The Tourists by Ellen Harvey

During my silver Arts Award my group and I took a trip to Margate where we got the chance to visit the Turner, while we were there I came across the work of Ellen Harvey and have chosen her exhibition to review for Part C.

The first time I saw this exhibition it briefly caught my eye and I browsed across the little wall of Ellen’s work but dismissed it as something to review as there seemed to be more interesting things in the Turner Contemporary that day. I went home and began researching Ellen Harvey’s exhibition focusing on The Disappointed Tourist that was on that month, it was one of the main exhibits at the turner and it really caught my eye. It filled a huge room with pictures of locations that were no longer available to travel to and another room contained a huge map of Florida. I started to do my research and as I looked more into Ellen Harvey I realised that several of the exhibits in the turner that day were hers, most notably The New York Beautification Project. The more I looked into this project the more intrigued I became and the more I realised this was what I wanted to focus my review of The Tourist on. 

For anyone that doesn’t know, the Turner Contemporary is a modern gallery situated in Margate and overlooking the sea, the gallery is named after the famous artist J.M.W Turner and displays several of his pieces. The gallery changes it’s exhibits every few months and from looking at the website I was a little torn about which I’d prefer to review but in the end I settled on reviewing Ellen Harvey’s ‘ The Tourists’ (The ‘Tourists’ also included a few Turner pieces of Margate)  with a focus on Ellen Harvey’s piece The New York Beautification Project.  

The New York Beautification Project was a social experiment by Ellen Harvey who is a British artist living in New York. The project took place from 1999 to 2001 across New York, spurred on by the clamping down of graffiti in New York it consisted of a series of miniature oval oil paintings of stunning landscapes. It’s a bit of a tricky one to review as I wasn’t even born when the project itself took place and I’m unfortunately lacking the time machine and the plane ticket to New York that would allow me to see the pieces in person so I’ll be writing partly about what I can find out remotely about the project itself but my review is predominantly on  Ellen Harvey’s exhibition as a whole.  

The main thing that fascinates me about this project is how it provokes a conversation about graffiti and more specifically our attitudes towards graffiti in cities and the people who create it. Ellen Harvey was interested in what the reaction to a white woman in her thirties creating delicate oil paintings would be. I love the idea of challenging something that as a society we generally disagree with and turning it on its head in order to see what our problem really is with it, the ‘tainting’ of property? The intent? The people? 

I had to take a closer look as I walked past the pieces in the turner as I couldn’t make out what they were until I took a closer look and realised I was looking at tiny oil painted landscapes. I don’t think the way they were laid out in the turner did them any justice, as they main focuses of the exhibition were on her newer work, such as The Disappointed Tourist, Ruins and Restorations and her monochrome map of Florida that all filled entire rooms - The New York Beautification pieces were along a single wall and after having a little look I passed them by without much thought and it took me stumbling across the pieces online to make me realise it was the same artist in order for me to fully appreciate and understand it. 

To me the pieces are little portals, you can catch a glimpse and for a split second you’re inside the painting, a way to escape the city for just a few seconds, which I think is an invaluable quality for a piece of public art to have. Ellen Harvey created the pieces in broad daylight with no intention of trying to do them in secret and she spoke of having a generally positive experience creating her paintings and the only incident she had was when the police suspected she was homeless, she even said that people brought sandwiches for her. I think it must’ve been lovely to walk around New York and find such intricate painting painted over existing graffiti. One of her founding rules of the project was the fact that if anyone objected to the pieces she’d simply remove them and move on, these pieces were never meant to cause problems but rather to start a conversation which is the main draw to this project for me. I think graffiti can be a wonderful art form but I don’t agree with the destruction of private property or the use of inappropriate words and pictures in public places but I do think people have the right to express themselves. 

I wasn’t able to spend much time reading about each piece at the Turner but I did love that there was a small piece of information about each piece, I wondered around the exhibition in less that half an hour and in hindsight I should have spent a little longer taking in all the pieces. What was laid out was beautiful but there just wasn’t enough of it, it gave the impression that the Beautification Project was just something to fill a wall rather than something capable of having its own space. My only other slight disappointment with the exhibition is I didn’t feel it was quite cohesive enough, it took me looking on the Turner website for me to fully register that everything Ellen Harvey had in the Turner was one exhibition, as soon as I made the connection that all the pieces shared the theme of tourism everything made sense but I think I would’ve got a lot more out of the exhibition if I’d have found out at the time, of course I didn’t spend as long as I could looking around so this may be a fault of mine but I think some information about the exhibition as a whole would have been lovely. I would’ve loved to see a photo of all forty pieces and some more information about The New York Beautification Project itself as I think it was one of the most interesting pieces of art in the exhibition, however I love that the gallery would show work that’s now over twenty years old, much like a lot of things art can come in trends and phases and I think it’s important for a gallery to be able to pick out the different work, be that older or just more alternative.

I think any piece of art that provokes a conversation has done its purpose, considering I’m talking about the piece over twenty years later then Ellen Harvey is clearly an incredibly talented individual. I’m grateful that I got to find about the project in the Turner, the exhibition has certainly made me think more about the places we inhabit and visit and The New York Beautification Project specifically has definitely made me question my own thoughts on graffiti; I would highly recommend that anyone who can visit the turner to do so and also to look into Ellen Harvey and her thought provoking work.

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