In 1789 the Navy Board in London moved into its new offices in Somerset House, then just completed, where it remained until, merged into the Board of Admiralty, it moved out to Whitehall in 1873. At Somerset House, it had a link with the river that ran down to the sea from which the Navy set sail across the world – presumably it was from here that the Naval Board masterminded the Opium Wars with China (1839-1860), during which time Hong Kong became a British territory.
Today, as you look into the West Wing of Somerset House, you feel like a trespasser in a different office. The architecture may still be 18th century, but the office is anonymous and impersonal with grey metal desks, chrome and black chairs and grey filing cabinets that have disappeared from most modern offices, but may well remain in Communist regimes where record-keeping is second to none, plus those old black clunky VDU’s and, yes, a fax machine! Piles of books and other papers are arranged neatly on the desks, plus hints of the occupants who have just popped out for a moment, with drinks cups and an empty McDonalds carrier bag – in Chinese. You are uncomfortable invading the privacy of the occupants of this strange environment, with books in Chinese and English, one being titled ominously ‘The Silent Takeover.
Through his installations, Chinese artist Wang Yuyang, explores the artistic impact of outdated technology, the waste resulting from continual technological change and here, in a Finance Office, the viewer’s reactions, perceptions, curiosity and discomfort at walking into something they will remember from a previous era, but given a different twist. Is this really an office of 2021, and should I be here at all?
In fact, Wang Yuyang’s work is one of the installations in the current exhibition ‘beyond boundaries’ at Somerset House. Given its history as the HQ of the Navy Board, and the location of King’s College London’s China Institute nearby, it is fitting that Somerset House should be the location for an excellent exhibition ‘beyond boundaries’, showing the work of 24 international artists with strong links to the Slade School of Fine Art at UCL in London and to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, which celebrated its centenary last year.
The artists include Phyllida Barlow, who has taken over three rooms at the Royal Academy (in spaces that were originally built for the University of London, of which UCL was a founding partner), Enrico David, who represents Italy in the 2019 Venice Biennale (Phyllida represented the UK in 2017), and a host of other artists including Feng Mengbo, who describes himself as a ‘video-games artist’ and is the first Chinese artist to use computer in his work and Sui Jianguo, one of the leading pioneers of conceptual art in China.
The exhibition shows that contemporary art is alive and well in both countries with a rich variety of work ranging from the beauty of the traditional Chinese penmanship of Qiu Ting, at one moment quite delicate, at another very bold, through the imaginary maps of the gods that rule our lives by Qiu Zhijie and the silk hangings of Yu Hong to the paintings of Tang Hui, the polished beauty of Jayne Parker’s stone buds, the beautiful geometric works of Enrico David and bold and the dramatic sculptures of Kieren Reed & Abigail Hunt, Andrew Stahl (along with his paintings), Zhan Wang, Neil Jeffries and Sui Jianguo, the last created using 3D resin printing.
Curated by Guo Xiaohui and Andrew Stahl, this is definitely an exhibition worth visiting, but it needs something like an enticing sculpture in the courtyard to liven it up and draw people into the rather impenetrable façade of the West Wing of Somerset House.