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February 03 2012

David Hockney auction to sell 150 artworks

Hockney On Paper sale at Christie's to include etchings inspired by Hogarth, 1954 lithograph and work from his time in America

The past few years have seen David Hockney experimenting with iPads and iPhones, but an auction at Christie's in London will focus on work made with the most basic of art materials. Hockney on Paper will see almost 150 works go under the hammer, from the artist's 1954 lithograph of a fish and chip shop owned by friends of his parents in Bradford, to photomontages of the 1980s.

The sale, on 17 February, will feature numerous works from the artist's years in America, including a set of 16 etchings based on Hogarth's The Rake's Progress and others inspired by the young Hockney's experiences in New York. The etchings are expected to sell for between £150,000 and £200,000, with the whole auction estimated at £1m. On Monday Hockney visited the Royal College of Art in London (RCA), where he graduated 50 years ago, as part of its 175th anniversary celebrations. He told the Guardian: "Drawing and painting was the centre of the old college and I don't know whether it is now, but I always think the phrase 'back to the drawing board' tells you something, doesn't it? Drawing – it's still there. Nothing's altered in that way."

The auction will feature the 1962 sketch The Diploma, which Hockney drew in protest when the RCA said it would not let him graduate. He had refused to write the essay required for the final examination, stating that he should be assessed solely on his artworks. Recognising his talent and growing reputation, the RCA changed its regulations and awarded the diploma.

Hockney's current show at London's Royal Academy has received huge public acclaim, with all advance tickets sold out, though some critics have been less enthusiastic. Hockney said he had watched the reaction unfold on Twitter, although he did not tweet himself.

He said: "The show is actually one enormous piece, and people who don't get that pick out bits and little points – not very smart, really. Especially for a landscape show, if people are queueing for it, it tells you something. We're very, very pleased with the response – and I'm not complaining about the press. Of course not. It doesn't matter what they say either."


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January 24 2012

Robot cleaners and the Museum of Me: Intel's vision of the future

Intel's best-known project might be gimmicky, but its new collaboration with the Royal College of Art is full of daring

Over the last decade or so, the burgeoning culture industry has spawned museums at such a rate that it seems no small town or minor artist will be left unrepresented. Now, social media has taken that logic to its absurd conclusion: it is not just minor artists who will get their own museum, we all will. Or so the creators of the Museum of Me would have us believe. Launched last year, and last week named the FWA (Favourite Website awards) site of the year, the Museum of Me turns your Facebook profile into a virtual exhibition. It sounds cheesy (and it is), but the fact that it already has more than 850,000 "likes" confirms that you can't underestimate the public's self-obsession.

The site, designed by Japanese agency Projector, takes the 19th-century concept of the museum as edifying repository and turns it into a characteristically 21st-century memorial to the self. Entering this generically deconstructivist building, what you get is a fly-through animation of a series of galleries, with pictures of you and your friends on the walls. There is a random selection of status updates jumbled on screens, and then a final sequence that implies, erroneously, that you are merely a composite of your social network. A soaring soundtrack turns the sentimentality dial to max. The experience is a cross between a photo album, a phonebook and a funeral. Not until the very end do you realise that it was all just an ad: "Intel Core i5. Visibly Smart".

The Museum of Me is a deft piece of marketing by microchip maker Intel. Given the opportunity to see how your life looks splashed on a museum's walls, you'd have to be the uncurious type not to have a peek. You can see why it went viral. But Intel doesn't sell directly to consumers, so what does it get out of this? Brand awareness, clearly, but also an opportunity to demonstrate that it is the purveyor of new experiences. And that's where it gets interesting: the Museum of Me may be a disposable gimmick, but Intel spends a good deal of time imagining what the future of our everyday experiences will look like. It has to. Making a microchip takes between three and seven years. Chips can't be designed to run gadgets we already own, or to satisfy observable consumer behaviour: they have to be designed for a market that doesn't yet exist.

"Our job is to think five years ahead, or beyond," says Wendy March, senior designer at Intel's department of interaction and experience research. "Technology changes so rapidly, and what's next on the horizon is sometimes closer than you think." As a result, Intel sponsors some of the most speculative research in design today. Working with design schools across the world, it sets students the task of dreaming up future scenarios – no matter how implausible they might seem.

One school the company has a longstanding relationship with is London's Royal College of Art. In recent years it has sponsored research by Intel's interaction design department into such topics as the future of money and the use of robots in the domestic environment. In a cashless society, what rituals would we devise to make money tangible? How would we communicate with our robots? One student envisaged a "swab-bot" that roams the house doing hygiene tests and leaving you notes about your unsatisfactory cleanliness. "It's not about, 'Here's an idea, let's make that.' It's more about expanding our thinking," says March.

The RCA group's current research is into the future of social computing. This isn't just about social media and our insatiable appetite for sharing our personal lives. Social computing also allows asthma sufferers, for instance, to share information about air quality and their medication use, revealing patterns that will help improve their future treatment. "We're accumulating more and more data – but what do we do with it?" says March. "How do we stop it going into the digital equivalent of the cupboard under the stairs?"

Students at the RCA are finding various uses for it. One has designed an app that plays a soundtrack related to the crime figures for different areas of London, giving you an atmospheric sense of how safe you are, statistically, as you walk through the city. Another has documented all the posters at the Occupy site so that they can be shared digitally when they disappear (the British Library is interested in making it part of its collection). Other ideas are more speculative: for instance, turning social housing blocks into human supercomputers or hive minds, gathering the so-called wisdom of crowds.

This kind of research is not about plugging a gap in the market, but about enabling students to think beyond the narrowness of tech products. "It's useful because it shows the students there is another way of working with industry that's not about products," says Tony Dunne, the RCA's professor of design interactions. "Instead they can be involved upstream, even challenging a company's own ideas, using story-telling, speculation and social observation." With a company like Intel this is particularly interesting: as computing becomes ubiquitous, microprocessors are not just for gadgets but are increasingly woven into the fabric of everyday life. As William Gibson put it a decade ago, "I very much doubt that our grandchildren will understand the distinction between that which is a computer and that which isn't."


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November 26 2011

Annual RCA secret postcard sale draws Emin, Perry and Ono

Almost 3,000 artworks were donated by artists and designers whose identities were hidden until £45 purchase price was paid

Art lovers discovered whether they had bagged a mini-masterpiece by the likes of Tracey Emin, Yoko Ono or Anish Kapoor on Saturday when they took their chances on the almost 3,000 secret postcards on sale for just £45.

Wallace and Gromit film-maker Nick Park and fashion designer Sir Paul Smith also contributed to the fundraiser, organised by the Royal College of Art.

More than 1,000 invited artists – including up-and-coming students and graduates – donated 2,900 works to the 18th RCA Secret event, held at the college in Kensington, west London.

Among the postcards on offer were four pencil drawings of a woman lying on a bed by Emin and two from Park featuring a beaver driving a tractor and a happy squirrel.

But unlike traditional sales, the artist's identity remained a secret until the postcard was purchased and the buyer was able to read the signature on the back.

Also appearing in the collection were film-maker Mike Leigh's photo-collage of a gentleman with a pig and five colourful pen drawings by ceramicist Grayson Perry, including one of a tiger with the words "Most art is shit".

The postcards, some of which are potentially worth thousands of pounds, were offered on a first come, first served basis on Saturday after a week-long exhibition.

Organisers hope this year's event – the largest to date – will raise more than £130,000 for the college's fine art student award fund.

The collection's curator, Wilhelmina Bunn, said: "We are enormously grateful to all of the artists who have donated postcards this year, making it the biggest event we have ever staged.

"As future funding for art education is likely to be reduced, it's encouraging that established artists and designers are willing to help support a new generation of students."

The sale has raised more than £1m over the past 17 years.


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The Royal College of Art Secret Postcards 2011 – in pictures

Around 3,000 postcard sized artworks were created and donated by undisclosed artists and designers for the annual RCA Secret sale on 26 November. Now, some of the artists can be revealed …



October 28 2011

RCA Secret postcards – in pictures

This year's Royal College of Art fundraiser is now open. Each postcard costs £45, but collectors have no idea whose work it is until they buy it. Could you spot a Grayson Perry or a Tracey Emin from the lineup?



RCA Secret: postcard fundraiser has a more political edge

Many of the 2,500 contributions to this year's fundraising show offer a graphic response to current events

It is the usual mix of hard-up, unknown postgraduate students and established artists from a starry list that includes Tracey Emin, Yoko Ono, Anish Kapoor and Mike Leigh. But this year there is a distinct political edge to the RCA Secret postcard exhibition.

Who did what will not be known for a month when the charity fundraiser, which has established itself as one of the most interesting and fun events on the visual arts calendar, takes place to raise money for student bursaries at the Royal College of Art.

The curator Wilhelmina Bunn said the postcards were donated by professional artists, designers and illustrators as well as students on the RCA fine arts course. "It's going very well," she said. "At the moment we've got around 2,100 postcards, although I'm still taking calls from people saying: 'Honestly, I'm going to get it to you,' so we should have more than 2,500 by the time we open.

"It is a very tight turnaround and it means you don't know what the exhibition is going to look like until you're more or less putting it on the wall."

Each postcard is signed on the back so collectors have no idea whose work it is until they buy it.

All of them are new works and Bunn said she had noticed contributions becoming more overtly political. The portrayal of current events was more noticeably graphic, she said, and a fair number of this year's cards are a response to the August riots and the economy.

"We have got quite a lot of artists who do make political work but it has maybe been quite subtle, or more conceptual or humanist or spiritual, and then suddenly everybody goes: 'No, we're going to really talk about those things being reported.'"

This year there are names from art, fashion, design and film: contemporary artists include Grayson Perry, Olafur Eliasson, John Baldessari, Richard Wilson, Maggi Hambling and Christo; fashion is represented by Sir Paul Smith, Dries van Noten and Erdem; in design there are Sir James Dyson and Kenneth Grange; and film-makers include Mike Leigh and Nick Park.

This is Bunn's sixth year as curator and, as an RCA graduate herself, her 10th of putting in a postcard of her own. "I always feel very nervous because you're in such incredible company."

Bunn said most of the time contributors were not trying to trick people by emulating other artists. "Mostly people want to make their own work as you want to be able to stand by it. Although they are secret, the postcards are identifying you as an artist, they're a calling card of what you do and of course people will have the work in their home."

All the postcards will be available to see online as well as in person from 18 November but the event is still cheeringly old-fashioned in that you have to turn up on the day, Saturday 26 November this year, and it is a first-come-first-served queue, no sealed bids or reservations permitted.

Each card costs £45 and buyers are limited to four. Bunn said there were normally diehards who began camping three or four days before. "It is kind of crazy – in November. There are also some people who go to the pub on Friday night and end up queuing afterwards. And a lot of people come at say 5am and it is a really nice event because they're all into the same thing.

"We haven't heard of any marriages but people do meet and become RCA Secret friends and when they come back they have reunions."

The event, sponsored by Stewarts Law LLP, always involves a mammoth cashing up process with more than £90,000 raised last year for fine arts student bursaries.


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August 23 2011

RCA Black and the table that thinks it's a woman

The Royal College of Art is trying to reinvent itself as a beacon of diversity – with a show of work by its black students. Hannah Pool enters a world of wigs, furniture and whirlwinds

When Ekua McMorris received her letter of acceptance from the Royal College of Art in 2007, she was intimidated by the thought of attending such a pillar of the establishment. How, she wondered, was "someone like her" going to fit in? "I was brought up as a Rastafarian, which is anti-imperialism. And here I am, a single parent living in Hackney with no money, about to attend the Royal College of Art."

Fast forward to the present and McMorris, now a photographer, is the co-curator of RCA Black, an exhibition celebrating the work of African and African-Caribbean artists. "There have only been 85 black students at the RCA in the last five years," she says. "That's out of a body of over 800 per year. We wanted to showcase these hidden people." Each artist had to be either an RCA student or graduate, of African or African-Caribbean heritage, and producing work of a high standard. "It didn't have to be new work," says McMorris. "It just had to be good."

The term RCA Black refers to the artists rather than their subject matter: the work doesn't have to speak of race, skin colour or ethnicity. "It could just be work," says McMorris. "Not every black person is making work about blackness."

RCA Black is not just about celebrating hidden talent, though: it's also meant to send a message to any students who might think the RCA is a "whites only" place.

The exhibition, which includes work by 23 artists, features everything from fine art, photography and sculpture to product design, jewellery and metal work. Catherine Anyango, a Swedish-Kenyan artist and RCA tutor, is showing the original illustrations from her 2010 graphic novel version of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Written with David Zane Mairowitz, it was described as "extraordinarily beautiful" by Rachel Cooke in the Observer. "I don't have any other work to do with being black," says Anyango. "I grew up in Kenya, so I have a different perspective from people who grew up here."

On a lighter note, work by contemporary artist Harold Offeh is also included: Hairography, a photographic self-portrait, shows him in blond wig and red lipstick, whipping his hair about. And, as well as a painting by Chris Ofili, there will be two beautiful pieces of furniture by Simone Brewster: Negress Lounge and Mammy Table. Made from stained tulip wood, the pieces are a far cry from the sort of thing you would find in the average living room. "I wanted to ask: what if you have furniture inspired by the black female form?" says Brewster. "I looked at representations of the black female form in art, particularly Wilfredo Lam's The Murmur, which is a disturbing picture of a woman with lopsided breasts."

Brewster, the other co-curator, says of the show's concept: "We're not the same. But we are a group of individuals who have gone through similar experiences, gone through the same institute."

But is there such a thing as black art? Isn't it a rather reductive, limiting notion? "I tend to shy away from things that ask me to exhibit because I'm black and because I'm a woman," says Anyango. "I don't feel either is an achievement. But in the context of the RCA and the design world, they are both very white, so I understand the reasoning for this show."

The term "black art" is only reductive if you choose to see it as such, says McMorris. "Black art can be anything. It can be a landscape without any reference to colour or culture."

The curators agree the concept can be problematic, though. "We never refer to art as white art," says Brewster. "It is just art. Why would it need to be known as something else? I wouldn't imagine the processes I would go through would be any different if I were a white artist. Only my references would change."

Frank Bowling, whose painting The Abortion features in the show, is more direct. "There's no such thing as black art," says Bowling, who was the first black artist to be elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 2005. "Black faces don't make black art."

Asked what advice he has for aspiring black artists, Bowling, now in his 70s, says: "Go to the museums and make art that can measure up to the museums. Make art better than anything you've ever seen before."


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November 10 2010

Spot the artist!

Preview works from RCA Secret, a unique annual sale of original postcard-sized art by unidentified artists. Can you tell who did them?



July 13 2010

Bright ideas

A lamp that tackles aggression, a film about North Korea's lack of pizza: the Royal College of Art's graduation show shows young designers thinking creatively about global problems

July is showtime for thousands of design students across the nation: the month when they reveal the fruit of their experimental labours to the public. And for a glimpse of what preoccupies the designers of the future, there is nowhere better than the Royal College of Art's graduation show, which I caught last week just before it closed.

Graduates of the country's most famous design school have been known to launch entire careers from their student projects. Last year's star pupil even walked away with the UK's most prestigious design prize, the Design Museum's Brit Insurance Designs of the Year award, for an ingenious folding plug. And yet that plug was an anomaly. It would be wrong to think that RCA students spend two years of postgraduate study building up to the perfect, production-ready consumer object. That is not just an erroneous notion of what education is for; it's also an outdated concept of the role that design plays in the 21st century.

Take one of the most arresting objects in this year's exhibition: a standard lamp with a garrotte for a switch. To turn the light off, you have to strangle it for the same amount of time (about 20 seconds) that it takes to kill a person. After what seems like a morbidly slow and strenuous process, the bulb is snuffed. Named the Strangle Poise Lamp – a play on the iconic Anglepoise, designed by George Carwardine in 1932 – it is the young designer James Chambers's response to research suggesting that films and computer games are leading to a more aggressive society. Other so-called Red Goods, including the Twister Knife Block (as you twist the knife in, the block emits a groan), Chambers is proposing that we can enact our violent fantasies and channel some of our pent-up aggression.

Are these useful products? Do they work? I think such questions miss the point. Design objects don't just have to fulfil a servile function to be useful; they can be tools to help us look at ourselves and our society, to ask questions, to raise ethical dilemmas. This is the kind of thing that the RCA's Design Interactions department specialises in. An off-shoot of the computer and software design industry, interaction design isn't so much about designing objects, it's more about designing our relationships with them. And it consistently produces some of the most thought-provoking work in design today. Students at the RCA collaborate with synthetic biologists, geneticists, doctors and even economists to ask questions as varied as: can we grow our own meat in the laboratory? And what is the future of money? This year, one student has devised a series of tools to help us get over our fear of nuclear energy, while another has invented a telescopic video device with a virtual hand for you to stroke things that you fear – a kind of physical aversion therapy for those of us susceptible to the media-driven frenzy of virus epidemics, terrorism and climate catastrophe.

So was it all soul-searching and doom and gloom? Not at all. If you were in the mood for some good ol' products, there were plenty of those around. Two in particular stood out. Seongyong Lee's wooden stools are elegant and solid, but don't look special – until you pick one up and discover that it weighs almost nothing. With their hollow legs of wound maple veneer, they were a delightful testament to this young Korean's craft skills. And they had a metal counterpart in Harry Thaler's aluminium Pressed Chair, another ultra-light design that is both efficient and economical. You can transport them flat, like stacks of millimetre-thick starfish, and then simply fold them out into chairs. Unlike Gio Ponti's featherweight classic, the Superleggera, which even in 1957 looked nostalgic – it had a woven cane seat – these two designs feel very much of their time.

However, there was also polemic at every turn. Several students had created their own micro-factories. One offered a workshop for an itinerant cabinet maker, enabling whoever operated it to transform urban detritus into furniture. Another had created an elaborate series of Heath Robinson-style contraptions to allow people to make their own clay mugs with a mass-production finish. A third had created a full-size mockup of a home chicken farm: a small coop surrounded by products recycling every last scrap of the processed birds – egg cups made from chicken-bone china, a bomber jacket covered in chicken skin. Where once design students would have been training to work with industrial manufacturers, today they are using craft to explore a new take on industry, one that is self-sufficient and in which anyone can participate. It's a charming vision, tempting and apparently sustainable, but I wonder whether this techno-regression in a world of exponential population growth isn't also a little escapist.

But the work that left the biggest impression on me was not a product, it was a film entitled Pizzas for the People. Created by Hwang Kim, one of the RCA's many talented Korean students, it's a piece of political propaganda aimed at North Koreans. It takes the form of a four-part miniseries (with impressively high production values), in which a young North Korean couple show viewers how to do the kinds of ordinary things that young western couples do: dance to pop songs, pack a suitcase and, crucially, make pizza. That may sound patronising, but, after talking to Kim, I realised that there is only one pizza restaurant in North Korea, too expensive for all but a tiny handful of people. The series is full of similarly subversive cultural material designed to infiltrate the country's stifling isolationism. Even better, Kim paid Chinese smugglers to import hundreds of DVDs of the series into North Korea for sale on the black market.

As such projects demonstrate, young designers today are less interested in simply feeding the great maw of consumption. They aspire to bigger things culturally. They aim to hold up a mirror to society and, where possible, influence it. All very well in theory, I hear you say. Are these graduates going to get jobs? Well, surely that too is an old-fashioned way of understanding how designers operate today. Sure, there are jobs around, but not necessarily designing chairs and spoons. Design can take you in unpredictable directions these days. And – at least on the evidence of this show – there's a new, canny breed of graduates who know how to get funding, how to get their work seen and how to create a space in which they can operate.


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June 22 2010

Royal College of Art dismantles 'safety hazard' sculpture

German sculptor Pablo Wendel failed to carry out risk assessment before building makeshift staircase for degree show

A sculpture submitted by a final-year student at the Royal College of Art has been dismantled after falling victim to health and safety rules.

For his MA degree show, Pablo Wendel, 29, occupied a vacant fish and chip shop near the RCA, whose alumni include David Hockney, Bridget Riley and Tracey Emin.

Wendel wanted to lead visitors to the shop by cutting down part of the London college's fire escape, giving access to his own staircase made out of junk wood.

But the German sculptor failed to carry out a risk assessment before he built his installation. As a result, the college took apart his staircase and does not intend to allow visitors into the shop where he is displaying his work, which includes old tables and chairs from the school's furniture department.

Aine Duffy, the RCA's head of media relations, said: "Pablo Wendel intended to let people into the fish and chip shop but that can't happen now.

"It's not a safe structure and it can't be made safe in time to open to the public tomorrow. There are holes in the floor and concerns about the wiring.

"Yesterday morning we also removed a hastily erected wooden staircase that Pablo attached to the fire escape that leads from the college building. He was going to take down part of the fire escape with metal cutters to create access to his staircase … The show opens to the public tomorrow and the last thing we could do is endanger lives."

Wendel, whose tutor is the sculptor Richard Wentworth, told the Times he was saddened and shocked by the art school's actions, saying: "I can't understand destroying a piece of art."

Wendel, who has been described as a very promising artist by his tutor, is best known for dressing up as one of the Terracotta warriors four years ago and leaping into the heritage site in Xian, China, where the 2,200-year-old sculptures are displayed.

External examiners will look at Wendel's work in the derelict fish and chip shop and view the wreckage of the staircase this evening.


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November 13 2009

All will be revealed

Fancy bagging an Anish Kapoor or Yoko Ono for just £40? Take a look at the pocket-size artworks donated to this year's Secret Postcards sale



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