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Conceptual Art is Dead (and about f**king time)

23 Jun

In 2006 the gallery at Cardiff’s Chapter Arts (Londoners should imagine Battersea Arts Centre, but better) exhibited Gallery Space Recall by Simon Pope, an artist who had represented Wales at the Venice Biennale in 2003. The work consisted of… nothing. The walls and floor spaces were empty. Instead of looking at pieces of work crafted lovingly by the artist, visitors to the exhibition were invited to remember previous exhibitions they had gone to.

Be still, my beating fists.

Be still, my beating fists.

It marked, for me, the nadir of conceptual art; the point when it went beyond parody and vanished up its own fundament. Having long been subjected to the accusation that it was like the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, here was conceptual art using that fairy tale as its template. There was nothing to see, but seeing nothing made you a philistine.

What’s more, it was a perfect illustration of conceptual art’s very worst traits; cultural navel-gazing and the assumption that the viewer would already be immersed in that world. This was art about art for the benefit of artists and people who already know about art. If you fell outside that spectacularly narrow group, you could fuck off, you fucking pleb.

Martin Creed's 2001 Turner Prize-winning Work No. 227, the lights going on and off.  In which the light goes on and off. Fucking seriously.

Martin Creed’s 2001 Turner Prize-winning Work No. 227, the lights going on and off. In which the light goes on and off. Fucking seriously.

In my mind, it’s no coincidence that this kind of conceptual art should come to dominate Britain’s art scene when it did, during the late-1990s and early 2000s. This was a time of economic prosperity, when the country’s creatives were, by and large, still in love with our government. They had very little to react against other than a kind of sketchy, nebulous “conformity”. Marcel Duchamp’s prediction, that the artist of the future would be “a person who points his finger”, looked dangerously close to coming true.

Of course, the ultimate irony of a movement that began with the intention of making art less elitist, less bourgeois, was that from Duchamp’s urinal to Damien Hirst’s rotting carcasses and Tracey Emin’s Unmade Bed (one of the great shibboleths of conceptual art) the exact opposite happened. Art became inexplicable  to the newcomer, a high-walled fortress accessible only to those “in the know”. Forget craft… Craft was bourgeois. Forget work that was actually about something; having something to say was just so ’80s.

As the decade known nauseatingly as the Noughties wore on, however, something interesting started to happen. First, in 2003, Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize with lovingly crafted pots featuring sexual imagery; work that took skill to create and was actually about something. He was followed, in 2006, by Tomma Abts. Though abstract, her paintings were breathtakingly beautiful, painted with stunning control; a celebration of the amazing things a skilled artist can do with paint and a paintbrush. And there… I’ve said it. Skill. Here we had artists winning the Turner Prize, the tabloids’ cultural bête noire, whose art couldn’t have been created by a six-year-old or “any old Tom, Dick or Harry”.

Or Tammy, Doris and Nancy.

Or Tammy, Doris or Nancy, for that matter.

Since then I’ve been to a number of exhibitions of contemporary British art, at the Saatchi Gallery, the Royal Academy and, yes, Chapter Arts, and I’ve seen this trend continue. Artists, it would seem, are returning to craft. Tracey Emin is now a professor of drawing at the Royal Academy. Even Damien Hirst went back to more traditional painting… with less-than-successful results.

This isn’t to say that art should return to some atavistic, pre-Duchamp state of grace, in which only traditional painting and sculpture are valid. There is still plenty of room for experimental films, photography and installations. The Mexican artist Teresa Margolles won last year’s Artes Mundi with work featuring bloodied tiles taken from a crime scene and a rusting hot-plate, and yet was an emotionally engaging, accessible piece that was actually about something. Jeremy Deller’s projects, which include an inflatable “bouncy castle” version of Stonehenge and a brass band playing rave classics, are very “conceptual”, but also entertaining and thought-provoking.

Jeremy Deller's Acid Brass.

Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass.

Rather, this is a celebration – and hopefully one that isn’t premature – to mark the death of conceptual art at its laziest, its most vapid, its most dangerously nihilistic. If art can be anything, by anyone, the word loses all meaning and anything that follows and places itself beneath that banner loses all value. Art, once enjoyed by people from all walks of life, becomes the exclusive preserve of the elite; the chin-strokers who’ll happily discuss “the complex nature of beauty, and the complex beauty of nature” illustrated by a rotting cow’s head while Hirst falls cackling into a bed covered in banknotes.

Thankfully, after a blockbuster retrospective at Tate Modern in 2012, his star is finally in the descent. Prices of his work, once as ludicrous as those of single bedroom flats in central London, are beginning to drop. He was recently forced to lay off a number of the technicians and engineers who actually make his work for him while he sits there, like a scruffy Barbara Cartland, coughing up ideas with all the enthusiasm and creative passion that most of us hack up phlegm.

"Hmm. What next? Fuck it... Where can we get a gazelle?"

“Hmm. What next? Fuck it… Where can we get a gazelle?”

In London over the weekend, I saw multiple clues that this particular tide is turning. At the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition you’ll see Grayson Perry’s amazing series of tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences. Inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, these epic works take a warm but satirical look at modern Britain, with all its idiosyncrasies, and are a real highlight of this year’s show, which as always is a bit of an all-you-can-eat buffet of art.

From The Vanity of Small Differences, Grayson Perry.

From The Vanity of Small Differences, Grayson Perry.

 Meanwhile, the younger artists on show at the Saatchi’s eclectic but entertaining show Paper seem as committed to big ideas as they are craft. Their work is unafraid to say something, to be about something. Anne Kevans’ oil paint sketches of war criminals and mass murderers as children are incredibly powerful, as are Eric Manigaud’s pencil drawings of psychiatric patients and painstakingly recreated aerial shots of a devastated Cologne in 1945. Ten years ago there’s every chance UK critics would have dismissed Yuken Teruya’s trees made exquisitely from designer label and fast food paper bags as twee, but they’re stunning.

From LVMH, Yuken Teruya.

From LVMH, Yuken Teruya.

The signs are promising. The stranglehold that the talentless and the profligate have had on contemporary art is starting to loosen. The emperor has at least – and at last – got his pants back on.


David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.

A Guggenheim for Wales?

4 Jun
Photo by Jon Pountney

Adam Price at the Pierhead. (Photo by Jon Pountney)

Last Sunday marked the launch of the Sunday School, a series of free talks given at Cardiff Bay’s beautiful Pierhead Building. There are six talks planned in all, on a variety of subjects, but the inaugural talk was the proposal by Adam Price (former MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) that Wales should join the likes of Bilbao, Venice and Abu Dhabi in having its very own Guggenheim.

Now, it should be pointed out that this isn’t, at present, an official proposal; the application form isn’t in the post, the Guggenheim’s men and women with clipboards aren’t this second wandering in small groups around the waste grounds and abandoned power stations of Swansea, Cardiff or Newport. It’s just an idea.

It’s important to say this because, though the Guggenheim’s international office in Bilbao knew about the talk, their colleagues in New York felt it necessary to tweet this:

Consider our chips pissed on.

Consider our chips pissed on.

So there isn’t going to be a Guggenheim in Wales any time soon, but does that mean there shouldn’t be one? And does Wales even need a Guggenheim – or something like it – in the first place?

Wales has many of the cultural blocks that go towards nation building. We have national teams in rugby and football, a national opera company, a national theatre, a national museum. We have our own national anthem, and – of course – our own language. It seems a national gallery for contemporary art is one of the few things we’re missing.

Along with one of our dinosaurs.

Along with one of our dinosaurs.

Whenever debates like this surface, there are invariably a small, dedicated band of rabble rousers in the press who will bend over backwards to give their readership a simple choice.

“Do you want an art gallery or do you want a children’s hospital?”

"Sorry, darling. You can't have your heart transplant. The Tate needs that money for a new acquisition."

“Sorry, darling. You can’t have your heart transplant. The Tate needs that money for a new acquisition.”

This is essentially what happened when plans were drawn up, back in the 1990s, for an opera house in Cardiff Bay. It was called Cardiff Bay Opera House and much like Sydney’s would have been the jewel in the waterfront’s crown. Zaha Hadid’s winning design beat competition from the likes of Norman Foster and Itsuko Hasegawa, and everything seemed on the verge of being green-lit when the Millennium Commission withdrew its support.

The media campaign against the project was tinged with inverted snobbery (“Opera? Who wants to go and see opera?”) as well as a vague subtext of xenophobia; Hadid being an Iraqi-born architect designing a major British project 4 years after the first Gulf War.

In the pages of the local and national press the debate was invariably framed in terms of, “Which would you rather? A rugby stadium or an opera house?” As if the people of Cardiff, or indeed Wales, deserved one but not the other. As if you, yes you were allowed only to like rugby or opera. You bloody peasants.

In the event, of course, Cardiff got both a stadium (the Millennium Stadium) and an opera house (the Wales Millennium Centre), but as long as we don’t call it an opera house that’s fine, and everyone can go and watch Les Mis or the Britain’s Got Talent auditions and not feel in the slightest bit elitist.

Of course, if we’re going to have a bloody great big gallery money will be an issue, and right now more than ever. Even when this country was on its uppers, in the late 1990s, you would hear folk complain about how National Lottery money was being spent on the arts when – in their view – it should have been spent “on hospitals”. Never mind that the whole point of the National Lottery was that it would take the burden off the taxpayer and fund the nice things in life, the jam to make our daily bread that little bit more interesting. No… Some people would rather live in a world where all culture is dictated solely by market forces and ends up being an endless marathon of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.


We could discuss the importance, the necessity and the relevance of art until the heat death of the universe. And, of course, if life really was a case of binary choices (“Dialysis machine… or ballet?”) we’d have to choose the life-saving option, but it isn’t, and so we don’t.

“Ah,” says the straw man in this argument. “But why should we, the tax payer, have to pay for the arts?”

This, of course, brings us back to the reason we have a lottery, but even without the lottery there would be good a solid case for state funding of the arts. You could, for example, argue that benevolent (i.e. non-interfering) state sponsorship encourages far greater innovation and experimentation than art propped up by commercial interests; the flourishing of American music, theatre and the arts during and immediately after America’s “New Deal” years being a fine testament to this.

But even if we’re talking in terms of cold, hard business, public funding of the arts still makes sense. For every pound spent on arts and culture the taxpayer gets, on average, four back. In the case of Bilbao, in particular, we see a region whose authorities made the brave choice to stump up what is known technically as a “f**kload” of public money to win itself a Guggenheim; and that decision reaped dividends. Prior to the building of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao received around 25,000 visitors annually. In 2009 the city was visited by over 600,000. Even now unemployment in Bilbao, a former docks town comparable to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne) is over 4% lower than Spain’s national average. (Newcastle, with – at the time of writing – 7.8% unemployment matches the UK average exactly.)

Photo courtesy of dalbera, via Flickr.

Photo courtesy of dalbera, via Flickr.

Leaving aside the question of funding, what does a museum like a Guggenheim (or a Tate, or a Hermitage) give a place? I would argue that it can be one of the vital ingredients in a region’s civic pride, contributing to people’s idea of their corner of the world as a place worth living in. Ask anyone grimly hanging on to a city as overcrowded and overpriced as London, Paris or New York why they stay there, and chances are they’ll cite something cultural. When those of us who don’t live in London feel envious of those who do, isn’t it the Southbank/West End/Brixton Academy/Wembley Stadium [delete according to taste] we wish we had right next door?

These places matter, and they make the people who live near them think that they matter too. And as for the contents, I genuinely believe that looking at art is good for us. I don’t care what inverted snobs will say. Art, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, makes you feel something, think something, and if it’s great it will carry on making you think and feel something long after you stop looking at it.

I grew up in a very working class household, in a very working class part of the country during the 1980s when, according to some cynics, I should have been glued to the telly box stuffing my face with BSE-infected beef or lost in a world of increasingly violent video games. And yet a day trip to see Cardiff Museum’s modest-but-impressive art collection was never anything less than awe-inspiring. I can still remember looking up, wide-eyed, at Graham Crowley’s The Poetics of Space (named after the book by Gaston Bachelard) and, as soon as we got home, sitting down and writing a story about a spooky, wall-less house in a creepy, near-deserted town. Growing up in a home where there wasn’t the money for foreign holidays or day trips to theme parks, museums and galleries meant a great deal to me. Seeing paintings was sightseeing.

Now, I may be a bit of a snob, but I’m not enough of a snob to think all 10-year-olds are like the 10-year-old me, or that all kids should be, but some are, even now, even when they all have Angry Birds, “miao miao” and disturbingly easy access to pornography. To deny those kids access to art because we think it’s “elitist” or it’s “not their kind of thing”, is the very worst kind of snobbery. A museum of contemporary art in Wales could serve not only as a showcase for the best in modern Welsh art but as a window on the world of contemporary art for countless thousands of young people.

In discussing the Guggenheim satellites that never were (including Rio, Taicheung and Helsinki) Adam Price was sure to point out that many of these projects – particularly Helsinki – failed because they came to the general public not as ideas but as finished proposals.

“Hey everyone!  We’re applying for a Guggenheim!”

They also began, almost without exception, discussions that led to other, more successful projects. If some of us want a museum of contemporary art (whether it’s a Guggenheim, a Tate or a Hermitage) in Wales, rather than lobby the national and global titans who hold the purse strings until they send around people with clipboards, we should begin a discussion at the grassroots level, and I think that discussion may have begun at the Pierhead Building last Sunday.

The next Sunday School talk, ‘Drama: Conversation, Charisma and Chance‘ takes place on Sunday June 16th.

The Tubes, The Twenties and Mrs T

8 Apr

Tubes 20s Mrs T

In recent months I’ve been working on an audio adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray for Big Finish productions. This follows on from their series The Confessions of Dorian Gray – the brainchild of the annoyingly talented Scott Handcock – in which Dorian survives, thrives and cavorts his way across the 20th Century.

Pictured: Literally the first image that came up when I Googled 'cavorting'. Featuring Milton Berle (far right).

Pictured: Literally the first image that came up when I Googled ‘cavorting’. Featuring Milton Berle (far right).

Adapting the novel itself was a very different task, not least of all because it involved producing 4 times as many words as an episode, but I’ll write more about this closer to the release date. The reason I’m mentioning it all now is that last weekend was when we recorded it, at The Moat Studios in Ladbroke Grove.

A day at The Moat is always fun, and as anyone who has worked there will tell you, the lunches alone – put on by sound engineer and kitchen whiz Toby – make any visit worthwhile.

As one actor, on a previous production, noted: “You don’t get this on The Archers.”

Being there on Saturday meant I finally got to meet our Dorian, the brilliant Alexander Vlahos (Mordred in the BBC’s Merlin), along with Marcus Hutton and Miles Richardson (who, I can confirm, were born to play Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton respectively.) But enough of this loveydom. The day went well, everyone was marvellous, and the food was lovely.

I’d like to say I spent that night (a Saturday) carousing my way around the tangled streets of Soho, but sadly, having had far too little sleep the night before and having left the house at 5:30am to catch my train, I was in bed by 10:30 and fast asleep by 11.

Artist's impression.

Artist’s impression.

On Sunday morning, after my attempt at bankrupting my hotel by eating all of the breakfast, I strolled down to Covent Garden and the London Transport Museum. I was there specifically to see their exhibition of Tube posters, celebrating 150 years of the Underground, but the museum itself is a treat. Even the lift taking you to the second floor was exciting, and the examples of classic railway stock and buses were lovely. What’s more, once you’ve paid the £15 entry fee (which may sound a little steep) you can go as many times as you like for a whole year.

The exhibition itself was wonderful; a joyous reminder of how “on-the-nose” vintage advertising can be. Sure, some of it can look a little Orwellian these days, but it was surprising how applicable many posters still are.

This is from 1944. They should reissue it.

This is from 1944. They should reissue it.

 What stood out for me was the inventiveness, and the artistic daring that you see in poster art from the 1920s and 30s compared with later decades that we tend to assume were more adventurous. The earlier tube posters showcase vorticism, cubism, and plenty of other isms from early 20th Century art. The ’60s posters, in comparison, are surprisingly conservative, with only one example reflecting the city’s “swinging” reputation or offering so much as a nod to Pop Art.

In the afternoon I met up with my friends Hannah and Michael, former Cardiffians now living in London, and went to the exhibition of Man Ray’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.

Tubes 20s Mrs T

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “You didn’t go to Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum?” Or, “You didn’t go to David Bowie at the V&A?”

No. No I didn’t. And I’ll tell you why. Firstly, it was a Sunday. Pompeii and Herculaneum would have been crawling with Jasmines, Tasmines and Olivers whose parents should have taken them to Thorpe Park or – at the very least – London Zoo, racing about the place and shrieking at each other while their backpack-and-papoose-carrying parents nodded thoughtfully at mosaics and plaster casts of terrified Romans. As for David Bowie, I love Bowie, but I’m not a massive costume enthusiast. I’d rather see those outfits on the man himself, either in concert or in concert footage, than on mannequins in a museum. Just not my bag, I’m afraid.

So… We went to Man Ray, and I wasn’t disappointed. Much like the Tube posters exhibition, it was a strange reminder that the ’20s, while acknowledged as being creative and decadent and all the rest of it, were so much more creative and decadent than the 1960s. Man Ray’s portraits are of dancers from the Ballet Russes, European and Asian nobility, American socialites, androgynous trapeze artists, writers, composers and – of course – Ray’s fellow surrealists. Sandwiched between the austerity of the World Wars, they illustrate a world infinitely more raucous, witty and adventurous than anything that happened at Woodstock.

"I don't know about you girls, but I am tripping my tits off right now."

“I don’t know about you girls, but I am tripping my tits off right now.”

After the National Portrait Gallery we retired to the ever-classy Retro Bar, just off The Strand, where Michael, Hannah and I discussed the eventuality of Baroness Thatcher’s death. We all agreed that while she may very well deserve a state funeral, everything should be tendered out to the private sector, from the undertakers to the security, in keeping with the spirit of the great woman’s politics. Within 24 hours the woman had dropped dead, but we have yet to learn whether we’ll see her coffin emblazoned with Cinzano and BP stickers, as she’s taken from Westminster Hall to her final resting place in the back of a G4S Transit van.

"And so the carriage carrying Baroness Thatcher leaves London, joining the A1 at Edgware..."

“And so the carriage carrying Baroness Thatcher leaves London, joining the A1 at Edgware…”

On a slightly more serious note, though, I’m actually surprised by how little of a reaction I’ve had to Thatcher’s demise. My Facebook timeline is full of people pulling virtual party poppers and raising online toasts, and I can understand that. There will be plenty of left wing apologists in the coming days, telling the world how tasteless they find it, because to celebrate anyone’s death is undignified and tacky… and that’s all true. But there can be few people who grew up in industrial and post-industrial regions of this country who can’t at least identify with those dancing a merry jig right now, however tacky or tasteless they find it.

As for those penning the hagiographies, well… This is the moment they have long been waiting for. A pageant of conspicuous cap doffing and forelock tugging sycophancy. The Daily Mail will be as happy as a pig in shit. A pig wearing a black lace veil, of course.

Just one thing. If they are going to broadcast wall-to-wall Thatcher-themed programmes for the next month, can I ask that we get the excellent drama Margaret, starring Lindsay Duncan in the title role, and not the performance-wasting bobbins that was The Iron Lady?

The Best of 2012

29 Dec

Gerhard Richter

Ah… 2012. The year when Britain stopped huffing and rolling its eyes sarcastically and saying “Mustn’t grumble” for a whole month. When the Apollo-Mission-doubting, climate-change-questioning and Roswell-believing masses who’d been waffling on about the Mayan Calendar for years were (finally) heard to say, “We didn’t mean an actual apocalypse… We were talking about the spiritual realm…”. When Noel Edmonds’ beard got another shade more terrifying…

Seriously. What the fuck is up with Noel Edmonds' beard?

Seriously. What the fuck is up with Noel Edmonds’ beard?

I’ve already written about my top 5 boys’ films of the year, but here’s my best of (almost) everything else from 2012.

TV: The Hollow Crown

The Hollow Crown

Despite the Olympics straddling our summer schedules like a morbidly obese 30-year-old riding a child’s tricycle, and far too many hours of Nicholas Witchell speculating pointlessly about a family of German-Greek tax spongers, there was some great television in 2012. After one or two uneven series Doctor Who was back on consistently excellent form and BBC 4 continued to provide safe refuge from Channel 4’s ongoing obsession with sneering pseudo-documentaries (eg., “Hey, Everyone, Look! It’s a Poor Person!”).

"We are aware of... cultural sensitivities..." Channel 4 Commissioning Editor Nick Hornby

“We are aware of… cultural sensitivities…” Channel 4 Commissioning Editor Nick Hornby

The Hollow Crown topped everything. A four-part adaptation of the plays Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V (known collectively as the Henriadit certainly helped that they had Shakespeare on script duties, but this epic drama also gave us one of the best ensemble casts in living memory. From Ben Wishaw’s petulant and messianic Richard through to Tom Hiddleston’s preening and often callous Prince Hal/Henry V, The Hollow Crown was a showcase of excellent British acting. Richard II alone featured Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, Lindsay Duncan, David Morrissey, and the brilliant Rory Kinnear. Both parts of Henry IV were a beautiful reminder that Jeremy Irons (playing the title role) can act, can really act, and not just turn up and growl.

From 'Dungeons & Dragons', the reason Thora Birch's career is no longer a thing.

From 2000’s Dungeons & Dragons, aka The Reason Thora Birch’s Career Is No Longer A Thing.

If and when Channel 4 or Sky Arts produce anything as good as The Hollow Crown, there may be a good case against the TV licence.

I won’t hold my breath.

Music: Django Django by Django Django

Django Django

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not exactly the country’s leading authority on contemporary music, but a few acts caught my attention this year, and catching my attention is an achievement in itself. I thought Sam Lee’s debut album A Ground Of Its Own was excellent (thanks to Gareth Roberts for introducing me to that one), but my album of the year was, without a doubt, Django Django by Django Django.

I was turned on to this band by my friend Ben (he likes music) who suggested I give it a go, earlier in the year. At the time I was working on the script to a kind of sci-fi western and listening to an awful lot of Ennio Morricone. As their name suggests, Django Django songs often sound like the soundtrack to a weird western, mashed up with a sprinkle of The Dandy Warhols, so they were ideal listening while I finished working on the script.

There isn’t a duff song on the album, and it’ll remain a source of bafflement until the sun goes cold that they lost out on this year’s Mercury Music Prize. On the plus side, this means they will at least release a second album and still be around in 5 years’ time.

Film: Rust and Bone

Rust and Bone Poster

I’ve already written about this movie, but if forced to pick one standout film from 2012, this comes barging its way to the front of the queue every time. There were many other excellent films this year, but Rust and Bone stayed with me for days and weeks after I’d seen it in a way few others did. Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts make an engaging and sympathetic – though never schmaltzy – onscreen couple, and director Jacques Audiard navigates the treacherous path  between drama and melodrama with breathtaking skill.

Book: On The Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War – Bernard Wasserstein

On The Eve

Despite loving books and being a writer I’m rubbish at keeping up to speed with what’s happening in the World of Contemporary Letters. I only got around to reading Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall in 2011 (meaning I should get around to reading its also-Booker-winning sequel Bring Up The Bodies in 2014), and have yet to read anything by the David Mitchell who isn’t on Peep Show, let alone his Booker-shortlisted-and-soon-to-be-a-blockbuster-movie-from-the-team-that-brought-us-The-Matrix novel Cloud Atlas.

Fortunately, I have read a few books that were actually published this year, most of them non-fiction, and my favourite was this fascinating and often heartbreaking account of Jewish history and culture in the first half of the 20th Century. Full of interesting characters and eccentrics, this endlessly illuminating book further exposes the myth that Jews were ever an homogeneous mass with a clear-cut list of aims, objectives and desires. There are timely lessons here for those who would tar entire peoples with one brush or downplay that period of Europe’s history altogether, but more than that this provides us with an essential record of peoples and cultures that could all too easily have been wiped from the pages of history altogether.

Art: Gerhard Richter: Panorama (Tate Modern)

Gerhard Richter 2

I may be cheating with this one, as I can’t remember whether I caught the exhibition late in 2011 or early in 2012, but it ran until January 8th 2012, so it’s in, and big fat raspberries to anyone who complains.

Before seeing Panorama, I’d heard of him but hadn’t seen any of Richter’s work. The Boyfriend, a painter, is a big fan, and was eager to go. He told me Richter’s work spans five or six decades, and encompasses a wide range of styles and techniques, from pop to photo-realism and abstract, and from large canvasses to sculptures and installations, but nothing prepared me for the sheer breadth and scale of this retrospective. Richter’s paintings are among the most beautiful and skillful I have ever seen, and there’s something deeply moving about seeing so much talent and experimentation from an artist willing to engage with the world. Though some of his work can be almost surgical in its precision, there’s nothing cold about Richter. He’s unafraid of emotion in a way that all too few contemporary artists are. Of all the blockbuster exhibitions I’ve seen in recent years, this is the one to beat, and I’ve a feeling it’ll stay that way for many years to come.

Bronze, Bard and Barbican

14 Nov

Just returned from a busy 48 hours in the quaint, historic market town of London-Upon-Thames. Strictly speaking, I was down there on business, but that sounds awfully grand for what was actually 7 or 8 hours in a recording studio in Ladbroke Grove. Plus, my total contribution to the day, in terms of hard graft, was telling the director, Gary, that it was okay to add the word “even” to a single line of dialogue. The real draw, whenever they record anything I’ve written at The Moat Studios, is the lunch put on by sound engineer and culinary whizz Toby. Never mind that, as a Doctor Who fan, I get to meet and work with actors I’ve admired since I was 4 years old. Nah… It’s the lunch, every time.

Left to right: Sean Carlsen, Lalla Ward, Barnaby Edwards, Louise Jameson, and me, all thinking, “Hmm… Lunch.”

Anyway… being in London gave me about a day-and-a-half to go off and do my own thing, so I decided to fill that time with exhibitions. Well… Exhibitions and food.

First up was the Royal Academy’s show Bronze. This was, perhaps, the most “Ronseal” of all the shows I went to, providing a fairly broad selection of bronze sculpture from around the world, from a 14th Century BCE chariot found in Trondheim all the way up to an enormous, concave bronze mirror by Anish Kapoor. Perhaps the best thing about this show was its refusal to treat the sculptures as archaeological objects by placing them in some sort of chronological order. Instead, each room was arranged by theme – Figures, Animals, Objects, Gods etc. This meant that in a single room you could find, side by side, a piece by Jasper Johns from the 1950s next to a cabinet of tiny, intricate weights made to resemble bird claws and human figures, from 14th Century Nigeria.

Plus quite a lot of cock – ‘Dancing Satyr’ – Greek, 4th Century BCE (photograph from The Times)

It was the works from Africa, and primarily Nigeria, I found most interesting of all. Now, this may be down to me being a Patronising White Twat or a serious gap in my education (or both), but I hadn’t realised bronze sculpture was such a feature of African art, and certainly not dating back to pre-Renaissance times, but the works on display here are absolutely stunning, and add a bit of welcome variety from all those gym-honed heroes, gods and Biblical characters.

Another great feature of Bronze was the room, early on in the exhibition, in which you learn how bronze sculptures are actually made. Bronze is one of those materials I’ve always taken for granted, assuming there was some semi-magical process by which it gets moulded or sculpted into shape, without ever thinking too hard about what that process was. To learn that there are several processes, and be given a basic understanding of how each one works, really adds to your appreciation of what you see in the rest of the show.

‘Head With Crown’, Nigeria, 14th-15th Century (photo from The Economist)

After spending all of Monday in the studio, I was free again on Tuesday to go exploring, so I started the day with the British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging The WorldThis was one show where I may have benefited from knowing a little less. A few years ago I went through a bit of an Elizabethan phase. I don’t mean I walked around saying, “Prithee, sir” while wearing a ruffled collar and breeches, I mean I read an awful lot about the Elizabethan and early Jacobean era: Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare; Charles Nicholl’s book The Reckoning, about the murder of Christopher Marlowe; Dominic Green’s The Double Life of Doctor Lopez, about Elizabeth I’s Jewish-Marrano physician; Alice Hogge’s God’s Secret Agents, about the Gunpowder Plot.

I may have also watched a lot of ‘Blackadder II’.

As a result, there was very little in the exhibition that was new to me, and indeed some of the items on display I’d already seen elsewhere. An imaginative group portrait of Henry VIII and his children, for example, is on loan from Cardiff Museum. That said, I liked the way the show was made up mostly of historic artifacts relating to the plays’ subject matter, rather than Shakespeare himself, and there were still one or two surprises – the gold coin minted by Brutus and Cassius in the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s assassination, a page manuscript from Sir Thomas More, written apparently in Shakespeare’s own hand – but I couldn’t help but think this would have been a more spellbinding and illuminating experience had I been just a little less familiar with the subject matter.

“Hello, ladies…” ‘Portrait Miniature of Edward Herbert’, from the exhibition

Still, no trip to the British Museum is ever wasted, and right now they have a great – and most importantly, free –  mini-exhibition of prints and drawings from Spain, including some brilliantly ghoulish examples by Francisco de Goya. There’s something lovely about seeing preliminary sketches and rough drawings by great artists, in much the same way as there’s something wonderful about a page of handwritten script by the World’s Greatest Playwright™, complete with crossings out and amendments. It reminds us that as indisputably great as the finished works may be, they weren’t brought into the world in a single, perfect and painless outburst of creativity; that even artistic titans have to work at their craft.

The dark truth behind the career of TV astrologer Russell Grant… ‘Drunk Silenusa’ (1628) by Jose de Ribera

In the afternoon, following my now compulsory spending spree in Cecil Court, I went over to the Barbican, for their show of 1960s and 70s photography, Everything Was MovingHaving spent much of the day walking, and after a rubbish night’s sleep (thanks to a combination of pancake-related heartburn and crappy hotel air-con), I wasn’t sure I could handle another exhibition. Even if I was able to drag my sorry carcass around the gallery, I might not take anything in, and would walk out of there having wasted £12.

‘Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in Background, 1969’, William Eggleston

I needn’t have worried. Everything Was Moving was the cultural highlight of the whole trip. For one thing, it’s a pretty epic show, covering both floors of the Barbican Gallery, and featuring work by twelve photographers. Some, like Bruce Davidson and Larry Burrows are well known for their images of the US civil rights movement and the Vietnam War respectively. Others, like India’s Raghubir Singh and China’s Li Zhensheng are little known outside their native countries, or in the case of Sigmar Polke more renowned for their art than their photography.

‘Below the Howrah Bridge…’ (1968) – Raghubir Singh

It’s difficult, in a show so extensive and so packed full of content, to pick individual highlights, but Davidson’s work in particular packs one hell of a punch. His picture of a beleaguered-looking Martin Luther King, surrounded by aides and a clamouring press, is a masterclass in reportage photography, while the image of a Ku Klux Klan cross burning made me physically gasp.

‘Reverend Martin Luther King at a press conference, Birmingham , Alabama, 1962’ and ‘Outside Atlanta, Georgia, 1962’

Elsewhere, and in a similar vein, the show takes work by two South African photographers, one a white Afrikaner, the other a black African, to show us their country at the very height of Apartheid. The former, David Goldblatt’s work provides an insight into the lives of black mine workers – their horrible living conditions, combined with their quiet, almost stoic dignity – in stark contrast with the infinitely more carefree lives of their white bosses, without ever resorting to caricature. There’s empathy, compassion and warmth for all his subjects.

‘The farmer’s son with his nursemaid…’ (1964)

Coming – understandably – from a much angrier place, there’s a more obviously satirical intent behind Ernest Cole’s photography. He demonstrates brilliantly just how absurd apartheid truly was, with his images of “Europeans Only” phone booths, park benches, and bank tellers, but what’s striking, in both Goldblatt’s and Cole’s images, is just how often blacks and whites in South African found themselves standing or sitting side by side, and how much affection there could be between the communities, despite the government’s best efforts to rend them apart.

Untitled – Ernest Cole

To highlight just these three is to do a disservice to the other photographers, most of whom are brilliant in their own right. Perhaps the weakest of the bunch, or perhaps the one that feels slightest and most at odds compared to everything else around it, is Sigmar Polke’s series on an Afghan bear-baiting match, but even then these are strong images in their own right. It’s entirely possible somebody else could come away from the show having been most moved by Polke’s work, or Larry Burrows’ cinematic depictions of Vietnam, or Graciela Iturbide’s surreal and striking images from Central America.

‘Panama City, 1974’ – Graciela Iturbide

I can’t recommend Everything Was Moving enough. Like the RA’s Bronze and British Museum’s Shakespeare, it reminded me of the opening line from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Except here this isn’t a distant past of bronze gods and mythical beasts, or a world of witch trials and the conquests of empire. Here, the past is familiar. We see the 7-Up logo, and people doing the twist. These are recognisably our immediate ancestors or even our younger selves, and yet the world has changed immeasurably since then. Bruce Davidson’s images of the hovel lived in by a poor black family (Trickem Fork, Alabama) look as if they should have been taken in 1865, not 1965, and the white men taunting the freedom riders from the roadside look all the more cruel, all the more ridiculous, and all the more pathetic in a world in which Barack Obama just won his second term as US President.

Don’t worry, chaps. Only another 48 years until the Tea Party Movement.

If I have one regret about my jaunt over the Barbican, it’s that I wasn’t able to check out Random International’s installation, Rain Roomthe queue for which snaked around the ground floor, and – according to a notice – would have taken up over 2 hours of my afternoon. A shame, as this looks like one of those rare occasions when conceptual art is fun, accessible and genuinely inclusive, but it’s running until March, so maybe next time!

  • ‘Bronze’ is on until  9 December 2012
  • ‘Shakespeare: Staging the World’ is on until 25 November 2012
  • ‘From Renaissance to Goya’ is on until 6 January 2013
  • ‘Everything Was Moving’ is on until 13 January 2013

Turner, not Turner – ‘Artes Mundi’ and the Turners that were, then weren’t, then were

22 Oct

When the Turner Prize rolls into town, it’s often difficult to remember that there are other arts prizes and events in the UK, and that the prize was named after a Victorian artist who didn’t staple Polaroids of Peter Sutcliffe to a stuffed pig. Or something.


Fortunately, the National Museum in Cardiff is showing two exhibitions that remedy this.

J.M.W. Turner – The Davies Collectionlooks at the small but rather lovely collection of Turner paintings, watercolours and sketches bought by Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, wealthy granddaughters of the Victorian industrialist and philanthropist David Davies Llandinam.

‘The Rainbow’, J.M.W. Turner, ca. 1835

When they died the Davies sisters bequeathed their impressive collection (including several Monets, a number of Rodin sculptures, a Van Gogh, and the aforementioned Turners) to Cardiff Museum, but there’s a twist in the tale. In 1956, five years after Gwendoline’s death but while Margaret was still kicking around, the Turners were declared forgeries!

Who knew?

It’s taken best part of the last 55 years for critics and art historians to come around and acknowledge that most, if not all of the Thomas sisters’ Turners are the real deal, but it did get me thinking: How much does it matter, more than 150 years after an artist’s death, if a painting is actually by them? The paintings in question were sufficiently Turner-ish to be credited to him for maybe 100 years before being declared fakes, having been in the possession of two very seasoned art collectors since the eve of the First World War. And nobody called bullshit in all that time?

It’s not as if the paintings were suddenly found to be photocopies, untouched by human hand, or clever machine-made forgeries. These are beautiful paintings – regardless of whose name is printed along the bottom of the frame – hand-painted by a living, breathing person.

The mini-exhibition – it occupies only one room – includes some of the letters from 1956, adding a bit of drama (and comedy) to the story. I particularly liked the line where somebody (I think it was the Davies sisters’ representative in the whole debacle) declared, “Somebody’s pulled a fast one, here.” You can take the boy out of Wales etc…

“Oh. We’ve come to ‘ave a look at yer Picaahsso.”

The second exhibition was part of Artes Mundithe biannual international arts prize hosted in Cardiff. I’ve been to the last two shows, in 2010 and 2008, but found much of the work on show a little dry and academic. The 2010 competition, in particular, was dominated by artsy documentary-style videos that, 25 years ago, you’d have been more likely to see on Channel 4 than in a gallery.

Artsy documentaries… and ‘Max Headroom’.

In 2012 we have an abundance of artists “exploring social themes from across the globe”, but again much of it left me feeling a little underwhelmed. Cuban artist Tania Bruguera doesn’t actually have any work on show in the museum itself, as she considers “the encounter with the artwork (to be) more powerful when it is dislocated from the conventions of the gallery and integrated into social reality”. Instead, Bruguera is competing with an “artist-initiated socio-political movement exploring what defines an ‘immigrant'”.

Is this a racist joke? Discuss.

Now… That’s all well and good, but it sounds to me like a political campaigner getting away with calling what they do “art”, which it blatantly isn’t. It’s political campaigning. For the last 10 years, to subsidise my (modest) income as a writer, I’ve worked in a crappy office job, but at no point during that 10 years did I try and pass off my day job, which involved assessing loan applications, as a “writer-initiated exploration of the contemporary work space”. It was just my fucking day job.

Fortunately, your experience of the Artes Mundi show itself kicks off with a vast, impressive tapestry by Miriam Bäckström:

‘Smile as if we have already won’, Miriam Bäckström

Sadly, the above picture really doesn’t do this justice. Smile as if we have already won is an intricate piece of work depicting multiple mirrored surfaces that becomes more and more fascinating, the longer you look at it.

The offering from Lithuania’s Darius Mikšys reminds me of those Friday mornings at art college when you realise you’ve forgotten a deadline, and it’s a presentation day, so you just throw any old rubbish together and make some shit up. Here, he’s  chosen to fill a small room with various items found in… Cardiff Museum. Which, frankly, doesn’t even get a D for effort.

“Er… It’s a seagull. Because, like, seagulls are really, you know, wise and shit?” – ‘The Code’, Darius Mikšys

Sheela Gowda’s large-scale installation (Kagebangara, pictured below) had something to say, at least, having been fashioned from oil drums and tarpaulin, the materials used by migrant construction workers in India to build temporary shelters, but didn’t really communicate this idea aesthetically or emotionally.

‘Kagebangara’, Sheela Gowda

I wish I’d gone a little earlier, and given more of my time to Apolonija Šušteršič’s Tiger Bay Project, which looks at the environmental and sociological implications of the Cardiff Bay development project. Unfortunately, the brief time I spent watching her video The Tiger and the Mermaid left me almost apoplectic. Though I liked the Astro-Turf viewing platform and stools, I found the video itself dry, like a corporate presentation (perhaps this was the intention), and I rankled a little at its snide voice-over, which framed the redevelopment of Tiger Bay (the bulk of which happened almost 20 years ago) as the behemoth of capitalism trampling over both communities and wildlife. And there was me thinking Cardiff Bay brought jobs and improved facilities to one of the poorest communities in Wales, and is now a place much loved by almost everyone in the city. Turns out it’s Cardiff’s answer to the Tuskegee Experiment.

“The horror… the horror…”

Fortunately, having been left nonplussed by everything except Bäckström’s tapestry, I was blown away by the last two artists on show.

Teresa Margolles’ work, dealing with drug-related gang violence in Mexico, is like a punch in the stomach; visceral, political, and deeply moving. Sonidos de la morgue is a sonic work, a 66 minute looped recording of the first incision in a murder victim’s autopsy. While listening to it, your eyes are drawn to a section of tiled floor beneath a spotlight; an apparently innocuous piece that resembles – superficially – Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (aka, ‘The Bricks’) but which is in fact the section of studio floor where the artist’s friend, Luis Miguel Suro, was found murdered.

’32 años. Levantamiento y traslado donde cayo el cuerpo asesinado del artista Luis Miguel Suro’ – Teresa Margolles

While listening to the nauseating, squelchy sounds of an autopsy, you are looking at a crime scene. Finishing this unflinchingly forensic work, Plancha takes water once used to cleanse bodies in a Mexican morgue, and at random intervals drips it onto an extended hotplate, beneath a row of dim spotlights. The greenish corrosion of the metal, and the wisps of steam each time a droplet of water lands, only add to the unease, and it’s something of a relief to move on to the next room.

I first came across the work of Phil Collins (the artist, not the singer) in 2006, when he was nominated for the Turner Prize. Then, I thought his return of the real (in which he interviewed people who have appeared on reality TV) was eclipsed by the gorgeous abstract paintings of that year’s winner, Tomma Abts, and the colossal, quasi-Stalinist posters and bonkers contraptions of Mark Titchner, but here at Artes Mundi he’s the star of the show.

From ‘free fotolab’, Phil Collins

His piece, free fotolab, is a slideshow of photos taken by people in several European cities. Collins offered them free processing and prints of their undeveloped films, in return for the right to use their photographs in his installation. The end result is a moving and often very funny montage; it’s impossible for you not to at least try to fashion some sort of narrative, even though the same subject never appears twice. Blowing the images up until the people in them are more than life size invites you to almost over-analyse each one, to study every detail, and to appreciate the beauty of even the most casual snapshot. A stunning piece of work, and far more empathetic and “socially engaging” than a pile of oil drums, or a woefully misconceived “power to the people” documentary.

Artes Mundi is heralded as the UK’s “biggest art prize” (actually, at £40,000 it’s on an equal standing with the Turner Prize), so it should probably get a lot more attention than it currently enjoys. Perhaps the trick to achieving this would be to recognise work that stimulates the heart – as Collins and Margolles both do – and not just the brain.

  • J.M.W. Turner: The Davies Collection runs until January 20th 2013
  • Artes Mundi runs until January 13th 2013
  • Both are free entry