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August 08 2013

Podcast: ratings, rankings, and the advantage of being born lucky

Outcomes following random exogenous upvotes and downvotes on message board posts. Image via Sean Taylor.Outcomes following random exogenous upvotes and downvotes on message board posts. Image via Sean Taylor.

Researchers randomly upvoted some posts and downvoted others on a popular message board. The upvoted posts became substantially more popular over the long run. Image via Sean Taylor.

Is popularity just a matter of simple luck–of some early advantage compounded by human preference for things that are already popular? A paper published today in Science offers some insight into the way that popularity emerges in online ratings. Lev Muchnik, Sinan Aral, and Sean Taylor were able to set up a randomized experiment on a popular Reddit-like message board in which they gave some posts a one-point upvote on publication and others a one-point downvote. Posts that were “born lucky” ended up with 25% higher scores on average than those without modification.

In our latest podcast, Renee DiResta and I are joined by Sean Taylor, Hilary Mason and John Myles White to talk about Sean’s findings and about ratings, rankings and reviews in general. Bits and pieces that come up in the podcast:


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August 11 2012

Dieter Roth: Diaries; Philip Guston: Late Paintings – review

Fruitmarket Gallery; Inverleith House, Edinburgh

Dieter Roth was a celebrated sculptor, performer, film-maker and draughtsman whose work has been displayed all over the world since his death in 1998. He was also an alcoholic. His last video installation was a record of his final year, lived in the knowledge that he was slowly dying of the consequences.

You can watch Solo Scenes – for hours, potentially for days – on 128 video screens at the Fruitmarket Gallery, part of Dieter Roth: Diaries. It is one of the most significant shows in a particularly strong edition of the Edinburgh art festival. There he is, this old man in a soft cap with his solitary ways, seen in the low brown glow of his apartment. He is a figure fit for late Rembrandt or the novels of Samuel Beckett.

He works, he eats, he writes, he thinks. He hangs out his meagre washing. In bed, beneath the lamp, he reads late into the night; in the morning there is toast to make. Snow gathers outside, spring comes and he tends his plants. Each scene is conspicuously framed (the camera judders and shakes) before Roth appears within it. This is one of the longest time-lapse self-portraits in art: literally, life passing from moment to moment.

And what does Roth do, faced with this mortal dread? He simply goes on working, a common and quiet heroism, as the dawn-to-dusk structure of the work implies. Perhaps some concession is made to comfort – the artist very often appears in his dressing gown, frequently with a blanket – but the low buzz of activity never ceases, even against the faint soundtrack of a clock.

There are drawings to make and letters to write. Some kind of art is gathering, quite apart from these videos themselves. In the studio there are occasional glimpses of self-portraits, sculptures, paintings; and hundreds of ring binders neatly arranged in library shelves.

The actual shelves are installed upstairs at the Fruitmarket Gallery, each file containing the ill-considered trifles of Roth's daily life: bills and tickets and restaurant napkins, bank statements and parking tickets, anything and everything that was less than 5mm thick, preserved in this orderly archive entitled Flat Waste.

Shoring up the fragments was not just a compulsion for Roth, it was an aesthetic principle. He made fantastically elaborate environments – a studio, an entire bar complete with empties and overflowing ashtrays – out of junk. He also worked with chocolate, baking dough and soft cheese, the inevitable deterioration of each piece equated with life's decline. The materials of art were indivisible from the materials of life.

It might have helped to include an earlier work for those unfamiliar with Roth. But the Fruitmarket has several ingenious self-portraits rapidly executed in ballpoint (the artist as a whirring fan, a speech bubble, a weeping pig) and many of his copiously illustrated diaries. These are written in his native German, but there are tantalising entries in English: "Dorothy loves you madly. She hopes to get through this phase and love you more." What happened with Dorothy, one longs to know, after that declaration in 1967?

The diaries, like the videos, put everything on the same par, from the love letter to the last cup of coffee. And that is the ethos of the whole show. It doesn't feel desperate – a clutching at straws – so much as ravenously interested in everything that exists. Solo Scenes is only finished, so far as I can tell, in that there is a last monitor showing a last piece of video. The death is unrecorded and the work feels energetic, relishing every minute of every day. Roth's curiosity never dies.

The art festival this year feels pensive, profound. The Ingleby Gallery has a rediscovered work by that great Scottish original Ian Hamilton Finlay – a lethal air-sea battle played out on an ironing board with wooden planes and irons, tragedy somehow miniaturised with no loss of effect. At lunchtime each day, in response to Edinburgh Castle's one o'clock gun, you can hear the disembodied voice of the Turner prize winner Susan Philipsz hanging in the air at evocative staging posts around the city: a siren song drawing you into the past.

And the Dutch artist Melvin Moti has made a spectacularly beautiful work for the National Museum of Scotland simply by passing UV rays over objects from the collection – scorpions, fluorescing fossils, perfume bottles made from uranium – and filming the high-chrome effects. These visions appear vast and small, planetary and yet subatomic.

But best of all is the show of late paintings by the American master Philip Guston at Inverleith House, the first to be staged in Scotland. This is the Guston of the great tragicomic period with its near-cartoonish vocabulary: men with heads like lima beans, huge flatiron shoes, hoods riding the streets smoking cigarettes in open-top cars, gigantic hands reaching down from the heavens to make a point (in this case, the point of a pencil).

In The Studio, a hood paints his own portrait, appraising his art through Disney eye-slits and smoking as he works. The cigarette has been airbrushed from the picture on the easel, along with the light bulb, the palette and the one-handed clock, but in every other respect he paints himself exactly as he is painted by Philip Guston himself.

For this is Guston's allegorical self-portrait: the artist as antihero and nicotine addict, getting through two packs of Camel a day. The picture is full of jokes, from the rueful allusion to Velázquez in the silver, pink and black of the colour scheme to the fact that you can't tell whether the smoke is issuing from the cigarette or the paintbrush.

The bulb, the Klannish hood, the ciggy with its orange tip: Guston evolved a pungent vocabulary of forms that couldn't stand for anything except themselves and yet always meant so much more. Those hoods, hugger-mugger in some kind of office, what are they up to with their arms raised against each other? That curious citadel, pink, fat and squat, ascending like Brueghel's towering Babel, seems both ancient and yet so modern you might turn a corner and find it before you today, a sinister bureaucracy rising up to blood and milk clouds.

Guston's late paintings have become archetypes, irreducibly simple, translating the world. Like good cartoons, and great paintings, they reveal what cannot easily be said.

This is an ideal introduction for newcomers and a perfectly condensed anthology for Guston's admirers, especially since many of the works have never been shown in Britain before. There are only nine paintings, all borrowed from private collections in the United States. But with Guston, a little goes a long way.


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London: Portrait of a City by Reuel Golden – review

Charting urban change from the Victorian era to the modern day, this is a celebration of London's people, spirit and style

As a pictorial history of London, this handsomely produced volume is unrivalled. One of Taschen's bigger-is-better coffee-table books, it is arranged into five chronological sections, celebrating – and occasionally lamenting – urban change in London from Victorian times to now. It tells a powerful and vibrant story, zeroing in on the pubs, docks, alleys, construction sites, crowded streets, markets and shops – places where people either meet or cross paths as strangers – that give shape to daily life.

The book draws richly on urban still photography and decades of the city's photojournalism to illustrate its major themes and trends. The best pictures, aesthetically and historically, vividly reveal the city's slums. London is often depicted as crowded, intimidating, dirty and anonymous; murky images of its dank fogs – one of which claimed 4,000 lives in 1952, mainly as a result of respiratory diseases – reveal their density and gloom. Other pictures – men walking on a frozen Thames in 1894, a homeless shelter in 1901, troops at Euston on their way to the Somme – all retain a human individuality, revealing the stoicism and camaraderie of the inhabitants and capturing the city's indomitable spirit, its landmarks and its style.

Collated by Reuel Golden, former editor of the British Journal of Photography, London features work from David Bailey, Cecil Beaton, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Terence Donovan and Roger Fenton, among others, alongside a well-crafted and informative text and references from key films, books and records. Many pictures have not been used before, so there's a constant feeling of revelation, and it's fascinating to see the images presented in such an indulgent and uncrowded manner.


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Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – review

The American documentarist Alison Klayman had unequalled access to Ai Weiwei during the time he was working on the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and staging his large So Sorry exhibition in Munich, and her excellent film is a lively, informative, funny and inspirational portrait of a courageous, charismatic, highly original man. He comes across as a gregarious, unpompous, comic version of the Soviet dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Drawing on interviews with his wife, mother, brother, numerous people from the art world in China and elsewhere and the man himself, Klayman deals with every aspect of his career as architect, photographer, conceptual artist, social critic, blogger, tweeter and gadfly extraordinaire.

The movie is equally good on his formative childhood and adolescence in exile to a distant part of China as the son of the despised modernist poet Ai Qing, as well as on his 12 years in America where he developed his art, had his first one-man exhibition, and literally gave the finger to the Chinese government with the famous photograph that has a raised middle finger in the foreground and Tiananmen Square in the background. The account of his work in exposing the cover-up over the student deaths during the Sichuan earthquake is deeply moving (as is the dedication of the young people who assisted him). The indignation one feels over the vindictive bureaucrats who framed, persecuted and jailed him is tempered by the wit and humour with which he responded.

His defiant art is often extremely funny. There are several heartbreaking moments, such as his 78-year-old mother expressing her pride and concern, and some beautiful images such as Ai walking across the hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds in the Tate's Turbine Hall accompanied by his little son. The film ends with the words "Never Retreat, Re-tweet", a characteristically pawky variation on the battle cry of the American socialist martyr Joe Hill, "Don't Grieve, Organise".


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August 09 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – review

A documentary reveals the remarkable Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to be a mysterious, opaque figure, but there's no denying the power of his actions

The ghosts of Tiananmen Square 1989, and maybe Grosvenor Square 1968, are revived in this engrossing documentary by Alison Klayman about Chinese artist and democracy campaigner Ai Weiwei, who became widely known in the UK with the spectacular Sunflower Seeds installation at Tate Modern in 2010. For years, until the Chinese government chillingly decided on the demolition of his Shanghai studio and an 81-day detention without trial in 2011, ostensibly on tax charges, Ai Weiwei had seemed almost immune to state harassment, due to his chutzpah, his international fame and the very fact he was an artist. The authorities perhaps believed – to paraphrase Auden's line about poetry – that conceptual art makes nothing happen. But his art was making a lot happen: it was brilliantly insisting on creativity and freedom, and made compelling political statements – perhaps chiefly his Citizen's Investigation into the Sichuan earthquake. This was simply a moving and monumental list of people killed in 2008 by the collapse of shoddy and unsafe government buildings; the list is an ongoing, continuously updated work in progress. Part artwork, part memorial, part journalistic campaign, it was conceived in defiant riposte to the authorities who refused to release clear figures. Ai Weiwei himself is a rather mysterious, opaque figure, but utterly confident and unafraid of state bullies. He is heroic.

Rating: 4/5


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August 08 2012

TV review: A History of Art in Three Colours

Not sure about white being the darkest colour, but I loved James Fox's stories of Winckelmann and Whistler

You know you're getting old when art historians start looking young. Thank God James Fox actually is. For all his accomplishments and authority, he's only 30 (another sign that you're getting old is when 60-year-olds appear youthful).

A History of Art in Three Colours (BBC4) finishes with white. I am innately suspicious of attempts by art history programmes to find a tickling theme. I feel like I'm being sucked into the meeting at which it was decided that telling a story in any sensible way – chronologically, for instance, or by movement, or by broad historical context, or by technique – was way too obvious. Wouldn't it be more interesting to find four painters who all slept with the same person, or nine sculptors who were all missing a thumb? Then before you know it, the presenter is dressing up as a hooker or strapping down his own thumb to show you how hard it is to handle stone with only four fingers, and it's demonstrative and patronising, a little bit like watching Nina and the Neurons on CBeebies, which is at least intended for the under-fives.

But there is another way to do things, it turns out, whether with the collusion of the producers or by slipping it under the wire, I know not. Fox principally uses the colour to tell some stories that interest him. Pretty well everything interests him, and pretty well everything he says is interesting.

He makes a decent stab, at the very start, to thread his tales together, so that they coagulate into a solid notion: that white "might just be the darkest colour of them all," that it has been used over centuries to "control and conquer". But I wasn't buying it. Sure, sometimes it's dark; sometimes it isn't. There was no need to overplay this hand, but anyway, that is a minor complaint.

We start at the Elgin marbles, whose story is told with admirable pace and drama: "In 1938, the director of the British Museum was on his evening rounds. Everything seemed to be in order, but a disturbing incident had been taking place right beneath his feet." I'm afraid I cannot tell you whether the suspense came from artful pausing, or just a nice, posh, HG Wells, Radio 4, understatedly-serious, we-are-now-at-war-with-Germany accent. I simply surrendered to its message: something really exciting is just about to happen!

In fact, the disturbing incident was quite subtle. People were cleaning – for which read ruining – the marbles, having become obsessed with the idea that white was their perfect colour. (In fact, the marbles started off painted many colours.) The idea, if you are prepared to trace it back 221 years, commenced with the birth of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, son of a humble something or other who – being gay and favouring tight leather trousers – naturally yearned for the big city, where he saw a room full of sculptures, "of all shapes and sizes," Fox says, as the camera zooms in on a moustache. "There was plenty to feast his eyes on. Buttocks aplenty, ripped, muscular torsos and even the odd genital. They were the most wonderful objects Winckelmann had ever seen," Fox tells us.

Thus, the world's first Hellenist was made, and he was the one who wanted everything white. I guess the needling pop-psychological subtext – that Winckelmann elided the colour of the marbles with the colour of purity in a bid to ratify his sexual awakening – that bit you can take or leave. The trajectory itself is fascinating, however: how one version of beauty can come to dominate a huge swathe of culture, for centuries, by the sheer force of one man's will.

Fox goes on to do a great job on Whistler, who uses white to "mock Victorian taste" by the subtle measure of painting a series of women in white. The scandal and bafflement were the talk of the town. Why was this one standing on a bear? Is she married? Why does she look so unhappy? (I can't believe this would have raised too many questions). Whistler underlined this by wearing white trousers around town. If only they'd had blogs in those days, someone could have done lookatmyfuckingwhitetrousers and divided them into sailor, mental health nurse and Whistlerite (that will only make sense if you look at this website, but you won't regret it.

It was interesting, memorable, thought-provoking and lingering.


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August 04 2012

Edinburgh fringe theatre roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Van Gogh to Kandinsky; Edvard Munch: Graphic Works; Picasso and Modern – review

Scottish National Gallery; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

There is a painting in the Scottish National Gallery so ominous one cannot immediately shrug off the memory. It shows a grey stone colonnade in some nameless place stretching away into infinity. An esplanade on the right is depthless and deserted, more like dark water than land. The interior of the colonnade is an open tomb. The painting puts you on the spot, confronts you with its eerie perspective beneath a rain-laden sky that is not quite day and not quite night. But where exactly are you?

This startling watercolour is by the Belgian artist Léon Spilliaert. It was painted in 1908 in Ostend. You might wonder, as some have, whether it has something to do with those murderous times, when millions of Africans were slaughtered during Leopold I's reign in the Belgian Congo. And perhaps it carries deep overtones of horror and sorrow.

But it may also come from Spilliaert's own experience as a chronic insomniac who walked the streets of Ostend by night to distract himself from the pain of a stomach ulcer. His scenes are silent, monochromatic, empty of all human presence except his own wretched solitude; this is the art of a noctambulist.

Spilliaert's work is not often seen outside Belgium. Indeed many of the names in the tremendous Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 may be unfamiliar, since symbolist art of any sort has had mixed fortunes, and symbolist landscapes in particular. Indeed this is the first pan-European show, to my knowledge, and not the least thrill of it is the sight of the continent stretching out before you, from the Scandinavian fjords to la France profonde, from the ravines of Mallorca to the dark forests of Bavaria.

The facts of a landscape are never supposed to be the point for these artists – "don't paint the thing itself, paint the effect it produces" wrote the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé – but one cannot help relishing the sight, and not just the sense, of place; the lakes of Finland, bright as mirrors, and the blue snows of the Eiger even in high summer.

As for the effect produced, it is almost overwhelmingly intense. More than a hundred paintings have been borrowed from museums across Europe, including masterpieces by Van Gogh, Munch, Arnold Böcklin, August Strindberg and James Ensor, and the mood plunges and soars by the room. It rises to ecstasy with Ensor's great vision of Christ Calming the Storm, in which sea and sky appear to unite in radiant meltdown; and it sinks into the most plangent gloom with the German painter Franz von Stuck's Evening Landscape, in which dark trees glower against the fading twilight.

Light, to adapt Manet, appears to be the main protagonist of the symbolist landscape. Indeed it is hard to see what else connects the works in this show. Symbolism is such a vague term – especially when it is made to stretch all the way from the Victorian visions of GF Watts to Paul Signac's pointillist arcadias – that it may be worth ignoring altogether in Edinburgh. It is self-evident that these landscapes are more than descriptions; that you're not just meant to admire the view.

But while it may be very clear that Léon Bakst's aerial view of an Aegean archipelago struck by lightning while a Greek statue breaks into a sinister grin must have the decline and fall of ancient civilisations in mind, it is less obvious that Spilliaert's art can be understood in terms of colonial politics. German symbolism, for instance, is routinely diagnosed as a reaction to Bismarck's modernised materialist state, but that doesn't begin to explain the immense variety of these German landscapes, from von Stuck's opalescent puddles at dusk to the island graveyards of Böcklin.

There are some real surprises in this exhibition. The reclusive Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, master of the mysterious interior, steps out into the streets of Copenhagen to paint Amalienborg Square in the queerest of filtered brown shadows: out of time. There are passionately beautiful treescapes by Mondrian before he turned to abstraction. August Strindberg's harried surfaces seem to prefigure the art of Anselm Kiefer just as surely as many of the artists in the Silent Cities section get there before Giorgio de Chirico.

And there is a show within a show here, as well – a survey of landscape painting at its wildest. Vertical versus horizontal, near against far, the effects of close-up and cropping, of vantage points high above, or way below, with a disappearing horizon or a double focus or no focus at all; it is a masterclass in radical landscape painting.

These are pictures to send shivers down the spine, and even to fill one with dread, above all in the case of Edvard Munch. In Winter Night, the great shape-maker coins a bat-black tree with its branches out-flung like a cloaked figure before an immense frozen waste as night falls. The tree is as frightening as the dying light: will we get away before darkness overwhelms us?

The Scream counts, I suppose, as a symbolist landscape plus figure. It is also on view in Edinburgh in the form of a hand-coloured woodcut in Edvard Munch: Graphic Works From the Gundersen Collection at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Munch's prints are as articulate as his paintings – sometimes more so – and this show of 50 works goes as deep, in its incisive way, as the superb tribute to the exuberant old miserabilist currently on show at Tate Modern.

The big festival show at the SNGMA, Picasso and Modern British Art, originated at Tate Britain in February. It is more successful in Edinburgh than it was in London. This is not simply because the rooms in Edinburgh, with their natural light and human proportions, are a better place to look at paintings than the subterranean galleries at Millbank, but because this version is so well edited.

The idea is to look at three artists who paid sharp attention to Picasso without being overwhelmed – Wyndham Lewis, Francis Bacon, David Hockney – plus several more who fairly swooned. In London the comparison was often cruel, but some of the weaker painters (the Bloomsburys) have been cut back here and the main trio given much clearer representation. The show becomes a concise evolution of British modernism in which the influence of Picasso now looks more like learning and less like theft.

Picasso himself springs alive in zany photographs and drawings from the collection of the British surrealist Roland Penrose at the SNGMA, and, of course, in many stunning pictures, including the Tate's Three Dancers and his beautiful portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter in blue moonlight. It is also excellent to see those two Scottish mavericks, the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde in the cubist context. Look out for MacBryde's aggressive cucumber and apocalyptic, wild-eyed kipper.


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August 02 2012

Eames: The Architect and the Painter – review

This documentary about the famous designers celebrates a unique kind of American creativity that anticipates the digital age

This documentary by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey celebrates a unique kind of American creativity. Charles Eames, in underacknowledged partnership with his artist wife, Ray Eames, created a design studio in the mid-20th century in Venice, California. It was not merely a question of their classic Eames chair. They worked in almost every field of art, architecture and design; acting like an ad agency, they accepted commissions from big corporations like IBM to produce idiosyncratic promotional films that humanised their sponsors and look now like the most earnest but entertaining instructional movies liable to be shown in US high schools. The most celebrated of these is Powers of Ten (1968), a 9-minute animation about relative scale starting with an overhead shot of a sunbathing couple, zooming out progressively into space and then back into a micro-cosmos of molecules and atoms – it brilliantly anticipates Google Earth. Eames's spirit lives on in the careers of Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs.

Rating: 3/5


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July 31 2012

Mannequin, Le Corps de la Mode (Models, the Body of Fashion) - review

Exhibition examining the history of fashion photography is being shown at Espace Van Gogh as part of Rencontres d'Arles festival

A good exhibition often starts with a smart idea. Something surprising, such as telling the story of how fashion photography has evolved, taking as the starting point neither garments, designers, nor even photographers, but models, looking at their style, personality, body shape, aura and status. Models, the Body of Fashion (part of this year's Rencontres d'Arles festival), does just that with 120 photographs, 10 films and 40 magazines.

My intuitive impression, before seeing the show, was that in the early 20th century the predominant concept was a submissive, anonymous female model, shapely but clothed from head to toe, paid a pittance, and about as charismatic as a coat-hanger. Now, in the glossy pages of magazines we are presented with forceful women, with pencil-like bodies, sometimes surgically enhanced, who undress without a fuss, act provocatively, are as highly paid as stars, and just as important as the clothes they wear.

There is some truth in this, but it is mainly mistaken, according to Sylvie Lécallier, an expert on fashion photography at the Galliera Museum in Paris, who put the show together. She maintains that the difference between the two centuries is not that great, apart from the nudity, which started in the 1960s and has been gaining ground ever since.

Pictures from the late 19th century show apparently wooden models, wearing dresses over black jerkins. The pictures mainly served as a basis for drawings in fashion journals. Typically we see designer Paul Poiret landing in Copenhagen with five women wearing the same striped overcoat, surely a complete negation of personality. As for the women, their trade did not command much respect.

But in 1947 photographer Irving Penn asked the year's most sought-after figures to pose for him. In Henry Clarke's 1955 picture of Dorian Leigh, wearing a dress by Jacques Heim, we see not a model but a defiant women. The shift to stardom culminated in the December 1991 issue of Vogue Hommes, featuring the world's five top female models.

Lécallier illustrates this narrative, in which models have progressed from worker to star-status, but also delights in picking holes in it, citing three examples. In 1900, "singers, actresses, society women and celebrities [...] posed, wearing garments by brands such as Poiret or Lanvin to promote them", she says. Among the professional models there were many Russian aristocrats, exiled in Paris, who were "much in demand and well paid".

The second example is more recent. In 1999 the German fashion photographer Jürgen Teller photographed dozens of young women who, in the course of the year, visited his studio in the hope of catching his attention and gaining a toe-hold in the trade. Here the star was the photographer, not the models, though they did feature in the book Go-Sees.

The exhibition looks at changes in body shape. Early in the 20th century designer Jean Patou started hiring US models. "They were younger than before, tall and slender, with standard measurements [...] People started looking at the model as much as the garment. A trend was set," Lécallier says.

Here again there are again contrary examples, particularly from the 1990s. The Face, a British magazine, once published a dozen black and white photographs of a 15-year-old woman at the beach. It was a fashion feature, but seemed to show a weekend with friends. The model was Kate Moss, she was 1.7 metres tall, her body was far from perfect and she did not pose like most models. She was approachable, laughing loud and showing her feelings. "It's more a portrait than a fashion piece," says Lécallier. Many art photographers subsequently adopted the style.

Mannequin, Le Corps de la Mode, is at Espace Van Gogh, Arles, France, until 23 September

This story originally appeared in Le Monde


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July 28 2012

Tino Sehgal: These Associations – review

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London

They walk slowly towards us, a rival crowd approaching out of the darkness at the far end of Tate Modern. What will happen when we come face to face with all these strangers? Just as the tide of figures is about to surge around us, or perhaps overwhelm us, a young man detaches himself and begins to tell me about the great error of his life, which was to send an email instead of a handwritten letter and how it altered everything. I was so enthralled I fell in step beside him, unable to tear myself away.

But soon he seemed to cede to a girl who told of a party thrown to celebrate her sister's recent recovery – from what? We were immediately deep in conversation about the swiftness of cancer in the young. Next, a wise woman recalled the jar of dolly mixtures that sat on top of the classroom cupboard as a reward for good behaviour when she was a child, and the fear of never receiving a handful. A fourth stranger who had migrated from London to a new life in Sheffield found himself amazed to hear the sound of voices everywhere: people actually talking to one another. His story is emblematic of this whole marvellous project.

These Associations is the latest iteration of the Unilever Series. Conceived by the Berlin-based Tino Sehgal, it is by far the most radical and humane of all the Turbine Hall commissions to date. There is no object, as with Louise Bourgeois's giant spiders or Carsten Höller's spiral slides. There is no installation, as with Miroslav Balka's apocalyptic black void. There is no fixed image or sculpture or outcome.

Sehgal's event – as always with this 36-year-old artist – consists entirely of encounters between living people that are as potent, ever-changing and unique, minute by minute, as they are in the world beyond this museum. Except that they might never happen out there.

For the connections are sudden and immediately open. There is no preamble and the register of the conversation is quite extraordinarily frank. Yet these strangers are full of respect in forging this vital sense of connection. There is no social barter; you feel no pressure to divulge anything in exchange. It is like the best, and least demanding, party.

The crowd walks faster, breaking into a sprint or suddenly slackening and losing formation. It looks at times like a game of tig, or a football match without a ball. There is a sense of starlings mysteriously gathering or shoals of fish somehow darting in the same direction without any obvious leader. Above all, it looks atomic, especially as the participants spin away from the group to talk to the rest of us. It is like a microcosm in reverse: Brownian motion enacted by full-size people.

And into this benevolent force field we visitors are drawn, welcomed from all over the world. One man tells of a love affair gone wrong. Another shares his experience of vertigo with a colleague who discovers something vital about his own condition. I had a piercing exchange about fathers with a man I will never see again, so that its contents remain sharp and intense in that isolated moment but have unfolded with new meaning in my memory ever since.

I imagine that Sehgal has asked his volunteers to talk of life-changing moments, of feelings of belonging or its opposite, but each story is altered by the mutual dialogue. Whether you do or don't talk back is up to you; indeed you might reverse the exchange. I still wish I had talked to the woman in red, or had longer with the American in the black and white stripes. They move away – they have to because time passes, after all, and the museum will eventually close. But there is an immense freedom in Sehgal's orchestration, given how hard it might be for some of the volunteers to speak of their lives to total strangers and how wary those strangers may be. They don't approach the reluctant or defensive, as it seemed to me, but I have no idea how it works precisely because these figures manage to appear and disappear out of the blue.

But how could one not be interested? It is almost a test of human solidarity.To call the experience Sehgal has set in motion life-affirming would be no more than platitude. This is a profound work and at the same time riveting; a new form of art somewhere between theatre, performance art, dance and memoir and yet based on an immense gathering of humanity that includes all of us as live participants. Life art, I suppose.

If you are able to visit Tate Modern during These Associations, give them as much time as you possibly can. The cycle lasts for an hour or so, and you could easily stay all day. Attention is what it is all about, this precious thing we scarcely give one another and which is both the substance and the object of Sehgal's work. We often speak of art as life-changing; this event truly has that potential in all its fullness and humanity. One learns about other people, and one learns about oneself. I shall never forget it.


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Another London: International Photographers Capture City Life 1930-80 – review

Tate Britain, London

Another London is a show of black-and-white photographs of the host city that can only have been conceived with Olympic visitors in mind. This is a tourist guide to London at its most familiar and nostalgic. It is Big Ben and the Tower of London, bobbies and red buses, pearly kings, cockney sparrows, roll out the barrel and change the guard, all viewed through a haze of smog so unvarying that it makes even the work of such disparate artists as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt look speciously similar.

The photographs all come from the collection of Cartier-Bresson's brother-in-law, Eric Franck, who has given more than a thousand pictures to Tate, doubling its holdings. Some of these are classics, including Irving Penn's turbaned cleaning ladies with their battered buckets and their shining resolve, and Lartigue's portrait of his wife, Bibi, walking towards the camera as the street shears away behind her looking remarkably like 19th-century Paris.

Other images are by less well-known names, such as the Viennese photographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who clambered up the dome of St Paul's to photograph the bombed-out streets, or Leonard Freed who memorialised the Hassidic communities of north London in the 70s. But all the works are by international photographers, looking in from the outside, which may be why so many of these scenes turn out to be proverbial: tea at a Lyons Corner House, City gents in bowler hats, street urchins playing in the East End terraces and that most unchanging of events, the changing of the guard.

Sometimes, the image has a distinctive sensibility, especially among the photographers of central and eastern Europe with their dramatic tonal contrasts and their fragmented compositions. Suschitzky took a bewildering photograph of figures on a merry-go-round hurtling into white space that fills one with excitable dread.

But one senses that some of these photographers had arrived in search of the Blitz spirit, the class system and the stiff upper lip and couldn't resist the sight of a cockle-seller or a schoolboy in a top hat. They photographed the general more than the particular: the fishmongers at Billingsgate, the Norland nannies forging across Hyde Park with their Silver Cross prams, the working-class orators of Speakers' Corner, preferably with a British bulldog in sight.

Black-and-white photography, of course, has the look of documentary truth; the historic record. It is apt to depict the present as if it were already the past. But even so, there are startling anachronisms here. Victorian Londoners as late as the 1920s and Eliza Doolittle, as it seems, still selling flowers in her long black clothes in the 1930s.

For me, the most remarkable photograph in this show is by Robert Frank: a sharp perspective of a London terrace in dank gloom, a motionless street cleaner framed in the window of a waiting hearse. A child darts past, her little body captured in midair, as if running away from death, or perhaps from this dark and narrow life.

It is never a sunny day in these photographs. Nor does London look like the immense and scattered metropolis it is. This is partly to do with the fact that some of these photographers were on assignment photographing the coronation of George VI, or VE Day, or the wedding of Princess Anne. Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square appear over and over again.

But perhaps London was not an easy subject for foreigners during these decades: visibility was frequently poor in the fog and smog, the geography was too diffuse, maybe the society was too hard to crack. Bill Brandt stands before a Bethnal Green doorstep to take his photograph, Eve Arnold manages to get in among the drying stockings of a steamy shared bathroom. But there is scarcely an interior shot anywhere in this exhibition.

And in the end, colour takes over in a Cultural Olympiad kind of way – the colours of a mixed-race, multi-cultural, international, all-welcoming London. This is as much a cliche of 20th-century photography of the capital as the Queen Mother visiting East End housewives during the Blitz. Individual images may be strong – it could hardly be otherwise given the calibre of the artists – but in general this is a safe and conservative show. Another London it certainly isn't.


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Olympic opening ceremony: Ai Weiwei's review

The leading Chinese artist who withdrew from Beijing's opening ceremony explains why London's was very different

Brilliant. It was very, very well done. This was about Great Britain; it didn't pretend it was trying to have global appeal. Because Great Britain has self-confidence, it doesn't need a monumental Olympics. But for China that was the only imaginable kind of international event. Beijing's Olympics were very grand – they were trying to throw a party for the world, but the hosts didn't enjoy it. The government didn't care about people's feelings because it was trying to create an image.

In London, they really turned the ceremony into a party – they are proud of themselves and respect where they come from, from the industrial revolution to now. I never saw an event before that had such a density of information about events and stories and literature and music; about folktales and movies.

At the beginning it dealt with historical events – about the land and machinery and women's rights – epically and poetically. The director really did a superb job in moving between those periods of history and today, and between reality and the movies. The section on the welfare state showed an achievement to be truly proud of. It clearly told you what the nation is about: children, nurses and a dream. A nation that has no music and no fairytales is a tragedy.

There were historical elements in the Beijing opening ceremony, but the difference is that this was about individuals and humanity and true feelings; their passion, their hope, their struggle. That came through in their confidence and joy. It's really about a civil society. Ours only reflected the party's nationalism. It wasn't a natural reflection of China.

Few of the people were performers. They were ordinary people who contribute to society – and if there is a celebration, then it should be for everyone from the Queen to a nurse. I feel happy that they can all have their moment to tell their story.

It was about real people and real events and showed the independent mind of the director, but at the same time it had so much humour. There was a strong sense of the British character.

The Chinese ceremony had so much less information and it wasn't even real. It wasn't only about the little girl who was miming – which was an injury to her and the girl whose voice was used – but that symbolically showed the nation's future. You can't trust or rely on individuals or the state's efforts.

In London there were more close-ups – it didn't show the big formations. It had the human touch. In Zhang Yimou's opening ceremony there was almost none of that. You could not push into a person's face and see the human experience. What I liked most with this was that it always came back to very personal details. And that's what makes it a nation you can trust; you see the values there. Anyone who watched it would have a clear understanding of what England is.


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July 23 2012

Tino Sehgal – review

The Berlin-based artist has created one of the best Turbine Hall commissions in which the viewer becomes the subject in a relationship that explores intimacy, communality and the self

As the crowd moves forward, emerging slowly from the darkness at the rear of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, I stand my ground. They are about 70-strong. As they surge around me, one young woman stops and, standing very close, begins to tell me about a childhood incident and how it has affected her view of life. The crowd leaves us behind. Should I turn and walk with her? She seems so intent.

Another woman tells me about a lost love. Someone else, about how a book changed his life. The stories mostly concern private rites of passage and life-changing events and relationships. Things could get embarrassing, with all these confessions and revelations. These people act as if they know me. Suddenly we're plunged into a relationship. Then they're off again.

These intimate, personal stories, lost words, unasked-for intimacies, heel-to-toe slow shuffles and wild runs up and down the ramp are all part of These Associations, which, their participants tell you, is a piece by Tino Sehgal, dated 2012. I have seen many of his works, from the gallery attendants who burst into song, singing "This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary" in the German Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale, to This Variation, in the current Documenta in Kassel, which involves song, dance and mini-lectures to an audience who stumble about in a darkened room.

These Associations is no less complex, affecting and disconcerting. At one point the walk speeds up and I am running to keep up with the story I am being told. Then the crowd whirls like a hive of maddened bees. Now they all seem to be chasing an invisible rabbit. The light keeps changing along with the atmosphere and the performers' routines. At one point the performers loiter and sit, whisper and hiss and sing, coming together as a choir, their words soaring towards the roof. The words themselves – something about the technological age and nature, nature, nature, human nature – get lost in the echoing space.

Within an hour, on the first day, visitors are already joining in. Children run with the pack of performers and snake through Sehgal's milling throng. Soon, I am sure, visitors will be mingling with performers and tell their own stories. We're all participants now. A bystander said: "This is Tino's opera." We're on stage too.

I could barely drag myself away to write this, and I cannot wait to get back. These Associations is a great antidote to the ever more spectacular, large commissions the Unilever Project has produced. It is also a rejoinder to all the brouhaha and corporate fascism and jingoism of the Olympics.

These Associations is one of the best Turbine Hall commissions. There are no objects: we are the subject. It is about communality and intimacy, the self as social being, the group and the individual, belonging and separation. We're in the middle of things. It is marvellous.

Rating: 5/5


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July 21 2012

Timon of Athens; Peace Camp; The Only True History of Lizzie Finn – review

Olivier, London; Cuckmere Haven, Sussex, and other venues; Southwark Playhouse, London

Suddenly Timon of Athens looks essential. Nicholas Hytner's aggressively witty production, which transforms Athens into a city, the City,

of HSBC and helicopters, shows Shakespeare looking into the heart of finance and of debt. Simon Russell Beale makes the central character more coherent than ever before, and more vital, more important, more all-encompassing – part Thersites, part corporation smoothie, part Lear. The evening is a marvel.

This is a play that is rarely performed and hardly ever praised. It's not a mystery that this should be so. An argument rages about how much was written by Middleton. The drama seesaws violently: at one point Timon, snugly surrounded by fawners and flatterers, is beaming away as he puts his hand into his pocket for anyone. At the next, having discovered he is broke, and that his erstwhile "friends" will not help him, he has turned into a raging misanthropic hermit. He has been accused of having no inner life.

Objections now meet their match. Russell Beale, the most intimate and complicated of actors, absolutely melds the two parts of the play. He starts off plummy, slightly bouncing on his well-heeled shoes; he ends up wizened, stooped, the mellifluousness of his voice strained, with a woolly hat and a supermarket trolley full of his "goods". Yet he always suggests, at his smuggest or most excoriating, that he has an internal commentary going on that makes him slightly sceptical of his current mode: when he turns on his former life – "who had the world as my confectionary" – it seems not arbitrary but inevitable. Meanwhile the elasticity of his verse speaking – whole paragraphs of cursing on a single breath – sweeps his character along.

The ability of Hytner's production to press on the present is extreme, and greatly helped by Tim Hatley's design: the play opens in the new Timon wing of the National Gallery – instantly recognisable by the typography – and closes in a cardboard citizens world. There are deft and welcome transpositions of parts from male to female: let's hope this is the beginning of a trail of such roles for the beautifully wary but candid Deborah Findlay. Nick Sampson transforms himself into the essence of sycophancy, his back bent into an "S". Tom Robertson puts in a full-on funny trustafarian turn. Hilton McRae becomes the Fool to Timon's Lear and weariness personified: he announces "Here comes mankind" as if the mere thought quenches his breath. Meanwhile the banquet to which Timon summons his former flatterers to reject them with anti-food is not subtly but suitably remade: Shakespeare specifies water and stones; Hytner gives them piss and poo. Right for our times.

It's 14 years since Deborah Warner introduced angels to Euston in her Tower Project. In Peace Camp she has set out to create "a halo" around the country. For those (such as me) who are allergic to haloes, she has pulled off something better: she's made a work of the imagination that from a distance suggests that a new aurora borealis has dropped to earth.

Produced by Artichoke, the inspired two-woman team who give theatre a gloriously free-wheeling aspect, Peace Camp was co-commissioned by the London 2012 festival and City of Culture 2013 and developed by Warner in collaboration with Fiona Shaw and composer Mel Mercier. From last Thursday to today, camps have been set up in eight places along the British coast, from Godrevy in Cornwall to Valtos on the Isle of Lewis.

Every approach is different and the way you get there is part of the point. The appearance of the camp constantly changes. Faraway at dusk in Sussex it looked like an orange grin painted on the hills. Sometimes it seemed to float. Later, during a half-hour walk through red mud, with the stars covered by clouds, it vanished altogether, then bobbed up as a faint light. Only close up, yards away, did the smear of colour separate and spring into focus as an encampment with orange and white tents like hives, or opened umbrellas, lit from within, sending out a murmur of human and other noises. And it's only when you're next to the tents that you hear the words rising out of them. Love poems, recorded by Eileen Atkins, Bill Paterson and that handy crew, "members of the public". There is a Welsh folk song and Donne's The Good-Morrow, and Stevie Smith's elegant and unexpected verse ("Do other enchanted people feel as nervous/ As I do?") about what it's like being the Frog Prince. Accompanied by fog horns and pipes the poems are the same in all the tents. Still, everyone – silhouettes milling silently – pauses in front of one or another tent as if it might have a different tale. It never does; unison is what's at stake here. Pause is what Peace Camp memorably makes you do.

Spurred on by Kate Kellaway's review and by two consecutive evenings of encomia from friends, I spent a night off in the theatre. I hadn't meant to write about sparky Southwark Playhouse but must. It's so exhilarating to look into the face (a female one) of the future.

I had expected Sebastian Barry's play to be luscious and it is: the news about The Only True History of Lizzie Finn is the director, Blanche McIntyre. The concentration of what she's created, with a lovely lead performance from Shereen Martin, is exceptional: frisky but unfussy. One idea alone, beautifully realised in James Perkins's design, shows her imagination. The set remains the same: scene changes and mood shifts are managed by different forms of light. Nightlights float on water, flame comes up from the stage floor and, to mark a move from exterior to interior, a lamp is quietly placed among the actors. All the action is lambent. Blanche McIntyre will soon be working in a bigger (not necessarily better) theatre. One day she will have a theatre of her own.


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Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 – review

Royal Opera House/National Gallery, London

The National Gallery and the Royal Ballet are collaborating in an uncommon and marvellous way with Metamorphosis: Titian 2012. Leading artists (Mark Wallinger, Conrad Shawcross, Chris Ofili) and more than a dozen of our finest poets (including Seamus Heaney, Christopher Reid and Simon Armitage), along with seven choreographers (Kim Brandstrup, Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and others), not to leave out three composers (Mark-Anthony Turnage, Nico Muhly and Jonathan Dove), have been commissioned to produce Titian-inspired work and, specifically, pieces relating to paintings of Diana and Actaeon.

The National Gallery's exhibition is a stimulating homage. The tricky thing is to resist judging the differing responses as rivals – the show is not a compeTitian. And actually there should be no contest, because Titian's three great paintings hold supreme sway and define Diana. In Diana and Callisto (1556-59) she's a figure of voluptuous ruthlessness, her pointed finger like a lightning conductor. In Diana and Actaeon (1556-59) her flesh looks soft but her look is as hard as the pearls she wears. In The Death of Actaeon (1559-75) she is a murderous force of nature. The paintings have spurred on splendid poetry but are less obvious as a basis for ballet – Diana and her comely entourage could not look less like ballerinas.

Yet at the Royal Opera House, as the curtain goes up on Conrad Shawcross's predatory, grey metal sculpture of Diana – like a praying mantis dominating the stage – it seems not only bold but prudent to have travelled such a distance from Titian. I love Shawcross's crazy, imaginative presumption in Machina. He has translated Diana's mettle to metal and her imperious finger into a robotic proboscis – at the tip of which a light burns like a cigarette in the dark. His Diana is pure intent, as she revolves and evolves to become part of the dance.

Kim Brandstrup and Wayne McGregor's choreography is at once miraculously sensual and, intermittently, mechanical. Carlos Acosta is at his sensational best, conveying ecstasy and sorrow, dancing with a galvanising Edward Watson against a background of fog, and alone with the machine as it turns against him. Nico Muhly's music is a beautiful mixture of trance and foreboding.

In Trespass, the second of three dances, Mark Wallinger's mirrored core of a set makes Alastair Marriott and Christopher Wheeldon's choreography seem busier. The inventive dancing complements Mark-Anthony Turnage's agile, driven, percussive score. And there is some virtuoso human sculpture, making it appear easy to be a figurehead standing on another dancer as prow. The fabulous costumes look as if sequined stars have been stitched into flesh. Trespass is intriguing, but I failed to see the piece as voyeuristic, as apparently intended.

Might too many choreographers spoil Diana's aim? Diana and Actaeon, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, Will Tuckett and Jonathan Watkins, is the most narrative-dependent of the dances. After Actaeon sees Diana naked, in a fury she turns him into a stag and his hounds kill him. Chris Ofili sets Ovid's story in a tropical paradise with a decorative 60s feel. A false move, because it shifts visceral tragedy into fey inconsequence. Similarly, although the hounds are wittily choreographed, they have a pantomime feel. And while Jonathan Dove's incantatory music is beautifully sung, it is impossible to hear the libretto. Still, the principals are again impeccable. Federico Bonelli's dashing, purple-suited Actaeon has a matador's grace. Marianela Nuñez's terrific Diana has jittery orange feet, red hair, golden breasts and neurotic energy. She resembles a flame thrower, her body the flame. And after Actaeon's annihilation, she shows what it means to dance on someone's grave.


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The Tanks: Art in Action – review

Tate Modern, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Up and Down Peachtree: Photographs of Atlanta by Martin Parr – review

Martin Parr has long walked a fine line between sympathetic portraits of everyday life and voyeurism. Now he trains his English eye on main-street America

At home and abroad, Martin Parr is one of Britain's most famous photographers. He has chronicled our everyday life since the 1970s, turning his relentlessly curious eye on the eccentricities and vulgarities of every class and every corner of Britain.

When his first book of colour photographs, The Last Resort, was published in 1986, his detractors accused him of exaggeration and patronisation, claiming that he portrayed the New Brighton seaside town as a kind of working-class hell of junk food, ugly people and litter-strewn streets, made all the more nightmarish by Parr's use of close-up and garish colours. Time changes everything and, today, The Last Resort is considered an important document, unflinching in its gaze and heightened in its atmosphere, but neither cynical nor exploitative.

Parr's vision has deepened and widened since 1986, while somehow staying essentially the same. His signature is as recognisable as any in the contemporary art world and his energy – for collecting photographs, photo books and photographic ephemera, as well as for curating festivals and championing the form – seems at times superhuman. In Europe, he is viewed with a mixture of fascination and admiration, as a kind of archetypal Englishman, despite the fact that his Englishness is of the wilfully old-fashioned socks-with-sandals variety. At home, he continues to divide opinion like few other photographers.

Having recently turned his relentlessly curious eye on globalisation (he photographed the vast Beijing car show for the Observer in 2008), Parr now gives us his photographic portrait of Atlanta, Georgia, "the symbolic capital of the American south". Up and Down Peachtree (the title refers to the city's main thoroughfare, Peachtree Street) is an intriguing book, not least because, apart from the odd up close and garish image – mustard- and ketchup-splashed hotdogs on a red plastic plate, a cross-section of a layered, multicoloured cake, grease-stained mouths devouring greasy snacks – it is somewhat restrained in its depiction of everyday American excess. There are several pictures here that are intimate but not intrusive, many of them depicting people deep in quiet or animated conversation at religious or social gatherings. Here and there, Parr nods to the master of the American quotidian sublime, William Eggleston: the open boot and chrome tailfins of a rusting vintage car; the mundane Sunday school noticeboard – "Attendance last Sunday 9".

Several images suggest the various conflicting narratives of American political life as they are played out in a major city: a smiling, middle-aged woman holds a placard that reads "I Heart My Gay Sons", while on the opposite page a man holds a banner protesting against gay marriage – "I now pronounce you pervert and pervert".

Parr photographs in churches, bars, supermarkets and fast-food joints, but it is on the streets that the myriad small dramas he captures seem most alive, even when their meaning remains elusive. Sometimes, the people in these public vignettes seem like actors in a strange, dreamlike drama: a trio of stationary women caught at a bus stop or at a traffic light might be listening to a funeral service, so stern and contemplative are their expressions.

For all that, the Atlanta depicted here is still a version of Parrworld, that now-familiar place that may still put off as many viewers as it intrigues.


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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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June 25 2012

Edvard Munch: a head for horror

From corpses on the highway to his sister on her deathbed, Edvard Munch was a master of the morbid. At a new Tate retrospective, Adrian Searle even finds his wallpaper terrifying

Hurrying away from the body in the road, the button-eyed murderer looks surprised by how easy it all was. He is heading our way, his eyes fixed on something only he can see. The painting is as quick and careless as the crime itself. Look too long at any bit of this painting, and it quickly falls apart. But this is also what is so good about Edvard Munch's 1919 Murder on the Road. There's not much expression there, the violence already forgotten. It is the record of a man in a rush to be elsewhere. You'd have trouble describing the murderer, except for those eyes – which are in any case just a couple of dots poked into an empty face the colour of the road. He's a sketchy kind of guy.

The whole thing has a penny-dreadful tabloid feel, and Munch might have based it on a grisly story in a Norwegian newspaper. After the mass slaughter of the first world war, and the pandemic of Spanish influenza (which Munch caught, and survived, the same year he painted this), what's one more stupid little killing on a quiet country road?

Munch liked a good murder. A man dies on a couch, blood drooling on to the furniture. His female killer stands across the room against awful green wallpaper, her face a mad scary-movie shriek. The pattern in the wallpaper swarms and roars. You want to get out of there, to be as far away as that hurrying killer on the road. And yet you stay. It is all too horribly compelling.

Munch painted other scenes from this same room: of jealousy and seduction, of silence and something awful about to happen. Each is like a scene from the same grim play, and he would then paint the same sad scene over and over. Six paintings, a bronze sculpture, various drawings, lithographs and photographs all depict a naked woman standing and weeping beside a bed, her head lowered. In each painting, her head is a distraught mess of pigment. I thought of Pierre Bonnard and of Edward Hopper: both succeeded here at what Munch tries and tries and fails to do. Munch's weeping woman is a kind of no one: it is not even clear that she is weeping. Bonnard and Hopper leave you with a sense of an individual in a space.

Even the paintings that are misconceived or a mess are fascinating records of a struggle. To be between greatness and inarticulacy, and to not care either way, takes a perverse sort of courage. At times Munch's paintings show great daring; at others, they become incoherent. Munch was extremely good at doing nasty. You could say he savoured it, and so do we: all those vampires and ruined relationships, horror, illness and death. His appetite for the sanguine is shared by most of us who watch thrillers and crime dramas and read murder stories. How Scandinavian of him, as Björk might sing.

Munch didn't just paint nasty things: it got into the way he painted too, even – perhaps especially – when he painted himself. Unsparing, Munch portrayed himself sick with the Spanish flu, drunk and with the bottles rearing up at him, ill and old and alone, sunken-faced, maundering around a darkened house. He turned himself into a character: melancholy Munch, a man beset by miseries, alcoholism, his own fame and fortune, his conspicuously wayward talent and his endless personal troubles – even though he was once a handsome man (not that the best of looks protect anyone from self-hatred).

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye tries to make us see Munch as modern in several ways: his repetition and serial repainting, his interest in photography and film, his use of theatrical lighting. He was aware of the opportunities and limits afforded by these different media. We always cast the art of the past in the ways that suit us: there is always new research, and new ways of looking. As it is, legions of artists have taken from him in one way or another. Andy Warhol reworked Munch in electric colour. Jasper Johns has quoted him. Martin Kippenberger, Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, René Daniëls, Tracey Emin and a host of belated neo-expressionists have sucked his blood. Johns made several beautiful paintings in homage to Munch's late self-portrait Self Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed. Mostly, this consists of stylistic borrowings of his touch and the spatial organisation of his paintings, but it is also (in Doig's case, in particular) a matter of adopting an atmosphere.

These reanimations keep Munch alive for us. He also, endlessly, quoted himself. This was more than just feeding his market – though for a long time he did just that, repainting Puberty four times, The Kiss 11 times, the Sick Child (a painting purportedly of his sister dying of tuberculosis), six times. Which is the authentic Sick Child, or the real Scream? Was this catharsis or copying? Something of both. If there is also a sense of regurgitation, well, there was an element of disgust in much of what he did. What is not modern about Munch is his bohemian misanthropy. Maybe it is his conspicuous misery that feels old-fashioned – though he had much to be miserable about: the premature deaths of his mother and siblings, his failed love affairs and fights (he was shot in the hand), his breakdowns and drinking, his eye problems. Apart from anything else, this misery has no humour in it.

The exhibition makes much of Munch's photography, though he took far fewer photographs than his contemporaries Bonnard or Edouard Vuillard, and used photography much more indirectly than, say, Degas, in the service of his art. These photographs are dim, grey, often uncertain things. A great effort is expended in interpreting their cropped figures, double-exposures and vague terrains. There is a terrific emptiness about the yard beside the house where his mother died, and a lot of self-aggrandising in his self-portraits; he took pictures of himself, sometimes naked, adopting theatrical poses of one sort or another. Their relationship to his art, in any practical sense, is extremely limited, though they obviously held some kind of meaning for him.

The bits of film footage Munch shot are even less convincing. He looms and crouches before the camera, as though uncertain about why he is there or what he should do. The footage is a jumble of street scenes in Germany and Norway, footage of his aunt and sister and his friends, strangers on the street. "In the five minutes and 17 seconds that have survived, we can see his fascination with urban life," the catalogue tells us. Maybe he was just mucking about with a new toy.

What really counts here are the paintings, with their swooning fluidity and their weirdness, their interrupted rhythms, their intimacies and drama. Perhaps what Munch was best at was painting emptiness and waiting, things impending. He may be best known for the Scream, which isn't in the show, but it is not his best painting, and gets in the way of the totality of his achievement.

How modern was Munch? At dusk one evening last week, a man in the street threatened to stab me in the heart. "You're not a man," he said, searching for an insult and looking for a fight. "You're a woman." Hoping he might lose interest, my lover and I turned away and kissed, our faces mashing. After a bit the man wandered off, looking for more suitable victims. He was a sketchy kind of guy. It was a Munch-ish sort of moment.


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