Our pick of the best London exhibitions to see this winter — get your dose of culture indoors, away from the cold.We’ve roughly split the list by London regions to make it easier to navigate. Some of the exhibitions may be closed during the holiday season so please do check their websites for holiday opening hours before setting off.
Exhibitions in west London
MERRY SLUG-MAS: Giant glowing slugs are what come to mind when you think of Christmas, right? Or maybe that’s just the case for artist Monster Chetwynd who has covered the facade of Tate Britain with slime trails in an unorthodox approach to Christmas lights. Giant bioluminescent leopard slugs flank the entrance on either side. Yes it’s a bizarre take on festive lights, but we love it.
Winter Commission by Monster Chetwynd at Tate Britain. Until 28 February, free. ★★★★☆
VIRTUAL FOREST: Strap on a rucksack, a visor and some sensors on your hand and step into a virtual reality (VR) forest. What happens next is mind blowing; smells, sights and sounds transport visitors into the wilderness. Our breath becomes particles that we can push up and down with our hands. Yes, £20 is a lot for an 11 minute experience but this is at the leading edge of what VR is capable of, and it’s breathtaking.
We Live in an Ocean of Air created by Marshmallow Laser Feast at Saatchi Gallery. Until 20 January, £20. ★★★★☆
PRETTY PAPER: One of the most delicate exhibitions we’ve ever seen, this show uses the subtle medium of paper. Some creations are complex; one reads either ‘I hate you’ or ‘I love you’ depending on what angle you see it from. Meanwhile delicate beauty is found in pencil shavings and a tiny protruding triangle from a massive sheet of paper. It’s filled with very subtle interventions, and some of them are oh so satisfying.
Takeo Paper Show – Subtle: Delicate or Infinitesimal at Japan House London. Until 24 December, free. ★★★☆☆
BACK TO THE FUTURE: What will the home of the future look like? Will we have screens on every wall and eschew human contact? That was one vision from the 1980s and it sort of came true, in the way we’re glued to our phones today. The wraparound screens worn as helmets were predicted in 1968 and now we have Virtual Reality and Google Glass. It’s great to see the future from past eyes and see where we it didn’t pan out — thankfully we’re not all wearing nylon clothes. There are some great designs and plenty of satirical future visions in this fascinating time capsule of an exhibition.
Home Futures at Design Museum. Until 24 March, £16. ★★★★☆
HAMMER & STAR: A fallen star is projected on to the floor, by being bounced into a mirror on the ceiling. A dome rains sound down upon gallery goers and a hammer noisily bangs in a nail. It’s the quirky humour we’ve come to expect from subversive artist Ceal Floyer. We’ve seen stronger works by her in this past but this show still made us smile.
Ceal Floyer at Lisson Gallery. Until 5 January, free. ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday-Saturday)
Exhibitions in central London
BLACK IS THE NEW BLACK: Who are the the most influential black Britons alive today? Photographer Simon Frederick has compiled a wall of portraits to celebrate influential black Britons from Denise Lewis to Dizzee Rascal. With a baroness and an archbishop included, it’s a small but important display highlighting the significant influence of black persons in all aspects of British life.
Black Is The New Black at National Portrait Gallery, Room 33. Until 27 January, free. ★★★★☆
RUSSIAN ROYALTY: Yes, relations with Putin may be as frosty as a Siberian winter right now, but there was a time when the Russian and British royal families were close — so close in fact, that they were related. The Queen’s Gallery looks back over 300 years of royal relationships and diplomatic visits with an exhibition full of spectacular items. Grand portraits, monstrously large vases, medals and a Fabergé egg are just some of the blindingly brilliant bling on display in this gorgeous exhibition.
Russia, Royalty & The Romanovs at The Queen’s Gallery. Until 28 April, £12. ★★★★☆
SCOTTISH POLITICS: A Scottish double header has landed at The National Gallery. A one-room show is dominated by the majestic stag that is the Monarch of the Glen. The painting has made the trek down from Scotland to be situated in Trafalgar Square — near those famous lions which were also created by the artist Edward Landseer.
Another related exhibition features a video by Rachel Maclean showing a lion (representing England) and a unicorn (Scotland) debating how the two nations could separate, in a delightful satirical film. We’re massive fans of her major exhibition in north London and it’s great to revisit the film that first brought her to our attention.
Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen & Rachel Maclean: The Lion and the Unicorn are on at The National Gallery. Until 3 February, free. ★★★★☆
BOT THE BUILDER: Who will be doing our building in the future? Will it be tradespeople or robots? That’s the question posed by this futuristic installation at Sir John Soane’s Museum where a robot builds a replica of the Bank of England’s dome over the course of a day and then disassembles it over the next day. It’s mesmerising to watch and hints at the future where we’ll see cranes working throughout the night as no human is needed to operate them. The upstairs segment of the exhibition shows a 3D printer in action, building up structures out of biodegradable materials. All hail our machine overlords.
Code Builder at Sir John Soane’s Museum. Until 3 February, free. ★★★★☆ (Wednesday-Sunday)
THE SCULPTURES ARE ALIVE: The metal structures in this gallery look rather dull. But hover an iPad over them and figures burst into life, striding purposefully or seeming to have a go at us. These augmented reality (AR) works are probably showing us a future where we’ll start seeing rendered persons everywhere we go. The rest of the show doesn’t carry as much weight, but the AR pieces confront us with how in-our-faces the near future could be.
Recycle Group: Nature of non-existence at Gazelli Art House. Until 5 January, free. ★★★☆☆ (Monday-Saturday)
FAMILY MAN: OK, we admit it, we’ve never been Gainsborough fans — he’s a painter whose portraits have always struck us as formal and cold. Yes, we know that was the style of his time but it’s always prevented us from warming to him. This major exhibition is all about his family, so we hoped the personal touch would change his style a little. There’s no joy when it comes to paintings of adults, but it’s the children who add some life to this show. His young daughter chasing a butterfly is adorable, his niece has a wonderful stern expression and his nephew’s eyes are filled with ferocity. We’re still not fully converted when it comes to Gainsborough but in this show we get to see a side of him we never knew existed.
Gainsborough’s Family Album at National Portrait Gallery. Until 3 February, £14. ★★★☆☆
Exhibitions in north London
REFUGEE CRISIS: A man screams as a soldier holds him at gunpoint, an image of fleeing refugees visible inside his screaming mouth. It’s one of the many powerful animations in this exhibition of illustrations by refugees and those who have witnessed the refugees crisis first hand. In further works, a police officer in riot gear slaps a pregnant woman and a young girl returns home and cries when she sees it’s all rubble. This is a heartbreaking exhibition that highlights the suffering of thousands through artworks.
Journeys Drawn: Illustrations from the Refugee Crisis at House of Illustration. Until 31 March, £8.25 (includes entrance to all exhibitions). ★★★★☆ (Tuesday-Sunday)
FLEEING PERSECUTION: We grab a tag and read about what appears to be a lovely childhood growing up in the UK… then we flip it and find out how her parents were killed in Auschwitz. This important exhibition is filled with stories of grief and loss, but also of hope, focusing on how Jewish children built their lives in the UK after escaping such horror. The display marks the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport, which offered Jewish children a safe haven in Britain, and it’s particularly relevant today given rising anti-immigrant sentiment around the world.
Remembering the Kindertransport: 80 years on at Jewish Museum London. Until 10 February, free. ★★★★☆
Exhibitions in south London
RAINBOW DIVERS: Ceramic birds appear to be lifting up items of clothing, and rainbow-coloured divers plunge into a pool that is filled with brown liquid and clasped by many sets of disembodied hands. Just as we think things can’t get any stranger, we come across a multi-limbed entity hanging off a climbing wall with one hand holding a radio playing a Christmas radio show. It’s all very creepy, surreal, bonkers and we love it.
Kris Lemsalu: 4Life at Goldsmiths CCA. Until 3 February, free. ★★★★☆
Exhibitions in east London
BREXIT BRITAIN: There are broken bodies in rags, the rusting remains of a car and a Union Jack in tatters. Is this what we can expect after a hard Brexit? Peter Howson paints these extreme visions filled with dozens of grotesque people. It’s disturbing, filled with detail, and we hope it doesn’t come to pass next year. Peter Howson: Acta Est Fabula at Flowers, Kingsland Road. Until 22 December, free. ★★★☆☆
GYPSY HUNTING: Inside a darkened makeshift hut, ghostly figures in the style of Old Master paintings are lit up by a rotating bulb. This haunting exhibition looks at the ill treatment of Roma people across Europe, from legalised gypsy hunting to modern day persecution. The artist himself is of Roma origin and it’s a moving personal show.
Krzysztof Gil: Welcome to the country where the Gypsy was hunted at l’etrangere. Until 5 January, free. ★★★★☆
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