Archive | Art RSS feed for this section

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.

ART.

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