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June 22 2012

Mark Wallinger interview

Turner prize-winner Mark Wallinger gives a tour of SITE, his largest UK show in more than a decade. He talks about his sea of 65,536 stones and playing noughts and crosses with scaffolders. Then he takes Adrian Searle out to graffiti Gateshead.



June 21 2012

Hepworth Wakefield scores with Luke Fowler

Northern archives from the Workers' Educational Association strike a chord in the Turner Prize shortlister's guest show. Alan Sykes is impressed

Although no doubt disappointed that they lost out to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter in this year's £100,000 Art Fund Prize for Museums, staff at , the Hepworth in Wakefield will console itself with the fact that they have already attracted well over 500,000 visitors in only just over 12 months since the gallery first opened. Many more will certainly stream through its beautiful doors for its two compelling, and highly different, summer exhibitions.

If Luke Fowler wins this year's Turner Prize he will be the fourth artist in a row from Glasgow to win. His exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield will give the public a chance to evaluate his work before he joins the others on this year's Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain in October.


He has previously won the inaugural Jarman Award for artist film-makers, a Paul Hamlyn Award in 2010, and, aged only 25 in 2004, a £25,000 Donald Dewar Arts award, named in honour of the first Scottish First Minister. The new work he is showing at the Hepworth, The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcote is the result of his winning the Contemporary Art Society's "Commission to Collect" award, which the Hepworth won jointly with the Wolverhampton Art Gallery. It will be the first moving image work to be acquired by the Wakefield permanent art collection, which is held by the Hepworth.

The title is a quotation from E.P.Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, in which the historian and long-time extramural lecturer at Leeds University tried "to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver, the "utopian" artisan and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity". Joanna Southcott was a messianic prophet who attracted a huge following in the early nineteenth century, and who still has believers who think she will return to earth in glory (and, more specifically, in Bedford).


In the past Fowler has used archive film footage to make works about, amongst others, the LSD-admiring psychiatrist RD Laing and the avant garde composer and founder of the Scratch Orchestra Cornelius Cardew, whose members included Brian Eno and Michael Nyman.

In The Poor Stockinger Fowler uses the writings (possibly more quoted from that read) of EP Thompson and his friends Raymond Williams, who wrote Culture and Society, and Richard Hoggart, author of The Uses of Literacy. All three were active in the Workers' Education Association in particular and adult education causes in general as important post war engines for the democratisation of culture. Alongside these the artist juxtaposes research material taken from northern archives and new film footage taken in the West Riding.


Simon Wallis, director of the Hepworth, was quoted in Aesthetica magazine saying of Luke Fowler:

Moving image work is always going to be an important part of any contemporary programme. Our interest in Fowler's work arose from his engagement with experimental film-making and documentary. Wakefield has a historical connection to avant garde film through the work of Lindsay Anderson, who directed several films locally, including Wakefield Express (1952) and This Sporting Life 1963). Anderson's engagement with our immediate geographic environment and the blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction presented a synergy with Fowler, who has always expressed his indebtedness to Anderson's Free Cinema movement.



Luke Fowler's new work can be seen at the Hepworth, Wakefield, from 23 June until 14 October. It is on alongside Artists' Rooms: Richard Long


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June 19 2012

Actaeon stations: Chris Ofili and the Royal Ballet

Chris Ofili has spent two years creating sets and costumes for an epic ballet inspired by Titian. What did he learn?

Chris Ofili comes with a seemingly gold-plated reputation: 1998 Turner prize winner, British representative at the 50th Venice Biennale, paintings held in some of the world's great collections. But two years ago, when he agreed to design a new production for the Royal Ballet, he suffered a flash of paranoia. "I was genuinely scared," he says. "If you fall flat on your face there, you break every bone in your body. You're not going to walk away."

And Ofili could think of a dozen reasons why he might fail. During most of his career, he had worked as a solitary and self-contained artist. He had never created designs for the stage before, let alone for ballet; and he'd certainly never been involved in an enterprise that promised – or threatened – to be as vast, crowded and competitive as Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

Metamorphosis is the brainchild of the National Gallery curator Minna Moore Ede, who felt the Cultural Olympiad should be marked by some kind of grand Diaghilevean multi-genre collaboration. As a starting point, she proposed three Titian masterpieces depicting stories from Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses: Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon, and Diana and Callisto. To accompany the literary strand of the project, in which three poets are writing contemporary responses to the works, the Royal Ballet is creating a three-part Titian ballet, with designs by a trio of major artists.

Moore Ede was determined to bring together radically different artists. She believed the scale and energy of Ofili's paintings made him a natural choice, but to offset his work's bacchanalian life force, she opted for the very precise sensibility of sculptor Conrad Shawcross, and a wild card in the form of the reliably unpredictable conceptual artist Mark Wallinger.

Already, that trio added up to an irrepressible mix. But Monica Mason, the Royal's director, had even bigger ambitions. Due to retire at the end of this July, she wanted Metamorphosis to be a farewell present to the seven choreographers with whom she had worked most closely, dividing them into a trio and two pairs. Three very different musical talents – Jonathan Dove, Nico Muhly and Mark-Anthony Turnage – were then asked to compose a score for each part.

"Until the curtain goes up," says Moore Ede, "no one has any idea how it will work." Ofili, speaking at the Victoria Miro gallery in London, can't wait. "This audience is really going to get their money's worth," he says, grinning. "I like Monica's attitude: 'I'm leaving now, so it's all yours. Make a mess and tidy up after yourselves.'"

Ofili was less jokey when he was first teamed up with his three choreographers: Will Tuckett, Liam Scarlett and Jonathan Watkins. He admits to deliberately stalling his way through most of the first year.

"I felt it just wasn't my world. I didn't have anything significant to contribute that wouldn't make me utterly embarrassed." Not only was he inhibited by his ignorance of ballet design, he was daunted by having to measure up to the Titians, feeling that, as the only contemporary painter involved, his work would be most directly compared to the master's. "Honestly, it felt like lambs to the slaughter."

So he turned to Titian's source material: Ovid's story about the young hunter Actaeon, who spies on the virgin goddess Diana while she is bathing with her nymphs; as a punishment, he is turned into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds. Ofili found it a "genuinely gripping read. All of its themes – desire, temptation, pride, beauty, the joy of the kill – felt relevant. The project got into my veins as a story." His confidence was boosted by his first serious meeting with the choreographers, who were all interested in staying close to Ovid's narrative. "We got on well, and it was easy to decide between us which were the most important elements of the story."

Ofili produces a photograph of the backdrop he designed. On one side is Diana, standing beneath her signature crescent moon and a giant curving phallus ("the male burden of desire"). On the other side, nymphs ripple upwards from a bubbling stream. Figures, landscape and symbolism metamorphose into each other with a fluidity reminiscent of Blake, an artist Ofili regards as one of his "torchbearers". But the design is also influenced by the landscape of Trinidad, where Ofili now lives. "There are waterfalls there that lie deep in the forest," he says. "Often when I go walking there, I hear voices of people I can't see." It made him think of Actaeon walking through a forest that was alive with his own sexual fantasies.

Most artists leave the actual painting of the backdrop to professional set-painters. But Ofili opted to do it himself, by hand. "The scale is amazing," he says. "When you first see the stage, that's what gives you the clutch in the intestines." It took him four weeks and the technical staff at the Royal Opera House thought he was mad. Yet, says Ofili, "hands down, it was one of the best painting experiences of my life".

He had an equally good time with the costumes. His first instinct was to take inspiration from Picasso and the "crazy" sculptural creations he created for Erik Satie's 1917 cubist ballet Parade. But the more time Ofili spent around the Royal's dancers, the more he wanted to ensure they could move freely. "I wanted them to feel comfortable, so they could push themselves."

He opted for all-in-one leotard and tights, customised for each character with head-dresses, cloaks, jackets, body hair, and handheld puppet heads for the hounds. He regards the work of the costume department, who converted his sketches into moving, breathing outfits, as little short of genius. But it's the dancers who impressed him most. "One night," he says, "I was standing in the wings and this girl came off stage. She'd looked amazing while she was dancing: shiny and happy. But as she came off she was crying. She said she was in agony, she had flu, she had a new baby and her nose was running like a little child's. Then she went back on and the light just flushed back into her. I thought, 'This is extraordinary.'"

Their bodies fascinate Ofili, too. Marianela Núñez is dancing Diana and he has become obsessed by her back. "The muscles are so alive, so expressive – it's like a face." As for the dancers' feet, he winces at the thought of all the blisters, blood and bunions he has witnessed. "Don't get me started. I had no idea feet could look like that."

When the project was first proposed, Ofili fretted about spending so much time away from work he was already absorbed in. "I knew it was going to be a huge brain-drain." But the intimacy and the fun of collaboration have been a revelation; he hadn't realised how much he would learn, nor how natural the transition from studio to theatre would eventually feel. "Working for the stage," he says, "you're playing a game of pretend. The curtain opens, the audience is absorbed for a period of time. That's very close to what I do as a painter. I make stuff up and invite people to look at it, and then off they go. I like that. I like how simple it is. I like how very wonderful it can be."

The details

The ballet
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000), in rep 14-20 July

The exhibition
The Titians will be shown at the National Gallery, London WC2, with sets and costumes created for the ballet from 11 July to 23 September

The screening
The 16 July performance will be simultaneously relayed to a large screen at Trafalgar Square, and to 18 other venues across the UK


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May 30 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The details

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

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

The bell-ringing
Sign up at allthebells.com

Reading this on mobile? Click here to view


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May 25 2012

The Saturday interview: Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin, who opens one of the biggest shows of her career today, talks about swapping sex for stargazing, why she likes David Cameron, and wanting her art to make people feel better

Demanding artist, selfish (her words) seeks an intelligent man with good sense of humour, probably not for sex because she's going through the menopause and has lost the urge, but definitely for laughs and companionship.

"I want love," says Tracey Emin. "I want to spend my life with someone and do nice things and go on adventures, read books and have nice food and celebrate things. I don't want to spend the rest of my life in the bedroom like some people who just go to bed and never get out again."

Emin is approaching 50 and she is worried about the possibility of a lonely, gentle descent to death. "I am going through the menopause and I have been for ages," she says. "It is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare. It's horrible. And I don't look like that kind of person; you don't put menopause on top of my head, it doesn't associate with me."

Emin is talking as she finishes the installation of a show that she regards as one of the most important of her career, because it is in her home town of Margate.

The works going on public display from today are almost all new or never previously exhibited. They explore themes of love and eroticism, but overwhelmingly, they mark a farewell to the old Emin – the wild child, the one that got drunk all the time, the sex, the bed, the tent. Her "animal" lust has gone. Now there is the new Emin.

"People don't talk about it, but the menopause, for me, makes you feel slightly dead, so you have to start using the other things – using your mind more, read more, you have to be more enlightened, you have to take on new things, think of new ideas, discover new things, start looking at the stars, understand astronomy … just wake yourself up, otherwise it's a gentle decline.

"For women, it is the beginning of dying. It is a sign. I've got to start using my brain more – I've got to be more ethereal and more enlightened."

Emin is 48. In 2008 she told Piers Morgan she wanted to adopt children – an idea she scoffs at now. "I have friends who have adopted, and they had to radically change their life, their homes, the way they dressed – everything, to get through the adoption agencies. I am not going to change anything."

She's not even sure she'd make a good mother. "I'd make a good friend, not mother. I'm too selfish. I think a lot of mothers are selfish and they end up having children, but I don't want to put some small tiny person through that. I don't want to be Joan Crawford.

"I would really like the idea of someone small and cute to dress up, we all do, but that's not what it's about, is it? I don't want a mini-me."

The truth is she has now made a conscious decision not to have children, and finds herself something of a role model for other similarly minded women. "I'm never going to have children, I'm never going to be a grandmother, I'm probably never going to get married. I'm nearly 50, and it is not happening. I've got too much on the other side now, and I understand that."

But being childless can be difficult. "You're treated like a witch. And I'm not a witch, it is just that I have chosen to do things in another way. It is not by accident."

There are some stunningly beautiful works in her latest show, and much to get hearts singing, especially in the first room, which features a series of blue drawings bathed in exceptional light. "This room is about not being alone, and there's a nice feeling in this room. It's uplifting."

We look at some drawings of her in bed with a friend reading Daphne du Maurier short stories to her. "It was such a nice, cosy thing. No sex, just a really good story." Emin suddenly seems downbeat. "I've thought I experienced love, and now I'm nearly 50 I'm saying, have I? Maybe I haven't. Maybe I don't know what love is. Maybe what I thought was love was a kind of greed, or desire, or something? I think there's different kinds of love – that's where I'm at at the moment. But I don't think I've experienced love."

Emin came closest in her five-year relationship with fellow YBA (the so-called Young British Artists who emerged in the late 1980s) Mat Collishaw, which ended 10 years ago (they are still good friends). In 2010 she split up with boyfriend Scott Douglas, and her closest relationship now, she says, is with her cat, Docket.

"When you have a really good friend and they're reading you a book in bed and it's all cosy and all snuggly, that can be love, too. It doesn't have to be hardcore. There's different kinds of love, and I'd never experienced that kind of totally platonic love. All the love I've experienced has always been a kind of deal, and now, as I get older, I realise that there's this other love out there."

At the other side of the room we look at some works she has never shown before, from when she was in Australia in 2007. "I was in Sydney on my own for two months, trying to work out why I felt so ill. I went on this complete health thing – I stopped drinking, I cycled every day, I walked about 10km every day, I swam every day, went on a really strict diet. My legs and arms went completely skinny, but my stomach was just getting bigger and bigger, because I was ill, and didn't understand why. What I was trying to do with these drawings was try and make myself feel sexy again, but it was difficult. It was almost there, but wasn't."

What was her illness? "I had a tapeworm."

We move on to works she did in Carrara, Tuscany, when she was looking at marble with a friend. "It was the first time I'd been really happy in a long time. You know when you wake up and you feel good? I realised then I'd been low for a long time."

One is a simple drawing of a heart, which Emin now wants to make in pink alabaster. "I'm sure the first alabaster heart will be a disaster, I'd have to keep working at it, but it's about me being driven by myself," she says. "Whether people like my work or not, I want to show people I can do things. I look at this show and I'm enthusiastic. It makes me want to do things."

Emin's path to art superstardom began when she opened The Shop in Bethnal Green with YBA Sarah Lucas in 1993, cashing in on Damien Hirst's new fame by selling ashtrays with his face on. People began to sit up and take notice with works such as her tent (Everyone I Ever Slept With, from 1963 to 1995) that was bought by Charles Saatchi and shown at the Royal Academy's Sensation show in 1997 – the same year that she so memorably appeared on a late-night Channel 4 discussion show completely hammered. Two years later, Emin was shortlisted for the Turner prize, exhibiting her unmade bed complete with stains, condoms and dirty underwear.

Unlike some other YBAs, her success has endured. She represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2007, staged an enormously successful mid-career retrospective at London's Hayward gallery last year, and not long after that was voted by her peers as Eranda professor of drawing at the Royal Academy, the first woman to occupy the role.

Critics generally warm to her these days. Reviewing the Hayward show, Rachel Campbell-Johnston of the Times wrote: "I would love to hate Tracey Emin," but she left "a convert". The Guardian's Adrian Searle called her art touching and surprising and said "the cumulative effect is extremely powerful".

She may shake her head at the suggestion, but Emin, once "Mad Trace from Margate", is now firmly part of the establishment. She's even a Tory. "I like David Cameron because I think he is fair compared to a lot of politicians in history," she says. "He's in the centre. Probably more centre than someone in Labour, not mentioning any names, who's actually Opus Dei – that is extreme right-wing thinking."

She is baffled by all the political fighting that goes on. One work in the show, The Vanishing Lake, is a rusting metal bath with a scrunched-up union flag in it, and is a comment on Britain – "politically, socially, morally". The flag is a scar. "I don't understand why people don't pull together. I don't understand why there's so much disunity. I don't understand why people can't just say: 'It's a mess, let's pull together.' Why is everyone so angry with each other on everything? It's so easy – if everyone relaxed and said we should work together, rather than against each other."

The Margate show is at Turner Contemporary, the David Chipperfield-designed gallery that opened in April last year and is helping to spearhead the town's desperately needed regeneration. Emin has been a staunch supporter, and she was the obvious choice for a major show in Olympic year (the exhibition is part of the London 2012 festival). It is clearly a big deal for her, and she's written an open letter to Margate, asking people to come. "I do feel really positive about this show, because even if people don't like it, I like it. And that is the most important thing. I didn't know that I would, because there's so much new work, and I thought I was setting myself up for a fall, but I've done it. I wanted to do something exceptional because it is Margate.

"I'm always anxious with a show, but more so with this one. I've been tearing myself to pieces … chronic nerves."

Reassuringly, there is a bed in the show. Or a Heal's mattress at least – quite astonishingly stained – on which Emin has placed a bronzed dead branch. The mattress saw service between 2000 and 2003, and is called Dead Sea. But how did it get into such a state? "I'm not going to go into the gory details. Believe me, it was all naturally made. It wasn't all on my own, I can assure you.

"It goes back to that thing of being over." She's talking about sex again. "It's over. This explains it very well. It was there, but it's gone."

And though she's one of the most successful and feted artists of her generation, is rich and has beautiful houses in east London and the south of France, where she spends around four months a year, it's still not easy finding a man. "I don't think it helps," Emin says. "Any woman who is successful and top of their game will tell you that it is not attractive to men."

She says she has not had many close relationships in recent years, and her friends "have seriously stopped" any attempts at matchmaking. "I say to them, 'Would you give him a blow job? No you wouldn't, so don't expect me to.'"

A flash of the old Emin – full-on, confrontational, up yours. Now she simply wants people to come to her show and enjoy it. "A lot of my shows generally make people feel worse," she says. "I'd like it if people came and left feeling better."

She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea: Tracey Emin at Turner Contemporary opens today, until 23 September. Details: turnercontemporary.org


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May 22 2012

Burning grand pianos on the Scottish border

Turner Prizewinner Douglas Gordon shoots his first film in England, bringing work as well as carefully-managed arson to a Cumbrian nook. Alan Sykes looks on admiringly

Talkin Head is normally an extraordinarily quiet place – an isolated Cumbrian hill farm in a wooded valley nestled in the fells looking southwards towards the Lake District hills. The loudest noise you normally hear is the call of the curlews or the mewing of buzzards overhead. Last night, however, the farm was overrun with activity, with over 30 people – cameramen, special effects specialists, firefighters, sound operatives, producers, arts commissioners, runners, a gardener, security people and assorted hangers on – from 10 different countries from Chile to Denmark (and many from Scotland) beavering away up the fellside prior to filming from an hour or so before sunset until an hour afterwards.

The (relatively) calm centre of this storm of activity was Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon, who had chosen the spot to make his first ever film in England – albeit within sight of his native Scotland.

The work is to be called The End of Civilisation, and centres on shots of a grand piano burning in a dip in the fellside. Another screen will show the results of a tracking camera on a scaffolding tower, circling 360 degrees and filming the panorama of the Scottish borders, the line of Hadrian's Wall, Venus dipping into the Solway Firth, Helvellyn and the only three other mountains in England, as well as a closer (smaller) hill called Tarnmonath and the North Pennines.


Douglas, probably best known for Zinedine Zidane: A 21st century Portrait, explained the symbolism of the piano burning: "a piano started to represent for me the ultimate symbol of western civilisation. Not only is it an instrument, it's a beautiful object that works as a sculpture but it has another function entirely"

"I wanted to do something with a piano in a landscape of some significance and I suppose, as a Scotsman, there's nothing more significant than the border. When Jon Bewley of Locus+ led me to here, I thought it was beautiful to look from one country into another and I liked the idea Hadrian's Wall is, under a certain interpretation, a great end of civilisation. But of course technically with what we're doing with the 360 degree camera, there is no end or start of civilisation. You can imagine the Scots looking over the wall and thinking "what the hell are those Romans up to now?" - so it's a nice game to play over that border on what civilisation actually is. On my first visit I was overwhelmed to be in a landscape of such beauty and with such a huge unfathomable history."



Beth Bate, director of Great North Run Culture, said:

" We're delighted to be working with Douglas Gordon and again with our partners Locus+. The End of Civilisation is a major new commission and we're especially grateful to Arts Council England for their support."



Like all films, this one brings a boost to the local economy, with many local people being involved, and pubs and accommodation providers benefitting. Harriet Dean, whose ancestors have owned the place since the 1150s, farms her sheep at Talkin Head, runs the
holiday cottages where the film crew has been based and has been providing their catering. Initially somewhat sceptical about the project, she has been won over and says:

I've been thrilled to welcome such an amazing group of talented people here. I'm really looking forward to seeing the results and hope it will encourage more visitors to this wonderfully beautiful but empty corner of the country.


Another piano burns tonight and tomorrow the film crew will pack up their huge quantity of equipment and the farm will revert to the tranquillity that it has enjoyed for the last 850 years – until the next Scottish invasion.

The border theme will be continued when the film gets its premiere, on July 5th and 6th at the Tyne Theatre & Opera House, built on the line of Hadrian's Wall in central Newcastle. You can book free tickets here. After the Newcastle premiere it tours to form part of a Douglas Gordon retrospective in Tel Aviv and will then be shown at film festivals and exhibitions in Venice, New York, Berlin and London.

Douglas Gordon's The End of Civilisation is a Great North Run Culture and Locus+ True Spirit co-commission.


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May 21 2012

The toon turns out for Tyne's big fashion bash

Sales and footfall success of last year's debut event has promoted a nine-day extravaganza in Newcastle and Gateshead this time round

Something is stirring in Newcastle city centre. Northumberland Street has been transformed into a city-sized runway for the style savvy and the fashion police are patrolling - cameras poised for those dressed to kill.

Yes, we're coming up to Newcastle Fashion Week organised by NE1 and the hunt is on for the city's sleekest citizens via a 'Newcastle's Most Stylish' street-style competition. Hot on the heels of last year's success, the Geordie take on London and Paris is back with a whey aye – and it's set to be bigger and better than before. The fashion 'week' actually stretches over nine days from this Saturday 26 May and promises 'focused fashion fun with one major milestone event on each day'.

With practically the whole city involved, there's something for everyone – from 'Fashion Freaks and Film Geeks' night at the Tyneside Cinema to an eBay workshop at the city library and a lecture by veteran editor Elizabeth Walker at Newcastle University - fashionista or not, you won't be left out.

This year, the event will focus on more live action fashion with at least one catwalk show each day. Highlights include 'Frock and Roll' at Northumbria University, combining four top high street brands with four fantastic live music acts, a Tudor fashion show in the city library with costume designer Julia Soares McCormick, a charity shop chic show in St. Nicholas' Cathedral and 'Fashion's Day Out' in Eldon Square – an afternoon packed with catwalk shows and demonstrations.

Organiser Sandra Tang says:

We've tried to create the buzz of a major Fashion Week by staging a fast-paced timetable of catwalk shows at stores across Eldon Square. The idea is for people to hot foot it around the centre to catch the catwalk action throughout the day.

Newcastle's emerging talent will also be showcasing work, with Northumbria University's fashion design graduates presenting end-of-year collections at the Baltic, scene of last year's Turner Prize, and Newcastle College students showing off their designs at Grey's Monument.

For vintage-lovers and bargain hunters there's a 'Summer Swish' and a 'Make and Mend Market' fashion special in the Grainger Market – full of homemade retro treasures. There will also be a suit amnesty throughout the week where unwanted suits, belts, ties, shoes and general workwear can be donated to help homeless job seekers.

The week draws to a close with Gosforth-born former Burberry model Donna Air presenting the award for 'Newcastle's most stylish' to the coolest people spotted by the week's roving photographers. Fashion TV hosts the closing party at Tup Tup Palace.

Sandra describes Newcastle-Gateshead style as "eclectic" and says:

The fashion vibe belies the place's size – it may not be the largest city but it's got a wide range of street styles, well-serviced by an array of different retailers. There are designer names such as Vivienne Westwood and the brands stocked in Cruise and Fenwick through to vintage lovers and indie chic who are well catered-for by thriving independent boutiques and vintage stores across the city.

The high street is also well-represented and can provide fashion fodder for a wide range of street styles. It all helps to fuel a vibrant and very diverse fashion scene in the city.

Last year's debut fashion week was a major success, with an average footfall increase of 24% and average sales increase of 39% for companies involved. This year, NE1 have set the bar even higher with exclusive t-shirts designed by South Shields-based fashion house Barbour and necklaces from Lovebullets jewellery which caters to celebrities such as another local lass, Cheryl Cole.

In the midst of the economic downturn, the retail sector needs all the help it can get and Newcastle Fashion Week also helps to raise awareness of all the creativity on our doorstep. With many events free of charge or very reasonable, there's no excuse not to get involved and support our region's business community. Al info is here and on Facebook here and Twitter here.


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May 01 2012

Turner prize shortlist 2012

Paul Noble's weird world may be the frontrunner, but what about the sexy art of Elizabeth Price, the melancholy movies of Luke Fowler or the off-the-wall work of Spartacus Chetwynd?

This is a good shortlist. I was very impressed by the sexy, fetishistic film Elizabeth Price showed at the most recent British Art Show, with its encounters with objects and surfaces and the way the camera eroticises her subjects, including a vinyl LP, kitsch pottery figurines and an egg whisk. Her seductive art is sculpture by other means, and you're never sure whether her work is critique or love affair. Maybe it is both. Like a lot of artists now, Price seems to me to be revisiting modernism and its legacy. Sexy though her art is, it can also be a tad academic.

Luke Fowler's 2009 Serpentine Gallery show should have made him a contender then, but he probably didn't need yet another show. His films have frequently returned to problematic subjects – focusing more than once on the anti-psychiatrist RD Laing. He is attracted to marginal figures and lost souls, like the composer Cornelius Cardew, whose flirtation with Maoism almost wrecked his reputation. But Fowler's work is more than bio-pic dressed up as art. His work is atmospheric, melancholy and sometimes rather moving, whether he is using archival footage or filming new material. I once likened him to the documentary film-maker Adam Curtis. Fowler's films are often long, and I do wonder if the level of concentration his work requires will, like previous contenders the Otolith Group, get lost in the razzmatazz of the Turner prize.

Spartacus Chetwynd (what a name!) is totally oddball and off the wall, often in a good way, though her performances – which have sometimes involved large groups of participants and burlesque props – can be ramshackle affairs. I hope she'll produce something new and gobsmacking for the Turner prize, and not just leave us in a room filled with the detritus of her live works. There hasn't been nearly enough performance art in the Turner prize over the years, and more and more artists are returning to the form.

Paul Noble will undoubtedly be the frontrunner. He used to do funny performance pieces too, but for more than 15 years has focused on drawing his imaginary town of Nobson, with its faecal people and surreal architecture. Drawing can be a kind of performance too, and Noble's reputation is that of a reclusive obsessive, making a private fantasy world in a cloistered room. His art is enormously engaging, lively and peculiar. He says he has finished with Nobson, but on the basis of that alone he would deserve to win – though it's certainly not a cert.


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March 30 2012

Music Weekly podcast: Jeremy Deller recording bats and loving glam rock

Alexis and Kieran are joined this week by the Guardian's Michael Hann for a show that includes artist Jeremy Deller, singles club and Labrinth.

In the world of diamond encrusted skulls and unmade beds that is contemporary art, few people are as influenced by pop music as Turner prize winner Jeremy Deller – the artist who managed to combine acid house and brass bands. He talks to Alexis about the music he loves.

In singles club, where we run the rule over three new releases, we have tracks from Dexys Midnight Runners, Anthony 'Shake' Shakir and Mac Miller – whose 45 seconds of a woman panting has caused much debate.

Timothy McKenzie, otherwise known as songwriter and producer Labrinth, loved the idea of grime, but found it musically ignorant. So he started experimenting with a new blend that included church music and the sounds of his Nintendo. When Tinie Tempah came knocking on his studio door, everything clicked into place, he tells Kieran.

Thanks for listening, and also for your feedback on last week's show; please keep the comments coming. There is no Music Weekly podcast next week, but we'll return in a fortnight.



March 25 2012

Grayson Perry: 'The most interesting thing about Damien Hirst is probably his accounts'

The Turner prize-winning artist took to the stage to answer readers' searching – and often surprising – questions about his life and work at the Guardian's Open Weekend

It didn't even occur to me that the biggest surprise of interviewing Grayson Perry live might come about before the event even took place. In the weeks leading up to the Guardian's Open Weekend, we invited readers to submit their own questions for the artist. The responses were, by definition, unrepresentative and unscientific. But what a revelation they were.

My usual preparation for an interview had seemed so self evident until as to merit little attention. Whoever the interviewee, when drawing up questions I almost always gravitate towards their fault-lines and conflicts – the paradoxes and puzzles in their life and work. But our readers, it soon transpired, had other ideas.

Starting from a broad position of admiration, most of their questions could be characterised as devices to illuminate Perry's personality, or invitations to expand on his relationship with his work. It came as quite a shock to realise that only one of all their questions would have featured on my list. Conversely, lots of them posed a fantastical scenario, based on a hypothesis – for example: "If you could travel back in time ..." – which would never have even crossed my mind. The conclusion was rather sobering. If these questions were representative of what readers actually found interesting, it might be time for a radical rethink.

To be fair, though, no research method would have generated my single favourite question, submitted by the artist's wife, who tweeted: "What's for dinner?" Perry is one of the few people I've met who actually go, "Ha ha ha," when they laugh – as he does, with earthy abandon, when I read out her question, before pointing out: "Well she'd know the answer to that." Resplendent in a baby-doll dress of appliqué satin, and pantomime dame make up, he adds, deadpan, "I'm an old-fashioned man. As you can see."

Perry must be about as close to the perfect interviewee as one could hope for. He dresses for the occasion, and deploys the risque, occasionally catty candour of the underdog outsider. He likes to preface a reply with a quote, and the breadth of his erudition is almost as impressive as his gift for counter intuitive aphorisms: "Innovation," he declares, for example, "is overrated." If Perry were a politician, these could easily be dismissed as sound-bites. But he commands the sort of giddy affection we tend only to bestow on our most improbable heroes.

The artist became a household name more or less overnight, when he surprised the art world by winning the 2003 Turner prize. Perry had already been working as an artist for the best part of 20 years by then, but wasn't particularly well known within art circles, let alone to the public at large. Born and brought up in Essex, he'd endured a fairly miserable childhood and escaped to London, via art school, as soon as he could. Never fashionable, his success as an artist had been respectable but unremarkable – until the Turner prize made him a star.

Perhaps the clearest single theme to emerge from readers' questions was their impression that the contemporary art world – embodied by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and so on – is a bit cynical, whereas Perry represents wholesome integrity. Interestingly, although Perry comes across as something of a mischief-maker, his answers are deceptively skilful, managing to both confirm the audience's distinction between himself and the Young British Artists (YBAs) – and yet never endorsing any explicit criticism of his glitzier contemporaries' work.

"Contemporary art has become this baggy old bag; you can dump any old thing in and people say it's art," he will concede. "I don't want to see something you could think up in the bath and just phone it in. If you go to the Tate, every scrap of paper, every piece of poo – literally – is only made significant because it has a famous name attached. As an artist I'm very aware of what I call Picasso-napkin syndrome – I've got this 20th century version of the midas touch, where if I do a little doodle it's worth money! And that's quite a weird and horrifying curse, if you're in the creative business, because you become incredibly self conscious."

Perry has the audience in giggles when he observes: "Now that conceptual art has appeared on the Archers, you know that the game is up," and reflects, "The most interesting thing about Damien Hirst is probably his accounts. Not to say that his work isn't interesting as well," he adds quickly. "But the most interesting thing is probably the accounts." He calls biennales "banalies", and says the modern gallery-goer's attitude to contemporary art "is theme park plus sodoku. They want to go, 'My god it's so sexy, shocking, big, shiny, amazing!' But," and he starts to mime chin-stroking introspection, "'what's it about, what's it about?' My attitude to art is: is it good art? Is it giving me visual pleasure?" He thinks art whose sole purpose is to shock is "a bit boring. It's a bit lame," and though he sees a place for shock in art – "I suppose there's an element that, you know, you need salt on your potatoes; I think it's part of the kind of excited tingle of looking at an art work," he thinks it's become "a kind of worn-out thing".

All of which goes down wonderfully with his audience. But he is very careful to steer clear of anything that could be construed as an art-world cat-fight. "I think the prank, if you like, of just signing a piece of paper and saying that's art – that's great, and it kind of had to be done, you know, make that boundary of what art can be," he offers diplomatically. A reader's question– "Compared with Grayson Perry, most of the YBAs of the 90s were, and are, humourless self-important pretentious bores. Discuss," – makes him laugh raucously, but he replies, "Well I know quite a lot of them and they're very funny, so that's a very sweeping, terrible bitter generalisation – probably," Perry grins, "from a failed artist." Another question – "Given that much of the YBAs success could be attributed to their having gone to college with Damien Hirst, what would you identify as your own lucky break?" is jokily dismissed as clearly from "another bitter artist".

And yet his answer is intriguing. A member of staff at an Amsterdam gallery, Perry recalls, came across one of his pots while rummaging through the basement for a ceramic show. She called him, got to know him, and asked if he'd like to exhibit a show in their gallery. That show won Grayson the Turner Prize in 2003: "So I guess that was my lucky break."

Over the years since then, Perry's work has increasingly featured his childhood teddy bear, called Alan Measles; he recently toured Bavaria on a motorbike, with Alan balanced on the back in his own custom built glass shrine, and he plays with the idea of Alan as a god. The bear is almost as famous as Perry by now, and a reader wants to know who Perry prefers – himself, or his bear?

"Oh well it depends. If I'm going to play the game then of course Alan is my deity and I owe everything to him. Therefore I would say that he is the senior partner. But of course I'm afraid to say that I projected everything onto him, so I'm sorry Alan but he owes everything to me. I have invented him. I hate to tell this to people but most gods were invented by someone. I'm sorry. It's just that I'm in the present, whereas the famous gods were invented by someone a long time ago." An audience member asks if he is serious about regarding Alan as a god, or merely being satirical, and Perry admits that at first the idea was a joke, but over time has evolved into "a serious look at how religions form." The best religions, he adds, "develop organically. On Twitter, probably."

Alan Measles may or may not be a God, but he is unquestionably a celebrity – as is Perry – and many questions explore the theme of the artist as a personality. Perry handles them all with the unflappable poise of a media veteran. "Well one of the first things a journalist asked me after I won the Turner prize was, are you a loveable character or are you a serious artist? And I kind of replied, is it an either or? We live in a media saturated world. I'm sure artists of the past would have dealt with it in just the same way. If you're in the business of communication and images, then if you ignore the media-sphere you're just cutting off your own foot. It's just daft."

He is equally pragmatic about the relationship between contemporary art and finance. His 2009 work, Walthamstow Tapestry, satirised our slavish devotion to brands – and yet his recent exhibition at the British Museum was sponsored by the luxury brand Louis Vutton, as well as a City firm, Alix Partners. The only question I would have asked myself came from a reader who felt troubled by this partnership, and suggested that artists should be chronicling the wealthy's abuses, not rubbing up to them, but wondered if they could no longer afford to bite the hand that feeds.

"Well," Perry responds equably, "Nam June Paik said an artist should always bite the hand that feeds him – but not too hard. It's one of my favourite quotes, that one. My show wouldn't have happened without a sponsor, full stop. It's just – you have to chew on it, it's a real thing. It's not a kind of new thing." He is similarly pragmatic about becoming a brand. "Well it's interesting because we use the word brand in a very derogatory way a lot of the time. I do it as much as anyone. But i think a brand is also sort of like momentum; it gets you through the bad patches if you've got a good brand." He adds, though, "As an artist I'm extremely aware, increasingly, that everything that comes out of the studio I have to feel it's of the correct quality. I can't just sit on my brand at all. I think the worst behaviour of brands is when they're all brand and no quality."

Perry spent six years in therapy, from the late 90s to early 2000s, and is married to a psychotherapist, so many questions come up about the relationship between art and therapy. "Therapy's been a huge influence," he says, "and, yes, being married to a therapist has been amazingly influential because we talk all the time about therapy issues and I think it's a very clear eyed way of looking at the world. I look at my art during the time I was in therapy and it was a kind of flowering; I got into top gear at that point." In fact he came to the end of therapy the year after winning the Turner prize, so I ask if he thinks this was coincidental or connected. "Yeah, if you do therapy you'll win the Turner prize," he jokes.

Therapy had a major impact on Perry's transvestism, which began in childhood and quickly became a compulsion, but sounds like a pure pleasure for Perry today. He used to talk about dressing up as an alter ego called Claire, but therapy taught him to reconcile his two gender identities, and the construct of a female self called Claire now feels to him like a bit of anachronism. Perry goes along with the Claire shtick as far as he can, but it's evident that his patience is wearing thin.

I put a question from a reader who says that, when dressed as Claire, Perry is "the spitting image of my mother in law". Perry's timing and deadpan delivery are faultless: "Well, he's got a very interesting mother-in-law." Asked where he shops, he says he doesn't; his clothes are all custom-made, often by the fashion students he teaches every year. "I say to them, make me something that I would be embarrassed to wear. I challenge you to do it! And they try their hardest, bless them. I get some superb outfits out of it, I really do." Someone asks Perry to name the most humiliating thing that's ever happened to him. "And did you enjoy it?" He laughs. "Well it was nothing to do with dressing up, probably. It was probably some hideous faux pas that I've made. No, when I talk about dressing for humiliation, it's probably a fantasy of humiliation that I kind of have, rather than actual. Like a lot of sexual fetishes, you know, the fantasy is much nicer than the reality."

Claire is, famously, banned from Perry's studio, and a reader asks, Why does Claire have to be so neat and clean. Doesn't she need a busy space too? "She's not a real person," he points out with a tart laugh. "This is it. It's me in a dress. I'm a busy man these days so I dress up when other people dress up, or I'm doing a show. If other people are putting on a bit of slap then I will."

I'd decided not to ask Perry any of the hypothetical questions readers had submitted – just because they were rather elaborate and would, I feared, take up too much time to get through, one alone running to well over 100 words. But then someone in the audience asked a concise one: if Perry could live another 200 years as an artist, would he still be a ceramicist or would he use digital media? "Oh I do use digital media," he countered. "Now I only make pots probably half the time, if that. My next show, I've done it all on Photoshop mainly. I'm not a luddite when it comes to digital media at all."

Well well. At the very beginning Perry had expressly asked not to be questioned about future projects – and yet this reader's hypothetical scenario got him talking about it, and produced the one news story of the session. Truthfully, I would never have asked that question. It is a sobering and rather confronting thought.

The overwhelming legacy of this experiment is, to my surprise, guilt. I feel terrible about all the readers whose questions I never got to ask. I consider emailing them with apologies and explanations – until it occurs to me that they, more than anyone, have probably gained the single greatest insight into what it's really like to interview people.

It's not about deciding what to ask, or how to trick the interviewee into answering. Most of the time, it's really just about what to leave out.


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March 08 2012

Read all about it: how Gilbert & George stole the headlines

Urbane artistic pair pilfered 3,712 newspaper bills from outside London shops to create works now on show at White Cube galleries

If you are a London newsagent and have noticed an impeccably dressed but slightly shifty gentleman in his 60s regularly buying chewing gum in recent years, you may have been the victim of a "crime".

He was, in fact, a distraction to prevent you from seeing another impeccably dressed gentleman outside, removing the local newspaper bill from its metal rack.

"We realised we had to steal them," said Gilbert. "We had a drawer full of chewing gum at one stage," said George.

The men responsible for the systematic theft of 3,712 newspaper bills in east and north London are, of course, the artists Gilbert & George – and on Thursday they revealed the results in an exhibition across all three White Cube galleries in London.

The 292 bills that made it into London Pictures form Gilbert & George's largest series of works.

The artists have grouped the bills together by subject – yobs, for example, with LASER YOBS ENDANGERED COPTER PILOT and RABBIT IS SET ALIGHT BY YOBS – and laid them out in groups on a background which features them as ghostly observers.

They assumed that getting the bills would be easy. "We thought it would be very simple, we'd ask the shopkeeper to keep last week's poster," said George.

"But it was: 'What do you want that for guv?'. 'What's your game?' and 'Where are you from anyway?' They were very suspicious and very aggressive – they would never let you have one."

"Not one," interjects Gilbert.

They were caught in the act only once when an "overenthusiastic" policeman came up to George as he was putting a bill in his pocket. He pretended to be a teacher making a display of the posters at his school to try to curb antisocial behaviour and relieve pressure on police. "He replied: 'Oh sir, if only more people were like you.' "

The project has taken up all their time. "We've lived it, we've breathed it, we've sexed it, we've thought it … everything," said George. "More than any other pictures, they went all the way through us."

He said appropriating the bills allowed them to tackle subjects they otherwise may not have tackled: "I wouldn't like to start thinking about how you draw or paint a group of yobs – it would seem very patronising or awkward."

Gilbert & George have been hoarding the bills at their studios in Fournier Street, east London, where they have lived and worked for 40 years. They are something of an institution and there are people who will hang around the street in the hope of spotting the two on their regular walks.

They have won the Turner prize (1986), represented Britain at the Venice Biennale (2005) and had a retrospective at Tate Modern (2007). Throughout, they have never been shy of offending sensibilities: the Naked Shit Pictures from the mid-1990s, for example, which featured the artists naked alongside giant turds.

Four years ago, they entered into a civil partnership which they said was primarily to do with protecting the other's interest if one of them were to die.

Most of the bills in the new show are from Gilbert & George's normal hunting ground around Spitalfields and Liverpool Street, in east London, but some betray a wider journey – N7 GAS TERROR AS COPPER THIEVES STRIKE, for example, which features the postcode for Holloway. "We went to north London for dinner," said George.

The bills are a reflection of a society that we are all complicit in, the artists said.

"It is quite extraordinary that you have this slogan, this poster every single day and everybody just moves on. The next day it's another one. This is life standing still," said Gilbert.

The works are full of "death plunges", "terror" and "murder" but they also have a positive side.

"Yes there's a lot of misery, shame and unhappiness but this is also a celebration in a way because there are many countries where you can't have posters like this. It's a sign of an amazing freedom," said George.

The pictures will be on display at the White Cubes in Bermondsey, Hoxton and Mason's Yard, in central London, until 12 May – it costs nothing to get in and see them, but anything between £50,000 and £250,000 to buy one.


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January 28 2012

Feelgood art: the pick-me-up to get us through an age of anxiety

British artists used to delight in shocking audiences, but now many are involved in projects intended to cheer people up

Young British artists once rocked the world with a volley of pickled animal cadavers, unmade beds and flicking light switches. But now, against the backdrop of a grim economic climate, some of the movement's biggest stars appear to be concentrating on cheering us all up.

Feelgood artwork is everywhere, from the life-affirming London Underground project of Michael Landy, who has invited commuters to log incidents of kindness, to the uplifting public art commissioned for the top of bus shelters to herald the Olympics.

"There is a second world war kind of thing going on about 'keeping the home fires burning' at the moment; a bit of 'keep calm and carry on' art, if you like," said the Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller this weekend as he prepared for the opening of his retrospective show, Joy in People, on London's South Bank next month. However, his own work, as he explains, is not intended as a simple pick-me-up.

"The title of my show is apparently positive, but the show itself isn't all positive. There is anger and there is frustration too," he said.

Other leading artists, such as Martin Creed and Tracey Emin, who established their careers with work on challenging themes, are now producing art that urges their public to think positive thoughts. "Don't Worry", reads Creed's neon work, while several of Emin's recent neon signs are equally direct, reading "Trust Me" and "I Keep Believing in You". The Turner prize-nominated artist Mark Titchner is one of those to contribute to Bus Tops, a Cultural Olympiad project which has seen inspirational digital commands such as "Act or be Acted Upon" and "If you don't like your life, you can change it" adorning London bus shelters.

Much of this work is tongue-in-cheek, or at least invites a few questions, but the overall effect is to emphasise the better things about human existence.

"When times are difficult, values are going to be questioned," said Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery. "You look again at what's important and at what's less important in life. It is usually a time when culture and art can play an important part, whereas in a boom period there is too much focus on the hype around the boom and on all the alluring baubles it holds out before us."

Rugoff, who is staging the Deller show and an exhibition of the wry sketches of David Shrigley, is clear that art should not be regarded as "a nice sedative we can take together … What it can do, though, is function as a catalyst and bring people together. Art can connect them in new ways."

On Tuesday, a group of artists including Gillian Wearing, Antony Gormley, Yinka Shonibare and Jonathan Yeo are to launch a more practical response to the financial slump. The group are staging a major exhibition in London this spring that will raise money for the homelessness charity Crisis. "Art reflects on situations in ways that cold hard facts can't," said Wearing, who won the Turner prize in 1997. "It tries to make sense of the world subjectively, whereas facts tend to ignore our subjectivity."

Her partner is Landy, and she explains that the idea behind his Acts of Kindness on the London Underground came to him before the financial crisis took hold. "For me it was powerful that an artist was working with kindness, something that we easily overlook," she said this weekend. "It actually inspired some works of mine, including the one for the Crisis Commission, where I wanted to look at people who have overcome difficulties in life and have become heroes."

But on the weekend when film-maker Danny Boyle, director of the Olympics opening ceremony, announced his Isle of Wonders theme, Deller for one is decidedly grumpy about the pressure to be jolly in preparation for the summer. "The Olympics, of course, is something that will attempt to brainwash artists into expressing positive things," he said. "Some will. But I am the kind of person who will try and do the opposite. I find these big cultural and sporting events unbearable."

In 2009 Deller invited London Underground staff on the Piccadilly Line to help him produce a booklet of quotes called What is the City But People. The booklet aimed "to generate a more positive atmosphere during peak times", but his best known work also tackles the violent 1984 confrontations between striking miners and police and the Iraq war. His recent work What It Is, the remains of a car destroyed at Al-Mutanabbi book market in Baghdad, will be in the new exhibition.

"Historically, art began by giving people what they needed, as it was tied up with religion. Now it is much more fragmented and it can be about how miserable and rotten things are," he said. His own collaborative work with the public is born of the fact that he is not traditionally trained, Deller suggests, as much as it is due to his belief and interest in people.

"At its simplest, I would say art is another way of looking at life, or perhaps another way of dealing with it."

Deller points out that BritArt started under a Conservative government "in difficult times" and was later "appropriated by the Blair regime".

"At that point it did all become a bit celebratory," he said.

For several young artists the benevolent act of making communal art has become part of the reason for doing it. Max Dovey, 23, is one of the artists featured in the 2012 Catlin guide to the 40 most promising art school graduates. "Apart from one or two notable exceptions, the response by new artists to the recession hasn't been as political or aggressive as one might have expected," said Justin Hammond, who wrote the guide. "Looking at the selected artists, there's a lot of humour running through the work though, and Max Dovey's work is very much about encouraging communication and embracing the idea of community."

"The Emotional Stock Market, which was the piece I did last year, was about trading well-being as a commodity like shares," said Dovey, who is from Bristol and lives and works in south London. "There was a lot of political talk about moving away from gross domestic product to valuing how people were feeling, and my piece was a satire or a comment on that. We tracked the levels of well-being by looking at status updates on Facebook and at Twitter to see how many were happy or sad, and then we traded them in live performance."

Dovey argues that there is a new growth of "careful art" among contemporaries who are making community projects. "Artists don't want to shock or upset. There is more interest in how art makes people feel and the experience of art has become at least as important as the practice of it."


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January 17 2012

Gary Hume: the half-an-hour a day man

It's going to be a big year for Gary Hume. Not bad going for an artist whose creative bursts don't last long.

Gary Hume is walking around the basement gallery of White Cube's Mason's Yard branch, where some limestone sculptures are rearing up from the floor: they look like giant worms, with painted mounds jutting out on either side. On the walls are pictures of what look like birds with blue bodies and bright red beaks, painted with Hume's usual gloss paint on smooth aluminium surfaces, as shiny as sweets. These are the artist's "paradise paintings", part of his new London show The Indifferent Owl. And it's a very particular paradise.

"These are pubescent girls, naked," says Hume. "These are their legs and that's their pussies and they're all leaping across the landscape. I wanted to make some strange paradise where that was possible." Suddenly those worms look very phallic. Hume ponders their appearance. "They are quite sexual. There's a plant in America called milkweed. Their pods spew open and all this white stuff comes out." Yet the sculptures are birds, too – reaching from their nests to their mothers. "They're overwhelmingly ugly and needy and then they transform."

Hume says his work comes from his desire for "beauty and life and sex and little moments". Upstairs, pictures of blackberries, leaves and breasts hang on the walls; another room contains paintings made in five minutes: intense, draining bursts of creativity. "I'm probably creative for half an hour a day," he says. "The rest of the time I'm just doing what's necessary to make that creativity visible."

Hume graduated from Goldsmiths college in 1988, his work appearing in the seminal show Freeze that same year. Organised by his fellow students Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst, it launched the YBAs. The Indifferent Owl collects together Hume's work of the past two years, while a touring retrospective show, Flashback, staged by the Arts Council Collection, kicks off at Leeds Gallery next month. "I'm not as well known as I ought to be," jokes the man who, by 2001, had been Turner-nominated and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, "and I'd like to be well-known for absolutely everything. I'm aware my work's going to be very visible this year, and it'll be depressing if nobody cares."

The show's title comes from Hume hearing an owl hooting outside his home in upstate New York, where he lives for part of the year with his wife, the artist Georgie Hopton. He went for a walk in the woods the following morning, where he saw a deflated party balloon. "The owl had watched it, with this fantastic swivelling head, and was indifferent to this part of human joy that has been let go and is over."

Hume says it reminded him of himself: knowing that he should be concerned about the world's problems, but ultimately only really caring about his painting. "Obviously, I have a sense of empathy, but what I'm offering up has no saviour quality. I don't make political work. I don't make work that criticises the state. I make as human work as I can."

I wonder what he thinks of Cameron. "I don't give a damn." Really? "I don't! I don't vote. I voted Labour once, in that moment of euphoria. I know that if people only made a voice for change then change will happen, but I'm not that person. I'm painting pictures." One of five children, and brought up by his mum, an NHS surgery manager, Hume says he would never have been able to afford the £9,000-a-year fees today's students have to pay. "I was on a full grant and I still ended up with huge debts because it's expensive to make art. Which is terrible – because art school's meant to be for people who are wrong. You should go because you're broken. You shouldn't be going there because it's a professional choice and your parents can afford it. The disenfranchised should be going to art school – not the franchised."

Although he was once inspired by magazines and popular culture, and has painted the likes of Michael Jackson and Patsy Kensit, becoming middle-aged has changed things. "If I go out to a bar, people think I'm a minicab driver come to pick someone up. It's just not my world."

Curiously, The Indifferent Owl includes a portrait of French poet Rimbaud; it's one of Hume's few pictures of men. "Generally speaking I can't see the point," he says. "Partly because I don't fancy them. I have an erotic gaze on women but I don't have an erotic gaze on a man. Sex is important in my work. There's got to be a sexual drive in it." Rimbaud ceased writing poetry in his early 20s. But Hume, it seems, is here to stay. One of the pleasures of being an artist, he says, "is you never have to stop."


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December 06 2011

Turner prizewinner Martin Boyce: 'The tree just sort of blossomed' – video

Martin Boyce speaks to Charlotte Higgins about the inspiration behind his installation Do Words Have Voices



December 05 2011

Martin Boyce wins Turner prize 2011

Martin Boyce receives £25,000 award, confirming Glasgow's indelible importance to Britain's art world

Having sculpted a quietly atmospheric, lyrically autumnal installation as his entry for the 2011 Turner prize, Martin Boyce was on Monday presented with the £25,000 award at a ceremony at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead.

Boyce, 44, is the third successive Turner winner either brought up or educated in Glasgow, following Susan Philipsz last year and Richard Wright in 2009, and he confirms the city's now indelible importance to Britain's art world.

The artist was born in Hamilton, and was among the first students to graduate from Glasgow School of Art's now famous environmental art course. His year included Douglas Gordon, who won the prize in 1996, and Nathan Coley, shortlisted in 2007.

The prize was handed to Boyce by photographer Mario Testino at the Gateshead gallery. It is the first time the Turner prize has been shown outside the Tate family of galleries, and only the second time outside London.

Boyce created an installation for the Turner that has the feel both of an interior space and a mournful municipal park. Trees (in fact, the pillars that support the gallery ceiling) loom, their geometric aluminium leaves dappling the light that is cast over the space. On the ground are scattered more leaves, this time cut from paper, each of them of the same rebarbative, angular shape.

There is a madly angular park bin, too. But there is also a desk, based on a library table by French modernist designer Jean Prouvé, with letters scratched into it as if by a schoolchild. Much of the artistic vocabulary for Boyce's installation derives from a modernist garden – complete with concrete trees – created by designers Joel and Jan Martel in Paris in 1925.

The judges praised his "opening up of a new sense of poetry", while Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate, not a member of the jury, commented: "He is an extraordinarily strong artist who has been steadily maturing over the past seven or eight years. He made an extremely strong show for the Venice Biennale in 2009 – and I am surprised he was not shortlisted then. It is a strong choice.

"He has consistently reinvented the language of early modern art, and he is deeply engaged in that. But he makes work that does not depend on an understanding of early modern art: it is beautiful and arresting in its own right."

Boyce was the bookies' favourite for the prize, but many will be disappointed that George Shaw, 44, missed out.

Shaw, who is based in Devon, paints the estate where he grew up near Coventry, skirting dangerously close to kitsch with his deadpan, affectless depictions of dreary side roads, locked-up shops, littered half-urban woods and derelict pubs – the depressing but utterly recognisable edgelands of suburban England.

He had been nominated for a solo exhibition at the Baltic earlier this year.

Karla Black, 38, is another shortlisted artist who was educated at the Glasgow School of Art and is still based in the city. Nominated for an exhibition at this year's Venice Biennale representing Scotland, her sculptures for the Turner show are simultaneously delicate and on a huge scale. Here are giant, rolled-up balls of sugar paper chalked over in ice-cream colours, "bath bombs" from a high-street toiletries chain and painted polythene sheets made to dangle from the ceiling by sticky tape.

The final shortlisted artist was Hilary Lloyd, 46, based in London. Working with video, she creates works that are part film and part sculpture, revelling in the physical apparatus of her hardware's cabling and projectors, and showing images – of say a road bridge, a shadow on the floor, or the moon – that are deliberately unedited. She was nominated for an exhibition at the London gallery Raven Row. Judges for the 2011 Turner prize were Godfrey Worsdale, director of Baltic, and curators Katrina Brown, Vasif Kortun and Nadia Schneider. They were chaired by the director of Tate Britain, Penelope Curtis.

The prize returns to London and Tate Britain in 2012. It will be based in Derry in 2013, with the intention it should travel to cities outside London in alternate years.

The Turner prize was founded in 1984 and is awarded to a British or Britain-based artist aged under 50 for an outstanding exhibition in the preceding year.

Previous winners include Rachel Whiteread (1994), Damien Hirst (1995) and Grayson Perry (2003). The Turner exhibition continues until 8 January.


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The special ones: why art needs the Turner prize

In an age where we follow the crowd and glorify the ordinary in art, the Turner prize picks out the handful of extraordinary artists who truly deserve acclaim

One of the most fascinating arguments in Charles Saatchi's article in the Guardian on Saturday is his claim that many people in the art world "simply cannot tell a good artist from a weak one".

This opens up one of the most interesting questions in the whole world of contemporary art. That same issue arises every year at Turner prize time – which is where we are now. It's one thing to revile the whole of modern art and anyone who likes it, as does a Stuckist painter in a series of paintings starring me as their villain. It is much harder to sort the sheep from the goats, and try to identify what is worthwhile in the art of our time.

That's what Saatchi says curators, critics, and dealers and collectors fail to do. In fact he says they have no "eye" at all, and just pretend to love what everyone else happens to be pretending to love.

It's true. At any one time, there are waves of art-world enthusiasm for particular artists that go way beyond the artist's actual qualities. Broaden your view across the whole range of applauded contemporary artists and I reckon that about 70% of them are no good at all. This is only logical. The numbers of artists acclaimed and feted in Britain today exceed any possible real figure of truly outstanding artists in any one country at any one time.

Quantity, not quality, is the ethos of bienniales and art fairs. Critics reviewing the Venice Biennale simply accept that the vast majority of works will be boring and trivial, ignore it, and leap on the stuff they like. This year I felt it was a good Biennale because I liked five or six things – out of hundreds.

That actually is what art is like: out of hundreds of people who want to be artists, you are lucky if one has genuine talent. Real imagination and the ability to translate it into art come rarely, and even the best artists may only be truly good for a few years.

Discrimination should be the first rule of the art scene, because there is no value for anyone in glorifying the ordinary. The job is the find the extraordinary, and support that.

It's interesting how passionately audiences in New York responded to Alexander McQueen's posthumous exhibition at the Met. Evidently, the fashion world is much better than the art world at discerning real talent and celebrating the genuine stars, not the also-rans.

The worst problem with contemporary art is this suspension of critical faculties, the craven readiness to say the new and the cool must be great, by definition.

This is why the Turner prize matters. It is one moment when artists are judged instead of all being lumped together in a merry carnival. Once a year in December, a jury sits in a room and argues about what is truly good in art. Sometimes the decisions baffle and enrage me. They hurt the also-rans as much as they help the winner. But the Turner jury has a genuine chance to resist the tide of uncritical fashion and recognise the authentic, original handful of artists who truly deserve acclaim. I hope this year's Turner goes to George Shaw, a real artist if ever I saw one. And I hope the arguments that visitors enjoy are deep and serious and bitter – because passionate criticism is the only cure for the dreary feast of art for cool's sake.


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December 02 2011

Does the Turner prize still matter?

This year's Turner prize winner is named next week. Artist and former winner Jeremy Deller, and writer and former judge Miranda Sawyer discuss art's biggest contest

On Monday the winner of the 2011 Turner prize will be announced. Founded in 1984, it is awarded to a British artist under the age of 50. Previous winners include Antony Gormley and Damien Hirst. Since it was established, it has stoked controversy about contemporary art, though in recent years it has been more notable for its lack of sensationalism. Emine Saner asks journalist and broadcaster – and one-time judge – Miranda Sawyer, and artist and winner of the 2004 prize, Jeremy Deller, if it still matters.

Miranda Sawyer: Who is the Turner prize for?

Jeremy Deller: It's for the public, it's for the artists who take part, it helps the Tate, it's for whoever wants it. It's for the appreciation of contemporary art. The fact it's going to be moving around Britain is a good idea [this year it will be held outside London for the second time, at the Baltic in Gateshead]. Every other year it's going to leave London, and I think it's really important. Apparently in Gateshead they had 5,000 on the first day [by the end of the week, 30,000 people had visited]. The hunger is there.

MS: You could argue that it's done its job – we all know who Damien Hirst is; the Tate Modern is there. It's still needed, because every time it comes around there's a debate about it. The thing I find difficult is that it tends to be a trivial debate – "why isn't there an unmade bed this year?" or "why isn't it something we can get upset about?"

Emine Saner: Is there an expectation that it's going to be shocking, and then when it isn't, like this year, it almost seems disappointing? Do you think this diminishes its popularity?

JD: I don't think it diminishes its popularity. The public and media are more used to contemporary art now. I think you're mixing the press reaction with the public reaction. When I won, I said you lot [journalists at the press conference] are 10 years behind the public, you're still in this era of "this is all a big con" or "this is rubbish". But you see people at the Turner prize walking around, and they are into it in a way you'd never expect, reading everything and looking at everything. The first question I got from a journalist after I won was: "Is the video camera the new pencil?" If you go in for the Turner prize, you have to be quite strong, because you are up for a massive destruction at the hands of the press if you are not careful.

ES: What did winning the Turner prize do for you?

JD: If you have won it, people are happy to meet you, work with you and do things with you. It's a shorthand for "this person is successful", so I can get access to people and situations. Within the art world, you get invited to dinners, but it's actually helpful outside the art world. It's much more highly regarded abroad than it is in the UK. Because it's been going on for so long, and the winners have been pretty good, they see it as having a legitimacy. If you don't make much money with your work and you get nominated, it's like you're being recognised finally, because you're not recognised by the market. Maybe that's why I did it – the need to be legitimised.

MS: I can't name another contemporary art prize that is as important, and that's amazing really, that it still has that status, and people will still react to it.

JD: One of the reasons we need it is because there are these big names in contemporary art who get the publicity, and yet there are all these other artists who deserve some appreciation. The big artists monopolise press attention and the public's consciousness of what art is. And yet someone like George Shaw [one of the nominated artists] has credibility within the art world, and for the public is a real discovery.

MS: I like the hoo-ha. If somebody really press-friendly wins, like Grayson Perry, he had a rollercoaster year, he loved it, he's now a kind of national treasure. It works when you get interesting art and an interesting personality. There's a lot of culture being fired at you from all sides and the Turner is one way of guiding people. There is still an intimidation aspect to contemporary galleries. Sometimes you can go to an east London gallery and there's one person there being really cool and you have to walk around looking at things feeling like a dick. If you go into a place like Tate Modern, it's like a public park under a roof – the atmosphere is "anyone can come, have a look". People feel they might not know anything about contemporary art, but they can walk in. It's the same with the Turner prize exhibition.

JD: The prize is about making people not feel stupid – the environment is very user-friendly, even if the art isn't. If you go to see it, you're part of something as well, which makes it quite exciting.

MS: I was on the Turner prize judging panel [in 2007]. It was the single most traumatic experience I've had judging anything, by miles. There are just four of you, and there's something about the prize that is incredibly intense. You're not judging the work that is shown to the public, you're judging a piece of work or exhibition that is not there. The year I judged it, Mark Wallinger won. He won for State Britain [Wallinger's recreation of peace campaigner Brian Haw's protest camp] – but that wasn't shown. He showed Sleeper [the artist filmed himself wearing a bear suit and walking around a German gallery], so everybody thought he won it for that, although Sleeper is a great work.

JD: That lack of clarity can be a problem.

MS: I love art, but I don't go to every private view, I don't go to Venice [Biennale, contemporary art exhibition]. You can't go and see all the art. It is possible, if you're judging the Mercury prize or the Booker, to listen to all the albums or read all the books, but with art, it's impossible. You have to go and have that experience, and it's not possible unless you're in the art world or you're paid to go and look at everything.

ES: How do you feel about the age limit?

MS: I don't think there should be one.

JD: I was a trustee until recently, and we discussed it. I felt it should have been changed, but not many other people did. They realised that for the first 10 years of the new Turner prize, they would be giving it to people in their 70s and 80s, catching up, giving it to these mega figures.

MS: Maybe the argument for having an age limit is that it will help people more when they're younger – but in that case, why not whack it down?

JD: Artists mature later. It's a slower burn.

MS: What could you do to the Turner prize to make it better?

JD: Probably have more of a budget for the judges and the artists. Do a better book, a lovely catalogue. Treat it with a bit more respect as a process. But this isn't the time to ask for bigger budgets for art exhibitions.

• For more coverage of this year's prize, including video profiles of all the nominees, click here


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November 21 2011

The Turner Prize: Win a pair of tickets to a private view on 8 December

The work of the shortlisted artists in this year's Turner Prize Competition is on show at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. Extra members can win one of 25 pairs of tickets to a private view on 8 December

The Turner Prize is one of the world's most recognised and prestigious awards for contemporary art, showcasing the very best of British talent. As media partner for this year's competition, the Guardian has 25 pairs of tickets to a private view to give away to Extra members. The prize includes a guided tour of the exhibits and the event takes place on Thursday 8 December.

The four shortlisted artists are:
•Karla Black
•Martin Boyce
•Hilary Lloyd
•George Shaw

The competition closes at midnight on Sunday 4 December.

Enter this competition


Click here to enter this competition

Help with offers and events

•Extra is free to join. You need to be a member of Extra in order to see the redemption pages. To register your email address for the first time, press on the 'Click here to enter this competition' link above.

•Members also need to sign in to guardian.co.uk at the top left of the screen to be able to take up offers, book tickets or enter competitions.


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November 08 2011

Turner prize 2011 contenders: George Shaw - video

George Shaw's The Sly and Unseen Day show is painted in Humbrol enamel, and depicts locations near his childhood home in Coventry



October 26 2011

Adrian Searle: 'It's confusing. But it's the Turner prize'

Adrian Searle passes his verdict on the Turner prize 2011 in Gateshead, where Martin Boyce, Hilary Lloyd, Karla Black and George Shaw mix mediums to unsettling effect



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