Review: Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

June 7, 2019
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Royal Academy

It’s once again time for London’s biggest, maddest art exhibition, in which hundreds upon hundreds of works are stacked high and wide throughout the Royal Academy.

Drawing from both established grandees and wet-behind-the-ears newcomers – the final cut was whittled down from 16,000 entries – it asks curators to curate the uncuratable, and gives writers the unenviable task of trying to codify it all.

This year the most obvious theme is conservation – animals and the various threats to their mortal existence are everywhere. There’s a tiger whose red and silver stripes are, upon closer inspection, made up of carefully unfolded Tunnock’s Tea Cakes wrappers; there’s a rhino wearing a monocle; a monstrous feathered snake in a vitrine. There are receding glaciers and a melting polar bear and a scene littered with human detritus. There’s also a sculpture of a fat little pug and an owl with human nipples, but I’m not sure what, if anything, they have to say about conservation.

Immigration and the refugee crisis also feature heavily, with plenty of artists ruminating on one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time, from Banksy with a shuttered EU customs door to a tapestry reading “We are all immigrant scum”.

There are plenty of works examining urban degradation (or urban beauty, depending on your point of view): a high-rise building covered in graffiti, an artfully scorched office chair outside an overgrown lockup.

Some works are grouped by movement (abstract expressionist, ethnographic); others by theme; some, apparently, by colour.

And then there are pieces that defy categorisation: a photograph of a lady with an octopus crawling over her bottom, a murder of crows made from straw and bin bags, one of Craig Martin’s distinctive block-colour paintings, an Allen Jones nude mannequin in front of an abstract canvas.

As ever, I found myself feeling sorry for the smaller pieces, the ones cast adrift 20 feet in the air, or squirrelled away behind pillars. Or the thoughtful pieces lost amid the noise and colour: delicate little collages, a knitted portrait, a tiny geometric abstraction. It would take weeks to properly process all of this, and even then, would it collectively make any sense?

Experiencing the Summer Exhibition is an exercise in searching for meaning in chaos, in finding beauty amid overwhelming clutter; perhaps the whole thing is a protracted metaphor for simply being human.