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August 17 2012

Leonardo's womb, gold postboxes and crazy golf – the week in art

Da Vinci's anatomy drawings make the must-see show of the year. Plus, guerrilla gold postbox painters and battling Hitler at crazy golf in Blackpool – all in your weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist

These are the greatest drawings in the world and this is the most important exhibition of the year, so try to see it. They include Leonardo da Vinci's moving depiction of a foetus in the womb, among many awe-inspiring studies of the human interior. Leonardo's apparently scientifically rigorous study of the womb contains a bizarre mistake: it is modelled on a cow's womb. This is not just because at the time he made this drawing Leonardo had no access to human dissection; it is also because he believed so strongly that human anatomy must be similar to that of other animals. He recognised, like a true scientist, that we too are animals – an outrageous notion in the early 1500s. Leonardo did get to do a series of brilliant dissections of people who had died at a hospital in Florence. Today, that hospital – Santa Maria Nuova – is still a busy city infirmary. You can go and watch ambulances arriving and ponder the mystery of human life, so fragile and beautiful, that Leonardo captures in these drawings.
The Queen's Gallery, London SW1A 1AA until 7 October

Other exhibitions this week

Picasso's Vollard Suite
These sensuous prints burst with life and imagination and are among Picasso's greatest works.
British Museum, London WC1 until 2 September

Adventureland Golf
Jake and Dinos Chapman, David Shrigley and others reinvent the seaside pastime of crazy golf.
Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool until 6 October

Olympic and Paralympic Posters
There are some fine posters here by , Chris Ofili and others.
Tate Britain, London SW1 until 23 September

Simon Patterson
Last chance for a memorable exploration of the strangeness of statues.
Haunch of Venison, London W1 until 31 August

Masterpiece of the week

Unknown artist, A Dead Soldier
This eerie painting of a man dead, his body lit by an oil lamp, has the realism of a Caravaggio but is not by him. No one knows who painted this disconcertingly modern work of art. In the 19th century, it fascinated Edouard Manet, who was inspired by it to paint a picture of a dead toreador. As Manet recognised, this is a raw, blunt and unredemptive portrayal of the cold fact of death. Not only is the artist anonymous: so is the unknown soldier whose passing is remembered here forever.
National Gallery, London WC2

Image of the week

What we learned this week

How John Minihan celebrated snapping Samuel Beckett

That psychics have taken over the live art space at London's Tate Tanks

What your timeline of top artworks looks like

That gold postboxes were the surprise illegal street art of the Olympics

What upcoming photography shows you should put straight in the diary

And finally...

There's still time to share your art about sport now. Reflect on the Olympics, or look forward to the Paralympics

Post your personal images of London on the Guardian Art and Design Flickr

Check out our Tumblr

And our Twitter


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August 16 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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August 10 2012

Exhibitionist: The week's art shows in pictures

From relationships with the urban landscape in Walsall to the Clays Lane Live Archive in London, find out what's happening in art around the country





August 07 2012

Artist Kelly Richardson brings a taste of Mars to Whitley Bay

Mariner 9, an ambitious video installation imagining the Martian landscape, is being shown at Spanish City in the seaside town

A beautiful but horribly scarred Martian landscape, perhaps 100 or 200 years in the future, dominates the interior of a seaside fun palace whose fun days have long gone.

The unlikely pairing of futuristic art and faded historic grandeur is in Whitley Bay, once the liveliest and most exciting seaside town in north east England.

The Canadian artist Kelly Richardson – who moved to the area about 10 years ago and stayed – has installed a work called Mariner 9 in Spanish City, part of a wider retrospective being given to an artist making a name for herself internationally, but perhaps less so in the UK.

Eight miles down the coast, the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland is staging Richardson's first UK solo show, giving all its available space to work never seen in this country.

"Kelly is able to do things that no-one else has done in her field," said the NGCA's programme director Alistair Robinson. "She has been based in this region for nearly 10 years but no-one even in this region has seen her work. She's been showing around the world but in this country she is, as yet, an unknown quantity. She is definitely going to go very far, she already has – just not here but that will change, and quite soon I believe."

Richardson is part of a new generation of digital artists using technology to create hyper-real landscapes.

More often than not she films real places, whether it is a Texas swamp or an idyllic Lake District wood, and transforms them into something completely and disconcertedly unreal.

With Mariner 9, an enormous 12-metre wide video work commissioned by Newcastle's Tyneside Cinema, it was always going to be much trickier.

"Obviously I couldn't film on Mars," Richardson said. "But I found out Nasa knows how Mars is constructed and had all the digital data for that so I was able to take all the data, put it in a 3D programme and recreate the lay of the land faithfully."

It is a remarkable film, showing Mars littered with real and imagined space crafts and rovers; some of which are forlornly continuing to find signs of life. Its premiere coincides with the landing of Nasa's Curiosity rover on Monday.

As with the works on display in Sunderland, viewers can spend time finding out the stories or imagining their own. It does not feel as if you are simply looking at a screen with something on it, it feels like you are in the environment on screen.

Robinson said the artist is "an astonishing perfectionist" with an attention to detail that sometimes verged on the lunatic.

For Mariner 9 Richardson had to learn an entirely new software programme, investigate the texture of Mars and all the missions to it, and then speculate on what future Mars rovers and space craft would look like. "It has been a lot of research – a lot of geeking out basically," she said. "It has been a real challenge and [there were] various points where I didn't think it was possible. Even people in the industry were telling me I wouldn't be able to do some things."

One of the biggest challenges was creating a 3D dust storm that goes on for 20 minutes. Richardson was repeatedly told it was not possible. "I was like, 'no I can do that – I will.'"

Mariner 9 is in a memorable building. When Spanish City was built in 1910 it had, it is said, the largest dome in the UK after St Paul's cathedral. For most of its life it was a fairground before it fell into neglect and disrepair. It closed in 2000 but was restored in 2010.

This installation fits perfectly into the raw interior of a building about to embark on a new phase of life, with redevelopment plans to create a hotel, residential accommodation and an entertainment centre in the dome itself.

After Sunderland, the Richardson show will go on tour to Blackpool, Eastbourne and Buffalo in the US.

• Legion is at the NGCA until 29 September. Mariner 9 is at Spanish City, Whitley Bay, from 3-19 August


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August 06 2012

Manifesta 9: a rich seam of art in a disused mine

This year's Manifesta is an exploration of coal-mining, featuring dodgy DIY prosthetics, John Coltrane and WH Auden

The coal mines that dotted this corner of eastern Belgium, Holland and the northern Ruhr were once photographed in all their melancholy grandeur, un-peopled and under flat skies, by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Now this place is home to Manifesta, the ninth edition of the roving European Biennial of Contemporary Art. I walk along a bleak corridor on the top floor of a dilapidated building, to a crisscrossing rhythm of unseen hammers, beating on anvils. There is a metallic tang in the air, dry on the palate. Little windows in the walls give glimpses of an empty landscape with a distant, grass-covered slagheap. A now-defunct railway leads over a viaduct to an abandoned pit-head. Just as the Bechers fussed with their camera, waiting for the right windless and deserted moment, I wait at the window.

The hammers beat on. This building was once the headquarters of the André Dumont mine in Genk, in the Limburg region of Belgium. The mine ceased work in 1987; the building itself was completed in 1924, a handsome example of art deco industrial architecture.The smell in the corridor, says the artist Oswaldo Maciá, who worked with perfumer Ricardo Moya, is meant to evoke failure. Like many of the works here, Martinete (Maciá's "audio olfactory composition") is a kind of elegy. The legacies of the industrial revolution, the migration of labour and the geopolitics of Europe and beyond are Manifesta's theme: the world as it was and what it is becoming.

The exhibition takes us from the fossilised head of an iguanodon, discovered during mining, to an engraving of the ironworks at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire at the beginning of the industrial revolution. It takes us from reimagined scenes of the carboniferous forests, with giant horsetails, ferns and giant dragonflies, to Duncan Campbell's film of John DeLorean's attempt to build his futuristic gull-wing car in Northern Ireland. On the way, we pass through John Martin's subterranean illustrations of Milton's Hell, meet the Ashington Group of pitman artists (whose story has become the subject of both a play and a musical), and quota-breaking Russian miner Alexey Stakhanov, poster-boy of Stalin's Russia.

Small stories and larger histories, piles of coal and fragments of lives fill The Deep of the Modern, as this exhibition is subtitled. There are photographs of the 1984 miners' strike by Guardian photographers Denis Thorpe and Don McPhee; Jeremy Deller and Mike Figgis's re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, and a documentary about the shooting of Belgian miners during a 1966 strike. With real lives and history, artworks and ephemera, mining engineering and Marcel Duchamp, this is, quite deliberately, a move away from the biennials we are accustomed to.

This Manifesta is a rejoinder to the malaise besetting many ambitious international art events, which its chief curator, Cuauhtémoc Medina, pithily itemises: the feeling that there isn't time to see things properly, the despair of participants and audiences alike, the curatorial egomania and opaque themes, the homogenisation of different cultural practices, the "usual suspect" artists.

While biennials invariably take some account of their places and its contexts, Medina and his team try to do it better. Past Manifestas have filled venues across San Sebastián in Spain's Basque country, based one in the Trentino valley in Italy's south Tyrol, and attempted cultural reconciliation in divided Cypress (a disaster). The Deep of the Modern fills a single building and can be seen in a day. The sense of context is inescapable. Another Manifesta co-curator, Katerina Gregos, examines the ongoing economic crisis, describing how the majority of us "will experience grave social and economic circumstances in years to come". She continues: "One thing is for sure: we will not be able to eat our iPhones or find comfort on Facebook unless there is a fundamental move away from the complacency for which we are responsible."

The challenge is overwhelming, so we are left with our encounters with individual things, some of which are rich in ways we might not expect. A collection of samplers that once decorated mine-worker's homes in Genk are embroidered with homilies. "Even though you are in love, you always need to eat," says one. "Be careful with fire, coal is expensive," reads another. And here's an old, battered photographic portrait of a young Greek couple, Spyros and Polyxeni; when Spyros left Greece to work the mines in Limburg, they tore the photograph in two and he took the half depicting his wife to Belgium. When she later joined him in Genk, carrying the other half of the portrait, they sewed the image back together. It is a small family memento, but deeply telling.

Thousands of Greeks, Turks and Italians came here to work in the mines. Their communities are still here though the mines have gone. Now I am listening to Rocco Granata, son of an Italian, who bought his family to Genk when the boy was 10. Rocco briefly worked in the mine but became a singer, and his international hit, Marina, recorded in 1959, drifts through a lower gallery. Sound is everywhere: WH Auden reading his verse to Britten's score for the 1935 film Coal Face; the thwack of a stick beating Tomaž Furlan on the back of his head, in a video that shows him "operating" his machines wearing gimcrack industrial prosthetics. The Slovenian sculptor is an heir to Keaton and Chaplin, or even Norman Wisdom, a mechanised man who won't fit the bill. He'd probably even hurt himself clocking-in.

There's humour and absurdity here. I turn the tiny handle of a musical-box mechanism that tinkles out the tune of the Internationale, little knowing that the sound is relayed to speakers on the forecourt outside, the tune forlorn amid the birdsong and the decaying buildings, in Croatian artist Nemanja Cvijanović's Monument to the Memory of the Idea of the Internationale.

In a video by Mikhail Karikis and Uriel Orlow, a choir of former Kent miners stand in a field, singing Sounds from Beneath, a recreation of remembered noises of the pit. They shush and roar and hiss. And here's John Coltrane, blasting from David Hammons's 1989 Chasing the Blue Train, a landscape of piano lids, some upright, others prone on the floor. Toy train tracks wend their way between the piano lids – like hills and plains and the curves of a woman's body – to disappear into a tunnel of coal. The little blue train sits stalled on the track. Hammons's work sucks other sculptures around it into its own landscape. Far across the floor are three little conical mountains of coal, topped by the Belgian flag, by Marcel Broodthaers. And nearby Richard Long's 1992 line of Bolivian coal runs the length of the gallery, and Bernar Venet's 1963 indeterminate mound of coal, is a black island rising from the concrete. Coltrane gets to you, along with the catch-in-the-throat smell of coal dust, as you stand beneath Marcel Duchamp's 1200 Coal Sacks, suspended from a ceiling like hams.

Manifesta has a reach and breadth I wasn't expecting. There's so much more to it than the dark matter of coal.

• Manifesta 9 is on until 30 September, click here for details


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July 30 2012

London 2012: The hidden Olympic legacy

Nick Franglen spent months creating a secret art project in the Olympic zone. The public cannot visit but here's a private view

Getting to see Legacy, the new installation by musician and artist Nick Franglen, is an unusually cloak-and-dagger business. Potential appointments come and go until, on the Monday afternoon before the Olympics, Franglen sends me a last-minute text. Can I come to a station in London's Docklands for 11 o'clock at night? I'm advised to wear boots and dark clothing that I don't mind being ripped.

The reason for all this subterfuge is the venue: a derelict, partially demolished factory that serves as a document to Docklands' industrial past. It is dangerous and guarded at the best of times, let alone during the Olympic build-up.

Franglen first came here four years ago with some urban explorers, intrepid types who infiltrate parts of the city that are abandoned and off-limits. The phrase was coined in 1996 and the internet has since enabled a worldwide network of urban explorers to swap stories, photographs and advice. In January, Franglen decided that the building would be the perfect venue for an idea that had germinated two months earlier, when he was asked to design a piece of sound art for the British Business Embassy, a networking initiative, and felt that he had caught a glimpse of "the beast behind the Olympics".

"I've always liked the Olympics," he says, "but when you've got Jeremy Hunt saying we've decided not to have an austerity Olympics, we mustn't hold back, when we're cutting the School Sports Initiative, that's an interesting conundrum. Legacy is a ghastly word. Politicians talk about the legacy of the games to east London and I think what they're concerned about is what their legacy will be. Does east London benefit from all this regeneration or is it negative to have this completely alien infrastructure dropped into it and its heritage stripped out? I was trying to ask a question: what sort of Olympics do we really want? Why does it have to be like this?"

Franglen is a big, garrulous man but clearly has a steely, obsessive streak. Born in north London, he is best-known as half of chill-out duo Lemon Jelly and producer of albums by John Cale and Badly Drawn Boy. In recent years, however, his projects have become more unorthodox. With his band Blacksand, he has played gigs in such unlikely venues as a mine, a submarine and Pyestock, the former Concorde test centre in Hampshire, beloved of urban explorers. He has also played 24-hour solo theremin concerts beneath Manhattan Bridge and London Bridge.

Legacy, however, is his most ambitious and taxing endeavour yet. He had initially hoped to conclude the installation by watching the opening ceremony fireworks from the building's roof but he has heard rumours that snipers will be stationed there during the games. "I don't mind playing cat-and-mouse with security but I don't want to interfere with people doing a serious job," he says. Also, he adds, "I don't want to be shot."

It's a warm, clear night. We rendezvous in the street and make our way through the outer layer of security. He can never be entirely sure he will get in. "When I approach here my stomach's churning," he admits. "I'm white with fear."

Up close, the building's hulk looms vast and ghostly. Watching out for security patrols, we negotiate a series of fences and enter through a concealed opening. Inside, it is a disaster area. Several floors are gone. Those that remain are Swiss-cheesed with holes where machinery has been removed, covered by rotting boards too flimsy to support anybody's weight. A powerful torch might attract attention so we proceed using only the dim light coming through the broken windows. I follow Franglen's whispered advice: keep close to this wall, mind that loose step, watch out for that 20-foot plunge. "This is not a building to fall over in," he says. "It's a shocker. You could fall and kill yourself, of course, but worse than that you could break your leg in the basement where you can't get a phone signal and no one would ever find you. The first time I came here on my own I found that terrifying, but I feel that this is my domain now. I doubt anyone knows this place as well as I do."

To safely enter the section that houses Legacy you have to climb a ladder across a dizzying drop and scoot across a stretch of scrub that's in full view of a mysterious black dirigible that stealthily patrols the waterfront at unpredictable intervals. Finally, there is the so-called "Leap of Faith". Not, as a rule, having much faith in leaping, I'm relieved to find that it's actually another ladder. "It doesn't live up to its name," agrees Franglen as he clambers down onto the concrete floor. "I call it the Pace of Disappointment."

The building has a pungent, mushroomy aroma and a series of metal staircases and ladders that make our ascent feel reminiscent of a game of Donkey Kong. One room has no outside wall, so it is plastered with guano and noisy with the sound of pigeons' wings. Another is carpeted with hundreds of tangled cables. Franglen points to two industrial fans. "They didn't used to be that close together. Sometimes you notice people have moved things." Urban explorers endeavour to leave minimal trace – they are trespassers, not vandals or burglars – but Franglen has been here often enough to notice the small things. Like many old buildings, it makes strange noises, as if turning in its sleep and muttering to itself. When you're not supposed to be there, these noises can sound uncannily like footsteps.

Eventually we reach the seventh floor, which houses Legacy 1. It's a small garden containing rows of lettuce, spinach, spring onions and radishes, watered by the rain seeping through a hole in the roof. Franglen obtained the seeds from a friend who used to have a plot on the Manor Gardens allotments before they were destroyed to make way for the Olympic Park. That was the easy bit. He used to have to enter the site through a hole in the perimeter fence, and heft sacks of compost across several hundred yards of scrubland. One night he had to climb a tree with two sacks and hide there for four hours. "I used to pray for rain because it meant [the security guard] would stay in his car but, remarkably, it's always been a night like this."

In another room we find Legacy 3: a battery-powered television screening a DVD of the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics. Franglen intended to contrast the triumphal spectacle with the fact that 21 of the 22 venues built for the games now lie empty. "All these buildings in Athens are derelict and guarded and you're in a derelict, guarded building," he explains. He turns on the TV. In the gloom and hush it seems deafeningly loud and bright, so he quickly clicks it off again.

Legacy 2 is a low roof filled with shallow water, which Franglen has transformed into a miniature boating lake. He smuggled in 205 solar-powered toy rowing boats – one for each nation competing in the Olympics – and, after much trial and error, successfully waterproofed them. "Sainsbury's sandwich bags," he says, proudly holding one up.

We climb another ladder on to the upper roof and I'm suddenly aware that the building is an island of darkness amid a sea of electric light. Behind us lies City airport; to our left the gleaming shells of the Thames barrier; ahead of us the hedgehog spikes of the O2 dome; further to the right the winking eye of Canary Wharf; beyond that the violet glow of the Olympic stadium and the flashing red of Anish Kapoor's Orbit tower. "It's just so beautiful up here," says Franglen, exhaling. "And so quiet, and so secret."

Such hard-earned views are a key incentive for urban explorers, but Franglen doesn't consider himself one of them. "I'm not really a group person," he says. We're sitting on the roof, conversing in low murmurs, like David Attenborough trying not to spook a herd of antelope. "I like coming to these places at night, which means you see the sunrise and get a sense of the building waking up. It's about connecting with the space. These spaces talk to you in some way. Once you've done it, the world feels like a different place."

After his first reconnaissance trip in January, he was apprehensive about starting work until, one night, he was on his way back from a gig and spontaneously thought, "Now. Let's do it now." He has been coming regularly ever since. His original plan was to finish it by May and leave it as an installation for urban explorers. "I was thrilled by the thought of someone discovering it and going, what the hell is this? They'd take photographs and discuss it and it would grow, the same way the plants are growing." But the heightened security associated with the Queen's jubilee and the Olympics has slowed him down and kept most visitors away. Now, he says, this article, and a documentary filmed by a friend, will be Legacy's only exposure to the public. "It's been cut off at the knees," he says sadly.

We hear approaching rotor blades, and crouch, unmoving, beside the low wall that borders the roof. "It's interesting what one gets scared of," he continues after the helicopter has passed overhead. "For the past few weeks I've woken up every morning with a nightmare and it's never about being caught. It's about not being able to get in and complete what I've been trying to do."

I wonder about the kind of person who commits to something like this: all those moments of panic and long hours of solitude. The politics and the artistic challenge don't quite explain it. "It's pretty obviously an obsession," Franglen admits. He used to be a committed motorcyclist until a serious accident in 1998; now he's into scuba diving and cave diving. The goal is always the liberation that comes from intense concentration, when everything melts away but the task at hand. Legacy has had the same effect.

"There's been a point to doing it, and the point isn't just about what's going on in Stratford. It's about what's going on in here." He taps his head. "Once I've delivered that to myself I need to get on with my life. I haven't had much of a life for the past few months. It's all I've thought about." He sighs. "I've been mauled by it. It should have been so much easier. But I've still done it."

Three days later, Franglen emails me to say that Legacy is finished, the last boat (dedicated to Team GB) waterproofed. Out of the blue, a friend who lived locally asked for a tour and became Legacy's fourth and final witness. Then Franglen said goodbye to his temporary domain. "It felt like the fitting final celebration," he writes. "It was always meant to be shared in some way."

Up on the roof on Monday night, however, he knows none of this. As we stand enjoying the view before our descent, something wonderful happens. The sky above the stadium suddenly explodes with a succession of pyrotechnic blooms: a rehearsal for the fireworks display that Franglen will miss. His face brightens with pure delight. "Isn't that fantastic?" he says, gazing into the night. "What a gift!"


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July 27 2012

Exhibitionist: The week's art shows in pictures

From trophies in London to teak sculptures in Exeter, Skye Sherwin and Robert Clark find out what's happening in art around the country





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

Franz West: generous sculptural jester

Provocative, bulging shapes and skewed forms populated West's art, provoking laughter and sometimes fear. But the Austrian artist, who died recently, hid seriousness in his mischief

Austrian artist Franz West, who died yesterday, was a sculptural jester, a provocateur, a maker of benign and threatening objects. Encounters with West's art are often occasions for laughter, though it is a laugh tinged with horror and disbelief. He could deflate the pomposity of the city square or the elegance of a park with his giant pink phalluses and lime-green sausages. Sitting on dignified plinths, his skewed and lumpy sculptures, often garishly painted, had a kind of idiot elegance.

As a sculptor, West had a great touch and an inimitable feel for shapes. He was a master of the lump: the knobbly and inert, the gross and the gangling. His art had character – it stuck out, got in the way, but it was also sociable. There were sculptures to play with, to lounge about on, sculptures to place on a cafe table (to frighten fellow drinkers, or provoke a conversation), to wear and to carry. There were sculptures containing bottles of whisky. Trying to get a drink from one of these humongous, unwieldy objects made you look blotto.

West saw the business of looking at art, and making it, as a comedy of manners – though this disguised his absolute seriousness. "By nature I tend to be depressive, thus I always try to make something more euphoric, even if that fails," he once said. The buffoonery and boorishness of masculinity was a recurring theme. But the big question was what art was for and what its social purpose might be: "If I wanted to make a Readymade today," he said, thinking of Duchamp, "I would make a pissoir, but one you could really piss into, in a museum."

West's work could do you a mischief. His "adaptive sculptures" were intended to be handled and worn, like useless prosthetics or daft appendages. Playing with these bulging, knobby, spiky plaster and papier mache objects was like wrestling with a tuba. Mischievousness was a big part of what he did, though it hid a fiercely intelligent, well-read and perceptive mind. He had an iconoclastic sort of learnedness. His art could be absurd and touching, weird and threatening – sometimes all at once.

It was also welcoming. His sofas and chairs, with their lovely patterned fabric covers, are as practical as they are pleasing. He loved collaborating with other artists, and showing their works among his own. His influence – on artists as diverse as Rirkrit Tiravanija and Sarah Lucas – is more a matter of spirit than form. West's was an art of great generosity and openness. And he made me laugh.


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July 21 2012

The Tanks: Art in Action – review

Tate Modern, London

The Tanks at Tate Modern are a tremendous addition to that ever-growing metropolis of art. Three colossal new spaces beneath the ground, they are the first in the world to be permanently dedicated to the kind of art – to quote Claes Oldenburg – that doesn't just sit on its ass in a museum. This means art that moves, passes through time, comes alive even if only for a few dragonfly moments, that lives in one's memory rather than on the gallery wall or the floor.

The Tanks will present films, sound works, performances and happenings as well as ephemeral installations. If you are able to get there today, for instance, you will experience Anthony McCall's sublime solid-light films, including the great Line Describing a Cone in which an entire gallery is filled with nothing but a single spot of light that gradually grows into a beam and eventually a vast hollow cone picked out with swirling fog.

The white light feels by turns solid, as if you are walking through walls, then diaphanous, then floating like a butterfly that can be held for a second. It flickers with gigantic phantasmagoria. These films have become something of cult over the years, not least because they vanished from the 70s scene almost as soon as they appeared. McCall gave up making art while the going was good; fittingly, you can see his films only for a day.

I doubt they will ever have a better venue than the performance space at the Tanks – dark, circular, subterranean and with enough room for several hundred people. It's not an art gallery, nor a concert hall and definitely not a theatre, for the audience will always be eye to eye with (and frequently milling among) the performers.

The Tanks are adapted from the spectacularly vast cylinders that fuelled the former power station, originally designed to hold a million gallons of oil. The walls are raw concrete, still bearing traces of the industrial past in dark stains and hastily scribbled engineering measurements. There is a faint but pungent scent of oil the deeper you go and the further you get from the Turbine Hall entrance. You know you're right at the bottom of a tank when a staircase, like the steps of an empty swimming pool, rises high above your head.

Evidently the place is an event in itself, and redolent of those weird performance venues of the past – old factories, aircraft hangars, the sorting offices and chapels of Artangel productions. Performance art was outside the museum for half a century and more. Think of Yoko Ono having the clothes slowly snipped from her body, Anthony McCall lighting ceremonial fires, Chris Burden having himself shot in the arm by an assistant, John Latham's ritual destruction (by chewing and acid) of Clement Greenberg's influential book Art and Culture: seen by very few people and never inside a gallery.

The Tanks will reverse that tradition. A huge crowd gathered when I was there, for the Belgian Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's choreographed movements to the music of Steve Reich, originally conceived in the 80s and here performed quite suddenly among us like a flash mob. We crammed together in a scarlet chamber listening to the disembodied voices of centenarians lilting down from the roof, and spread out again for the creepy installations of the Korean artist Sung Hwan Kim.

One tank is reserved for works from the Tate collection, and the inaugural experience (until late October) is exhilarating: a pair of projectors spooling black-and-white celluloid across the room at each other to a soundtrack something like old biplanes buzzing and humming. Sound and vision are intimately connected – the op-art patterns read as audio – and the images zip and sizzle on the screen like cinematic Bridget Riley. But the best effect is of moving in throngs among the glamorous limelight.

It's startling to learn that Lis Rhodes made Light Music almost 40 years ago. Yet Tate Modern has only just purchased the piece, presumably with its Tanks in mind. I sometimes wonder if some of the art of that era has been suppressed, or at the very least sidestepped by museums to make today's art look better, brighter, more original. Lis Rhodes's piece knocks spots off the derivative film work of Elizabeth Price, for instance, who is on the shortlist for this year's Turner prize.

So much live art is there to be revived that the curators at the Tanks are unlikely to run out of programme events for years to come. But one question that hangs over this enterprise is whether they should be revived at all if they were only ever intended to be ephemeral in the first place. You had to be there, so to speak. And another question is whether the old spirit of performance art lives on in the business of global art.

Kim's multimedia installation, for instance, had only the barest semblance of vitality to me; a blacked-out gallery in which one could hardly tell if the show had yet arrived for its empty podiums and incomprehensible videos. Sometimes the urge to make drawings, paintings and – alas – diagrams alongside your videos is indivisible from the need to make objects for money and survive.

Everything is going to rest on the curators' live programme for the Tanks. The art from the collection looks excellent, and the schedule has strong names – Boris Charmatz, Ei Arakawa – but a revival of a dance work from the 80s doesn't quite cut it in terms of flair and daring. The issue is how to balance the artists of the future with those of the past.

But for the moment, the Tanks are the coolest part of the whole Tate enterprise. They have an air of freedom about them, as if anything might happen, and that comes from the ever-changing relationship between the raw building, the art and its audience. It feels good to turn right into the unexpected, instead of left into the permanent galleries as you enter. This is exactly what Tate Modern needed.


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June 23 2012

Sarah Sze: 'I want people to stop and look at my art'

The New York artist on the dramatic tension of glimpsing the 'unintended' in her intricate work

When the pendulum that swoops low over Sarah Sze's latest, elaborate installation unexpectedly hits a protruding twig, it stutters briefly, then swings on.

"That's probably the first time that's happened," says the New York artist, with no sign of alarm. "The twig is there for a reason, but I can't remember why."

Sze, 42, is known for the involving intricacy of her sculptural work, but this dramatic piece, which now dominates a room in London's Victoria Miro gallery, seems in danger of hypnotising even her. It is a theatrical construction that plays with light and water and yet is made entirely of household items.

"I would never have made a circle in the past," says Sze. "It is such a formal shape, so it is surprising to me. But then you get this sense of a stage and of going behind it."

The installation reminds me of student storage, with desk lamps, electric fans, paperclips, stepladders, books, chairs, and the added intimacy of folded clothes and a sleeping bag.

Sze picks up bits and bobs everywhere she goes, she says; happy to exhibit the trace of her travels. Skimming over it all is the pendulum, moving apparently randomly across a reflective pool of brightness.

"I like tension in my work and you can't help wondering if the pendulum is going to touch something, even though, since we are in a gallery, there is a good chance it has all been worked out."

Born in Boston, Sze teaches at Columbia University and runs her New York studio. A talent for subtle showmanship has won her an international reputation and next year she will represent the US at the Venice Biennale.

She is always thinking about the way the viewer sees her art and wants visitors to the London show to feel drawn to a "backstage area", to glimpse things they feel they were not intended to.

The artist, who has two young daughters with her husband, the scientist and award-winning writer Siddhartha Mukherjee, studied painting and architecture, but rejected the hypothetical nature of most architectural practice. But she did enjoy the collaborative side and now works with a studio manager and with her students.

Sze says that, unlike some artists, she is keen to talk about the intentions behind her work. "I am aware people might dismiss my art, but I'm interested in getting them to stop and look; for no other reason than that is what I do.

"The pieces in this show appear to measure space, or time, and now that I have two children, time is more significant. It has more weight." Sarah Sze's show is at Victoria Miro, London N1 until 11 August


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June 22 2012

Second nature: Richard Long at Hepworth Wakefield – in pictures

Legendary land artist Richard Long arrives at Hepworth Wakefield as part of the Artist Rooms UK tour. Watch him hard at work on an all-new cascading commission



June 18 2012

The Yoko Ono labyrinth

A see-through maze, naked buttocks filmed mid-stroll, an all-white chess set … Adrian Searle likes Yoko Ono most when she's not trying to be meaningful

Thwunk! I walk straight into one of the clear walls of Amaze, an exhibit in Yoko Ono's new show at the Serpentine gallery in London. Turning and turning inside this little labyrinth of Perspex and aluminium, backtracking and feeling my way towards the centre, I do it again, the noise reverberating through the gallery and in my head. When I do reach the centre, I find a square column, waist high, grey, and half-full of water. I look down at my own dazed reflection.

First made in 1971, Amaze is the centrepiece of this exhibition of early and late Ono work, from her 1960s fluxus art to more recent and sometimes unwise indulgences. In the first room, upturned soldiers' helmets dangle like hanging baskets from fishing line strung from the ceiling. Each is filled with jigsaw pieces, depicting fragments of the sky; on the floor sit three large conical mounds of earth, labelled Country A, Country B and Country C; behind them is a worn 1969 War Is Over (If You Want It) poster, for ever associated with the heady days of John and Yoko. These elements have been brought together as a single installation called Pieces of Sky. Were it not by Ono, we wouldn't linger. War is bad, the message seems to be, so consider the sky or take up gardening. Later, I come across a live feed of the London sky from a camera on the roof. The show is called Yoko Ono: To the Light. Those who have suffered near-death experiences often complain of a bright light – and a voice telling them to go towards it. This is a mistake.

Don't go there. I always liked the idea of Yoko Ono. I liked her screams on her early records. Now all I hear is the sudden mew of a Cambodian hawk in a work called A Hawk/Cambodia, and the monotonous heartbeat Ono has piped into the gallery as her show's "soundtrack", along with the echoing "boing" as another visitor walks into that Perspex wall.

Ono's work invites all kinds of readings, especially inappropriate ones. The harder she tries to be meaningful, the easier it is to resist. The bronze shoes, mangled coathanger and keepsake box in A Family Album, all drooling and spattered with painted blood, are obvious and trite, whatever they are meant to suggest (family secrets, murderous desires and abortions come to mind). Other dangerous objects – a long needle erect on a plinth called Forget It, a crystal sphere titled Pointedness – have a mild surreal bite, but it is not sustained.

"Take all the anger out of the room," begins one of her framed instruction pieces. (I was once told the same thing by a marriage guidance counsellor.) There's a lot to read here: little framed anecdotes and apercues, instructions and bald statements. "This is the ceiling," says a note on the floor. No, it isn't. Anyway, Italian artist Piero Manzoni (Ono's exact contemporary, both born in 1933) once inverted the world more effectively with his Socle du Monde or The Base of the World, an upside-down plinth that stood on this very floor. Manzoni's Serpentine exhibition was a great monographic exhibition. Ono's isn't.

When she was part of the lively international rag-tag group of composers, conceptualists, dancers and artists who met, and sometimes showed, in her New York loft in the 1960s, Ono was a vital conduit of ideas and inspiration. The story of this period – and of Ono's life and relationships with John Cage, fluxus founder George Maciunas, and dancer Trisha Brown among others – would make for a far more profitable and engaging exhibition. Fluxus was full of humour, asides, wild performances and genuine experiment. It was, as art historian Kristine Stiles has noted, multicultural and multiracial, with more women than most avant-gardes before it.

Ono's art is better seen in the context of dialogue, as part of an artistic community, rather than her own somewhat dubious uniqueness. But this would probably not be alluring enough for the Serpentine's summer show this Olympic year. Much of the work she is known for – like 1967's Film No 4 (Bottoms), which follows the naked buttocks of male and female friends as they walked on the spot in her loft (she made a second version in London) – has the innocent charm of period pieces, even if Bottoms was rated X by the British censors.

In #smilesfilm, Ono has revisited her 1968 film Smile, which focused on the face of Lennon. People across the world can now upload their smiles to a website, while gallery visitors can also have theirs digitally recorded. The results, shown on a huge screen, include the Serpentine's directors: there's Hans-Ulrich Obrist grinning gamely, and Julia Peyton-Jones making a face. You'll not catch me baring my tombstone teeth for any project linked to the London 2012 festival.

At best, and a long time ago, Ono's art was far tougher and genuinely painful. "Bandage any part of your body," says her 1962 Conversation Piece. "If people ask about it, make a story and tell. If people do not ask about it, draw their attention to it and tell. If people forget about it, remind them of it and keep telling. Do not talk about anything else."

Her 1965 performance work Cut Piece – recorded in film here and shown opposite a second re-enactment in Paris in 2003 – invited audience members to mount the stage and cut off her clothes with a large pair of scissors. She sat impassively as they reduced her clothing to shreds. The original performance had enormous strength and tension. It was a play on power and self-objectification, in much the same way as Marina Abramović would later take to extremes.

Fly, made with Lennon in 1970, follows a fly as it journeys across a woman's naked body, wandering through her hair, round her ear and over her breast, stomach and pubis. At the end the camera pulls back, revealing not one but a number of flies, both destroying the artifice of this being a single fly's intimate meanderings and calling up the idea of death and forbearance – a body covered in flies. It demands concentration and, like much else here, looks like an animated illustration. No Ono work since has had this much charge; the film would be shown to greater effect were it installed and aired alone.

A little flashing light in the Serpentine's cupola winks on and off, day and night, sending out a message across Kensington Gardens in the artist's own, private code. "I love you," I'm told the signal reads. Love me? She doesn't even know me. Please do not presume to love me, I want to flash back, in my own special code that would alarm the families playing with the infant-sized chess pieces on the board outside the gallery. This is Play It By Trust and the pieces and squares are all white.

Real chess players don't need a board to visualise the game. They can do it in their heads. Much of Ono's art is like this, too. You read her early instruction pieces and imagine enacting them. Other works invite you to exercise your own creativity. In one room a couple of tables have been set up and you are asked: "Where do you go from here?" You can fold up your response and slip it into a glass. "To the pub," I thought to reply; or, "To kill myself." But that would be to rain on Ono's parade.

In one 1966 film, the artist blinks. Blink and you'll miss it. This is more fun. On another screen a match is struck, flares and dies, over several slow-mo minutes. Innumerable artists have continued to work in this vein, often to even lesser effect. But there was a genuine innocence to early Ono, inevitably and irreparably lost to her several kinds of fame. Would she deserve a Serpentine solo exhibition in 2012 if she were not Yoko Ono? Would her cries for universal peace have any more clout? Thwunk! There goes another one, walking into a wall.


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Yoko Ono at London's Serpentine: 'I was helped by the angels'

As a major retrospective of her work opens, Yoko Ono talks us through the installation, the gallery and the art



June 14 2012

A piece of performance art set in darkness made me see the light

Is Adrian Searle a spectator or an actor in Tino Sehgal's This Variation, an art/dance/music piece with few explanations?

Utter dark. As I walk in, I cannot see a thing, and must depend on sound to get my bearings. Who's there? First a low muttering in my ear, then, further off, a sound like a cooing dove. Call and response. But where am I, and more to the point, where are the other visitors I saw going in before me? The blackness has swallowed us whole. I feel a current of air as a body passes. Performer or spectator?

I entered This Variation at the Documenta 13 art festival in Kassel, Germany, last week during a lull. The piece is by Tino Sehgal (who is presenting the next Turbine Hall commission at Tate Modern this July). The performers must have seen my silhouette framed in the doorway as I took my first tentative steps into a darkness without dimension. They've started playing with my head. This could be cheap trick, like a fairground ghost ride. I imagine the audience at a pantomime, all shouting with one voice: "Look behind you!" Except the audience here are all as much in the dark as I am: each of us surrounded, shadows within shadows.

The little vocal sounds multiply, skittering like rain on a roof. A rhythm begins to unfold. A snatch of gospel, a little finger-snapping and foot-tapping, shoe-squeaking and body-swaying. Unn-huh, unn-huh. It starts to sound like sex. Five minutes later and they're really at it, the rhythm going full tilt. By now, I'm making my way through the room, eyes adjusting to the gloom, and I make out the performers, and one or two other spectators blundering about, standing stock still or hanging back in the doorway, unsure what to do with themselves. We have wandered onstage without a role or any sense of what the play is about. Are we witnesses or agents, actors or spectators?

One intrepid explorer has decided to cheat, navigating by the light of a mobile phone. That light is really irritating, I say, and some of the performers take up my words and riff with it, morphing the words into a kind of scat song. The phone-light snaps off.

Back in the dark, the room is an exhilarating clamour. Ride that train. I dimly perceive arms going at it like pistons. A hip sways into me and there's a voice imitating a fuzz-box guitar line sliding through the space. I think it's the opening to Cream's Sunshine of Your Love, which dates me, but the human voice sampling the melody shifts it into what sounds like a Funkadelic groove. "How did we get this far apa-aart?" someone sings, falsetto, right in my ear.

It's a great a cappella disco in here and I almost start dancing around my shoulder bag. We are now into one of those constantly ascending generic club tracks that forever delays release. Do I smell poppers? No, only the sweaty feet of another Documenta visitor in the gloom.

The music is infectious, a machinery of breath and bodies. Something about perfect soulmates and tell me girl and ain't got no money – standard lyrics but somehow uplifting. By now, a thin light is coming in from somewhere. One of the performers is micro-adjusting a dimmer switch, while the music loses its drive, drained to an exhausted aural slop, like spent waves collapsing on a beach at low tide.

"The income derived from producing things of slight consequence is of great consequence," someone announces. This gets a "No" from elsewhere in the room, so they start again. "The income derived from things of little consequence …" "… is of great consequence," another performer prompts. Then they say it all again in German. I don't quite hear what comes next because two Spanish women have wandered in and are chatting as if they were taking an evening walk to a bar for a drink.

One of the performers stands very close to the women and, raising his voice, repeats all this business about things of lesser and greater consequence, just for their benefit and in their own language. This doesn't shut the pair up, but they wander out, oblivious to their surroundings, still talking.

"Variation, January 2009," another performer mutters. There must be about a dozen of them. By now, most of the performers have their ears pressed to the wall, as though they were eavesdropping sounds in another room. I'm standing in a clearing in the thin grey light. Then they slide to the floor. Do I stay or do I go?

I went back two days later, and at 10 in the morning Good Vibrations was in full swing, the performers bending the song, stretching it out, working it this way and that. I thought it might be an all-day version of the Beach Boys hit. At one point, they formed a couple of lines down the centre of the room. Then they were all down on the floor, resting on their hips. Then it turned into talk about producing objects and ideas of little importance, and a more confessional monologue about one performer's relationship with her parents. I presume this was all in the script.

The good vibrations were by now all spent. I was getting bad vibrations about money and income, consumerism and family relationships. It was bringing me down so I went and leaned against the wall. After a bit, a girl came up to me. The music had started up again and she was making little snare drum noises between her teeth. I threw in a few teasing click-talk jives myself and soon we were both at it, having a conversation. There was eye contact in the gloom, then disappointment when she wandered off. At another point, some of the performers began holding one another. I think they were going through Sehgal's 2002 work Kiss, where performers enact famous art clinches, by Rodin, Edvard Munch, and that famous snog between Jeff Koons and La Cicciolina, Koons's former wife.

Is there a playlist? I shall never know how much of Sehgal's repertoire is being reprised and quoted here, how much room there is for improvisation or the cycle of repetition. Sehgal offers nothing by way of explanation or documentation of his works. Although his work is listed on the contents page of the current Documenta guidebook, the page itself is deliberately missing. A short note on the work at the back of the 750-page Documenta compendium of essays, The Book of Books, gives the barest information. The musical director of This Variation is composer and conductor Ari Benjamin Meyers, who has previously worked with Anri Sala, Philippe Parreno and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster; the note also tells me that Sehgal's current work is supported by the Centre Chorégraphique National de Bretagne, Rennes, in France.

Sehgal himself studied dance and economics in Essen and Berlin. His work is invariably captivating. This Variation left me breathless and overwhelmed. It is addictive. I wanted to grab strangers on the street by their lapels and shove them through that doorway into the dark. You have to see this. Or rather, not see it.

This Variation is at Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany, until 16 September


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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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June 08 2012

This week's new exhibitions

Nancy Holt, London

Fifty years ago, a group of American artists waved goodbye to the constraints of galleries and the art market, and headed for the wilderness to construct huge earthworks and industrial sculptures. Michael Heizer, for instance, cut deep welts in the Nevada desert; Robert Smithson built his legendary Spiral Jetty in Utah's Great Salt Lake; while his partner, Nancy Holt, left her Sun Tunnels in its desert: giant concrete tubes that frame the heavens. Yet as this show of Holt's photography suggests, the umbilical cord linking land art to the urban art world was never cut. It includes thrilling images of well-known works such as the Sun Tunnels, lying in the sands like a dissembled telescope. It wasn't just America's Big Country that enthralled her either: one rarely seen set of photographs document Holt and Smithson's work in Dartmoor, made while travelling around Britain's ancient stone circles and monoliths.

Haunch Of Venison, W1, to 25 Aug

Skye Sherwin

Isabel Rawsthorne, Walsall

Isabel Rawsthorne is more recognised through the dramatically warped features from Francis Bacon's portraits of her than in the drawings and paintings she pursued during the latter half of the 20th century. Shifting between the postwar bohemia of Paris's Left Bank and the boozy bonhomie of 50s Soho London, Rawsthorne was almost doomed to be overshadowed by such near legendary artists of the time as her friends Bacon and Alberto Giacometti. So this exhibition comes as a long overdue reappraisal of a highly individualistic body of work. Her best embodies a painfully sensitive awareness of physical vulnerability. "A fragile being with a brief existence," as she described her choice subject.

New Art Gallery to 8 Sep

Robert Clark

SNAP 2012, Snape

Now in its second year, Snap, the contemporary art addition to what will be the 64th Aldeburgh classical music festival at Snape Maltings, is pairing younger up-and-comers with established names and a few art-historical greats. One of Ryan Gander's slippery brain-teasing lectures-cum-detective stories kicks off proceedings. There's painting by Glenn Brown, renowned for his fusions of art history with sci-fi fantasy; Maggi Hambling is complementing her semi-abstract, tumultuous seascapes with her first ever sound work, while Gavin Turk's left a white door invitingly open in the middle of a field, like a magic portal. Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Alison Wilding and Sarah Lucas are among the major names with sculptures on site.

Snape Maltings, Sat to 24 Jun

SS

Richard Rigg, Gateshead

Richard Rigg selects structural banalities from our everyday domestic and workaday world, lifts them out of their settings, and recombines them to make sculptural metaphors for states of mind that are surprisingly delightful or distinctly deranged. A mountain cabin contains a mock-up mountainous landscape, its Scottish Highland rocks and earthy dust apparently derived from the Precambrian geological period that predates human life. Thus the almost unimaginable grandeur of nature is shovelled up and deposited for our contemplation in a typically clinical white-cube contemporary art gallery.

BALTIC, to 27 Aug

RC

Lynette Wallworth, London

This year Venus has been passing between Earth and the sun, appearing as a black dot over the blazing centre of our solar system. Only 53 of these "transits" have occurred since 2000 BC, and in the late-18th century one prompted the first international scientific expedition, with boffins taking to the seas to observe its passage. Like those earlier voyagers, Lynette Wallworth looks to the ocean for her transit-referencing work, Coral: Rekindling Venus, installed in over 20 planetariums worldwide. She's replaced the cosmos with an underwater world of endangered creatures filmed in diminishing coral reefs. Accompanying sounds come from Antony And The Johnsons, Gurrumul and Tanya Tagaq Gillis.

Royal Observatory Greenwich, SE10, to 6 Jul

SS

Lis Rhodes And Antonia Hirsch, Glasgow

Two film installations from a genre that used to be called "experimental" but is surely well into its second maturity. Lis Rhodes's aptly titled Dissonance And Disturbance (to 24 Jun) is a cut-up free-associational onslaught in which marks scratched into the film are read as sounds and broadcast as sporadic rhythms of buzzing interference. Meanwhile the visual projections themselves take their cue from this in a sequence of pulsating geometric grids and illegible text fragments. The sensory disorientations of Antonia Hirsch's installation (to 1 Jul) are no less extreme as almost subliminal flashes of light punctuate readings from Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, an anti-war novel narrated by a ex-soldier who has lost arms, legs and face and experiences the world as a series of distressed abstractions. It's a stream-of-consciousness semi-abstraction show in which the primal sources of thought appear to be plugged into.

Tramway

RC

Wide Open School, Invisible: Art Of The Unseen, London

Wide Open School (Mon to 11 Jul) sounds like a glorious pipe dream of an education system, which no one has had the nerve, or means, to attempt. It will see 100 artists – including Martin Creed, Jeremy Deller and Thomas Hirschhorn – devising and delivering classes, leading workshops and giving lectures. Subjects will take in cloud architecture, Freddie Mercury, deep space, and sex in the colonies. Upstairs at the Hayward, there's "invisible art" (Tue to 5 Aug), from Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono and Maurizio Cattelan. It chronicles over 50 years of the art of the unseen, from Yves Klein's famous empty galleries, purportedly full of invisible energy, to the vibrating walls of Jeppe Hein's Invisible Labyrinth.

Hayward Gallery, SE1

SS

Caroline Achaintre, Sara Barker And Alice Channer, Birmingham

An intriguing grouping of sculptures that all touch on some kind of thematic interface between presence and absence. Sara Barker's precarious architectural constructions, hand-painted spindle-legged armatures, appear to frame a very evocative nothingness. The human subjects in Alice Channer's installations are represented by hand and body smears, slightly alarming imprints on curtains that cannot but invoke Hitchcock. Meanwhile Caroline Achaintre's hauntings tend to be more blunt, lumpen and in-your-face, a bizarre and potent amalgam of horror schlock and oh-so-nice craftiness.

Eastside Projects, to 28 Jul

RC


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Exhibitionist: The week's art shows in pictures

From a survey of invisible art in London to a magic door made by Gavin Turk in Snape Maltings, find out what's happening in art around the country



Yoko Ono profile: from John Lennon to a Wish Tree

An artist for the age of Occupy is given a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London

The most famous thing anyone ever said about Yoko Ono was, inevitably, said by John Lennon, and for years it held true. He called her "the world's most famous unknown artist, everyone knows her name, but no one knows what she actually does".

As the artist, musician, film-maker and peace activist nears 80, that could be changing. After decades demonised as the witch who destroyed the Beatles she is emerging from the shadow of that complicated personal history.

Since a groundbreaking exhibition in New York in 2001 re-established her reputation, she has come back into focus as a significant artist, winning the accolade of the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2009 Venice Biennale. New generations of artists have discovered her as an inspirational figure.

Basement Jaxx, Flaming Lips and Lady Gaga have collaborated with her in recent years. Younger visual artists as different as Jeff Koons, Pipilotti Rist and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster cite her as an influence; the photographer and film-maker Sam Taylor-Wood even jokingly calls herself an "obsessed fan".

This summer the artist – a tiny figure, usually to be seen wearing trademark sunglasses and hat – will be the focus of a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

According to Julia Peyton-Jones, co-director of the gallery, it is her prescience as an artist that makes her an intriguing figure for today. "As her relationship with the Beatles fades into the past her own reputation is crystallising. What is so extraordinary is that her work chimes with the times we live in now. Her activism is immensely relevant for today, in the age of Occupy."

Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim, organised the 2001 exhibition at New York's Japan Society. She says Ono's importance is only just being fully appreciated "after 40 years of her being dismissed – either as a Japanese artist, or a woman artist". She adds: "What makes her so slippery is that she is so wide-ranging. She is a musician and a poet, a peace activist and a performance artist, a maker of objects and a conceptual artist – and married to John Lennon."

The sheer breadth of her output, says Munroe, has taxed curatorial and critical skills. But, she says, Ono's originality cannot be underestimated, even though it has often been unrecognised.

"She was the first artist, in 1964, to put language on the wall of the gallery and invite the viewer to complete the work. She was the first artist to cede authorial authority to the viewer in this way, making her work interactive and experimental. That was the radical move of art in the 1960s."

Ono's energy remains undimmed and she continues to make new work and harness new technology. Her Twitter followers number 2.3 million. Recent works include her Imagine Peace tower (2007), a column of laser-light on an island near Reykjavik, and My Mummy Was Beautiful (2004), an image of breasts and vagina that was exhibited on posters around the city of Liverpool, causing controversy in some quarters.

She was born in 1933 into a wealthy Japanese family firmly ensconced in the ruling classes; her father was a banker. She began piano tuition at two and was educated at a specialist music school as her family shuttled between New York and Tokyo. War brought unfamiliar deprivations to the aristocratic family. In 1945 she took charge of her siblings, at the age of 12, when they were evacuated to the countryside after the capital's fire bombing. They struggled to eat. Her father was imprisoned in a Saigon concentration camp.

After the war Ono completed her education, becoming the first woman accepted to read philosophy at Gakushuin University. The family moved to New York, where she studied at Sarah Lawrence College, and, in 1956, she married the composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. By this time Ono was discovering a downtown scene of musicians, composers and artists, with John Cage and La Monte Young key figures.

After the collapse of her relationship with Ichiyanagi she married the American producer and art promoter Anthony Cox, and they had a daughter, Kyoko.

By the early 1960s Ono was working on the periphery of the neo-Dadaist Fluxus group, organising performances and happenings in her Chambers Street loft in Tribeca.

A key work was her book Grapefruit, first published in 1964, which has artworks framed as sets of instructions, or "event scores"; as such it is an important early example of conceptual art. (One example, entitled Painting to Exist Only When It's Copied Or Photographed, runs: "Let people copy or photograph your paintings. Destroy the originals.")

Another significant work of this period was Cut Piece, a performance work in which Ono invited the audience to take scissors and snip away her clothes as she sat, silent and still. The critic Michael Bracewell notes: "It is amazing how well that piece has lasted. When you see film of the piece done originally, she seems so vulnerable as a young woman, especially a young Asian woman. There are extraordinary undertones – submissiveness, the idea of the geisha. Enacted, it becomes incredibly tense."

Bracewell saw the piece when it was re-done in Paris in 2003. "The piece had automatically updated itself. It had become a piece about celebrity. The place was crammed to the gills, a couple of rows full of gilded young people, and absolutely no security. There she was, this elegant woman in her 70s and anyone could approach her with a bloody great pair of scissors."

For Munroe, Cut Piece was "absolutely revolutionary. "The idea that the artist's body in time and space is itself a work of art was totally radical."

In 1966 Ono held a show at the Indica Gallery, London. John Dunbar was the gallery's director. "I introduced John and Yoko," he recalls. "I was a friend of John and Paul, and suggested they come in; I thought John would enjoy it. Yoko had never heard of John. I had to explain that he was a rich person who might buy something … It wasn't immediately clear that anything was going to happen. She is a strong woman. John had never met anyone like her."

After two years they got together. But the corollary was that Cox, after a custody battle for Kyoko that Ono won, effectively kidnapped the child, and Ono did not see her at all between the ages of eight and 31.

Ono's union with Lennon of course represents the pivotal moment in her life. According to Bracewell an immediate effect was her artistic influence on Lennon – which also served to damage her, since she was "regarded as the demon face of the avant-garde and, particularly in Britain, what she did was largely seen as unintelligible".

Sean, Lennon and Ono's son, was born in 1975, five years before his father was gunned down on the street outside the Dakota Building in New York . Ono still lives there with her superb collection of art that includes Magrittes and Warhols. And mother and son have  collaborated on music projects in recent years.

An often expressed doubt surrounding Ono is that the peace-and-love mantra she expresses through her art and through her activism can look like a relic of a lost time, a statement stuck in the era of the 1960s.

For example, her Wish Tree, which she has instigated in various locations and will appear outside the Serpentine this summer, is a tree on which members of the public are invited to attach labels on which they have scribbled their wishes.

Bracewell, who believes Ono has suffered from "a sexist and racist response to her from people who regarded her as a giggling, inscrutable Japanese woman who had stolen one of our national treasures", argues that to regard such works as childish is unfair.

"Why would we have a problem with Yoko doing peace and love when we are quite happy for the Beatles to sing All You Need Is Love?" he says.

Perhaps Ono has, in the end, more right than most to tackle hatred and violence in her own way. She experienced war in Japan firsthand; her husband was shot down; her life was clearly soured by hatred directed at her from some Beatles fans.

It is her resilience in the face of disaster that, for the musician Antony Hegarty – who has collaborated with her on performances – makes her a personal as well as an artistic model. "She has  shown me, by her power of example, how to stand by one's values, even in the face of fear," he says. "She  has endured brutal storms and never surrendered."

Munroe agrees. The peace-and-love message, she says, is authentic. "She really believes in love as the transformative energy in the world. That's her faith."

Potted profile

Born 13 February 1933

Age 79

Career Ono has worked in the avant garde of the art world since the 1950s, her practice taking in music, film, poetry and performance – including her two famous week-long "bed-ins" with her husband John Lennon, a twist on the sit-in.

High point Meeting Lennon at a preview of her exhibition at Indica gallery, London, in November 1966; also her 2001 retrospective Yes Yoko Ono, which cemented her work's reputation.

Low point Ono was vilified for decades for breaking up the Beatles and even after Lennon's death in 1980 attracted little public sympathy. Also suffered the abduction of her daughter Kyoko by her second husband, Anthony Cox.

What she says "No one person could have broken up a band, especially one the size of the Beatles."

What they say "I learned everything from her … That's what people don't understand. She's the teacher and I'm the pupil." John Lennon, 1980


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