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August 08 2012

John Stezaker's best photograph

'I collected pictures of smokers. But it was only when I gave up cigarettes that I found a use for them'

I call my combinations of images of men and women "marriages". It is an old idea for me, although this is a recent work, from my series Muse. Each picture consists of a man smoking combined with a female other half, the idea being that he is "inhaling inspiration", which is classically associated with the female. When I started producing marriages, I felt I was creating new beings. They were more like people than the original bland glamour shots of the 40s and 50s that I used as source material. Somehow, when they got broken up and recombined, real people seemed to emerge.

My best work happens during explosions of activity, mainly late at night. The next morning, I might decide to dismantle the results, but this also counts as a creative process. The great thing about collage is that, because production is so minimal, you are always close to the vantage point of the viewer. I am often asked why I don't just get two people, pose them for photographs and splice the shots more accurately, but that misses the point. It's the imperfect match, the failure of unity, that makes us identify with these beings.

I have used the actor in this work, Mischa Auer, before. He was a very interesting character, married four times. I collected pictures of smoking figures for some time, but it was only when I gave up cigarettes that I found a use for them. A few years ago, I gave up alcohol, too – and, sure enough, drink has started to appear in my images. It is nice to think my art has that therapeutic immediacy, even though this is not my conscious intention.

I know nothing about the woman, but she has a number of attributes I look for. Women with their hair up are useful because they combine easily with a male haircut. She is also wearing a watch: I'm fascinated by the particular time they tell, because it represents the here and now. The portraits exist in a fantasy world, but the watch is real, the only objective thing in the work.

When people say I'm not a real photographer, I tell them I work with the medium rather than in it. In the internet age, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the producers and the consumers of images. I see my work as merging these two worlds.

When I was showing this in Los Angeles, a memorabilia collector told me he thought I must have a secret agenda because the characters in my collages all had terrible lives. Although this was a coincidence, maybe I was looking for a certain kind of vulnerability.

CV

Born: 1949, Worcester

Studied: Slade, London

Influences: Giorgio de Chirico,Joseph Cornell, Picasso

High and low point: When I took care of my son, 12 years ago, I was not producing anything because I was absorbed in domestic duties and at a low point as an artist. Then the artist Jake Miller discovered my work, and I gained recognition.

Tip: Don't listen to the nonsense you get from art historians, teachers and critics. Just follow what your eyes tell you and what moves you.

• John Stezaker is nominated for the Deutsche Börse photography prize 2012, at the Photographers' Gallery, London W1, until 9 September.


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June 20 2012

RIBA announces 50 best buildings on longlist for Stirling prize

Olympic stadium, Belfast suburban home and Kevin McCloud design in competition for 2012 top architectural award

The 80,000-seat Olympic stadium in east London will vie against a rear extension to a suburban Belfast home for a place on the shortlist for the Stirling prize, the annual building of the year award.

In a sign of the tough business climate gripping British architecture, the longlist of the 50 best buildings in the UK features the modest domestic project as well as the centrepiece for the Olympics.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) said the list of the award-winning buildings "revealed a trend which could be coined austerity chic".

The arena that will stage the Olympic opening ceremony on 27 July has received a lukewarm reception in some quarters but is considered a contender for the £20,000 prize as the only truly large British building aiming at the Riba award this year.

It is likely to face competition from other award winners, including the Hepworth art gallery, in Wakefield, designed by Sir David Chipperfield, and the new Lyric Theatre, in Belfast, designed by O'Donnell and Tuomey.

There is evidence that there is still some money around, albeit in predictable quarters: the award winners include a lavish London headquarters for the merchant bank NM Rothschild finished in travertine, oak, aluminium and glass to designs by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

Kevin McCloud, the Grand Designs presenter who used to front the Stirling prize award live on Channel 4, could this year appear on the shortlist after a housing scheme he developed in Swindon was granted a Riba award. The project known as The Triangle, and designed by the Birmingham architect Glenn Howells, features 42 homes in an updated terrace format and cost £4.2m.

Beside the seaside there were awards for the Turner Contemporary art gallery in Margate, Kent, also designed by Chipperfield, and the Festival House on Blackpool's Golden Mile, a wedding venue commissioned by the council to allow tourists and others to tie the knot in front of a precisely framed view of the Blackpool Tower.

The list also reflects the continuing programme of Maggie's Centres for cancer patients, established in the memory of Maggie Jencks, wife of the architecture critic Charles Jencks. At an earlier date Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid designed some of the centre's buildings; the latest award-winning additions are in Swansea, designed by the firm of the late Japanese star architect Kisho Kurokawa, and in Glasgow, designed by Rem Koolhaas.

In Scotland there were awards for reworkings of the National Museum of Scotland, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, both in Edinburgh.

But Hadid, granted a damehood in the Queen's birthday honours, was overlooked for her Riverside Transport Museum, in Glasgow, with the building failing even to make it on to the list of the 23 best buildings in Scotland for the last year.

"There was a bit of a stooshie [fuss] because it was by Dame Zaha, but the argument was it doesn't matter about the name of the architect, what is important is the quality of the building," said Neil Baxter, secretary of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.

International awards went to the reinvention of a Barcelona bullring as the Las Arenas shopping and leisure complex by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, and a new Centre Pompidou, in Metz, by Shigeru Ban Architects, Jean de Gastines Architects and Gumuchdjian Architects.

The winner of the Stirling prize will be announced on 13 October in Manchester.


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June 19 2012

Actaeon stations: Chris Ofili and the Royal Ballet

Chris Ofili has spent two years creating sets and costumes for an epic ballet inspired by Titian. What did he learn?

Chris Ofili comes with a seemingly gold-plated reputation: 1998 Turner prize winner, British representative at the 50th Venice Biennale, paintings held in some of the world's great collections. But two years ago, when he agreed to design a new production for the Royal Ballet, he suffered a flash of paranoia. "I was genuinely scared," he says. "If you fall flat on your face there, you break every bone in your body. You're not going to walk away."

And Ofili could think of a dozen reasons why he might fail. During most of his career, he had worked as a solitary and self-contained artist. He had never created designs for the stage before, let alone for ballet; and he'd certainly never been involved in an enterprise that promised – or threatened – to be as vast, crowded and competitive as Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

Metamorphosis is the brainchild of the National Gallery curator Minna Moore Ede, who felt the Cultural Olympiad should be marked by some kind of grand Diaghilevean multi-genre collaboration. As a starting point, she proposed three Titian masterpieces depicting stories from Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses: Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon, and Diana and Callisto. To accompany the literary strand of the project, in which three poets are writing contemporary responses to the works, the Royal Ballet is creating a three-part Titian ballet, with designs by a trio of major artists.

Moore Ede was determined to bring together radically different artists. She believed the scale and energy of Ofili's paintings made him a natural choice, but to offset his work's bacchanalian life force, she opted for the very precise sensibility of sculptor Conrad Shawcross, and a wild card in the form of the reliably unpredictable conceptual artist Mark Wallinger.

Already, that trio added up to an irrepressible mix. But Monica Mason, the Royal's director, had even bigger ambitions. Due to retire at the end of this July, she wanted Metamorphosis to be a farewell present to the seven choreographers with whom she had worked most closely, dividing them into a trio and two pairs. Three very different musical talents – Jonathan Dove, Nico Muhly and Mark-Anthony Turnage – were then asked to compose a score for each part.

"Until the curtain goes up," says Moore Ede, "no one has any idea how it will work." Ofili, speaking at the Victoria Miro gallery in London, can't wait. "This audience is really going to get their money's worth," he says, grinning. "I like Monica's attitude: 'I'm leaving now, so it's all yours. Make a mess and tidy up after yourselves.'"

Ofili was less jokey when he was first teamed up with his three choreographers: Will Tuckett, Liam Scarlett and Jonathan Watkins. He admits to deliberately stalling his way through most of the first year.

"I felt it just wasn't my world. I didn't have anything significant to contribute that wouldn't make me utterly embarrassed." Not only was he inhibited by his ignorance of ballet design, he was daunted by having to measure up to the Titians, feeling that, as the only contemporary painter involved, his work would be most directly compared to the master's. "Honestly, it felt like lambs to the slaughter."

So he turned to Titian's source material: Ovid's story about the young hunter Actaeon, who spies on the virgin goddess Diana while she is bathing with her nymphs; as a punishment, he is turned into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds. Ofili found it a "genuinely gripping read. All of its themes – desire, temptation, pride, beauty, the joy of the kill – felt relevant. The project got into my veins as a story." His confidence was boosted by his first serious meeting with the choreographers, who were all interested in staying close to Ovid's narrative. "We got on well, and it was easy to decide between us which were the most important elements of the story."

Ofili produces a photograph of the backdrop he designed. On one side is Diana, standing beneath her signature crescent moon and a giant curving phallus ("the male burden of desire"). On the other side, nymphs ripple upwards from a bubbling stream. Figures, landscape and symbolism metamorphose into each other with a fluidity reminiscent of Blake, an artist Ofili regards as one of his "torchbearers". But the design is also influenced by the landscape of Trinidad, where Ofili now lives. "There are waterfalls there that lie deep in the forest," he says. "Often when I go walking there, I hear voices of people I can't see." It made him think of Actaeon walking through a forest that was alive with his own sexual fantasies.

Most artists leave the actual painting of the backdrop to professional set-painters. But Ofili opted to do it himself, by hand. "The scale is amazing," he says. "When you first see the stage, that's what gives you the clutch in the intestines." It took him four weeks and the technical staff at the Royal Opera House thought he was mad. Yet, says Ofili, "hands down, it was one of the best painting experiences of my life".

He had an equally good time with the costumes. His first instinct was to take inspiration from Picasso and the "crazy" sculptural creations he created for Erik Satie's 1917 cubist ballet Parade. But the more time Ofili spent around the Royal's dancers, the more he wanted to ensure they could move freely. "I wanted them to feel comfortable, so they could push themselves."

He opted for all-in-one leotard and tights, customised for each character with head-dresses, cloaks, jackets, body hair, and handheld puppet heads for the hounds. He regards the work of the costume department, who converted his sketches into moving, breathing outfits, as little short of genius. But it's the dancers who impressed him most. "One night," he says, "I was standing in the wings and this girl came off stage. She'd looked amazing while she was dancing: shiny and happy. But as she came off she was crying. She said she was in agony, she had flu, she had a new baby and her nose was running like a little child's. Then she went back on and the light just flushed back into her. I thought, 'This is extraordinary.'"

Their bodies fascinate Ofili, too. Marianela Núñez is dancing Diana and he has become obsessed by her back. "The muscles are so alive, so expressive – it's like a face." As for the dancers' feet, he winces at the thought of all the blisters, blood and bunions he has witnessed. "Don't get me started. I had no idea feet could look like that."

When the project was first proposed, Ofili fretted about spending so much time away from work he was already absorbed in. "I knew it was going to be a huge brain-drain." But the intimacy and the fun of collaboration have been a revelation; he hadn't realised how much he would learn, nor how natural the transition from studio to theatre would eventually feel. "Working for the stage," he says, "you're playing a game of pretend. The curtain opens, the audience is absorbed for a period of time. That's very close to what I do as a painter. I make stuff up and invite people to look at it, and then off they go. I like that. I like how simple it is. I like how very wonderful it can be."

The details

The ballet
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000), in rep 14-20 July

The exhibition
The Titians will be shown at the National Gallery, London WC2, with sets and costumes created for the ballet from 11 July to 23 September

The screening
The 16 July performance will be simultaneously relayed to a large screen at Trafalgar Square, and to 18 other venues across the UK


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June 12 2012

The Joan Wakelin bursary 2012 – entries open

Entries are invited for this year's Joan Wakelin bursary, offering photographers £2,000 and the chance to see their work in the Guardian

Entries are being invited for this year's Joan Wakelin bursary, which offers photographers £2,000 and the chance to have their work published in the Guardian.

The bursary, administered by the Guardian and the Royal Photographic Society, is awarded to the photographer who presents the best proposal for a photographic essay on an overseas social documentary issue.

Submission is open to all, with no restriction on age or qualification.

Entrants should submit a maximum of six images as examples of their work, along with a written proposal (maximum 500 words) describing their intended project, and a completed entry form, which can be downloaded from the link below.

Completed entries should arrive by first post on 1 August 2012 at: Guardian Picture Desk, Kings Place, York Way, London, N1 9GU.

The shortlist will be selected by a jury nominated by the Guardian and the RPS. The winner will be announced at the RPS awards evening on 6 September 2012.

The winning photo-essay will be published by the Guardian and the RPS Journal in 2013. Copyright will remain with the photographer, although licence will be agreed for the photo-essay to appear in the Guardian or on guardian.co.uk, the RPS Journal and any promotions associated with the bursary.

· Click here to download the entry form as a pdf.


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Neil Hall's photographs of fog-collecting in Chile – audio slideshow

Neil Hall was awarded the 2011 Joan Wakelin Bursary. He chose to travel to the Atacama desert in Chile, said to be the driest place on Earth, to document the process of harvesting coastal fog in large nets to provide water in the area



May 30 2012

Martin Creed: 'I don't know what art is'

Martin Creed wants everyone in the country to ring a bell for the Olympics – and he'll start with his own front door. The former Turner prize winner talks to Charlotte Higgins

• Scroll down for a world exclusive video

I arrive at Martin Creed's studio a few minutes before he does. I say studio: really, it's a flat above an Indian restaurant in Brick Lane, east London, so heaving with stuff you have to flatten yourself against walls to squeeze from one narrow space to the next. The main room has a double bed in it, piled high with boxes and brushes (he used to live here before he moved to a more central flat; he also has a base on the volcanic island of Alicudi, off Sicily). The walls are hung thickly with small paintings, many of them what he calls his "pyramid paintings", horizontal swipes of brush-strokes in different colours. Commissioned to make a poster for the Olympics, he submitted one of these because the shape reminds him of a podium.

The assistant, who works from a desk squeezed into a tight corner, goes out to buy milk and I am left alone, trying not to read a letter from Tate director Nicholas Serota that lies on top of a pile of papers (I fail: it's a thankyou for donating the original Olympics artwork to the Tate). Then Creed himself appears: a long umbrella emerges through the door, followed by a figure in an overcoat and neatly knotted scarf. His corkscrew curls spring out from a bowler hat and he has a droopy moustache. With his slightly melancholic look, he reminds me of Charlie Chaplin; but the photographer is right when she says he is the spit of Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now.

Creed, who was born in Wakefield in 1968 and grew up near Glasgow, came to popular attention in 2001 when he won the Turner prize. For the exhibition, he showed Work No 227, The Lights Going On and Off. It was exactly that: an empty room in which the lights would switch off and on. This was archetypal Creed: a work that intrigues yet slightly annoys you. He has also made works in which doors don't close properly, or curtains close and open themselves. He has a big summer ahead. There is a major Olympics project: his Work No 1197 aspires to have "all the bells in the country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes" at 8am on 27 July, to welcome in the Games. He and his band have their first album out in July, full of punky-minimalist songs with repetitive lyrics ("Fuck off", "Love to you"). And he is writing a new, 15-minute piece for classical ensemble; the London Sinfonietta will premiere it next week with his band.

Creed is an artist who sees no distinction between visual art and music. All his works are given numbers, a system borrowed from the classical-music opus system. He was brought up with music: his parents played cello and piano, a grandparent was a concert pianist. As a child, he played violin and, at one point, he considered studying music instead of art.

He also sees little distinction between making art and just being in the world. We hammer this out by arguing over trousers. "I don't think making these works is any different from trying to decide on buying a pair of trousers … It's all trying to live, you know." But surely an artwork, which may sell for a vast sum or be shown in a museum, is more profound than a pair of trousers? "I'm not saying the art is superfluous crap, but that [everything is] really important. It's all profound. Everything you do affects other people, and might have a terrible or an amazing effect. Not just paintings in a gallery. I find it difficult to draw a line."

I try again. Does making art feel different from choosing trousers? "No. I don't know. I don't know what art is. It's a magic thing because it's to do with feelings people have when they see something. If the work is successful, it's because of some magic quality it has." A magic quality the artist has put into it? "It's not in the work," he says. "People use the work to help them make something in themselves. So the work is a catalyst." Has a pair of trousers ever made you cry? (I happen to know he cries at Beethoven.) "No," he concedes. "But I don't sit listening to a pair of trousers for 40 minutes."

For his Turner prize show, Creed also exhibited scrunched-up paper and Blu-Tack. The Sun had fun with that, announcing a "Turnip prize" and inviting readers to suggest similar works. But something has happened to Creed over the past decade: like other once-controversial Turner-prize winners such as Jeremy Deller, he has settled into being generally liked. The Sun has since written about him with a sort of grudging respect, as if he has pulled the wool over the world's eyes with his eccentric art and deserves to be congratulated. The paper's coverage of the bell-ringing exercise was almost reverential.

Not that everyone was keen: Kate Flavell, president of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, went on her blog to declare the project "misconceived" and to state that they would not be working closely with it. The 8am timing was not suitable, she wrote, nor was it practicable to ring church bells for three minutes. Creed nears irritation when we talk about this. "I feel like it's really mean and stupid. It's like we're kids playing a game and we're saying, 'Does anyone want to play? Everyone's welcome.' But if someone's going on the radio specially to say, 'I'm not playing', that looks really mean. I think, 'Just don't play if you don't want to.'" The CCCBR is now supportive of the project, which invites members of the public to ring a bell off their own bat – or create an event with friends. Creed reckons he'll ring his doorbell.

His latest works involve making paintings with his eyes closed. "Because I am sick of looking at things. It seems to come out better sometimes when you've got your eyes closed. When you try to control something, it can be so dead." To make the paintings, he puts his hand and arm through a series of predetermined movements. There are a lot of systems in Creed's work – often relating to his inability to make decisions. The pyramid paintings, he says, came out of his inability to select a brush, so he bought a multipack and used the lot, combining restriction, indecision and the operation of chance in one fell swoop.

Similarly, the Sinfonietta work is a result of his inability to decide on what notes to use: he will simply use the entire pitch-range of the ensemble from high to low. But he may be moving away from controlling things. At the moment, he is also painting "blind portraits": looking at the person but not the paper as he draws. "It is trying to bypass my own tendency to make everything so tasteful and nicely designed. I am sick of that. A lot of the time, I look at my work and think, 'Oh fuck, that's so controlled – bleurgh!'" He makes a horrible puking sound. Creed once made a film of someone vomiting and he likens the blind portraits to that. "That's what the sick film was all about – just going 'Bleugh!' I know it might be horrible to watch, but maybe it's more true to life than some polite arrangement of shapes. I think living is trying to come to terms with what comes out of you. That includes shit and sick and horrible feelings. But the problem with horrible feelings is you can't paint them. But horrible vomit – you can film that."

What I hadn't realised about Creed's work before we met was that there is a kind of unassuming aspect to it, just as there is to him. He is worried about the Sinfonietta piece because it's 15 minutes long and the audience will be trapped in their seats, not allowed to leave if they are bored. At the same time, his two previous orchestral pieces, he says, are so short and compressed that "it's like someone speaking really quickly, not really letting you hear, because they are nervous". Barely three minutes long, the work he wrote for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2008 was described by the Guardian critic as "a terrible piece of music, but a profound work of art". And his visual works, he explains, are basically one-liners because he's too polite to detain you. "I think that's why I've made so many short songs, because I was scared of being rejected. And the visual work is insured against that. You don't have to look at them for more than a second to get what's going on."

The details

The gig
The London Sinfonietta's Evening with Martin Creed is at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 9 June.

The debut album
Love to You is out on Moshi Moshi Records on 2 July.

The bell-ringing
Sign up at allthebells.com

Reading this on mobile? Click here to view


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May 01 2012

Turner prize shortlist 2012

Paul Noble's weird world may be the frontrunner, but what about the sexy art of Elizabeth Price, the melancholy movies of Luke Fowler or the off-the-wall work of Spartacus Chetwynd?

This is a good shortlist. I was very impressed by the sexy, fetishistic film Elizabeth Price showed at the most recent British Art Show, with its encounters with objects and surfaces and the way the camera eroticises her subjects, including a vinyl LP, kitsch pottery figurines and an egg whisk. Her seductive art is sculpture by other means, and you're never sure whether her work is critique or love affair. Maybe it is both. Like a lot of artists now, Price seems to me to be revisiting modernism and its legacy. Sexy though her art is, it can also be a tad academic.

Luke Fowler's 2009 Serpentine Gallery show should have made him a contender then, but he probably didn't need yet another show. His films have frequently returned to problematic subjects – focusing more than once on the anti-psychiatrist RD Laing. He is attracted to marginal figures and lost souls, like the composer Cornelius Cardew, whose flirtation with Maoism almost wrecked his reputation. But Fowler's work is more than bio-pic dressed up as art. His work is atmospheric, melancholy and sometimes rather moving, whether he is using archival footage or filming new material. I once likened him to the documentary film-maker Adam Curtis. Fowler's films are often long, and I do wonder if the level of concentration his work requires will, like previous contenders the Otolith Group, get lost in the razzmatazz of the Turner prize.

Spartacus Chetwynd (what a name!) is totally oddball and off the wall, often in a good way, though her performances – which have sometimes involved large groups of participants and burlesque props – can be ramshackle affairs. I hope she'll produce something new and gobsmacking for the Turner prize, and not just leave us in a room filled with the detritus of her live works. There hasn't been nearly enough performance art in the Turner prize over the years, and more and more artists are returning to the form.

Paul Noble will undoubtedly be the frontrunner. He used to do funny performance pieces too, but for more than 15 years has focused on drawing his imaginary town of Nobson, with its faecal people and surreal architecture. Drawing can be a kind of performance too, and Noble's reputation is that of a reclusive obsessive, making a private fantasy world in a cloistered room. His art is enormously engaging, lively and peculiar. He says he has finished with Nobson, but on the basis of that alone he would deserve to win – though it's certainly not a cert.


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April 27 2012

Storming it

US photographer credited with 'enormous skill in his craft' for shots of storm systems in Appalachian mountains

• In pictures: a selection of the winning photographs

Last night, at a lavish ceremony at the Hilton Park Lane, London, the US photographer Mitch Dobrowner won L'Iris d'Or photographer of the year at the 2012 Sony world photography awards for his extraordinary shots of storm systems in Tornado Alley in the Appalachian mountains. He was selected from a shortlist of 120 photographers, whittled down from more than 112,000 entries.

WM Hunt, the chair of the judges, said: "He is the best of what is classic and what is contemporary in photography. He brings a sense of its history and enormous skill in his craft while pushing his imagination and, even, physical strength. The work offers a visceral rush while being wonderfully well made. I think he is an exceptional choice."

Other winners included Peter Franck, from Germany, who triumphed in both the commercial and fashion categories, and Britain's Simon Norfolk, winner of the photojournalism and documentary: people category. The outstanding contribution to photography award went to William Klein, the American pioneer of street and fashion photography, whose book New York was described by Martin Parr as "perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century". Klein expressed his surprise that Sony had "eaten up" the world of photography, adding: "More power to Sony!"

The Sony awards also incorporated the Kraszna-Krausz book awards. The best photography book award went to Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs (Getty), edited by Weston Naef and Christine Hult-Lewis. The National Media Museum first book award was won by Anne Sophie Merryman for her collection of family postcards, Mrs Merryman's Collection. The British independent publisher Dewi Lewis was the recipient of the outstanding contribution to publishing award.

The prizes were attended by the great and the good of the world of photography, alongside various Sony executives including Tatsuya Akashi, vice president of digital imaging at Sony Europe. The minister for culture, Ed Vaizey, was also in attendance and made a speech in praise of the British photography industry. The full list of winners can be viewed here.


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April 26 2012

Winners of Sony World Photography Awards 2012 – in pictures

Sony World Photography awards 2012 has announced its overall competition winners and professional category winners. The images can be viewed at Somerset House, London, from 27 April until 20 May 2012. View a selection of the winning images here



March 30 2012

Constructive criticism: the week in architecture

It was a good week for women architects – except for the most famous one – while the British design exhibition reveals a couple of gems

It's been a good week for women in architecture in general, except for one female architect in particular.

In the first instance, the Architect's Journal announced the finalists for its inaugural Women in Architecture awards. The magazine's recent championing of female architects, and highlighting of inequalities within the profession, is commendable. Among its findings was that the proportion of female architectural staff in the UK has actually declined since 2009, from 28% to 21% – this despite the proportion of female architecture students being roughly 50%. That work-life balance is evidently hard to strike in a profession many say is still inherently masculine, with its long apprenticeship, long working hours, and emphasis on competition rather than collaboration. No wonder they've called it the WAA – it sounds like a cry of despair, doesn't it?

The shortlists aren't too depressing, though. Eight women are up for the award, including Amanda Levete (formerly of Future Systems, doing well on her own), Roisin Peneghan (of Peneghan Heng, designers of the new London Olympics footbridge) and Sarah Wigglesworth (whose fine Sandal Magna primary school gained her a lot of attention last year). There's also an award for emerging woman architect of the year. The prizes are announced on 20 April. There's a nice (if confusingly Anglo-American) infographic on women in architecture here, by the way.

The woman for whom it has not been such a great week is the first female architect most people would name: Zaha Hadid. She's up for the WAA as well, but first she lost out on the competition to design the prestigious new Bauhaus Museum in Weimer, Germany, for which she was the only British architect in contention. Her absence was conspicuous, too, when it came to another architecture award: the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) announced the 23-strong shortlist for its inaugural national awards this week, and Zaha's Glasgow Riverside Museum for Transport isn't on it, despite being surely the highest-profile new building in Scotland of the past year. It wasn't a unanimously popular project, but its omission has baffled even its critics. Was it because Zaha has won the Stirling prize for two years running? Has she just become too big?

Hadid can at least take consolation from her inclusion in the V&A's new exhibition on British design, which opens today. The exhibition's architecture component includes a model of her Aquatics Centre, the only female-designed building in the show, as far as I could see. There are plenty of the usual architectural suspects here: the postwar Festival of Britain generation; Basil Spence; Denys Lasdun; big models of Foster's Gherkin and Rogers's Lloyds building.

One discovery for me was John Prizeman, about whom I'd known very little. He was an accomplished writer, and his work mainly focused on domestic interiors, particularly kitchens. There are illustrations of two small designs by him that caught my eye. One was his "Soft-Tech House for the 1980s" – an evocative, late-70s vision of "the future" that looks like a cross between Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House and a sort of Hobbit-style eco-dwelling. It's somehow simultaneously quaint and ahead of its time.

The other, particularly pertinent in the context of women in architecture, is a cutaway illustration of a neat, compact family home Prizeman designed in 1959. It's bracingly modern, with fitted kitchens, free-flowing living areas and a new Mini in the garage, though its name wasn't exactly progressive: it's called Her House. It says it all that the woman in Prizeman's dream home is depicted bustling around indoors; the man is lounging on the back terrace.

Finally, another new discovery this week was Architects of Invention, a practice that not only has one of the best names in the business but looks to be living up to it. It is headed by Niko Japaridze, a former senior architect at Rem Koolhaas's OMA, who has worked in the UK and also has offices in his native Georgia. Last year, the firm wove a snaking wooden staircase through the new headquarters it designed for Georgia's National Olympic Committee, and has recently finished an imposing new building in Tbilisi with an imposing name: The Prosecutor's Office. It looks like a giant black filing cabinet, with square, glass rooms projecting out like half-opened drawers. Seventy per cent of the building is hung off the ground. The interior is just as startling – its long central staircase with green glass walls looks like something out of The Matrix. Japaridze has a host of other promising-looking buildings going up in Georgia. He also claims to be Tbilisi's one millionth citizen. One to watch.


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March 25 2012

Grayson Perry: 'The most interesting thing about Damien Hirst is probably his accounts'

The Turner prize-winning artist took to the stage to answer readers' searching – and often surprising – questions about his life and work at the Guardian's Open Weekend

It didn't even occur to me that the biggest surprise of interviewing Grayson Perry live might come about before the event even took place. In the weeks leading up to the Guardian's Open Weekend, we invited readers to submit their own questions for the artist. The responses were, by definition, unrepresentative and unscientific. But what a revelation they were.

My usual preparation for an interview had seemed so self evident until as to merit little attention. Whoever the interviewee, when drawing up questions I almost always gravitate towards their fault-lines and conflicts – the paradoxes and puzzles in their life and work. But our readers, it soon transpired, had other ideas.

Starting from a broad position of admiration, most of their questions could be characterised as devices to illuminate Perry's personality, or invitations to expand on his relationship with his work. It came as quite a shock to realise that only one of all their questions would have featured on my list. Conversely, lots of them posed a fantastical scenario, based on a hypothesis – for example: "If you could travel back in time ..." – which would never have even crossed my mind. The conclusion was rather sobering. If these questions were representative of what readers actually found interesting, it might be time for a radical rethink.

To be fair, though, no research method would have generated my single favourite question, submitted by the artist's wife, who tweeted: "What's for dinner?" Perry is one of the few people I've met who actually go, "Ha ha ha," when they laugh – as he does, with earthy abandon, when I read out her question, before pointing out: "Well she'd know the answer to that." Resplendent in a baby-doll dress of appliqué satin, and pantomime dame make up, he adds, deadpan, "I'm an old-fashioned man. As you can see."

Perry must be about as close to the perfect interviewee as one could hope for. He dresses for the occasion, and deploys the risque, occasionally catty candour of the underdog outsider. He likes to preface a reply with a quote, and the breadth of his erudition is almost as impressive as his gift for counter intuitive aphorisms: "Innovation," he declares, for example, "is overrated." If Perry were a politician, these could easily be dismissed as sound-bites. But he commands the sort of giddy affection we tend only to bestow on our most improbable heroes.

The artist became a household name more or less overnight, when he surprised the art world by winning the 2003 Turner prize. Perry had already been working as an artist for the best part of 20 years by then, but wasn't particularly well known within art circles, let alone to the public at large. Born and brought up in Essex, he'd endured a fairly miserable childhood and escaped to London, via art school, as soon as he could. Never fashionable, his success as an artist had been respectable but unremarkable – until the Turner prize made him a star.

Perhaps the clearest single theme to emerge from readers' questions was their impression that the contemporary art world – embodied by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and so on – is a bit cynical, whereas Perry represents wholesome integrity. Interestingly, although Perry comes across as something of a mischief-maker, his answers are deceptively skilful, managing to both confirm the audience's distinction between himself and the Young British Artists (YBAs) – and yet never endorsing any explicit criticism of his glitzier contemporaries' work.

"Contemporary art has become this baggy old bag; you can dump any old thing in and people say it's art," he will concede. "I don't want to see something you could think up in the bath and just phone it in. If you go to the Tate, every scrap of paper, every piece of poo – literally – is only made significant because it has a famous name attached. As an artist I'm very aware of what I call Picasso-napkin syndrome – I've got this 20th century version of the midas touch, where if I do a little doodle it's worth money! And that's quite a weird and horrifying curse, if you're in the creative business, because you become incredibly self conscious."

Perry has the audience in giggles when he observes: "Now that conceptual art has appeared on the Archers, you know that the game is up," and reflects, "The most interesting thing about Damien Hirst is probably his accounts. Not to say that his work isn't interesting as well," he adds quickly. "But the most interesting thing is probably the accounts." He calls biennales "banalies", and says the modern gallery-goer's attitude to contemporary art "is theme park plus sodoku. They want to go, 'My god it's so sexy, shocking, big, shiny, amazing!' But," and he starts to mime chin-stroking introspection, "'what's it about, what's it about?' My attitude to art is: is it good art? Is it giving me visual pleasure?" He thinks art whose sole purpose is to shock is "a bit boring. It's a bit lame," and though he sees a place for shock in art – "I suppose there's an element that, you know, you need salt on your potatoes; I think it's part of the kind of excited tingle of looking at an art work," he thinks it's become "a kind of worn-out thing".

All of which goes down wonderfully with his audience. But he is very careful to steer clear of anything that could be construed as an art-world cat-fight. "I think the prank, if you like, of just signing a piece of paper and saying that's art – that's great, and it kind of had to be done, you know, make that boundary of what art can be," he offers diplomatically. A reader's question– "Compared with Grayson Perry, most of the YBAs of the 90s were, and are, humourless self-important pretentious bores. Discuss," – makes him laugh raucously, but he replies, "Well I know quite a lot of them and they're very funny, so that's a very sweeping, terrible bitter generalisation – probably," Perry grins, "from a failed artist." Another question – "Given that much of the YBAs success could be attributed to their having gone to college with Damien Hirst, what would you identify as your own lucky break?" is jokily dismissed as clearly from "another bitter artist".

And yet his answer is intriguing. A member of staff at an Amsterdam gallery, Perry recalls, came across one of his pots while rummaging through the basement for a ceramic show. She called him, got to know him, and asked if he'd like to exhibit a show in their gallery. That show won Grayson the Turner Prize in 2003: "So I guess that was my lucky break."

Over the years since then, Perry's work has increasingly featured his childhood teddy bear, called Alan Measles; he recently toured Bavaria on a motorbike, with Alan balanced on the back in his own custom built glass shrine, and he plays with the idea of Alan as a god. The bear is almost as famous as Perry by now, and a reader wants to know who Perry prefers – himself, or his bear?

"Oh well it depends. If I'm going to play the game then of course Alan is my deity and I owe everything to him. Therefore I would say that he is the senior partner. But of course I'm afraid to say that I projected everything onto him, so I'm sorry Alan but he owes everything to me. I have invented him. I hate to tell this to people but most gods were invented by someone. I'm sorry. It's just that I'm in the present, whereas the famous gods were invented by someone a long time ago." An audience member asks if he is serious about regarding Alan as a god, or merely being satirical, and Perry admits that at first the idea was a joke, but over time has evolved into "a serious look at how religions form." The best religions, he adds, "develop organically. On Twitter, probably."

Alan Measles may or may not be a God, but he is unquestionably a celebrity – as is Perry – and many questions explore the theme of the artist as a personality. Perry handles them all with the unflappable poise of a media veteran. "Well one of the first things a journalist asked me after I won the Turner prize was, are you a loveable character or are you a serious artist? And I kind of replied, is it an either or? We live in a media saturated world. I'm sure artists of the past would have dealt with it in just the same way. If you're in the business of communication and images, then if you ignore the media-sphere you're just cutting off your own foot. It's just daft."

He is equally pragmatic about the relationship between contemporary art and finance. His 2009 work, Walthamstow Tapestry, satirised our slavish devotion to brands – and yet his recent exhibition at the British Museum was sponsored by the luxury brand Louis Vutton, as well as a City firm, Alix Partners. The only question I would have asked myself came from a reader who felt troubled by this partnership, and suggested that artists should be chronicling the wealthy's abuses, not rubbing up to them, but wondered if they could no longer afford to bite the hand that feeds.

"Well," Perry responds equably, "Nam June Paik said an artist should always bite the hand that feeds him – but not too hard. It's one of my favourite quotes, that one. My show wouldn't have happened without a sponsor, full stop. It's just – you have to chew on it, it's a real thing. It's not a kind of new thing." He is similarly pragmatic about becoming a brand. "Well it's interesting because we use the word brand in a very derogatory way a lot of the time. I do it as much as anyone. But i think a brand is also sort of like momentum; it gets you through the bad patches if you've got a good brand." He adds, though, "As an artist I'm extremely aware, increasingly, that everything that comes out of the studio I have to feel it's of the correct quality. I can't just sit on my brand at all. I think the worst behaviour of brands is when they're all brand and no quality."

Perry spent six years in therapy, from the late 90s to early 2000s, and is married to a psychotherapist, so many questions come up about the relationship between art and therapy. "Therapy's been a huge influence," he says, "and, yes, being married to a therapist has been amazingly influential because we talk all the time about therapy issues and I think it's a very clear eyed way of looking at the world. I look at my art during the time I was in therapy and it was a kind of flowering; I got into top gear at that point." In fact he came to the end of therapy the year after winning the Turner prize, so I ask if he thinks this was coincidental or connected. "Yeah, if you do therapy you'll win the Turner prize," he jokes.

Therapy had a major impact on Perry's transvestism, which began in childhood and quickly became a compulsion, but sounds like a pure pleasure for Perry today. He used to talk about dressing up as an alter ego called Claire, but therapy taught him to reconcile his two gender identities, and the construct of a female self called Claire now feels to him like a bit of anachronism. Perry goes along with the Claire shtick as far as he can, but it's evident that his patience is wearing thin.

I put a question from a reader who says that, when dressed as Claire, Perry is "the spitting image of my mother in law". Perry's timing and deadpan delivery are faultless: "Well, he's got a very interesting mother-in-law." Asked where he shops, he says he doesn't; his clothes are all custom-made, often by the fashion students he teaches every year. "I say to them, make me something that I would be embarrassed to wear. I challenge you to do it! And they try their hardest, bless them. I get some superb outfits out of it, I really do." Someone asks Perry to name the most humiliating thing that's ever happened to him. "And did you enjoy it?" He laughs. "Well it was nothing to do with dressing up, probably. It was probably some hideous faux pas that I've made. No, when I talk about dressing for humiliation, it's probably a fantasy of humiliation that I kind of have, rather than actual. Like a lot of sexual fetishes, you know, the fantasy is much nicer than the reality."

Claire is, famously, banned from Perry's studio, and a reader asks, Why does Claire have to be so neat and clean. Doesn't she need a busy space too? "She's not a real person," he points out with a tart laugh. "This is it. It's me in a dress. I'm a busy man these days so I dress up when other people dress up, or I'm doing a show. If other people are putting on a bit of slap then I will."

I'd decided not to ask Perry any of the hypothetical questions readers had submitted – just because they were rather elaborate and would, I feared, take up too much time to get through, one alone running to well over 100 words. But then someone in the audience asked a concise one: if Perry could live another 200 years as an artist, would he still be a ceramicist or would he use digital media? "Oh I do use digital media," he countered. "Now I only make pots probably half the time, if that. My next show, I've done it all on Photoshop mainly. I'm not a luddite when it comes to digital media at all."

Well well. At the very beginning Perry had expressly asked not to be questioned about future projects – and yet this reader's hypothetical scenario got him talking about it, and produced the one news story of the session. Truthfully, I would never have asked that question. It is a sobering and rather confronting thought.

The overwhelming legacy of this experiment is, to my surprise, guilt. I feel terrible about all the readers whose questions I never got to ask. I consider emailing them with apologies and explanations – until it occurs to me that they, more than anyone, have probably gained the single greatest insight into what it's really like to interview people.

It's not about deciding what to ask, or how to trick the interviewee into answering. Most of the time, it's really just about what to leave out.


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March 08 2012

Read all about it: how Gilbert & George stole the headlines

Urbane artistic pair pilfered 3,712 newspaper bills from outside London shops to create works now on show at White Cube galleries

If you are a London newsagent and have noticed an impeccably dressed but slightly shifty gentleman in his 60s regularly buying chewing gum in recent years, you may have been the victim of a "crime".

He was, in fact, a distraction to prevent you from seeing another impeccably dressed gentleman outside, removing the local newspaper bill from its metal rack.

"We realised we had to steal them," said Gilbert. "We had a drawer full of chewing gum at one stage," said George.

The men responsible for the systematic theft of 3,712 newspaper bills in east and north London are, of course, the artists Gilbert & George – and on Thursday they revealed the results in an exhibition across all three White Cube galleries in London.

The 292 bills that made it into London Pictures form Gilbert & George's largest series of works.

The artists have grouped the bills together by subject – yobs, for example, with LASER YOBS ENDANGERED COPTER PILOT and RABBIT IS SET ALIGHT BY YOBS – and laid them out in groups on a background which features them as ghostly observers.

They assumed that getting the bills would be easy. "We thought it would be very simple, we'd ask the shopkeeper to keep last week's poster," said George.

"But it was: 'What do you want that for guv?'. 'What's your game?' and 'Where are you from anyway?' They were very suspicious and very aggressive – they would never let you have one."

"Not one," interjects Gilbert.

They were caught in the act only once when an "overenthusiastic" policeman came up to George as he was putting a bill in his pocket. He pretended to be a teacher making a display of the posters at his school to try to curb antisocial behaviour and relieve pressure on police. "He replied: 'Oh sir, if only more people were like you.' "

The project has taken up all their time. "We've lived it, we've breathed it, we've sexed it, we've thought it … everything," said George. "More than any other pictures, they went all the way through us."

He said appropriating the bills allowed them to tackle subjects they otherwise may not have tackled: "I wouldn't like to start thinking about how you draw or paint a group of yobs – it would seem very patronising or awkward."

Gilbert & George have been hoarding the bills at their studios in Fournier Street, east London, where they have lived and worked for 40 years. They are something of an institution and there are people who will hang around the street in the hope of spotting the two on their regular walks.

They have won the Turner prize (1986), represented Britain at the Venice Biennale (2005) and had a retrospective at Tate Modern (2007). Throughout, they have never been shy of offending sensibilities: the Naked Shit Pictures from the mid-1990s, for example, which featured the artists naked alongside giant turds.

Four years ago, they entered into a civil partnership which they said was primarily to do with protecting the other's interest if one of them were to die.

Most of the bills in the new show are from Gilbert & George's normal hunting ground around Spitalfields and Liverpool Street, in east London, but some betray a wider journey – N7 GAS TERROR AS COPPER THIEVES STRIKE, for example, which features the postcode for Holloway. "We went to north London for dinner," said George.

The bills are a reflection of a society that we are all complicit in, the artists said.

"It is quite extraordinary that you have this slogan, this poster every single day and everybody just moves on. The next day it's another one. This is life standing still," said Gilbert.

The works are full of "death plunges", "terror" and "murder" but they also have a positive side.

"Yes there's a lot of misery, shame and unhappiness but this is also a celebration in a way because there are many countries where you can't have posters like this. It's a sign of an amazing freedom," said George.

The pictures will be on display at the White Cubes in Bermondsey, Hoxton and Mason's Yard, in central London, until 12 May – it costs nothing to get in and see them, but anything between £50,000 and £250,000 to buy one.


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Photographer Paul Graham wins 2012 Hasselblad award

Self-taught photographer becomes first British winner of international prize for recognition of major achievements

Paul Graham has been named as the winner of the 2012 Hasselblad award, which is presented annually to "a photographer recognised for major achievements". It is the first time a British photographer has won the prestigious international prize. Previous recipients include Robert Adams (2009), Nan Goldin (2007) and William Eggleston (1998).

Graham, who had a major retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in London last year, is a self-taught photographer. He was born in Buckinghamshire and discovered photography through the books of great American pioneers like Robert Frank, Walker Evans and Paul Strand. He has lived in New York since the early 1990s. Graham first garnered critical acclaim with his early documentary work, including A1 – The Great North Road (1983) , a series shot in colour along the British motorway, and Beyond Caring (1985), which was shot in unemployment offices. Back then, Graham was a pioneer of colour in Britain, his work influencing subsequent generations of young photographers.

Belonging to what was arguably the last great generation of British documentary photographers in the 1980s, Graham was the most forward-thinking and self-questioning. His work soon took on a more elliptical style and way of seeing, often challenging the received notions of what constitutes documentary photography. Perhaps the most dramatic example is American Night (2003), an impressionistic visual investigation of the social and racial issues of the country through the use of images that were often overexposed, in some cases, to the point of near-invisibility. In 2009, he published A Shimmer of Possibility, a 12-volume book that could be read as a series of vague short stories, each one illuminating the American everyday in often luminous images. In an interview last year, Graham told me: "It has steadily become less important to me that the photographs are about something in the most obvious way. I am interested in more elusive and nebulous subject matter. The photography I most respect pulls something out of the ether of nothingness … you can't sum up the results in a single line. In a way, 'a shimmer of possibility' is really about these nothing moments in life."

Graham won the Deutsche Börse prize in 2009. He currently has a show of recent work, entitled The Present, at Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York.


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February 29 2012

What Angelina Jolie's leg and Renaissance art have in common

I can't help but wonder if Versace got the idea for the revealing dress Angelina Jolie wore to the Oscars from the 1504 Giorgione painting of the Biblical hero Judith

Angelina Jolie's right leg was the star of the Oscars, I hear, and apparently quite a subject of conversation on Twitter as well. Of course, I am above all that, but I can't help pointing out that centuries before Versace clad Jolie in her eye-catching slit dress, the Venetian Renaissance painter Giorgione had the same idea.

In about 1504, Giorgione painted the Biblical hero Judith standing over the severed head of Holofernes. In the Old Testament, Judith goes to the tent of this enemy of the Israelites, gets him drunk and chops off his head. She has been portrayed many times in art, but rarely with such striking dress sense as she shows in Giorgione's painting.

He pictures her resting her foot on the gruesome head, nuzzling her bare sole in its tangled locks – hair against skin. That's an oddly sensual touch in a religious painting. Giorgione adapted it from Donatello's bronze statue of David, whose pose his Judith imitates. This kind of visual allusion to one another was what Renaissance artists loved to do. But what really takes your breath away is Judith's exposed leg. From her bare foot it rises magnificently, revealed by a slit in her pink dress, to the thigh.

Usually Judith wore a long dress to be modest – being a Bible character and all. What Giorgione has therefore done is to turn a polite, conservative dress convention into something sexy: the long dress that ought to hide Judith's body becomes a way of revealing it. The game is quite similar to Jolie's show-off leg performance at the Oscars.

Giorgione has given a lot of thought to Judith's dress. As so often in these Renaissance paintings you have to wonder – did such a garment actually exist? Was it worn by a model? Or did he imagine it? The top of the slit is extravagantly ornamented, with beautiful gold thread creating an effect like the gothic windows of Venetian palaces. It is all a frame for Judith's leg – a leg Giorgione has painted with consummate sensuality.

I can't help wondering if Versace got the idea for that Oscar dress from Giorgione's painting. After all, its head designer must be interested in Renaissance art with a name like Donatella. Perhaps fashion, like the human body, changes less than we think.


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February 28 2012

Wang Shu wins 2012 Pritzker architecture prize

First Chinese architect to win prestigious award is praised for his 'strong sense of cultural continuity and reinvigorated tradition'

It has been won by the likes of Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, and now Wang Shu's name can be added to the list as the first Chinese architect to be awarded the prestigious 2012 Pritzker prize, seen as the Nobel prize for architecture.

The decision to award him the prize acknowledges "the role that China will play in the development of architectural ideals", said Thomas Pritzker, chairman of the Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the $100,000 (£60,000) prize.

The jury praised the importance of Wang's work in a country that is modernising and urbanising at top speed.

"As an architect, everyone dreams about the prize ... I'm very happy for him," said his wife Lu Wenyu. They run a joint practice, Amateur Architects, founded in 1997. Wang is in the US and has declined media interviews as he is busy with lectures.

Past Pritzker winners include American Frank Gehry and many of the big names in European architecture who have created modern Beijing landmarks; Rem Koolhaas, designer of CCTV's headquarters, and Swiss team Herzog and de Meuron's Olympic Stadium.

Last year Wang was awarded the Gold Medal by France's Academy of Architecture.

Unusually for an internationally decorated architect, Wang's five major projects are all in China, many in his home region of Zhejiang near Shanghai. They include three college campuses and the Ningbo History Museum, and his work typically mixes modern design with traditional material.

China's rapid urbanisation makes the issue of "the proper relation of present to past … particularly timely", said jury chairman Lord Palumbo.

In 2011, China became a majority urban country for the first time, as farmers have migrated for work, with rapid urbanisation producing megacities such as Chongqing (population 32 million) and vast urban-industrial sprawls through the factory belts of the Pearl river and Yangzte delta.

Much of this new building is mediocre, with public buildings often emphasising giganticism and grandeur rather than style.

The jury praised Wang's work as "exemplary in its strong sense of cultural continuity and reinvigorated tradition".

Wang reworks Chinese styles with recycled materials; 2m tiles from demolished traditional houses were used in the China Academy of Art's Xiangshan campus, in Hangzhou.

A library at Suzhou University's Wenzhang Campus is a cluster of low cubes sunk half underground to reflect feng shui traditions, which oppose high buildings that block energy between mountains and water.

Born in 1963, Wang graduated from Nanjing Institute of Technology. His first job was to research building restoration and he worked with craftsmen for 10 years to gain a feeling for materials. He tries to recover what he has called the "handicraft aspect" of building design, in contrast to "professionalised, soulless architecture, as practised today".

Wang is the first Chinese citizen to win the prize. In 1983 it went to Chinese-American immigrant IM Pei, who designed the Louvre Pyramid.


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February 02 2012

Sony World Photography awards - in pictures

A selection of some of the strongest images from the professional and open shortlist for the 2012 Sony World Photography awards



January 28 2012

Feelgood art: the pick-me-up to get us through an age of anxiety

British artists used to delight in shocking audiences, but now many are involved in projects intended to cheer people up

Young British artists once rocked the world with a volley of pickled animal cadavers, unmade beds and flicking light switches. But now, against the backdrop of a grim economic climate, some of the movement's biggest stars appear to be concentrating on cheering us all up.

Feelgood artwork is everywhere, from the life-affirming London Underground project of Michael Landy, who has invited commuters to log incidents of kindness, to the uplifting public art commissioned for the top of bus shelters to herald the Olympics.

"There is a second world war kind of thing going on about 'keeping the home fires burning' at the moment; a bit of 'keep calm and carry on' art, if you like," said the Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller this weekend as he prepared for the opening of his retrospective show, Joy in People, on London's South Bank next month. However, his own work, as he explains, is not intended as a simple pick-me-up.

"The title of my show is apparently positive, but the show itself isn't all positive. There is anger and there is frustration too," he said.

Other leading artists, such as Martin Creed and Tracey Emin, who established their careers with work on challenging themes, are now producing art that urges their public to think positive thoughts. "Don't Worry", reads Creed's neon work, while several of Emin's recent neon signs are equally direct, reading "Trust Me" and "I Keep Believing in You". The Turner prize-nominated artist Mark Titchner is one of those to contribute to Bus Tops, a Cultural Olympiad project which has seen inspirational digital commands such as "Act or be Acted Upon" and "If you don't like your life, you can change it" adorning London bus shelters.

Much of this work is tongue-in-cheek, or at least invites a few questions, but the overall effect is to emphasise the better things about human existence.

"When times are difficult, values are going to be questioned," said Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery. "You look again at what's important and at what's less important in life. It is usually a time when culture and art can play an important part, whereas in a boom period there is too much focus on the hype around the boom and on all the alluring baubles it holds out before us."

Rugoff, who is staging the Deller show and an exhibition of the wry sketches of David Shrigley, is clear that art should not be regarded as "a nice sedative we can take together … What it can do, though, is function as a catalyst and bring people together. Art can connect them in new ways."

On Tuesday, a group of artists including Gillian Wearing, Antony Gormley, Yinka Shonibare and Jonathan Yeo are to launch a more practical response to the financial slump. The group are staging a major exhibition in London this spring that will raise money for the homelessness charity Crisis. "Art reflects on situations in ways that cold hard facts can't," said Wearing, who won the Turner prize in 1997. "It tries to make sense of the world subjectively, whereas facts tend to ignore our subjectivity."

Her partner is Landy, and she explains that the idea behind his Acts of Kindness on the London Underground came to him before the financial crisis took hold. "For me it was powerful that an artist was working with kindness, something that we easily overlook," she said this weekend. "It actually inspired some works of mine, including the one for the Crisis Commission, where I wanted to look at people who have overcome difficulties in life and have become heroes."

But on the weekend when film-maker Danny Boyle, director of the Olympics opening ceremony, announced his Isle of Wonders theme, Deller for one is decidedly grumpy about the pressure to be jolly in preparation for the summer. "The Olympics, of course, is something that will attempt to brainwash artists into expressing positive things," he said. "Some will. But I am the kind of person who will try and do the opposite. I find these big cultural and sporting events unbearable."

In 2009 Deller invited London Underground staff on the Piccadilly Line to help him produce a booklet of quotes called What is the City But People. The booklet aimed "to generate a more positive atmosphere during peak times", but his best known work also tackles the violent 1984 confrontations between striking miners and police and the Iraq war. His recent work What It Is, the remains of a car destroyed at Al-Mutanabbi book market in Baghdad, will be in the new exhibition.

"Historically, art began by giving people what they needed, as it was tied up with religion. Now it is much more fragmented and it can be about how miserable and rotten things are," he said. His own collaborative work with the public is born of the fact that he is not traditionally trained, Deller suggests, as much as it is due to his belief and interest in people.

"At its simplest, I would say art is another way of looking at life, or perhaps another way of dealing with it."

Deller points out that BritArt started under a Conservative government "in difficult times" and was later "appropriated by the Blair regime".

"At that point it did all become a bit celebratory," he said.

For several young artists the benevolent act of making communal art has become part of the reason for doing it. Max Dovey, 23, is one of the artists featured in the 2012 Catlin guide to the 40 most promising art school graduates. "Apart from one or two notable exceptions, the response by new artists to the recession hasn't been as political or aggressive as one might have expected," said Justin Hammond, who wrote the guide. "Looking at the selected artists, there's a lot of humour running through the work though, and Max Dovey's work is very much about encouraging communication and embracing the idea of community."

"The Emotional Stock Market, which was the piece I did last year, was about trading well-being as a commodity like shares," said Dovey, who is from Bristol and lives and works in south London. "There was a lot of political talk about moving away from gross domestic product to valuing how people were feeling, and my piece was a satire or a comment on that. We tracked the levels of well-being by looking at status updates on Facebook and at Twitter to see how many were happy or sad, and then we traded them in live performance."

Dovey argues that there is a new growth of "careful art" among contemporaries who are making community projects. "Artists don't want to shock or upset. There is more interest in how art makes people feel and the experience of art has become at least as important as the practice of it."


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January 17 2012

Gary Hume: the half-an-hour a day man

It's going to be a big year for Gary Hume. Not bad going for an artist whose creative bursts don't last long.

Gary Hume is walking around the basement gallery of White Cube's Mason's Yard branch, where some limestone sculptures are rearing up from the floor: they look like giant worms, with painted mounds jutting out on either side. On the walls are pictures of what look like birds with blue bodies and bright red beaks, painted with Hume's usual gloss paint on smooth aluminium surfaces, as shiny as sweets. These are the artist's "paradise paintings", part of his new London show The Indifferent Owl. And it's a very particular paradise.

"These are pubescent girls, naked," says Hume. "These are their legs and that's their pussies and they're all leaping across the landscape. I wanted to make some strange paradise where that was possible." Suddenly those worms look very phallic. Hume ponders their appearance. "They are quite sexual. There's a plant in America called milkweed. Their pods spew open and all this white stuff comes out." Yet the sculptures are birds, too – reaching from their nests to their mothers. "They're overwhelmingly ugly and needy and then they transform."

Hume says his work comes from his desire for "beauty and life and sex and little moments". Upstairs, pictures of blackberries, leaves and breasts hang on the walls; another room contains paintings made in five minutes: intense, draining bursts of creativity. "I'm probably creative for half an hour a day," he says. "The rest of the time I'm just doing what's necessary to make that creativity visible."

Hume graduated from Goldsmiths college in 1988, his work appearing in the seminal show Freeze that same year. Organised by his fellow students Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst, it launched the YBAs. The Indifferent Owl collects together Hume's work of the past two years, while a touring retrospective show, Flashback, staged by the Arts Council Collection, kicks off at Leeds Gallery next month. "I'm not as well known as I ought to be," jokes the man who, by 2001, had been Turner-nominated and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, "and I'd like to be well-known for absolutely everything. I'm aware my work's going to be very visible this year, and it'll be depressing if nobody cares."

The show's title comes from Hume hearing an owl hooting outside his home in upstate New York, where he lives for part of the year with his wife, the artist Georgie Hopton. He went for a walk in the woods the following morning, where he saw a deflated party balloon. "The owl had watched it, with this fantastic swivelling head, and was indifferent to this part of human joy that has been let go and is over."

Hume says it reminded him of himself: knowing that he should be concerned about the world's problems, but ultimately only really caring about his painting. "Obviously, I have a sense of empathy, but what I'm offering up has no saviour quality. I don't make political work. I don't make work that criticises the state. I make as human work as I can."

I wonder what he thinks of Cameron. "I don't give a damn." Really? "I don't! I don't vote. I voted Labour once, in that moment of euphoria. I know that if people only made a voice for change then change will happen, but I'm not that person. I'm painting pictures." One of five children, and brought up by his mum, an NHS surgery manager, Hume says he would never have been able to afford the £9,000-a-year fees today's students have to pay. "I was on a full grant and I still ended up with huge debts because it's expensive to make art. Which is terrible – because art school's meant to be for people who are wrong. You should go because you're broken. You shouldn't be going there because it's a professional choice and your parents can afford it. The disenfranchised should be going to art school – not the franchised."

Although he was once inspired by magazines and popular culture, and has painted the likes of Michael Jackson and Patsy Kensit, becoming middle-aged has changed things. "If I go out to a bar, people think I'm a minicab driver come to pick someone up. It's just not my world."

Curiously, The Indifferent Owl includes a portrait of French poet Rimbaud; it's one of Hume's few pictures of men. "Generally speaking I can't see the point," he says. "Partly because I don't fancy them. I have an erotic gaze on women but I don't have an erotic gaze on a man. Sex is important in my work. There's got to be a sexual drive in it." Rimbaud ceased writing poetry in his early 20s. But Hume, it seems, is here to stay. One of the pleasures of being an artist, he says, "is you never have to stop."


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December 05 2011

The special ones: why art needs the Turner prize

In an age where we follow the crowd and glorify the ordinary in art, the Turner prize picks out the handful of extraordinary artists who truly deserve acclaim

One of the most fascinating arguments in Charles Saatchi's article in the Guardian on Saturday is his claim that many people in the art world "simply cannot tell a good artist from a weak one".

This opens up one of the most interesting questions in the whole world of contemporary art. That same issue arises every year at Turner prize time – which is where we are now. It's one thing to revile the whole of modern art and anyone who likes it, as does a Stuckist painter in a series of paintings starring me as their villain. It is much harder to sort the sheep from the goats, and try to identify what is worthwhile in the art of our time.

That's what Saatchi says curators, critics, and dealers and collectors fail to do. In fact he says they have no "eye" at all, and just pretend to love what everyone else happens to be pretending to love.

It's true. At any one time, there are waves of art-world enthusiasm for particular artists that go way beyond the artist's actual qualities. Broaden your view across the whole range of applauded contemporary artists and I reckon that about 70% of them are no good at all. This is only logical. The numbers of artists acclaimed and feted in Britain today exceed any possible real figure of truly outstanding artists in any one country at any one time.

Quantity, not quality, is the ethos of bienniales and art fairs. Critics reviewing the Venice Biennale simply accept that the vast majority of works will be boring and trivial, ignore it, and leap on the stuff they like. This year I felt it was a good Biennale because I liked five or six things – out of hundreds.

That actually is what art is like: out of hundreds of people who want to be artists, you are lucky if one has genuine talent. Real imagination and the ability to translate it into art come rarely, and even the best artists may only be truly good for a few years.

Discrimination should be the first rule of the art scene, because there is no value for anyone in glorifying the ordinary. The job is the find the extraordinary, and support that.

It's interesting how passionately audiences in New York responded to Alexander McQueen's posthumous exhibition at the Met. Evidently, the fashion world is much better than the art world at discerning real talent and celebrating the genuine stars, not the also-rans.

The worst problem with contemporary art is this suspension of critical faculties, the craven readiness to say the new and the cool must be great, by definition.

This is why the Turner prize matters. It is one moment when artists are judged instead of all being lumped together in a merry carnival. Once a year in December, a jury sits in a room and argues about what is truly good in art. Sometimes the decisions baffle and enrage me. They hurt the also-rans as much as they help the winner. But the Turner jury has a genuine chance to resist the tide of uncritical fashion and recognise the authentic, original handful of artists who truly deserve acclaim. I hope this year's Turner goes to George Shaw, a real artist if ever I saw one. And I hope the arguments that visitors enjoy are deep and serious and bitter – because passionate criticism is the only cure for the dreary feast of art for cool's sake.


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November 15 2011

'Art is a boxed-off space where we can behave like animals'

Video: Turner prize contender Karla Black explains the thinking behind her unorthodox, innovative sculptures



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