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August 16 2012

Tate Modern's waste of space: why won't interactive art leave me alone?

Being interrogated by a psychic in Tate Modern's new underground art space, The Tanks, was not my idea of fun. Shouldn't art be a contemplative, personal experience?

I've just been interrogated by the Stasi in a concrete bunker somewhere beneath Berlin. I discovered that privacy means nothing. I recognised the pathetic, delusory nature of bourgeois freedom.

Then I went for a cup of coffee, assiduously avoiding being accosted by any lurking art enactors on my way through the Turbine Hall.

Oh look, I am just not the right audience for the live art programme in Tate Modern's new space The Tanks. When someone asks me questions as part of an interactive artwork, I feel as reluctant to engage as I do when a computer cold calls my home phone. Leave me alone! – was my barely restrained reaction as I sat being interviewed by a psychic in an austere subterranean concrete space as a participant in an artwork by Jon Fawcett.

Six psychics sit at plain wooden booths as part of Fawcett's contribution to the new Undercurrent series of live events at The Tanks. Psychics! It sounds on paper like an underground circus with smoke, crystal balls and tarot readings. But although my interviewer assured me she is a trained psychic, what she did was ask me a series of questions about my job and interests, how honest I am, my views on politics, economics and the nature of power. It was a questionnaire that started in the banal and tried to touch on larger themes. Then I was invited to give contact details to continue the "screening process".

It's probably a work that gets richer the more you put into it. If you get in the spirit, it might be fun. But why should I?

Sitting in a cubicle being interrogated, albeit politely, in the name of art confirmed my worst fears about The Tanks. What a fantastic art space! What a great gallery this would make for the Tate's Rothkos. But instead it is dedicated to live art, performance, installation and film works, with lots of interaction thrown in.

Art should be a contemplative, personal experience. It should leave us free to engage on our own terms. The idea that interaction is good for us is patronising and treats us as lazy-minded idiots who must be prodded like cattle in order to respond. Somehow, if I sit answering inane questions about politics from a psychic, that is supposed to be more active and real and meaningful than if I sat for an hour looking at a Rothko.

Can I go and see the abstract paintings now, please sir? I've done my interactions.

Undercurrent continues until 27 August, with artists or entities, including Orange Dot, W Project and Isys Archive, who have worked with Tate Young People's Programmes.


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Scent of a kitten: the 20 irrefutable theories of book cover design

Do you judge a book by its cover? Designers Jon Gray and Jamie Keenan shared their theories on attracting readers – from cute cats to alluring perfume – at the Edinburgh book festival

1. Face theory

Research suggests that human beings spend 48.6% of their lives decoding facial communication, so a big draw for a potential book buyer will be the familiarity of a face. The cover of Nick Hornby's Otherwise Pandemonium, for example, uses a cassette tape to create the image of a face.

2. Association theory

Human beings make a connection with a given stimulus that leads to how they respond to something they see. The image on the cover of Luca Turin's The Secret of Scent uses the familiar image of the Chanel No 5 perfume label to help the reader respond to the idea that the book is about scent.

3. Zen theory

This theory presents a challenge to the human mind that some will accept and some won't. A zen theory cover mainly involves text with few images, telling the reader little about the book other than the name of the author. This is often used for books from well-known authors, such as Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, who will attract readers with their name alone.

4. Type as image theory

This theory uses original or customised typefaces to create images and ideas. The type often becomes the image, such as on the cover for Steven Levy's The Perfect Thing.

5. Textual plasticity theory

The human mind reads words as a whole not individual letters. If a letter is missing, the brain will still understand the word. The design for James Gleick's Faster has all the vowels missing from the author's name and title on the cover, but is still readable.

6. Overdetermination theory

The image on a cover using Overdetermination theory suggests the beginning or snapshot of a narrative rather than an overall end result.

7. Ringfence theory

The difference between positive and negative space can determine what the reader sees. The Rubin vase is a good example, where some people see two faces and others see a vase. In this cover, the iPod headphones shape a womb and two lovers' faces.

8. Zoom theory

Zooming in can give a taster of a narrative without giving too much away, while zooming out creates a bigger picture, depending on what is required. The pen nib on the cover of Miguel Syjuco's Ilustrado is an example of close zoom.


9. Encapsulation theory

Typeface and image combine to create one unified image for the reader. Unity is more attractive to humans, as making connections doesn't require as much effort. The cover of Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian has a picture of a tractor and the word "tractor".

10. Molecular theory

Layers of symbols that make up a whole, understandable theme define molecular theory. The cover of Karen Maitland's The Company of Liars uses skull symbols inside a silhouette of a dog to symbolise that this is "a novel of the plague".

11. Unheimlich theory

This theory takes a familiar image or symbol and makes it strange or unsettling. One cover of Lolita uses the image of a girl's bedroom wall to represent a girl's legs and underwear.


12. Absent presence theory

A gap is left on the cover, a missing image or text, that implies something. By having this space, the reader is forced to fill the gap with their imagination in order to understand the meaning.

13. Ju Jitsu theory

The opponent, the cover, forces a view or conception upon the defender, the reader, such as the bloody, violent implications on the cover of Anthony McGowan's love story Stag Hunt.

14. Toy theory

A fixed image allows the reader to remain passive and distance themselves from a cover. A fluid image, like the one on William Boyd's Fascination requires the reader to actively explore the cover and become curious about the content.

15. Obfuscation theory

If something is hidden it suddenly becomes more interesting to the curious nature of the human mind. The cover of an edition of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day obscures the image that depicts the content with white lines and text.

16. Combination theory

Because a book is static, two ideas can be presented at once to create a doubly effective but meaningful image to the reader. Moses Isegawa's novel Abyssinian Chronicles is about modern Africa, and the cover uses old books to create the shape of the continent.

17. Navigation

The eye is deliberately led via an understandable pattern; left to right, bottom to top, to create an easily recognisable overall image. Hannah Holmes's Quirk depicts the brain through a mind map.

18. Turd theory

A single, unsightly object can be seen as repulsive. Multiply the image and use bright colours, and it can become attractive. Usually used in series design, the effects can be seen in a sequence of Georges Simenon books designed by Keenan.

19. Maximisation

Everything is huge and thrown on to the cover. Bigger images and text can catch a reader's eye in a sea of detailed designs. The cover for Zadie Smith's new book, NW, is a good example of maximisation.

20. Fluffy kitten theory

Nothing draws a reader to a book like a picture of a fluffy kitten.


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August 15 2012

Crazy golftime for Hitler

A model of Hitler on a crazy golf course at Grundy Art Gallery has been called 'tasteless' by a Jewish organisation. But shouldn't artists have the right to offend?

Hitler golf? Now that's what I call crazy. An exhibition called Adventureland Golf that has just opened at the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool (where else?) features crazy golf course obstacles created by artists who include David Shrigley, Gary Webb, and Jake and Dinos Chapman.

Can you guess which of them is responsible for a lifelike statue of Hitler's head and torso, its arm poised to rise in a Nazi salute every time the ball goes through a hole between its legs?

Take a bow, Chapmans. Or give a salute, whatever.

In a bit of national publicity that must be welcome to any exhibition opening in the middle of August, Michael Samuels of the Board of Deputies of British Jews has condemned the Chapman brothers' piece, calling it "tasteless" and declaring that it has "absolutely no artistic value whatsoever".

Is it worth him making those comments? What has been gained by them? The exhibition is in the news as a result. The Hitler artwork will be seen by many more people than would otherwise have attended the Grundy. Surely this is an object lesson in how not to criticise art you find offensive.

Artists have the right to offend. We do not have the right, as citizens, to be free from every image that upsets, shocks, or even disgusts us. To call this crazy golf representation of Adolf Hitler "tasteless" is a bit like calling the Colossus of Rhodes "colossal". Does anyone think the artists were trying to be anything other than tasteless?

I only hope Mr Samuels is never exposed to the Chapmans' much more ambitious (and famous) work Hell, which features thousands of melted, melded and otherwise abused toy Nazis enacting an apocalyptic vision of torture and death.

But when does an image of Hitler become offensive? Hitler as a crazy golf statue apparently offends. But what about Basil Fawlty doing his funny walk, Mel Brooks's Hitler musical in The Producers, or the bizarrely characterful portrayal of Hitler in the film Downfall?

Why should the Blackpool Hitler be seen as an outrage too far, when this vicious mass murderer is such a familiar, even comic image in our culture?

The trouble seems to lie in our belief that statues are honorific. To make a statue of someone, even as a proposal for an imaginary crazy golf course, is – we assume – to praise and ennoble them. That's why statues get toppled in revolutions and wars. The exhibition in Blackpool also includes an image of dictator Saddam Hussein. Is that praising him?

Does the crazy-golf Hitler have artistic value? As an exercise in causing offence, it is apparently quite effective. That may not be the highest artistic achievement, but it's not bad for mid-August.


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August 14 2012

Paint the town gold

The Post Office's gold-painted postboxes – celebrating Team GB's success – have gone down so well that now we all want one in our town. Has London 2012 set a new gold standard?

The most unlikely Olympic artwork of the summer has to be the postbox that was illegally painted gold in Lymington, where Ben Ainslie lives.

Did you see the story? A local man was so disappointed to hear no postbox was to be painted gold in Lymington to mark the triumph of the most successful sailor in Olympic history that he did the job himself. He was arrested. But show mercy, for it was the Post Office that came up with the notion of painting boxes gold in the first place.

In a plan perhaps reminiscent of Krusty the Klown's Los Angeles Olympics give-away in a vintage episode of The Simpsons, the Post Office vowed to paint a postbox gold for every British victory in the 2012 Games. Krusty promised free meals at his fast-food outlet Krusty Burger for every American Olympic victory, but lost millions when the USSR pulled out and America hit a gold rush. Similarly, our postal providers probably expected to be gilding a couple of postboxes here and there – but instead, their map of gold boxes shows a constellation of customised mail inlets all over Britain.

A decision to give Ainslie a gold postbox in Cornwall, where he grew up, and not in Lymington, where he lives, prompted the Olympic postal paint outlaw. And perhaps the postal service has set a dangerous precedent here. You give people an idea ...

British postboxes have been painted red since 1874. Like our old-style red telephone boxes used to be, they are a renowned national image. Is this the beginning of the end for that red uniformity? The point of the gold postboxes is that they represent a unique variant on a rigid formula. But now, everyone wants a gold postbox. Places that have been honoured want to keep their temporary festive postbox as a timeless memorial – Manchester is already asking for its gold letter receptacle on Albert Square to stay that way as a permanent reminder of cycling success.

Red just won't cut it anymore. Those poor towns on the map that have no gold postboxes are surely shamed, as places where no sporting legends are nurtured, where no one's been busy training on the fields of this green and pleasant land.

Green and pleasant? Perhaps the grass should also be painted gold in places that have raised Olympic heroes. Park keepers of Britain, where is your patriotism?


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August 13 2012

The art of the dinosaur | Dr Dave Hone

The importance of palaeoart for communicating ideas about the past to the public

Palaeontology has at least one aspect to it that is little seen in any other branch of science – the artwork responsible for bringing lost extinct animals back to life. While artwork and illustration depicting dinosaurs and the like is resplendent in books and common in media coverage of the subject, it has a more general place in science education and communication.

It's pretty hard for the average person to look at a skeleton (let alone a fraction of a skeleton) and get a good impression of how that animal looked in life. Sure, something that is obviously a horse or fish might be easy enough, but animals like dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures are wonderfully alien compared with most living animals and would be far more of a challenge.

Would it stand upright or with legs bent? Would the tail be stiff or flexible? Could it rear up, or run? Would it have large scales or small, armoured bumps and spikes, feathers even? And where would they be on the body and what colours could they be? Did it live in a tropical forest or on the plains or did it roam the ancient shoreline?

Art of this kind (often termed palaeoart) can of course be beautiful and interesting in its own right, but it's also a powerful communication tool to help present these animals and show them off in a way that otherwise is hard to appreciate. Good palaeoart is also a real challenge to produce and can require a great deal of dedicated knowledge and represent a real collaboration between artist and scientist.

Most people will know when a dog or horse has been drawn wrong, even if they can't quite place a finger on what looks odd, and the artist will have innumerable photos and videos to work from and, of course, real animals. Making sure the right muscles of the right size are in the right place on a Stegosaurus or Tyrannosaurus is quite another matter, though, and the best palaeoartists generally have a super and detailed knowledge of anatomy as well as keeping up with the scientific literature. There's even a significant number of academics of sufficient talent to produce their own artwork and a search will often turn up a piece where the artist can point to having dug up and described the beast in question, as well as producing the illustrations of it stomping around the Mesozoic.

I've been fortunate enough to have had some very enjoyable collaborations with some very talented artists, working together to restore extinct animals (and also to have had some less fun ones too). It's great to be able to stray a little from the formalities of strict science and be able to be a little more expressive – something that I suspect is not afforded to too many chemists, for example.

Even before my involvement in various outreach projects and a couple of books, I've been interested in both the artistic and scientific side of this work. So in an attempt to bring this to a larger audience I have put online a nice collection of interviews with various artists on their works that can be seen here.

Which brings me round to the subject of the banner that rides high above these words. This is more that just a collection of dinosaurian-like animals, but more specifically they are all images of species where I was responsible (or partly responsible) for naming the animal. As such, it has a rather personal connection to me, and also so seemed an appropriate way to illustrate the new blog and its emphasis on the uncovering and explanation of these long dead creatures.

However, I really can't leave things there and not thank publicly and profusely those artists who generously gave me permission to use their work for this and of course explain what all those animals are. So running clockwise from the top left we have:

Limusaurus – an unusual herbivorous ceratosaurian dinosaur (all other ceratosaurs are carnivores) from western China that was named in 2009. This work is by Portia Rollings and was done as part of a spread for National Geographic on the various animals found in these beds.

Bellubrunnus – a small rhamphorhynchine pterosaur from Germany that I named just in July of this year. This digital piece was done by my friend Matt van Rooijen, an animator from Tasmania who has collaborated with me on a number of pieces.

Zhuchengtyrannus – a giant tyrannosaurid dinosaur (and close relative of Tyrannosaurus) from eastern China that I named in 2010. The art was by Bob Nicholls, a Bristol-based artist whose work can be seen in many museums in the UK. The original of this hangs on my wall at home.

Linhenykus – a tiny alvarezsaur (an ant-eating dinosaur) from central China that I helped name in 2011. This digital piece is by Julius Cystoni who has his own PhD in microbiology as well as producing artworks like this.

Anchiornis – a troodontid (a small, feathered, bird-like dinosaur) from central China that was named in 2009. This piece was created by Michael DiGiorgio illustrating recent work (that I was not involved in) on the colours of dinosaur feathers. Michael is best known for his work on birds, so it's perhaps no surprise that he was called in to illustrate this one.

My thanks to them one and all for their art in general and specifically for allowing me to use these pieces (or parts thereof) here.


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Why Mo Farah stole the show from British artists

Damien Hirst's closing ceremony union flag was magnificent but empty and Martin Creed's bell-ringing at the start of the Games rang hollow compared with the depth of soul shown by athletes

The London Olympics began and ended with art. The morning of the first day started with people all over the nation ringing all kinds of bells to perform Martin Creed's Work No 1197: All the Bells. But the big art surprise was reserved for the closing ceremony: this mashup of great, bad and indifferent British pop music was set on a gigantic Damien Hirst painting of the British flag.

In retrospect, it was always a bit fishy that Britain's biggest modern artist seemed so invisible from these Olympics. It was never really likely that Hirst would let a modest fellow like Creed steal the show. And Hirst's outsized union flag in the Olympic arena unfurled his art at its best: a colossal pop icon.

On the other hand, it was in tune with a closing ceremony that was, however much the nation strains to celebrate it, a lot less interesting than the opening show. In contrast with Danny Boyle's imaginative history spectacular, this was a pop concert with very little to it. Hirst's great big daub fitted it well – magnificent but empty, a slather of patriotic baroque. (... although the Who were great.)

The truth is that art was a bit of eye-candy, or in Creed's case ear-candy, for these Olympic Games. It was inevitable that contemporary British art would be wheeled out as a national asset during this self-celebratory summer. And its strengths were on show: excelling at the pop statement, the public moment. Unfortunately its weaknesses were also apparent, when you compared Creed or Hirst with the athletes, the true artists of London 2012.

I don't care how many medals Britain got or any of the patriotic guff that will wash around for a few more weeks. I care about Mo Farah. It's sometimes said of people who are very good at something that they make it look easy. Farah is great because he makes it look difficult. Neither of his gold medals seemed inevitable. Seeing his first victory on television involved and moved me more than any sporting event ever has. It had what I want from a work of art. It touched on deep hopes and fears. It made you, looking at it, aware of the human condition in some deep, primal way.

This race – and other Olympic events too – taught me that sport can be profound.

By contrast, where is the profundity in Creed or Hirst? Where is the soul in modern British art? It's good for a laugh, a party, a bell-ringing breakfast. But where is that sense of mortal testing and absolute absorption we got from the athletic highlights of the 2012 Olympic Games?

Our culture should take a lead from athletics. The real lesson of these Olympics is that the best things in art and life are deadly serious.


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August 10 2012

Manchester gets its own Lomo Wall

Thousands of snaps of Manchester contributed by more than 500 local people create the world's greatest city (equal with Leeds) in miniature. But quite a big miniature. Helen Nugent tells more

Enthusiasts have built them across the world. From London to Beijing, Cologne to New York, LomoWalls have inspired people from all walks of life. And now Manchester has one.

Part exhibition, part experience, a LomoWall is a colourful montage of thousands of analogue snapshots or, as experts would have it, Lomographs. In this instance, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Much like an impressionist painting, Manchester's newest mosaic takes on a different meaning depending on the distance from which you view it. Visitors to the 30m x 3m long artwork, mounted on a concrete wall, can stand up close or far away, each perspective is unique.

The Lomograph, erected on Tariff Street in the Piccadilly basin area of the city, reflects Manchester's industrial heritage. Containing 14,000 individual Lomographs, it is the world's first permanent LomoWall and the only LomoWall to be built in the open air this year.

The wall has been created by Lomography, a global organisation dedicated to using experimental and creative snapshot analogue photography. Two Lomography fans, Tom Ambrose, a University of Manchester student, and Monica Sagar, an Arden School of Theatre graduate and native Mancunian, have spent three weeks with the Lomography UK team carefully creating the masterpiece using over 1,000 different images of Manchester submitted by more than 500 people.
Linda Scott, marketing manager at Lomography UK, says:

Lomography celebrates its 20th birthday this year and this is a great way to mark it and the ideal location for our first permanent LomoWall. Once a textile district, now inhabited by the culturally curious, this is the 'hip' part of Manchester city centre. The area is full of design agencies, trendy music venues, bars, cafes, a craft centre and fashion boutiques and is perfectly suited to the dynamic visual delights of a local LomoWall from Lomography. The street art landscape that is developing in Manchester currently is totally inspiring to us at Lomography and the ethos behind this sits with both our ideas and those of our community. We are absolutely delighted to have this first permanent LomoWall exhibition hosted by CityCo and TCS in the Piccadilly Basin.

The project is part of the 2012 Canal Festival. Those responsible for the LomoWall initiative include the Piccadilly Partnership, CityCo, Manchester's city centre management company, and Town Centre Securities, owners of Piccadilly Basin and previous owners of the Rochdale canal.

Alexandra King, director of Piccadilly Partnership, says:

This is a new landmark on the Northern Quarter landscape, here in the heart of the Piccadilly Basin. The LomoWall adds to the street art scene in this part of the city centre and will become a visitor attraction in its own right. We are very proud to host it and to have the world's first permanent LomoWall is a real honour. It's a welcome addition to the urban landscape.

Richard Lewis, property director for Town Centre Securities who own the wall, adds:

We're really pleased to be part of this project. The LomoWall creates a fascinating piece of public art which not only enhances the area but helps put Piccadilly Basin on the map. The industrial heritage theme is very fitting and acknowledges the historical importance of this part of the city centre. In recent years TCS has worked hard to transform and regenerate the area, reopening the canal and tow paths, restoring historic mills and building bespoke, design-led new buildings. The LomoWall, along with Atelier [Zero], is creating a destination where people will come to visit and want to work, live and play.

For those wishing to visit the Lomo Wall, up to three hours free parking is available at the Urban Exchange retail development off Great Ancoats Street.

For more information on Lomography visit www.lomography.com or visit the shop at 20 Oldham Street.

For more information on summer activities in Manchester City Centre visit www.cityco.com.

The 2012 Canal Festival will run between Saturday 18th and Sunday 26th August and will offer activities along the length of the Rochdale Canal between Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire and Manchester city centre. The annual canal celebration, supported by The Waterways Trust and Canal and River Trust, provides a range of free activities for families, young people and visitors including outdoor activities, arts workshops and parades, volunteering events, heritage and nature walks and talks, boat trips and horse boating demonstrations.


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Manchester's Cornerhouse goes on a digital spree

Abandon Normal Devices and take part in the festival of new cinema, digital culture and art. That's what Anne Louise Kershaw is getting ready to do

The Cornerhouse is something of an icon in Manchester. For many years it has offered a continuously innovative programme of independent film and exhibition, including workshops and a rather nice café at which to enjoy a decent glass of wine.

It has built a reliable artistic reputation and is both an architectural and cultural landmark on the Manchester map and psyche. It is no surprise therefore, that when they launched Abandon Normal Devices (AND) festival back in 2009, it was a great success.

Working in collaboration with FACT (the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), the regional AND festival began in Liverpool and has since alternated between Liverpool and Manchester. This summer the hub returns to Manchester with events and exhibitions spanning across more than twenty venues and locations with an extended regional programme across Cheshire, Cumbria and Lancashire.

Running from 29 August untill 2 September, nothing about these events is predictable or to be expected. They include exhibitions, film screenings, artists' talks and workshops as well as an outreach programme beyond Cornerhouse's doors

Exploring the theme of 'success', the AND festival wants visitors to experience, rather than simply observe, the complexities, gradations and anomalies encountered when we explore the notion as an ideal. With a very technological and scientific slant, AND is as much about the process, collaboration and evolution of work over time, as it is about the final product. At all stages audiences are encouraged to question their experience in a critical way.

Exhibitions such as 'Pigs Bladder Football' by John O'Shea give a small glimpse into the festival's epic and unusual scale. Through biological experimentation, rapid prototyping and an iterative design process, O'Shea will culture the world's first bio-engineered football, grown from living cells. This aims to encourage us to consider the colliding worlds of human enhancement, bio-technology and the capitalisation of sport, and what role each of these will play in our lives.

Of equal oddness but just as delightful is the 'Empire Drive-In' by Jeff Stark and Todd Chandler. A full-scale drive-in movie theatre made from wrecked cars, it is symbolic of the once thriving drive-in industry in the US. By day you be able to roam freely from car to car experiencing different sonic environments and art pieces. By night the scrapyard aesthetic will extend into a specially programed series of live soundtracks, a slide show of abandoned spaces and film screenings of films such as 'Mad Max II' and 'Robocop'.

From scientific and digital advancements to environmental and commercial failure, the experience of success is explored for both its fleeting and addictive qualities.The festival programme summarises:

Through unusual strategies, the artists and filmmakers working in this year's festival reveal alternative ways of being by offering rich counterpoints to perfection and undermining accepted logic.


The results are sharp and scientific as well as artistic and surreal. By combining these superficially polar opposites into one festival of digital culture and art, a new and forward looking way of thinking is encouraged; although exactly what this will entail, is anyone's guess.

The full programme is here.


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August 09 2012

Why Renzo Piano's Shard is out of tune with London's historical heart

Renzo Piano's innovative buildings in Genoa are deliberately invisible from the city's atmospheric medieval and baroque district. So why has London let him break his own rules?

The eminent curator Norman Rosenthal had his say on the Shard this week. To Rosenthal, it is the most beautiful building put up in London since St Paul's and its critics – he quotes me and Simon Jenkins – are hidebound stick-in-the-muds who just do not appreciate the genius of Renzo Piano.

I am sorry to disappoint Rosenthal but I've seen plenty of Renzo Piano's works around the world. I like and admire them. I know enough about him to wonder why he has abandoned his own delicate sense of scale and space in his assault on London. Why has he departed so violently from the civilised standards I associate with his architecture?

In Houston, Texas, the Menil Foundation is a lovely example of Piano's architectural talent. I went there in stifling summer heat. This low-slung art gallery is like an idealised, airy ranch house set among continually watered green lawns. White and calm outside, it creates a soothing, contemplative, space inside. It contrasts beautifully with the characterless forest of glass towers at the heart of Houston. It is an environmentally radical building that seeks to renew the neighbourhood around it.

In Genoa, Italy, another of my favourite buildings by Renzo Piano can be found in the riviera city's old harbour. It is the most beautiful aquarium in the world, a wonderful succession of spaces next to the sea. It's not much from the outside, but sharks and octopuses have never been given such a graceful home by their human captors. Aquariums are usually dark and claustrophobic. This one is light and spacious and creates a rich, thought-provoking encounter between humanity and nature.

It is part of a project by Piano – who is Genoese – to revive a derelict waterfront by restoring old buildings and adding his own, which also include a biosphere and an octopus-like branching viewing tower. In short, Renzo Piano has done wonders for his own city.

But wait. Where is the awe-inspiring skyscraper in the heart of Genoa? Where is the towering glass spike next door to the medieval houses of the Doria dynasty?

Piano's innovative buildings in Genoa are totally, intentionally, invisible from the city's densely built and atmospheric medieval and baroque heart. You have to walk through all the narrow streets of black-and-white palaces, right down to the harbour front, to find his works. Far from a modernist who has contempt for the past, Piano is revealed in Genoa – and Houston – as an architect who builds with sympathy for the fabric and atmosphere of cities.

The idea that Genoa would let him build something as out-of-scale and arrogant as the Shard in the heart of its historical district is absurd. Why would a city spit on itself in that way?

Why indeed. Piano on his home turf builds for people, not for power. London let him break his own rules, with consequences that are here to stay.


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Buskers campaign against new policy in Liverpool

Rules that clamp down on street performers are causing concern that Merseyside's street culture is being needlessly regulated under the the banner of 'business improvement.' Christian Eriksson challenges its basis

Up and down the country, corporate bodies called Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are increasingly administering urban centres, offering their paying members privileged access to unelected officials who are literally 'on call' to take their grievances directly to policy makers. In the case of Liverpool City Council's recent decision to regulate busking and street entertainment, we find a lesson in the pitfalls of charging unnaccountable bodies with directing democracy on the public's behalf.

Would-be performers in Liverpool city centre must now sign up to a mandatory licensing scheme and obtain a photo ID card before they can book a two hour slot to play in council-designated pitches. The scheme requires that entertainers be bound by a number of restrictive terms and conditions. These range from entertainers being forbidden to sit on the floor or occupy a pitch more than 1.5 metres in a diameter, to a clause granting council officials the right to stop a performance purely on the grounds of personal taste - turning enforcement officers into what one busker describes as "a poor man's Simon Cowell". Any person failing to comply with these terms and conditions will be issued with a letter threatening prosecution for trespass.

In essence, Liverpool's policy is an attempt to bring busking and street performance under the remit of the 2003 Licensing Act, despite clear statements published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2006 that busking is not a licensable activity under that legislation. The legally-questionable nature of Liverpool's policy does not end there, for it attempts to make it an offence for anybody under the age of 18 to busk, despite central government guidelines clearly stating that busking is permitted for anybody over the age of 14.

Accounts from buskers suggest that the policy was pushed through council meetings, with their recommendations flatly ignored. Jonny Walker, a Liverpool-born busker and singer-songwriter, was involved in the council's consultation process:

I was invited by officials to look at the proposed policy. I had major issues with it and was asked to prepare a report with suggestions for how to improve it. My report was ignored and no changes were made to the policy which was then rubber stamped at a council meeting.


Once he realized his views had not been taken into account in the finished policy, Walker started a petition which has garnered more than 3,000 signatures to date and launched a campaign to urge the council to rethink its policy. The campaign has gained the backing of the Musician's Union.

Diane Widdison, national organiser of the union, has said that Liverpool City Council did not consult them regarding the new policy:

The Musician's Union are happy to help the council put together a best practice guide for buskers. We would suggest a working party which includes street artists and performers so we can agree on a guide which is acceptable to both sides. We do not agree with making the process overly bureaucratic or too restrictive for no good reason.



Liverpool city council responds:

In essence, we are trying to balance the needs of all the people who use the city centre – shoppers, visitors, people who work there and buskers.

While there may be claims that there is a lot of opposition to the policy, it has also been welcomed by many people, especially on grounds of reducing noise and ending repetitive songs.

The council adds that the idea is also to be being fairer to all buskers and potential buskers by preventing the same ones hogging pitches for hours on end.

It is also important to note that the policy will be reviewed in three months and a panel including buskers, representatives from the musician unions and other interested parties will meet before the end of August to discuss the policy.

The council stresses that the regulations are not an attempt to stop busking, but to provide a balance between the different people using the city.

The elected member in charge of the policy, Coun Steve Munby, Liverpool's cabinet member for neighbourhoods, has claimed that the policy was crafted to deal with the many complaints the council receives
from businesses and shoppers about noise levels, repetitive performances and the number of buskers at certain times.

Munby says that buskers add "animation and colour to the centre" but on some Saturdays, there have been 12 performers in a short stretch of Church Street competing "in effect for limited cash." He added that having a regulated system for street entertainment is in the best interests of buskers, businesses, shoppers and other city centre users and brings Liverpool into line with other major cities.

Ged Gibbons, CEO of Liverpool's City Central BID and champion of the new policy, says:

This new busking policy is hugely welcome and will make a real difference to the vibrancy of the city centre


and has claimed to have received regular telephone complaints from the likes of M&S and Primark about troublesome buskers. In the same vein, minutes from the council Cabinet's agenda in which the policy's terms and conditions can be found, describe the policy as crafted to deal with long-standing "complaints from businesses, residents and others".

However, information acquired under Freedom of Information legislation shows that as of November 2011 the number of city shopkeepers who formally complained to the Council to regulate buskers/street performers was so low that the council themselves do not bother to record complaints:

[...] due to the immediate nature of the complaint the majority of complainants simply draw the matter to our street Nuisance Officers but do not formally complain. Subsequently the licensing department do not formally record the number of complaints they receive regarding buskers/street performers.

And why do affected retailers not formally complain? The answer, in short, is that they do not need to. That is what Liverpool's City Central BID is for.

Around 650 businesses currently make up the BID, and each pays a levy on top of their business rates to fund it. Besides extra cleaning, care and security, this levy effectively grants businesses an amplified voice in local democracy. Like BIDs in other British cities, Liverpool's is a quasi-governmental corporate body which works with local authorities, but is not wholly accountable to them. Karen Lappin, Store Manager for Liverpool's Blacks, explains what you get with membership into Liverpool's City Central BID:

Ged [Gibbons] will come round, one of the team will come round, and they'll sit down and ask how they can help you.


Critics of the new busking policy argue that with its access to policymakers, Liverpool's City Central BID has hastily embarked upon the needless regulation of Liverpool's street performance culture under the banner of 'business improvement'.


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August 08 2012

The middle ages invented fine art ... and Britain itself

The medieval world is caricatured as ignorant and filthy, but the strong central state that emerged sponsored art of huge ambition

What did the middle ages ever do for us? This week, my Guardian series The Story of British Art enters the age of castles, cathedrals and brightly painted manuscripts. The medieval world is the most misunderstood and underrated of all cultural epochs. It is caricatured as barbarous, ignorant and filthy. In reality, as I think my favourite works of medieval British art like today's Chapel of St John's show, we owe a huge amount to the middle ages. This is the age that truly invented fine art, the worship of beauty and the idea that art can change your soul. It also invented Britain.

I've become aware, looking at early British art, how it was made by many different cultures that came and went on these islands. This place was a cultural football kicked back and forth. No single national identity existed. The islands were full of noises in different languages, not to mention runic inscriptions left by Vikings that look like magic spells out of The Lord of the Rings. But suddenly in 1066 William the Conqueror founded a monarchy that with some twists and turns is still going. England's strong central state sponsored art of huge ambition. Great cathedrals started to rise, like Durham, which goes right back to early Norman times. The royal Norman origins of medieval high art in Britain are obvious in the Chapel of St John's, which dates from just a few years after 1066 and is part of William's White Tower.

Chapel? Cathedral? Aren't those architecture? But this is the fantastic, and very contemporary, thing about medieval art. Knights in armour did not fuss about where art ended and a building began. They created all-encompassing atmospheric environments, installations in stone and glass. In museums, medieval art can seem remote, because it was never made for museums. It was made to be part of life, to illuminate a theatre of worship, war, or love.

Art was incredibly serious in the middle ages. It had to reveal heaven and cleanse the soul. It had to tell stories that illiterate peasants could understand. A lot of Britain's medieval heritage was destroyed in the Reformation by two devastating onslaughts – Henry VIII's ransacking of monasteries and the iconoclastic rage of the Puritans. But choice selections to come in The Story of British Art show how many wonders survive. The middle ages made us who we are.


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Liverpool prepares to mark Slavery Remembrance Day

The city's 13th annual celebration will see major building renamed after Martin Luther King, with his son unveiling a plaque

Liverpool's links to the slave trade are well-known, and will be recalled on 23 August at the Slavery Remembrance Day organised by the Museum of Slavery. A number of events are being held in the city this month, including a visit from Mr Martin Luther King III, son of the murdered US civil rights leader.

Liverpool apologised in 1999 for its prominent role in the 'triangular trade' which saw ships sail to West Africa, ship slaves to the Caribbean and return laden with sugar. The radical Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was the son of a major slave plantation owner and much of the centre's noble architecture was built with profits from the trade.

The date, which Liverpool has marked every year since the apology, commemorates an uprising of enslaved Africans on the island of Saint Domingue, modern-day Haiti, in 1791. It was chosen by UNESCO which picked it as a reminder that enslaved Africans played a major part in their own liberation.

The museum says:

This year we welcome Martin Luther King III, eldest son of the great Civil Rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Our guest offers a powerful reminder that it is as important as ever to acknowledge a major period of trauma and injustice in world history.

You can see the full programme of events on the museum's website here. Highlights include a memorial lecture from King, a Walk of Remembrance and a libation ceremony. In a specifically local tribute to the King family, the Dock Traffic Office, a National Museums Liverpool building, will be named after Martin Luther King Jr with a plaque unveiled by his son.

The museum also quotes an excerpt from Slavepool, a poem by Mohammed Khalil, recounting the city's role in the slave trade:

Branded like beasts who feel no pain
And all for Merrye Englande's gain

But England's Changing-Rearranging
Only we can clear our Name

Growing! Knowing! Trade Winds are blowing!
Things'll nevva be the same.

Liverpool Slavery Remembrance Initiative is a partnership between National Museums Liverpool, individuals from the Liverpool black community, Liverpool city council and The Mersey Partnership.

The museum says that the Day seeks to:

commemorate the lives and deaths of the millions of enslaved Africans and their descendants who were central to the rise of Britain as an industrial power.

remember that we live with the legacies of transatlantic slavery such as racism and discrimination and ongoing inequalities, injustices and exploitation

celebrate the resistance, rebellion and revolution that ended slavery, as well as the rise of popular movements for racial justice and social change that said both then and now "never again".


It adds:

Resistance to injustices and discrimination is a central theme of the International Slavery Museum and that is why we fully support the continued observance of this important event.

Liverpool's most famous sugar name, Tate & Lyle, dates from well after the abolition of slavery. Henry Tate - commemorated in the four galleries including Tate Liverpool which used his money and bear his name - and Abraham Lyle did not start their refining businesses until 1859 and 1865 and neither's family had previous involvement in the trade.


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August 07 2012

Robert Hughes: the great art critic of our time

Rude, hilarious, eloquent, but never petty ... the Australian writer, who has died aged 74, made criticism look like literature

Robert Hughes, who has died aged 74, was simply the greatest art critic of our time and it will be a long while before we see his like again. He made criticism look like literature. He also made it look morally worthwhile. He lent a nobility to what can often seem a petty way to spend your life. Hughes could be savage, but he was never petty. There was purpose to his lightning bolts of condemnation.

That larger sense of purpose can best be seen in his two classic books on art, The Shock of the New and Nothing If Not Critical. The first is the book of his great BBC television series about the story of modern art. For Hughes, it is a tragic story. He believed he lived after the end of the great creative age of modernism. I remember, watching the television series as a teenager, how excitingly he described the Paris in the 1900s, when motor cars and the Eiffel Tower were young and Picasso was painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. But Hughes would not tolerate any glib pretensions that art in 1980 (when The Shock of the New aired) lived up to that original starburst of modern energy. For him, Andy Warhol was an emotionally thin artist bleached by celebrity, and Joseph Beuys ... Well, he didn't have much time for Beuys.

It was as if the BBC had commissioned the 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift to make a documentary about modern life.

Hughes makes his anger with the depths that art has sunk to even clearer in the essays gathered in Nothing If Not Critical. For the best part of his career as a critic, he lived in New York. It was the decline he perceived there, from Robert Rauschenberg to Robert Mapplethorpe, that so disgusted him with the fall of modern art. This was a political and ethical judgment, as well as artistic. Art had become the plaything of the market, he believed. It was getting too expensive as it turned into the sport of 1980s investors. Artists like Jeff Koons and – he later added – Damien Hirst were barely real artists at all, but grotesque market manipulators.

If he was right, God help us all, for the conquest of art by money and the proliferation of celebrity artists that he condemned continues to multiply. The art world of today might be mistaken for an apocalyptic vision dredged from his darkest satirical imaginings.

The joy of reading Hughes is infectious and often hilarious. His sheer rudeness can be liberating. His piece on the death of the graffiti painter Jean-Michel Basquiat is brutally titled "Requiem for a Featherweight". Other essays in Nothing Is Not Critical call a named art dealer a "sleazeball" and take on the artist Julian Schnabel in a rhetorical standoff involving bullwhips, motorbikes, and, of course, Hughes's utterly damming judgment of Schnabel's work.

Hughes would doubtless see it as one more instance of the art world's absurdity that, while Schnabel was fawned on by curators when the fiery critic was mocking his vacuity, nowadays art fashion sees Schnabel as a silly old expressionist dauber. Schnabel has, however, built a second career in films.

In his final book Rome, this critic whose prose is so majestic and rolling writes about some of his literary heroes. They include the ancient Roman poets Virgil and Juvenal. These Latin authors were the models for the so-called "Augustan" writers of 18th-century Britain in whose style Hughes himself wrote. His power of scorn consciously evokes such works as Swift's Modest Proposal – he even once penned a poem about the art world modelled on Alexander Pope's Dunciad. How many writers of the late 20th century compare with Pope and Swift? Even if you do not agree with a word Hughes wrote or said, the eloquence of his voice makes him a modern classic. At his best, he was a finer writer and sharper polemicist than his friend Christopher Hitchens, a mightier wordsmith than most of today's leading novelists.

Hughes believed in modern art, whose story he told more eloquently than anyone else ever has. He was not some stick-in-the-mud. But he compared art in the 1900s with the art of today and observed that even our best do not deserve comparison with the pioneers of modernism. This is a truth that is hard to refute. The words of Robert Hughes have cost me a lot of sleep.


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Remembering Robert Hughes: What did he do for art?

The Australian critic Robert Hughes, who has died aged 74, shook up the art world with his uncompromising views. Share your thoughts about him here

Typing "Robert Hughes" into Twitter today returns a stream of condolence messages, quotes and praise for his books The Fatal Shore, Things I Didn't Know and The Shock of the New.

One tweet reads:

RIP Robert Hughes, scourge of phony Art & absurd demagoguery, & up there with Vidal & Hitchens as one of the great talkers of our times.

Another, sent by Simon Sellar, editor of Architectural Review Asia Pacific, says:

'One gets tired of the role critics are supposed to have in this culture. It's like being the piano player in a whorehouse.' Robert Hughes

While author Bret Easton Ellis tweeted this very intriguing line which begs to be expanded upon:

The only time I came in contact with Robert Hughes was in 1991 when he threatened to leave Random House if they published "American Psycho."

And in Hughes's obituary, Michael McNay wrote of his TV series The Shock of the New that it was "the best series of programmes about modern art yet made for television, low on theory, high on the kind of epigrammatic judgment that condenses deep truths."

What do you think Robert Hughes did for art criticism? Leave your tributes and comments in the thread below.


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August 06 2012

Which Olympic artwork takes gold?

Myron, Thomas Eakins and Jean Metzinger all created memorable images of athletes – but which best represents the heroism of sport?

The Olympics are wonderful and got me thinking – what are the best representations of Olympic sports in art? The Discus Thrower by Myron takes some beating. In this ancient Greek sculpture, copied many times and remembered down the millennia, the perfect athlete prepares for the perfect discus throw. This Greek youth could easily perform in the arena at Stratford and no one would bat an eyelid – so recognisable is his peak-fitness form as he swings that discus back. The Discus Thrower may seem the unbeatable gold medallist among Olympic artworks, but it has some younger rivals challenging for the top spot.

The American artist Thomas Eakins was a powerful realist whose paintings concentrate relentlessly on moments of psychological and physical challenge. His 1871 picture The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) is a coldly glistening view of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Water and sky mirror one another eerily. The river is an unfriendly silvery pane of glass. Alone in his low thin boat, a pale athlete looks back at the artist. Max Schmitt was a champion rower and friend of Eakins. This strange portrait of him captures not the glory but the loneliness and tension of the sportsman. This rower seems weighed down by the challenge of his sport. It is a great image of the mental as well as physical endurance we see in the Olympic Games.

Another American painter, John Frederick Peto, also conveys the anxieties of competition in his painting The Cup We All Race 4. This eye-fooling image, painted around 1900, depicts a battered tin cup hung on a wall: it mocks the value of what runners and rowers and everyone else strives for.

Jean Metzinger's 1912 painting Au Velodrome is a cubist homage to the modern world. For Metzinger, cycle racing is a quintessentially 20th-century theme. The fusion of man and machine, with human energy driving it all, captivates him just as it inspires today's cycling fans. In fact, this is a very contemporary image – Metzinger's analysis of a cyclist's prowess is very much in the spirit of the star cyclists of 2012. This is a pure celebration of athletic energy and the thrill of sport – a modernist version of the Discus Thrower.

It's a strong field, but who gets gold, silver and bronze? Peto disqualifies himself from the medals by mocking competition. I would give bronze to Metzinger for his exciting but slightly soulless portrayal of a cyclist at the Velodrome. Myron's Discus Thrower, one of the great Olympic art champions, takes silver this time. For me, the gold medal has to go to Thomas Eakins for capturing the loneliness of the single sculler. He lays bare the soul of the sporting hero, and conveys the psychological intensity that makes a victory like Mo Farah's in the 10,000 metres on Saturday so compelling and profound.


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The Northern Landscapes challenge has a winner

The public vote has concluded with this stunning photograph of Great Gable being selected as the overall winner. More about the image as well as all of the entries mapped here

Taking a massive 72% of the vote, Snow falls on Great Gable was a clear winner for our readers. It was created by n0tice user MisterBus whose real name is Alan Cleaver, a freelance journalist from Whitehaven, Cumbria.

He describes himself as having a particular interest in "folklore and all things odd" something he blogs about at http://www.strangebritain.co.uk.


The Northern Landscapes mapped

If you want to explore the images that have been submitted across the north of England, we've plotted them onto this map - simply click onto the location to see the image and the information on the photographer.

We've also made it possible to explore some of these images in augmented reality via smart phones so, if you are out and and about and use your smart phone to explore AR images, you can discover the images at the location nearest to you.

This was made possible using a just launched technology from Talk About Local. To explore this feature you'll need to install the Layar app and choose the hyARlocal Apollo layer.

* If this photography challenge has whetted your appetite, there's another opportunity for northern photographers posted onto n0tice which is open until September 1. Using the water based theme of "Reflections" across Liverpool's Albert Dock, users are invited take a picture and email it to photos@albertdock.com. More details here.


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August 03 2012

How to capture the perfect moment at London 2012

To help sports fans capture their experience of the Olympic Games as accurately as possible, Panasonic's Simon Parkinson provides a selection of his top tips for taking photos and video at a variety of different sporting events

With a total of 26 sports taking place at 34 separate locations, the range of opportunities for taking photos and video at the London 2012 Olympic Games will be vast.

Capturing fast-moving events (e.g. 100 metre race, high jump)
For shooting fast-moving events, use your camera's 'Sports Mode' if it has one. The camera will automatically select the fastest shutter speed available for the light conditions.

If your camera has a manual control feature you may also want to set the camera to use a fast shutter speed.

A good tip when shooting fast-moving subjects is to move (pan) the camera at the same speed as the moving subject. This will keep the subject sharp but blur the background to create a greater sense of speed.

Long-distance shots (e.g. sailing)
When shooting subjects a long way off, use the zoom function on the camera to get closer to the action. Resting the camera on a suitable flat surface will help to keep the camera still, but if you don't have this to hand make sure you switch on your camera's image stabiliser feature.

If shooting one of the water events, move the camera lower to the water level. This will reduce reflections from the water spoiling your shot. Also switch on the guide lines on the camera display. This will help you keep the horizon level.

Capturing expressions (e.g. boxing, weightlifting)
For capturing expressions, whether those of the audience or the competitors, select the mode on the camera that includes 'Face Detection'. Also select a multi-shot burst mode, if available. This will help you to capture the exact moment you want for the most dramatic effect.

Night-time events / artificial lighting (e.g. football)
When shooting sports at night with artificial lighting, make sure you have the flash turned off. The camera will then expose correctly for the brightly-lit action and will not be confused by the flash firing.

If shooting in very low light or dark conditions, use your camera's 'Night Scenery' mode if it has one. The shutter speed will be slowed down to prolong the exposure time, so make sure you rest the camera on a solid, flat surface to ensure no camera shake. If your subject is moving around in low light check if your camera has a 'Hand Held Night Shot' mode and try this as this could help reduce blurriness around the movement."

Wide-angle shots (e.g. volleyball, fencing)
When shooting wide-angle shots, try holding the camera up high above your head or low down at waist level. This gives a very dramatic effect as it captures the scene from an angle not normally seen. Using a slower shutter speed can also add an interesting blurred look to fast-moving action, emphasising the speed by making it look faster than the camera can capture it.

Be prepared for different weather conditions
Always protect your camera equipment from the often inclement British weather. Should you get caught in an unexpected shower, make sure to try and not get any water on the lens or the camera itself.

In bright, sunny conditions, shield the lens from direct sunlight/glare when shooting. A pair of sunglasses can be used as a makeshift filter for cutting out glare, by holding one of the lenses directly in front of the camera lens. Many cameras now also allow special filters to be attached and these can be purchased for a relatively low cost.

Capturing 'atmosphere' shots (e.g. the crowds and stadiums at the Olympic Park)
For capturing the atmosphere of an event, take lots of 'establishing' shots of the crowd and the surroundings. Use unusual angles for shooting these shots instead of always keeping the camera dead level. 'Face Detection mode will ensure that the expressions on peoples face are captured correctly.

Finally, practice and review your pictures before it comes to the vital moment. You may only get one chance to capture the winning run, jump or throw, so practice your shots on other events beforehand. Don't forget to take an extra fully-charged battery and plenty of memory card capacity.

Simon Parkinson is Head of Product Support for North West Europe at Panasonic


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NASA technology helps get video art off the ground

Kelly Richardson's latest work, which opens at Spanish City on the North Sea coast at Whitley Bay today, uses data sent by satellite to create a dramatic reconstruction of the surface of Mars

Kelly Richardson's latest work Mariner 9, which opens at Spanish City on the Whitley Bay coast today, uses data sent by satellite to create a dramatic reconstruction of the surface of Mars.

Kelly, who is originally from Ontario, now lives in Whitley Bay, so it is a particularly appropriate place to host the world premiere of Mariner 9. The work, on a 12 metre long screen, shows the desert-like surface of the planet as the artist imagines it might look in a few hundred years, after a battle has taken place, with the detritus of abandoned space ships scattered over the surface of Mars. The artist has taken NASA's own imagery and technical data to help recreate the arid Martian landscape, complete with dust-storm. By coincidence, NASA's Mars Curiousity is due to land on the planet on Monday. The artist says of Mariner 9:

It focuses on the contradiction of our beautiful endeavour to find life beyond Earth, to know that we're not alone in the universe, while simultaneously pointing to our incredibly destructive nature as a species which continues to destroy life we know to exist at an extraordinary rate.

Spanish City, designed by the Newcastle architects Cackett & Burns Dick, was once the centre of a pleasure resort that rivalled Blackpool in its heyday. It has been closed since 2000, so this is a rare chance to see inside before redevelopment takes place. The imposing white Edwardian building, which boasted the second largest dome in the country, after St Paul's cathedral, now belongs to North Tyneside council, and has just been given planning permission for redevelopment. It is hoped the complex will re-open in 2014. In his Buildings of Northumberland, echoing Coleridge's "stately pleasure dome", Pevsner describes it as a "high and stately dome (possibly one of the earliest in Britain to be built of ferro-concrete)"

As well as the screening in Spanish City, Legion, a large retrospective of her works is on at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art (NGCA) in Sunderland, and a smaller display at the National Glass Centre, just across the river Wear. The NGCA is filled with several of her video works, including Exiles of the Shattered Star, where an idyllic scene in the Lake District is disturbed by a series of fireballs falling slowly towards a lake. Ferman Drive is a one minute long shot of a suburban Canadian street viewed from a car. Everything is normal about the dozens of houses with their well-tended gardens, other than for the couple of seconds when the camera goes past the house the artist grew up in, which she has painstakingly recreated as if it was spinning round and round. Glow shows a rear view of a television set, so that whatever is on the screen can only be imagined by the colours it throws onto a blank white wall – as the wall panel puts it, "intentionally simple, beguiling, and infuriating." Another world premiere is The Great Destroyer, an eight screen video installation showing a rain forest. The sound track is of the animals of the forest, including, disconcertingly, a lyrebird imitating the sound of a chainsaw.

Coinciding with the screening of Mariner 9, the Tyneside Cinema (which, with North Tyneside council, co-commissioned the work) is organising a series of events around the screening – details can be found here. The final days of the screening also coincide with the opening weekend of the Whitley Bay Film Festival.

Over the next couple of year, Mariner 9 and Legion will tour to the Towner, Eastbourne, the Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool, the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York and the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver.

Mariner 9 is on at Spanish City, Whitley Bay, until 19 August
Legion is on at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art until September 29
Orion Tide is on at the National Glass Centre until September 9


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August 02 2012

Stonehenge: where did it all go wrong?

The Romantics looked on Stonehenge with a sense of awe – but in contemporary culture, the standing stones have become a bit of a joke

Jeremy Deller's bouncy-castle Stonehenge, entitled Sacrilege, which is in London this week on its national Olympic tour, is the latest in a long line of artistic images of Britain's most famous ancient monument. That's not surprising in itself. What is interesting is how changing portrayals of Stonehenge have revealed contrasting moments in cultural history.

Another way of putting this might be: where did it all go wrong for Stonehenge?

In the Romantic age John Constable pictured Stonehenge as a mighty enigma on the wilderness of Salisbury Plain. The stones loom in craggy loneliness under a sky pierced by shafts of sublime light. It is intensely dramatic and serious – as far from a bouncy castle as you can get.

Constable's fascination with these ancient stones is shared by his contemporary William Blake. For Blake, the silent prehistoric monument is a work of the giant Albion who in an image from his illustrated poem Jerusalem stands over it with dividers and a giant hammer. It is part of Blake's vision of an enchanted and chosen British landscape, recently expressed in the modern hymn using his words that kicked off the Olympic opening ceremony.

The Romantic cult of Stonehenge was shared, or shaped, by the first proper archaeologist of Neolithic Britain, the 18th-century "antiquarian" William Stukeley. He depicted Stonehenge in the engravings that illustrate his books as a temple of the Druids. He created the myth still maintained by some that the Druids built this "temple".

For these Romantics, the dark stones on the plain were a mystery at the heart of the British landscape. Today's images show that we are much less in love with our "green and pleasant land". Stonehenge is, in contemporary culture, a bit of a joke.

I blame Spinal Tap. In Rob Reiner's satire on pompous rock bands, This Is Spinal Tap, the Tap make a mistake in briefing the designer of a Stonehenge replica for their show, and instead of the full-size stone circle that was supposed to awe their fans, they play beside a tiny model. The words to their heavy-metal anthem Stonehenge hilariously mock the dying embers of Romanticism:

"Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell
Where the banshees live and they do live well
Stonehenge! Where a man's a man
And the children dance to the Pipes of Pan"

Recent artistic images of Stonehenge have shared this less than reverent humour. In 1998 Aleksandra Mir proposed a public artwork to the commissioning body Artangel. She wanted to make a full-sized replica of Stonehenge near to the original, that people could visit and enjoy, climbing among the stones as they wished – unlike the real Stonehenge, where English Heritage forbids access to the stones themselves for conservation reasons. You just have to walk around them. Her idea was rejected, but she presented a scale model in an ICA exhibition.

Deller too offers the access to Stonehenge that English Heritage denies – with added bounce. It's not exactly reverent or awed. What would William Blake say?

And did those feet in ancient time bounce upon England's pastures green?


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Artist of the week 201: Jacob Hashimoto

Rice paper kites in geometric shapes populate Hashimoto's art, lending it an otherworldy dimension, a modern sense of fairytale

Jacob Hashimoto's rooms, filled with tiny rice paper and bamboo kites, are like walk-in paintings. Handmade hexagons and ovals cascade from ceilings in carefully orchestrated layers, with pockets of colour opening up as you move beneath them. The discs are either left gauzy white, rendered in bright cartoon shades, or covered in patterns. Together they suggest cloudscapes, oceans or sweeping mountains: a vision of lovely nature at odds with their manmade geometric forms. And, as with a raindrop in a storm or a pixel in a computer game, the single unit works in harmony with the whole.

The kites give Hashimoto's work an immediately Japanese look. Yet it would be wrong to assume this American artist of Japanese-Irish descent was especially interested in eastern references. His inspirations span the globe and various references are called to mind: from Agnes Martin's abstractions inspired by the pale, gleaming landscape of New Mexico, to the rudimentary pixelated graphics of old-school Nintendo games. Taking a break from kites, his 2008 Tree sculptures, where trees bolted together from lengths of wood were filled with pearly plastic balloon-sized balls, took their cues from both kids' climbing toys you get in playgrounds and sacred Shinto trees covered in paper prayers.

The centrepiece of his London debut pairs clouds of pale rice paper with sunbursts of yellow, flashes of turquoise and sections of motley patterned discs that look like crazy 1960s wallpaper. While the patterns Hashimoto uses have sometimes suggested classic Kimono designs or Japanese family crests, his targets and stripes might equally be drawn from Jaspar Johns's target painting or Frank Stellar's hard-edged abstractions.

Born in 1973, Hashimoto has said that experiencing the evolution from analogue to digital, from the physical world of vinyl records and typewriters to CDs and then invisible data streams, has had a major impact. It's a transition made tangible in his modular constructions, which are a bit like CGI projections, handmade and brought to 3D life.

Why we like him: For On the Nature of Heroes, one of his dizzying wall pieces, where kites are densely strung on narrow looms. Here, curling blue waves vie with black calligraphic swirls and bright plaid.

Come fly with me: Hashimoto started making kites to get through a summer of artist's block, flying his creations during walks through his local park in Chicago.

Where can I see him? At Ronchini Gallery in London, to 28 August.


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