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August 13 2012

Why Mo Farah stole the show from British artists

Damien Hirst's closing ceremony union flag was magnificent but empty and Martin Creed's bell-ringing at the start of the Games rang hollow compared with the depth of soul shown by athletes

The London Olympics began and ended with art. The morning of the first day started with people all over the nation ringing all kinds of bells to perform Martin Creed's Work No 1197: All the Bells. But the big art surprise was reserved for the closing ceremony: this mashup of great, bad and indifferent British pop music was set on a gigantic Damien Hirst painting of the British flag.

In retrospect, it was always a bit fishy that Britain's biggest modern artist seemed so invisible from these Olympics. It was never really likely that Hirst would let a modest fellow like Creed steal the show. And Hirst's outsized union flag in the Olympic arena unfurled his art at its best: a colossal pop icon.

On the other hand, it was in tune with a closing ceremony that was, however much the nation strains to celebrate it, a lot less interesting than the opening show. In contrast with Danny Boyle's imaginative history spectacular, this was a pop concert with very little to it. Hirst's great big daub fitted it well – magnificent but empty, a slather of patriotic baroque. (... although the Who were great.)

The truth is that art was a bit of eye-candy, or in Creed's case ear-candy, for these Olympic Games. It was inevitable that contemporary British art would be wheeled out as a national asset during this self-celebratory summer. And its strengths were on show: excelling at the pop statement, the public moment. Unfortunately its weaknesses were also apparent, when you compared Creed or Hirst with the athletes, the true artists of London 2012.

I don't care how many medals Britain got or any of the patriotic guff that will wash around for a few more weeks. I care about Mo Farah. It's sometimes said of people who are very good at something that they make it look easy. Farah is great because he makes it look difficult. Neither of his gold medals seemed inevitable. Seeing his first victory on television involved and moved me more than any sporting event ever has. It had what I want from a work of art. It touched on deep hopes and fears. It made you, looking at it, aware of the human condition in some deep, primal way.

This race – and other Olympic events too – taught me that sport can be profound.

By contrast, where is the profundity in Creed or Hirst? Where is the soul in modern British art? It's good for a laugh, a party, a bell-ringing breakfast. But where is that sense of mortal testing and absolute absorption we got from the athletic highlights of the 2012 Olympic Games?

Our culture should take a lead from athletics. The real lesson of these Olympics is that the best things in art and life are deadly serious.


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August 06 2012

London 2012 cultural festival's free events draw almost 10m people

Cultural Olympiad organisers say 2.9m rang bells to mark the start of the Games as part of Martin Creed's artwork

An estimated 9.6 million people have joined in the free events and exhibitions of the London 2012 festival, the cultural side of the Olympics, including 2.9 million who rang bells to mark the start of the Games.

Church, cow and bicycle bells were rung as part of Martin Creed's extravaganza which launched the event 10 days ago, Work No 1197: All the Bells in a Country Rung as Quickly and Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes.

The London 2012 festival and Cultural Olympiad director, Ruth MacKenzie, said audience numbers were running "well ahead of expectations", with at least another 5m free places to come, and the explosion of arts in the Edinburgh international festival included.

Ticketed events have already taken attendance to more than 12 million, with more than 2m tickets sold, and the figure is expected to rise as full audience statistics are compiled.

The festival, the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad, began on 21 June, and will continue until the last day of the Paralympic Games, 9 September. Major free events still to come include Neil Mullarkey's attempt to create the world's largest improvised comedy event in Barnsley next Friday – free but tickets must be booked in advance; YesYesNo – Connecting Light, a line of pulsating colour created using LED bulbs inside weather balloons along the length of Hadrian's Wall; another light-in-the-darkness art installation up the steep slopes of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh; and many free events in Happy Days, a new festival of the work of Samuel Beckett in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, where the Nobel-prize-winning playwright went to school. The opening event of the Happy Days festival, which will continue in future years, is a free concert titled Play It Again For Sam.

"We are cautiously pleased with ourselves," MacKenzie said.


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August 01 2012

The Olympics are art and we should not care who wins

If the Games are all about physical excellence, then Olympic art would make little sense. Better to see the Olympics themselves as surreal performance art and give everyone a medal

Nailbiting. Exhilarating. Is it, really? What I've seen of the Olympics is not so much a gutwrenching ride as a beautifully relaxing, contemplative experience. I suppose if you are related to a cyclist or gymnast or so obsessed with Tom Daley that you tweet him when he "lets you down", it is a big emotional deal. But to me the pleasure of watching the Olympics is in the low-level, low-intensity spectacle of people putting themselves through various contrived physical tests for no good reason. This is very reminiscent of some kinds of art.

In 1961, the American artist Robert Morris worked with choreographer Simone Forti to create Slant Board, a performance in which dancers climbed a wooden ramp using knotted ropes. Was watching this a bit like watching the equestrian events or gymnastics? Morris later built more of his climbing props for an exhibition, or rather a participatory event, at London's Tate. When this was recreated at Tate Modern a few years ago it was like a cross between a gym and a playground – and watching people on it was like watching untrained, unskilled Olympians who deserved no medals and no applause (it was definitely like that watching me on it).

For that of course is one way in which sport is very different from contemporary art. Olympic sport is ultimately about finely honed skill. We can be less conscious of this watching some early events – which is not to disparage the skill shown by that men's gymnastics team – but it will become more obvious when the hard-edged athletic sports take centre stage.

If the Olympics are all about winning and physical excellence – and I don't hear anyone saying gold medals are irrelevant – then surely we have got the sport-and-art relationship all wrong. Martin Creed's All the Bells launched the big day on Friday, a lovely piece of participatory minimalism, but what would be a truly Olympian work of art? It would surely mean a draughtsman or draughtswoman sitting by the track and producing an instant and authoritative drawing of a sprinter running by. That would be truly Olympic art: an extreme test of a rare talent.

We in Britain tend to define that kind of art as conservative and old-fashioned. Therefore, we should not care who wins at the Olympics. We should see it as surreal performance art, and give everyone a medal. Not one that was designed and specially made, but one we found.


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July 27 2012

Bells toll across UK for Martin Creed's Olympic welcome

A cacophony of bells in Edinburgh, 40 strikes of Big Ben and a wakeup call in north London as part of Work No 1197

First came a mass countdown to 8.12am, and then came the most harmonious cacophony: cowbells, bicycle bells, Tibetan prayer bells, reclaimed Georgian doorbells, Cambodian fingerbells, delicate porcelain bells and even kitchen equipment – a cheap steel toast rack struck with a spoon.

Commuters and tourists passing over North Bridge in Edinburgh stopped and stared as the sound of perhaps 300 hand-rung bells echoed across the glass roof of Waverley station and out into the sunlight. Guests in the Scotsman hotel overlooking the bellringers came out to take photographs and watch, grinning, suddenly roused from their breakfast.

Bells were rung at the Houses of Parliament, in Millennium Square in Bristol, at St Albans Cathedral and at hundreds of other churches and community centres up and down the UK.

This was Martin Creed's artwork for the Olympics: Work No 1197, All the Bells in a Country Rung as Quickly and Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes.

Creed's idea was that the whole country should resound with ringing to greet the Olympics; that people should ring on their own, or in groups, wherever they were. Creed had said he would ring his own doorbell.

Big Ben pealed 40 times in the three minutes. It is believed to be the first time the strike of Big Ben has been rung outside its normal schedule since 15 February 1952, when it tolled every minute for 56 strokes for the funeral of King George VI.

The bells at the National Assembly for Wales, Stormont in Northern Ireland and the Scottish parliament all rang out, and other participants included a gang of 40 bellringers on a beach on Unst, in the far north of the Shetland Islands.

Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, narrowly avoided injuring bystanders when a bell he was ringing flew off its handle on the deck of HMS Belfast, moored on the Thames near Tower Bridge.

In Edinburgh, there was a unique double dose of Creed at his first permanent outdoor sculpture, Work 1059, otherwise known as the Scotsman Steps. It was once notorious as a night-time urinal for the city's clubgoers and drunks, but Creed has transformed it into a kaleidoscope of colour. Every one of the 104 steps of the enclosed stone stairway that links the Waverley station valley with North Bridge above has been cased in multiple hues of marble from around the world – greens, ochre, blues and blushing pink.

For three minutes the stone walls and marble of the steps distilled and amplified the sound of 300 bellringers. Mike Pretious, a marketing lecturer, stood vigorously hammering an antique bronze pestle and mortar inherited from his father, a research chemist. Aidan Carey, eight, rang a heavy brass handbell bought from Boots in the 1950s for his great-grandfather who was bedridden with gout. Work 1197 was the first time the bell had left the family home.

Shortly before 8.12am on a leafy, residential street corner in Kentish Town, north London, there was no particular sign that the Olympics were about to be rung in. Then an elderly couple appeared, the lady wielding a large set of wind chimes.

"We've had them for 40 years and I thought they needed an airing," she said. "They've been indoors for years because the neighbours complained about the noise." Looking embarrassed, she added: "I won't give my name, I don't want the neighbours to know I said that."

A woman quietly reading a newspaper produced a handbell from her bag with an inscription claiming it once sat on the captain's table of the Titanic. "I'm so excited!" said Sara Livesey, from Torbay, who was working a shift later on at the Olympic Stadium. "I think the Olympics are the best thing that's happened for donkey's years." The locals assumed a look of polite scepticism.

Kate Frood, headteacher of the local primary school, passed past on a bicycle. "I'm just off to get the school bell," she called. Quite suddenly a crowd had gathered as if from nowhere. Several people pitched up on bicycles, ready with their bike bells. There were children with sleigh bells and cow bells.

Someone had a Tibetan singing bowl, with a wonderful dark-brown rumble. "They use it for healing, and after a long day, it really works," said its owner. Someone else had "a hippie bike bell from India, very Kentish Town".

Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, who organised the gathering on his road, brought what he described as the "spare cat bell". Chinese state TV turned up, too. The reporter, named Tingting Ai, had set her smartphone to chime.

There was a certain amount of rehearsal before the official start time, and then Nairne started shushing everyone and listened to his radio. At the first stroke of Big Ben, he yelled "Go!" and everyone was tinkling, chiming and dinging.

Frood had a particularly professional two-handed grip on the school bell ("I ring it every morning at 9am," she said). From an upper window of one of the Victorian houses lining the street, a woman gazed out looking furious. The volume rose when a rubbish truck boomed past. Barney Skrentny had gone slightly off script by ringing a large dinner gong, providing a pleasing bass note beneath the shrillness.

When the three minutes were up, everyone cheered. Ruth Grimberg turned up, having had an unexpected alarm call. "I thought what are all these bloody middle-class people doing with bells, on the one day I don't have to get up at 6am. What is it for again? I thought maybe it was some protest about rubbish collection." She headed off good-naturedly in search off coffee, and everyone else melted away too, ears still a-ringing.


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

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

Exhibition of the week

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

Other exhibitions this week

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

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

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

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

Masterpiece of the week

Goya, El Médico (The Doctor)

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

Image of the week

What we learned this week

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally

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

Share your art on the theme of sport now

Check out our Tumblr

Follow us on Twitter

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


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Bell ringers celebrate the start of the Olmpics games

Charlotte Higgins participates in Martin Creed's Work No. 1197, All The Bells In A Country Rung As Quickly And Loudly As Possible For Three Minutes.





July 26 2012

Will you ring Martin Creed's bell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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July 24 2012

London 2012: Big Ben to chime for three minutes to mark Olympic opening

Bell will toll outside its regular schedule for first time since George VI's funeral in 1952

Big Ben is to chime non-stop for three minutes to help ring in the London 2012 Olympics.

Special permission had to be gained for the hour bell at the Palace of Westminster to toll out of its regular sequence. It will strike more than 42 times between 8.12am and 8.15am on 27 July to herald the beginning of the first day of Games.

It will be the first time Big Ben has been rung outside its regular schedule since 15 February 1952, when it tolled every minute for 56 strokes for the funeral of King George VI.

The Turner-prize-winning artist Martin Creed came up with the idea for the London 2012 festival. He suggested all the bells in the country should be rung as loudly as possible for three minutes.

Bells will be ringing everywhere from Britain's northernmost inhabited house in Skaw in the Shetland Islands to the UK's most westerly church in Tresco in the Scilly Isles. The bells at the Welsh assembly, Stormont in Northern Ireland and the Scottish parliament will also ring, so all four parliaments will be chiming in unison at 8.12am.

The celebration aims to set a world record for the largest number of bells being rung simultaneously and can include anything from children with handbells to people ringing bicycle bells and doorbells to experienced ringing experts of tower bells and church bells.

The House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, said: "It is a sign of how special this summer is when one of the world's most famous bells will ring outside its regular schedule so it can be part of this London 2012 festival commission to ring in the Olympic Games.

"I am delighted we can play our part in this Martin Creed artwork.

"This is primarily a work for every community within the UK to embrace as their own but it is also important for our famous landmarks to be represented when the eyes of the world will be on us."


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June 28 2012

Martin Creed: Love to You – review

(Moshi Moshi)

Better known as the artist-provocateur responsible for winning the 2001 Turner Prize for lights going on and off in an empty room, Martin Creed's musical forays are much beloved of the Cribs and Franz Ferdinand, and you can hear why. The Glaswegian employs similar frenetic, jagged guitars, although the way his ramshackle pop teeters on the edge of chaos is more reminiscent of the very early Mekons. Creed's songwriting avoids conventional structures but emerges with quirky tunes, over which he ponders life's daily grind with titles such as What's The Point of It? and Die. The title track is beautifully wistful, and I Can't Move finds him layering vowels, like a painting done with sound. Such minor gems alternate with more provocative short statements. The deliberately irritating Fuck Off is like being harangued by a drunk, and will surely be responsible for one or two scratched heads and grumblings of "Is this art?"

Rating: 3/5


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May 30 2012

Martin Creed: 'I don't know what art is'

Martin Creed wants everyone in the country to ring a bell for the Olympics – and he'll start with his own front door. The former Turner prize winner talks to Charlotte Higgins

• Scroll down for a world exclusive video

I arrive at Martin Creed's studio a few minutes before he does. I say studio: really, it's a flat above an Indian restaurant in Brick Lane, east London, so heaving with stuff you have to flatten yourself against walls to squeeze from one narrow space to the next. The main room has a double bed in it, piled high with boxes and brushes (he used to live here before he moved to a more central flat; he also has a base on the volcanic island of Alicudi, off Sicily). The walls are hung thickly with small paintings, many of them what he calls his "pyramid paintings", horizontal swipes of brush-strokes in different colours. Commissioned to make a poster for the Olympics, he submitted one of these because the shape reminds him of a podium.

The assistant, who works from a desk squeezed into a tight corner, goes out to buy milk and I am left alone, trying not to read a letter from Tate director Nicholas Serota that lies on top of a pile of papers (I fail: it's a thankyou for donating the original Olympics artwork to the Tate). Then Creed himself appears: a long umbrella emerges through the door, followed by a figure in an overcoat and neatly knotted scarf. His corkscrew curls spring out from a bowler hat and he has a droopy moustache. With his slightly melancholic look, he reminds me of Charlie Chaplin; but the photographer is right when she says he is the spit of Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now.

Creed, who was born in Wakefield in 1968 and grew up near Glasgow, came to popular attention in 2001 when he won the Turner prize. For the exhibition, he showed Work No 227, The Lights Going On and Off. It was exactly that: an empty room in which the lights would switch off and on. This was archetypal Creed: a work that intrigues yet slightly annoys you. He has also made works in which doors don't close properly, or curtains close and open themselves. He has a big summer ahead. There is a major Olympics project: his Work No 1197 aspires to have "all the bells in the country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes" at 8am on 27 July, to welcome in the Games. He and his band have their first album out in July, full of punky-minimalist songs with repetitive lyrics ("Fuck off", "Love to you"). And he is writing a new, 15-minute piece for classical ensemble; the London Sinfonietta will premiere it next week with his band.

Creed is an artist who sees no distinction between visual art and music. All his works are given numbers, a system borrowed from the classical-music opus system. He was brought up with music: his parents played cello and piano, a grandparent was a concert pianist. As a child, he played violin and, at one point, he considered studying music instead of art.

He also sees little distinction between making art and just being in the world. We hammer this out by arguing over trousers. "I don't think making these works is any different from trying to decide on buying a pair of trousers … It's all trying to live, you know." But surely an artwork, which may sell for a vast sum or be shown in a museum, is more profound than a pair of trousers? "I'm not saying the art is superfluous crap, but that [everything is] really important. It's all profound. Everything you do affects other people, and might have a terrible or an amazing effect. Not just paintings in a gallery. I find it difficult to draw a line."

I try again. Does making art feel different from choosing trousers? "No. I don't know. I don't know what art is. It's a magic thing because it's to do with feelings people have when they see something. If the work is successful, it's because of some magic quality it has." A magic quality the artist has put into it? "It's not in the work," he says. "People use the work to help them make something in themselves. So the work is a catalyst." Has a pair of trousers ever made you cry? (I happen to know he cries at Beethoven.) "No," he concedes. "But I don't sit listening to a pair of trousers for 40 minutes."

For his Turner prize show, Creed also exhibited scrunched-up paper and Blu-Tack. The Sun had fun with that, announcing a "Turnip prize" and inviting readers to suggest similar works. But something has happened to Creed over the past decade: like other once-controversial Turner-prize winners such as Jeremy Deller, he has settled into being generally liked. The Sun has since written about him with a sort of grudging respect, as if he has pulled the wool over the world's eyes with his eccentric art and deserves to be congratulated. The paper's coverage of the bell-ringing exercise was almost reverential.

Not that everyone was keen: Kate Flavell, president of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, went on her blog to declare the project "misconceived" and to state that they would not be working closely with it. The 8am timing was not suitable, she wrote, nor was it practicable to ring church bells for three minutes. Creed nears irritation when we talk about this. "I feel like it's really mean and stupid. It's like we're kids playing a game and we're saying, 'Does anyone want to play? Everyone's welcome.' But if someone's going on the radio specially to say, 'I'm not playing', that looks really mean. I think, 'Just don't play if you don't want to.'" The CCCBR is now supportive of the project, which invites members of the public to ring a bell off their own bat – or create an event with friends. Creed reckons he'll ring his doorbell.

His latest works involve making paintings with his eyes closed. "Because I am sick of looking at things. It seems to come out better sometimes when you've got your eyes closed. When you try to control something, it can be so dead." To make the paintings, he puts his hand and arm through a series of predetermined movements. There are a lot of systems in Creed's work – often relating to his inability to make decisions. The pyramid paintings, he says, came out of his inability to select a brush, so he bought a multipack and used the lot, combining restriction, indecision and the operation of chance in one fell swoop.

Similarly, the Sinfonietta work is a result of his inability to decide on what notes to use: he will simply use the entire pitch-range of the ensemble from high to low. But he may be moving away from controlling things. At the moment, he is also painting "blind portraits": looking at the person but not the paper as he draws. "It is trying to bypass my own tendency to make everything so tasteful and nicely designed. I am sick of that. A lot of the time, I look at my work and think, 'Oh fuck, that's so controlled – bleurgh!'" He makes a horrible puking sound. Creed once made a film of someone vomiting and he likens the blind portraits to that. "That's what the sick film was all about – just going 'Bleugh!' I know it might be horrible to watch, but maybe it's more true to life than some polite arrangement of shapes. I think living is trying to come to terms with what comes out of you. That includes shit and sick and horrible feelings. But the problem with horrible feelings is you can't paint them. But horrible vomit – you can film that."

What I hadn't realised about Creed's work before we met was that there is a kind of unassuming aspect to it, just as there is to him. He is worried about the Sinfonietta piece because it's 15 minutes long and the audience will be trapped in their seats, not allowed to leave if they are bored. At the same time, his two previous orchestral pieces, he says, are so short and compressed that "it's like someone speaking really quickly, not really letting you hear, because they are nervous". Barely three minutes long, the work he wrote for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2008 was described by the Guardian critic as "a terrible piece of music, but a profound work of art". And his visual works, he explains, are basically one-liners because he's too polite to detain you. "I think that's why I've made so many short songs, because I was scared of being rejected. And the visual work is insured against that. You don't have to look at them for more than a second to get what's going on."

The details

The gig
The London Sinfonietta's Evening with Martin Creed is at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 9 June.

The debut album
Love to You is out on Moshi Moshi Records on 2 July.

The bell-ringing
Sign up at allthebells.com

Reading this on mobile? Click here to view


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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 30 2011

November 06 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Krapp's Last Tape in Enniskillen

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

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

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


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November 04 2011

October 15 2011

The best and worst of Frieze 2011 - review

Regent's Park, London

Frieze art fair has become a monster. A giddy, hilarious, silly-shoed one that looks slightly like a hedge-fund manager and slightly like a madcap genius and quite a lot like FUN. But still: a monster. After just eight years of existence, we now talk of "Frieze week": the seven days when, to coincide with Frieze's opening, London's galleries unleash their big guns.

The list of shows is staggering: Gerhard Richter at Tate Modern, with Tacita Dean in the Turbine Hall, Doug Aitken at Victoria Miro, Rebecca Warren at Mauren Paley, everyone and everything at the new White Cube. Tracey Emin, Jeremy Deller, Sarah Lucas, Ryan Gander, among others, have one-off works on show across London. And that's before you get to the big, white tents of Frieze in Regent's Park, packed with art art ART from all over the world.

Fine by me: I like being overstimulated and having too much to do. Plus, Frieze is amazing for people-watching: scruffy-bearded artists mingling with pink-chinoed money men, all sozzled and chatty. There are a lot of impressive women around: they stalk through the week, hard-boiled in Botox and Pantene. No matter what their age, their legs are slim and lovely.

On Tuesday, the day before Frieze opens, my art friend Louise sends me a list of parties and private views. We plan to hit the opening of White Cube Bermondsey, the Lisson Gallery party and finish off at the poolside shindig for Doug Aitken at Shoreditch House. But then Louise cries off with a cold, so I go to what I want instead. Which is: Charles Avery at Pilar Corrias and the Museum of Everything party. At the Charles Avery show – which builds on his Islanders project, with work including a utopian yet scary depiction of a shopping precinct – I bump into my artist friend Keith Wilson, plus Ian Dench, ex-EMF (who was an art student for one year, pop fact fans). We go to the pub for a bit with their mates. "Don't peak too early," I am advised. "It's like a massive wedding. There are parties all week."

Yes, but some of us have only one night out. So off to the Museum of Everything party I trot. Held in a derelict hotel behind Selfridges, also the site for the Judith Scott retrospective (runs until 25 Oct), this turns out to be a proper, old-school, warehouse knees-up: big queues for the portable lavatories, free booze and plenty of it. A brass band plays bonkers mariachi. People wear stupid hats. It's great.

The partygoers mingle between Scott's colourful wrapped pieces, which hang in groups from the ceiling. Judith Scott, who died in 2005 aged 61, was born deaf and with Down's syndrome. She was institutionalised until her 40s, when she started making art. I really recommend this exhibition: not just for the artwork, which is impressive, but also for the environment – it's so exciting to be in a big, rough space slap in the middle of London.

M of E also has a group show, displaying pieces made by artists with learning disabilities, held in a series of ram-a-jam rooms at the bottom of Selfridges (to 25 Oct). I found it very moving; there is some beautiful work. You're left with interesting questions, too: can a creation actually be art if its creator doesn't – or can't – classify it that way?

At Frieze proper, on Wednesday afternoon, we queue between barriers like we're at the log flume at Disneyland. Once in, the fair is bewilderingly big. I sit down to consult my map and see Matthew Slotover, Frieze's co-founder. He tells me that "you need to do your research before you come". All the artworks at Frieze are online and you can search for, say, "European photographers under 35". I've done no research at all. Still, I wander about and manage to clock the Chapman brothers' warped Virgin and child piece, Michael Landy's Heath Robinson machine, which chews up credit cards, and Pierre Huyghe's aquarium, one of Frieze's commissions. A hermit crab bobbles about, wearing a shell that looks like a Brancusi head, clacking its pincers, happy in its new home. The aquarium is in a darkened room, lovely and restful.

Slotover tells me that this year, although buyers are cautious, there isn't the panicky feeling that there was during Frieze 2008. Then, the fair came straight off the back of the collapse of Lehman Brothers "and no one was buying anything, not art, not property, nothing for about three months". He says that worries about the euro are holding some back – the majority of buyers at Frieze come from Europe and the US – but that Latin Americans are investing. "They buy more contemporary stuff, by living artists under 50. And they live with the work, rather than put it into storage. It's not a trophy or an investment." Unlike the Russians, apparently, who are still in search of blue-chip, high-end, modern works.

I wonder if anyone will buy Christian Jankowski's piece, which is all about art and money. He has bought a beautiful motorboat, made by a specialist boat builder, and is offering it for €500,000. Or €625,000 if Jankowski adds his name, in shiny letters, to it. The letters are scattered on the carpet, waiting. You can also commission a 65-metre super-yacht, via him, at €65m; €75m with his name plaque.

Jankowski is a cheerful bloke. We have a chat: he says he's trying to stop rich buyers just investing in a Picasso and then displaying it "with matching cushions in the colours of the Picasso". He wants to encourage them to be more imaginative. "Maybe they want a boat. With this, if they use the boat, and it's not an artwork, its value goes down. But if it's art, its value should go up." I can't believe that anyone will buy it, but he says he's had interest from one lady, who is bringing her husband to see him on Saturday.

Frame is my favourite section of Frieze. Established in 2008, it showcases smaller galleries, which are allowed to exhibit just one artist in their allotted space. The floor is uncarpeted, there's a rougher feel. Mostly, the work is made by younger people, though I was happy to see that Channa Horwitz, who's almost 80, is displaying her playful sequences at Aanant & Zoo. At Hunt Kastner, a gallery from Prague, I liked Eva Kot'átková's work: her collages of old books and photographs, as well as a slideshow, cluster and fold together. Apparently, she's exploring identity disorder, where troubled individuals create parallel personas to cope with their roles in society. We can all relate.

Outside Frame, in the main corridors, which increasingly resemble an out-of-town mall, or an insane asylum, I pop into Gavin Brown's enterprise, winner of the Stand prize. Bright canvases by Joe Bradley and poppy pieces by Martin Creed encircle an enormous golden, folded coat hanger by Mark Handforth. I dislike that one.

Still, at Frieze, as soon as you've seen something you hate, you fall over something you like. Casey Kaplan, a New York gallery, has given over its whole space to Matthew Brannon. There are handpainted posters, little railway station signs, a collection of coloured bottles. On the wall hang two coats: the detective's and the dentist's. Naughty ladies peek out from the coat pockets; a ribbon with "my fingers in your mouth" hangs from a collar. Brannon has written a murder mystery that takes place in several countries (there's an accompanying exhibition opening in New York) and his work offers clues to the story. The whole thing is entrancing: funny, detailed, confusing. I have found a new artist to follow.

Frieze is an overlit, overpeopled, overheated carnival of excess that has given me a couple of new images to mull over. I hold them close, to calm me down, and leave before my migraine kicks in.


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August 01 2011

Stairway to heaven

Martin Creed has paved an Edinburgh thoroughfare with richly coloured marble, bringing a splash of Italy to the city. It's the highlight of this year's art festival

The best art at this year's Edinburgh festival is not in a gallery. It is under your feet. You walk up and down it and you may, if you like, look at it as a work of art; but no one is forcing you to experience it that way.

In fact, it is a bit embarrassing to stand on the Scotsman Steps, an enclosed public staircase that leads from a spot near Waverley Station up to the heights of Edinburgh's Old Town, examining the aesthetic beauty of the 104 stairs while people rush from A to B. They wonder why you are loitering in the middle of a pedestrian thoroughfare. Martin Creed has created a work of art so perfectly integrated into the world that you feel a bit of a fool for making a fuss over it.

Creed was commissioned by the Fruitmarket Gallery to transform these formerly dingy stairs into a work of pedestrian art. Titled Work No 1059, it was meant to open in time for 2010's festival, but wasn't completed until June this year. No wonder it was tricky to bring together, for it makes use of a spectacular and luxurious variety of coloured marble slabs. Every step is made of a different kind. We think marble means white shiny stone, but there are blue marbles, orange, green, red marbles – and they are all here, meticulously shaped and precisely installed, to create a staircase fit for kings.

This is a visionary and utopian work of art. An exhibition at the Fruitmarket last year, filling the gap created by the public work's delay, irritatingly made Creed look like an artist obsessed with numbers and clever-clever plays on pattern. In reality, he is a social artist; the true magic of his work lies in the way it interacts with people and places. Here, he has given a gift of imagination to the city. Why should public spaces be shoddy, uncared for, mean? The Scotsman Steps in their new marble incarnation accuse every compromised civic scheme. Here is a set of steps lots of people use every day, going to work, or coming back from the pub. Why not make that climb a moment of beauty?

Creed, who lives on Alicudi, an island north of Sicily, has brought a bit of Italian visual glory into the heart of Edinburgh. Italian cities have been decorated with rich marble for centuries, and have always treated public spaces as special, dramatic stages for life. You could almost say this is a Catholic work of art infiltrated into a Calvinist city: the coloured richness of stone is the sort of extravagance you expect to find in the Vatican, but now lies in a place associated with the Reformation. Then again, the Scotsman Steps possess a no-nonsense, practical, modest quality, thanks to Creed's streak of sober restraint – the streak that makes him a minimalist. From the top of the steps, you get a wonderful panoramic view over the city. All human life is there, down in the station and crowding the streets, and up here with you. This is a model of what public art ought to be: not a pompous statue but a contribution to living in the world.

The work's radicalism would surely have delighted Robert Rauschenberg, the great American artist who died in 2008. His paint-spattered assemblages of everyday objects and found images – a photograph of his son next to a stuffed American eagle, his own bed smeared with fleshly colours – transformed art in the 1950s. Rauschenberg once said that neither art nor life can be made: "I try to act in the gap between the two." Creed's steps occupy the mysterious, enchanting space in which Rauschenberg strove to act; the borderland between art and life.

Rauschenberg himself is remembered this year in a show at Inverleith House in the Royal Botanic Garden. In the 50s he was a revolutionary; for perhaps a decade after that he made deeply moving and evocative works. But you won't find any of those masterpieces at Inverleith House. Instead, this exhibition drags out of gallery storerooms and flabby collections his late works, from the 1980s onwards. Nothing can redeem these sad sacks of exhausted ideas. Rauschenberg in his later years descended into self-pastiche. His gold and blue silkscreen pictures, reused Florida street signs and junk that seems carefully selected for him by assistants, have the manner of his early work but little of its intensity or passion. It is a bitter encounter, because I believe Rauschenberg still has a lot to teach and show, but he is ill-served by this misconceived wallow in his years of decline.

In the gardens, people stumble over clumps of hardened goo and marvel at what looks like a storm-ravaged fallen tree trunk, but turns out to be pair of giant legs and a headless torso. Its surface is engraved like rough bark, as if a tree god were slumbering on the lawn. This is a bronze sculpture by the young British artist Thomas Houseago whose works, scattered under the trees, provide a better reason to trek to the Botanic Garden. Rauschenberg's art seems a dead thing in Edinburgh, but his words live on, as young artists reveal new ways for art to be part of life. Creed does that, Houseago does it, too – as does American painter Ingrid Calame, whose ethereal wall drawing in the Fruitmarket gallery is based on tracings she made of Los Angeles graffiti. Words float out of the gracious veil of pallid, delicate colour she has transferred to a gallery surface: outside brought inside, street art memorialised, an abstract painting as a documentary photograph.

Faces in a restless universe

I find these artists more memorable than the British sculptor Tony Cragg, who has a survey of two decades of ambitious work at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. It feels sacrilegious to say this. Cragg makes extraordinarily energetic, spiralling, skewed forms, like melted chessmen. At first sight, his tottering towers of spun discs, or unbalanced stacks of plates, seem totally abstract; but in this exhibition, his drawings reveal their figurative origins and send you back to look again and notice the distorted faces, like people trapped in the warped material, that spookily populate his restless universe.

Cragg has formal originality, explosive creativity, and depth. His art is surely a reflection of modern science, an evocation of the warped fabric of space and time. His spectral faces, fused with the shuddering cosmos, suggest the human predicament in these stormy times. I suppose.

Yet the conventional presentation of his art as just that – Art, on plinths and with drawings to back up its seriousness – traps Cragg in a universe slightly askew to the one that interests me. This is art that sits on its pedestal and waits for life to come and admire it. Rauschenberg was right to say that what matters in art is a relationship with life; it is the way art inhabits the world that makes it powerful or weak, unforgettable or irrelevant. This is a good ethos for art at the Edinburgh festival, which is all about the moment of connection between artist and audience. And it forces me to say that, for all its strengths, Cragg's art just does not have what Creed's has: it does not speak in the world in the same unforced, open way. It is just some stuff in a gallery. Outside the museum, Creed's neon text glows with reassurance: Everything Is Going to Be Alright. Art is going to fuse with life. Both will be better for it.

• Robert Rauschenberg: Botanical Vaudeville is at Inverleith House until 2 October. Thomas Houseago: The Beat of the Show is there until 21 June. Ingrid Calame is at the Fruitmaket Gallery, Thursday until 9 October. Tony Cragg is at National Galleries of Scotland until 6 November. Full details: 0131-226 6558, edinburghartfestival.com


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June 25 2011

Folkestone Triennial

Folkestone, Kent

Unlike Margate, just along the coast, Folkestone's creative plans for regeneration do not include the building of a swish gallery by a big-name architect. Instead, the town has taken a more subtle route. In 2008, backed by the Creative Foundation, whose chair is the local philanthropist Roger de Haan, it staged its first triennial, an event so joyful and clever its memory ha s outlasted, in my own case, that of pretty much all the art I've seen since. Scattered so as to make you feel that you alone had discovered each piece, the work was frequently beautiful, occasionally funny and always thought-provoking. Even better, it brought Folkestone's considerable charms – the town, after all, was once so grand it was the favoured holiday destination of Edward VII and his mistress, Alice Keppel – into sharp relief. Stumbling on all this art, so cunningly situated, the future and the past seemed suddenly to work together. I left feeling full of hope.

Three years on, and the Creative Foundation's wisdom is now obvious. Gallery or not, Folkestone is already well on its way to having something that Margate painfully lacks: a permanent collection. Several of the pieces that were commissioned for the 2008 triennial have remained in the town, most notably Tracey Emin's poignant Baby Things – a bonnet, booties and matinee jacket cast in bronze and then "abandoned" on railings and beneath park benches – and Mark Wallinger's Folk Stones, a collection of 19,240 numbered pebbles, each one representing a soldier killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, many of whom would have departed there from the town's harbour (Wallinger's piece has grown so beloved, it gets its own poppy wreath come Remembrance Sunday).

Meanwhile, the foundation's investment in existing real estate is slowly paying off. Fewer shops stand empty. On the harbour, a fabulous new restaurant has opened, its fish fresh off the boats each morning.

It pains me, then, to report that the second triennial is not quite so successful a proposition as the first. On the train, inspecting my blisters – there is a lot of walking to do: its brilliant and determined curator, Andrea Schlieker has commissioned 19 artists, some of whom have contributed more than one work – I tried to convince myself that disappointment was inevitable, given my ecstasy three years ago. But the truth is that this a more patchy affair. In 2008 artists were encouraged to use the town and its ghosts as their inspiration, something that more than justified the triennial's obsession with site specificity. In 2011 the feel is deliberately more outward-looking: its subtitle, after all, is A Million Miles From Home, a theme that nods both to Folkestone's geography – gazing out to France on a grey day, it can feel like the end of the world – and its status as a place where asylum seekers and other immigrants often end up.

The result, though, is a show that is sometimes off-puttingly preachy. The Israeli artist, Smadar Dreyfus, for instance, has recorded in their entirety seven lessons in Israeli schools, lessons that take in such loaded issues as citizenship and the Law of Return. Sitting in the pitch black of an abandoned office building listening to these lessons – a translation is provided on screen in the form of "word pictures" – is an object lesson in the bullying and self-indulgence involved in a certain kind of contemporary art. It's unendurable.

My advice? Avoid the film installations (I counted – yawn – four). Ditto the work that requires too lengthy explanation (in Folkestone's delightfully spooky Masonic Hall, a new and extremely winning venue in 2011, the artist Olivia Plender gamely tried to unpick for me her film installation Are Dreams Hallucinations During Sleep or Hallucinations Waking Dreams; alas, I am still none the wiser – all I can tell you is that it involves a local am dram group doing improvisations). No, head instead straight for the stuff that will hit you bang, smack in the solar plexus. Luckily, there is plenty of it.

The best work makes the most of Folkestone's beguiling topography. Begin your tour high on the Leas, almost as far west as HG Wells's house (designed by Voysey, it's now an old people's home), where you will find Cristina Iglesias's magical Towards the Sound of Wilderness. Iglesias has cut a path through undergrowth – a kind of secret passage – which leads to her "intervention", a terrific mirrored box-like structure whose walls, crafted to resemble thorns, call to mind The Sleeping Beauty. Step into it and, from a window, you will see a Martello tower now entirely covered in ivy. When the hundreds of birds that nest there sing, the experience is genuinely otherworldly.

From here, head east towards the Victorian water-powered Leas Lift. Riding the lift has always been a hairy experience – the descent is dramatic and always, somehow, unexpected – but now it's comical, too. As the mechanism begins to roll, so does Martin Creed's sound installation Work No. 1196, Piece for String Quartet and Elevator: a series of descending scales. Impossible not to smile.

Leave the lift, and you're on the site of the still-mourned Rotunda amusement park. Here stands AK Dolven's desolate and beautiful Out of Tune, a huge tenor bell suspended on wire between two beams. Pull the rope, and it will ring out, melancholy and ghostly. Dolven, who is Norwegian, speaks of having brought something – this old bell – back to life. But to me, it sounds more like a death knell, or a warning.

And perhaps it is. There is so much of Folkestone still to save. Close by is the old harbour railway station: hard to believe, standing among the rust and the weeds, that it was here that the Orient Express used to call. On the tracks is Paloma Varga Weisz's sublime Rug People, a group of men with Modigliani faces cast in bronze, standing on an oriental carpet. For all that is it so physically heavy, this sculpture, it seems to me, is the very embodiment of transience, a family's world reduced to the scant acreage of a patterned rug. I adored it, though it is Cornelia Parker's bronze, The Folkestone Mermaid, on Sunny Sands beach, that the townspeople will want to claim as their own. It's a delightful joke, of course, this nicking of Copenhagan's most famous landmark, but Parker has made a beautiful work in its own right. Strong, proud and human – no flipper for her, though her feet are draped with seaweed – this mermaid's jaw suggests the same patient indefatigability as that of the town she symbolises.

Nearly there now. At the top of the Bayle, hanging in the nave of St Eanswythe's church, is Hew Locke's For Those in Peril on the Sea: a flotilla of votive offerings in the form of model boats in every shade and style you can imagine. It's a work that manages to be both impossibly cheery, and contemplative. Just below it, in the Old High Street, is Erzen Shkololli's Boutique Kosovo. Shkololli, who works in Pristina, has gathered together traditional Kosovan costumes, made by this country's craftswomen – except he has displayed them as if in some upscale minimalist store (think Marni). This is not the most nuanced commentary on globalisation that I've ever seen, but the garments are so fascinatingly exquisite – they seem almost to have the quality of religious relics – I'll forgive him. Besides, isn't this what we want for towns like Folkestone? Small (and possibly useful) shops rather than chain stores. Beauty rather than blandness. What you might call, feeling daring, a soul.


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March 30 2011

Martin Creed: Mothers / Hauser & Wirth, London (Remix)

This video offers a different look at the huge installation that Martin Creed presented at Hauser & Wirth Gallery in London earlier this year. The space is not yet occupied by the visitors to the opening. The sculpture is titled “Mothers” and was part of the exhibition with the same name. Click here for the video of the opening.

Martin Creed was born in Wakefield, England in 1968 and grew up in Glasgow. He lives and works in London and Alicudi, Italy. In 2001 Creed won the Turner Prize for “The lights going on and off“. In recent years, Creed has worked on music, dance, writing, sculpture and painting.

Martin Creed: Mothers. Hauser & Wirth London, Savile Row. Private view, January 20, 2011.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.

Photo set on Flickr:

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January 31 2011

Martin Creed - How I Wrote Thinking/Not Thinking - Video

Turner-prize winning artist Martin Creed shares some of his brand of low-fi punk with his single Thinking/Not Thinking



January 30 2011

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