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August 16 2012

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 10 2012

Edinburgh sees the light in show that will run and run

Speed of Light, an art project that sees volunteers in light suits dashing around Arthur's Seat, will illuminate the festival city

It will put some in mind of constellations forming and reforming. Others will think of sea creatures unspooling across the inky ocean floor, or of strings of delicate fairy lights shivering in the breeze. A higher than usual percentage of late-night Edinburgh revellers – 5am closing times are permitted during the festival – will presumably wonder what exactly is dancing before their eyes.

Speed of Light, a major new art project that marks this weekend's opening of the Edinburgh international festival, defies categorisation: a vast community-created spectacle that crossbreeds high-tech digital light show with ancient land art, robotic choreography with eerie sound installation. Appropriately enough for an event designed to coincide with the closing weekend of the Olympics 400 miles south in London, it also has more than a hint of endurance athletics.

Employing some 4,000 volunteer digital-light-wearing runners and walkers, for 20 nights Speed of Light is occupying one of the most dramatic spaces in this most dramatic of cityscapes: Arthur's Seat, the craggy extinct volcano that lours over Edinburgh's graceful classical buildings like a reminder of a more primitive and brutal age.

Although fragments of the show can be glimpsed from the city down below, reportedly from as far as three miles away on a clear night, the best views are reserved for those who ascend the peak on one of the nightly guided walking tours – a minor feat of endurance itself, given that Arthur's Seat is 250 metres above sea level.

Yet the challenge of being in the audience pales alongside that being taken on by the runners, according to the project's creative director, Angus Farquhar. He said: "There are 29 run leaders leading the groups each night, running 50-odd miles, ascending a total of 35,000ft over the 20 nights of the project, the equivalent of going higher than Everest."

He added: "It's public art in the truest sense. The work is made by everyone who takes part."

Farquhar has dreamed of doing a project like this for the past 25 years, but only recently perfected the technology – and found the six-figure sum – required to make it reality. Each of the runners wears a specially constructed suit studded with lights, each of which is controlled remotely. Sometimes they flash green, or red; sometimes they appear multicoloured, or throb pure white, like electricity pulsing along a cable. Their bodies dappled with these chameleonic patterns, the runners are choreographed to follow a range of moves on the dark hillside – spinning slowly around in wobbly ellipses, clustering tightly in nodes, racing together to a single point then emitting outwards like a burst of energy into black space.

"The timing requirements are meticulous," said Farquhar. "Our choreographer Litza Bixler, who works in Hollywood, said it's the hardest job she's done."

The one thing that cannot be rehearsed, naturally, is the Scottish weather: although final rehearsals have taken place in ideal conditions, the runners ascending in dusky light against coral-coloured, tranquil skies, much of the previous training has taken place in this summer's sheeting rain. More challenging still is Edinburgh's notorious haar, the easterly fog that races in from the Firth and blankets the city like soggy cotton wool.

But the international festival's artistic director, Jonathan Mills, insisted that the work's responsiveness to the environment was very much the point: "You'll experience something no matter what the weather conditions are. In fog the sound appears at a lower altitude. Even in extreme weather conditions you'll still see the light."

Speed of Light is a risk, and not just for those taking part – never before has the festival done community-led art on this scale. During the six years of Mills's stewardship it has attempted to loosen its strait-laced and somewhat starchy reputation. Two years ago the theme was the New World ; last year, Asia loomed large. This year's festival is experimenting with something its anarchic, sometimes delinquent offspring, the fringe festival, does as a matter of course: popping up where audiences least expect.

"A festival is nothing but a pop-up, in a way," said Mills. "But we're trying to do it on a large scale with some of the finest, most important and innovative artists in the world. We're constantly asking ourselves what the festival can be, who it's for."

Also new is the decision to spend nearly half a million pounds constructing three temporary, custom-made theatre spaces in an exhibition hall at Ingliston, next to Edinburgh airport. Festival audiences will be bussed out for three spectacular, immersive shows – one of which, performed by the much-garlanded French troupe Theatre du Soleil, is a genuine coup for Mills. The company's director, Ariane Mnouchkine, is regularly described as one of the world's leading theatre directors; despite travelling widely elsewhere, this is their first time in the UK for 20 years.

Another Ingliston production, a cinematic-scale version of Macbeth by the young Polish company TR Warszawa, will be live-streamed on the Guardian website on Monday – also a first. Other highlights include the arrival of the renowned Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki and a three-part visit by groundbreaking French company Ballet Preljocaj.

At the final rehearsals for Speed of Light, though, Farquhar's runners were simply concentrating on where exactly they were planting their feet on the treacherous hillside. Emma Davidson, 36, a who is running later in the week, was upbeat: "It'll look absolutely amazing, I think. As long as we don't fall over."

Five fringe and international festival highlights

• Mies Julie, Assembly Mound, until 27 August

Yael Farber's gut-wrenchingly fierce adaptation transposes Strindberg's class-ridden classic to the bitter realities of contemporary South Africa

• 2008: Macbeth, Royal Highland Centre, Saturday night until 18 August

TR Warszawa's cinematic, militarised version doesn't hold on the videogame horror. Live-streamed on the Guardian's Culture site on Monday night

• Caesarian Section – Essays on Suicide, Summerhall, until 20 August

Polyphonic singing, broken glass, howling despair – what more could you want from the fringe?

• Will Franken, Just the Tonic at the Caves until 26 August

San Francisco-based fringe rookie offers sharp-clawed standup on US culture and liberal piety.

• Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (Aurores), Royal Highland Centre, 23–28 August

Parisian collective Théâtre du Soleil are one of the world's most revered companies; this spectacular seaborne version of a posthumous novel by Jules Verne captures the 20th century on the cusp of modernity.


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August 04 2012

Edinburgh fringe theatre roundup

Peep; Still Life; Coalition; After the Rainfall; One Hour Only

On the first day of the Edinburgh festival fringe last week – "preview Wednesday", when venue staff are still wallpapering every flat surface with posters for the month's attractions, and early-up spectators wander around trying not to feel like unworldly partygoers who arrived at the exact hour written on the invitation – I was reminded how shockingly intimate fringe theatre can be.

Nudity did it. Unblinking, close-quarters nudity. Day one at Edinburgh had in previous years cast me as a reluctant hula dancer (that was 2011's Dance Marathon) and a ranging urban troublemaker (2010's En Route, asking of its participants trespass and minor acts of graffiti). This year, hardly off the train, only just done with the great annual question of whether to get a post-journey jacket potato from Tasty Tatties or a scotch pie from Auld Jock's, I was squatting down in a peep show-style booth trying to maintain a stern and professional expression while a candid play about sex unfolded six inches from my face.

Peep was an odd production, a triptych of 20-minute playlets for which the creative team had constructed a new makeshift venue outside the Pleasance Courtyard. Four actors performed in a room little bigger than a double bed, an equatorial line of one-way glass ringing the space at waist height. Behind this sat audience members, each in their own tiny compartment. We were supposed to feel sordid, peering in on performers from our cubicles, and I did. This was especially so during the short entitled "69", a montage about the pleasures and problems associated with sex in modern Britain. At one point, without warning, the semi-clothed actors spun to the glass and hovered close, glaring – giving the audience some idea of what it's like, perhaps, for the luckless who've worked in such booths in real life.

Costume, again, was an impermanent thing across town in the white-walled confines of the Whitespace gallery. Here I saw Still Life, a one-woman show about Henrietta Moraes, Francis Bacon's famous model and muse. Sue MacLaine played Moraes, clad, sometimes, in a burgundy robe, more often in nothing at all. The audience were asked to cluster around with handed-out paper to draw pencil sketches.

"I will hold this pose for one minute," said Moraes, interrupting the story of her life to stand straight-backed. "I will hold this pose for eight minutes," she said later, explaining that Bacon had once asked for her to be photographed in just such a reclining position. The resulting pictures inspired his A Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, which sold this year at Christie's for £21m. The original photographs of Moraes, meanwhile, were sold on as porn in a Soho pub. "Ten bob each."

Written by its gutsy performer MacLaine, Still Life interwove affectionate elements of biography with a more oblique sense of what it cost to be the human starting point for lasting art. Moraes was an alcoholic and heavy drug user. Bacon made her an immortal, but his close attention might have left behind trouble. At one point in the play Moraes begged her scribbling audience: "Draw me now and see if you can get beyond almost… Show it back to me. Show me myself."

Still with the sheaves of sketch paper in my pocket, I went on to the entirely different Coalition, a political comedy at the Pleasance Dome. It presented a near-future Britain, the alliance between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats almost over, the Lib Dems in ruin. No Cameron, no Clegg, the key players here were fictional, the Lib Dems led by Matt Cooper (comedian Thom Tuck), a likable weakling so beaten down by "coalition chess" he can't really remember why there should be anything wrong with the idea of 48 new British nuclear plants. An enjoyable comic play, a little baggy at 90 minutes. Good but not great.

I still wanted great – that brilliant play, seen in its first few outings at the fringe, impressive enough to make you its missionary. Everybody! Everybody! Abandon your plans, get tickets! A single gem is enough, in week one, to make all the early-bird aimlessness and guesswork of the emergent festival worthwhile. On Thursday I saw two brilliant plays, back-to-back.

After the Rainfall told a woozily complex story that strung together ideas about colonialism, revolution, social media and, somehow, ant hills; a story of parallel lives (a scientist, a spy, a sister, a student) lived out over a span of more than 70 years. The group behind the play, Curious Directive, staged a fringe hit last year, Your Last Breath, that was similarly layered, jumping about in time to tell a story about extreme human endurance. Its high point was a memorable dance sequence involving coloured string that criss-crossed the stage.

After the Rainfall needed no similar centrepiece. Its flourishes were fainter: rolling landscape, seen from the window of a low-flying plane, summoned by a simple piece of canvas being manipulated under a spot. Such subtlety characterised script and performance, the unfairness of colonial Britain's artefact-pinching, for instance, inferred not in a lecture but in a believable conversation between strangers on a train. As well as vibrant design, a strength of this rising company is a talent for compactness. After the Rainfall achieved more in a single hour than would seem possible. I left heavy with its weight, eager to sit down and think it all through.

But no time. I was straight to the uppermost floor of the Underbelly venue on Cowgate to watch a third play in two days about sexual exposure. And One Hour Only threatened, for a minute or so, to be as intense as Peep, as solemn as Still Life. In fact it was neither; instead, a terrifically simple love story, a modern Brief Encounter, staged in a brothel with the ticking away of costly minutes threatening the growing liking between prostitute Marley (Nadia Clifford) and customer AJ (Faraz Ayub). Marley and AJ are Londoners, clever and studying to better themselves, but young and naive enough to assume that their knowing, 21st-century ease with paid-for sex will never trouble them intellectually. Of course it does – the worse, over their 60 minutes together, as they begin to fall for each other.

Written by performance poet Sabrina Mahfouz (who last year impressed with dramatic monologue Dry Ice) the play did not spend much time decrying the sex trade. That has been done well, and often, at fringes past. Instead, Mahfouz made quiet study of the strange and even hostile places like-minds can find each other out. Staged in the uppermost room of the Underbelly, a hangar-like auditorium that is arguably the least cosy at the festival, One Hour Only achieved an intimacy that surpassed even those productions put on in a mocked-up peep booth, a life drawing class. The story, not the setting, forced audience proximity here. Everyone kept leaning in closer and closer.


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Edinburgh festival diary: news and gossip

Valentina makes tea, comics pose with pets and a man plays dead for a month

T stands for tedium

Bravest performer at this year's fringe? Early shout for Valentina Ceschi, one half of the duo who perform the offbeat play Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice (Underbelly). For at least 10 minutes Ceschi mimes the role of an absent-minded, tea-making elderly lady. She slowly turns on a kettle, opens cupboard doors, closes them, turns on the kettle again… It goes on and on. In opening week it's fair to say the audience were restless. Some fell to giggles and a few, inevitably, walked out. Ceschi never once flinched. Bravo!

Live on stage? Well, dead actually

A different type of commitment is being shown this month by a supporting player in Matthew Osborn's Shopping Centre at the Gilded Balloon. A man plays dead on stage for the show's entire 55-minute running time. That'll require roughly 1,500 minutes of deadness over the course of the festival. Double bravo!

Pets win prizes

It isn't looking like a vintage year for comedians' promo posters in Edinburgh (and not just because Richard Herring, in a recent broadside against the commercialisation of the fringe, likened festival poster campaigns to "atomic warfare"). There seems to be an unexpected minor vogue for portraits of standups clutching pets: Tania Edwards holds a restless cat, Jim Jeffries a sleepy-eyed dog. Pete Johansson goes for shock, smoking a crack pipe. Loretta Maine, meanwhile, illustrates her show Bipolar with a picture of two polar bears. Mm.

Does that ring a bell?

Verbatim sporting play The Prize (Underbelly) bravely teases the Olympic bother-police by putting circular award crests on its posters. This seems to suggest, from a distance, the famous rings. If we see any stage invasions of The Prize by uniformed IOC strong-arms, you'll know why.

Hooray for Harry's hobby

As well as trialling material for his forthcoming UK tour over the first few days of the fringe, Harry Hill is also showcasing his artistic talents in his first public exhibition of paintings and sculptures, My Hobby, which opened on Friday at White Stuff and runs until 2 September. Characteristically surreal, it features celebrities depicted as you've never seen them – including Philip Schofield as Munch's The Scream (it really suits him), and Britpop stars painted on coconuts. There's also a specially commissioned interview between Hill and cult artist David Shrigley.


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August 01 2012

Dieter Roth: the video-diary Rembrandt

Dieter Roth chronicled the stuff of life with a poetic, sarcastic eye. He also filmed his death in meticulous, heartbreaking detail. Jonathan Jones on the standout show of this year's Edinburgh art festival

Dieter Roth sits at his desk, wearing a silk dressing gown and a soft cap. A lamp casts a warm glow as he studies a sheet of paper in front of him. Elsewhere, on another screen, we see the German-born artist watering his plants. He turns the camera so that it catches him walking outdoors where, in pallid sunlight, he pours nutrient-enriched water into a watering can. Soon he will be dead.

Dieter Roth made Solo Scenes in 1998, the final year of his life, thanks to an illness caused by alcoholism. At this time of all times, he chose to put himself under surveillance by setting up cameras throughout his house and studios in Germany, Switzerland and Iceland, filming himself going about his daily activities. On screen after screen, 128 in all, the sick artist, born in 1930, draws, makes notes, and just sits at his desk thinking. He looks busy, but it is hard to tell if he is creating new works or simply cataloguing old ones. Cameras catch him pottering about, even sitting on the toilet. Again and again, Roth's face peers in concentration at his work. His body in the dressing gown is large, his beard noble.

As I watch Solo Scenes, on show at the Fruitmarket gallery as part of this year's Edinburgh art festival, I start to feel as if I'm looking at a Rembrandt self-portrait reimagined as a video diary. Throughout his life, the 17th-century Dutch artist painted himself, scrutinising his face from every angle, posing as a knight in armour or the Prodigal Son. Then, in old age, he showed himself with a harrowing dignity. Those final self-portraits look back at us with a terrible truth: we age, we die.

Roth must have known he looked like old Rembrandt in his farewell video. The anglepoise lamps that light his nocturnal labours give him the twilight colours of Rembrandt's kindly brush. Roth bows out with dignity, even when we see him on the loo – because, even there, he is reading, thinking.

What would you do if you had a year to live? Roth worked on. In almost every scene, he is intent on his art. Even when he is not producing, he is thinking about producing. Thinking, thinking. It is his dedication and his seriousness that come across. Once you know what he was facing, this autumnal kaleidoscope of flickering screens becomes an emotional tidal wave. Solo Scenes is about what we do in the face of death – and what Roth does is insist on life. From scribbling on a pad to caring for his plants, he clings to its everyday beauty.

People video themselves in every moment, every embarrassment, these days. Art needs structure. Roth was more controlled. Cameras are placed at carefully chosen positions to capture powerful shots of this private world. The formal composition lends this intimate work grandeur, the sense of planning and order adding to the feeling of self-discipline in the face of disaster. It's what makes this such a harrowing encounter with the big things.

Who was Dieter Roth that his passing was so special? He was one of the most elusive and brilliant artists of the late 20th century. His works, the fragments of his sprawling creativity that can be seen in museums or tracked in private collections, include an old zinc bathtub filled with chocolate-covered busts of Beethoven; and an installation called Bar 2, a fully functioning bar complete with overflowing ashtrays.

Roth, from that generation of redemptive Germanic artists who emerged in the 1960s, looked at the stuff of modern life with a sarcastic, poetic eye. He kept diaries in which he worked out all his ideas and sketched out all his fantasies. In this exhibition, his diaries are shown as works of art in their own right, allowing us a glimpse into his reeky creative mind. One series of drawings seems to show his own head exploding into cosmic squiggles and monstrous caricatures. Another, sketched on a visit to Chicago, depicts his guardian angel.

Although an extraordinary draughtsman, Roth was not interested in turning that skill into something he could sell. His attitude to money, success and the consumer society is summed up in Flat Waste, his most stupefying diary of all. On rows of tidy shelves sit scores of files, each containing a month's worth of waste from his studio (anything that was less than 5mm thick). Plastic binders hold the detritus. Scrap paper. More scrap paper. A Gauloises cigarette pack. A Marlboro cigarette pack. Hotel stationary. A torn-up bill. The stuff of life, the stuff of death.

Few artists so fulfilled the great 20th-century tradition of art, begun with Dada, that spurns all self-indulgence, ultimately becoming identical to real life. The fact that he kept his beauty for his diaries, and rigorously avoided summing up his achievement in any saleable, elegant form, makes Roth, after his death, a monumental human archive – one that's just beginning to be opened up in this important, heartbreaking exhibition.

As an intense and inward artist from northern Europe, Roth would have warmed to the spooky fjords and winter suns in Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape, at the Scottish National Gallery (also part of the festival). In the late 19th century, artists began to look at the world through spectacles tinged absinthe green and suicidal black. Symbolism rejected outward appearances in favour of inner truth. The world is shown in shockingly subjective ways: mountains became nightmarish symbols of death, the sea a phantom.

This excellent survey excels at setting the titans of the age – Van Gogh, Gauguin, Munch, Monet – alongside the less well known and sometimes wickedly eccentric artists. With its radiating sea and sky captured in unreal colours, Albert Trachsel's The Island of Blossoming Trees (Dream Picture) looks like a psychedelic album cover, yet it was painted around 1912. And if you thought The Killing was an eerie journey into Scandinavian bleakness, take a look at Eugene Jansson's 1899 painting of Riddarfjärden: the Stockholm lake is transformed into a pool of midnight darkness strangely illuminated by phosphorescent sea creatures, with a horizon tinted blood-red.

It is enough to send you running to the nearest comedy venue.

• Both shows end 14 October. Details: edinburghartfestival.com


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July 27 2012

Susan Philipsz guns for glory at Edinburgh festival – the week in art

The Turner prizewinner's voice will ring out across the city in response to Edinburgh Castle's One O'Clock Gun. And did we heed Martin Creed's Olympic bell-ringing cry? – all in today's weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week

Susan Philipsz
The One O'Clock Gun is fired nearly every day from Edinburgh Castle in a tradition dating from 1861. It once had a practical function as a message to shipping. At this year's Edinburgh festival, it becomes the focus for a meeting of the city's cheerful tourist side and coolest artistic ambitions as Turner prizewinner Susan Philipsz installs sound works around the city that respond to the gun at 1pm daily. Her voice replying to the gun can be heard by Nelson's Monument on Calton Hill, in Old Calton Cemetery, on North Bridge, Waverley Bridge, next to the National Gallery on The Mound, and in West Princes Street Gardens.
Edinburgh art festival, Edinburgh from 2 August until 2 September

Other exhibitions this week

Callum Innes
This Edinburgh painter works with light to illuminate the underside of a beautiful bridge.
• Regent Bridge, Calton Road, Edinburgh from 2 August until 2 September.

Dieter Roth
An intimate encounter with a fascinating European artist.
Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh from 2 August until 14 October

Catherine the Great
This great patron of the 18th-century Enlightenment is celebrated with treasures from the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh until 21 October

Ian Hamilton Finlay
The poet and artist whose garden is a national treasure gets a welcome showing in the Edinburgh art festival.
• Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh from 2 August until 27 October

Masterpiece of the week

Goya, El Médico (The Doctor)

This shadowy vision of the human predicament is one of the most haunting paintings in Edinburgh's greatest art collection.
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

Image of the week

What we learned this week

How a 10km-long computer "cemetery" in Ghana provides an income for many of the people living there – and how photographer Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo is bringing its health risks to light

That Diana Athill remembers a London when Kew was exotic, Selfridges was vulgar and all men wore bowler hats

Why Tino Sehgal's work at Tate Modern is the most difficult and dangerous project director Chris Dercon has ever put in the museum

That more and more people are creating DIY photobooks, spawning a collection that celebrates "naughty pics"

That Chief Joseph's shirt auctioned for $900,000

That two men have been charged with stealing a Henry Moore sundial

And finally

Post your personal images that sum up what London means to you on the Guardian Art and Design Flickr page

Share your art on the theme of sport now

Check out our Tumblr

Follow us on Twitter

Are you the person the Contemporary Art Society are looking for?


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July 26 2012

Will you ring Martin Creed's bell?

Artist Martin Creed has asked us all to ring a bell on the first day of the Olympics. Creed believes in public art of the collective, but what does it really mean if we all ring a bell at once?

Everything is going to be alright. Those are the words Martin Creed wrote in neon in one of his public artworks. This white-light message has been seen on buildings all over the world. I have read it in Hackney, in Milan. Maybe it should have been written around the Olympic stadium to reflect the hope that, as one of Europe's most struggling economies hosts the world's biggest sporting event, this will boost us, save us, put some Olympic fire in our finances.

Instead, Creed is asking everyone in Britain to ring a bell tomorrow morning at 8.12am to mark the first day of the 2012 Olympiad. Even Big Ben will be chiming in. But what's it all about?

I have to confess I am still not sure if I will be ringing a bell. Something in me resists it – but at least the resistance is making me aware of the meaning of Creed's public art. He loves community. He believes in the collective. That message he put up high – Everything is going to be alright – is a message for everyone, encouraging and embracing. His roomful of balloons is similarly a work to share. And his marble staircase in Edinburgh is a throwaway luxury for everyone.

A lot of works by Creed are unnerving. The lights go on and off. His songs insist on the reality of nothing. An artist who worries about nothingness and darkness reassures himself and us by promoting the wisdom of crowds.

Will the big bell-ring work? It has plenty of institutional support. In Edinburgh, a bell-ringing session will take place on Creed's Scotsman Steps. So why am I feeling resistant?

The collective is not a straightforward ideal. It means conformity as well as community. I want to know more about what Creed means by his glorification of collective acts. What does it mean to all ring bells in unison, and what does he want it to mean? Is it a glib gesture or something deeper – and if it is deeper, what is it seriously saying?

Of course, I might find this out by ringing a bell. And that may actually be the best reason for doing so.

• If you'd like to ring in the Olympics, you can select a sound from our bell-ringing interactive


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June 28 2012

Street artist Shepard Fairey unveils largest mural in the UK

The artist responsible for the Obama 'Hope' posters has made a 10-storey artwork broadcasting the power of free speech over London during 2012

London Pleasure Gardens, a new event space in Newham, today unveiled important new artworks by several prominent US street artists. The unveiling coincides with the official launch of the London Pleasure Gardens on Saturday 30 June.

The most prominent new work is by California's Shepard Fairey, also known as Obey, who has painted a huge mural in his characteristic black, white and red, of a megaphone that "projects free speech great distances". Fairey said: "I am really happy to be associated with LPG … it will be something that unsuspecting Olympic enthusiasts will stumble across. The mural symbolises freedom of speech and expression and is the tallest piece I have ever done." Fairey's megaphone mural is over 10 storeys high and is visible from Pontoon Dock DLR station.

Fairey started making street art stickers in 1989, which evolved into the iconic Obey stickers and posters featuring the face of now-deceased wrestler Andre the Giant that were posted worldwide. Fairey is best known in 2008 for his red, white and blue Hope posters, used in Barack Obama's US election campaign.

Other artists involved include Ron English, featured in the films Supersize Me and Exit Through the Giftshop; TrustoCorp from New York, who twist corporate branding for their own purposes, and LA's Risk. Ron English has painted the nose cone of a jumbo jet and speech bubbles on hoardings on the site. Risk's colourfully painted bus is another highlight.

The artwork has immediately established London Pleasure Gardens as an important hub for street art in London, and confirms London's importance as a major street art centre globally.

The directors of the London Pleasure Gardens have a long track record of arranging large shows featuring national and international street artists. Another of their projects, Mutate Britain (a play on Tate Britain) in 2008, included a large exhibition in Ladbroke Grove, west London, under the Westway flyover called One Foot in the Grove. London Pleasure Gardens director Garfield Hackett said of the project: "The pleasure gardens of old showed the positive effect that sharing in art and culture can have on London. We can't wait for people to join us here to see what we're creating."


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Photography festivals

There are more than 100 photo festivals around the world where professionals can swap ideas and gain contacts. But where does the newly qualified photographer fit in?

As a picture editor, I'm often asked by new and emerging photographers how best to break into the business. A decade ago, the answer would have been fairly straightforward – opt for a good photography degree, spend time building a print portfolio, assist for a few years and after getting a bit of experience and some contacts, hit an unsuspecting world and hope for the best. But then along came digital photography and the world of social networking and blogging, offering anyone who owned a camera the chance to showcase their work to a global audience of potentially millions – for a fraction of the cost of a portfolio.

Cheaper cameras that are easier to use and which produce images that can be downloaded or deleted in seconds have created a new generation of "throwaway" photographers – enthusiasts who are happy to sell their images and labour, often at knock-down prices. These days, most of us own a digital camera. This democratisation of photography has created a greater interest in the medium as both an art and commercial tool, which can only be a good thing. But for the new photographer still struggling for his or her big break, this over-saturation of images in an already overcrowded market has meant standing out in this rapidly changing industry is now tougher than ever before.

And then there's the recession. With the economic climate affecting all areas of publishing, many new photographers are finding it even more difficult than before to break into editorial photography. Some now look to photo festivals as an opportunity to gain access to elusive editors and agents, to attend workshops and generally become part of a global network of photographers.

With more than 100 photo festivals around the world to choose from, and new ones springing up each year, their popularity shows no signs of waning. For the industry professional and professional photographer alike, photo festivals are often crucial for making valuable contacts, keeping up with trends and creating a space where ideas can be exchanged away from the pressures of daily deadlines. But what do they offer the newly qualified photographer with fewer contacts and even less experience of networking? Are they really worth the airfare? Or would the money be better spent adding finishing touches to that newly designed website? To answer this, I looked at three European photo festivals.

Founded in 1970, the Rencontres d'Arles festival, held in a picturesque region of the south of France, is one of the oldest and most prestigious of photography events. Last year, more than 70,000 photo enthusiasts, collectors and professionals descended on the medieval city to view an eclectic mix of exhibitions and multimedia shows. The most important date in the calendar is opening week, when commissioning editors and agents fly in from around the world to view exclusive shows and hunt for unpublished photo stories. In addition to the wealth of photography exhibitions on display, there's the opportunity to network at the evening screenings of slideshows and presentations, held in the city's spectacular Roman amphitheatre. A competition, presented by festival curators and editors, gives the viewer a chance to vote for their favourite artist. The winner is then revealed at one of the final evening screenings. One of the themes of last year's festival was "republic", which included a body of work from a diverse group of Mexican photographers. The exhibition coincided with the country's recent centennial anniversary of the Mexican revolution.

Kate Edwards, picture editor of the Guardian's Weekend magazine has been a regular attendee at Arles since 2004. In her view, photo festivals are a great way of keeping up to date with current trends: "Being at Arles gives you a chance to meet with photography professionals and other photographers from around the world in an informal setting. There's the opportunity to discuss projects and get a feel for what's happening in the industry. There's a large portfolio review section with a variety of distinguished reviewers but, more interestingly, Arles' squares and cafes during this time lend themselves to chance encounters with people who are passionate about photography. This can make for some very stimulating exchanges of ideas and opinions. I always return from Arles with a renewed enthusiasm for photography and its possibilities."

In an equally photogenic location is Photo España. Madrid's premier annual photo festival is a huge affair for the city and one of the capital's biggest summer tourist attractions, bringing in 600,000 visitors each year. From May to July, participants can see a vast array of exhibitions that range from the historical (such as last year's Jacques Henri Lartigue retrospective) to art photography and photojournalism. Masterclasses by leading photographers are also offered, giving participants the opportunity to learn from those at the top of their game. Last year, I attended the festival as a portfolio reviewer and spent a week with a group of curators and editors viewing the work of new, established and emerging photographers. Participants were of all ages; some had travelled from as far as Mexico and Argentina. They came from all walks of life. Among them, I met a priest from Devon who took pictures of cremations and coffins in his spare time, and a retired Spanish housewife who was passionate about boxing. The quality of the work ranged from beginner to outstanding. I viewed photographs that wouldn't have looked out of place in a London gallery, while others would struggle to get published anywhere. But what each participant clearly had in common was a commitment to and a passion for photography. They all seemed to enjoy the opportunity to pitch ideas and stories and made the most of the feedback given. Most had funded the trip themselves and were already planning their next festival. I found their determination and enthusiasm inspiring, and came away with a collection of business cards, some of which I hope to make full use of in the future.

If the thought of attending a large-scale festival seems a daunting prospect, there are always smaller, "boutique-style" ones to choose from. One example of this is the Lucca Digital Photo festival (website currently under reconstruction) held in one of Tuscany's beautiful historic towns. Although the festival is little known outside of Italy, last year's event was co-curated by VII, one of the world's leading photojournalism agencies. There was another chance to see the winning entries of the 2011 World Press photo awards and the festival's Eastern theme included exhibitions by Nobuyoshi Araki and Kenro Izu. A session with Italian Magnum photographer Ferdinando Scianni followed workshops and debates led by South African photographer Jodi Bieber and US photojournalist Christopher Morris. Although last year's events were conducted mainly in Italian, there are future plans to have more English translators.

Elisabeth Biondi, the visuals editor of the New Yorker magazine for the last 16 years and now an independent curator and photography consultant, was one of the participants of last year's festival in Lucca. She led a two-day workshop (in English) on photo editing for photographers. In her opinion, smaller photo festivals are a great idea for the newer photographer. "When you're young or just starting out in photography, you want to be exposed to a lot of professional people," she says. "With smaller photo festivals, you get a chance to meet the organisers and guests, as they often make more of an effort to network."

Does she think it's more important to attend photo festivals for the portfolio reviews or to see shows? "Shows are engaging, but you don't have to attend photo festivals to see them. Networking is definitely more important. All festivals offer portfolio reviews but they can be good or bad, depending on the person doing the reviewing. Reviews are done for money and there are some photo festivals out there that take anyone. So it's important before committing to look at who's reviewing." She also uses festivals as an opportunity to discover new talent: "Whenever I attend a festival, I always try to find one photographer whose work I can champion. If I manage to find one person, then I'm happy."

Laura Lezza, 36, a photojournalist from Tuscany, is a good example of someone who has benefitted from being in the right place at the right time. A trip to Perpignan's premier photojournalism festival kickstarted her career as a Getty news photographer. "I went to Perpignan after having worked for a local newspaper. It was a kind of school for me. I came to look at exhibitions and see the quality and standard of photojournalism around the world. I got talking to someone from Getty Images and was given the opportunity to show her my portfolio. She turned out to be the president of Getty Images in Italy. She liked my work and ended up giving me a job on my return." Lezza says that if she had more time and money she would go to even more festivals: "Photography can be a lonely occupation. Going to Perpignan made me realise that there was a community of photographers out there that I wanted to be a part of."

Not everyone will be as lucky as Lezza when it comes to bagging a job at a festival, and perhaps the secret to success is not to expect miracles while you're there. If you happen to make valuable contacts, then, of course, it's been money well spent. But if you don't, console yourself with the fact that you've spent time immersed in the world of photography. You'll have had the chance to share your passions and ideas with a community of individuals whose eyes won't glaze over when you start waxing lyrical about Walker Evans. To top it all, there are always exhibitions to see and the opportunity to discover, explore and photograph another part of the world. And what could be more pleasurable than that?

Photo festivals in the UK

Brighton Photo Biennial

Photomonth 10, east London

Format International festival of photography, Derby


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June 22 2012

Constructive criticism: the week in architecture

Ahead of the Olympics, the London Festival of Architecture transforms East End dockland into a giant pleasure garden; and it's Dame on for Zaha Hadid

The Olympics warm-up is in danger of overheating before we even get round to the sports, but alongside the pan-cultural London 2012 festival, which began yesterday, let's not forget the London Festival of Architecture, which takes over the capital for three weeks starting 23 June. Of course, there's an Olympic slant to proceedings, but in a good way. The theme is "The Playful City", and events are mercifully free of either Union Jack-waving or serious international competitiveness. At times it looks more It's a Knockout, with enticingly silly events like an Urban Picnic Contest, a children's game to create public spaces, painting by catapult and urban guerrilla ping pong.

There's still a serious side: some of the LFA's playful, temporary installations have paved the way for permanent changes to the city. Literally in the case of Kensington's Exhibition Road. Dixon Jones's new "shared space" layout there was first road-tested four years ago at the LFA. Some of this year's interventions are here to stay, like Gibbons Rents, an obscured cut-through close to the Shard that has been smartened up with plants and low-cost materials, courtesy of Australian architect Andrew Burns and landscape expert Sarah Eberle.

Here are three more highlights:

London Pleasure Gardens

A 20-acre piece of spare dockland (close to Pontoon Dock DLR) becomes a new communal space for up to 35,000 people, drawing on London's forgotten history of pleasure gardens. There'll be food, drink, music, performance and art to entice crowds from the nearby Olympic site – and facilities including a floating cocktail lounge, performance venues, a nature reserve and an "art hotel". A host of architects have been let loose on follies, pools, "Hanging Gardens" and other installations for the festival. Even the seating has been designed by architecture students. The Pleasure Gardens open properly on 30 June.

International Architecture and Design Showcase 2012

The rest of the world is invited to the festival via this British Council-organised event, which takes place in embassies, galleries and national cultural institutes across London. The exhibitions range from Home, an exploration of Arab notions of housing to the Netherlands' "Nolympics" exhibition of unrealised Dutch Olympic architecture, from prestige Italian designer Pininfarina to lesser seen work from countries like Namibia, Serbia and the Caribbean.

Bureau Spectacular: Three Little Worlds

Not your typical architect, Chicago-based Canadian-Taiwanese Jimenez Lai uses comic-book panels as much as architectural drawing to express his ideas. There's a sci-fi open-mindedness to his work, anchored by an emphasis on human stories. One of his stories speculates a zero-gravity space city, for example, where walls, floors and ceilings are interchangeable – he then built a revolving mock-up of a capsule. Lai will live and work in a trio of capsules he's built in the Architecture Foundation's office, from which he will launch his first graphic novel and host public events. The Sad People in Modernist Homes in Popular Films Slumber Party sounds intriguing.

In other news, it's been a week of awards in British architecture, which means winners and losers. The big news was the announcement of the RIBA's annual awards. The process has been streamlined and the bar set higher this year, with just 50 awards for England and Wales and nine from abroad and no regional awards – as opposed to 100-odd winners in previous years. Big winners include Stanton Williams, who received three awards for their Hackney Marshes Centre, their University of the Arts campus in London, and their Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge. And, inevitably, David Chipperfield, with his Hepworth Wakefield and Turner Contemporary in Margate. Six of the award winners will be selected for the Stirling prize shortlist, announced mid-July.

If there was a big loser, it was Zaha Hadid, who misses out on the chance to make it three Stirling prizes in a row by having no buildings selected. Not even the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, which also failed to make the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland's own inaugural architecture awards. Hadid did get a consolation prize though, from the Queen. In the Birthday Honours list last week, she was awarded the title Dame Commander of the British Empire for services to architecture. Is she the first architect to become a dame? Not if you count Rupert Murdoch's 103-year-old mother, who's also an honorary fellow of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects.

And farewell to Austrian architect Gunther Domenig, who died this week aged 77. He was little known in this country, but he carried the torch for a more theatrical architectural mode through the 1960s and 70s, when many of his European contemporaries were more interested in ultra-rational modernism. His work can be compared to (and might well have influenced) more conspicuous Americans like Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Thom Mayne, with its radical geometries and unconventional forms. His compatriot Wolf D Prix, head of Co-Op Himmeblau, praised Domenig and Wallner's astounding, surrealistic Z-Bank branch in Vienna, which looks like something out of an Alien movie. "Long before the convoluted computer architects started using parametric tools to give their lame design a boost, Domenig had not only designed the first three-dimensional facade, but actually built it, too," said Prix. The other pilgrimage site for Domenig fans is his own, fantastically space-age Steinhaus, which he constantly added to over the past 30 years – a testbed for his singular inventiveness, and now a monument to an extraordinary mind.


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June 11 2012

On the trail of the pink-legged greyhound

It lasts 100 days, boasts 200 artists and features 400 paintings of apples … Adrian Searle hits Documenta 13 – and gets trapped in a live game show

A gentle but relentless breeze, courtesy of British artist Ryan Gander, blows through the Fridericianum in Kassel, one of the world's oldest museums. Three small sculptures by Julio Gonzáles, first shown at the second Documenta show in 1959, stand in the draught. It's the wind of history, an air of uncertainty and impermanence. We are blown about.

Kassel's history and Germany's are unavoidable at Documenta 13, which opened on Saturday. The show fills the city, from the train station to Karlsaue park, from Kassel's museums to its theatres and cinemas, from houses to hotel ballrooms. Documenta takes place every five years, lasts 100 days, and features 200 artists. You might even be tempted to travel further: to Kabul, where an Afghan outpost of the exhibition continues; or to Alexandria, Cairo and Banff, where more related events are taking place.

Tacita Dean has brought the mountains of Afghanistan to Kassel, filling a former banking hall with enormous, beautiful blackboard drawings. Some are near-empty, just turbid blackness; others are filled with moiling rapids and rushing rivers. There are sunlit mountaintops, dusty avalanches, chalky wipe-outs. The six panels are a sort of storyboard, an evocation of an elsewhere. Dean's drawings are, I think, about time: geological time, the flash of a life, a passing thought.

"I'll just keep on till I get it right," sings Tammy Wynette, in a snatch of song by Ceal Floyer. Over and over Wynette sings the phrase. In a nearby room hang still lifes by Giorgio Morandi, among some of the vessels and objects he painted and repainted, year after year, in his dusty room in Bologna. Morandi was always doing the same thing, but always making it new. Documenta is full of such interruptions: new and ancient things, the living and the dead, mysteries and miseries.

Here are 400 beautiful, modest postcard-sized paintings of different varieties of apple, by Bavarian pastor and artist Korbinian Aigner. Imprisoned for his anti-Nazi sermons, Aigner worked as a gardener in Dachau and Sachsenhausen, where he cultivated several new varieties, one for each year of his internment. There's pathos here, among these rows of painted apples.

I sense a theme: repetition, perhaps, the endless return. But as soon as you grasp for it, it is snatched away in favour of something else. Here are some chips of rock, fragments of the Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. And there a bag of marble dust – actually carved from a single chunk of marble by Sam Durant. And after the apples comes a room of hi-tech devices, working experiments devised by quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger and the physics faculty at the University of Vienna. The machines wink, dials twitch, numbers gabble across screens. One needs to make time to pause, even though these are things I shall never understand.

So much can be found in a single image or object. There's a whole history in Lee Miller's photograph of herself taking a bath in Hitler's tub at his Berlin apartment. At the Neue Galerie, a whole century seethes in Geoffrey Farmer's Leaves of Grass, a vast field of grass whose leaves are thousands of pictures cut from five decades of Life magazine.

Documenta was founded as an adjunct to the local horticultural show in 1955, devoting its first exhibition to Entartete Kunst, the art the Nazis had deemed degenerate. Since this modest beginning, Documenta has grown in importance. It is above all serious, and tries to stay away from the flim-flam of artworld tourism and junketing. There are unforgettable moments in the current Documenta, confrontations that thrill me, speculations that unnerve me, places (as well as artworks) that haunt me.

Documenta also has its funny side. Somehow, I got myself coerced into a bizarre and incomprehensible live game show played inside a mountain of mud, devised by Michael Portnoy. Out of 30 contestants, I won. The only prize was the opportunity to leave. The questions were pure psychobabble, as were the answers. Somehow my use of the word floccinaucinihilipilification clinched it, while also neatly describing the ludicrous event itself.

One of the most astonishing moments comes as you wander the vast landscaped park between the city's museums and the river. Among the trees are mounds of broken-up asphalt and Tarmac. There are craters, puddles, muddy paths. It is as if some great work was begun here, then interrupted. Great stands of nettles and strange plants flourish: nightshade, poisonous legumes, convolvulus, digitalis, Afghan poppies, cannabis, aphrodisiacs, psychotropic plants.

In a clearing at the centre of this enclosed world sits a statue of a reclining woman, whose head writhes with bees, like thoughts buzzing. Somewhere, too, is a man, drawing his surroundings; and two lithe Spanish greyhounds, one of whom has a leg dyed pink. It's all wonderful and mysterious. I confess I never actually saw the dogs, though I came here twice. It was disappointing, but gave the creatures a mythical status as I searched among the craters and spoiled earth, the overgrown earthworks and an uprooted Joseph Beuys oak tree. Somehow, I felt a terrible sadness at being in the world. It was like being in an abandoned battlefield. This is all a work by France's Pierre Huyghe. "Live things and inanimate things, made and not made," reads Huyghe's description of his materials.

I stand at the end of a station platform at the Hauptbahnhof and listen to Susan Philipsz's Study for Strings, the music ebbing and flowing amid the railway noise, and look across to platform 13, where the Jews once departed. I travel out of the city to the former Benedictine monastery at Breitenau, its Romanesque chapel turned into a PoW camp in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. It later became a workhouse and prison for indigents and prostitutes, then a Gestapo-run camp for political prisoners and, following the war, a reformatory for women. Now it is a rehab clinic. From the 19th century until today, the local protestant church has been housed in the same building.

Breitenau, according to Documenta's artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, is a palimpsest of all its earlier uses and a psycho-geographical locus for her project. She has a multiplicity of themes, including siege, hope, retreat and stage. All this takes some unravelling. Gunnar Richter's slide show documenting Breitenau is also on show in Karlsaue park.

"This variation, 2012," says a voice in a pitch-black room. It's part of Tino Sehgal's magnificent performance piece behind a decaying Huguenot house. Performers stamp and sing, whisper, holler and dance. They go through little routines as I stumble between them. Sehgal's exhilarating This Variation is among the best things in Documenta, as is choreographer Jérôme Bel's Disabled Theatre, a confrontational performance made in collaboration with actors with learning difficulties. Both Bel's and Sehgal's work concern presence and presentness, what it means to be a spectator.

Making sense of the world, let alone art or even yourself, is an unending process. We are bound to miss our step. Curating is essentially a matter of choices, the juxtaposition of work against work, artist against artist, place against place. The best exhibitions generate their own kind of sense. Christov-Bakargiev's skills are largely intuitive. She's feeling her way, as must we. She doesn't tell us what to think and has made a generous, full-blooded Documenta that touches many nerves.


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May 21 2012

Beam me up, Site festival: Conquistador heads for the rafters

Why is a new film installation by Ali Kayley and Dan Glaister, which shows America as a place of perpetual immigration, being shown in an ancient barn in the Cotswolds?

I am in an ancient barn in the Cotswolds, negotiating pitfalls in the timeworn cobbled floor in darkness, as a clicking and whirring projector casts the glowing twilit image of an American freeway on to a big screen. Time and space feel dislocated – between barn and projector, but also within the haunting imagery on screen.

As thousands of cars stream forward on the freeway, their headlights bright white and red against the mellow fire of a California sunset, a figure in a Spanish 16th-century helmet and breastplate trudges in the same direction, beside a fence that runs parallel to the road. Two worlds, two times, seem held in tension: the time of cars, the time of walking; the time of Spanish colonialism, the time of the United States.

The walker in Ali Kayley's and Dan Glaister's film is a South American migrant worker returning home – but also a mythic Conquistador returning south. As the barn door opens wider, shadows part to reveal another dimension to the installation: the film is spooled out all around the high rafters of the barn, in an elaborate pathway that somehow functions as a conveyor belt feeding the projector. It seems to me to represent the long and compacted paths of migration that take human beings across worlds and time zones.

Conquistador is a set of three 16mm film installations that see America as a place of perpetual immigration. Another film in the barn shows Californian starlings gathering for their annual migration to south America: they swirl in a bizarre Brownian motion as they prepare to set off. The feet of this variety of starling have atrophied, so they tend to fly whenever they are awake. It is an image of restlessness. As the Texas troubadour Townes van Zandt sang, "To live's to fly ..."

In the centre of Stroud at the premises of the Site festival, an art festival that runs in the town until 31 May and opened with an installation by Darren Almond, the third part of Conquistador is running. As film loops and spins around the gallery (mind you don't trip over it ...) in a tortuous migratory path, the same defeated-looking "conquistador" trudges up a hillside. It looks incredibly hot. The California sky this time is deep blue, the colour of the jeans the walker wears under his armour. Finally he gets to the top of the hill – and his helmet falls off. He turns to catch it, only to see it bump back down the steep path. In a nifty bit of editing, he is suddenly back at the bottom of the hill, putting it on. The hill seems tiny with him in the foreground but as he starts upward, its height becomes apparent. At the top of the path, his hat falls off again. It is an endless loop, a Sisyphean ordeal without end as he seems fated never to cross the top of that hill. This conquistador never will reach that peak in Darien.

It seems amazing to be seeing an installation like this in the heart of England. But Site is typical of art festivals that now make avant garde visual culture a routine part of British life, in this case in a shop front just across the road from the fish and chip shop. But back at the pastoral venue where the other films that make up Conquistador are showing, the juxtaposition between California and the English countryside, global migration and rural tranquility, is even more striking. The valley where Conquistador is showing in a barn was the home of Laurie Lee, the setting of his famous memoir Cider with Rosie. Walking across the fields we come to the pub where he used to drink (it serves beer as well as cider). It's as if nothing here has ever changed. In reality, of course, the world changes all the time – but in different loops, on paths that are non-synchronous. Film, itself an archaic medium, whirls around that barn, and as the film crosses the rafters it degrades, is scarred and marked. Returning from the pub, there are already more scratches on the image of the freeway than there were when I saw it earlier. Catch it this weekend, and there will be more scratches still.


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April 26 2012

Hunt launches London 2012 Festival

From a bouncy-castle Stonehenge to Jay-Z, the Olympic festival will feature 12,000 events at 900 venues across the UK

It will include a bouncy-castle Stonehenge, a retrospective of British women's comedy, extreme sports choreography, a world record improv attempt and, organisers of the London 2012 Festival sincerely hope, the loudest national ringing of bells that has ever been heard anywhere. There will also be a cast of stars and artists that run from Damon Albarn to Jay-Z through names that will probably never again appear on the same bill including Tracey Emin, Stephen Fry, George Benjamin, Mike Leigh and Rihanna.

The £52m London 2012 Festival, which launched on Thursday, is the culmination of the cultural olympiad and is meant as a showstopper – a blinding array of arts events across the UK between 21 June and 9 September, staged in the spirit of "once in a lifetime".

The culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, launched the festival and its 140-page brochure at the Tower of London, and while he did not have the demeanour of a minister under siege, he spoke only about the programme and did not hang around to take questions.

"This festival is a celebration of the remarkable culture that we have in our country," said Hunt. "And in this very special year when we will be in the global spotlight as never before in our lifetimes, this festival encapsulates all that we are proud of. The range is extraordinary. There will, absolutely, be something for everyone."

Ruth Mackenzie, who was brought in two years ago to get a somewhat listing ship back on course, said it would be the largest cultural celebration of our lifetime. "I am confident that we are going to see some quite remarkable work and work that we're never going to forget.

"The challenge for our festival is to match up to the achievements of the Olympic and Paralympic Games with a once in a lifetime chance to share something with amazing artists from around the world."

The festival will involve more than 25,000 artists, with 12,000 events at 900 venues, including 130 world premieres and 86 UK premieres.

Many of the festival events were known already, but new details were announced in the pop, fashion and comedy programmes. In the last there will be a retrospective of women in British comedy, from Joyce Grenfell to Victoria Wood; a season looking at the role that the Hackney Empire has played in radical comedy since Charlie Chaplin took to the stage there more than 100 years ago; topical comedy shows at the Criterion Theatre hosted by Stephen Fry; Tim Minchin at the Eden Project in Cornwall; and Neil Mullarkey leading a world record improv attempt in Barnsley.

There will also be a barge full of comedians – called the Tales of the Riverbank Comedy Barge – travelling from London to Edinburgh with impromptu gigs and masterclasses along the way.

In fashion, the festival has paired designers and visual artists to work together for one-off commissions at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It will include Giles Deacon with Jeremy Deller, Jonathan Saunders with Jess Flood-Paddock and Stephen Jones with Cerith Wyn Evans. Mackenzie said: "It is one of our most thrilling experiments in getting artists to beyond their personal bests, as they say in the world of games."

The pop highlights will be the Radio 1 Hackney weekend, where 100,000 people are expected for a lineup that includes Jack White, Florence + The Machine, Jessie J and will.i.am. A new free festival in Newport, Busk on the Usk, will include Scritti Politti, meaning that its lead singer, Green Gartside, will perform in his own city for the first time.

There will be lots of pop-up events, said Mackenzie, not least one in the true sense of the word with artist Jeremy Deller touring the nation with a bouncy castle in the shape of and the size of Stonehenge.

Some events have had question marks over them, including the artist Martin Creed's plan to get as many people as possible to ring a bell at 8am on 27 July. There was initial scepticism from church bellringers but Mackenzie said everyone was now signed up, including the Royal Navy, which would ring ships' bells. "This is one of my favourite examples of participation and inclusion," said Mackenzie. If anyone does not have a bell they can download one for their phone.


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April 24 2012

The new Scottish colourists

Charles Rennie Mackintosh spattered with paint, a diamond forged in the UK riots, and a bouncy Stonehenge: Adrian Searle has a ball in Glasgow

'Make art so bad they turn away from it, turn back to life," wrote the US artist Paul Thek in one of his notebooks. There's a lesson there, but it's a strategy that could easily backfire. Thek's sketchbooks and drawings fill vitrine after vitrine at the Modern Institute in Glasgow. You could spend all day poring over them, with their landscape watercolours and drawings, bits of bodies, Christ as an erect penis, pages of poems, thoughts on art and religious sentiment. Thek died in 1988. Having been a leading – if not cult – figure in US art in the 1960s and 70s, he ended up disillusioned and marginalised, but clung on to art even as Aids claimed him. His posthumous career is only now gaining ground.

This quiet, essentially archival show is the most surprising thing in this year's Glasgow Festival of Visual Art, though Wolfgang Tillmans at the Common Guild is captivating, too. Displayed in casually elegant arrays, in odd corners and on the stairs, Tillmans' images take us from total photographic abstraction to a tiny black-and-white image of bare trees, from a colourful closeup of a car's headlight to a portrait of an onion.

Tillmans' sense of display – the jumps in scale, the shifts in subject and focus in works that are hung high and low across the walls – echoes our own drifts in concentration. Richard Wright's drawings on paper at Kelvingrove art gallery attempt something similar. There are even some up by the air vents and over the doorways. Architectural fantasies and echoes of Islamic calligraphy, mad whorls and symmetry buried in chaos: Wright makes you wonder how he works with such feverish concentration for so many hours, days, months. Rhythm and pace hold it all together.

The same is true of a couple of shows at the Centre for Contemporary Arts. Rob Kennedy is as much curator as artist, and has insinuated weird, enigmatic films into the workshop areas and storage spaces of the CCA, as well as in the main galleries. He's even balanced monitors in piles of rubbish amassed from the dismantled walls of previous shows. Amid it all hangs a dark Walter Sickert painting from 1907, called Jack the Ripper's Bedroom. Sickert's landlady suggested the ripper might have been her previous tenant. It is a haunted, evil painting, bad enough to make you want to turn back to life, as Thek suggested – or at least go outdoors.

What I like best at the CCA is the small installation upstairs by Charlotte Prodger. A big 1970s boom-box plays Prodger's descriptions of visiting a gay club in Berlin, her thoughts on dance music (she's also a DJ), space, light and being in the world. Thek might have approved. On monitors, little films ripped from YouTube show a young man carefully cutting up trainers and swapping another pair with his boyfriend. It's all very queer: a space of dangerous liaisons, splices and cuts. It has something to do with Prodger's love-hate relationship with structuralist film-making, she says, which provides a sort of bass line to her art.

On a makeshift platform in the Mackintosh Gallery at the Glasgow School of Art, sculptures of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret MacDonald, made by Dutch artist Folkert de Jong, look down on the school's plastercasts of Michelangelo's slaves, and at other De Jong sculptures. These include William of Orange and a woman dragged from the Seine in the 19th century and brought back to life.

De Jong's figures often have weird coloured splats on their faces, while their clothes are spattered with drools of quick-setting resin. The casts of Michelangelo's slaves, and of the ancient Nike of Samothrace, loom over many of his Styrofoam people with their fluorescing, noxious colour. The festive and the grim, the lively and the dead – all have their place.

At Tramway, California artist Kelly Nipper's Black Forest has live, masked dancers going through movements devised by modern dance pioneer Rudolf Laban. You want to take off your shoes and join in, or take a nap. It's a nice space to inhabit, with huge curtains and patterns everywhere. Nothing much happens. Then again, I didn't really want it to.

Up at the new Glasgow Sculpture Studios, Mexican artist Teresa Margolles talks about the murders (especially of women), drug wars and corruption that blight the city of Juárez, across the border from El Paso in Texas. Her best work is a slide show presenting photographs of Juárez in the 1970s and 80s: family events, wrestling matches, political rallies, public and private celebration. The images parade across the wall, without commentary.

Less successful is her attempt to comment on last year's UK riots. Collecting burnt detritus from the aftermath, Margolles had it turned into a diamond. It sits in a wall-mounted box. The words "A Diamond for the Crown" are carved on another wall. What links the riots with the horrors of Juárez? It's capitalism, dummy. To reinforce the point, Margolles has covered a billboard with filthy bits of sacking, stained from Mexican crime scenes. Apparently, they're soiled with blood and shit, death and dust. There is no doubting her seriousness; the obviousness of much of her work is deliberate, a punch in the gut.

Karla Black, at the Gallery of Modern Art, does her best to entertain. Swags of cellophane festoon the ground floor hall, with its high windows, ornate ceiling and Corinthian columns. This is lightness versus gravity, a foil to the building's pompous decoration. As a centrepiece, Black has installed an enormous slab of compressed sawdust, running the length of the gallery. It's like a giant mattress, or the world's biggest tiramisu, with its strata of different-coloured sawdust. There are lots of finnicky details and the magic drains away as you look. The cellophane swags would have been enough.

Time to turn back to life. Dozens of schoolkids are careening about on Jeremy Deller's full-scale inflatable Stonehenge on Glasgow Green, bouncing into and around the stones. Deller's work is a cheery take on heritage and the Cultural Olympiad. Celebratory, interactive and possibly even educational, it ticks all the public art boxes. On the other hand, Deller might be pointing out that our greatest and most solemn monuments have all become sites of entertainment nowadays. Hooray for our increasingly infantilised culture. No wonder his work is called Sacrilege, even if only druids will take offence. This is not bad art; it's life.


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April 20 2012

Jeremy Deller's inflatable Stonehenge

The Turner prize winner's bouncy new interactive artwork, Sacrilege, kicks off the Glasgow international festival of visual art

"It's a bit weird and random," says Michael Mclaughlan, 50, bopping gently up and down in the middle of the giant inflatable Stonehenge that has sprung up on Glasgow Green. "They should get Alex Salmond down here to bounce about."

Around him, children and adults are discarding their shoes and climbing tentatively on to the grandest of bouncy castles, a large-scale interactive work by the Turner prize winner Jeremy Deller. Titled Sacrilege, it's Deller's first major public project in Scotland and a centrepiece of the Glasgow international festival of visual art which launched on Friday.

"It's something for people to interact with, it's a big public sculpture," says Deller, who was on hand for the project's launch. "It is also a way of interacting with history and archaeology and culture in a wider sense.

"We had 112 kids bouncing on it this morning. It's a very entry-level way into thinking about ancient history for five-year-olds. It's good to play with our history and culture. Stonehenge is part of British identity but no one knows what it was for."

Deller doesn't think Scots will care that Stonehenge is a classic British – if not English – icon.

"It's about tribes. It's not about politics. It's pre-political, literally. It's great doing it in Glasgow. This is a city where you can get things done as an artist."

The GI festival, which runs until 7 May, will showcase the work of more than 130 artists across a variety of venues. Highlights include the Turner prize nominee Karla Black, who will be exhibiting a series of major new sculptures at the city's Gallery of Modern Art, and the artist and choreographer Alexandra Bachzetsis, who will give the Scottish premiere of a new performance work for stage at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA).

"For the past two decades, Glasgow has been the home of some of the very best new talent in contemporary visual art," said Sarah Munro, the festival chair. "The city is ambitious in its determination to support artists working at the cutting edge today."

Sacrilege will be at Glasgow Green for the 18 days of the festival before being shipped to other destinations across the UK and finally to London for the Olympic Games.

The installation is deflated at 6pm every night and re-inflated in minutes the following morning. Project manager James Hutchinson said it had caught the imagination of Glaswegians.

"I think it would take a mean heart not to smile as you are passing by," he said. "People have been wanting to get on and we have had all ages from seven to 70. Nobody knows what Stonehenge is for. It doesn't belong to anybody. Not the Druids or those interested in British or English history or Glaswegians."

"We come to the green a lot and I was surprised to see it and wondered what it was, but I think it's great," says Robert Barnes, 72, who lives locally. "My grandson's been playing on it and I can't get him off."


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April 13 2012

The week in art

Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art serves up a Turner prize-winning musical artist, while curators cultivate their own plots as art – all in your favourite weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Richard Wright

One of Glasgow's several Turner prize winners (four now, is it?...) exhibits his psychedelic, yet subtle, works on paper for this year's Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. Wright is a fascinating example of what makes this city's art scene distinctive, and part of the interest is that he is an adoptive, not born, Glaswegian. He plays in a band, which typifies the mixture of pop culture and art that has characterised Glasgow's visual creativity since Douglas Gordon recorded the music playing when he was in the womb. He draws on sources that range from heavy metal album covers to Albrecht Dürer. Yet his work lacks ego and refuses to impose itself, consisting of abstract drawings and temporary installations that may have the beauty of Renaissance frescoes but rarely the longevity. An exception is his fine Stairwell Project at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art over in Edinburgh, which is also well worth checking out if you are travelling to Scotland for the art festival.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery, from 20 April until 24 June

Also opening this week

Paul Thek
Organic conceptualism, a more carnal version of Warhol and Duchamp.
Modern Institute, Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, from 20 April until 2 June

Michael Wilkinson
A piece called Dresden by an artist with a feel for history and political memory.
Modern Institute, Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, 20 April until 7 May

Matthew Monahan
Shards of modern stuff congeal in uneasy figurations in the work of this American artist.
Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London from 13 April until 12 May

Allotment
Artists and curators cultivate their own plots as art through the spring and summer.
Mac, Birmingham until 9 September

Masterpiece of the week

Paul Cézanne, Self-Portrait, c1880-1881

No one had ever scrutinised himself in quite the same way that Cézanne does in this modern masterpiece. Rembrandt looked himself in the eye and found a humanist monument to age and experience. But Cézanne sees something else. He sees a face, but what is a face? What is an individual? The way his fractured, hesitant marks speckle the surface of the painting conveys deep uncertainty about his own selfhood. At a time when literature too was beginning to see the complexity and strangeness of individuality, this is a portrait of a man who is not sure he is there.

National Gallery, London

Image of the week

Edvard Munch's The Scream
One of four original versions of The Scream by the Norwegian artist goes on show in London for the first time before an estimated £50m sale at Sotheby's in New York on 2 May.

What we learned this week

That longstanding art thieves have got a major exhibition in London

Why the Serpentine gallery has taken the phrase best thing since sliced bread to a whole new level this week

That the Great Bed of Ware has landed itself a new temporary home

Why Grayson Perry thinks he's not a radical

That a Cézanne robbed in a Serbian art heist has been retrieved this week

Lastly

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March 07 2012

One to watch: Standard Time at the AV festival - video

Standard Time is a 'digital clock' with a difference. It tells the exact time of day but is in fact a film of a 4x12-metre structure made of wooden planks, rebuilt 1,611 times over the course of four shifts by 72 workers to create a physical 24-hour clock. The film is being projected from a shop window during the AV Festival 12: As Slow As Possible



November 11 2011

Featured photojournalist: Manish Swarup

AP photographer Manish Swarup covers the Pushkar camel fair in Rajasthan, which attracts thousands of herders and their animals every year



November 06 2011

London 2012 festival: 'It's going to be amazing'

Two years ago the Cultural Olympiad was floundering. Has new boss Ruth Mackenzie turned it around? She talks mass bell-ringing, Barenboim and beaches with Charlotte Higgins

Last year, when Ruth Mackenzie was appointed director of the Cultural Olympiad, the very concept was at a low ebb. No one seemed to know exactly what it meant. The early planning seemed bogged down in impenetrable jargon about Olympic "themes" and dead phrases such as "celebrating youth and diversity". While worthy, these had the kind of committee-speak tang that is the enemy of good art. As one commentator put it, after attending the glossy, self-congratulatory launch in 2008, "it felt like we were all bathed in a warm vomit of inclusivity".

Mackenzie was the cavalry, brought in to give the Cultural Olympiad – which, should you still be in the dark, is the arts programme that will accompany the games, and which has been running, in various forms, since 2008 – a fresh start. She would have to be a sprinter: the opening ceremony might have been two years away, but that was still a hideously short time frame in which to pull together a coherent cultural programme for 2012. Mackenzie's appointment was greeted with relief, however: if anyone could pull it off, it was this former boss of Scottish Opera, Chichester Festival theatre and Manchester international festival. Like her or loathe her (and the arts world seems split, her nickname in some quarters being The Childcatcher, after the villain in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), she is regarded as effective.

"Did I have time to spend two years doing research, which any director of any festival would expect?" she says crisply when we meet at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. "No, I didn't. But there are merits in being decisive. There was no time to linger."

And in many ways – judging from the launch on Friday of her London 2012 festival – Mackenzie does seem to have pulled it off. The festival, running from 21 June to 9 September, will be the climax of the Cultural Olympiad. If all goes well, it will bring some much-needed focus to a rather inchoate programme that has risked lacking a binding identity.

To create the festival programme, Mackenzie and her team examined the work already in development, extracted the good stuff (such as Big Dance week, which saw 1.2 million people dancing in London last year) and quietly dropped the rest. She also opened her contacts book, inviting major international artists to make work that would form the high points of the festival; she cherrypicked projects being run by other institutions and drew them into the festival programme. For example, Tate Modern's regular Turbine Hall commission, which next year is by the Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal, will be regarded as part of the festival.

The problem, perhaps, is that the definition is still somewhat baffling. The festival is not the same as the Cultural Olympiad – there are plenty of Cultural Olympiad events that will happen next summer that are not part of the festival. Nor is the festival, despite its title, a London thing: it will be UK-wide. Some events that are part of other festivals – such as the Southbank's festival of the world – will also be included in Mackenzie's London 2012 festival. Confused? Don't worry, says Mackenzie. London 2012 festival events will be identifiable through branding, a pink ribbon, that she says will give them the imprimatur of quality. "We encourage people to feel that if there is a pink ribbon on it, it's like a critics' pick: trust us, it's going to be amazing."

Wisely, she has ditched the idea of connecting the programme too closely to the sporting events. The only two Olympic "themes" she has dreamed up are the idea that the artists are "exceptional, gold-medal talents, capable of producing something that's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity"; and the notion, as a loosely applied metaphor, of the Olympic truce, which in the ancient Greek Olympics was a downing of weapons between the frequently warring Hellenic nations for the duration of the games.

And so, bound together by Mackenzie's curatorship, the London 2012 festival does now have a certain coherence. It is recognisably her taste, whether originated by her or not. She has a bracing (and to my mind commendable) penchant for the European avant garde; there is serious work of all stripes; and contemporary music that is anything but lowest-common-denominator. So Birmingham will see the UK premiere of Jonathan Harvey's new epic choral work Weltethos, under Simon Rattle; there will be a strand devoted to the work of composer George Benjamin; Daniel Barenboim will bring the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to the Proms; theatre-makers Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw will create a series of installations on Britain's beaches; and there is the already announced Pina Bausch/Tanztheater Wuppertal retrospective planned for the Barbican in London.

Offsetting all that is more populist fare: David Hockney at London's Royal Academy, a celebration of Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough and Chichester; and, presumably, the pop and comedy elements of the festival, which are to be announced next year. Skirting between the two extremes are some intriguingly eccentric works, such as Martin Creed's Work No 1197: All the Bells in a Country Rung As Quickly and As Loudly As Possible for Three Minutes. (Yes, Creed wants everyone in Britain to ring something – church bell, bike bell, doorbell – simultaneously to celebrate the opening of the Games.) Mackenzie hesitates to sum up the "tone" of the festivities but, if anything, she says, they will have a certain humour and wit: "There's something about the surprise and quirkiness of them – about being funny as well as touching."

Will the London 2012 festival feel like a festival? As Mackenzie herself says: "Most festivals are in fields or cities; this one is in an entire country." Good festivals involve audiences sharing a stream of thought or experiencing a sense of place. They create a feeling of "festiveness" and a certain camaraderie between audiences and artists. Mackenzie has worked to disperse London 2012 into all parts of Britain, from Shetland to Cardiff, from Enniskillen to Gateshead to Margate. But that geographic generosity could cost her the coherence she wants, as most people are unlikely to get to any but a few events.

Mackenzie counters: "One of our offers is, we bring the events to you: we make sure there are amazing events all round the UK. You will feel a festive spirit in quite a few of our major cities. There is no doubt that there will be a critical mass of cultural events in London, and it's going to feel like it's absolutely at the centre of a festival – that goes for Edinburgh, Derry/Londonderry, Belfast, Birmingham, Stratford, too. What you can't do is have one festival club, you can't, and that's a sadness for us. Would it be easier if it was all in one city? Yes. But if we're to offer 10m free tickets or free places at events – well, you just couldn't do that in one city."

Krapp's Last Tape in Enniskillen

And what – to use a dreaded piece of Olympics jargon – does Mackenzie want the legacy to be? It's partly, she says, about using the strength and power of the Olympic brand to tempt audiences to take a punt on events they wouldn't normally go for. "I don't want to sound pious, but I believe in the quality of these artists. I believe that if you have the chance to see David Hockney or Robert Wilson's Krapp's Last Tape in Enniskillen, I think you will be amazed. I really do. I think you'll remember it; I think it will shape the way you think."

There are more tangible ends in view: the government, for example, has set targets for increasing cultural tourism to Britain once the games have finished. Mackenzie is also keen to raise the cultural stakes for subsequent Olympics, not least Rio in 2016. "If we are lucky, we will change the way future Olympics see their cultural festivals. I don't mind if Rio is better than us: I would like us to be the best yet, but I would be pleased if they were better than us."

The sheer scale of it all prompts more questions. At the latest count – and new projects are still being added – there were more than 1,000 events in the London 2012 festival, and many times that in the Cultural Olympiad as a whole from its 2008 inception. Will there be enough audiences to go round? And will 2013 be a terrible cultural letdown, arts organisations having exhausted their energy and budgets on big Olympic projects? One thing's for sure: far from there being nothing much to see next year, the UK is going to be awash with big ticket arts events. The danger, perhaps, is not cultural impoverishment – but cultural overdose.


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