The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition celebrates the handmade, the bottom-up, and the found

Summer Exhibition 2024
Royal Academy
Through August 18

In the rotunda of the Royal Academy’s (RA) Wohl Central Hall, a precast windowsill of sanded cement and stone dust leans next to an exit door. Swatches of paint—burnt orange, maroon, ochre, and gray-blue—are slapped on the wall above it, salvaged from pots of leftover paint. These haphazardly arranged and messy materials don’t feel at home in the storied arts institution, but this revisioning is an attempt by Assemble RA to enter a new dialogue. This is not the Summer Exhibition as we know it. All its edges are frayed.

In the adjoining room, walls are the same deep maroon used in the most recent exhibition, Entangled Pasts, 1768–now, curated by JA Projects, which closed in April. This show forced the RA to confront its colonial past, and the trappings of this message from mirrors to large and low plinths are reused to display new works. These are the architecture rooms of the world’s longest-running contemporary art exhibition, now in its 256th year and taking place every summer. With an open selection format, amateurs rub shoulders with the professionals and the work of the famous is displayed next to the unknown.

Walls are covered in drawings, paintings, mosaics, photos, and smaller models. (© David Parry/Royal Academy of Arts)

On industrial racking and fire-rated MDF shelving for its signature pink color, models are piled high with London-based practices proliferating: Peter Barber RA, the curator of last year’s architecture rooms, displays his hempcrete model Tutti-Frutti-Town, sitting alongside Muf Architecture/Art’s model of Brixton Rec and its relationships in terra-cotta, and Carmody Groake’s milled aluminum British Library Archive. On the walls, Open City’s Accelerate students display A Young Londoners’ London, a collaboratively made plaster-cast map. Photographs show the impact of making: in the studio with a mess of pots and tools in Bob Brown’s Life is too short to tidy, and on the landscape, with Material Cultures’s photos of logs and woodchip. They derive a broad church of meaning from the theme, so much it perhaps is not heard above the cacophony of work on display. 

rotunda with curtains hanging
The central rotunda is dressed up as maker’s studio. (© David Parry/Royal Academy of Arts)

Its host, the RA in London, is solid and unchangeable, taking its place as it has done since the 18th century on London’s Piccadilly, carved from powerful Portland stone alongside The Ritz, Fortnum and Mason, and the glow of Piccadilly Circus. The RA is governed by 80 Royal Academicians, with new members only being nominated and admitted when a previous member either dies or reaches the age of 75. Always curated by the academicians, and with each member being able to exhibit up to six works, this open exhibition is tightly controlled. For 2024, sculptor Ann Christopher RA is at the helm. She set the theme: “making space,” but Turner prize-winning collective Assemble RA curates the architecture rooms, a segment of the annual summer exhibition that each year is curated by a Royal Academician architect. With two rooms this year, instead of the usual one, Assemble flipped the prescribed theme to “spaces for making.”

Still, against this context, Assemble RA looks at the spaces for making that are essential to both creating and sustaining a vibrant, healthy city, though the reality is more and more are being pushed to the peripheries, far from the RA’s Mayfair home. “The idea was to try and celebrate the messy parts of architecture,” explained Maria Lisogorskaya of Assemble, “to explore the potentials of materials, processes and communities who are not traditionally seen as architectural professionals.” The formal setting of the central rotunda is dressed up as maker’s studio. Curtains made from non-petrochemical polymers by Jessie French and biomaterial by Shanelle Ueyama hang from its domed ceiling, creating a spatial division and dramatic moment in the grand central room, and swatches of paint aim to “make this feel as much like a studio space as possible, a work in progress and as if you’re trying things on,” explained Assemble’s Kaye Song. On the walls, drawings, paintings, mosaics, photos, and smaller models push up against the dado rail towards its gold gilded cornicing. The Hackney Mosaic Project’s Some Hackney Birds flies toward one of the octagonal rooms sky-high busts in a hemispheric golden niche. The room is alive with the energy and creativity of production, so why still does it feel so static, so stilted?

blue walls and bold-colored backdrops for the art
No wall text accompanies the pieces on show. (© David Parry/Royal Academy of Arts

It is the centuries-old structure that lets this curation down. The summer exhibition famously omits any wall text, so Assemble’s robust ideas are unexplained and unnoticed, even to the gallery-goer with multiple architecture degrees. As an academician can include up to six works of their own, curators are duty-bound to include incongruous, more self-promotional materials—so a grid of Sir Michael Hopkins RA’s built work sits uneasily next to the charm of F.A.T. Studio’s Old Kent Road graphics. Eva Jiricna RA’s experiments in AI greenery and shots of Amanda Levete RA’s Maggie’s Southampton feel flat and promotional beside the more handcrafted elements, and would be more appropriate at a real estate show.

What the exhibition does do, however, is celebrate the handmade, the bottom-up, and the found. Assemble is good at what its namesake suggests: working with what they have and reassembling the materials to create new conversations. Great joy is taken from what they have inherited and found, as can be seen in the use of objects from previous exhibitions and a concrete slab salvaged from the Phoenix Industrial Estate in Lewes by Local Works Studio. Borrowed objects, like workbenches from Stratford’s Building Crafts College, add to the workshop feel and are a nod to the wastefulness of mdf plinths in exhibitions.

models displayed on various shelving units
Each year in the exhibition the work of amateurs displays alongside that of professionals. (© David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts)

With over 1,700 works on view, the RA’s Summer Exhibition is, every year, an onslaught of the good, the bad, and the mediocre, and the format is beyond tired. Ideas around which the exhibition are formed are somewhat lost in this strict format and Assemble is left to select, not curate. Working with what they had, Assemble has created moments of joy and craft, but we can only wish the creatives involved had the space and resources to consider the myriad ways space is made and remade outside of an institution that has apparently stood still for centuries—an elephant in the gallery.

Ellen Peirson is an architect, writer, and editor based in London.

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