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August 16 2012

Unilever ends £4.4m sponsorship of Tate Modern's turbine hall

Search on for new sponsor while hall closes during construction of £250m extension at Bankside gallery

Unilever has ended its sponsorship of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall annual commission that has produced some of the London gallery's most memorable exhibitions.

Tino Sehgal's These Associations, the first live performance piece in the former Bankside power station, will be the final work in the Unilever-sponsored series, which has attracted almost 30 million visitors over the past dozen years.

The £4.4m sponsorship deal with Unilever, has led to 13 commissions, including Bruce Nauman's soundscapes, Olafur Eliasson's huge, yellow, artificial indoor sun The Weather Project in 2003-04, which saw visitors stretch out on the floor of the vast space to bask in its glow, and Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth in 2007, which featured a crack running the length of the hall. Some commissions have been aquired for the gallery's permanent collection, including the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds, although it bought only a tenth of the 100m porcelain seeds, all individually sculpted and painted by Chinese craft workers, shown in the 2010 exhibition.

The current show, in which participants stop and engage visitors with intimate, personal stories, closes on 28 October.

The Turbine Hall is due to temporarily close next year to enable construction of the gallery's Herzog & de Meuron-designed extension. The project, which is planned to cost £215m in total, is due for completion by 2016 – delayed from its previously projected opening of this year.

The first phase of the extension, the £90m performance art and video installation space called the Tanks, opened in July.

A spokeswoman for Tate said: "Due to the building works at Tate Modern, there will not be a Turbine Hall commission in 2013. We will start discussions with other companies about the sponsorship of the Turbine Hall commission from 2014 onwards.

Unilever, whose brands include Pot Noodle and PG Tips, will continue as a corporate member of Tate. But the company said it is planning a change of direction in its sponsorship programme, which is more focused on sustainability and the environment.

Other prominent Tate sponsors include Bloomberg, the business and financial news organisation, and, more controversially, the oil company BP. The Tate received £45.1m in public funding last year, and raised an additional £67.9m. Its 100,000 members contribute arbout £3m per year.


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Tate Modern's waste of space: why won't interactive art leave me alone?

Being interrogated by a psychic in Tate Modern's new underground art space, The Tanks, was not my idea of fun. Shouldn't art be a contemplative, personal experience?

I've just been interrogated by the Stasi in a concrete bunker somewhere beneath Berlin. I discovered that privacy means nothing. I recognised the pathetic, delusory nature of bourgeois freedom.

Then I went for a cup of coffee, assiduously avoiding being accosted by any lurking art enactors on my way through the Turbine Hall.

Oh look, I am just not the right audience for the live art programme in Tate Modern's new space The Tanks. When someone asks me questions as part of an interactive artwork, I feel as reluctant to engage as I do when a computer cold calls my home phone. Leave me alone! – was my barely restrained reaction as I sat being interviewed by a psychic in an austere subterranean concrete space as a participant in an artwork by Jon Fawcett.

Six psychics sit at plain wooden booths as part of Fawcett's contribution to the new Undercurrent series of live events at The Tanks. Psychics! It sounds on paper like an underground circus with smoke, crystal balls and tarot readings. But although my interviewer assured me she is a trained psychic, what she did was ask me a series of questions about my job and interests, how honest I am, my views on politics, economics and the nature of power. It was a questionnaire that started in the banal and tried to touch on larger themes. Then I was invited to give contact details to continue the "screening process".

It's probably a work that gets richer the more you put into it. If you get in the spirit, it might be fun. But why should I?

Sitting in a cubicle being interrogated, albeit politely, in the name of art confirmed my worst fears about The Tanks. What a fantastic art space! What a great gallery this would make for the Tate's Rothkos. But instead it is dedicated to live art, performance, installation and film works, with lots of interaction thrown in.

Art should be a contemplative, personal experience. It should leave us free to engage on our own terms. The idea that interaction is good for us is patronising and treats us as lazy-minded idiots who must be prodded like cattle in order to respond. Somehow, if I sit answering inane questions about politics from a psychic, that is supposed to be more active and real and meaningful than if I sat for an hour looking at a Rothko.

Can I go and see the abstract paintings now, please sir? I've done my interactions.

Undercurrent continues until 27 August, with artists or entities, including Orange Dot, W Project and Isys Archive, who have worked with Tate Young People's Programmes.


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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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July 26 2012

Tino Sehgal, participatory art and the Booker prize: a week in the arts

Who's on – and off – the Man Booker longlist, varying responses to Tino Sehgal's new Turbine Hall installation and the Twitter debate about who should be paid in participatory art

The Man Booker longlist – sans Tremain, Lanchester, Amis, McEwan, Pat Barker, Banville, and, most surprisingly, Smith, was announced. Gaby Wood on the Telegraph, who was a judge on the much-criticised prize last year, welcomed the fact that the longlist supports "ambition and experiment". Justine Jordan of this parish, though bewildered by the absence of Zadie Smith (and yes, she has read it) praised the list's "eccentricity and invention". (When pressed in person she suggested that if you're going to read one book on the list, aside from the one you already have – the Mantel – it should be Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil. I'm also hearing from early readers that the Will Self is very good.)

• The new Turbine Hall installation, These Associations by Tino Sehgal, opened. I wrote a report on the work, in which participants approach members of the public and tell them a story about themselves, and Adrian Searle gave it a really enthusiastic, five-star review. Jonathan Jones offered a view on the fact that there are no official photos allowed of Sehgal's work. Alastair Sooke in the Telegraph was less enthusiastic, saying: "There is still a whiff of artifice about their stories, which feel polished and rehearsed."

• There was an interesting piece by Claire Bishop on the Guardian's comment pages about the nature of participatory art, which fed into something that had kind of been bugging me regarding what Sehgal had been saying at the press conference about anarchy and crowds and suchlike: his work is, of course, highly organised and controlled in one sense, presenting a highly wrought structure for the human interactions to take place within. Bishop addressed this. Sehgal's pieces, she wrote, "like so much other participatory art under neoliberalism, serve a double agenda: offering a popular art of and for the people, while at the same time, reminding us that today we all experience a constant pressure to perform and, moreover, this is one in which we have no choice but to participate". I sort of agree with her; on the other hand, Sehgal's work is such an elegant rebuff to the idea of monumental sculpture and such a fascinating way of looking at crowds versus individuals (let's face it, the experience of Tate Modern is usually about the individual (oneself) trying to have a moment with another individual (an artist) despite the hordes, that I'm still inclined to like it.

• This leads me to another debate about participatory art: who should, or shouldn't be paid? The "interpreters" in the Sehgal piece are not professional performers but are taking part in the piece in their free time. They are working in strict four-hour shift patterns with breaks, and paid between £8 and £9 per hour – "a matter of respect", Jessica Morgan, the Tate curator said to me. I suspect it is also a matter of good fortune, since the Tate has its Unilever sponsorship to help pay for this to happen all day every day until the end of October. But, what if you are producing You Me Bum Bum Train? Here the performers are not being paid, as Laura Barnett reported, and Equity is not pleased. It's clear that the blurring of boundaries between the audience and the performers in such works hits a bit of a nerve; are the structures of traditional theatre, including the union, fitted to tackle this kind of experimental work? Marcus Romer, artistic director of Pilot Theatre, wrote a blog arguing that performers always ought to be paid. This came out of an interesting discussion on Twitter, in which that view was challenged by Andy Field, for whose Forest Fringe performers and theatre-makers have worked for free. A flavour of his tweets on Bum Bum: "They're not working, though are they? It's not a 3-month internship or three weeks of rehearsal. You do it in your spare time."; "And what about people that volunteer to work [with] Spencer Tunick? Or Nic Green? Or who run with the Olympic torch?"; "I'm suggesting there's a difference between the demands and expectations of an actor in a play and a performer in Bum Bum."

• It's almost a month now since the Simón Bolívar Orchestra of Venezuela mambo'd out of town. The debates it raises in Britain go on. A piece in Classical Music magazine was highly critical of the adulation that the Sistema receives on these shores. Marshall Marcus wrote a rejoinder on his blog. Perhaps the most penetrating piece, however, was by cellist and former Maestro judge Zoë Martlew. In several respects, she nails what's going on: she exposes the poor quality of many music-education projects in the UK and, despite her own clearly expressed scepticism at elements of Dudamania, she identifies what's good about the Sistema. "They didn't get there via PC education projects. They have achieved excellence by sheer hard work from a young age combined with an absolute love of the music they play instilled by a fully funded training system." She adds: "I find it supremely ironic that [the Simón Bolívar Orchestra], trained (in part) by volunteers from my own state-funded music generation, is now invited back here to light the classical music fire in the generation Thatcher lost."

What I'm reading

Elanor Dymott's debut novel Every Contact Leaves a Trace. It is very, very engrossing, a kind of fragmentary literary thriller set, in part, in Oxford. But it is much cleverer and more nuanced than that description suggests (the university setting is not just for colour, but becomes thematically active as the place where knowledge is sought and tested). Highly recommended as pacy holiday reading that's also deeply thoughtful and very smart.


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July 24 2012

Tino Sehgal's you-had-to-be-there moment

Live art thrives on mystery, so Sehgal made a smart move in banning press photographers from his latest installation

You had to be there. One day in 1971 a young artist called Chris Burden got a friend to shoot him in the arm. This famous moment of live art survives as a legend, a myth. It has something impossible about it. Yet it happened.

You had to be there again in 1972 when Vito Acconci concealed himself in a New York art gallery and masturbated, while his muttered fantasies about the gallery visitors were relayed on loudspeakers.

I have no idea why Tino Sehgal banned photographers from the press view of his live artwork in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall this week. But it's a smart move. Live art and performance art thrive on legend and hearsay. Their great moments always seem to have happened yesterday, when the perfect audience met the perfect provocation to produce a moment that can never be repeated.

You just had to be there.

As it happens, the two legendary performances I mention above are both documented by photography and even video. But the old 1970s pictures and videotapes are themselves enigmatic and tantalising. They create mystery instead of destroying it.

No doubt there will be filmed and photographed records of Sehgal's work too. But there's a huge difference between amateurish images, or artists' carefully contrived means of recording their work, and the glittering lights of the mass media. The TV and newspaper attention an event at the Turbine Hall is guaranteed to get is of the kind that can easily swamp any sense of mystery. So Sehgal is cunning to preserve the unknown.

Even the grand spectacle of the Olympics opening ceremony is subject to the overwhelming power of modern communications. At a rehearsal in the Olympic stadium this week, director Danny Boyle implored the invited audience to secrecy – although, if he was totally obsessed with keeping the details of his "surreal" (#savethesurprise) vision secret, he might have been better off not inviting anyone at all. Cast and audience are apparently mostly saving the surprise, although I can't wait to see the giant animatronic Kenneth Williams re-enacting the "Frying tonight" scene from the 1960s film Carry on Screaming.

Olympic cermonies are destined to be seen by the whole world, but performance art is classically seen by just a handful of people. Events such as the first stagings of Paul McCarthy's sauce-spattered happenings thrive on their status as one-off wonders that nearly everyone missed. The whole history of live art is a history of those great lost moments. In his book Lipstick Traces, the critic Greil Marcus brilliantly evokes the original Dada cabaret in Zurich during the first world war. He makes it sound like a moment of pure revolutionary madness, an electrifying revelation from the eye of modernity's storm. For Marcus, this elusive, part-imagined moment becomes a spectre haunting modern culture, reappearing, he argues, when the Sex Pistols took the stage in 1970s Britain.


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Apps Rush: The Unilever Series, Bing Get MeThere, SoFit, Goldstar Savings Bank, Jurassic Park Builder and more

What's new on the app stores on Tuesday 24 July 2012

A selection of 13 new and notable apps for you today:

The Unilever Series at Tate Modern

London's Tate Modern has launched an official app for its 13-year "Unilever Series' of installations, "from Olafur Eliasson's sun to Ai Weiwei's carpet of sunflower seeds". That means more than 250 photos and 12 videos, as well as articles by curators and artists, and some of the early sketches for each exhibit.
iPad

Bing Get MeThere

Microsoft has launched a London travel app for iPhone using its Bing brand, promising "true door-to-door directions using Bing maps and live tube updates". Favourite journeys can also be set up for quick access.
iPhone

SoFit

SoFit is the latest social fitness app (hence the name, presumably), which awards points every time you exercise. It promises real-life rewards for this: "exclusive products from your favorite brands; downloads like music, videos and games; as well as fundraise for the causes you care about".
Android

Goldstar Savings Bank

This iPad app wants to teach children about financial basics, without making it dry and boring. A tall order, but Goldstar Savings Bank may just have nailed it: the idea being it's an app for children to record their savings and earn money for household chores, in order to buy rewards.
iPad

Jurassic Park Builder

The latest family-friendly brand to spawn its own freemium game is Jurassic Park, with this new iOS game from Ludia. It follows the Smurfs' Village / FarmVille template with players building their own parks, buying virtual bucks through in-app purchases to fund it. $99.99 IAP in a game that's likely to appeal to children? Hmm. The game is US-only for now.
iPhone / iPad

Assistant

Assistant is the latest Siri-like voice recognition app for a non-iOS platform. In this case: Windows Phone. It's a "virtual buddy for your smartphone that uses natural language technology" to answer questions, search for information and launch apps, hooking into Google, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Evernote and other services.
Windows Phone

The Icky Mr Fox

UK studio Ickypen has launched a children's book app that sees Icky Mr Fox trying to ruin the afternoon tea of Mr Rabbit and Mr Mole, with "tippy-tappy objects" that speak their name when touched. Unusually, it's available on Android and BlackBerry PlayBook as well as iPad.
Android / iPad / BlackBerry PlayBook

Around The Clock

Swedish developer Wombi Apps has a characterful new iOS app for children all about clocks. It includes a mini-game for each hour of the day, from teeth-brushing and biking home from pre-school to hammering nails and slicing butter. The idea being to familiarise children with the clock, rather than overtly teach them how to read it.
iPhone / iPad

X-Ray for Android

Android owners concerned about nasty malward have a number of apps to choose from, as security companies pile onto the platform to capitalise on reports of Android viruses. X-Ray for Android is the latest, promising to scan for vulnerabilities and "keep your carrier honest".
Android

5K To Marathon Runmeter GPS

Completed the programme set by a "couch to 5k" app? Time to step up, perhaps: this app focuses on going beyond 5k races to "give you feedback and motivation to go farther, be healthier, and live longer".
iPhone

Party Wave

Cartoon-surfing game Party Wave looks fun on iOS, getting you to position a bunch of surfers to ride a big wave in top-down view, before switching to a side-on perspective to guide them through it. The game is also notable, though, for being the first from Japanese developer Mistwalker – founded by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi.
iPhone / iPad

Cardagram Postcard

French digital-to-physical postcards app Cardagram has launched in the UK. Like established rival Touchnote, it turns iPhone photos into real postcards to be sent worldwide – usually charging £1.99, although it's £0.99 in a launch offer. One nice touch: it can pull in photos from Instagram and Facebook.
iPhone

Historables: Marie Ant-toinette

Yes, Marie Antoinette re-imagined as a cartoon "ant queen" in a story-app for children. No, I have no idea how they handle the guillotine part. But yes, the app sees Marie baking and decorating a cake, setting up a castle room and wander through underground ant tunnels. More Historables apps are following from developer Base Camp Films: stand by for Teddy Bear Roosevelt and Lionardo Da Vinci...
iPad


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July 23 2012

In the age of the Cultural Olympiad, we're all public performers | Claire Bishop

The latest exhibition at Tate Modern features performers interacting with the public. But it's definitely not high art

Visitors to Tate Modern in the past week will have noticed strange activities in the Turbine Hall. Rather than the usual flurry of cranes, cherry-pickers and engineers that signal the arrival of a new installation, there were 50 people of different shapes and sizes running around the concrete expanse: spiralling in loops, gathering in clusters, hurtling up and down the ramp. In the middle of them was the British-German artist Tino Sehgal, fine-tuning his performance – or as he prefers to call it, "constructed situation" – which opens to the public on Tuesday.

Sehgal's These Associations is a far remove from the overblown visual spectacles that usually make up the annual Unilever commission. At first sight you barely see anything. Then you notice strange ripples of movement across the concrete expanse as the 50 choreographed performers come into view. If you stand by and watch for a while, one of them might come up and talk to you, recounting a personal experience of when they felt they belonged.

Sehgal is well-known for participatory performances in which groups of non-professionals are trained to engage in conversation with the public. For this commission, more than 100 people have been recruited: the youngest is 16; the eldest are in their 70s.

His reliance on non-specialist performers is part of a broader trend since the mid-1990s towards participatory art – and is arguably its institutional apotheosis. For much of this time, however, participatory artists have been working outside the mainstream world of museums. It is only in recent years that the tendency has become high profile, in works such as Antony Gormley's One and Other (2010), when more than 34,000 people applied for a chance to occupy one of his one-hour slots on top of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

At the time the Guardian's Charlotte Higgins referred to the work as "Twitter art", and she wasn't far off the mark: participatory art has proliferated in tandem with the feedback loops of Web 2.0 and social networking, while its fascination with eccentric laymen parallels the populism of reality television. All three tread a very fine line between cultural democratisation and incessant banality.

But participatory art has a long history, spanning the whole 20th century. Today it's an international phenomenon and arguably less political in orientation. It used to work against an absurdly inflated art market, on the one hand, wanting to empower those less privileged, on the other. But part of its recent popularity in the UK is a result of specific ideological motivations. In the mid-90s, New Labour commissioned thinktanks to evaluate the benefits of social participation in the arts. Proof was found that it reduces isolation by helping people to make friends, developing community networks, helping offenders and victims address issues of crime, encouraging people to accept risk positively, and transforming the image of public bodies.

For better or worse, these pro-participation studies became the foundation of New Labour cultural policy and led to a climate in which participatory art and education became a privileged vehicle of the social inclusion agenda. Culture was valued because it created the appearance of social inclusion, even while government continued to erode those institutions that actually assure this – education and healthcare. This led to the contradictory condition of participatory art being embraced by radical artists for its unmarketability, while serving a Potemkin function for its governmental paymasters.

With the arrival of Cameron's "big society" in 2010, the terms of engagement have shifted once more. The Tories have little interest in the political uses of art, preferring to hand it over to the dictates of the market. (The result is Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond's Tatlin-on-crack sculpture, ArcelorMittal Orbit: a £19m monstrosity named after the private individual who funded 85% of its construction.) Mass creativity is supported only to the extent that it is self-generated – and self-funded. In keeping with big society doctrine, wageless volunteers are asked to pick up where the government cuts back. In this climate, participatory art acquires a different resonance, more akin to the sacrifices of unpaid labour. It is no coincidence that a large percentage of the Cultural Olympiad relies on such volunteerism: Marc Rees's Adain Avion, for example, asks local community groups in Wales to be content-providers for a mobile art space made of aircraft fuselage, while Craig Coulthard's forest football pitch in Scotland needs to be "activated" by amateur teams, wearing strips designed by local children.

Herein lies an important difference between Tino Sehgal in the Turbine Hall and the do-good community-based participatory art so rife in the Cultural Olympiad. Sehgal isn't particularly interested in empowering people; those who work for him are paid performers who serve his ends (an enigmatic work designed to reflect on the museum as a space of simultaneously individual and mass address). But what Sehgal does have in common with the majority of participatory artists is a tendency to place an emphasis on everyday (rather than highly skilled) forms of performance.

In so doing, his pieces, like so much other participatory art under neoliberalism, serve a double agenda: offering a popular art of and for the people, while at the same time, reminding us that today we all experience a constant pressure to perform and, moreover, this is one in which we have no choice but to participate.


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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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Tino Sehgal fills Tate Modern's Turbine Hall with storytellers

Anglo-German artist's These Associations is first Turbine Hall installation to use personal interaction

A swarm of 70 people is occupying Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. They walk slowly, solemnly, expressionlessly up the great ramp that leads to the west entrance of the museum. Or, if you arrive at another time, you might see them striding purposefully, or sprinting, or playing some mysterious running game as if chasing an invisible ball, or singing.

A young bearded man detaches himself from the group. He looks me in the eye and starts telling a story, about how he lived in Britain for seven years without once returning to his homeland, and when he finally did, and the plane touched down at the airport, he looked out of the window at the baggage handlers and the ground staff and realised with a shock that everyone looked just like him. And then he started to convulse with uncontrollable weeping, so that even all the children on the plane started staring at him. His story of rupture, exile and return is oddly powerful, not least because he does not say where his homeland is.

This is the new work for the Turbine Hall – a vast stage set that has, over the past dozen years, been the scene of Bruce Nauman's soundscapes, Olafur Eliasson's swollen orange sun and Doris Salcedo's chthonic rupture through the concrete floor. But These Associations, by the Anglo-German artist Tino Sehgal, is the first artwork here to use the intangible stuff of stories and personal interaction as its form – rather than sculpture, painting or installation.

London-born Sehgal, 36, who trained in political economy and dance in Berlin, where he is based, declines to make art that has a physical form. Previous works have included This Progress at the ICA, in which the visitor was greeted by a child, then conducted round the building by people of increasing age, while discussing the idea of progress. He also refuses to publish written explanations of his work or allow official photography although, in the age of the smartphone, plenty of informal pictures and films can be found on the internet.

For the millions of visitors who are expected to pass through Tate Modern's doors between Tuesday, when the work opens to the public, and 28 October, when it closes, the experience of being stopped and spoken to by a complete stranger may be uncomfortable. For Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern, it is "the most complex, difficult and dangerous project we have ever put into this museum".

According to Sehgal the work is about the relationship between the individual and the mass: "It is about what it means to belong to a group, which is also quite a personal question for me." The Turbine Hall was intriguing, he said, because "it is such an unusual space for a museum, since museums were invented to train visitors in polite behaviour. But the Turbine Hall is different: it is made to make people gather together and puts them in a joyful, bodily, unrestricted space."

Several hundred participants are involved in the project. They were recruited through networks of friends and acquaintances, and rehearsed by Sehgal and his producer, Asad Raza. The stories they tell visitors are based on a set of open-ended questions asked by Sehgal, such as: "When did you feel a sense of belonging?" and "When did you experience a sense of arrival?" The participants work in four-hour shifts, with breaks, and are paid, according to the Tate curator Jessica Morgan, between £8 and £9 per hour. Most are fitting the work at Tate around other professional commitments, from posts at universities to freelance photography.

According to Raza the work "shows London to itself; it is a more accurate picture of London than something that is cooked up by one particular person". On Monday morning though, none of the participants was black: according to Dercon, "we have complete diversity but we didn't select them as if we were casting a sitcom".

The Turbine Hall has a history of causing its visitors to behave in unexpected ways. Already, half an hour into the preview of the work, children were dashing about and imitating the participants' running games. According to Sehgal, "loss of control is something psychologically necessary to me. If it was all coming from me, it wouldn't be satisfactory."


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March 05 2012

Tate buys eight million Ai Weiwei sunflower seeds

The 10 tonnes of porcelain sunflower seeds are only a 10th of the number that covered the floor of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall

The Tate has acquired approximately 8m individual sculptures, its largest number of works of art ever, although each is smaller than a little finger nail: 10 tonnes of Ai Weiwei's famous porcelain sunflower seeds.

There won't be enough to cover the floor of the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall in London, as in the Chinese artist's installation in 2010, where the first visitors romped deliriously on a gritty beach until within 48 hours it was roped off, the ceramic dust condemned as a danger to health.

Sunflower Seeds 2010, the work that the Tate has bought, represents less than a 10th of the 100m seeds, all individually sculpted and painted by Chinese craft workers, used for the installation.

Instead the artist has suggested the seeds can be arranged either laid out as a square or, more dramatically, as a cone five metres in diameter and one and a half metres tall – as they have been displayed at Tate Modern as a loan from the artist from last June until earlier this year.

The Tate acquired the work with the help of a grant from the Art Fund charity, but has not revealed the price. However, at a Sotheby's auction last year a similar quantity soared above the top estimate and finally sold for just under £350,000, or £3.50 per seed.

Ai Weiwei has become China's most famous living artist not just for the internationally admired quality of his work, but for his troubles with his native country, where he has recently faced house arrest, investigation for "spreading pornography" and the demolition of his studio. The Chinese authorities have charged him with tax evasion, but most commentators are convinced their real problem with him is his outspoken defence of human rights and criticism of China's treatment of dissidents.

He is collaborating with the architects Herzog & de Meuron, the design team responsible for the bird's nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, to create this summer's temporary pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, London.


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December 30 2011

November 30 2011

From Rabbie to Rubens

To celebrate 10 years of free museum entry, Chris Smith, the politician who ended charging, introduces the big name curators and gallery-goers we asked to pick their favourite work. But what is yours? Have your say below

I remember, as a student, being very struck by a poster arguing against an attempt by Edward Heath's government to bring in museum charges. It said: "We the undersigned oppose the introduction of admission charges" and carried the signatures of Van Gogh, Titian, Turner and some 50 other great artists. It made me realise a simple truth: that free admission is all about giving everyone, no matter what their means, the chance to see the greatest works of art, science and history that our nation has.

Over the following three decades, charges were indeed brought in. Some national collections valiantly held out against the tide; but most succumbed to charging, and in some cases the charges were high. To bring a family to the Science Museum or Natural History Museum became a substantial financial undertaking.

When I became Secretary of State in 1997, I was determined to change this. I believed passionately that these great treasure houses belonged to us all, and should be available for free, for ever. It took me four years to achieve that: convincing reluctant colleagues; securing additional funding; persuading some museum directors; achieving the removal of VAT. It was worth it, though; and the surge in visitor numbers – up by 150% over the last decade – has proved it.

On the day free admission began, 10 years ago, I was invited to cut the ribbon and throw open the doors at the Science Museum. About half an hour later, I was standing in the foyer, and a man approached me, carrying his daughter on his shoulders. He looked up at her and said, "I want you to say thank you to this man. It's because of him we're able to be here today." That, too, made it worth it. Chris Smith

Nicholas Serota, director, Tate

One of the great atrocities of the Spanish civil war was the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the German air force, lending their support to the Nationalist forces of General Franco. Picasso responded to the massacre by painting the vast mural Guernica, and for months afterwards made subsidiary paintings based on one of the figures in the mural: a weeping woman holding her dead child. Weeping Woman in Tate's collection is the last and most elaborate of the series. A portrait of Picasso's mistress, Dora Maar, the painting is an extraordinary depiction of female grief and a metaphor for a Spanish tragedy.

The Sir John Soane's Museum is one of my favourite small museums. The eight paintings in William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress series can rightly be described as one of the great masterpieces of British art. Created by Hogarth, the great 18th-century painter, engraver and satirist, they give us an acute glimpse into London life of the period, and the antics of its faded aristocracy and nouveau riche. The paintings were originally hung at Soane's country villa, but were moved back to Lincoln's Inn Fields (now the Soane museum) in 1810. They were hung in a new picture room at the rear of the house, where they remain today.

Joan Bakewell, broadcaster

If they start charging for museums I will go spare with rage; it's been a great leap forward. The Cholmondeley Ladies (1600-10) at Tate Britain is one of my favourites to drop in and see. I take the grandchildren to visit them all the time. Everyone can relate to it: they're like reassuring family friends – "Let's go and visit the Cholmondeley sisters." It's so lovely how very different from each other they are, but how much the same. You get pleasure from them: they're women; they're siblings; they look beautiful; they're a reflection of an earlier time; they're all the very simple things you enjoy in a painting. And they must have their own stories: the painting is full of possibilities.

Nicholas Penny, director, National Gallery

The painting most appropriate for this particular anniversary is Rubens's Peace and War, the proper title of which is Minerva Protects Pax from Mars – though I hate that title. It was a diplomatic gift from Rubens to Charles I, when the painter was acting as an envoy for Philip IV, but nevertheless seems to me a painting for everyone. It is allegory, it's portraiture, it's animal painting, it's fruit-and-vegetable painting, it's got quite a lot of landscape, it's got the female nude, it's got men in armour. It was a gift from the Duke of Sutherland to the newly founded National Gallery about 200 years after it was painted, an amazing gesture of support: the Duke was donating one of the most valuable paintings in London.

The work of art I always visit when I go to the Victoria and Albert museum is a white jade cup that is known to have been used by Shah Jahan, one of the great Moghul rulers of India. Curiously, it's not that different in date from the Rubens: the middle of the 17th century. It reminds me of the game animal, vegetable or mineral. It shows the transparency as well as the hardness of jade, but at the same time incorporates animal and vegetable: the lotus flower at the foot, and the head of an ibex, which forms the handle. It epitomises the art of so many different cultures although it's a quintessential, high quality product of Islamic civilisation. This and the Rubens are two pieces of court culture completely accessible to the man in the street.

Lauren Laverne, broadcaster

At the V&A Museum of Childhood in east London there is a Dutch doll's house from the 1600s. It's very beautiful and the craftsmanship that went into it is mindblowing. It's also interesting because it shows how a house ran at that time, in that place. The idea behind it was to teach little girls how to become wives; it illustrates how much of our culture is indoctrinated into us through play and leisure.

Whenever I go into the British Museum, that ceiling in the atrium makes you look up, and as soon as you look up like that you're like a kid again. It puts you into an inquisitive, exploratory frame of mind. That's what I like about the Museum of Childhood, too: it's a lovely blend of history, mystery and fun.

John Leighton, director, National Galleries of Scotland

The portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, made in 1787, is probably the best-known portrait in our collection, which opens free to the public today. Like many people, I saw it first on a shortbread tin, but when you come face to face with the original it's astonishingly vivid, and you can feel that spirit of democracy and generosity Burns is famed for. The artist left it unfinished because he was afraid to lose what he said was a superb likeness. In among all the grand, eloquent portraits of powerful people in this gallery, this small, modest picture speaks very loudly indeed.

My favourite work in another gallery is from the National in London. It's another portrait, this time by Jacques-Louis David of Jacobus Blauw, a young Dutch ambassador trying to negotiate a peace treaty with France. It's a very direct rendering of the clarity and youthful idealism people associated with the French revolution. If you imagine that this is 1795, with guillotines crashing all over the place, you'd have to be a particularly skilled diplomat to negotiate with the revolutionary government. The portrait gives no indication of that hardship – instead, you're drawn in by the rendering of the materials, the steely blue jacket with a hint of his hair powder on the collar, and this pink face that engages you so directly you feel you've come eye-to-eye with this young Dutchman.

AL Kennedy, author

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow has a wonderful full-length statue of Robert Louis Stevenson. He's a writer I hugely admire, and the piece seems to catch something of his spirit in a way photographs of him don't. When I first moved to Glasgow and was very much a tyro writer, I would occasionally wander off to Kelvingrove and potter. The building was – and is – beautifully uplifting in itself, and much warmer than I could afford to keep my flat. I would always end up spending a while with the RLS statue. It's not idealised like his memorial in Saint Giles, or the standard depictions of the great and good; he looks like someone who thought and travelled and had a lean kind of energy and efficiency about him. I find it inspirational.

Christopher Brown, director, Ashmolean Museum

I'm going to be a little opportunistic and choose an object from our new Egyptian galleries. I'm hugely moved by a remarkable mace head we have that dates from 3,000 BC and comes from Hierakonpolis. It's called the scorpion mace head and depicts an emperor. He's wearing the crown of Upper Egypt and he's hunting. I'm just enormously impressed by its sophistication as a piece of early sculpture: eat your heart out, Donatello.

I worked for many years at the National in London. I particularly love a late painting there by Giovanni Bellini, the Madonna of the Meadow. It shows the virgin with Christ in her lap, but it's a premonition of the Pietà. It has a beautiful, desolate landscape on the left, and on the right a prosperous landscape with a beautiful view of the area north of Venice where Bellini was working. When I worked at the National, one of the great joys was that people would drop in to the gallery between trains at Charing Cross, to come in and see something. You don't feel: "Well, I've spent £5 – I've got to make it worth my while." You can just go and look at a single picture. That to me is the key to free admission.

Michael Dixon, director, Natural History Museum

The Archaeopteryx lithographica is the most valuable single fossil in our collection. It is a famous snapshot of evolution in action that demonstrates conclusively that modern birds are descended from dinosaurs. It has huge scientific, historical and financial value. Elsewhere, the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum is fundamentally important to our understanding of archaeology and ancient cultures.

Julia Peyton-Jones, co-director, Serpentine Gallery

We don't have a permanent collection, but the Serpentine Pavilion series, now in its 11th year, allows the public to enjoy the work of international architects who haven't yet completed a building in the UK, for three months over the summer. My favourite pavilion? I couldn't possibly say!

The Turbine Hall commissions at Tate Modern are an extraordinary rollcall of some of the greatest practitioners of today. Louise Bourgeois's spider, Maman, and I Do, I Undo, I Redo, launched the whole programme in the most remarkable way. It's wonderful to see how artists address that space.

Sandy Nairne, director, National Portrait Gallery

One of our most enigmatic portraits is the famous Chandos portrait of Shakespeare by John Taylor of 1610. It's wonderfully mysterious. Taylor is not an artist we know a great deal about, and there's been plenty of speculation as to whether this was taken from life. For me, the idea of why we look at portraits of figures in history is embodied in this picture. I look at it at least two or three times a week. We refer to it as our No 1 because it is the first portrait that entered the collection in 1856, given by Lord Earlsmere.

I often go and look at Rembrandt's Self-Portrait at the Age of 34 next door in the National Gallery. It's not very different in date from the Shakespeare – it's 1640 – but is the absolute complement: whereas the Taylor is all about Shakespeare, this is about Rembrandt himself. Like all great self-portraits, it makes you question who you are and absolutely crosses time – that sense of self-examination. It's just the most brilliant painting, and to be able to just walk in and look at it is a fabulous thing.

Iwona Blazwick, director, Whitechapel Gallery

One of my favourite exhibits currently on display here is the Bloomberg Commission: Josiah McElheny: The Past Was a Mirage I'd Left Far Behind. Large-scale, mirrored sculptures are arranged as multiple reflective screens for the artist's interpretation of experimental abstract films. What is interesting is the way McElheny has responded to the site, which was previously the reading room of the former Whitechapel Library, a haven for early modernist thinkers such as Isaac Rosenberg. The library was built as a "lantern for learning"; McElheny has used the moving images and illumination as central motifs.

Elsewhere, the Sir John Soane's Museum is a delight, with important works from Hogarth to Canaletto set among drawings, historical architectural models and other fascinating antiquities.

Martin Roth, director, Victoria and Albert museum

Our medieval and Renaissance galleries opened two years ago to house one of the world's most remarkable collections of treasures from the period, marking the end of the first phase of our plan to modernise the museum. They host the greatest collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture outside Italy, with an exceptional group of sculptures by Donatello who was the greatest sculptor of his time. I particularly admire this pieceThe Ascension with Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter (1428-30) which combines two different scenes from the Gospels – one of the finest surviving examples of his astonishing low-relief carving technique.

Gauguin was one of the most important artists of the 19th century, and his experimentations with new styles and radical expression continue to inspire people today. Vision after the Sermon is one of the masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery collection and this dramatic work changed the course of the history of art. Gauguin travelled the world and it's fascinating to see the influence of many forms of art in his work, from Japanese prints to ceramics.


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November 21 2011

For the love of Damien Hirst: Tate Modern hosts first UK retrospective

Diamond-studded skull to take Turbine Hall pride of place as economic crisis puts Hirst's career in new light

Damien Hirst's famous – indeed notorious – platinum and diamond skull will go on show in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall next year, in the first survey show devoted to the artist in the UK.

The work, For the Love of God, has recently drawn huge crowds at museums in Florence and Amsterdam – but has not been seen in London since 2007 when, at the height of Britain's pre-crash prosperity, it was sold (for £50m, Hirst claimed) to a consortium that included the artist himself.

Hirst, 46, occupies a unique place in British culture: the prime mover among a brash and brilliant generation of artists who emerged in the early 1990s, determined to be famous, unabashed by controversy. And, although he has had retrospective exhibitions in Naples and Monaco, he has never been the focus of a solo show in a British museum that would allow visitors to set aside the hype and judge the works on their own terms.

Over 70 pieces, a number of them room-size installations, will come to Tate Modern from April to September next year. But, significantly, the show will not include recent works such as the critically panned skull paintings he showed at the Wallace Collection in London in 2009 – described by the Guardian's art critic, Adrian Searle, as "a memento mori for a reputation".

Instead, the exhibition, curated by the Tate's Ann Gallagher, will mainly follow ideas he began to explore when young. "We did have to make decisions," she said. "We are concentrating on series established early in his career, not the series that began later." There will, she said, be at least one new piece – but it will follow the route of early series, rather than developing his recent experiments with figurative painting.

There will be plenty of familiar signature pieces, such as the pickled shark – The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) – and the picked cow and calf, Mother and Child Divided, in the version made for the Tate's Turner prize retrospective in 2007. Hirst's vitrines and pharmaceutical cabinets will be explored from their earliest incarnation: Sinner, a medicine cabinet he made in 1988 while still a student at Goldsmiths College. Also featured is A Thousand Years (1990), consisting of a glass box containing flies, maggots, a cow's head and an Insect-O-Cutor. It was one of his earliest works to explore mortality via living creatures as the flies fed, reproduced and were killed.

With a great deal of the work in the exhibition made familiar by media exposure, the organisers claim the show will give visitors a fresh perspective. "They are very well-known as images," said Gallagher, "but they have not been brought together ever before, and we want to show the unravelling and unrolling of an entire career."

Chris Dercon, Tate Modern's director, said: "We all think we know this work through the media. But if you are actually with the work, and can experience it, smell it, and I shouldn't say this, but touch it – it will be very different. There is a claustrophobic, congested feeling from experiencing these works … these are rooms, environments, which invite the spectator to interact. There is a kinaesthetic aspect when you are in the room with these works, seeing your own reflection in the vitrines. It is as if you are stepping into his laboratory of ideas."

One of the high points of the show will be the chance to see a two-part installation shown together for the first time since it was installed in a disused London shop in 1991. In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies) consists of a room lined with white-painted canvases with pupae attached to them. Butterflies hatch and feed, then eventually die. The second part is called In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays), a room in which dead butterflies are stuck to canvases, with a table nearby, on which sits an ashtray and cigarette ends – an early example of Hirst's use of cigarettes as a metaphor for pleasure and death. Visitors will be able to walk through the room with butterflies fluttering through it.

One of the fascinations of the exhibition will be the chance to reassess Hirst – who, perhaps more than any other living artist, is associated with the vagaries of the art market – in the light of what appears to be a new economic era. A recent world tour for the diamond skull was cancelled because of fears it would look "inappropriate" in the current financial climate, said Jude Tyrrell, the director of Hirst's company, Science. It will surely look very different in the uncertain London of 2012 compared with its sensational appearance in buoyant 2007.

The exhibition will also have a room devoted to Hirst's auction at Sotheby's, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, which raised £111m on 15 and 16 September 2008, the day before Lehman Brothers collapsed. It will provide a chance for visitors to reflect on an event in which art and commerce were intermingled in an unprecedented way – with Hirst "curating" the event as if it were an artwork in itself, and bypassing his gallery, White Cube, to sell direct to the public.

The Damien Hirst exhibition, part of the Cultural Olympiad's London 2012 festival, runs at Tate Modern from 4 April to 9 September. For the Love of God will be free to view in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall for the first 12 weeks


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November 15 2011

Tacita Dean's artwork malfunction

Is the breakdown of Tacita Dean's Turbine Hall piece anything to worry about? Absolutely not. Glitches and good art have always gone hand in hand

Art is not reliable. Why should it be? Reliability is for trains to run on time, clocks to go like clockwork, and banks to be, er, trustworthy. Art and artists offer an escape from all that into the world of imagination and possibility – or impossibility. Art deserves as much slack as it wants.

News that Tacita Dean's Film, an 11-minute silent work projected onto a white monolith in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, broke down at the weekend is therefore no big surprise – and no big deal. While there may have been some disappointed gallery-goers, the public has long got used to, and loves, the unpredictable nature of art: in the end, few people protested when access to Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds, the previous Turbine Hall spectacle, had to be restricted because of health fears over ceramic dust. Most visitors found the seeds moving from afar, and the political and poetic resonances of the work increased throughout its run, regardless of technical hitches, because of the tribulations of its creator Ai Weiwei.

Dean's Film was up and running again by Sunday lunchtime. But it's worth bearing in mind that failure is not necessarily failure in art. The most spectacular case of art going (harmlessly) wrong that I can remember was an installation in the old Tate Gallery. In 1999, American artist Chris Burden, famous for his performance art that included having himself shot in the arm, unveiled an installation in the form of an automated assembly line.

When Robots Rule was supposed to mass-produce balsa-wood toy planes, but it never produced anything. It didn't work and could not be fixed. For months. Burden can make steamrollers fly in the air, as a 2006 project showed. But the Tate machine was a disaster and no one seemed to mind. It became a thought-provoking example of a non-functioning artwork.

Our tolerance for artistic error has gone up as art itself has become more popular. James Turrell's skyspaces may or may not deliver the thrill they promise: for a long, long time, he has been turning a crater in Arizona into a mind-boggling artwork, but it is still unfinished. Will it ever be ready for the public? And does this make the artist any less visionary?

All these contemporary adventures have a great tradition behind them. The National Gallery's current Leonardo da Vinci show includes all the surviving paintings he is known to have finished in Milan. But what about his unfinished (and in his day impossible) projects for flying machines? Da Vinci failed more often than anyone – and he was the greatest of all. There's no shame in trial and error when the imagination soars.


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October 15 2011

The best and worst of Frieze 2011 - review

Regent's Park, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Tacita Dean: Film; Wilhelm Sasnal – review

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern; Whitechapel Gallery, London

You'd have to be blind not to notice that, from a distance, Tacita Dean's commission for Tate Modern's sepulchral Turbine Hall looks like nothing so much as a vast stained-glass window – and for this reason I fervently hoped it was going to have the same effect on me as Olafur Eliasson's numinous The Weather Project (Eliasson's commission, the fourth in the Unilever series, filled this space in 2003-4 – and oh, how I worshipped it).

A flickering, flaming 11-minute silent colour film, Dean's installation, complete with sprocket holes and random filter flashes, was made using a CinemaScope lens turned through 90 degrees, and is projected on to a vertical screen 13 metres high. In other words, its scale alone is enough to cow the visitor, and from 50 paces. Like some hungry peasant suddenly confronted with the exquisite manipulations of the medieval architect, your first inclination, as the eyes adjust, is simply to believe.

But this faith is misplaced, and fleeting: illusion not epiphany. Move closer, sit down and watch, and the jaw clamps shut again, awe turning first to disappointment, then to irritation. I have no argument with Dean's guiding impulse; her piece is intended to mourn and to celebrate celluloid at a time when 16mm film is no longer even printed in the UK. But I am amazed that it didn't lead her to produce something more interesting and beautiful than this. Film, with its assorted images of escalators, toadstools and a snail lurking on a leaf, isn't just banal (do I need to point out that when it comes to the passage of time, these metaphors have all been used a thousand times before?), it is fatally boring. Ripe tomatoes, mullioned windows, a tree, an egg, a clock... only because I wrote these things in my notebook do I remember them at all.

In a commentary on the work, Dean states that "Film is a visual poem", a remark I thought dubious even before I saw her fountains plash and her lightbulbs glow: likening other art forms to poetry is a cliche, the first and the last refuge of the shallow thinker. Afterwards, though, I thought it fraudulent too. What she has produced, however lovingly, however laboriously (she slices her prints by hand, alone at a Steenbeck cutting table), is more list than poem – and the trouble with lists is that even as they remind you of your obligations, they are so eminently resistible.

You might say that Dean's work is all technique and no content. Well, at the Whitechapel Gallery you can see a show where something approaching the opposite is the case. At his worst, Wilhelm Sasnal, the preposterously successful Polish artist, produces canvases that remind me of a certain kind of 70s album cover; his work can feel overly broad, naive, unfinished and hurried (he likes to paint quickly, often finishing a piece in a single day). I can't help but wonder just how good a painter he really is. But he has big things to say about politics, faith and community, and for this reason the Whitechapel's new exhibition of his work is both fascinating and bleak, the weight of 20th-century history bearing down on every wall of every room. It also works – what serendipity – as an interesting pendant to the unbeatable Gerhard Richter retrospective currently at Tate Modern. Sasnal belongs to a different generation from Richter; born in 1972, he is half his age. But both knew life under communism, and both have an unblinking relationship with the Holocaust, a catastrophe they simply will not ignore, not even in the peace of their studios. Sasnal has used the grey palette so often favoured by Richter; he, too, paints from photographs; and he flips easily between the abstract and the figurative, even if not with quite the same facility as his master. It's extraordinary to see. Talk about the anxiety of influence.

The show takes in paintings from 1999 until the present day, with the earlier work in two rooms upstairs. I understand why the curator decided to let people see the most recent paintings first; Sasnal's latest work is certainly the more colourful and, perhaps, the more accessible. The hope must be that visitors see Bathers at Asnières (2010), his interpretation of Seurat's painting of the same name, and feel a welcome connection (the copy's cloistered simplicity is a way of reminding his audience that until Sasnal was 17, when Solidarity was re-legalised, travel to London, where Seurat's original hangs, would have been all but impossible).

But I prefer the earlier work, which painfully embraces the fact that Kraków, where Sasnal is based, is not only close to Auschwitz, but once had its very own concentration camp (Kraków-Płaszów): the small painting Shoah (A Forest), from 2003, in which three figures are made miniature by the swirls of green (are these leafy branches kindly or malevolent?) all about them; the scenes from Art Spiegelman's Holocaust comic book Maus, which Sasnal painted large scale and without speech bubbles by way of a riposte to those Poles who couldn't deal with its implications (these paintings – bunks seen through wire, a pig in a peaked cap – somehow need no explanation, even if you have not read Spiegelman); and, most of all, a landscape called Kielce (2003), in which briars and brambles are piled high on old snow, like knives, or bodies. Kielce is a Polish city where, in 1946, Polish antisemites attacked Holocaust survivors, killing 42.

Sasnal cannot let go of these themes. He wants to pay attention to other crises – more recent subjects include a Palestinian farmer, an Iranian nuclear power plant, and African migrants – but events closer to home haunt him. Downstairs hangs his most recent work, completed this year. It is a landscape: low, green fields surround a sprawling white construction which, the title reveals, is in fact a pigsty. When Sasnal showed this piece to his family, his father asked him if it was Auschwitz. It isn't hard to see why. The crazily lush fields, though they make up two thirds of the canvas, are an irrelevance. It is the hunkered buildings you wonder about, and knowing that they house animals somehow only makes you feel worse.


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October 12 2011

Reel deal: Tacita Dean's Film at Tate Modern

British artist Tacita Dean's giant installation in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, created using 13mm film, is a love letter to a disappearing medium



October 06 2011

Muted masterpieces: contemporary art that does not need the wow factor

Richard Wilson's 'lake of oil' was the first artwork to give me a theatrical thrill. But there are quieter, more subtle artists on the march this autumn, such as Turner prize nominee George Shaw

What work of art first made you feel the wow factor? This does not mean just being impressed by, or loving, a work of art. I mean the particular theatrical vibe of contemporary art, that thrills, entertains, and diverts the spectator in a way that makes you just say ... "Wow."

The British modern art season is about to enter mad mode. With the new Tate Turbine Hall commission, the Turner prize, and the Frieze art fair all imminent, it is time to gargle and exercise your vocal chords ready to say ... "Wow." Or perhaps just say it in your head, and skim-read some art theory so you can mouth more impressive phrases. Or stay at home and watch television, or do the garden. Hey, I didn't have this bright idea of compressing a year's modern art into a week. Don't turn on me about it.

Anyway, the first work of art that brought the contemporary wow factor home to me was Richard Wilson's sleek and dark, reflective and apparently bottomless lake of oil, 20:50, which I first saw at the old Saatchi Gallery in Swiss Cottage. Walking for the first time down the narrow aisle between the two halves of the room-filling installation, with oil pressing against their edges, held in by molecular forces as it peeped over the steel walls, was awe-inspiring. The glassy reflections created a sense of floating in the air, so you felt at once menaced by oil and in danger of falling: as I write this I remember that strange sensation of both claustrophobia and vertigo.

Here we are, and you can still see that definitive work of contemporary art at the relocated Saatchi Gallery today. In the early 1990s, critics often carped that the taste for the wow factor was really the product of Saatchi's advertising sensibility. He even bought a pickled shark!

Now we know it was more than that. Something about the theatricality of today's art liberates and greases the pleasure principle. That thrill of going to a museum and getting a theme park ride is very real, and apparently universal.

Yet this autumn, among the rides, there are some imitations of a quieter art. The Tate Turbine Hall stole Saatchi's thunder long ago and is today the definitive arena of culture as spectacle. Yet this year's artist there is Tacita Dean. Her films, drawings, photographs and montages resist the wow factor. They make you think instead. She is truly serious, and in the best way mysterious, and her Tate piece promises to be a real event, not merely as spectacle but as sombre, subtle, complex art.

Similarly, in the Turner prize, the most fascinating contender is George Shaw, a painter of depth and passion. Shaw is a quietly miraculous artist. His paintings are eerie scenes of the ruinous edges of modern British life. Surreal and silent, they beckon your imagination. Nothing could be further from the culture of wow than the art of George Shaw. No one has ever seemed a more deserving candidate for the Turner prize.

So the real artistic wonders this autumn will leave the wow factor far behind.


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June 11 2011

Michael Clark Company – review

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London

Michael Clark, choreographer, ex-heroin addict, and pin-up boy of the 1980s Blitz kids, is 50 next year. And while his work continues to develop and refine within the abstract micro-sector that he has made his own, his deep subject remains himself and his life. Last week, in the colossal emptiness of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, he presented th, a 10-piece programme set to songs by David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Pulp and others. These were performed by his loyal gang of professional dancers, and by a chorus of four dozen amateurs.

The professionals are sleek in Stevie Stewart's black and white all-in-ones, and later dramatic in black and silver. As the music rolls from the speakers, and Charles Atlas's icy lighting picks them out from on high, they map out the 50-yard floor space with Clarke's wary, hyper-reductive steps. All the familiar tropes are here: the nodding-dog heads, the tight couronne arms, the karate-stiff hands, the banking turns. There's no amplitude, no curved line, no surrender to the music's sweep and billow. But then it's the very narrowness of the bandwidth to which Clark confines himself that gives the work its intensity, and there's a humming interplay between his stark choreographic glyphs and the airy vastness of the hall.

There's a relaxing of tension at the end, as Kate Coyne and Oxana Panchenko punch out the opening riffs of Bowie's "The Jean Genie" with stabbing little prances on pointe, and the other dancers swing into the number's sexy mannequin strut, but the main impression is of an artist endlessly reworking the same material in the hope of resolution, and perhaps redemption. For me, numbers like "Aladdin Sane", with their repetitive circuits and overwound toy dynamics, find a parallel in the scratchy self-portraits and neon epigrams of Tracey Emin. There's the same introversion, the same codifying of personal experience, the same close-focused search for meaning. A delicate, momentarily-held frieze of dancers at the end of Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" is almost painful in its vulnerability, its blink-and-you-miss-it beauty.

Which is not to say that Clark doesn't respond to the Vatican-like scale of the place. Deploying his dancers at the greatest possible distance from one another, he plays stylish perspective tricks. Here's Benjamin Warbis, inches from the audience, performing a slow développé. And there, high on the walkway, so far away they don't seem to be part of the same event, are the others, stretching and throwing shapes against the darkness. Clark usually appears in his own programmes, if only for fleeting, Hitchcockian moments, as if to emphasise their autobiographical subtext. And there he is, as Bowie mugs to "Heroes" on a screen, all but invisible in a dark hoodie on the floor.

The chorus is a nice touch. Of all ages, visibly thrilled to be taking part, they advance and retreat in waves, dressed in Monty Pythonesque towelling tunics. Sometimes they lie down, legs paddling, pinned to the floor like great black moths. And if it's clear that not all of them could do the steps blindfold, their tentativeness is very human, and highlights the fluency, accomplishment and all-round otherness of the dancers.


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June 09 2011

Michael Clark Company – review

Tate Modern, London

Michael Clark's latest work was created for the vaulting industrial space of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. It is a venue that can easily swallow up a choreographer (hence the joke of the work's lowercase title, th), but here it elicits Clark's best choreography in years.

The evening opens with a massed chorus of 48 dancers. None are professionals. While they may represent Clark's nod to the Tate's history of audience-participation installations, they are also his first-ever corps de ballet. And Clark clearly knows how to choreograph for a crowd. Although the material is restricted to geometric walking patterns and small, hieratic gestures, the rhythmic tension and subtly calibrated detail have his imprint all over them. Set against the insistent music of Relaxed Muscle (aka Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley), the tension between classical form and rock energy does not just fill the hall, it reverberates thrillingly against its walls.

Even when Clark strips the choreography down to his own 12 dancers, he does not lose that sense of the monumental. Irradiated, almost deified by the austere glow of Charles Atlas's lighting, the dancers appear from all points around the performing space, some of them moving on the bridge across the hall, and echoing the movements of those below. The choreography is linear, taut, mysterious, with the dancers drawn into complex enfolding duets, or holding angelically rapt balances against the churning sounds of Bowie, Kraftwerk and Pulp.

As pure movement, this is vintage Clark, but even better is his handling of the space. Working on this scale releases the ecstatic quality of his choreography – a single running dancer takes on heroic levels of drama here – while our proximity to the action makes a flashing sequence of jetes feel like it's being branded on to our eyes.

Rating: 4/5


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