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#FirstWorldProblems: The Motion Picture – Joanna Hogg’s film ‘Exhibition’

23 Oct

Every so often a film comes along that seems intentionally designed to test the limits of its audience. In action movies, for instance, one can’t help but ask if Michael Bay is taking the piss with each successive Transformers sequel, wondering just how little plot and character development he can get away with, providing he fills the screen with explosions, giant robots and the pert bosoms of actresses half his age. Pretty much the same could be said of the art-house crowd and Joanna Hogg’s latest, if you replace explosions with shots of bespoke Swedish furniture, giant robots with vague dialogues about conceptual art, and Megan Fox with Slits guitarist Viv Albertine.

Exhibition follows two artists, H (played by real-life conceptual artist Liam Gillick) and D (Albertine), as they go through the process of selling their spacious London home. The film is made up of scenes from their everyday life, including dinner with friends from across the road and meetings with an estate agent, played by Tom Hiddleston. H works in an upstairs room (though at what, exactly, we never find out), while D spends a lot of time faffing about on a stool. And that’s about it.

Pictured: D (Viv Albertine) faffs about on a stool.

Pictured: D (Viv Albertine) faffs about on a stool.

To call the film plotless would be to invite comparison with a fragmented, dreamlike work such as Tarkovsky’s Mirror. Exhibition isn’t plotless. In offering us two fairly commonplace characters (at least in the middle class, affluent and mono-ethnic corner of London in which it’s set), and in presenting these moments from their life in chronological order, it reaches for a plot, without having the nerve to tell a story.

With its focus on the glacial, modern interior design of H and D’s lavish pad, Exhibition’s bum-numbing 101 minutes feel not so much like a movie as a particularly uneventful episode of Grand Designs. In its asking us to sympathise with D’s agony over having to move out of this dream home, the feeling isn’t so much one of a Brideshead or Il Gattopardo-style elegy, prompting our sympathy with the well-to-do in a time of crisis, but rather a big screen adaptation of the “First World Problems” hashtag and meme.

The real world, in which police sirens wail and bad things are happening elsewhere, is alluded to in the film’s admittedly excellent sound design, which does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to D’s character development. Albertine herself drifts through the role ghost-like, more or less a blank canvas, and apart from one – and only one – scene of confrontation (someone horribly working class parks in front of their garage) Gillick’s H is barely a character at all. Are their vague conversations about art meant to provoke thought or inspire contempt? I really couldn’t tell. If it’s the former, then culturally we’re doomed. If it’s the latter, then this is satire without teeth.

Ultimately, Exhibition is about very little of any consequence. Any interesting ideas (is D a little agoraphobic? When she searches every cupboard, is she checking for burglars or just looking at each one for the last time?) are abandoned almost as soon as they are introduced. This isn’t just a slow film, it’s a film in which nothing happens, and Hogg makes the mistake of thinking that these are one and the same, that an absence of character development, plot or suspense are the hallmarks of intellectual or artistic rigour. They are not.

"Shall we go into any detail about what it is either of us actually does for a living?" "Let's not."

“Shall we go into any detail about what it is either of us actually does for a living?”
“Let’s not.”

Adding to the frustration of having lost over an hour and a half watching this film – waiting for something, anything to happen – is the almost universal praise it received from the British press. Five star reviews in the Guardian and Times. Four stars from the Telegraph and Empire. Interestingly, once you stray outside the UK’s Londoncentric and incestuous cultural scene, the reviews cool off considerably, nowhere more so than in this bang-on assessment from the Village Voice. 

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with films that explore, or attempt to explore the middle and upper classes in an age of bleak austerity; characters from all backgrounds are worthy of attention. What grates with Exhibition is its navel-gazing. This is Kensington property porn masquerading as art, and at a time when so many are struggling to put food on their own tables, let alone keep roofs over their heads, that just feels appallingly crass.

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The New Literalism

2 Oct

It’s a fairly general trait of encroaching middle age that the world makes less sense and everything becomes more annoying, but I can’t be alone in thinking it’s been a terrible couple of weeks for common sense here in the UK, at least as far as the arts are concerned.

First there was Mantelgate Part 2. I’m calling it “Mantelgate”. I don’t think anyone else did. Mantelgate Part 1 came when Hilary Mantel, author of the amazing Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies, wrote a piece in the London Review of Books about Royal women that was misconstrued as an attack on the Duchess of Cambridge by a media desperate to chase the latest storm in a teacup, like Bill Paxton in a shit remake of Twister. Part 2 involved Mantel’s short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Set in 1983 it depicts an incident in which an unnamed narrator – presumably based on Mantel herself – meets an IRA assassin hell-bent on killing the then Prime Minister.

Hilary Mantel (picture from the Telegraph)

Hilary Mantel (picture from the Telegraph)

The story is a fairly whimsical one, and explores the anger Thatcher inspired (and after last year’s hagiography-fest, it’s worth remembering that many people hated her), but which also cocks a snoop at her more comfortably off, suburban critics. It is not a textbook for how one might go about assassinating the late Prime Minister, and yet Tory peer Lord Bell thinks Mantel should be investigated by the police for writing the (fictional) story.

No sooner had that minor brouhaha died down than the Barbican chose to cancel Brett Bailey’s show Exhibit B (pictured at the top), a kind of theatrical installation featuring live performers, about the ugly 19th and early-20th Century practice of so-called “human zoos”, in which black Africans were paraded in front of white spectators as if they were animals. Birmingham-based blogger Sara Myers (who hadn’t seen the work) spearheaded a protest against Exhibit B, claiming it was “racist”, and the Barbican halted the show before it had begun.

Picture from the BBC

Picture from the BBC

Now, in the latest sorry chapter of idiots winning the day, Clacton-On-Sea council have destroyed some graffiti by Banksy (pictured above), because it was deemed potentially offensive and – yet again – racist. That the painting is taking the piss out of the anti-immigration lobby apparently flew over the council’s heads, and it’s worth emphasizing here that they didn’t say it was destroyed because it was graffiti, but because it might cause offense.

While Lord Bell has – so far- proven unsuccessful in getting the police to pay a visit to Chez Mantel, and while both the Banksy work and Exhibit B strike me as a little trite (though, in the case of the latter, it’s hard to form a judgment if you haven’t actually seen it), the three cases all speak of a wider problem; one of idiotic literalism.

It’s one of the hallmarks of a complete clod that he or she can’t tell the difference between art and life. Salman Rushdie learned this the hard way when the Ayatollah Khomeini couldn’t differentiate between a novel and a philosophical tract (not that the latter would have justified a death sentence). If Mantel can be grateful for one thing, it’s that the closest a British conservative (or Conservative) will get to issuing a deadly fatwah is writing an irate column for the Telegraph. 

If they're really pissed off, they'll set Simon Heffer on you.

If they’re really pissed off, they’ll set Simon Heffer on you.

As for the Banksy story, well… it’s graffiti. He must know by now – and hopefully has always known – that the majority of his works are ephemeral, and I always find it galling when some local authority expresses regret at painting over one by saying, “Well, if we’d known it was a Banksy…” An insult to other (and often better) graffiti artists, if ever I heard one.

The Exhibit B case is more concerning, but it once again demonstrates how an uninformed mob can silence artistic expression.

And how the word "privilege" has become the rhetorical equivalent of "no backsies". (Picture from the Guardian.)

And how the word “privilege” has become the rhetorical equivalent of “no backsies”. (Picture from the Guardian.)

The decision to cancel the show may have been the Barbican’s, but that decision was made under pressure and the fear of violent protest, disruption and worse, and all because Myers & Co can’t tell the difference between a work about racism, and racism itself.

If this is the way things are going to be, where do we stop? Do we ban Schindler’s List for its antisemitism, or Nabakov’s Lolita for its hebephilia? In the Mantel case enough people called bullshit for it to come to nothing, but if she had been a conservative author, would she have enjoyed the same level of support? The counter-argument for Exhibit B only came, in the pages of the Guardian and Independent after the show was cancelled. Unless the Left learns to defend freedom of expression, even when it disagrees with what’s being expressed, the literalists will win, and that means everyone else will lose.

Stuff I Love – 5: Velázquez’s Faces

5 Sep

Wander around any major museum, and you’ll notice a funny thing about pre-Renaissance art, namely: There were some fugly and very generic looking people about before the 16th Century. A couple of years ago I went to the Royal Academy’s Byzantium exhibition, and while I was blown away by the sheer volume of stuff on show, and by the craftsmanship of certain pieces, I was also struck by how much the Virgin Mary looked like Nicholas Cage, and by how baby Jesus looked like some sort of shaved marmoset or laboratory experiment gone hideously wrong.

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Even as technique improved, and perspective brought added realism to painting, we still see the same wan, oval-faced women and the same dead-eyed, bearded men. All that began to change in the 1500s, with the advent of artists such as Il Bronzino (1503-1572) and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Suddenly we see faces animated by the spark of life, characters who it’s possible to imagine having lives, emotions and expressions outside of the paintings in which they appear.

'Portrait of a Lady in Green' (c.1528-1532) by Bronzino

Portrait of a Lady in Green (c.1528-1532) by Bronzino

For me, no other artist between 1500 and 1700 captures faces with the same degree of vitality as Diego Velázquez. Born into a fairly wealthy Seville family in 1599, he trained in Madrid and Italy and spent much of his career as an official court painter to King Philip IV of Spain. As well as capturing members of the royal household in candid and often very frank portraits, Velázquez had a keen eye for some of their more eccentric hangers on.

In tackling even classical subjects, he gave his characters a humanity that makes the paintings immediate and fresh-looking, even to a modern eye. In Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan, the Sun god Apollo appears Vulcan, the god of Fire, and his fellow smithies, as they go about making the weapons of war. What’s striking about the painting is that apart from Apollo, who wears a laurel crown and whose head is surrounded by a heavenly glow, the other characters in the painting, even though they represent gods and demigods, are so very human. Apollo is here to break the news that Vulcan’s wife, Aphrodite, has been shagging Mars, god of War.

It’s the closest thing to an Eastenders doof-doof-doof moment that Greco-Roman myth has to offer, and – despite having died more than 300 years before Eastenders hit our screens – Velázquez understands this perfectly. Look at the blacksmith second from the left:

 

Some credit must, of course, go to the model for his performance, but it’s Velázquez’s genius that captured that spontaneity and authenticity on the canvas.

In The Triumph of Bacchus, another painting based on a classical theme, we have a vaguely disinterested-looking Bacchus god of Wine and Merriment “crowning” one of a band of drunken revellers.

The characters I’m drawn to here are the two chaps to Bacchus’s left, the ones looking directly at the viewer. Their sozzled expressions – the guy on the left trying (and failing) to hold it together, as if posing for a wedding photo, while the man next to him can only raise one eyebrow and leer – are just sublime; one of the most subtly recognisable depictions of drunkenness in the history of art.

Of course, it’s one thing to humanise two (potentially pissed) models you’ve just dragged in off the street, another to treat a well-respected, high profile client to the same degree of unflinching scrutiny; yet that’s exactly what Velázquez did when he painted Pope Innocent X.

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I must admit, I don’t know a great deal about Innocent X’s eleven year tenure as pontiff, but if I had to hazard a guess I’d say he was a cantankerous old git. Look at that face:

Whether it’s contempt for the artist himself, for the business of having to pose for an official portrait or for the tedium of everyday Popeing, I couldn’t say. Certainly, contemporaries of Velasquez were worried the Pope would hate the painting’s honesty, but to everyone’s surprise Innocent X loved it. Maybe because it makes him look like a badass. 

Perhaps it was that very honesty which brought Velázquez so much success as a court artist and portrait painter, that made him stand out from the crowd in an age of sycophants. The subject he painted most often of all was the Spanish king himself, and thanks to an… erm… convoluted family tree (read: lots of uncles marrying nieces) he was no looker, but other than to make his nose slightly less bulbous Velázquez never flattered him.

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Philip IV, painted by Velazquez in 1623 and 1656

There is always, in Velázquez’s paintings of Philip, a note of uncertainty behind the haughty facade that you just don’t expect to see in royal portraiture of the time. The Habsburg dynasty was nearing its end and Philip’s son, the severely inbred and disabled Charles, would prove the last of the line.

That quality of taking the viewer unawares is present in almost every portrait Velasquez made, whether he’s capturing the melancholy of someone who is employed simply to be laughed at…

Detail from 'Don Sebastian de Morra'  (c.1646)

Detail from ‘Don Sebastian de Morra’ (c.1646)

The bellicose pomposity of a clown…

Detail from 'The Buffoon Don Cristobal de Castaneda y Pernia' (c.1635)

Detail from ‘The Buffoon Don Cristobal de Castaneda y Pernia’ (c.1635)

Or the nobility of his own Moorish servant (and fellow artist), Juan de Pareja…

'Juan de Pareja' (1649)

‘Juan de Pareja’ (1649)

Velázquez’s faces are not simply “well painted”, they’re alive. Costumes aside, they look like people you could meet here and now. And that’s why I love them.

 

Dennis Hopper’s America

28 Jul

Hopper

Over the last two weekends I’ve been in London, recording interviews with the cast for the next series of The Confessions of Dorian Gray. It’s been great fun, and lovely hanging around in The Moat Studios, but I was very happy to have wrapped up my official duties by 2pm yesterday, so I could shoot off and do a bit of touristing.

With only a couple of hours to kill before my train home, I went to the Royal Academy to check out The Lost Album, an exhibition of photographs by the actor Dennis Hopper. There are more than 400 images in all, taken between 1961 (when his wife bought him a camera) and 1967, shortly before he began work on his directorial debut Easy Rider. Hopper would later portray a mentally frazzled photographer in the film Apocalypse Now, and his reputation throughout the late 1960s and 1970s was as a wild man, but if this exhibition demonstrates anything, it’s that behind the almost cartoonish excess and eccentricity he was constantly engaged with visual arts, both as practitioner and fan.

Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman (1963)

Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman (1963)

The writer Julie Burchill once commented – in a scathing (what else?) piece on David Bailey – that photography is “luck through a lens”, and while I’d disagree with the overall sentiment, there is often a grain of truth to it. The Lost Album includes pictures of Hollywood stars such as Paul Newman and John Wayne, and artists of the era, including Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Liechtenstein and Andy Warhol, and Hopper was certainly lucky to know them all well enough to take such candid pictures, but where Hopper’s photography goes beyond being the work of a keen and lucky amateur is in his ambition and scope.

Regular obsessions crop up: The Coca Cola logo, torn posters, cemetery headstones and dilapidated signage, as well as images of America’s nascent counterculture – its civil rights protesters, Hell’s Angels and proto-hippies – come together to form a kind of narrative. The show starts with celebrities, but soon enough we’re side by side with Martin Luther King Jr., or witnessing the Sunset Boulevard riots of 1966, or watching – second hand, via the curved screen of a television –  the funeral of JFK.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1965)

Martin Luther King Jr. (1965)

If his civil rights stuff isn’t as accomplished as Bruce Davidson’s and his images of Mexico aren’t as inventive as Graciela Iturbide’s, that’s forgiveable. This is a photographer finding his way, but engaging with his subject all the same. If a lot of the time he’s riffing on his own influences (Coke bottles from Warhol or Rauschenberg, bull fighting from Hemingway etc), at least he’s influenced by the greats. In a way, if Hopper’s work depicts anything, it’s the forging of a new – and possibly unstable – American identity, one that was post-industrial and almost post-ideological. (There’s still something a little startling about seeing swastika badges on Hell’s Angels’ lapels.)

A middle room in the exhibition, and the room through which you leave the show, has the opening sequence from Hopper’s 1969 movie Easy Rider on a loop. It’s more than just a nod to the actor’s more well-known career as an actor and occasional director. Here, in his montage of bikers (played by him and Peter Fonda) riding across the American landscape (accompanied by The Band’s song The Weight) we see many of the same visual themes and preoccupations, only now they’re in blazing colour.

From Easy Rider (1969)

From Easy Rider (1969)

 

Whatever you now think of the movie itself, it was undeniably groundbreaking. Commercially, it demonstrated that unconventional indie flicks could make money, but it also changed how films look, being one of the first movies in which lens flare was treated as a visual effect and not something to be avoided or edited out. Including the sequence here makes an apt ending to a show that gives some insight into Dennis Hopper as more than just the star of Blue Velvet and Speed.

“I don’t know what art is…” Why Martin Creed is a simpleton or a fraud

16 Jul

Martin Creed

Martin Creed was on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, involved in a brief discussion about Kazimir Malevich’s painting Black Square, which is being exhibited as part of a Tate Modern retrospective that opens today. The painting, for the uninitiated, looks like this:

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That’s right. It’s one of those ‘Ronseal’ paintings. It’s called black square, and it is a black square. It was apparently inspired by the artist’s reading of Schopenhauer, which is way too hefty a subject to get into here without essentially copying and pasting big chunks of World as Will and Representation, but suffice to say, our pal Kazimir wanted painting to move away from the representational, and towards the kind of abstraction that music offers, thereby helping us transcend this dull and dreary world of ours. Hence, a black square.

The important thing to remember about an artist like Kazimir Malevich, however, is that he arrived at his black square through a lengthy process of practice and thought. He wasn’t capable only of covering a canvas in black paint. He could also paint stuff like this:

Dude was versatile, is what I'm saying.

Dude was versatile, is what I’m saying.

Abstraction, in his case, was an artistic choice, not the end result of having little or no skill. The same cannot be said about Martin Creed. I’ve waffled on about Creed in a previous blog, holding his work up as an example of the kind of conceptual art I find not only utterly vapid but nihilistic and viciously elitist. It is the dreary cul-de-sac of 20th Century art. Stick a blob of Blu-Tac to a wall, call it art and hope you can get enough gullible saps to agree. Except, of course, Creed doesn’t even do that. He is either gleefully in on the joke, or a simpleton who is unaware that there is a joke to begin with.

This is Creed's Work No. 88. It is exactly what it looks like - a scrunched up piece of paper.

This is Creed’s Work No. 88. It is exactly what it looks like – a scrunched up piece of paper.

On Today, for example, he was asked if he considered Black Square to be art.

He replied, “I don’t know if it’s art or not, because I don’t know what art is, because I think art is just a word… that’s difficult to understand.”

So, if I’m right, because art is an often difficult concept to define, we shouldn’t even bother calling anything art, or trying to understand or define it? Why have that discussion when you could just stick some Blu-Tac to a wall, switch some lights on and off, get everyone else to call it art, and then giggle all the way to the bank? Though, of course, when I say “everyone else”, what I mean is, “Other artists, art critics and people who went to art school.” Not the countless people outside those three categories who can spot the Emperor’s naked, bouncing bollocks a mile off.

The most frustrating thing about Creed is the kind of almost uniform, unquestioning loyalty he inspires in so many art critics (with the notable exception of the Times’ Waldemar Januszczak). The now-defunct Review Show’s four-way rimming session about Creed’s Hayward Gallery retrospective was one of the most unedifying bits of arts programming I’ve ever seen on the BBC, so much so that when the show was cancelled, I found myself thinking, “Good riddance.”

That not one of the guest critics (Paul Morley, Denise Mina and – most disappointingly – playwright Mark Ravenhill) nor host Kirsty Wark were prepared to stick their hand up and say, “But… it’s all shit, isn’t it?” says a great deal about the kind of cliquey, incestuous media world in which Creed operates while feigning an aloof disinterest; the critics themselves presumably too scared of bumping into him at their next shindig to pipe up honestly.

Pictured: Paul Morley and Martin Creed.

Pictured: Paul Morley and Martin Creed.

Martin Creed did not arrive at his empty rooms or his scrunched up bits of paper or his blob of Blu-Tac after a lengthy period of learning his craft, or engaging with contemporary thought. He did it because he is incapable of doing anything else. The only thing original about this routine is that he was one of the first people ballsy enough to produce such blatantly lazy work without bothering to provide any justification and get away with it, and “getting away” with something should not be enough to earn you plaudits. Not when you have slammed a great big door in the faces of anyone not well-versed in art history and said, “Fuck off. You won’t get it.”

What Creed’s work says to all the struggling painters who learned how to paint, struggling sculptors who learned how to sculpt, and struggling conceptual artists whose concepts are original, fresh and thought-provoking, is, “Ha ha ha… Fools! Why did you bother? Look at me. I’m a fucking dimwit, and I get to do this for a living.

If you doubt this is the case, if you think I’m misreading Creed’s work, or underestimating him, I’ll leave you with a quote from the man himself, about his work The Lights Going on and Off:

“There was nothing that I could think of that was important enough to put in that room and say, “Hey, look at this.” And so, in the absence of that, I tried to do something with the room. And so I switched the lights on and off, because that’s all I could think to do.”

Howard’s End – The CSAD Summer Show

9 Jun

Elaine Begley

I’ve a particular attachment to Cardiff School of Art and Design’s campus at Howard Gardens. Not because I studied there – my alma mater was at Dartington, in Devon; a college that has since amalgamated with Falmouth and moved a further hundred or so miles into the deep, dark wilderness of the West Country. But Howard Gardens was where my partner studied, and every summer since we “became an item” we’ve gone along to the student summer show there.

This year has a particular poignancy, as it’ll be the last CSAD summer show held at Howard Gardens before the school ups roots and moves across the city to the leafier environs of Llandaff. The move seems a shame for a number of reasons. First, Howard Gardens – while definitely in need of a lick of paint here and there – is an excellent building for artists-in-training, filled with workshops, nooks and crannies, and beautifully well-lit studios on the upper floors. Secondly, it’s well-situated, slap bang in the middle of town; whereas Llandaff’s setting is much more quiet…

Pictured: Llandaff, circa 2009

Pictured: Llandaff, circa 2009

Who knows… Perhaps the students will benefit from being somewhere that’s closer to nature and further away from quite so many Wetherspoons. All I do know is that having spent my 3 years at Dartington surrounded by fields and trees, I developed an unhealthy longing for McDonalds, multistorey car parks and graffiti-and/or-urine saturated underpasses.

Anyway… I’m kind of drifting away from the point, here, which was, of course, the CSAD summer show. Like any graduate show, it’s an inevitably hit and miss affair – lots of work by lots of artists of varying abilities – but there are always a handful of gems that make you genuinely optimistic for the future of British art. (Especially in a world in which a recent Martin Creed retrospective, featuring such seminal works as a blob of Blu-Tack stuck to a wall, received nothing but glowing plaudits on the now-defunct Review Show.)

Fucking seriously.

Fucking seriously.

Go to enough of these shows, however, or hark back to your own art school days (if you went to art school), and you’ll realise that certain trends pop up, year after year. Oh… You’ve taken a mould of your own vagina and reproduced it in plaster/plastic/chocolate? Well done, you. That’s one in the eye for phallocentric hegemony. You’ve nailed some bits of wood together and have them jutting out of the walls at funny angles? Yes… That really makes me reconsider this “space”.

But I’m being cruel. If you were born in 1993, and thus didn’t study at Dartington in the late 1990s or attend the last 5 or 6 CSAD summer shows, perhaps you’ve no idea that you’re not the first artist to serve up vaginas or bits of wood.

For me, though the overall standard of work this year was very high (even the plaster vaginas looked good, en masse) there were four real stand-outs. Beth Marriott’s exquisitely detailed matchbox tableaux, based on the ailing memories of her grandmother, are just stunning and packed full of detail. I only wish I’d had more time to look at them.

Elaine Begley has crafted wax cubes, each one filled with layers of detritus, that manage to be both a little bleak (they look like polluted ice cores dug up in the distant future) and very beautiful. Placed on a grid of pedestals they were visually striking and endlessly fascinating.

Pic by me

Pic by me

I do love a good, tactile, hands-on installation, and James George’s Brecon Beacons Project ticked all of those boxes. Set in a large chest of draws, the artist has carried out lengthy research; photographing, documenting and taking samples of material from the Brecon Beacons, before producing his own rough-hewn paper and notebooks, as well as perspex artworks based on the results. Like Marriott’s matchboxes, it’s a work I wish I could have spent more time looking at, as I felt I was only able to scratch the surface.

My personal star of this year’s summer show, however, was painter Helen Bur. Without realising it, I’d actually seen a number of her works before. She has painted giant murals in and around Roath, and exhibited at Milgi’s Art in the Warehouse, but her paintings on show at the CSAD are just exceptional. Reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s portraits and character studies in their hazy, but almost photographic focus, I could have spent the whole day staring at them. Absolutely stunning.

The Leader by Helen Bur

The Leader by Helen Bur

Perhaps the best thing about the CSAD summer show is that you’re given no idea which students will be rewarded with the highest marks for their efforts. You might be able to work one or two out for yourself, but – unless you have a loved one exhibiting and are a bit biased – you really are free to pick your favourites, with no pressure to like any particular style. The artists are unknowns, without the weight and baggage of famous names that can make first-time gallery-goers feel obliged to like a certain work which, otherwise, they’d be quite indifferent to. As Grayson Perry pointed out in last year’s Reith Lectures, all galleries should have a sign over the door saying, “You don’t have to like everything”. A student summer show does more or less exactly that.

Having gone through the art school system, I can say this is probably for the better. The year I graduated, the vaginas received the only First Class Honours on the entire course.

The CSAD Summer Show is on at Howard Gardens until Friday 13th June.

The image at the top of the page is Elaine Begley’s own photo of her work Tranquility.

When Slacktivism Isn’t Enough – A few thoughts on the destruction of Newport’s chartist mural

4 Oct

Chartist Mural

So Newport Council have only gone and done it. They’ve taken a 35-year-old mural by artist Kenneth Budd, commemorating the city’s 1839 Chartist uprising, and driven a bloody great big JCB right through it. Its 200,000 pieces of coloured tile (the mural took the form of a vast mosaic along an underpass) are now a far less artistic pile of rubble.

To say this move went down like a turd at a pool party would be an understatement. There have been protests and petitions, and both Twitter and Facebook were aflame with outrage – certainly in this neck of the woods.

I must confess, though dimly aware that this was in the pipeline I hadn’t really followed the story until yesterday. I was disappointed Newport Council were planning to do this, but hadn’t involved myself. When the first pictures appeared, yesterday afternoon, of a gaping hole in the middle of the mural, I asked if, perhaps, they’d considered taking it down and putting it up again somewhere else, such as the open-air Museum of Welsh Life in St Fagans. This is what happened when the Vulcan Hotel, one of the most perfectly preserved old pubs in Cardiff, was bulldozed to allow for an additional 3 or 4 parking spaces in one of the city centre’s many car parks.

Vulcan Hotel circled in red. As you can see from the chock full car park surrounding it, they really needed those 3 or 4 spaces.

Vulcan Hotel circled in red. As you can see from the chock full car park surrounding it, they really needed those 3 or 4 spaces.

I was told that when this idea was floated, Newport Council came up with a figure of £600,000. That’s how much it would cost, they said, to take Budd’s mural apart as carefully as they could, because it was fixed to a load-bearing wall. As yesterday’s images testify, this was clearly bullshit. The mural was fixed to a surface 6 or 7 inches from the load-bearing wall. Newport Council must have plucked that six-figure sum from thin air, or fed false information to whoever quoted them that figure.

Pictured: Why Newport Council are full of shit.

Pictured: Why Newport Council are full of shit.

Even allowing for the council’s philistinism, however, a nagging thought persists. Though I don’t doubt that the organisers behind the Facebook page Save Our Chartist Mural put a lot of time and effort into their campaign, was there ever a point when anyone suggested raising the money to save the mural from destruction?

Petition, Twitter page, but no crowd funding page, so I'll assume the answer is "No".

Petition, Twitter page, but no crowd funding page, so I’ll assume the answer is “No”.

Now, OK, with a figure like £600,000 being bandied about by the council I wouldn’t imagine the 2,546 people who “liked” the page could have raised that kind of money themselves – it would have meant an average donation of £236 each. Even if you were to canvass every person living in Newport and get them to cough up the cash that would still mean a sum of over £4 a head. But that doesn’t mean it would have been impossible.

Of all the political parties, you might expect Labour to show at least some interest in the mural, with it symbolising an important event in the history of social activism and democracy in Britain. The party has 216 peers in the House of Lords, and I can guarantee many of them aren’t short of a “bob or two”. Did anyone write to any of them, asking not for their support but their cash? If not, why not?

This isn’t an exercise in finger-pointing, because really, when it comes to bitching about Newport Council demolishing this mural but doing nothing whatsoever to stop them, I’m as guilty – if not more so – than anyone else, and my great idea – to brow-beat wealthy lefties into opening their wallets – only occurred to me once the mural was destroyed. But the impotent dismay with which people have met this latest depressing move by a local council speaks volumes about how ineffectual so-called slacktivism is.

"I really wish I'd stayed at home and written an angry blog post for HuffPo instead."

“I really wish I’d stayed at home and written an angry blog post for HuffPo instead.”

The fact that this was a mural celebrating the Chartist uprising – during which people actually died for their beliefs – only highlights this even further. In slacktivism world the Chartists would have signed a petition and expected their overwhelming sense of indignation to exert some mystical, unseen force on the powers that be. In 2013, we sign a petition and like a Facebook page and square up to a body as mindless, blinkered and uncaring as a local council armed only with sentiment and good intentions. We ask that the things that mean something to us are saved, preserved and protected in perpetuity, without ever suggesting how this might be achieved.

Whether or not you agree with this dismal and depressing “Age of Austerity”, it’s our present reality. Petitions are all well and good, but they carry far less weight than cold, hard cash. As vulgar and ugly as many left-leaning folk may find the idea of private wealth, it makes a far more effective weapon when you’re dealing with penny-pinching, commercially minded councils than a Facebook page with over 2,000 “likes”.