The Art Insider: July '16

This Image: Cubes and Trees exhibition

July arrives, luring us all to the beach and festivals, with the summer holidays yawning ahead for those of us with small people tugging at our legs. But before you flee to the sea (the beach can wait, I promise), mark Cubes and Trees firmly in your diary. This exhibition from dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei sees him bringing his famous tree sculptures to Downing College’s newly opened Heong Gallery. Perfect to pop into to dodge those summer crowds, it’s one of the most hotly anticipated shows in the city this season. You’ll know of Ai Weiwei for his moving Sunflower Seeds installation at Tate Modern six years ago, or for how the public donated their Lego to him in droves last autumn, after Lego turned down his mass order on the grounds that his work was too political (unlike The Lego Movie, which doesn’t have a political bone in its body – honest).

A staunch trailblazer for free speech, for Cubes and Trees Ai was initially forced to plan the show using a model of the gallery, after his passport was seized in 2011 by Chinese authorities.

“It’s exciting to be able to welcome Ai Weiwei to Cambridge, an environment perfectly attuned to questioning attitudes towards accepted ideas,” says guest curator John Tancock, himself a Downing College alumnus.

So go see one of the world’s most famous artists’ work at the cutting edge of socially engaged art, an uncompromising, fierce voice for humanity. See Cubes and Trees at Heong Gallery on Friday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm and Wednesday from 10am to 8pm until 9 October.

It’s brilliant to see these spaces for the arts in the city. Also unmissable is another Cambridge University college-hosted treasure: Europe’s largest collection of women’s art – the New Hall Art Collection – at Murray Edwards College. With visits to the collections possible every month, enjoy a feast of contemporary art by some of the world’s most famous and fascinating female artists, from Op artist Bridget Riley to the Guerrilla Girls and surrealist Leonora Carrington (her mysterious sphinxes appear in my novel, so it was a lovely surprise seeing her work there). 

"Enjoy a feast of contemporary art by famous and fascinating female artists"

July is the busiest time of year for the many artists in the city who are taking part in Open Studios, which attracts thousands of visitors across Cambridge each year. This summer sees a new addition to the event in the shape of The Engineer’s House, a lightly revamped space on Riverside which has been acquired by the Museum of Technology for community use (hurrah!). 

With freshly whitewashed walls, the space will be host to the likes of artists Katy Bailey, Howard Guest and Joe Dean. Katy, whose grandmother was born in the house, is a passionate driving force behind the renovation.

This Image: Narcissus, by Katy Bailey

Known for her sensual, explosive paintings that sing with lithe energy and colour (critic and author John Harris once said she ‘[does] disgracefully so gracefully’), visitors will not leave disappointed. There’s an open call for volunteers and donations to help complete the refurb of the space – contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to get involved. 

Open Studios also sees art collective UNIT 13, based at an artist-run warehouse on Barnwell Business Park, open up to the public. See the studios of some of the UK’s most notable children’s book illustrators, plus paintings, stunning floristry and more. You can also find the wonderful new book, Baking With Dad, by UNIT 13 illustrator Aurora Cacciapuoti, that launched last month at Heffers Children’s Bookshop. ” 

"Talented female artists breaking taboos and new ground"

Those looking for more summer reading for their children, check out Milky Moments by Ellie Stonely, which at the time of writing had been shortlisted for the People’s Book Prize (fingers crossed for a win!). A rhyming picture book, it depicts breastfeeding as a key part of family life, and like Hollie McNish, Ellie is the second Cambridge-based artist to push breastfeeding into a cultural spotlight. It’s fabulous to see us mamas’ breasts finally getting the visibility they deserve – for the right reasons. Huge respect to these talented female artists breaking taboos and new ground. 

Finally, when you do eventually make it to that beach – make sure you pack a copy of Cambridge author Betsy Reavley’s new book. Her thrillers have been topping the Amazon bestseller lists and are published by Cambridge-based Bloodhound Books, publishers of ‘formidable fiction’. Her latest thriller, The Optician’s Wife, launches this summer, with printed books available at Heffers. It’s perfect, chilling, page-turning stuff to enjoy while lathered in sun cream, with a cool drink in hand. It’s on my list, once I’ve finished Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and hoovered up Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive – a thriller-packed literary summer so far! Check for more and to learn about Betsy’s launch event. 

Relax and enjoy the start of the summer holidays, all.