Exhibitions: Royal Museums, Greenwich
Yinka Shonibare /
Astronomy Photographer of the Year
Royal Museums, Greenwich
IN A NUTSHELL
Two contemporary exhibitions of very different visuals ask the visitor to think again about what they see.
With the recent closure of Visions Of The Universe at the National Maritime Museum where does the lunchtime wanderer go for inspiration?
Up the steep hill, that's where, to the Royal Observatory's Astronomy Photography Of The Year exhibition.
Along with slides of the winning entries comes a disorienting sense of life in 3D - the mighty, the minuscule and the man-sized in one overwhelming rush.
Difficult to feel too chuffed about the conquest of a hill when photons of light have travelled a hundred million trillion kilometres to be here.
And yet these exhibitions have a way of making all endeavour feel epic; the humble observer, munching cheese sandwiches, nursing a blister, feels privileged to be sharing the same DNA as the starscapes.
In accompanying videos, the photographers tell of their passion. They talk excitedly about their discoveries as though they have a secret to share and photography is merely the means of its dissemination.
And they do have a secret. The best kind of secret. What could be more invigorating than a new perspective on something familiar? If the night sky we take for granted is so full of stories, what about the other "ordinary" objects that construct our world? Eyes open wider, and in wonder.
Meanwhile, dotted around the Royal Museums, Hackney artist and rascal Yinka Shonibare, is having a sly dig at the pomposities of empire.
In The Queen's House, amid the busts of bluff admirals, his work adopts the classical forms of its neighbours - posed, affected, overblown - but with a subversive twist.
His Fake Death Pictures hang like camouflaged troublemakers amid the oils, parodies of the reverence paid to our national hero.
Lord Nelson, naval genius, vain adventurer, faithless spouse, was depicted in his time as a Greek hero raised to Mount Olympus or as Christ taken down from the cross.
Nearby, a different Nelson is dressed in Shonibare's signature African fabrics. The artist places the icon in overwrought poses of self-sacrifice, a comedic counterbalance to the deification elsewhere.
Nelson's wife Fanny - dowdy and loyal - is grey in her portrait in contrast to the luminous lover Emma Hamilton. But Shonibare - channelling Gok Wan - gives the wronged partner a confident belle-of-the-ball frock that is a tilt against her usurper.
In Flamsteed House, Cheeky Little Astronomer reminds us that the apartments were also a family home, where children and telescopes lived precariously side by side; life lived and life observed.
Which takes us back to the video of Alan Friedman sharing with his boy a sense of awe at his "life-changing" images of the sun - not the flat gold disc of a child's painting but a seething tumult of gas and heat.
Look again, these exhibitions say. Things are not as they first appear.
Both exhibitions until Feb 23, FREE (excl some Shonibare), rmg.co.uk.