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August 02 2012

Stonehenge: where did it all go wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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June 26 2012

Britain Creates: when fashion and art collide

Getting fashion designers and artists to work together on a concept project might seem too abstract to succeed. But Britain Creates actually works

Let's be honest: art-fashion concept projects can be a little hard to get a handle on. I'm used to talking about beautiful dresses, new hot colours. Bikinis such as those Kate Moss wears; shoes that will give you Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's legs. Stuff that, frankly, we can all get the point of. The collaborative-artistic project stuff can seem, to someone as shallow and impatient as me, a little abstract and dry by comparison.

But you know what? It's fascinating what happens when you matchmake some of Britain's best fashion designers with artists. Britain Creates, conceived by the British Fashion Council as an opportunity to commemorate the London Olympics and to celebrate the breadth of British creative talent, does just that. It pairs fashion designers with visual artists to produce one-off collaborative works of art. The first thing that strikes me, looking at the nine artworks that have emerged, is that although this is fashion's pet project – backed by the BFC, in partnership with Harpers Bazaar magazine and with Selfridges, which is hosting a charity auction of two of the pieces – only one is a piece of clothing. Giles Deacon and Jeremy Deller have created a cloak that looks like a coat of arms come to life, which they have dubbed "an Arts and Crafts suit of armour for an athlete".

Seven of the pieces come within the category of visual artworks. Hussein Chalayan, who collaborated with Gavin Turk, felt that people expected "a dress with one of Gavin's images on it". Both keen to move beyond their comfort zones, they made The Four Minute Mile, a four-minute recording of Turk talking about art and Chalayan humming in accompaniment, set to a rhythmical soundtrack of running feet.

Putting designers and artists to work together poses the question of whether fashion is art. These pieces will be displayed first in the Victoria & Albert Museum; in August, they will move to Selfridges where they will be centrepieces of the Olympic window displays.

The first time Jonathan Saunders met up with artist Jess Flood-Paddock, they talked a lot about the differences between their worlds. "Fashion is a business," says Saunders. "I am in the service industry. My job is about meeting consumers' needs, which is totally different from fine art, which is about personal expression. We talked about consumerism, and Andy Warhol, and screen printing and the mass production of art." They found the similarities in what they do – "we are both process-driven" – and came up with an installation of 200 screen-printed plastic sheets hung on a rail. The effect is a little like walking into a high-end boutique where fine art swings from the hangers.

I spoke to Susanna Greeves, the curator of the exhibition, as she was overseeing the installation, and asked if she saw visual themes emerging. "If you look at it as an exhibition, there is a lot of radiance and luminosity and jewel-like colours," she say. "And you can also see an emphasis on craft, on the presence of a human hand in the making of these works. It makes me wonder if the artists are subliminally responding to the idea of the V&A as a setting."

The explicit theme is the Olympian spirit, in its broad sense. "The original Olympic values of strength, power, honesty – the inspiring stuff – were very much part of the brief," says Caroline Rush, CEO of the British Fashion Council, "but we also wanted it to be completely open-ended." Paul Smith and Charming Baker's installation of a tiny mouse holding up a bicycle, and Mary Katrantzou and Mark Titchner's digital video installation with the words "Courage, Ambition, Passion, Strength" show Olympic spirit, but both add a wink in the title. The mouse-and-bicycle is dubbed Triumph in the Face of Absurdity ("It's about the British way of rooting for the underdog," says Baker) while the Katrantzou/Titchner piece borrows a line from Emily Dickinson: "Tint the Pallid Landscape (Off to the wars in Lace)".

Matthew Williamson partnered Mat Colishaw, whose images of butterflies he had long admired, "but I hadn't realised that they were actually real, burned butterflies, in those pictures. And me being a kind of happy, upbeat person, when Mat told me that, I thought it was quite sad, even though I am drawn to his aesthetic, that distortion of nature. I wanted to take his butterflies and bring them back to life. So Mat gave me the canvas and I embellished it with tiny beads strung on the end of miniature drinking straws. Now you can still see the decay and the macabre element if you look closely, but you see the beauty first."

In an Olympic year, you can't keep positivity out of fashion. "If I could buy one piece, I'd buy the Celestial Bonnet, the five rings light installation by Stephen Jones and Cerith Wyn Evans," says Caroline Rush. "It's such a happy piece: a halo moment, a crowning glory. And it's just so, so beautiful."

Britain Creates 2012: Fashion + Art Collusion, a collaboration between the British Fashion Council and the V&A, 6-29 July (free).


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June 21 2012

Stonehenge enjoys a moment in the sun at summer solstice

As worshippers and revellers descend, the Wiltshire landmark is thriving – inspiring bouncy art and more wild theories than ever

In the 1930s there was an advertisement for an oil company that went: "Stonehenge Wilts, but Shell goes on forever." In 2012, with oil supplies falling and the remnants of the iconic slabs indomitable on the windswept plains of Wiltshire, the truth is surely otherwise.

"The stones themselves still stand, enduring in a society which is not," argues Christopher Chippindale, of the University of Cambridge's museum of archaeology and anthropology, who is also author of the book Stonehenge Complete. Today the World Heritage's foremost lintelled sarsen structure is not just enduring but thriving, spawning more academic research, wild theorising, bouncy art, and pagan robe sales than ever.

Just consider some of the Stonehenge activities that will take place in the next few weeks. At sunrise on Thursday, the 14,500 transcendence questing druids and varied revellers may have been outnumbered only by world weary media drones as they tried to celebrate the summer solstice at the 4.52am sunrise (ideally in line with English Heritage's stringent Conditions of Entry document, which might be downloaded by socially responsible pagans). Heavy rain overnight reduced the number of people who camped out or arrived early to witness the dawn compared with previous years, which have seen numbers of around 20,000.

And in London there was also a chance to get excited about mid-summer – for Stonehenge's inflatable simulacrum comes to town. Although the rain may have dampened spirits.

Jeremy Deller's Sacrilege, first placed in public on Glasgow Green, will be inflated to pop up in the capital as part of what sceptics would call that oxymoron the Cultural Olympiad.

Is there anything more fun than a 35-metre bouncy castle that looks like Stonehenge, you ask? Not until they make a bouncy Warwick Castle with water slide into a moat laced with gin, I reply.

What is Deller, the Turner prize-winning artist, up to? "It's a very entry-level way into thinking about ancient history for five-year-olds," he says. True, but several bouncing Glaswegians were at least 45 years older than that target demographic. "It's good to play with our history and culture. Stonehenge is part of British identity but no one knows what it was for."

Good point. Ever since King Arthur's dad, Utherpendragon, invaded Ireland, defeated an army and shipped Stonehenge from Ireland to Salisbury with the help of the wizard Merlin, the stones have sunk themselves ever deeper into British national consciousness.

In chapter 58 of Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, for instance, slimy Angel Clare and the dopey heroine are walking fugitively through darkling Wessex when "on a sudden, Clare became conscious of some vast erection close in his front [Oh grow up!], rising sheer from the grass … 'It is Stonehenge!' said Clare. 'The heathen temple, you mean?'"

Tess lies down on a sun-warmed stone. "'Did they sacrifice to God here?' asked she. 'No,' said he. 'Who to?' 'I believe to the sun. That lofty stone set away by itself is in the direction of the sun that will presently rise behind it.'"

Victorians wrote yards of this stuff: anybody who was anybody in 19th-century fiction got arrested, died, or got it on those stones.

Incidentally, if you are Irish and thinking that the paragraph above suggests Stonehenge is like the Elgin Marbles and should be repatriated immediately, think again; according to Geoffrey of Monmouth's marvellously unreliable 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain (the leading medieval account of Stonehenge's origin), Irish giants transported the stones from Africa to Ireland earlier and used them as a curative bath until they were nicked by King Arthur's dad.

Part of Stonehenge's appeal is that it's a riddle wrapped in mythology, swathed in druidical vestments and draped in a dodgy, if grand, relationship to the cosmos. Over the millennia, intellectuals have cast it as vast cosmic clock wound up by woad-daubed neolithic nudists (a theory embellished recently by archaeologists at Birmingham University's Ludwig Boltzman Institute).

Other thinkers, like the 17th -century architect Inigo Jones, maintained ancient Britons were too thick to have created such a sophisticated edifice, and concluded it must have been Roman.

Today we aren't sure who built it or why. Was it a burial ground, a magnet for crusty rave-ups, a sacred zone where our bearded forebears chillaxed old school, or a mystic portal to the celestial superhighway?

"Stonehenge sets a puzzle that has never been solved," notes Chippindale.

Could Stonehenge have functioned as a helipad for Lord Sugar's neolithic ancestors? It's not impossible. More likely it resembled a lecture theatre with uncomfortable seating and no power sockets. Archaeo-acoustic researchers at Salford and Huddersfield universities suggested as much recently after examining the 5,000-year-old-structure's acoustic properties.

Their work, at the site and at a concrete replica in Washington, indicates that Stonehenge had the sort of acoustics desirable in a lecture hall.

It wasn't only the sight of Stonehenge that would have blown ancient visitors away.

Bruno Fazenda, professor at the University of Salford, says: "As they walked inside they would have perceived the sound environment around them had changed in some way." Lucky them: all you can hear nowadays is the traffic howl from the A303.

Ever since those ancient days of magic stones shipped from Ireland, Stonehenge has satisfied a yearning among the citizens of these lands for mystic grandeur. That yearning will be kindled in July when the flaming French move in to Stonehenge.

Compagnie Carabosse will turn the site into a "fire garden" with flaming pots animating the stones, and cascades of candles lining the pathways. Think: rows of tea lights running down your garden path as you sink a sundowner, but much, much, more poncy.

Shortly afterwards, in the culmination of Stonehenge's 2012, diggers will move in to right one of the most grievous historic wrongs in modern Britain. The stones will be moved slightly to the right away from the A303 and into proper alignment with the sun.

I'm kidding. In fact, the bulldozers will rip up the inadequate car park and visitor centre that have been a national disgrace since 1968.

Simon Thurley, English Heritage's chief executive, said of the £27m makeover: "These are crucial steps which bring closer the transformation of the currently blighted Stonehenge landscape." The centre will be moved 1.5 miles away and visitors will get to the stones on a low-key transit system or, as others call it, a Noddy train. Noddy Goes To Stonehenge – what a film!

There have been films, indeed. In National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985), Mr Griswold gives an affecting speech on the monument's indomitability before climbing into his rental car and (can you see the gag yet?) reversing and toppling the thing like dominoes. Hilarious: in reality an Austin Maxi couldn't knock the skin off a rice pudding.

In the no less amusing Shanghai Knights (2003), this gag is reprised when the two main characters crash their car into Stonehenge. One says: "Who the hell would put a pile of stones in the middle of a field?" Somewhere someone's writing a PhD on Hollywood's symbolic castration of British heritage by means of such movie demolition jobs.

Stonehenge's image reached its mock-heroic apogee in the rocku/mocku-mentary This is Spinal Tap (1984). Picture the scene: the band's plotting a comeback tour involving a lavish stage show featuring a replica of the monument as a backdrop to their pomp rock classic, Stonehenge. Only one problem, the order for the prop goes wrong and instead of being 18ft high it's 18in tall, making the band a laughing stock.

Did Deller consider this pitfall in making his scaled-down bouncy version? You'd think.

He never thought, though, of emulating Steven Moffat's insanely elaborate cosmological topography in the 2010 two-part special of Doctor Who, The Pandorica Opens. All the doctor's many enemies hover above Stonehenge, while below in Underhenge lies the fabled prison of Pandorica holding the universe's most detested and feared prisoner, Jeremy Clarkson at the co-ordinates of a worrying fissure in the universe's frankly baffling structure.

Actually, it wasn't Clarkson but some being even more unimaginably evil.

Most of the filming took place at Foamhenge, a lightweight replica set up near Port Talbot. It was there that the doctor battled an army of cybermen and others in what proved to be a critic-slaying, award-winning and discombobulatingly mytho-metaphysical fuss. Very Moffat, very Stonehenge.

It was also indicative of what Stonehenge really is: an open text, endlessly interpretable and readily bendable to our times and imagination. "It is a mirror which reflects back, more or less distorted, that view of the past which the onlooker takes there," Chippindale says. Long may that continue.


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April 26 2012

The Olympics is about sport not art, so culture needs to drop out of the race

When the best the Cultural Olympiad has to offer is bouncy castles and BMWs, you know it's time for art to take a back seat

A question arises looking at the full programme for the London 2012 festival, and that question is: why? What's all it for? And how does it connect in any interesting way with the Olympics, or use that sporting even to further art?

As far a visual art goes there is nothing odious about the choices made, but nothing very coherent or spectacularly important, either. To be honest, from Jeremy Deller's bouncy Stonehenge touring the nation to an installation by Richard Wilson in Bexhill on Sea, many of the artworks for the festival sound a bit ... cheap and cheerful. A bouncy castle can't cost that much and Wilson is an artist of subtle ephemeral installations. It's hard to see how the festival is raising anyone's game here. Where's the ambition? Oh, there is, and its name is Anish Kapoor ...

Another element of the art programme that adds to the sense of public money being in short supply is that we are supposed to get excited about a display of BMW cars painted by the likes of Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol. This is an innovative and creative contribution to culture how? These painted cars have been around for centuries, and if the London 2012 festival is driven to rely on them as a major part of its programme it is in serious trouble. There is nothing special about a show of these pop art vehicles, nothing cutting edge, and the only explanation I can see is that the organisers are desperately reliant on sponsorship and grateful for BMW's involvement.

It hardly takes a world festival to elicit a new work from Antony Gormley, to take another art element of the programme. But it's time the cultural establishment, which seems endlessly deluded - and by which I mean curators, administrators, and us cultural journalists - woke up to the blindingly obvious fact that when the Olympics opens, we won't be the stars.

I once visited Athens ahead of its Olympics to review its cultural festival. Greece has more reason than most places to make a lot of cultural noise about the Olympics, and did so, with exhibitions on the ancient Greek Olympic games as well as a Gilbert and George show. None of this mattered when the games opened. The BBC did not weave a visit to the wonderful Cycladic art museum into its games coverage. This is about sport, not culture, and after all the fuss, the London 2012 festival implicitly recognises that by foregrounding entertainment (see Stephen Fry at your local comedy club!) and going easy on the brainwork. When it comes to visual art, this makes the whole thing pointless. It will add little to the life of the mind, but may give BMW a boost.


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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 09 2012

The top visual arts picks for spring

The Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, Yoko Ono and a welcome re-evaluation of Edvard Munch

Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art

Interactive art by Jeremy Deller, Wolfgang Tillmans photographs, Richard Wright drawings, LA-based installationist Kelly Nipper at Tramway, a new film co-commissioned with Scottish Ballet by Rosalind Nashashibi and much more in Scotland's funkiest city. What's not to like? Various venues, 20 April to 7 May. glasgowinternational.org

Bauhaus: Art as Life

The Bauhaus was key to architecture, design, furniture, textiles, painting, sculpture, photography and so on – not just what art you hung on your walls, but the walls themselves, and a whole sense of what it is to be modern. A huge number of artworks and artefacts by its international roster of participants will inhabit a specially designed series of dramatic and intimate spaces. Barbican, London EC2, 3 May to 12 August. barbican.org.uk

Documenta 13

Documenta is the five-yearly keynote show of contemporary art worldwide, held in the German town of Kassel. Polemical, always controversial and frequently baffling, "this exhibition speaks about the uniqueness of our relationship with objects and our fascination with them," says its website – which could mean anything. Documenta depends on its invited curators, led this time by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Kassel, Germany, 9 June to 16 September. d13.documenta.de

Yoko Ono

How substantial an artist Yoko Ono is remains a question, though her impact on contemporary art has been described as enormous. She remains an enigmatic, annoying, captivating and charismatic figure, as this exhibition will doubtless confirm. Serpentine Gallery, London W2, 020-7402 6075, 19 June to 9 September. serpentinegallery.org

Turner Monet Twombly

JMW Turner and American abstractionist Cy Twombly seem to be shoehorned into all sorts of iffy confrontations these days. Here their late work appears with Monet's. Late Twombly still seems over-rated to me, but the showing of late Monet water lily paintings will be worth the visit alone. Tate Liverpool, 22 June to 28 October. tate.org.uk

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye (Critic's choice)

Sixty paintings, many from the Munch Museum in Oslo, and a rare showing of the artist's photography and film works, in a welcome exhibition intended to recast Munch not as symbolist depressive or Norway's Mr Scream, but as a quintessentially 20th-century artist attuned to his times. We are apt to forget that Munch lived until 1944. Tate Modern, London SE1, 28 June to 14 October. tate.org.uk


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March 30 2012

Music Weekly podcast: Jeremy Deller recording bats and loving glam rock

Alexis and Kieran are joined this week by the Guardian's Michael Hann for a show that includes artist Jeremy Deller, singles club and Labrinth.

In the world of diamond encrusted skulls and unmade beds that is contemporary art, few people are as influenced by pop music as Turner prize winner Jeremy Deller – the artist who managed to combine acid house and brass bands. He talks to Alexis about the music he loves.

In singles club, where we run the rule over three new releases, we have tracks from Dexys Midnight Runners, Anthony 'Shake' Shakir and Mac Miller – whose 45 seconds of a woman panting has caused much debate.

Timothy McKenzie, otherwise known as songwriter and producer Labrinth, loved the idea of grime, but found it musically ignorant. So he started experimenting with a new blend that included church music and the sounds of his Nintendo. When Tinie Tempah came knocking on his studio door, everything clicked into place, he tells Kieran.

Thanks for listening, and also for your feedback on last week's show; please keep the comments coming. There is no Music Weekly podcast next week, but we'll return in a fortnight.



February 26 2012

Jeremy Deller: Joy in People – review

Hayward Gallery; Trafalgar Square, London

You enter through the teenage bedroom and are instantly back to the 1980s. Arthur Scargill pronounces from the posters, Lord Sutch is still alive and screaming, Jeffrey Archer is foolishly suing the Star. The life cycle of Keith Moon is lovingly recorded in black-and-white paintings, and above the Polaroids of party-goers, their faces faded to featureless moons, a parental voice recedes in trailing letters: "You Treat This Place Like a Hotel".

It's personal and it's universal, Jeremy Deller's reconstructed bedroom. Bands we saw, days we lived, frustrations we endured ("We may not have girlfriends, but we know how to have a good time," reads the caption to a shot of schoolboys towering up the empties.) Outside, a girl sits reading beneath a high, dark wall: "I ♥ Melancholy" is lettered in scintillating gloss on matt, getting the thrill of teenage angst down to perfection; painting it black, immense.

Personal and universal is exactly Deller's range, though it is extremely rare for the person in question to be himself. He is probably better known for The Battle of Orgreave, a restaging of the worst conflict of the 1984 miners' strike from multiple viewpoints that united two strands of English culture – trade unionists and civil war re-enactors – than for winning the 2004 Turner prize, and certainly better known for raising voices other than his own.

In this generous and deeply absorbing retrospective, for instance, you will hear from German gardeners, Yorkshire policemen, Welsh wrestlers, Iraqi writers and male fans of Depeche Mode running into trouble across the world for going about in eyeliner.

In Texas, Deller listens to Quaker peaceniks, George Bush extremists, the Waco survivor moved to the mild comment that they really shouldn't have used that CS gas. In Mexico he encourages children to interview bureaucrats with tragicomic results.

In addition to the many films are relics of street parades he's organised from Manchester to San Sebastián – glorious banners embroidered with eccentric slogans, songs written for the occasion, an exact replica of Valerie's caff in Bolton, serving the best bacon butties in the world. You can drink Valerie's brew; you can stamp your own slogans with an embossing machine, look at the extremes of London life through old 3D Viewmasters (don't miss the day they took a crowbar to Asprey), or lounge about reading the Hutton report and Dostoevsky.

Liberty Hall is the ethos, with an underlying sense that visitors are themselves taking part in some democratic public event. To adapt a Shakespearean question that Deller is fond of: what is the exhibition but the people?

When he won the Turner prize, people were still asking whether Deller was an artist at all if he couldn't sculpt, paint or draw. His material is drawn straight from the life around him, from people's experiences, from conversation, from history almost as it happens. He is an enabler, intermediary and maker of connections, a producer, collaborator and activist. He has expanded the traditional idea of how an artist may work.

But Deller is now in his mid-40s and as time passes his approach looks less nonconformist – this show has paintings, films, installations and photographs, albeit some of them the visual testimony of past happenings – especially as the material passes into social or political history.

An ephemeral exhibition – one day only – in Norwich in 1994 which borrowed its title from Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy consisted entirely of work made by fans of the Manic Street Preachers who had drawn, painted and written their homages, described their responses, presented the books the band had inspired them to read. Deller commissioned them in admiration – a fan of the fans – but also to show a tiny alternative education system in the making. It looks more poignant than ever in these low-literacy days.

There are memorials (and commemorations of memorials, to Brian Epstein and Princess Diana). There are newspapers, public records, oral histories and parliamentary transcripts for the furthering of knowledge. Everything is connected by culture, by badges, films and music and by words found on walls, in novels, on placards. "Let London Breathe". "There is More to Life Than Increasing Its Speed". Anyone who saw that maxim from Gandhi on the London Underground two years ago will have felt the frisson, particularly at rush hour. If there is a connecting aesthetic in Deller's ceaseless variety of media it is his eye for epigram and context. It is there in the bedroom – "Suburbia" embroidered across the Union Jack – and in the "I ♥Joyriding" sticker fixed by night to a police car, doubling the double entendre.

And it is there in the most affecting gallery in this show, which contains the wreckage of a car bombed in Baghdad. A mangled hump of scorched metal, its doors and exhaust pipe only just discernible, the seats long since melted away, it is irreducibly shocking: 38 people died in the attack. The car was brought here from the Imperial War museum. Set something in a new context and perhaps it will mean more, inspire new reactions, different thoughts: that is at least one of Deller's methods. But many artists work that way.

In the accompanying film, Deller goes much further, ferrying an Iraqi artist and an American reservist from New York to LA with this grave relic to discover how people feel on seeing it. The Iraqi is a man of saintly patience, forced to make all kinds of compromises just to get round to discussing Iraq; the American is repeatedly challenged. The subtlety of the interviews – all given equal length and emphasis – belongs to Deller. It Is What It Is – that's the title: the inane tautology of our times applied to devastating effect.

It is quite a stretch from teenage kicks to Baghdad, and to the show's final film, a bat cave with the critters streaming towards you in 3D twilight. But the spectacle turns to beauty in the end, and a mutual sense of audience excitement. By this stage, you and your fellow visitors have been moving, thinking, talking and exploring for long enough to become a kind of community in yourselves. Which is what this show is all about, in its energetic and open-minded way: expanding our sense of society.

In Trafalgar Square, the bottled ship has disembarked and a golden lad now rides the Fourth Plinth on his golden rocking horse; except that there is no sense of suspended animation. The boy is static, anonymous, generic: a euro-child in shorts on an Ikea flat-pack toy. One hand waving free, he is too cute to be heroic any more than the statue is equestrian – which is, of course, partly the point.

Elmgreen and Dragset, the Scandinavian art duo whose plaything this is, have made many acute think-pieces in the past. They have a knack for installations that turn the passing visitor into an unwitting performer on a stage; like Deller, they have strongly democratic interests. Noting that the plinth was originally designed for an equestrian statue of William IV, they have raised their little commoner to the equivalent level and scale. The boy's innocence becomes heroic, his horse has nothing to do with monarchy or war.

That is the implication, at least. But the statue is not subtle enough to embody these ideas. Brightly shining (though from a certain angle it disappears against the yellow backdrop of Canada House) and undeniably winsome, it lacks any tipping point or purchase. The casting process is cumbersome and the bronze looks plastic. Instead of elevating a child, the artists have produced a great big toy.


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February 22 2012

Andy Warhol's legacy – 25 years on

15 minutes of fame? The artist whose radical ideas galvanised the 1960s art world continues to dominate the market and permeate popular culture – 25 years after his death

On 22 February 1987, Andy Warhol died unexpectedly in a New York hospital after a routine operation on his gallbladder. Yet 25 years on, the artist described by Truman Capote, quoting Wilde, as "a sphinx without a secret" has never gone away. Not only does Warhol dominate the art market, with his work accounting for one-sixth of contemporary art sales, his influence permeates both high art and popular culture.

Warhol's work is rarely out of circulation in galleries. A show at the De La Warr Pavilion in east Sussex closes this week, but another, of his portfolio prints, starts at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London this summer. The artists he influenced are even more visible. Next month, artist Gillian Wearing, who once photographed herself dressed as Warhol, will show a retrospective of her work at the Whitechapel, while Jeremy Deller, who hung out at Warhol's studio, the Factory, in the summer of 1986, is just about to launch a retrospective at London's Hayward.

"I think Warhol changed film and documentary forever," says Wearing. "He was completely seminal in that area. His extremely long takes, his exploration of improvisation between fiction and reality came about through his playful and irreverent manner, and gave the world new ways of looking."

Warhol's radical idea that the stuff of modern life could be art, from Campbell's soup cans to washing-powder boxes, galvanised the art world in the 60s. "I went to see his 1989 retrospective at Moma," remembers cultural historian Jon Savage. "You walked into the 60s rooms and there it all was – America. Money, sex, fame, death. Warhol summed, up, defined and in many ways embodied the world in which we now live. Everyone thinks he's emotionless and soulless, but the cumulative effect of seeing all the Marilyns and Orange Disasters is extremely powerful – it's not just a mirror," he says, referring to the verdict of art critic Robert Hughes.

Yet it is the sheer range of Warhol's work which has made his influence all-pervasive. As Wearing puts it: "Warhol left his mark in many more ways than his actual work". As well as the paintings, and the films he made of acolytes of the Factory sleeping, taking drugs or, in the case of the self-explanatory Blow Job, receiving oral sex, Warhol created a celebrity magazine, Interview; produced the Velvet Underground's first album; wrote (or dictated) voluminous diaries, and was impresario and mentor to a host of "superstars" – followers who came to find fame, or soak up the atmosphere, and became the subjects of his work.

Stuart Comer, curator of film at Tate Modern, says that the Factory blended people from different backgrounds in a kind of social experiment. "You would have somebody like Valerie Solanas" – the radical feminist writer who shot Warhol in 1968 – "a German countess; a bum from the Bowery and some artists from suburban America who'd come to NY to make it." Deller remembers being inspired by seeing the variety of activities that were happening in the Factory and realising that they were all down to one man, "not a corporation or a big business".

"One of Andy's great innovations was realising that the idea of the artist alone in his studio was not a particularly modern one, and that an artist could have a team," says Glenn O'Brien, a journalist who worked with Warhol on Interview. "Today you have artists like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst who employ hundreds of people – it's a very understandable model for artists. And there are people in other fields like fashion, like Marc Jacobs, who has that sort of entrepeneurial sensibility."

However, it is Warhol's view of fame that seems to have predicted 21st-century culture. In a critique of the Hollywood star system, Warhol turned the likes of the Santa Barbara heiress Edie Sedgwick into celebrities, instinctively grasping decades before YouTube or reality TV that people need not be famous for acting, singing or doing anything other than being themselves.

Comer believes that Warhol's famous 1968 statement – "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes" – showed an intuitive understanding not just of our appetite for stars, but of the way the media would become more pervasive. "He understood that the Hollywood studio system was giving way to something where far more people were going to be on camera and on screen. Now, on CCTV cameras, we're all filmed and photographed thousands of times a day. Warhol realised that we were becoming more than bodies – we were becoming images. The way that we all became part of the media machine is something that he understood very early."

This process has been accelerated by the internet, which Warhol did not live to see. O'Brien says that his "gift for aphorisms" would have made him a natural at Twitter: "Even though he was a man of few words they were always well chosen."

Deller points out that the things the web facillitates best – shopping, gossiping, sharing – were some of the artist's central preoccuptions. "He would have been a master of the internet. He would have set up an auction website, a gossip website, a film sharing website. He was someone who liked to collect images and liked to collect things, and have his finger in a lot of different pies."

Deller warns against boiling Warhol down to a preoccupation with money, artifice or celebrity culture, pointing out that "he's a lot more complicated and critical than he gets credit for". After Warhol's death, the art world was shocked by his secret life. He turned out to have been a devout Catholic who visited church every day, though his work was often suffused with sex and drugs: a large strand of it validated queer and trans culture at a time when the gay liberation movement had barely begun.

Warhol's art and ideas remain controversial: last year an article by Brian Appleyard in the Economist predicted that art history would see Warhol restored to "his rightful place – as a briefly brilliant and very poignant recorder of the dazzling surface of where we are now". Yet his influence seems destined to endure for the forseeable future.

"He understood the very core of how industry and society and economics come together," says Comer. "Until capitalism ends, his influence will be irrevocable."


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February 20 2012

Jeremy Deller: heady brew

Swirling 3D bats, a tidy teenage bedroom, and a full-size Lancashire caff … Adrian Searle revels in Jeremy Deller's long, strange journey

Through the sound-baffled walls come muted cries and urgent high-pitched squeakings. The cries are my own. The squeaks belong to the bats. Get them away from me! There are thousands of them, hurtling and surging around the room on their leathery wings. I feel like I'm on a Hunter S Thompson bender. Flailing my arms to keep the creatures away, I lose my 3D glasses in all the excitement – and remember that this is just a movie.

Returning to the caves where in 2003 he shot the nightly departure of bats for Memory Bucket – his film about Texas and, tangentially, George Bush – Jeremy Deller filmed them again, this time in 3D. Deller likes bats. He was even involved in designing a bat house for the London Wetland Centre. The original bat movie was in Deller's Turner prize show in 2004, the year I was a judge. It was the bats what won it; or rather, it was Deller's already significant body of work – and especially The Battle of Orgreave, his 2001 re-enactment film about the battle between police and striking miners in the Yorkshire village in 1984.

What a long, strange trip it's been. Coming right at the end of Joy in People, Deller's new show at London's Hayward gallery, the bats are a treat. The exhibition begins in a version of Deller's teen bedroom, less the guano-spattered cave favoured by most adolescents, and more an orderly display of youthful interests and preoccupations, with posters on the walls, things neatly entombed in his built-in wardrobe, and a film about joyriding playing on the portable TV beside his bed. There's none of Deller's own growing-pains mess here (he is not, after all, Tracey Emin), even as you stumble from the Hayward foyer through a rainbow-coloured door, emblazoned with the words Bless This Acid House, after fighting through the queue for the David Shrigley show upstairs.

Deller's teen bedroom is tidier than most, but then he did live at home into his 30s. He once held a show in his room while his parents were away: there's a photo on the wall of Deller and his clean-cut mates making a tower of beer bottles. Printed across the image of the tipsy lads are the words: "We Might Not Have Girlfriends But We Do Know How To Have A Good Time." Yay. In my teens, I'd have preferred a girlfriend, a boyfriend, any kind of friend really. Some things don't change.

Deller and Shrigley are an apt coupling for the Hayward: both channel something from their early hormonal upheavals and teen confusion into their work – if work it is. Neither make what looks like art with a capital A. The A in Deller's case stands not for a Shriglian aaaarghhh, or even for art, but for archive, that untidy trail of enthusiasms, old photos, video footage, ephemera and details of scams and projects that have littered his past, all tidied up and made into some sort of sense. The poetic aspirations and pretensions of the Manic Street Preachers, the intertwined histories of brass band music and acid house, the culture of German allotment societies and even the erotic toilet-wall musings of literate blokes who haunt the British Library – they're all here, in a show that is part installation, part multimedia commentary, part seminar room on the war in Iraq and part caff. The cafe is a reconstruction of Valerie's snack bar in Bury market, Lancashire; Deller calls it "an OAP youth club".

If you get fed up, or want to look at people who are similarly cheesed off, you can watch someone lying on a sofa reading a book, against a big black wall on which the words "I ❤ Melancholy" have been picked out in gloss paint. Deller, I note, was once in a new-wave goth band, but he always seems too busy to lounge about reading Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal, or to indulge in goth-like maunderings.

You can learn a lot in Deller's work, whether about the miners' strike and the still unhealed wounds the conflict caused, or how hard it was for a Depeche Mode fan to walk through Basildon town centre in the early 1980s wearing eyeliner. It may be no easier in present-day St Petersburg, where Deller filmed Depeche Mode fans celebrating the lead singer's birthday, for a film about the continuing worldwide obsession with Basildon's finest.

I don't know about eyeliner, but when Deller first met Andy Warhol, the young Londoner was wearing what appears to be a schoolblazer, in a 1986 souvenir snap with the bewigged one. Deller was studying at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, at the time, and I don't think they did school uniforms, even back then. But it might explain why Warhol invited him to hang out at his Factory in New York.

Deller's popularity in part stems from his interest in popular culture, or rather aspects of life that usually slip below the radar of the art gallery. He is far from alone in his interests, but you never feel he's slumming it or sexing up his fascination. One of the things I like about Deller's work is that he communicates his enthusiasms so well, and makes you see things, go to places and meet people you wouldn't otherwise encounter, or had forgotten. I remember my mother screaming at the wrestling on the telly on Saturday afternoons, as she worked her way through a bag of cockles with a pin. "Rip his balls off!" she'd shout in encouragement to Mick McManus, her favoured wrestler, or to Adrian Street as someone tried to yank his ear off.

Deller went all the way to Florida to film Street, now over 70 but still fighting. The Welsh wrestler's biggest problem was his authoritarian dad. Deller's film is jaw-dropping stuff. A 1950s bodybuilding magazine hunk, Street later took his professional persona from glam-rock. Really, Deller never needed to turn his documentary into an art installation, with its wall-sized mural featuring Welsh pit-head and Florida beaches. All this adds nothing. He should just get his film about Street to a bigger audience. Television would be Deller's natural medium, I think, were it not that artists and TV don't mix.

Nowadays, artists don't have to make things or paint or even party hard with Larry Gagosian. They just have to find a place for themselves, inbetween things. Deller has found a way of using his enthusiasms, of pursuing his curiosity in a creative way, that is great for him and good for us, whether what he does looks like art or not. Taking a wrecked, rusted car used in the bombing of a Baghdad book market around the US on a truck and using it to start conversations between locals, a former US soldier and an Iraqi was a brave – if slightly doomed – attempt to bridge cultural gulfs. The footage he shot is also moving and salutary. At the Hayward, where the car is installed (though it's now owned by the Imperial War Museum), you can join the conversation.

Deller, it seems, walked backwards into the artist's life, which is to say that he discovered that his interests coincided with a possible role as an artist, whatever that might be now. He has made the role his own.


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January 29 2012

Jeremy Deller: 'I'm more interested in ideas than money'

Why is the artist spending a week in a cave full of bats with just a large tub of nuts for company?

A small figure in an oversized Flowered Up T-shirt dances around the rim of a dark and very fetid cave. "Shit!" says Jeremy Deller. "Woah!" He ducks as the first bat rising from the crater crashes into him. In the silence of the Texan countryside, the stirring of millions of bats below ground is like the wind getting up. Then the occupants of the cave emerge in a spiralling column, rising into the sky like smoke.

There is lightning on the horizon, a storm coming in, and the flitter of bat wings sounds like a gentle rain on leaves. The bat detector haphazardly taped to the top of one of Deller's three cameras makes a frantic squelching noise. "It's a sort of electronic music, isn't it?" says the Turner prize-winning artist delightedly, filming the sunset emergence of one of the largest gatherings of mammals in the world.

Apart from the bats, the biggest attraction in this desolate corner of Texas is the state's largest live oak tree. On the road to Utopia, every vehicle is an enormous pickup. We pass a dead armadillo and stop in a metal shed for a hot taco lunch. It has been 38C (100F)for 100 days. Crows peck the eyes of a dead deer. Deller has travelled to these bone-dry creeks to gather footage for an "unbearable" 3D nature film, the climax to his new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery called Joy In People. Given that title, a bat film is a typically unexpected touch.

With his slight frame and darting, curious eyes, there is something of the elf about Deller. The 45-year-old plans to survive the week filming bats on a large tub of mixed nuts. The last time he was in the US he turned orange from drinking too much carrot juice. "I don't really cook," he says dryly. It is surprising that such an English eccentric is not only fond of America but owns a piece of it. He bought five acres near Death Valley for $2,000. "I've got a skyscraper, an oil rig, helipad," he says. A sly joke is never far away. He bought the land with his residency money from an American museum. He doesn't know if the museum approved. But he did use it for art – a friend recorded a live album of banjo music there.

His life as an artist was awakened by an American: as a shy 20-year-old who hadn't studied art, he met Andy Warhol at the Ritz on the artist's last visit to Britain. "I was young, definitely, and relatively pretty," says Deller. "When I met him in London, he said to me and my mate: 'Oh you should come out to the Factory – we're doing something for MTV.' I thought, I'm actually going to take up this offer because this is never going to happen again. And so I did." He hung out with Warhol in New York, gossiping, and saw that "you can create your own world, which is what he did. It was definitely a moment of clarity. I thought I would try to get by on my wits creatively, whatever that meant."

When Deller was a child growing up in south London, his father, who worked in local government, would take him to galleries and museums. "When you go as a child, you're not intimidated by it when you grow up. You just think it's something that you can do," he says. Deller studied history of art at university and then got a "small taste" of office work "nearly killed me". So he lived at home for most of his 20s devising small-scale "interventions" – road signs on the streets commemorating Beatles manager Brian Epstein (about whom Deller had a curious fixation) and bumper stickers reading "I love joyriding" which he attached to a police car in Middlesbrough. His parents were baffled and Deller says he didn't enjoy it at the time – his biggest success was selling his T-shirts declaring "My booze hell" and "My drug shame" in tabloid headlines at Covent Garden – but these years of "semi-employment" sound like a wellspring of creativity. "Everyone has the potential to be creative. It's just having the time and the space. I don't think artists are special. A lot of people do. That's the great product of marketing artists – 'they are different and special'. I don't believe that. You see as much creativity outside the art world as inside it. I mean, all children are creative."

Deller's Hayward show, which he calls his "mid-career retrospective", will celebrate this period with a recreation of his childhood bedroom and his first ever exhibition, held at home while his parents were on holiday. He has retrieved "all the crap" still lodged in his parents' home; stuff under his old bed is now part of an exhibition. "It's become official art now," he says, amused. His life as art; it sounds like his Tracey Emin moment. "Sort of. Don't say that," he whispers sotto voce. "Horrible thought. I can't bear her." Can visitors bounce on your childhood bed? "Yes," he says very decisively.

Deller's breakthrough came in 1997, when he persuaded a brass band to perform house music. The result, Acid Brass, attracted loads of admirers (his favourite track was What Time Is Love? by KLF) "and I realised from then on, I can do this and I can do it the way I want to do it. I don't have to make things any more, I can just work with people, and do these funny projects." In 2001, Deller persuaded former miners and police to restage the "battle of Orgreave", the seminal conflict in the miners' strike, as if it were a medieval re-enactment. "Some people would just see that as wrong – to expect former miners to relive this terrible moment in their lives and in the history of mining in Britain. Often what I ask people to do might seem a bit, well, 'wrong' is probably the best word really, or slightly absurd. It's the way you handle it that makes it OK. It's very easy to exploit people, isn't it? It's one of the easiest things to do."

For an artist known for his generous, collaborative approach, working with animals is "a tricky relationship". Deller tries to "do things that aren't exploitative even if the idea itself seems to be ridiculous or absurd, like the recreation of the battle in the miners' strike," he explains when we retreat from the bat cave to the porch of his log cabin. He sits in a rocking chair and I offer him a pack of repugnant beef jerky, hoping he might devour it "as I tear apart my peers, eating them alive", nods Deller. Disappointingly, he is a recent convert to vegetariansim and has also vowed not to talk so freely about fellow artists after a Guardian interview a few years ago in which he slagged off both Emin and Damien Hirst. Only later I learn that Deller breaks his vegetarian vows in spectacular style at the Hog Pit, a Texan eatery favoured by the biker community.

Why bats? One evening Deller was watching School of Saatchi – a reality TV show in which Charles Saatchi set out to discover the next big thing. "There was some poor sod trying to cut a piece of wood and create a sculpture and I turned over to BBC1 and it was David Attenborough and time-lapse photography of sea anemones under Arctic ice. The art in that photography was so much more amazing than someone trying to create a crappy sculpture."

Deller filmed the bats here once before as an unpredictable end to Memory Bucket, his 2003 film about Texas which became part of his Turner prize-winning exhibition, but was not happy with the results. He says he is "interested in the way they can co-exist pretty peacefully with each other. It's incredible to live as close to other mammals. We can't do it." He wonders how well this explains his desire to make a better bat movie. "I do it because I can do it. I'm allowed to do it. A lot of art – or certainly what I do – is related to that; having an opportunity."

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Deller has resisted the opportunity to make money. His work cannot be easily commodified. At times his projects seem almost wilful financial suicide. He lives in a modest flat on the grimy Holloway Road, north London, with his girlfriend, Tasha Amini, "a proper artist" – a painter. "There's enough stuff in the world," he says of churning out artistic objects. "I'm definitely more interested in ideas than I am in money. A disregard for money is always interesting." Are contemporary artists too motivated by money? "Some are. And that's a legacy of Andy Warhol."

For someone who eschews commodification, his love of Warhol may seem odd but Deller argues a celebration of materialism was only part of Warhol's legacy. "Because his art sells for so much, that's all people can think of when they think of him now – money. Actually his legacy is about ideas."

Deller venerates ideas. Part of his exhibition includes a section called My Failures – ideas that were never realised. These are variously silly (getting Iggy Pop to pose for life-drawing classes before a group of unsuspecting artists), brave (proposing a statue of Dr David Kelly looking as if he was about to jump from the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square) and thought-provoking. "I like art that exists in people's minds more so than it does in reality," he says – art that people tell each other about. In the 1970s, the artist Chris Burden was shot in the arm with a gun as a piece of work. "I doubt if he made much money out of that but as an idea they don't come much stronger, and you'll never forget that I've told you that."

Whether what Deller does is art, and where you find him in his work, troubles some critics. On a previous visit to America he toured the country with an Iraqi man, a US soldier and a car that had been blown up by a Baghdad bomb. This provocation must have created a great debate, especially when they pulled up at the rightwing college that hosts George W Bush's library. Actually, says Deller, it was more a "conversation piece". This is a characteristic choice of words. "Initially we were terrified we were going to get shot or lynched," he says. But the most grief he got was from anti-war protesters who demanded he make explicitly political statements with the bombed car. "We wanted to make it more neutral so anyone could talk to us and didn't feel like they were being used," he says. "It's almost a scientific experiment – what would happen if you added this car with these people to a trip around America? I was standing back and observing the reaction. I'm not necessarily in the middle of the work or getting in its way but I'm definitely on the edges of it, the fringes, seeing how it all goes."

And so it is with the bats. While Deller records some sound, takes stills and edits the final film, the 3D shoot is undertaken by a group of quirky Americans. ("Our musician makes gothic music. Our voiceover man sounds like he is from a horror film. Our offices are black inside. We have a very alternative group of people," says the 3D boss Greg Passmore, who arrives with two colleagues in a big RV, a pink-haired German and a pale-skinned young cameraman who looks like he might live in a bat cave.) Artists shape and sculpt things. Deller doesn't. "I like that losing control of projects and letting people take some sort of ownership and get on with it in their own way. It doesn't bother me. I'm not a control freak and I'm not a very technical person but maybe I'm a bit lazy as well."

Deller resists "that old view of the artist being an exceptional person or a shaman" so strongly that some critics question whether he is an artist at all. He believes debates over whether his collaborations are art or not are a dull media preoccupation. "The public don't mind. They are not interested. If something is good and interesting and they enjoy it … Whether it is 'art' or not is not really part of the conversation," he says. "The public are ahead of the media."

Deller has a knack for being perceptibly ahead of trends. A decade ago he was collaborating with the Women's Institute, celebrating traditional craft skills and folk art. Now flower arranging, knitting and Keep Calm and Carry On needleworks are mainstream. The real world quickly catches up with Deller's subversions. He once made a £250 cocktail at Stringfellows; now there are £35,000 cocktails on offer in London clubs. "If culture is keeping up with you it's a kind of competition and I don't mind that," he says. His bat film fits into the current vogue for artists such as Björk and Chris Watson to produce work directly inspired by the natural world. "It's not a terrible thing to be associated with," says Deller agreeably.

Back in London, Deller sits in his flat editing the 3D bat film. From the first flashes of thousands of bats clinging to the cave roof, pink mouths opening like baby birds, it slowly builds into a visceral swarm in flight. The bats move so fast they look like an abstract pattern; even slowed down, their screams sound like Space Invaders. Towards the end of the seven-minute film, the emergence of bats slows, and a weird, restless tranquillity returns, just like the experience of this miraculous gathering of mammals in the wild. Deller wanted his film to be almost more than people could bear but is now having second thoughts. "You have to be very careful people aren't going to be running out screaming after two minutes," he says. "Kids will either really love it or it will traumatise them."

After bats, Deller has a busy year ahead of him: he is producing a show for Bruce Lacey, an octogenarian artist from Norfolk and "total bohemian" who has led the kind of extraordinary life with a flagrant disregard for money that Deller approves of. He also wants to make a bench from a compacted Range Rover. It sounds like a very pointed piece of art but, true to form, he will leave people to work out for themselves what the bench comes from. Giving what he calls "a useless object" a "social function" is political, he reluctantly concedes, "because I hate those cars. If ever I'm going to be killed in London it is probably by someone driving a Range Rover because they are the worst drivers. The people who drive them obviously have some sort of personality problem. Usually they are on the phone at the same time as they are driving it. And not indicating. They are borderline psychopaths, I imagine."

Jeremy Deller: Joy in People opens at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1 on 22 February and runs until 13 May 2012


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January 28 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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December 21 2011

Jeremy Deller gift wrap

Each day in the runup to Christmas we have asked artists to design wrapping paper exclusively for the Guardian. Download today's gift paper by Jeremy Deller



December 02 2011

Does the Turner prize still matter?

This year's Turner prize winner is named next week. Artist and former winner Jeremy Deller, and writer and former judge Miranda Sawyer discuss art's biggest contest

On Monday the winner of the 2011 Turner prize will be announced. Founded in 1984, it is awarded to a British artist under the age of 50. Previous winners include Antony Gormley and Damien Hirst. Since it was established, it has stoked controversy about contemporary art, though in recent years it has been more notable for its lack of sensationalism. Emine Saner asks journalist and broadcaster – and one-time judge – Miranda Sawyer, and artist and winner of the 2004 prize, Jeremy Deller, if it still matters.

Miranda Sawyer: Who is the Turner prize for?

Jeremy Deller: It's for the public, it's for the artists who take part, it helps the Tate, it's for whoever wants it. It's for the appreciation of contemporary art. The fact it's going to be moving around Britain is a good idea [this year it will be held outside London for the second time, at the Baltic in Gateshead]. Every other year it's going to leave London, and I think it's really important. Apparently in Gateshead they had 5,000 on the first day [by the end of the week, 30,000 people had visited]. The hunger is there.

MS: You could argue that it's done its job – we all know who Damien Hirst is; the Tate Modern is there. It's still needed, because every time it comes around there's a debate about it. The thing I find difficult is that it tends to be a trivial debate – "why isn't there an unmade bed this year?" or "why isn't it something we can get upset about?"

Emine Saner: Is there an expectation that it's going to be shocking, and then when it isn't, like this year, it almost seems disappointing? Do you think this diminishes its popularity?

JD: I don't think it diminishes its popularity. The public and media are more used to contemporary art now. I think you're mixing the press reaction with the public reaction. When I won, I said you lot [journalists at the press conference] are 10 years behind the public, you're still in this era of "this is all a big con" or "this is rubbish". But you see people at the Turner prize walking around, and they are into it in a way you'd never expect, reading everything and looking at everything. The first question I got from a journalist after I won was: "Is the video camera the new pencil?" If you go in for the Turner prize, you have to be quite strong, because you are up for a massive destruction at the hands of the press if you are not careful.

ES: What did winning the Turner prize do for you?

JD: If you have won it, people are happy to meet you, work with you and do things with you. It's a shorthand for "this person is successful", so I can get access to people and situations. Within the art world, you get invited to dinners, but it's actually helpful outside the art world. It's much more highly regarded abroad than it is in the UK. Because it's been going on for so long, and the winners have been pretty good, they see it as having a legitimacy. If you don't make much money with your work and you get nominated, it's like you're being recognised finally, because you're not recognised by the market. Maybe that's why I did it – the need to be legitimised.

MS: I can't name another contemporary art prize that is as important, and that's amazing really, that it still has that status, and people will still react to it.

JD: One of the reasons we need it is because there are these big names in contemporary art who get the publicity, and yet there are all these other artists who deserve some appreciation. The big artists monopolise press attention and the public's consciousness of what art is. And yet someone like George Shaw [one of the nominated artists] has credibility within the art world, and for the public is a real discovery.

MS: I like the hoo-ha. If somebody really press-friendly wins, like Grayson Perry, he had a rollercoaster year, he loved it, he's now a kind of national treasure. It works when you get interesting art and an interesting personality. There's a lot of culture being fired at you from all sides and the Turner is one way of guiding people. There is still an intimidation aspect to contemporary galleries. Sometimes you can go to an east London gallery and there's one person there being really cool and you have to walk around looking at things feeling like a dick. If you go into a place like Tate Modern, it's like a public park under a roof – the atmosphere is "anyone can come, have a look". People feel they might not know anything about contemporary art, but they can walk in. It's the same with the Turner prize exhibition.

JD: The prize is about making people not feel stupid – the environment is very user-friendly, even if the art isn't. If you go to see it, you're part of something as well, which makes it quite exciting.

MS: I was on the Turner prize judging panel [in 2007]. It was the single most traumatic experience I've had judging anything, by miles. There are just four of you, and there's something about the prize that is incredibly intense. You're not judging the work that is shown to the public, you're judging a piece of work or exhibition that is not there. The year I judged it, Mark Wallinger won. He won for State Britain [Wallinger's recreation of peace campaigner Brian Haw's protest camp] – but that wasn't shown. He showed Sleeper [the artist filmed himself wearing a bear suit and walking around a German gallery], so everybody thought he won it for that, although Sleeper is a great work.

JD: That lack of clarity can be a problem.

MS: I love art, but I don't go to every private view, I don't go to Venice [Biennale, contemporary art exhibition]. You can't go and see all the art. It is possible, if you're judging the Mercury prize or the Booker, to listen to all the albums or read all the books, but with art, it's impossible. You have to go and have that experience, and it's not possible unless you're in the art world or you're paid to go and look at everything.

ES: How do you feel about the age limit?

MS: I don't think there should be one.

JD: I was a trustee until recently, and we discussed it. I felt it should have been changed, but not many other people did. They realised that for the first 10 years of the new Turner prize, they would be giving it to people in their 70s and 80s, catching up, giving it to these mega figures.

MS: Maybe the argument for having an age limit is that it will help people more when they're younger – but in that case, why not whack it down?

JD: Artists mature later. It's a slower burn.

MS: What could you do to the Turner prize to make it better?

JD: Probably have more of a budget for the judges and the artists. Do a better book, a lovely catalogue. Treat it with a bit more respect as a process. But this isn't the time to ask for bigger budgets for art exhibitions.

• For more coverage of this year's prize, including video profiles of all the nominees, click here


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June 12 2011

The hunt for the best British museum

What's the best museum in Britain? To find out, Charlotte Higgins travelled the country with Michael Portillo and Jeremy Deller

It felt like a series of pilgrimages, albeit ones with the atmosphere of school trips. As one of the judges on this year's Art Fund museums prize, my spring was dominated by visits to the 10 extraordinary venues up and down the country that made the longlist. We have travelled from Ayrshire to Llandudno, from London to Manchester, from York to Bath, and various places in between. These journeys are what make judging the £100,000 competition quite different from, say, a book prize. Instead of being given a heap of novels and told to get on with it in glorious isolation, we museum jurors hit the road.

I've lost count of how many early mornings, bleary-eyed, I've hailed Michael Portillo across a chilly station. (Except for the morning when he missed his train to Llandudno, for which he, as the frontman of BBC2's Great British Railway Journeys, was mercilessly teased.) As our travels continued, we took on certain roles. Antiques Roadshow expert Lars Tharp was the raconteur, occasionally bloodymindedly argumentative (the dispute, which started before we even arrived at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and still rages, was about whether Scots is a language or a dialect). I think I may have ended up as the naughty kid at the back, but I blame the influence of artist Jeremy Deller, the 2004 Turner prize winner.

Crossbench peer Lola Young was the studious one, head buried in her Kindle on the long journeys (at least when she wasn't making some wicked joke); museum consultant Kathy Gee was the dry one; and theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili was the mystery one (his schedule usually requiring him to be a secret shopper to the museums rather than a school tripper).

It was always an experience walking the streets of British towns with the instantly recognisable Michael Portillo. In Glasgow, he was stopped by a burly chap in the street, and I froze, dreading an ugly scene. Instead, he was love‑bombed by what turned out to be a fan. As we walked on, he said: "Twenty years ago, I would have been worried about being bottled in Glasgow." Truly, time and telly stardom are the great healers.

When the winner of the prize is announced this Wednesday, it will be from a shortlist of four: that mighty behemoth, the British Museum, for its A History of the World project; the delightful, pocket-sized Polar Museum in Cambridge, which chronicles scientific adventures at the planet's extremities; the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, not so much a museum as a "campus" of sites in the poet's home village of Alloway; and the Roman baths at Bath, which wraps a museum around one of Britain's most important and fascinating archaeological sites.

In every conceivable way – scale, budget, intent – the projects that got each institution considered for the prize are wildly different. And yet when visiting these places, as well as the excellent six that didn't make it, some common threads emerged. In different ways and at different speeds, museums appear to be abandoning their authoritarian role as repositories of closely guarded knowledge, which they ration out to a grateful but essentially supine public. That relationship is changing – and for the better. Audiences now have a voice.

For example, the British Museum and Radio 4 joined forces to make Neil MacGregor's programme A History of the World in 100 Objects – but then invited the public to upload images of their own chosen artefacts, telling their personal narratives on the theme of global connectedness. At the other end of the scale, tiny Hertford Museum has turned itself into a community resource: when we visited, the weekly country market was in full swing, with stalwarts of the Women's Institute selling jam and cakes. Over in Manchester, the People's History Museum has built a state‑of‑the-art textiles conservation centre. But instead of hiding it behind closed doors, a glass wall is all that separates studio and gallery, so the public can watch union banners and other textiles being rescued from oblivion.

At the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the new ceramics study gallery puts its vast and hitherto hidden store of pots on view in a mesmerising display, inviting scholars, students and visitors to request items to handle and study at close quarters. And curators at the Yorkshire Museum have taken a radical approach to their artefacts: if it's not behind glass, you can touch it. So ordinary visitors, not just curators, can get to know what it feels like to have a Roman mosaic beneath your feet, or iron-age pottery between your fingers. Similarly, in the British Museum, visitors are invited, under close supervision, to pick up a hand-axe that is 1.6m years old. This was an indescribably moving experience: who made it, who swung it, what did it slice?

The make-do-and-mend future

In recent years, some museums have become so overwhelmed by all the possibilities of audio-visual, touchscreen, interactive wizardry, that the objects have ended up taking second place. Museums have felt the need to dazzle an experience-sated public, when I suspect that what many visitors really value is a firsthand, often quiet and contemplative encounter with something real and tangible that has a story to tell.

For example, the British Museum put a scholarly reading of artefacts at the centre of A History of the World, and used technology not as an end but as a means of spectacularly increasing the project's reach (12.5m podcasts of the programme were downloaded from iTunes). The Polar Museum, meanwhile, moved me to tears. Stored in drawers, and shown in rotation to protect them from light, are the last letters, written on the brink of death, by Captain Scott and his companions.Here is Scott writing to the wife of Edward Wilson, one of the last three survivors on the fatal 1912 expedition to the south pole. "My dear Mrs Wilson, If this reaches you Bill and I have gone out together – we are very near it now and I should like you to know how splendid he was at the end – everlastingly cheerful and ready to sacrifice himself to others, never a word of blame to me for landing him into this mess . . . "

Seeing the letter itself – not a reproduction or a transcription, but the genuine article, creased, with Scott's neatly pencilled handwriting boring across it – is astonishing. Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Museum was entered in the prize for its £2.2m redevelopment, a tiny fraction of what it usually costs to so transform a museum. But then the whole effort was essentially a vast DIY project, with curators and other staff rolling up their sleeves and ripping down walls, plastering, painting and moving entire Roman mosaics.

Big-budget, publicly funded museum projects are destined to get rarer and rarer; make‑do-and-mend could be what lies ahead, and a lot of institutions face dwindling funds as the cuts hit. But I emerged from my spring pilgrimages feeling proud of Britain's museums. They're not just repositories of wonder, but of the passion, ingenuity and scholarship of the people who work in them. Find out who wins on Wednesday.

Cow's stomachs and 2,000-year-old hair

Bezoar stone, Hertford Museum

It looks like a large brown pebble. In fact, it's a ball of indigestible material from the stomach of a cow. Such objects were believed to have magic powers, able to counter the effects of poison.

Roman woman's hair, Yorkshire Museum

There is something distinctly creepy about these 2,000-year-old locks, bound into a chignon, hairpins intact.

British Celtic text, Bath

A small lead tablet at the Roman Baths is inscribed with British Celtic words, transcribed into Roman letters. The only known written example of British Celtic, the language of the native Britons, it cannot be deciphered.

Scott's last letters, Polar Museum

Heartbreakingly stoical, stiff-upper-lip missives by Scott and his companions as they faced death. They never knew if they would reach their intended recipients.

Hand-axe (pictured), British Museum

Any visitor is allowed, under careful supervision, to touch and hold 1.6m-year-old hand-axes, the first objects shaped into usefulness by early man.

Map of the 1932 Hunger March, People's History Museum

A map of Britain, with the marchers' various routes to London, from industrial heartlands as far afield as Glasgow, hand-inked in by the organisers.


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April 18 2011

A sea of stories: the British Museum

The British Museum's A History of the World in 100 Objects, one of the projects longlisted for the Art Fund museums prize, continues to make its mark

For the eighth (yes, it's something of a marathon) visit to museums whose projects have been nominated for the Art Fund museums prize, judges Jeremy Deller and I headed just down the road from my office to the British Museum, where (when we were not being evacuated by a fire alarm) we were given a very welcome and interesting reminder of A History of the World in 100 Objects.

It was a project that, I suspect, may prove a watershed in the way museums and galleries work with the public, with each other, and with (and as) broadcasters. Far more than just a BBC radio programme (and a wonderful one at that, with all episodes still available to download), it also harnessed the stories and memories of members of the public, as they were invited to upload details of their own chosen objects to the project's website. So, too, were regional and local museums, 550 of which had their own version of A History of the World, in partnership with local radio. And, even though the project ran in 2010, there are still offshoots continuing now, including A History of Cornwall in 100 Objects. (Satisfyingly, one of the objects is an early surfboard – apparently they were knocked out by Tom Tremewan, the local coffin maker at Perranporth, after the first world war.)

We had a quick whisk round the museum, too, under the benign guidance of the British Museum's head of research, JD Hill. He reminded us of some of the stories that the 100 objects told. For example, we paused at the Rosetta stone, one of the least inspiring-looking objects in the museum. But this plain-looking slab of stone has one of the museum's best stories, since the discovery that its trilingual inscription was in fact the same text thrice over meant that Egyptian hieroglyphs could be decoded for the first time. JD reminded us that, aside from hieroglyphs, demotic and Greek, the stone is also inscribed with a fourth language: English. The stone came to Britain when Napoleon was defeated in Egypt; the fact is commemorated on the broken side of the stone, on which is stencilled "Captured by the British army in 1801. Presented by King George III". So the stone also tells the story of the fight between western powers for dominance of Egypt and the Near East; and, you might say, tells us something rather powerful about the history of the museum itself.

A History of the World was a project that was at the same time rigorous, welcoming and – most importantly – quite simply full of wonderful stories to stir the imagination and pique the intellect.


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April 07 2011

Speaking stones: the Roman Baths at Bath

On our latest judges' trip to visit projects longlisted for the Art Fund museums prize, Jeremy Deller and I came face to face with some toga-wearing Romans

"Letting the stones speak" is the keynote of the £5.5m redevelopment of the Roman Baths Museum. There are numerous inscribed tombstones and altars around the astonishing Roman Baths – one of the most impressive and important Roman British sites in the country. "How do you get the most out of them?" was the question posed.

The solution proposed here was to bring the people of the inscriptions "to life". Which is why the museum now has figures of Romans projected on its walls – imagined versions of some of the characters whose lives are briefly captured because they set up an altar here at the great religious site devoted to Sulis Minerva, or because a tombstone was erected to their memory. And it's why there are figures dressed in tunics and togas, or in long dresses with hair piled up high in imitation of Flavian high fashion, hanging out next to the Great Roman Bath itself, chatting or bantering to the tourists, about a million of whom visit each year.

Some pause to have their photograph taken with a Roman. ("Japan? Ah, a country outside the boundaries of our empire.") Some stop for a long chat. I gossiped for quite a while with Flavia, whose husband Gaius was on business in Aquae Sulis (Bath) from the procurator's office in Londinium. She'd had a series of beauty treatments at the baths, including having had her armpits plucked ("D'you know, I think the slave actually enjoyed it!") and a fresh face of makeup applied. She was really looking forward to her farewell banquet that night: roasted dormice on the menu. I liked Flavia a lot, but I am afraid once one of my companions uttered the fateful words "Up Pompeii", I found it hard to be totally straight-faced about the whole business.

However, it was hard not to enjoy the dry wit of the Roman stonemason: when chair of judges Michael Portillo asked whether he could commission a flattering portrait of himself, he sucked his breath in through his teeth and said: "Oooh, I'm not sure we've got enough stone for that, sir."

Whatever you think of this interpretative route – some might argue that this kind of thing traps us into quite falsely imagining that the Romans were "like" us, when in fact it is their alien otherness that is more striking – the Roman Baths at Bath, which artist Jeremy Deller and I visited as part of our odyssey around the 10 projects longlisted for the Art Fund museums prize, has undergone an impressive transformation. It's a devil of a site – a warren that includes the gorgeous, elegant Pump Room where you can have the full works for tea, the now-exposed large Roman pool (once roofed over with a high-vaulted roof), and a network of underground passages displaying objects from the site, plus its mighty architectural features in situ, including the wonderful pediment of the temple of Sulis Minerva. That last is now impressively displayed, with raked seating letting the visitor pause to admire it, while a projection cleverly reconstructs it, briefly giving it colour and its missing carved pieces. The whole place now has a clear route through, with lots of glass walls (and floors) helping the visitor make sense of this subterranean labyrinth.

Bath is a knockout site. Anyone with an even vague interest in Rome ought to visit. If you haven't been for years – go back now. And the view of Bath's stern neoclassical terraces, rising stately at street level as one admires the pool from its surrounding terrace, lined with 19th-century Roman sculptures of Roman emperors – is one of the great sights in England. What a treat to be brought back here.


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September 10 2010

Jeremy Deller brings war to life

The real-life wreckage from a Baghdad car bomb, on display at the Imperial War Museum, ponders dismemberment and death

Jeremy Deller is an artist of the real. The power of his work does not come from elegance or style – though some might disagree – but a ruthless and sometimes miraculous ability to make us look at real life. With his new work, Baghdad, 5 March 2007, at the Imperial War Museum, he makes us see real death. It is the closest he could get, within the parameters of public display, to laying out the bodies of Iraq's killed on the floor of the gallery.

A dismembered body is what you immediately think of when you come into the museum and see a car destroyed in a 2007 truck bomb attack among the book stalls of Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, an attack that killed 38 people. Lying among the missiles, tanks and war planes in the museum's main hall is the eviscerated corpse of what was once a car. It is more than wrecked. It appears to have been flung in the air, crushed, then burned in an inferno. It suggests a human body in a deeply perturbing way. First, because it is so flattened, with viscera of pipes and tanks sticking out. Then again it is scorched by fire to a colour that evokes dried blood. It looks curiously like Lindow Man in the British Museum.

That visual suggestiveness is not the work of a sculptor in a studio. Deller did not make this. He had the idea of exhibiting a car from a Baghdad bombing, was able to get his hands on one, and toured it around America as an object of curiosity before the Imperial War Museum made the brave decision to show it in their displays. The horrible sculptural quality of this relic is accidental, and it forces you to confront the real suffering of the people killed and wounded in Baghdad on that particular day. It is a simple enough thought: if the bomb did this to metal, what did it do to flesh?

The truth stares you in the face, while gleaming machines of death loom above. It makes you imagine not just this reality, but all the realities those weapons created, from a burned-out Panzer on the eastern front to a London street just hit by a V1. Deller has often created works of populist social theatre, but here he achieves something new: the most serious and thoughtful response to the Iraq war by any British artist.


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September 09 2010

Jeremy Deller: the art of war

In pictures: The Turner prize winner unveils his latest piece: a car salvaged from a fatal Baghdad bombing



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Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl