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August 12 2012

London 2012: Team arts go for gold

David Hockney fumed at the opening, Gillian Wearing captured Bolt, and Susan Philipsz mashed up some anthems . . . but what else happened when we challenged artists to respond to the Games?

Opening ceremony

David Hockney
The painter and committed smoker was inspired by a detail in Danny Boyle's spectacular that passed others by: Isambard Kingdom Brunel's unlit cigar – and this in spite of belching chimneys and live soldering. Hockney's iPad painting appeared in last week's g2, and read: "I noticed there was a lot of smoke from fireworks but none from Brunel's cigar. Does this mean that the BBC sees art as directive (unlit) and not reflective (lit)? Debate." People did (look up the comments).

Day three

Olafur Eliasson
The artist who put an artificial sun into Tate Modern's Turbine Hall used one of his own-design solar lamps to pay tribute to the Olympians' speed and dynamism. He wrote: "For me, the Games are about being together, about sharing attention and ideals. They are about feeling connected to people from all over the world, physical engagement and energy. Light generates action: it is as physical as anything you will see in the Olympics."

Day four

Mark Titchner
The Turner 2006 nominee picked up on the anxious mood of the early days, before the medal rush. One layer of text in his artwork quotes from the tabloid press ("Historic bronze for our brilliant gymnasts, but please can we have just one gold. Any sport"); the other layer pays tribute to Team GB's eventing horses: Lionheart, Opposition Buzz, High Kingdom, Miners Frolic, Imperial Cavalier ("Do they get medals, too?").

Day five

Richard Wentworth
The sculptor, curator and lecturer took a break from a camping trip (location undisclosed) to watch Bradley Wiggins take gold in the time trial. He wrote: "The 30-year habit of summer camping sets me apart from world events. Catching sight of televisions in bars is the kind of glimpsing I enjoy – images, languages and events all arbitrarily associated with time and displacement. The latch on this door will remind me of the warm domestic afternoon in early August 2012 when our friends invited us to watch London as a site of Olympic spectacle. An odd thing if you know the city well, but much stranger if you are camping a long way away."

Day six


Michael Rosen
The poet and former children's laureate performed his own new poem about gold medal anxiety – still an issue even at this stage, with Team GB behind France. "I love sport," Rosen said, "but become uneasy when it is overly shackled to nation, corporate grabbing and only-first-will-do-ism. All three and I'm nearly out of here. Imagine there's no countries, it's easy if you try." Here's an extract from his Olympic poem:

I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis
Day 1 day 2 day 3 day 4
you was down I was on the floor
feeling such a failure
would I finish below Australia?
Then from the heavens came day 5
I discovered the reasons I am alive
better than when I met Christopher Biggins
Glover, Stanning and Bradley Wiggins.

I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis

Then before I came to grief
came the moment of pure relief
as the afternoon began to unfold
I ... won ... double gold.
And yet I had cause to fret
there were silvers for me to regret
I gave the medal table a glance:
Horrors! ... Above Brand GB ... France!
• Read the poem in full

Day nine

Gillian Wearing
The Turner prize 2007 winner was in the Olympic stadium on Sunday 5 August as Usain Bolt crossed the 100m finish line, and took this image (right). She said: "I got into track and field through watching Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett's memorable races against each other at the Moscow 1980 Olympics. After that, I have never missed the opportunity to be a couch Olympics supporter. I was in row 48 of the stadium, quite high up, but just above the finishing line. This image is just after the 100m final. Both Chris Gatlin and Usain Bolt have cameras trained on them. In the corner of the image, Yohan Blake, the silver medal winner, congratulates Gatlin on his bronze."

Day 11

Jackie Kay
The poet and novelist read three new poems, a kind of writer's triathlon, inspired by the Brownlee brothers' medal success in that event, as well as Team GB performances in javelin and cycling. She wrote: "I was struck by the idea that sharing somebody's disappointment is as intense and intimate as sharing their success. I used to be a long-distance runner, a Scottish schoolgirl champion, until I broke my leg and didn't walk properly for a year and a half. So I was thinking about that, too. How quickly we move into our unfit futures!" Here's the final leg of her poem, Point of View:

Farewell Victoria Pendleton
It was a day of drama in the velodrome
As you watched agog, OMG,
As Trott took the omnium
Against the odds of a collapsed lung
Coming home, coming home.
Not one but two golds to her name.
You saw the photo of not so long ago
With young Laura and her Bradley hero.
Not long later, you watched Victoria
Who rode as close to her rival
As a synchronised swimmer
And all the drama was in the lane error
Where the line was crossed in the velodrome
As close as step to pets; palindromes,
The Mearest of lines, the closing line.

So, farewell Victoria dearest, you say.
You salute her. She runs her last lap, and bows.
The last time I'm going to go through that, she says.
And even her brave coach is in bits.
We knew it would end in tears, the TV says.
And they roll down your cheeks too – your armchair, you.
The greatest ever theatre – sport's soap opera.
Victoria. Oh Victoria. Collect your silver!
Your ordeal is over: take your seat on the throne.
Read the poem in full

Day 13

Cornelia Parker
The sculptor and installation artist took this image of her own living room, explaining: "I haven't been able to focus on art since the Olympics started, not quite managing to peel my eyes away from the TV. After too many days of viewing, gorged with patriotism and pride, I starting to behave oddly … too much information perhaps, too much success. Now I find myself draping my daughter's union flag over the TV in a feeble attempt to blot it out – but in the process I manage to cause a minor marital rift as my enraged husband misses a crucial bit of action."

Day 14

Wolfgang Tillmans
The artist and photographer, newly returned to London from Berlin, took this photograph of an Olympic traffic lane in east London. The lanes are now suspended but will come back into force for the start of the Paralympics.


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July 10 2011

World of leather

Heavy metal was born in the Black Country when its furnaces still blazed. Now the area is celebrating its heritage – with a raft of gigs and exhibitions. Stuart Jeffries straps on a Flying V and goes back to his roots

When Mark Titchner was a boy, he spent hours watching Black Sabbath's Master of Reality album rotating on the stereo of his Dunstable home. Not so much to revel in frontman Ozzy Osbourne's Lovecraftian horror, or the guitar virtuosity of Tony Iommi who, only four years before the album came out, had lost the tips of two fingers in an accident at a Birmingham sheet-metal factory.

No, it was the spinning label that captivated Titchner. "It was my first experience of rotoscopic art, and it floors me every time I see it," he says in his east London studio. The label, known as the "Vertigo swirl" after the record label that released Sabbath's albums, is a roto-relief, cribbed from those made by Marcel Duchamp. "I used to put it on the turntable and spend a nice long time looking into it, rising and falling with it into the abyss."

That youthful fascination feeds into Titchner's work in his new solo show, Be True to Your Oblivion, at Walsall's New Art Gallery. It's part of a sprawling season of exhibitions and events celebrating Birmingham and the Black Country as the birthplace of heavy metal. I'm particularly looking forward to Hell Bent for Leather: Judas Priest and the Heavy Metal Look at Walsall's Leather Museum, which will, fingers crossed, tell the neglected story of fetish gear, homosexuality and heavy metal.

Little Mark's Sabbath records inspired much of the Turner nominee's later artistic practice. His 2006 piece Ergo Ergot, to be shown in Walsall, consists of two large spinning roto-reliefs that form a geometric arrangement called the Titchener Illusion, after 20th-century psychologist Edward Titchener. "He's no relation," says the artist. "The illusion is that a circle surrounded by other circles looks smaller the larger the surrounding circles are."

This optical illusion is especially striking when, as in the case of Ergo Ergot, two circles of the same size are placed side by side, and then surrounded by circles – small circles on one, larger ones on the other.

I'd come to Titchner's work through his banners hanging outside Gateshead's Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, screaming bracingly fatuous messages such as "The Future Is Behind Us". Like Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer, Titchner in his text-based work establishes what he calls "a dialogue about how you receive thought and ideas". He's had sour fun recently with banners subverting the government cuts agenda – images of them feature on his blog.

One new work at Walsall will be a video portrait of Nic Bullen, founder member of Birmingham grindcore band Napalm Death. It consists of an extreme closeup of Bullen singing, slowed down so you can see his muscles working as he silently bawls – Titchner has muted his friend. The artist was inspired by Billie Whitelaw in Beckett's Not I: "All you see is that terrifying babbling mouth."

Before we carry on, let's define our terms. Grindcore music is not grime. Grindcore is a stupendously fast anarcho-punk music drawing from death metal, industrial music, noise and hardcore punk. It arose in Birmingham in the 80s (probably not as a response to Duran Duran, but you never know). Grime is dance music originating a few bus stops from Titchner's studio.

Is that a metal turd?

What's the allure of heavy metal? "The sensibility of metal has a darkness to it that draws me, but it has a social dimension – particularly as you get into the grindcore end of it. There's anarchism, but nihilism is far away."

I was brought up in Birmingham from the 1960s to the 80s, the very period during which some of the region's greatest metal bands – Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, Napalm Death, Godflesh, Diamond Head – were making ears bleed worldwide. I never claimed this music as my heritage since I regarded punk as deflating its pretensions.

"That's only one way of telling the story," counters Titchner. "Another is that after punk came these grindcore bands who said punks are effete – let's go faster, be angrier and be proper anarchists. That movement still has its hive in the Black Country."

Titchner's views prompted me to revisit my birthplace and reconsider its musical heritage. But there was an immediate problem. So much of the industry that fired the music has gone, crushed by deflationary Thatcherite budgets in the 80s. My dad's story is typical. He was an engineer for car, aeronautical and metalworking firms across the West Midlands, but spent his final years of working life as a Youth Training Scheme manager. I suspect he taught kids to manage down their expectations: the pride he took in being an engineer could hardly be theirs in this deindustrialised region.

I started at Longbridge, looking at the wastelands of the car plant that once employed 50,000 people. Then I drove over to Wednesbury to visit my nan's house. She died in 1976, but I still remember sitting on her back step looking over the fiery blast furnaces of the Black Country at night. It's all gone – that fire and unspeakable beauty. My upset intensified as I drove around Dudley and Bilston, both so leafy that they felt like the Green Country rather than the Black Country. Counter-intuitively, heavy metal wasn't obliterated by Thatcherism: after the industry that spawned it was destroyed, metal music became more political and harder to listen to – expressing, perhaps, a howl over what was lost and a rage for those who took it.

At Wolverhampton Art Gallery, I experienced a corrective to this sense of loss in a show called From Iron Ore to Grindcore. On a table was something that looked like a metal turd – the final steel cast from Elisabeth of Bilston (the last Black Country blast furnace) dating from 1979, the year the flames were extinguished for good. In the years when Elisabeth and her sisters burned, local bands such as Judas Priest did something alchemical with industrial dust, fire and noise, transmuting them into music rich with fantasy, leather, desire and metallised beats – all of which makes it sound as Wagnerian as Alberich's metalworking cave in Das Rheingold.

I play the riff to Paranoid

In the next room is You Should Be Living: the Visual Language of Heavy Metal. My favourite piece here is Nic Bullen and Damien Deroubaix's installation in which visitors can sequence short grindcore audio loops at a mixing desk and scream into microphones. At least that's what I did: the guard eyed me narrowly.

Nihilistic art will figure prominently in some of Titchner's new work in Walsall. "I've long been intrigued by what happens when language ceases to communicate. That comes from Napalm Death – their almost primal scream music is a moral standpoint in the face of language that has lost its meaning." In a world of empty slogans, he seems to be saying, screaming is more authentic, more articulate, a nihilistic subversion of prevailing values.

Titchner says his latest work was inspired especially by Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album, whose sleeve was decorated with intentionally baffling runic symbols, and by US black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room. He shows me the latter's 2004 album sleeve, featuring an unreadable hieroglyph.

"In this new work I was inspired by these kinds of metal non-typography to write strange neologisms on breeze blocks for a wall for the show. Then I carved them so it was like tomb carvings. Then I crossed everything out and it still wasn't right. So I obscured the text completely and mirrored it. I ended up with intractable symbols. It's a long, drawn-out process to arrive at a negation of words." It's the culmination of Titchner's text-based work, perhaps: instead of ironically subverting meaningless slogans, he batters them senseless. Very heavy metal.

Finally, I drove to Birmingham Art Gallery, where, in a space in which I've seen Renaissance art, is a show chronicling 40 years of heavy-metal culture. There I met the man credited with devising the first metal riff (possibly the one on Black Sabbath's Evil Woman), Tony Iommi. I shook his legendarily injured right hand. How did Iommi feel to see his music given the institutional imprimatur? "It's fabulous – but it's taken a long time. We spent a lot of time in the States because we were frowned on so much here."

Does Iommi think different bands have different riffs depending on the different metalworking jobs their members worked in? "Maybe. That might explain why Judas Priest sound different from us. Certainly the riffs I played on Paranoid or Iron Man only make sense if you realise where I worked as a teenager."

Iommi and I stood before a huge roto-relief, the Vertigo swirl. I told him that Titchner used to spend hours looking into it. "Yeah, a lot of our fans did – on dope probably."

Iommi wandered off to be feted by fans. I explored another room with electric guitars plugged into headphones for visitors to play. I strapped on a Flying V and tried to play a song I know well, Sabbath's Paranoid (it's my brother-in-law's ringtone). It sounded woeful. Clearly I need to work harder at reclaiming my cultural heritage.


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June 18 2010

This week's new exhibitions

Ernesto Neto, London

When it comes to whopping great art spectacles and interactive fun, the Hayward summer shows seem to have it licked. Past exhibitions have included a boating lake on the roof and giant, inhabitable bubbles. This year's looks no exception with Brazilian installation artist Ernesto Neto taking over the upper galleries and outdoor sculpture courts. Typically, Neto stretches sheer coloured Lycra over skeletal constructions to create womb-like tents in which dangling sacs are filled with spice. Imagine being in the body of a giant insect or an alien shrine and you're halfway there. In addition to winding through his famously pongy, gossamer caverns, gallery-goers will get to walk barefoot through a giant "nylon vessel", lounge on vast cushions, and submerge themselves in his "sculpture pool". If this is art as escapism, it seems an innocent one, inviting a happy tumble back into childhood pleasures with creative play and sensory adventures.

Hayward Gallery, SE1, Sat to 5 Sep

Skye Sherwin

Susan Stockwell, York

Susan Stockwell misuses everyday objects and domestic materials to enchanting effect. Past installations have included a map of the world painted with tea on teabag paper and a quilt woven from Chinese banknotes. Here she floods the nave of the church-cum-arts-centre with an intricate sculpture mass-constructed from four tonnes of computer components. Stockwell, while playing with themes of consumer waste, refers to the "toxic exquisiteness" of her hi-tech raw materials, hinting at the double-edged fascination her best work generates. There's an aspect here of simply putting contrasting elements together to see what aesthetic and metaphorical charms might arise.

York St Mary's, to 31 Oct

Robert Clark

Mick Peter, London

Mick Peter's art is overloaded – ingeniously so. The Glasgow-based artist's hulking sculptures might be plastered with concrete and gloopy white paint but they are not what they seem. Underneath the thick outer shell, what Peter has chipped away at is nothing but polystyrene. The excess doesn't end there. His sculptures take their forms from an unwieldy set of obscure cultural references. The starting point for this latest show, for instance, combines Gogol's short story The Nose and the set design for a modernist opera. Yet the work itself has a dumb physical presence, an "emblem of stupidity" perhaps, like the dunce's hat that appeared in Peter's earlier comic book-style drawings. These dense-looking creations belie a wry perspicacity. Weighted down by layers of materials and ideas, they seem to ask what artists can and cannot do, or to put it another way: what's the difference between a fool and an educated fool?

Cell Project Space, E2, to 18 Jul

Skye Sherwin

Nothing Is Forever, London

The nexus of the south London art map reopens its doors after a renovation programme courtesy of 6a, the architects acclaimed for their sensitive development of Raven Row last year. Its premiere exhibition features work by 20 artists, including pieces by British luminaries Fiona Banner and Mark Titchner alongside Americans Lawrence Weiner and Robert Barry. There's vivid colour in Austrian painter Ernst Caramelle's geometric arrangements and Lily Van Der Stokker's sugary, cartoonish works, while David Shrigley provides the jokes. It's all wall-based, with the work destined to be painted over and absorbed into the building's fabric.

South London Gallery, SE5, Fri to 5 Sep

Skye Sherwin

Cornelia Parker, Gateshead

Cornelia Parker's installations are dreadfully poetic, monuments to all that is vulnerable and ephemeral. She's the one who notoriously exploded a garden shed and suspended the spotlit fragments to cast spectral shadows. Here in an extensive exhibition of recent and rarely seen work, collectively enigmatically titled Doubtful Sound, she conjures an atmosphere of pained nostalgia. Sixty silver-plated instruments borrowed from a military band have been crushed flat, suspended in mid-air and lit with a single lightbulb. Her Bullet Drawings are bullets stretched out into wire like graphic trajectories. If this sounds like so much conceptual sculptural silliness, you need to experience the work in the flesh to garner the full power of its sensitivity and sadness.

BALTIC, to 19 Sep

Robert Clark

If You Can Hold Your Breath, Liverpool

The Ceri Hand Gallery has established itself as a venue of international distinction with its programme of often peculiarly edgy art. Accordingly, this show consists of recent work by contemporary artists, including Sara Bowker-Jones and Alex Farrar, who all, in their own curious way, deal with unresolved states and in-between themes. There are deliberate technical awkwardnesses and mistakes. Images are multiple layered, fragmented or obscured; films are stripped of script and character; and scraps of paper are fixed with masking tape.

Ceri Hand Gallery, to 18 Jul

Robert Clark

A Horse Walks Into A Bar, Manchester

Nine contemporary artists, including Mark Wallinger and Richard Billingham, treat the relationship between animal nature and humankind with the full degree of seriousness the age-old subject deserves, while at the same time shamelessly acting the goat. This work, in media ranging from performance to painting, is well aware of art-historical pitfalls, of the sentimentality and the mythologising. Instead we get mischievous and sinister images, perhaps befitting an age in which the interface between animal nature and human nature is more fraught with tension than graced with back-to-nature harmony.

Castlefield Gallery, to 8 Aug

Robert Clark

Whitstable Biennale 2010, Whitstable

This fifth incarnation of Whitstable's biennale confirms the Kentish seaside town is shaping up to be something more than a retreat from the cultural map. With a focus on film works, it boasts new commissions, talks and one-off events. Highlights include celestial works by Katie Paterson, including invisible black fireworks and a cosmology lecture and Adam Chodzko's decidedly earthbound revelations about local history. His "Ghost" kayak is kitted out with a video camera to record its passengers' journeys to Deadman's Island, a former burial site for those who died on Victorian prison ships. Meanwhile, Annika Ström park bench performances summon the spirit of coastal life.

Various venues, Sat to 4 Jul, visit whitstablebiennale.com

Skye Sherwin


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