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August 17 2012

At the age of 37, you needn't start dressing like J*r*my Cl*rks*n | Charlie Porter

Men may lose interest in fashion in their late 30s, but a sense of personal style is another matter

Pity poor men. It has long been a curiosity why, after a certain age, men appear to lose interest in fashion. It is a conversation which turns menswear into a forum for mockery: those that have gone to seed are scorned for the inadequacies of their appearance, while those that still make an effort are goaded for vanity or self-importance. A recent survey has made this mockery specific: it has found that the age at which men lose an interest in fashion is 37. I am 38. Poor me.

Fashion is about identity. For many men, identity is something that matters most in their years of prolonged adolescence, from their teenage years into their 20s, even early 30s. It's especially true for men whose adolescence occurred pre-internet, before social media overtook fashion as a means to express character. In the late 20th century, clothing played a primal role in youthful identity, especially with the obstinacy of punk, the baggy of acid house or even the sharpness of mod that is still so important to 32-year-old Bradley Wiggins.

In their late 30s, the need for identity in men seems to wane, overridden by the individual male's growing responsibilities or life-changes: parenthood, employment or unemployment, changes in body-shape and health. The identity of adolescence goes. Fashion goes with it.

When fashion goes, what seems to remain for men are those unprintable words: "J*r*my" and "Cl*rks*n". Of course what no one realises in this is that Cl*rks*n uses his non-identity as an identity in itself. He makes great profit from dressing badly. It is his uniform for hammy belligerence. Cl*rks*n symbolises the male menopause as a return to adolescence. Sadly, it is an adolescence stripped of its need for style and difference. The Cl*rks*n look allows men to shift from identity to non-identity as they head towards the grave.

But this is not always the case. Most of my contemporaries not working in fashion still seem alert about their appearance. As the identity of adolescence has waned for me, what has become important is how I appear to myself. I do not mean by this self-image. As I'm typing this, I can see in my lower field of vision the white shirt I'm wearing with its blue and orange polka dots. I love it being part of my visual experience. I don't care if I look daft. As long as I like it, I'm happy.

There are obvious male celebrities over the age of 37 who could be listed now as examples of middle-aged male style, but these are red herrings, usually actors involved in profiting from image to further their career. Celebrity fashion is something separate from real-life fashion, and citing male celebrities as examples of how to dress is a futile, empty exercise.

Much more interesting to cite examples of men who retain personal style for whatever reason of their own:

Chris Dercon, the new director of Tate Modern, is an extraordinarily dapper man, now in his 50s. He has a particular way with wearing jackets and coats with an upturned collar.

Seventy-five-year-old David Hockney has long dressed his body in the colour that is placed on his canvases, or more recently selected on his iPad.

The 40-year-old Savile Row tailor Patrick Grant came to his profession from his love of clothing and his continuing interest in how garments are made. And it is clear from the severity of 53-year-old Steven Patrick Morrissey's obsessions that he would have dressed in his chosen manner even if he'd not become globally known by his surname.

Examples of such personal style go deep into the past. The recent male fondness for Breton striped sweaters always makes me think of Pablo Picasso. The multidiscipline of Jean Cocteau extended to the drama of his clothing. And examples of male style beyond the age of 37 will only increase in the future. Today's post-internet male adolescents take looking good for granted, their appearance ever Instagram-ready. Cl*rks*n already feels antiquated. When post-internet adolescents reach maturity, he will have been an aberration.


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August 08 2012

Curiosity rover: why does sci-fi always look more marvellous than reality? | Jonathan Jones

These ordinary looking views of Mars sent by Nasa's rover are beautiful and moving precisely because they are so ordinary

The landscape of Mars glows in a dust-rich sunset. The sky is yellow. The rocks are red. It is a place of – literally – unearthly beauty. But have we already ruined it? In the week that Nasa landed its latest robot explorer Curiosity on the surface of Mars, this picture reveals the wreckage of earlier landers cluttering up the Martian desert, reducing its pristine strangeness to a dumping ground of human space dreams. How typical of the earthlings to make a wasteland of Mars.

No, wait, I misread the caption. This is not a picture taken by Curiosity in its first week on Mars. It is a digitally created image by artist Kelly Richardson. It imagines what Mars might look like in 200 years if we keep sending probes there. It is, in other words, science fiction.

Why does science fiction always look more marvellous than the real landscapes of alien worlds? The pictures that have so far come from Curiosity are nothing like as grabbing as this fantastic image. The first photograph it sent showed a skewed vista of dust and heat with just the misty outline of a horizon. Nasa had to patch it into previous images of the planet to make sense of it. It's all very well scientists saying these first pictures from Curiosity are the most beautiful things they have ever seen – the red planet is far more spectacular in art and other fantastic images.

Richardson is in a very long line of artists who have pictured Mars. Long, long ago, Mars was a god. Botticelli's painting Venus and Mars depicts the god of war lulled to sleep and invokes the magical influence of his planet.

This might seem like ancient baloney but it is no more far fetched than the Mars of sci-fi. A lurid painting of Martians disporting themselves under the planet's glorious sky in a landscape of pyramids, towers and blue canals epitomises the image of Mars that was dreamed up in 20th science fiction before Viking, the first unmanned Nasa lander, started to reveal Martian realities in 1976. Mars was for a long time the favourite planet for imagined alien life. It seemed utterly alien and the "canals" visible on its surface from Earth were held to be the work of some grand civilisation. Even today, science fiction images of Mars outdo mere reality. A 2008 Doctor Who special pictured Mars as the home of a base where the first human explorers are attacked by watery beings from below. A base – there's always a base. Bases are so much more glamorous than unmanned computerised buggies with cameras on front.

Enough. The scientists are right of course. The comparative dullness of Curiosity's first pictures from Mars is the point (and their vagueness will be forgotten when it starts sending back high-definition images). These ordinary looking views of Mars are beautiful and moving precisely because they are so ordinary.

The ordinariness of Mars is its magic. It looks like a red desert on Earth because it is the mirror of Earth – as are all planets everywhere. Everything in the universe is made of the same elements, according to the same physical laws. The discovery that nothing in space is truly "alien" and every object out there (or rather out here – we're just another thing in space) started when Galileo aimed his telescope at the moon. From one point of view the history of astronomy and space exploration is the story of how the universe became banal. But this banality is more glorious than any imaginary spectacle of an alien world where little green men drive motorboats up and down their glittering canals.


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Bluewater thrives by not alarming shoppers with anything new or strange | Owen Hatherley

The expanding mall is a kind of undemocratic city, with levels of planning and security that almost guarantee 'no riots here'

Bluewater, the enormous north Kent shopping mall, is planning an extension. About 1,500 "private sector jobs" will arrive in a deindustrialising area, as if to answer the coalition's increasingly desperate prayers, but the continued success and expansion of a shopping centre during a double-dip recession might seem unexpected. Its co-owner, Lend Lease, has recently been better known for closing down high-profile projects – as in the chaos of its redevelopment of Elephant and Castle, or the demise of the Tithebarn "mall without walls" in Preston. Somehow, Bluewater endures and grows. How can an out-of-town mall manage to become more successful during an apparent decline in retail spending? Why are people going there to nose around chain stores, when we're all apparently buying on Amazon or going to farmers' markets and niche high street shops? What exactly is Bluewater's secret?

The first thing you need to know about Bluewater is that it's not merely a shopping mall, but something much more ambitious. I know the place very well, having regular appointments at the nearby, contiguous PFI-built Darent Valley hospital. As the crow flies, the two are about a quarter of a mile apart, but you couldn't walk it – buses have to loop for some time around the massively over-engineered motorways that feed the mall. But when you finally do arrive, the entrance is exceptionally well defined. Neoclassical gateways and signs make the distinction from straggling north Kent subtopia apparent. Even the flyovers here have their concrete decorated to make it clear you're somewhere different. There is a reason for this – a reason for everything in Bluewater.

According to its architect Eric Kuhne, head designer at the multinational firm CivicArts, Bluewater is "a city rather than a retail destination". Its design and planning are intended, he said in a 2008 interview, to "dignify the heroic routine of everyday life that drives you to produce a better world for yourself and your kids".

What this means in practice is that Bluewater is not solely a retail hangar, in the vein that runs from the Arndale Centres to Westfields. It's the same typology, a heavily patrolled and surveilled series of shops and restaurants in a big enclosed box, but it takes some of those spaces' innovations much further. Not just private security, but an entire code of conduct for entry, not to mention a dress code. No hoods, no baseball caps, no swearing, even.

If Bluewater is a city, then it's obviously not a democratic one. Kuhne wouldn't have it any other way – in the same interview, he pointed out that "democracy has a pretty poor track record of building great cities. The great cities of the world that we travel to see were built by benevolent despots".

Like any other city, Bluewater has its periphery. Ebbsfleet, the exurban new "town" that boasts its own line to Paris, is effectively its suburb. Its cul-de-sacs and wood-clad flats abut wide motorways and retail parks, discouraging any civic or public life in anything but the mall itself. The Thames Gateway, the unofficial eastward expansion of London, has no centre, no real public space – for that it has Bluewater, and its older, gawkier north-of-the-river cousin Lakeside. Also, like a city, it has its slums. Nearby towns such as Chatham or Northfleet are as stricken as Barrow-in-Furness or Merthyr Tydfil. Their former centres are practically decimated by Bluewater.

Yet to discover Bluewater's secret you have to go inside. Its architecture is so didactic it sometimes evokes Stalin's pet projects, like the Moscow Metro or the Exhibition of Economic Achievements. Sculptures and slogans urging jollity, exhorting commerce, singing the beauty of nature and stressing historical continuity are in every corner. Many depict the trades that people once practised in north Kent, appropriately for this mall scraped out of a chalk quarry. Cutlers, Tanners, Fletchers, Bowyers, Chandlers, Glaziers and others are all immortalised by little statues in niches on the mall's upper levels.

From a distance, the big box's glass extrusions resemble Kentish oasthouses. Bluewater tears the heart out of older towns, and replaces – partially and inadequately – older jobs, but it immortalises them as it does so. It is, in Kodwo Eshun's phrase, a "future shock absorber", a new and destructive landscape that strains every sinew to reassure, to make the shopper feel secure and at ease, to eliminate anything alarming or obviously new and strange. It boasts levels of planning and security that practically guarantee "no riots here".

Bluewater's architects are right – its success is not merely about shopping, but about the production of a particular kind of place. The successful city, as represented by Bluewater, is clean, corporate, homogeneous, authoritarian, and, should anything unexpected occur, easily sealed off. The worse things get, the more it will thrive.


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August 07 2012

The Shard is a St Paul's Cathedral for our time | Norman Rosenthal

Who cares who built it or why? The Shard is simply London's most magnificent building since Wren's masterpiece

The reactions to London's latest mega-structure have not been moderate. "The Shard has slashed the face of London forever," wrote Simon Jenkins in the Guardian a month ago, invoking the destruction of Timbuktu, Dresden, Moscow and Peking, not to mention the bulldozing of the great Buddhas of Afghanistan. Jonathan Jones, the Guardian's art critic, has described the Shard as "self-evidently a monument to wealth and power run way out of control. It screams with dazzling arrogance that money rules this city and says money inhabits a realm way above our heads."

But when have great buildings and structures – since the pyramids of Egypt and before – been anything other than monuments to wealth and power? The fact is that, in recent decades, in this country and all over the world, power has resulted in many vulgar and nasty blots on the landscape. London, of course, was terribly damaged during the second world war. Bomb sites scarred the city and, for the most part, what has come to replace them has been pretty abominable architecturally, with only a few honourable and sporadic exceptions. Any sensitive person crossing the Thames on Norman Foster's pedestrian bridge, looking left and right towards Christopher Wren's Baroque masterpiece, can only want to put on blinkers. Nasty skyscrapers have been built all over the West End and the City of London, from Centrepoint to the former NatWest Tower, not to mention London's Barbican. Here, many wonderful cultural events take place, but it can only be described as a city planning monstrosity. Think too of the expensively hideous Portcullis House, built to house the offices of our MPs next to the beautiful fantasy of Westminster Palace.

Finally, along comes something that is genuinely magnificent to look at – namely the Shard, as it has affectionately come to be known. I don't care about its function or who built it, or even who financed it. It is a masterpiece of visual design by one of the great living architects, Renzo Piano.

Elegant and as inspiring to look at as a great cathedral, I keep discovering it from all sides – near and far. Its apparently broken apex makes for one astonishingly poetic image. As a pure glass edifice it resembles the most amazing cut diamond, both by day in the sunshine and at night lit up as a beacon over the city, as thrilling as the Eiffel Tower in Paris – which was also hated by establishment figures when it first went up. Now we cannot imagine Paris without it. I cannot now imagine London without the Shard and would go so far as to say that it is arguably the greatest and most beautifully skyreaching building to be erected in London since St Paul's Cathedral.

Critics who profess to be concerned with London and the way it looks would spend their energy better if they were to turn their attention to those ghastly sculptures mushrooming up all over the city's squares and parks. The idea of walking around Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens now fills me with horror as my eyes are continually assaulted by absurd and corrupt objects such as the horse's head at Marble Arch, not to mention the stupid jelly babies nearby, or the monument to the poor animals killed in the two world wars.

The beautiful Royal Artillery Memorial of Sargeant Jagger has been horribly upstaged by a succession of hideous monuments commemorating fallen heroes of the Commonwealth, most recently a ghastly parody of the beautiful screen of Decimus Burton next to Apsley House. One can argue about the rights and wrongs of erecting a monument to Bomber Harris, who in the understandable hysteria of the second world war caused, among other things, the destruction of the beautiful city of Dresden. What one can also argue, if one has any aesthetic sensibility, is that the retrograde and cheap monument, which is impossible to overlook as one passes through Hyde Park Corner, is the most ghastly eyesore and should have been prevented.

In the meantime, one can only be grateful that at least the Shard is here to give continual visual pleasure from all aspects and distances across town. Don't you love the story of the fox that climbed to its top? How happy it must have been!


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Obama pictured with baseball bat: a big hit with voters? | Martin Argles

US politicians are routinely snapped with sporting trophies but it pays to be cautious about the objects you're associated with

What's Obama doing fooling around with a baseball bat signed by Hank Aaron anyway? Hank Aaron, who surpassed Babe Ruth's total of 714 home runs, didn't even play for the White Sox – Obama's favourite team. That bat should be in a museum, not annoying the Turkish opposition.

It's something of a mystery as to why the White House press office thought it a good idea to have Obama photographed by one of their many resident photographers with a sporting trophy. What's the symbolism here? "Listen Recep, Putin may do that weird judo thing, but I can come at you with a 42-inch pole of solid American hickory. So just let the CIA in".

All US presidents are routinely photographed playing golf or jogging, but Obama the ex-smoker-lawyer-from-Chicago is a man for the people's game. Meanwhile, Michelle does her gardening, chats to small children and cheers on the Olympic team from the safety of the stands. It's doubtful if it would work in the UK, even in a post-Olympic glow. Was John Major ever snapped with a cricket bat in the cabinet office, or Gordon Brown with a rugby ball? Does Cameron bring a horse with him to G20 conferences? Politicians in the UK generally stay away from sporting props, and their counterparts down under sometimes share their caution: I once shared a golf course in Sydney with the then-leader of the Australian opposition, John Hewson. A golf buggy was offered and turned down. "I can't be photographed in that", he said. Why? "Makes me look like a wimp". Sport, a vote winner … or loser.

The study of politicians' association with objects is a generally unexplored aspect of political science. Caution is to be recommended. For example if you are Clinton (but not Churchill), stay well away from cigars. But if you are Margaret Thatcher, hold on to your handbag. And if you're Harold Wilson, keep gripping your pipe. I was not surprised to find that Tony Blair had one of those fish in his office that sings "Don't Worry, Be Happy" on demand. Did he ever, even in fun, play that down the line to George Bush?

It's true that one might conclude from the picture that there's nothing Obama wants to do more than to get off the phone and get back to a baseball game with his security men on the White House lawn, but should the Turkish opposition be so frazzled? Baseball isn't even a particularly popular sport over there. One could understand it if the president had been snapped lounging beside the pool in Michael Phelps' briefs, but he hasn't.

Maybe the Turks should get their revenge. How about a return phone call with Recep Tayyip Erdogan pictured in the costume of a Greco-Roman wrestler? Soon enough, heads of states would all be at it. Now that could be interesting.


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July 29 2012

Ten things I miss about the 20th century | Ian Martin

Smoke everywhere, lovely great lumps of concrete and chirpy bus conductors – just some of the things I liked about the good old days

1. Vocalised cheerfulness I'm not saying people were happier in the 20th century; they weren't. There was a lot to contend with: war, TB, no bass end on record players etc. But there was more public cheerfulness. People would sing out loud just walking down the street. Try doing that now and see if passersby make eye contact. Remember bus conductors? Chirpiness was a required skill then for a Routemaster crew. Passengers were often treated to a "soundclash" – the conductor perhaps whistling the latest Tommy Steele, the driver loudly crooning something upbeat by Edmundo Ros. It was a bit like nowadays when you get teenagers at different ends of the bus playing syncopated misogyny on their phones, only happy instead of angry.

2. Coal Yeah, I know it killed half of us, but I miss the smell of coal smoke. It used to be everywhere, belching out of trains and chimneys, atomised, inhaled. Most people were addicted to cigarettes too. Everyone died smokey bacon flavour. Buildings were agreeably shrouded in grime. Fog was thick, like a sodium-yellow blanket. Of course we older people are kicking ourselves that we didn't put some soot away for the future. Now it goes for up to £3,000 a scuttleful and is keenly sought after by billionaires, who dress up like the cast of Mad Men and snort it through 10 bob notes. Sooty the hand puppet, he was from a more innocent age too.

3. Proper weather The climate's been broken for years (see "Coal" above, soz) but it can't be fixed because NOBODY DOES REPAIRS ANY MORE.

4. Having a pint with a racist Maybe it's the invisibility of old people, but I rarely "fall into conversation" with morons in the pub these days. It's what happened in the golden age before we had mobiles to check. There'd be a neutral remark about the weather and before you knew it some sullen clump of sideboards and tash opposite would be blaming "them" for his early black-and-white version of Broken Britain. Then you'd have an argument while you drank your pints and it seemed quite important to engage and challenge. Today, if anyone says anything racist the protocol is to smile, pretend to go to the toilet, tweet "Oh my God, there's a totally racist dude in this pub", then covertly film them and hope they say something YouTubeable.

5. Women's liberation So much clearer then: men are shit, we've ruined everything, stand aside, woman's right to choose, equal pay, non-patriarchal parenting, loose clothes. Now feminism's tribalised it's much more confusing. Julie Bindel's lesbo resistance or Caitlin Moran's cock-based irony? Both, obviously. But I miss the days of free thinking and reparations, when New Men did all the cooking and were more than happy to be sexual playthings, although to be honest my mind's wandering a bit now.

6. The majesty of concrete Lovely, egalitarian, optimistic great lumps of concrete, eg the Hayward Gallery, were going up on the South Bank at about the time the Kinks released Waterloo Sunset. We were in paradise.

7. Haughty television Never mind Starkey, Schama and all the other clever dicks with their blousons and gesticulating on battlements and meticulous reconstructed scenes because apparently we can't be trusted to use our own bloody imaginations any more. Before colour telly, AJP Taylor could talk into a camera for an hour armed only with an immaculate brain, a glass of water and 10 Woodbine.

8. Working-class MPs We used to have loads of them. Working miners became union reps, discovered a natural gift for turning rage into oratory and were duly elected as parliamentary tribunes for working people. Dennis Skinner's still there like a pissed uncle at a funeral, but who remembers Coventry's Dave Nellist? When he was an MP in the 80s he insisted on taking only the average wage of skilled workers in his constituency. The rest he gave back to Labour, who in return expelled him for being too militant and then waited gormlesssly for Neil "The Welsh Mussolini" Kinnock to become prime minister. Today our House of Commons is just the Members' Pavilion at Lord's without the hats.

9. Counter culture These days it's all "meta" or "pop-up" and I'm not entirely sure what they are. Oppositional thinking's too sophisticated now. It was all much simpler when culture had three gears only and a puncture repair kit in the saddlebag. Ah, Spam sandwiches, orange squash, purple hearts … sorry, mind's gone again.

10. Non-monetised public space The internet saw the last century out and this one in. Early on there was great excitement about "virtual reality" yet who could have foreseen REALITY TURNING INTO THE INTERNET? A journey through London in 2012 is like navigating your way from one JavaScript nightmare to another in the days before ad blockers. Every available square inch of public space, every cubic foot of public air now has to be jizzed over by flickering ads and corporate branding. And looming above it all the grotesque Shard, our capital's latest and most disgusting lump of privatised skyline. Capitalism giving us a scaly, taloned middle finger. What next – sponsored clouds? Toll pavements? Paywalled churches? Sure, it sounds ridiculous but you mark my words, soon they'll be charging us to get into St Paul's Cathedral. Oh.

Charlie Brooker is away.


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July 25 2012

Ai Weiwei: power games

Ai Weiwei withdrew from the Beijing 2008 Olympics opening ceremony and was declared a threat to the police state. Here he explains why he hopes the London Games will be different

The Olympic Games are highly commercialised. They purport to follow the traditions of an ancient athletics competition, but today it is the commercial aspect that is most apparent. I have seen how, through sport, cities and corporations compete against each other for financial gain. The Olympics are beholden to the wishes of various commercial operations, which in turn shape our understanding of the event and of the world. They are no longer connected to the idea that humanity can be expressed through athletics.

In China, the Olympics have always served as a tool for propaganda. China uses its gold-medal count to affirm its position in the world order and its strength as a nation. Many other countries have the same attitude. But flaunting gold medals, in the guise of fighting for a country's glory, is done at the expense of many lives. For one, athletes sacrifice their physical and emotional wellbeing for this vanity. This is a tragedy in itself.

I don't believe in the so-called Olympic spirit. I speak from personal experience. When China hosted the Games, it failed to include the people. The event was constructed without regard for their joy. The state and the Olympic committee failed to take a position on many major social and political issues. Afterwards, the state tightened its controls; China became a police state. "Friendship, fair play, glory, honour and peace": the Olympic slogan is an empty one.

My memory of the Beijing Olympics has not changed. It is a fake smile, an elaborate costume party with the sole intention of glorifying the country. From the opening to the closing ceremony, from the torch relay to the cheers for gold medals – these all displayed the might, and the desperation, of a totalitarian regime. Through authoritarian power a country can possess many things, but it cannot bring joy or happiness to its people.

I see the Beijing National Stadium as an architectural project. I accepted Herzog and De Meuron's invitation to collaborate on the design, and our proposal won the competition. From beginning to end, I stayed with the project. I am committed to fostering relationships between a city and its architecture. I am also keen on encouraging participation and exchange during mass events that are meaningful for humankind.

I have no regrets about the role I played; the stadium is a work of great quality and design. I only withdrew from participating in fake performances laden with propaganda. I disagreed with the approach, and did not want my name associated with it. The Beijing opening ceremony had no sensitivity for the Chinese people; it even had the police force dancing on the fields. This is the fantasy of a totalitarian society. It was a nightmare.

By publicly announcing that I would not participate in the opening ceremony, I became a minority, an alternative voice. To the media, I have become a symbolic figure, critical of China. According to the government, I am a dangerous threat. I only expressed my personal opinion of an occasion that many people are passionate about. Unfortunately, such an occasion has no room for differing stances. Mine posed a challenge to the Games themselves. What did I say? Only that I didn't like the government propaganda. I don't feel obliged to approve of it.

I don't watch TV. I did not watch the Olympics last time; I am not very interested in watching it this time, either. I have no interest in activities that are dissociated from the emotions and struggles of everyday people. I enjoy watching any kind of competition – but it must be carried out in fairness, adhering strictly to the established rules. Any competition that cannot demonstrate fairness and abide by a set of openly acknowledged regulations violates civil society. It is also in conflict with the principles of human, social and legal rights.

I have visited London two or three times. I have good impressions of the city. It has a strong and natural continuity with its traditions. At the same time, people enjoy their lives and the city is full of culture. It was a pleasant experience to work with the Serpentine gallery, as well as Herzog and de Meuron, on this summer's pavilion. From the response, I can see that Londoners are very savvy about art and architecture. Tate Modern is also a unique cultural institution, a standard-bearer for quality contemporary art and activities.

I am interested in seeing what the 2012 Olympics has done to London, but I am not free to travel. If I were free, I'd like to see how people will respond to the event, and how members of a different society, living in different social conditions, will participate in the Games. I don't know how London will cope, but I believe it will be more relaxed than Beijing. In London, the people will be able to participate in and celebrate the joy of the Games.


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July 23 2012

In the age of the Cultural Olympiad, we're all public performers | Claire Bishop

The latest exhibition at Tate Modern features performers interacting with the public. But it's definitely not high art

Visitors to Tate Modern in the past week will have noticed strange activities in the Turbine Hall. Rather than the usual flurry of cranes, cherry-pickers and engineers that signal the arrival of a new installation, there were 50 people of different shapes and sizes running around the concrete expanse: spiralling in loops, gathering in clusters, hurtling up and down the ramp. In the middle of them was the British-German artist Tino Sehgal, fine-tuning his performance – or as he prefers to call it, "constructed situation" – which opens to the public on Tuesday.

Sehgal's These Associations is a far remove from the overblown visual spectacles that usually make up the annual Unilever commission. At first sight you barely see anything. Then you notice strange ripples of movement across the concrete expanse as the 50 choreographed performers come into view. If you stand by and watch for a while, one of them might come up and talk to you, recounting a personal experience of when they felt they belonged.

Sehgal is well-known for participatory performances in which groups of non-professionals are trained to engage in conversation with the public. For this commission, more than 100 people have been recruited: the youngest is 16; the eldest are in their 70s.

His reliance on non-specialist performers is part of a broader trend since the mid-1990s towards participatory art – and is arguably its institutional apotheosis. For much of this time, however, participatory artists have been working outside the mainstream world of museums. It is only in recent years that the tendency has become high profile, in works such as Antony Gormley's One and Other (2010), when more than 34,000 people applied for a chance to occupy one of his one-hour slots on top of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

At the time the Guardian's Charlotte Higgins referred to the work as "Twitter art", and she wasn't far off the mark: participatory art has proliferated in tandem with the feedback loops of Web 2.0 and social networking, while its fascination with eccentric laymen parallels the populism of reality television. All three tread a very fine line between cultural democratisation and incessant banality.

But participatory art has a long history, spanning the whole 20th century. Today it's an international phenomenon and arguably less political in orientation. It used to work against an absurdly inflated art market, on the one hand, wanting to empower those less privileged, on the other. But part of its recent popularity in the UK is a result of specific ideological motivations. In the mid-90s, New Labour commissioned thinktanks to evaluate the benefits of social participation in the arts. Proof was found that it reduces isolation by helping people to make friends, developing community networks, helping offenders and victims address issues of crime, encouraging people to accept risk positively, and transforming the image of public bodies.

For better or worse, these pro-participation studies became the foundation of New Labour cultural policy and led to a climate in which participatory art and education became a privileged vehicle of the social inclusion agenda. Culture was valued because it created the appearance of social inclusion, even while government continued to erode those institutions that actually assure this – education and healthcare. This led to the contradictory condition of participatory art being embraced by radical artists for its unmarketability, while serving a Potemkin function for its governmental paymasters.

With the arrival of Cameron's "big society" in 2010, the terms of engagement have shifted once more. The Tories have little interest in the political uses of art, preferring to hand it over to the dictates of the market. (The result is Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond's Tatlin-on-crack sculpture, ArcelorMittal Orbit: a £19m monstrosity named after the private individual who funded 85% of its construction.) Mass creativity is supported only to the extent that it is self-generated – and self-funded. In keeping with big society doctrine, wageless volunteers are asked to pick up where the government cuts back. In this climate, participatory art acquires a different resonance, more akin to the sacrifices of unpaid labour. It is no coincidence that a large percentage of the Cultural Olympiad relies on such volunteerism: Marc Rees's Adain Avion, for example, asks local community groups in Wales to be content-providers for a mobile art space made of aircraft fuselage, while Craig Coulthard's forest football pitch in Scotland needs to be "activated" by amateur teams, wearing strips designed by local children.

Herein lies an important difference between Tino Sehgal in the Turbine Hall and the do-good community-based participatory art so rife in the Cultural Olympiad. Sehgal isn't particularly interested in empowering people; those who work for him are paid performers who serve his ends (an enigmatic work designed to reflect on the museum as a space of simultaneously individual and mass address). But what Sehgal does have in common with the majority of participatory artists is a tendency to place an emphasis on everyday (rather than highly skilled) forms of performance.

In so doing, his pieces, like so much other participatory art under neoliberalism, serve a double agenda: offering a popular art of and for the people, while at the same time, reminding us that today we all experience a constant pressure to perform and, moreover, this is one in which we have no choice but to participate.


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Can you be too old to get a tattoo?

Lady Steel, the wife of former Liberal Democrat leader David Steel, has revealed that her 70th birthday present to herself was a pink jaguar tattoo





July 22 2012

Failure can be an option | James Dyson

Success is overrated. Losing out on the sports field and in the office can spur us on to greater things

At school they might teach you it's the taking part not the winning that counts, but I doubt that is the mantra in the Olympic village. With the nation's hopes resting on Team GB's broad shoulders, most people really want an uncomplicated win, a resounding success at first attempt. Failure is disappointing, shameful, definitive.

I disagree. Failure, coupled with perseverance, can be the springboard to better things. For example, I expect that Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee athlete running the 400m for South Africa, has something to say about overcoming setbacks. The 2007 ban preventing him from competing against able-bodied athletes has been overturned, and he will be in London this year.

Success takes time, patience and perseverance – not just in track and field. Exactly 5,126 attempts to make the first bagless vacuum cleaner were failures – some catastrophic disappointments, some minor defects. It took 15 years. Prototype 5,127 was the success. During the past 20 years I have fought countless legal battles to protect years of work. Most of the time we are successful. Occasionally we fail. It is a painful process but it spurs me on to invent more.

In the digital age of "overnight" success stories such as Facebook, the hard slog is easily overlooked. More often than not, success is the result of months and years of consecutive all-nighters. Trial and error, setback after setback. Failure is painful, but it spurs on improvement like nothing else.

And yet, we try increasingly hard to avoid failure these days. More schools are holding sports days without winners and losers. The approaching exam results are once again expected to outperform last year's, threatening to render many students' genuine achievement meaningless in the eyes of many people. I myself scraped seven poor passes at O-level. I had, and still have, little patience for rote learning the "right" answer. Instead, I excelled at creating things – inventing and art. Without understanding where my strengths were, I might not have found my way to the hub for designers, engineers and scientists that is London's Royal College of Art. Like all good educational institutions, it was a place for trial and error, wrong thinking and frustration but also triumph and achievement.

My own experience with failure at college is part of the reason I now advocate design and technology in schools. D&T is an arena for making mistakes, and slowly crafting successes – getting your hands on materials and tools, taking things apart just to see how they work. Not just the incubator for would-be Edisons, D&T teaches perseverance – sketch, build, test, rebuild. Only 10% of students take D&T at GCSE; this falls to 4% at A-level. Its long-term future as a core subject remains uncertain. I do not accept that young people aren't interested in D&T – it just needs to be reinvigorated, brought up to date.

The current emphasis on rote learning right answers over inventiveness and practical skills rewards regurgitation over intellect and instinct. Pretending there are no winners and losers in school sports undermines achievement. But far more importantly, it crushes the incentive to improve, and does not prepare young people for the trials ahead. In school, let us reward those high achievers but, with a closer look, we can also applaud those failures who give every clue of going on to win even bigger. Changes to the education system are necessary and long overdue.

The keen sting of failure should not be shunned. It can spur on greatness, the cue to persist against the odds. Keep an eye out for the athletes who don't make it to the podium this year. They may hold gold in Rio 2016.


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June 29 2012

The artistic jingoism of the Bomber Command memorial | Jonathan Jones

This architecturally crass pavilion is like the nervously loud voice of someone trying to shout down opposition

As memories fade, the monuments get bigger — and so do the lies. The second world war ended 67 years ago and slips ever further from the reach of living recollection. Yet the memorial to the airmen of Bomber Command that was dedicated in London's Green Park this week is nothing if not imposing. It is a neoclassical pavilion whose grandiose interior houses a bronze figurative statue group of a bomber crew. The scale and ostentatious style of the monument will make it hard to miss. But is this a work of memory or forgetting?

The architectural crassness of Liam O'Connor's pavilion is like the nervously loud voice of someone trying to shout down opposition. The grandeur of the monument was acclaimed by veterans, who may well see its lavish appearance as some kind of belated compensation for a long delay in commemorating their sacrifice. There is no doubting the scale of that sacrifice. As fiercely patriotic reports on the memorial's royal dedication did not fail to point out, British bomber crews through the second world war suffered a more than 50% casualty rate of young men killed and seriously wounded. Yet the real case for a specially grand monument may be the nature of their deaths: no bodies came home from bombers that went down in flames. So this is their marker.

The monument insists, with no room for doubt, that such heroism deserves to be remembered down the ages. Yet the Victorian critic John Ruskin would surely have smelt a rat – not least because he loathed classical porticoes in Portland stone, but also because he believed architecture to be a moral as much as an aesthetic enterprise. Bad aesthetics betray bad morals. The trouble with this memorial goes beyond mere taste. Some people like bronze statues in Regency arcades; others find a minimalist slab more moving. But the strident style of this memorial reveals a fundamental lack of honesty.

No amount of stone and bronze can ever end the ethical debate about Britain's bombing strategy during the second world war. Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris insisted on an explicit and systematic campaign of "area bombing", that is, the carpet bombing of German cities . His policy rejected the idea of precision raids on industrial targets – which, to be fair, did not work well because bomb-aiming with 1940s technology was not accurate enough – and deliberately sought to weaken morale in Germany. In other words, the job was to bomb civilians. This strategy was not accidental or unconscious. It worried Britain's commanders. Churchill went from encouraging it to – eventually, after Dresden – worrying about it. By that time many thousands of civilians had died horrible deaths in firestorms that left terrible relics of shrivelled, blackened victims in the cellars and streets of cities, including Hamburg and Cologne.

Firestorms were not unfortunate mistakes – the RAF knew how to create them by first dropping incendiaries, then high explosives that turned fires into infernos.

If the memorial in Green Park seems strident and hysterical in design, it is because it wants us to forget this other side of the story. Heroic young men gave their lives and their nerves to fight the air war. But it is empty patriotic bluster to pretend, as this monument does, that no doubts have ever been raised about the results of their courage. Those doubts existed at the time and will always exist.

Did massive air raids on German cities help to end the war more quickly? Or was Harris a cruel and dogmatic zealot whose policy failed to achieve his stated target of defeating Germany from the air? I don't have the answers – these are debates. The most unanswerable question of all is how much violence on civilians could be justified by what was obviously the far greater evil of Nazi policies in occupied Europe. Then again, one criticism of Bomber Command was its failure to bomb the death camps.

The heroism of these men deserves to be remembered – but not in a way that denies the complexity of history. It is getting too late in the day to sentimentalise the second world war. The memory of Britain's bravery needs to be tempered with some historical perspective. This monument is a nasty piece of artistic jingoism that trivialises the most terrible war in human history.

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June 27 2012

Does food photography make you hungry? Only when it's done very well | Oliver Thring

Food advertising is being blamed for obesity. But the wrong lighting or composition will kill an appetite not stimulate it

This just in from the no shit, Sherlock school of scientific research: pictures of food can make you feel hungry. Images of fatty foods "activated brain regions that control appetite and reward" in the participants of an American study. The Daily Mail wonders whether this means that fast food advertising is partly to blame for rising levels of obesity.

Food photography is always a kind of advertising: it tries to entice people into a lifestyle – to cook a dish or visit a restaurant. But it's extremely hard to do well. McDonald's recently released a film showing how much work goes into each of its shoots. The wrong lighting or composition, melting ice cream, leaky puddles of grease and even changes in aesthetics will all ruin a decent photograph.

Above is a picture of a deep-fried Mars bar. It's a fatty food, but as I looked at it my "appetite and reward" brain regions remained strangely unactivated.

The vomity chocolate dribble, the class A scattering of icing sugar, the super-close up money shot and the scorched and overexposed flash combined to make this less than appetising. Perhaps the photo is a homage to the food.

Cupcakes are the most photographed foods in the world. The unbearable faux-vintage iPhone hipster toss-app Instagram doubles as a kind of cupcake Grindr: its users eat nothing else.

The cupcakes here are slightly are out of focus, but the lighting and exposure are fine and you certainly know what you're looking at. In fact, these cupcakes are more appealing in a photograph than they would be in the spongy flesh, so whoever snapped them was a genius.

Last, a shot that someone has clearly spent time putting together, but what a disaster it is: the skin is wrinkled and flabby and unevenly cooked. It's also weirdly shiny: the lights make it look as though it's visiting the dentist. The yellow flowers clash with the orange-brown bird, the pubic tendrils of thyme add nothing, and it all looks dry and dated. You just know the food is cold.

The food photographer Paul Winch-Furness tells me that a little spraying with oil and water helps to make food look appetising. "There's a trend at the moment for 'aerial' shots," he says. "Everyone is hovering the camera over the table and shooting straight down. But that'll pass."

I've got a cookbook from a well-known food writer from the early 90s. Every dish in it is bright orange, because a vague notion of "warmth" was obviously in vogue back then. Reading it is like being on The Only Way is Essex. It takes more than a Polaroid of lard to make people hungry.

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June 25 2012

The Shard is the perfect metaphor for modern London | Aditya Chakraborrty

Expensive, off-limits and owned by foreign investors – the Shard extends the ways in which London is becoming more unequal

Next Thursday, a giant metaphor will be launched in London. The prime minister of Qatar will fly over especially; his supporting act will be Prince Andrew. Foreign dignitaries will be treated to a lavish dinner; lowly residents of the capital can gawk at a free laser show that threatens to out-do George Lucas.

This is how developers plan to "inaugurate" the Shard, the 72-storey skyscraper that already stalks Londoners everywhere they go. It glowers over your conversations in Peckham; it skulks in your eyeline as you amble along Hampstead Heath. Get up close to Europe's tallest tower, and its 1,017 feet (getting on for twice the height of the Gherkin) render everything around it toylike, laughable.

The money men behind the Shard would like the rest of us to treat it merely as a building. Ideally, you'd marvel at its jutting architecture (the work of Renzo Piano, don't you know); failing that, they'd take you castigating its arrogant flashiness.

But before falling for the predictable Shard-en freude, we should think again. Because what is approaching completion over on London's South Bank is almost the perfect metaphor for how the capital is being transformed – for the worse. The skyscraper both encapsulates and extends the ways in which London is becoming more unequal and dangerously dependent on hot money.

Consider again the story of the Shard. This is a high-rise that has been imposed on London Bridge despite protests from residents, conservation groups and a warning from Unesco that it may compromise the world-heritage status of the nearby Tower of London. What's more, its owners and occupiers will have very little to do with the area, which for all its centrality is also home to some of the worst deprivation and unemployment in the entire city. The building is 95% owned by the government of Qatar and its developer, Irvine Sellar, talks of it as a "virtual town", comprising a five-star hotel and Michelin-starred restaurants.

It will also have 10 flats that are on sale for between £30m to £50m, and from where on a clear day it will be easier to gaze out on to the North Sea, 44 miles away, than at the beetle-sized locals 65 floors down below. "We won't really market these apartments," the PR man cheerily told me. "At this level of the market, there are probably only 25 to 50 possible buyers in the world. The agents will simply phone them up."

So one of London's most identifiable buildings will have almost nothing to do with the city itself. Even the office space rented out at the bottom is intended for hedge funds and financiers wanting more elbow room than they can afford in the City or Mayfair. The only working-class Londoners will presumably bus in at night from the outskirts to clean the bins. Otherwise, to all intents and purposes, this will be the Tower of the 1%.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Shard is that it simply exemplifies a number of trends. First, it merely confirms how far the core of London is becoming, in industrial terms, a one-horse town. Finance, which began in the Square Mile, has now spread to Docklands to the east, to Mayfair in the west and now to the South Bank.

Second, it proves that buildings are no longer merely premises owned by businesses, but are now chips for investment. What's more those chips are increasingly owned by people who barely ever set foot in the country. A study from Cambridge University last year, Who Owns the City?, found that 52% of the City's offices are now in the hands of foreign investors – up from just 8% in 1980. What's more, foreigners are piling into London property at an ever-increasing rate, as they look for relatively safe havens from the global financial turmoil. And yet, as the Cambridge team point out, the giddy combination of overseas cash and heavy borrowing leaves London in a very precarious position. Another credit crunch, or a meltdown elsewhere in the world, would now almost certainly have big knock-on effects in the capital.

The same story applies to London's housing market, too. Earlier this year, the upmarket estate agent's Savills noted that Britons now made just over one in every three property purchases in the posh parts of central London. "The more central the market and the more expensive the property, the more likely it is to be purchased by an overseas buyer or foreign national," their report noted.

London has historically always been the point at which foreign money enters Britain, and disperses in search of a place to invest. But, as Louis Moreno of University College London points out, what's happened over the past 15 years is that an unprecedented amount of foreign money has come into London – and lodged there, in its property. The cash hasn't gone into productive enterprises that will benefit or employ ordinary Londoners. It has sat in plush new flats or office blocks. And now it's setting up its biggest home yet, on the South Bank.

So, the Shard: it's expensive. It's off-limits. It's largely owned by people who don't live here. And it is the perfect metaphor for what our capital is becoming.


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June 13 2012

Annie Lennox: why I'm against Aberdeen's City Gardens project

The same deluded vision that razed huge swaths of the historic city in the 1960s is being applied again today

The City Gardens project is something I took up arms against a couple of years ago, but in the end I put them down again, because I felt – and stated – that it is ultimately down to the citizens of Aberdeen to take the final decision.

But when I went back up to Aberdeen a few weeks ago and saw the state of the streets, I had never seen the city look so dejected. I felt very saddened by that. I had never thought I would see Aberdeen look like this.

Experience shows that city councillors, planners and developers, come together and offer a bright vision of the future, as they did in Aberdeen in the 1960s when they razed huge swaths of the historic city. They thought that would be their modernity. What we got was a ruination of history, and something put in its place which was cheap, crap and concrete. I knew at the time, when I was a teenager, that this was going to be pretty disastrous.

I have nothing whatsoever against modern architecture, but when it is cheap and crappy you usually look back at it in a few years time and say: "What a monstrosity." I think they are applying the same sort of deluded vision with Union Terrace Gardens. Instead we should look at what really needs to be done there: it needs a collective civic response.

What I see in Aberdeen is that there has been a lot of money made, but that money has not trickled through. You see strata of wealth in Aberdeen; there are expensive cars and glitzy restaurants but I don't see that reflected in the general civic state of the city. I feel the oil industry lives separately to the town.

My father and grandfather worked in the shipyards and shipbuilding industries; people built up wealth and then people who made their money put it back into Aberdeen, building the art gallery, the music hall etc and it served the community very well. It was beautiful. But walking around Union Street today you get a sense of a broken place. It is kind of degraded. It seems to me Aberdeen thinks in terms of a consumerist society, where the solution is: "Well, put more shops in and get more business." I think it's a mistake; the same mistake they made back in the 60s.

I think this phenomenon can be found through the whole of the country. It has wrecked the towns of Great Britain. I think it is a symptom; we used to have different types of flourishing industry, people had skills and crafts, they had a work ethic and were proud of their cities. But now it is very different. In some places generations have lived with unemployment for decades. We have a recession and we have imported American corporate chains on our high streets, creating a consumerist society in which we've lost a lot of our culture and a lot of our skills.

It's endemic and downgrading, and I don't think Aberdeen is much different to many other places that have lost their heart and soul. I don't think that oil money has brought a tremendous civic pride back to the citizens of the city. It's the fast buck: there's money being made but it's just floating on the top, separated from the rest of Aberdeen's citizens.

If Sir Ian Wood wants to invest £50m into the centre of Aberdeen, that is fundamentally good, but I disagree with the way he's going about it. It is not because I'm a reactionary, it is not because I'm against modernity or change. It is the way that this was done; it is short-termism, it is short-sighted.

From what I am gathering, he is not saying: "I have £50m, I want to talk to you, I want to hear what you guys want." He's telling the city this is what he will do with it. I think it's very imperious. I think it is very, very important to listen to more people, the people who are living there, the citizens of the town.

I don't have a great respect for the aesthetic values or vision of city planners or city councillors; I don't think that they've often got it right. Building a concrete piazza across Union Terrace Gardens, in a city that knows rain very well, I don't quite get that. It's not Italy. They don't get tourists coming to Aberdeen, and if they did, wouldn't they want to see something more real and authentic?


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June 12 2012

Muammar Gaddafi's photo archive gives an insight into the 'Jamahiriya'

Libyan dictator always had an eye for the camera, whether it was posing with world leaders or harking back to his Bedouin roots

Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years before he was overthrown last summer and killed by rebels in October. So it will take some time before his countrymen are able to escape his giant shadow. Even as a young man – he was 27 in 1969 when he and his fellow officers overthrew the western-backed King Idris – Gaddafi had an eye for the camera and for posterity.

Archives seized after the revolution contain a rich photographic record of his poses, achievements and friends, though his hugs of welcome for fellow Arab leaders from Yasser Arafat to Egypt's President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, his hero and inspiration, often masked stormy private relationships.

Gaddafi's penchant for elaborate military uniforms and powerful allies is combined in a shot of him standing hand-in-hand with the ageing Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1981, at the start of a decade which saw Libyan backing for the IRA and other terrorists, retaliatory US air attacks on Libya as well as the notorious Lockerbie bombing. Years of sanctions followed until Gaddafi finally came in from the cold and shed his pariah status for a brief honeymoon before the Arab spring erupted.

Images found by Human Rights Watch in state intelligence buildings and Gaddafi family residences make up a unique archive of the years when the Jamahiriya or "state of the masses" was run according to the precepts of the "Brother Leader's'' Green Book, and was effectively closed to the west.

Gaddafi often harked back to his Bedouin roots – receiving visitors in a tent pitched inside his Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli before the Nato-backed revolution ended his control of the capital.

In one undated picture he lies sprawled happily and barefoot on the sand, foreshadowing the unmarked desert grave he was buried in last October after being killed by rebel fighters on the outskirts of his home town Sirte.His rotting corpse was left on display in a meat store for three days in a grotesque parody of a conventional lying-in-state for a mourned national leader.

Hatred and vengeance were the products of decades of the repression that was an important part of Gaddafi's Libya. One grim shot in this exhibition shows bodies dangling from makeshift gallows in a Benghazi sports stadium – the result of one of his periodic "revolutionary" show trials of the dissidents he hunted down without mercy at home and abroad.

The Gaddafi Archives: Libya Before the Arab Spring London Festival of Photography


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The Olympics are exposing us as a nation self-obsessed

Plans for the opening ceremony are to be a mixture of celebration and gentle jibes about our nation. But aren't the Games about more than just us?

Patriotism becomes daft when you expect other countries to share your national pride. America nearly got away with it in the age of the moon landings, when children of my generation accepted it as fair enough for the stars and stripes to hang out there in space. But it has been a long time since even the land of Coke could teach the world to sing. Why should the entire world be expected to embrace the British self-love that appears to be at the heart of the Olympics opening ceremony? Are we offering ourselves as the new America, a land so marvellous it can export its self-image?

A billion people around the planet are expected to witness the £27m ceremony conceived by film director Danny Boyle to start the Games. In details announced today, it emerges that he will turn the stadium into a vast model of an ideal and somewhat mythic British countryside. Complete with landmarks like Glastonbury Tor and entitled Green and Pleasant, the spectacle will treat the world to a romantic vision of our national landscape. Real farmyard animals will be grazing; in total there will be 70 sheep, 12 horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine geese and three sheepdogs. There will also be clouds with fake rain in case the night is clear. "If it doesn't rain, we have created our own," said Boyle at the announcement, pointing to four huge clouds hanging from wires over a model of the stadium.

Look, I am not a huge athletics fan. Sometimes I watch the Olympics on TV, sometimes I don't. Is it the done thing to obsess about one's own national identity quite so overtly in the opening ceremony? By the sound of it, though, Boyle's spectacle will be far from complacent: with references to the aftermath of the industrial revolution and a cast that includes NHS nurses, it does sound as though he is offering an alternative, radical style of patriotism, not to mention laughing at national traits and the soggy climate. But radical navel-gazing is navel-gazing nonetheless.

There seems to be a unfortunate blur between this summer's jubilee and the Olympics. It is a culmination of a boom in self-regard that has made modern Britain ever more inward-looking. Waving flags for the jubilee was logical: the Queen is nothing if not British. But the Olympics? Surely, the Games are international.

The British Museum in London currently has a modest display of 12 objects recalling the ancient Greek Olympics. The highlight – which no one who visits London this summer should miss – is the Motya Charioteer, one of the masterpieces of ancient Greek art. Contemplating this sensuous statue of an athlete in a clinging robe, I could not help wishing the British Museum would put on a full-scale show about the history of the Olympics to celebrate us hosting the world's greatest sporting event. Instead, its big exhibition for the Olympic summer, in the same flag-waving mood as Boyle's sceptred-isle landscape, will be about Shakespeare. I am looking forward to it. But then I am British.

Is Britain playing host to the world this summer – or to itself? Why on Earth is the romantic Little England of Boyle's opener the appropriate way to begin a festival celebrating the human planet?

There's something very 1930s about all this. When we remember the Depression, we see the vicious hyper-nationalism of Hitler and Mussolini as nightmares never to be repeated – yet democratic countries too became inward-looking and self-obsessed in that age of austerity. British artists harped on about the landscape. Novelists feasted on British eccentricity. Now, in this new age of austerity, imaginations are once more preoccupied with homegrown qualities and known landscapes. Isn't the Olympics meant to be bigger and more generous than that?


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June 11 2012

East End art is still dynamic and creative | Bob and Roberta Smith

The odd gallery may move west, but the East End remains vibrant. London must support this unique cultural melting pot

The news that two more contemporary art galleries have recently left Bethnal Green to try their luck in the West End – that enclave north of Oxford street, Fitzrovia, to be precise – does not mean art in the East End is dead. The problem for those galleries in their new location may be the absence of grit in the Fitzrovian oyster, which will mean a poor harvest of contemporary art pearls. I am not sure where Fitzrovia really is. Is it close to Bloomsbury? Perhaps the new gallerists sit on gaily painted wooden chairs, like Vanessa Bell once did. Perhaps one of them is an economist like John Maynard Keynes who could sort out the mess we are in. Is Fitzrovia the new Bloomsbury? Who cares? Central London is not fertile ground for creativity, apart from the great museums and galleries like Tate. Unwittingly Ken Livingstone made it a tourist and rich people zone when he brought in the congestion charge. You won't see anyone driving a 20-year-old Volvo estate with moss growing on it, like mine, around Fitzrovia.

Back in the East End things are looking turbulent, dynamic and creative. The Cass school of art, where I teach, is transforming itself this summer to become a kind of Aldgate Bauhaus. A school of architecture is moving in, and soon artists, architects and designers will all study and invent the future under the same roof. With tuition fees pitched at £2,000 less than anywhere else, the Cass offers the East End's talented young artists and designers hope and education. Rachel Whiteread has decorated the front of the Whitechapel Gallery, and as I have had a sneaky preview, I can tell you, it looks amazing. From my upstairs window at home in Leytonstone, I can see Anish Kapoor's Orbit tower. From there it looks like a great red heart shape in the air, and I have fallen head over heals in love with it.

As for galleries in the East End, the really great people and spaces that have made the art world in London so vibrant were here before the Fitzrovians came and went. Let's name the people because they are really amazing people: Maureen Paley, who set up Interim Art from her home in Beck Road and is now located in a beautiful space in Herald Street. Ingrid Swenson, who does early major public art projects with everyone of any real depth, runs Peer, on Hoxton Street. Anthony and Amanda Wilkinson, who pioneered selling art on Cambridge Heath Road then on Vyner Street, are still there. One of their artists was shortlisted for the Turner prize last year.

East London has so much more to offer than Fitzrovia ever will.

But London is changing. Commercial rents and house prices are stopping younger generations of artists getting established. And that matters because it is a symptom of something more sinister. Because boroughs like Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham have high levels of deprivation, the new designer businesses, cafes and bars opening in those boroughs look like they serve another city. A London that is able to weather the storm is divorcing itself from the rest of Britain. These fortunate people are forcing out not just artists but normal people with jobs. Do the more affluent users of these amenities support and use the other amenities, like the local schools and libraries?

The social gaps between the rich and poor are no more apparent than in the East End. I used to live in Hackney. Ten years ago, the economy squeezed my middle and I ended up further east. My moving to Leytonstone is obviously not one of the great social ills Britain is facing, but how do we combat the problem of artists and innovators, as well as people with ordinary jobs, being forced to move further out from the city centre? London must remain a great city of integrated communities and not become gated or atomised.

Hey, Boris Johnson, what are you for? What is your cultural adviser being paid to do, exactly? The mayor's office should declare East London a cultural centre. It should force developers to give more than 15% of any new development to low-cost housing for people working in the creative industries. The legacy of the Olympic Games should be the construction of a Margate-style contemporary art gallery at the foot of Anish Kapoor's tower. The athletes' village should be renamed the artist's village and Anthony Gormley should be made to live there.

The Cass school of art deserves support to become a truly great centre for research into the importance of art to society and industry. The future of London is to the east of London: the great diverse communities of east London, its cultures and its great art and great artists.


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June 08 2012

There's a strange beauty to the Hoo peninsula. Is this any place for an airport? | Ian Jack

Along with birds and their habitat, the hidden traces of Hoo peninsula's previous eras of industry will be buried by railways and runways

I'm not sure I fully understand the term "psychogeography". To me, it means the exploration of an unlikely place or a hidden aspect of a place, and whenever I hear it I think of Sunday walks in my childhood, when we would follow an overgrown and neglected path and sometimes scrape away the turf to discover a square stone with bolt holes drilled through it. As beetles hurried this way and that across its surface, my older brother would explain that the stone had once held an iron rail and that the path had once been a wagon-way, built in the 18th century to take coal from the Fife pits to a harbour on the Forth.As nobody else seemed to know or care about these facts, I felt I was sharing a historical secret. There were several of them close by: dark, deep ponds that had once been quarries; a ruined slipway built to take seaplanes; steel rings that had tethered barrage balloons; an abandoned railway tunnel where bats flew. Like a great many people in what was at that time an industrial country, I grew up in a landscape that was interestingly pockmarked with successive eras of exploitation, and all of it so commonplace that beyond a mention of its origins, Watt's engine or Crompton's spinning mule, it never found a place in the history books.

Almost all of that Fife landscape has now been buried without ceremony by motorways and housing estates, but equivalents can be found elsewhere, none of them grander and stranger than that part of Kent known as the Hoo peninsula, which lies between the Medway and the Thames and which, if Norman Foster and Boris Johnson have their way, could become the most vital stretch of land in Britain. As the location of Foster's proposed Thames Hub, the Hoo peninsula will be paved with new railways and docks and the four-runway airport with which Johnson wants to replace overcrowded Heathrow. A new Thames barrier will generate electricity from the currents and tide. Passengers who land there will take ongoing flights and containers ongoing trains.

The scheme is so ambitious – Foster says it requires us "to recapture the foresight and political courage of our 19th-century forebears" – that estimating the cost beyond dozens of billions is pointless. Nevertheless, David Cameron has included it among the options to be considered when the government decides how the UK can continue to provide a hub airport for Europe: pledges to the voters of west London having ruled out Heathrow's expansion.

If Hoo were chosen, which isn't unlikely, the question then becomes: what would be destroyed to make way for it? The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has, as usual, the quickest and simplest answer – the wetland habitats of visiting species – but beyond that the losses are less definable, and not so easy to raise a fuss over. Since Dickens's day, the creeks and marshes of Hoo have had a bleak form of celebrity as the spot where Pip first met Magwitch, and where prison hulks (Magwitch had just escaped from one of them) could be occasionally glimpsed through the mist on the Medway. In fact, the countryside is prettier and hillier than you expect. On a hot day last week, workers from Poland and Bulgaria were spreading straw across fields of strawberries while the knapped flint of Hoo's several 13th-century churches shone in the sun. There is also a 14th-century castle owned by Jools Holland and a workaday marina, about as far from Cowes in its social atmosphere as it's possible to get.

The main impression is of tremendous utility. Power lines sag west towards London to take electricity from the power stations at Kingsnorth and Grain, whose chimneys stand solid against the sky. A diesel rumbles along a single-track freight line with a train of containers from the dock near the peninsula's tip. And beside this present activity lies the evidence of older industries come and gone. A good guide will point out the hollows in the tidal reaches that were dug out in the 19th century when Medway mud was loaded into sailing barges by labourers called "muddies", taken to kilns and mixed with chalk to provide the London building boom with cement. What he needn't point out are the barges, which rot as nicely shaped timbers where the highest tide has left them and are in their way picturesque.

This is also a place of blighted ambition. The railway, for instance, was built for a glamorous purpose it only briefly fulfilled. Trains would take cross-Channel passengers to a pier with a hotel attached called Port Victoria, where they could catch steamers to Belgium and cut a few minutes from journey times offered by rival companies. But only Victoria, the monarch, found much use for it and long before the second world war the Hoo line had become a little-used byway. It last saw a passenger 50 years ago. Port Victoria has been buried under oil pipelines and mud.

Then on Hoo's northerly coast, there is Allhallows-on-Sea, the Ozymandias of seaside resorts. Developed by the Southern Railway, which built a branch to it in the 1930s, Allhallows was intended to have 5,000 houses, several hotels, a zoo and Britain's largest swimming pool with a wave-making machine. Then the war intervened. Postwar Londoners failed to return as holidaymakers and the railway closed. Today a big, echoing 1930s pub, the British Pilot, stands at the end of a cul-de-sac, beyond which is a park of holiday chalets and a sea wall with views across the estuary to Southend. Retired couples spend their summers there and winters in Goa or Cyprus, dividing the money released by the sale of their old homes between a chalet in Allhallows and a flat in the sun. "We don't do cold," says a tanned woman in her 60s, talking of these annual switches; while another wonders what will happen if her husband dies before her and she, a non-driver, is left alone in this inaccessible place.

Would it matter to the world beyond, other than to birds and ornithologists too, if Hoo became a giant airport and dock, clustered with warehouses, freight yards and car parks? It looks no more than a fitting next step for a peninsula that has for centuries been so ruthlessly used. Really, unless you live there, would you care?

And yet something important will go: wreckage, the traces of a previous era that have no official curator and are therefore delightful to find. High up one of Hoo's creeks sits a motorised barge, built in 1915 and long defunct, but still cared for by her last skipper, Cliff Pace, who turns the pages of his old logbook smiling at what he and his barge once achieved. "We took 3,237 bags of prunes from Albert Dock to Whitstable … 5,385 cartons of corned beef from the Victoria Dock to Stroud … 163 bundles of pick-axe handles from West India Dock to Otterham Quay." Even in the 1970s, the estuary was busy with lighters and lightermen – lovely times, says Mr Pace, but all gone. I look at his entries in the logbook and feel, just for a second, the same sensation of discovery that came when a carpet of moss was peeled from a square stone, the beetles scattered and my brother said, "Look…"


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May 29 2012

Tracey Emin could have exploded a lot of menopause myths – but she blew it | Joanna Moorehead

For many women the menopause is a time of rebirth and opportunity, not the 'beginning of dying' that Emin describes

People don't talk about the menopause, Tracey Emin told the Guardian. Well, she's right – people don't. So Emin does. "It is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare," she says. "It's horrible… [it] makes you feel slightly dead… it is the beginning of dying."

Oh dear! Women of our age – and I'm almost the same vintage as Emin – want to be more visible, acknowledged and celebrated. We don't want to slip quietly from the stage, as we all too often seem to be expected to do – and here's Emin, with a big new show opening in Margate, where she was raised. She's a perfect ambassador for us.

And what does she do? Well, she blows it: she gets a chance to be positive, ballsy and feisty about a tricky subject (and goodness knows, she's been positive, ballsy and feisty about plenty of other tricky subjects in her time) and she shreds it. Totally. Because who is going to believe that mid-life womanhood has got anything to it if Emin, one of the small number of late-fortysomething women in the public eye, reports from the front line that it's a nightmare?

The reality, for many of us, is that the menopause is not nightmarish, or horrible, and nor does it feel like the anteroom to death. In fact it feels more like a new beginning – a time of fresh opportunities and unexplored directions. For some of us (not Emin, it's true, since she's not had children) it's a time of expanding space, as our offspring grow up and manage to do more for themselves. For others, it's a time to reassess relationships and – sometimes – to find them wanting, sometimes enough to move on from them. And while it absolutely doesn't feel to me like the last stop before the graveyard, there's certainly a sense that there are some opportunities in life that, if not taken now, will quite probably never happen again.

One of the conundrums of the debate on ageing seems to me to be that while it happens to all of us, the negativity that's always surrounded the menopause seems to hint at scarier, deeper darknesses around women's ageing than men's.

What Emin could have done (should have done, in my view) was properly explore her feelings about the menopause in her new show. She could have looked – and oh my goodness, what a service it would have been for all of us forty- and fiftysomething women – at the state of mid-life womanhood in the same way that the wonderful Louise Bourgeois explored, in her 80s and 90s, the state of later-life womanhood. Bourgeois didn't moan or whinge about being older; and where it slowed her down, she folded that slowing down into her art.

Emin could have done all this, shining new light on a subject that men have long ridiculed, and women have been too polite or frightened to explore. I somehow can't help suspecting, too, that if Emin had chosen to take the bull by the horns, the reviewers – the Guardian's Jonathan Jones among them – might have found rather more to praise in the show itself.

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May 22 2012

On the white bus to Wythenshawe – council housing by design | Owen Hatherley

A tour of the UK's second-largest estate, in Manchester, offers up some architectural gems and a few lessons on garden cities

In 1966, Salford playwright Shelagh Delaney and Cheltenham director Lindsay Anderson worked together on the film The White Bus. The titular vehicle, a white-painted Leyland bus with "SEE YOUR CITY" written across it, transports a strange retinue – local dignitaries, foreign diplomats, wistful office workers – around the lesser-known sights of Manchester, from newbuild estates and cleared slums to the industrial ensembles of Trafford Park.

Last week, I found myself in an inadvertent re-enactment of that film. A group of local residents, school and FE students, journalists and local councillors were taken on a coach trip around the Manchester suburb of Wythenshawe, led by writer and broadcaster Phil Griffin (who lives there), taking in everything from modernist churches to recycling plants. Uncannily, even the bus was white but, unlike in the film, you could see the reactions of passersby, who often stopped on the street corner, baffled.

As well they might be, as Wythenshawe's reputation precedes it. The second-largest council estate in the country, after Becontree in East London, it's best known of late for three media appearances – Sarah Ferguson's The Duchess on the Estate; Shameless, for which it provided many of the sets; and a photograph of David Cameron on the stump, with a hooded youth making gun signs behind him.

In appearance, though, Wythenshawe doesn't correspond much to stereotype. There's little in the way of concrete, and few flats – most of it is family houses with front and back gardens, and large green verges planted with trees create one of the few places where the phrase "garden city" doesn't feel entirely absurd. It was largely planned in the 1930s by Barry Parker, who had designed the first garden city at Letchworth. Due to the lobbying of Welwyn Garden City MP and housing minister Grant Shapps, garden cities have been held up as an alternative to "the big estates of the 60s", but they mostly catered for the affluent or at least the active. Wythenshawe, though, was real public housing – getting people out of inhuman conditions in the centre of Manchester and into a smokeless, verdant new landscape.

The difficulties in this were obvious in the tour's starting point – Wythenshawe Hall, a Cheshire stately home annexed to the new Manchester garden city. A public park was built around it, the lushness of which spills out into the area around. Our host informs us that Manchester city council fought a grinding battle with landed interests in Cheshire to get Wythenshawe built, and it's even harder now to imagine few in the shires countenancing a giant estate built around a manor house and its grounds. From there, the bus trundles round some of the original 30s houses – simple but exceedingly folksy, in red brick and tile, built around courts and greens – to the first of several modernist churches. Wythenshawe was heavily criticised for lack of amenities, but the spiritual needs of the population were hardly neglected.

St Michael and All Angels Church was designed by the architect Nugent Francis Cachemaille-Day in the mid-30s, and is a piece of German expressionism come to Cottonopolis, with raw red brickwork wrapped around a plan forming an eight-pointed star. Inside, it's a strange and beautiful place, decorative and modernist, austere and lush. Later, we stop outside a derelict church by Coventry cathedral architect Basil Spence, and the group steps through the weeds to crowd round the locked door, peering inside at the wall paintings.

But the most remarkable of them is saved till last, the William Temple Memorial Church, designed by GG Pace in 1965. A collective intake of breath is audible on entering. Its small size hides the surprise of an incredible, wholly original interior, somewhere between the high-tech of early Richard Rogers and redbrick industrial gothic. It's not used for services, and our guide points out "this place has amazing architecture and no folk; the Forum has mediocre architecture but is always full of folk".

The Forum is just opposite, the town centre that was lacking for 30 years of the place's existence. A long concrete car park to the main road, but a dense, pedestrianised series of public spaces when entered, its central "Leningrad Square" (St Petersburg is twinned with Manchester) is busy and bustling. Outside the Forum library, people are queuing for something called "job gym". The level of unemployment is the only aspect of the place that really conforms to stereotype. The white bus takes us around one place of (often former) employment, though – Sharston, one of several light industrial estates which were meant to provide local work for Wythenshawe's tenants. Along here runs a railway line, to which Wythenshawe was never connected; only now, after 75 years, is it being properly connected to the city centre, via a Metrolink tram extension. Wythenshawe looks like it was built for the car, but even now it only has 40% car ownership.

The houses in Wythenshawe are mostly traditionalist, with no experiments – with the exception of the "Tin Town" in Newall Green, a mini-estate of impeccably kept, neat steel-framed prefabs, designed in 1946 by Frederick Gibberd, another cathedral designer (Liverpool, this time). We got a tour around one, home to former Durutti Column drummer Bruce Mitchell. The space standards and architectural quality are, as Griffin points out, way above those of contemporary central Manchester luxury loft living. "Seriously, sod Urban Splash."

Then, after a tour of an art deco cinema (now owned by Jehovah's Witnesses, who have restored it impeccably) and another Cheshire stately home (owned for years by Manchester city council and then English Heritage, who let it rot), the bus discharges its passengers and everyone goes home, some with longer journeys back than others.

What did we learn on the white bus? Griffin tells the passengers near the end that "I think I've shown you everything except Wythenshawe", well aware that a tour of its architectural monuments isn't enough to explain a place. Anyone who began with the assumption that "the state" or "the public sector" can only create inhumane environments would hardly be able to maintain it by the end. The bus went through a place with some astonishing public buildings, most of them derelict or seldom used, and looped between the iconic sites through pretty greens, disused wastelands and retail parks. "It works, and it doesn't work," our guide says, which sounds about right; a place with deep poverty, but where poverty might have been made more bearable through light, air and decent housing. It shouldn't need a bus and a guide to point out the seriousness and care with which places like Wythenshawe were built, but it's a start, to begin a long effort of reassessing and – hopefully – building them anew.

• More photographs of Owen Hatherley's trip around Wythenshawe are available on his Flickr page


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