crowded, a logistical issue which can so easily make it an unpleasant visit. They have succeeded in making it the most comfortable Summer Exhibition in many years. The architecture room has historically been one of the most cramped, so this year it has been moved to the larger, aptly named Large Western Room, which works far better. Other notable room changes include the Small Western Room being dedicated to the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, rather than filled with a mixture of small works. In the past it made for a nice feature room, but crowding let to a situation best described as a scrum, in which it would take an age to get to every work; in such an environment it’s hard to concentrate on appreciating the art, which is, after all, the point.
Another interesting and highly successful change is Room I. It still contains the same types of works as it has historically, but this they are fewer and have been given more space. Also hanging overhead in the room is The Portrait of Sakip Sabanci by Turkish artist Kutluğ Ataman, a work Wilson invited Ataman to display in the exhibition. Consisting of one hundred LCD panels, it creates a wave-like structure. It’s a mesmerizing piece that adds, along with the other works from the fifteen artistic duos, including Gilbert and George, a new and exciting dimension to the Summer Exhibition, and one that is worth continuing.
In the end the majority of the content will be familiar to regular visitors, and might continue to leave veterans thinking it has stagnated. But in other ways Wilson and the committee have pulled off a triumph, in that the guest works help to bring a few different things, but more importantly they make the show feel both more relevant, and of greater artistic merit when you come across them. Meanwhile the well-designed layout, which goes hand-in-hand with bringing in huge amounts of natural light, makes it an infinitely more relaxing experience. If they carry these changes through to next year and team them with a greater variety in the art compared to previous years (reducing the number of works an RA can enter would go a long way towards this), then 2016 will have been a great success and 2017 will be even greater.
Image: Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016 (c) Stephen White