Two-a-m flash

A torrent of images
To violent – to be read
To painful – to be consumed

A representational sky –
blue and abundant in its materiality –
Bound by rectangular forms

A gunshot at high-noon
Crisp, in its crack
Slackening time momentarily

Rush – rush
The next shock
The next flash
Rush – rush

A torrent of images
To violent – to be read
To painful – to be consumed

A sea of cirrus clouds
Black text on white
Bound by rectangular forms

A flash, and another
Holes fill the sky
Slackening time momentarily

Rush – rush
The next shock
The next flash
Rush – rush

We have life: a letter for 20-21

Toby, Hi. It has been a while. A little over seven years. But then again it is hard to gauge a true reflection of the time gone – when we began to lose contact; that is, when our grip on one another lost its haptic quality and we began to cling to the fallacy offered by sweet Anorexia.

But anyways, it’s Christmas – or at least it was – and as the cliche goes, its time to reconnect, to reorientate, and to be grateful for all those who love us. Yes, this year was a little different. Filled with anxiety, tensions, and the possibility of disaster. Not to seem morbid, but sound familiar? Behind the facemasks and hand-sanitiser, clinky little echos of seven seasons past ring. Remember, when we laid cut out of ‘reality?’ When we were to love-drunk to function? (big shoutout to the wards for patching us up). From then to now, sutured to a somewhat corporeal existence – a hybrid, a gift from Anorexia and the medical profession, a ‘good one’ that we will always remember better than a scar – our life hasn’t been much more than a surgical reality, let’s be honest. Gone is the messiness of life, gone is its extraneous frivolity; no dirt, no fun. That is not to say life is, could, nor should be an irreverent ablution – living in a hovel of precarity is surely the same as a hospital bed. But life (that is ζωὴ as the ancient Greeks knew) is more than the biological constraint of existence.

This year, Christmas 2020, has surely shown us this fact of soulful life. Yes, we counted, restricted, and took up behaviours to manage and mitigate what we ‘believe’ to be excessive – a scientist would wholeheartedly disagree with us on this understanding, let’s not forget – but we had life. Messy, frivolous, dirty and joyous! We had life. Freed from the regime of our normalcy, from Anorexic domesticity, we spent a glorious few days with people who touched the shrunken soul we left for dead just over seven years ago. Now pulling on the hands offered – offered without knowing our journey may I add – that 17-year-old us sees a glimmer of the unbounded and the possibilities it affords. We have life!

With 2021 coming, far to fast and not quick enough, we could make a cheesy resolution. But as that is still a fear food, let’s rather not promise anything; let’s rather not tell ourselves to do X, Y, or Z. Let’s instead endeavour to live a life bounded only by the haptic care of those who offer us, Toby, the messy hand of hospitality as we move towards severing ourselves from an identity sewn by the sickly embrace of Anorexia.

Toby Upson
December 2020

In the Wick. December 2020

Who is Susan

Install shots from Mantel, Monitor, Ledge #002, ADAM (@adamthestrand), November, 2020


Susan emerged through an exquisite corpse-esque Instagram chat between the artists Jennifer Campbell and Lucie MacGregor, facilitated by Toby Upson.

MID-2020. At a time when galleries, arts schools, most studios are closed; when using public transport is limited to essential travel; and when social distancing is impeding the intimacy needed to develop collaborative projects, Susan works within the limits of everyday life under Covid-19 to develop an art work beyond the normative logic omnipresent in our mundane reality.

Lydia Blakeley ‘Classics’ at Niru Ratnam

Lydia Blakeley Classics at Niru Ratnam

The clocks have gone back and the nights are drawing in. Illuminated by chintzy little lights, a frosty chill clings to the Oxford Street air. The seasonal hunker down is upon us. This year is somewhat different, however – I ain’t going to go into details 2020, enough said.

How are you getting on?
Give me painting!
Lydia Blakeley at Niru Ratnam?

Underpinned by radiant pink, the paintings in Lydia Blakeley’s exhibition Classics evokes fond memories of festive seasons past – just the cheer I need right now. Lifted from pages of middle-class cookery books (shout out Delia Smith) and urban lifestyle magazines, these new paintings ouze with a certain “this isn’t just” quality. Far more satisfying than a bite of an M&S mince pie, Blakeley’s perfectly staged seafood dinners sit alongside graceful sportswear in a quiet commentary on British social life that resonates now following seven months of working in trackies and ordering itsu on the daily – Sorry Delia.

Classics is marketed as a reflection on English society and class systems. And indeed the subjects framed are from two seemingly different worlds or at least generations. We have the aspiring liberal alongside their offspring the urban ravers. Both are captured by Blakeley through the visual cultures used to bolster these crafted identities. Specifically, via different modes of print media. To me, Blakeley doesn’t reflect on imagined communities so much, rather she invites me to imagine myself as part of these communities. By caressing her familiar subject matter into existence with such delicate brushwork and lustre, Blakeley foregrounds optimistic nostalgia, and as an affect, creates the impression that I am looking in a mirror and seeing my own twinkly memories peering back. The points of connection established when I look at these paintings have such an enduring quality: one that speaks to me now so beautifully across these turbulent times – again 2020 enough said.

Mesmerising and joyous, to me Blakeley’s paintings have the power to pull you out of normalcy and to situate you in another kind of sociality. The kind of optimism I need right now, or to quote D.J. Luck and M.C Neat (and the exhibition text) “with a little bit of luck, we can make it through the night.”

Lydia Blakeley Classics continues at Niru Ratnam until early 2021

gold grey / energetic extractive: Danh Vo at White Cube

Eve’s tree, extracted from paradise
projected here auto-da-fe, into brilliant light
buttressed by empty text.

Encrusted in French grey and budgerigar yellow
its poison fruits wrinkle with internal rot
as evergreen spores cling to its decaying carcass.

A carcass pinned in place
A carcass
now ready for Iphone consumption
Performed here, labour is far from fanciful ostentation

Rooted in commerce
propagated by the gnarled gaze of Christian decay,
who stokes the coals of this fire?

Crackling perforates the hmmmm of the flume.

Gulp down a rum and coke
ding ding ding ding-ding

a sugarry hit
Now dance with spiced julerlation
Drunk – enjoying the romance – the roaring violence – chaos – noxious – but contained – behind a smeary screen

If you rearrange the narrative you can of course cultivate lush subjectivity
so pin a history to the wall.
Write it large with labels
not price tags
with position, with lighting, with silence.

Lavish your seedling narratives
pump them with Nektar
orange yellow brown and green
don’t worry if your emissions sinder their tips
weeds, now glossy under your frame of reference

But wait.
Lets stay with the decay
keep it safe, in fridges
bound like Beuye in bundles of cotton and (low)fat

told by a cheeky sailor
whose gospels whistle through his rotting teeth
your violent euphoria hits like a storm in the Atlantic

So pin your history to the wall
cultivate it even after its fallen
Package its ruins in neet little tins
it is easier to ship that way
Do not bother checking the label
cancer coated in gold might still rott the host
But it tastes good,
does it not?

"Rich Texan" is a caricature of a Texan oil baron on The Simpsons

Eddies, waves and paradoxes

A number of things have been swimming through my mind recently. The rainfall that sketches London’s outlines, like graphite on tracing paper, brings to mind loose memories: imprints of journeys had, people seen, and ruminations experienced. I have finally decided to put ‘pen to paper,’ mopping up this foam with a wishy-washy visual essay.

“Unseasonably warm.” Perched high in the distance, the sun glows autumnal gold. Days like these: a silver lining to a society clogged with flakes of Victorian rust.

“See the Sea. Sea the Sea Sea the Sea the Sea.” I am currently reading Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. It is a breezy read; with currents that pull you down, swirl you, through translucent sentiment.

Chapter 14. Anna sits shotgun, crippled sister on lap, in a Series 62 Cadillac. I imagine a bubble-gum blue car – something soft and twee, with camel upholstery and ebony detailing. The most natural of interiors for this heavy machine. The hypocrisy of luxury.

The task at hand, the joy of contemplation: to stand on the precipice of land letting the infinite wash over you; to encounter the joy of the wave hitting the shore; the sound of wind cast on liquid.


Derek Jarman, Oh Zone

“Look a ship […] the Queen Mary, my guess. They covered up all that fancy woodwork and packed her full of soldiers. Fifteen thousand, she can hold a whole division.” Riding shotgun.

The ravishing sea: a metaphor and allegory. Swells and crashes, tropes illustrating deep steamy wonder, power and pain.

A sunny Autumn day. Like wisps from silver birch, waves fracture in the wind, soft and grey. A steady reminder that the psychic curves of salty waves will always crash upon the shore. The sudden corporeal joy.


Paul Nash: The landscapes that inspired a very British modernist
Paul Nash, The Wall Against the Sea
Steve McQueen, Ashes

September 5, 2020. Margate, England. Watching white horse charge at the granite sea wall. Reflecting: Here I Come, Freedom (c. 1970), Purvis Young.

Through the clearing tobacco fog, an exodus of sound. No, a Sound with a frequency on the edge of eerie clarity. Bodies, black specks on boats, drifting in autumnal refractions. They say every cloud has a silver lining. Young’s offers puffs of aluminium.

Purvis Young, Here I Come, Freedom

“I have painted a lot of boat people. I mostly see the boat people struggling, I see them in the news where the boat turns over, or they get turned around and sent back.” Purvis Young.

“Art is like a bright star up ahead in the darkness of the world […] Art is a guide for every person who is looking for something.” Thornton Dial.

An unfolding loop of power and pain; energy and emotion. My paradoxical rumination: supernormal and mundane, Tranquil yet earth-shattering. 

“See the Sea. Sea the Sea Sea the Sea the Sea.”

I dwell at a point of enduring misty confusion:

Tacita Dean, Bless our Europe
Paul Walde, Meditation: Canoe Lake 1917

Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Countervailing Theory

A chasm has opened in the heart of The City. A fantastical transgression, revealing not more Roman debris but the remnants of another ancient culture. Calling to mind the intricate narratives of Egyptian hieroglyphics, in this church otherwise allegorical stained glass has been replaced by colourless constellations, mapped by a poet-sorcerer.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Countervailing Theory, 2020 Installation view, The Curve, Barbican
A Countervailing Theory, 2020 Installation view, The Curve, Barbican © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo: Max Colson

The reverberations from A Countervailing Theory, Toyin Ojih Odutola’s first UK exhibition, is as mesmerising as it is metaphorical. Composed of 40 white on black drawings, hung relatively high in the Barbican’s dim The Curve space, and intoxicated by Peter Adjaye’s musical score Ceremonies Within, A Countervailing Theory charts, in monumental fragments, an ancient way of living – a speculative way of living – that, at a time of social unrest, challenges prefigurative history and statecrafted norms.

Like a vital pulse, storytelling is the life-stuff of Ojih Odutola’s practice. A Countervailing Theory is a story of a prohibited coming together: Akank – a member of the Eshu female ruling class – meets Aldo – a Koba humanoid manufactured by their Eshu masters to carry out hard manual labour. Unfurling as a sequence of articulations, Ojih Odutola’s monochromatic drawings whisper the pair’s journey: moving from life to death and life anew. Gazing into this fantastical world we witness the emergence of a relationship that pushes against the dictums that establish this authoritarian social body.

Moulded and aged by a hand who knows how to make empathy visually palpable, each of Ojih Odutola’s figures is crafted from dark waves in moonlight: flicks of bright white pastel, smooth smudges of chalk, and deep crevices of charcoal, layer, like tissue, to form our semi-androgynous protagonist-beings. Ojih Odutola’s ruminations on the formal power of mark-making not only create bodies that ripple with singing flesh but conjure loose intelligible landscapes. This interplay, between the intricacies of beings and the gestural suggestion of a heavily structured landscape, alludes to the way in which social bodies are microverses constituted by the regimes they live in.

 Toyin Ojih Odutola: Semblance of Certainty (2019), from A Countervailing Theory (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

An eerie echo of historical coloniality, or a mindful whisper to our shadowy neo-colonial modernity, A Countervailing Theory speaks to us now, at a time when awareness of oppression and violence has been heightened both through physical distancing and the uproar following the murder of black bodies by police in the United States of America. Returning to the dichotomy between hyper(sur)real flesh and trope-like landscape, Ojih Odutola’s scenes, with their cut-off cropping, allow us to project into each image, in turn provoking metaphoric ruminations on the social body’s sensorial regime and its effect on being. 

‘The presence of tranquillity in a work of art speaks of a great internal civilisation. Because you can’t have the tranquillity without reflection, you can’t have the tranquillity without having asked the great questions about your place in the universe, and having answered these questions to some degree of satisfaction. And that, for me, is what civilisation is.’  Ben Okri (quoted in exhibition catalogue).

Parting ways with A Countervailing Theory, I am left aesthetically moved, left contemplating the possibilities for worlds anew, left in an existential state, ruminating on social schema and the place of the body in regimes of enveloping power: I am left wondering, how do our bodies move in waves at midnight?

Toyin Ojih Odutola: Imitation Lesson; Her Shadowed Influence (2019). from A Countervailing Theory (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Countervailing Theory is on view in the Barbican’s The Curve until January 24 2021 (free entry – but booking in advance is needed).

A Man Reading (Saint Ivo?)

“Yves.” A solemn salutation, repeated now for the 63rd time in how many days.

Arial 12-pt should be obligatory.
“Who has time to excavate Brush Script MT?” An ambivalent question.
Flashy speech is all the range nowadays.

Breaking the plain, you address me. And despite my lazy eyes, I suppose I am to respond.
To extend an invite to the world that lies beyond those heavy shutters.

It’s spring outside. The harmonious edges of which I have only ever tickled with my pretty manicured nails. For I have been here, burrowed away.
Smothered by loose billows of dark silk.
In a dressing-gown thinned with age, warm, and empathic.

With pen on paper, finally, letter 63, seems, somehow awkward.
“I cut my hair this morning, a french crop.” Youtube is a wonderful thing.
“I brought an office chair” one backed with black mesh, and kitted out with a lumbar support.

(Lazy eyes) why look through the window.

Deep in daytime rem. A couple met in the shadow of a farmhouse.
Danggaly lovers.
A pair of swans, glide across a mirror pond.
They dream of an urban lifestyle, one topped with Bavarian spires.

Yves, “what life can become when it is writ-large on tender oak.”

Toby Upson. July, 2020
A response to (workshop of) Rogier van der Weyden’s A Man Reading (Saint Ivo?), c. 1450. The National Gallery 


    • Art Theory: Introduction to Aesthetics, Central Saint Martins, London (2020)
    • Culture, Diaspora, Ethnicity (Postgraduate Certificate), Birkbeck University London  (2020-21)
    • Contemporary Art and Politics, HDK-Valand Academy for Art and Design Gothenburg (2020)
    • Curating Cultures, Birkbeck University London  (2020)
    • Public Policy (Apprenticeship), Arts Council England (2019-2021)
    • Youth Collective, Camden Arts Center (2019-21) 
    • Art History and Visual Cultures, Open University (2019-2020)
    • Art, Anthropology and Globalisation, Goldsmiths University London (2018)
    • Certificate of Higher Education: Drawing, Open Collage of the Arts (2017-2019)
    • Outcome and impact collection, monitoring and reporting, NVCO Charities Evaluation Service (2017)
    • Extended Diploma in Art and Design, Suffolk New College (2015-2017)

Art, curatorial and cultural projects

    • Curator: Instagram Takeover, @adamthestrand (2020)
    • Co-contributor: Mantel, Monitor, Ledge #002, ADAM (@adamthestrand) (2020)
    • Contributor: Coco Crampton Domestic Wears, exhibition catalog (2020)
    • Curator: Susan (2020)
    • Panellist: Long Table Discussion with Abbas Zahidi: Lament, South London Gallery (2020)
    • Contributor: Picture Palace, Transition Gallery (2020)
    • Faculty Member: Metabolic Museum- University, Ljubljana (2019)
    • Co-curator, Camden Arts Center (2019)
    • Contributor: Camden Arts Center blog (2019)
    • Curator: Paracosmic Revue, Transition Gallery (2019)
    • Contributor: Garageland Difficult Women (2018)
    • Performer: Paul Kindersley, THE IMAGE. 2018.
    • Performer: Paul Kindersley, Fake Fairy Fantasies (2018)
    • Auction Runner: Gainsborough’s House (2017)
    • Contributor: Not Here, Queer Anthology of Loneliness (2017)
    • Camera Assistant: Paul Kindersley, Sea Witch (2016)
    • Contributor: Anna Airy Award (2015)


    • Freelance writer, (2019-date)
    • Assistant, Museums and Cultural Property, Arts Council England (2019-date)
    • Associate Curator, KELDER, (2019-2020)
    • Gallery Assistant, Transition Gallery, (2018-2020)
    • Business Development Manager, Zealous (2018-2019)
    • Contract Delivery and Outcomes Lead, Beat eating disorders, (2016-2018)