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September 06 2011

Dublin art show draws on WB Yeats's darkest lines

Dublin Contemporary's political theme is the 'terrible beauty' in the poem Easter, 1916. But are Yeats's eerie, prophetic verses applicable to recent political and economic upheavals?

From 6 September until 31 October, Dublin is putting on a contemporary art show that occupies some of the city's finest venues and includes a host of Irish and international artists. Dublin Contemporary 2011 can be seen at the Hugh Lane, the National Gallery of Ireland and other spaces, and features, among others, Willie Doherty and Thomas Hirschhorn. It should be fascinating to see such a big spread of new art against this city's backdrop of 18th-century buildings, and the event deserves to draw big crowds to Dublin.

But inevitably, in these times of economic crisis and world political upheaval, Dublin Contemporary has a political feel: perhaps it is the first international art event to take on this year's mounting sense of crisis directly. Both the artists I have mentioned are notably engaged with political events, and Dublin Contemporary takes as its theme "Terrible Beauty", a quotation from WB Yeats's poem Easter, 1916.

This has been quite a summer for quoting Yeats. In the wake of England's riots, columnists were working great chunks from his poem The Second Coming into their copy. Easter, 1916 and The Second Coming both come from an anthology that Yeats published in 1921, his most disturbing and engaged book, reflecting on revolution and anticipating civil war. It is chilling that now, people from Telegraph commentators to art curators find his darkest lines appropriate to our times.

In Easter, 1916, Yeats defines the modern spirit in an uneasy and ambivalent way. He speaks of friends and acquaintances he used to meet after work, to say "polite meaningless words" to, yet who have now become revolutionary martyrs in the Easter Rising:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

This line captures the essence of modernism in art as well as politics – the change that has suddenly occurred is absolute, and unleashes terrible beauty. You can apply that image to works of art from Les demoiselles d'Avignon to Thomas Hirschhorn's Crystal of Resistance in the Swiss Pavilion at this summer's Venice Biennale.

As an aesthetic, this "terrible beauty" is compelling, but Yeats sees human terror in the violence and intensity that has been unleashed, for "Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart." In The Second Coming, the poet bears witness to gathering darkness as hearts do indeed turn to stone:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

So it is uneasy, to say the least, that all of a sudden, the times we live in seem to demand quotations from the eeriest prophetic verses of the 20th century. Are we really in times of "terrible beauty" once again? Are the troubling symptoms of the summer, from breaking glass to market shudders, really comparable with the bloody age in which Yeats had his revelations?

Dublin Contemporary sounds great. But I hope we can soon go back to living where motley is worn.


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August 30 2011

David Starkey is a master of the past, not the present

His views on race and the riots have drawn fierce criticism, but Starkey's books reveal a Britain remote from today's debates

I have been wondering what to do with my David Starkey books. I own three of his works on Tudor history in paperback, and one in hardback – oh, and a catalogue of an exhibition he curated. Until I heard his remarks on race, Enoch Powell and the riots, I was happy to think of myself as a fan. The day after, I thought about taking all his books to the charity shop. Instead I have put them behind other books. At least I don't have to finish his incredibly long history of Henry VIII's wives.

A large group of academics have written to the Times Higher Education Supplement, saying that Starkey has proved himself so well out of order that reports should not even call him a "historian" outside his specialist field of the Tudors. The word gives racist remarks a spurious legitimacy.

Is it a good idea to officially denounce him in this way? Doesn't it give a false aura of martyrdom and importance to views that are, in truth, so wide of the national consensus they seem to have spilled out of a parallel universe where Starkey remains stuck in the 1970s? So remote are his views from today's mainstream that it might be healthier – though probably impossible – to laugh them off as silly ramblings.

Anyway, it does not make sense to deny Starkey the title "historian". His books are immensely well-researched. He may know nothing about modern Britain but he knows an awful lot about the privy chamber in the 16th century. One of the things he has made famous is the sense of that word "privy", with the king's ministers doubling as intimate body servants. The texture of Starkey's descriptions of Tudor court life is amazingly rich and similar to what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called "thick description". Very few living historians would be on safe ground questioning his credentials, so I hope all those letter signatories are truly brilliant at their craft.

If Starkey has suddenly turned himself into a villain in many peoples' eyes, including mine, the historian Marc Bloch was surely a hero. He fought in the French Resistance, and was captured and executed by the Nazis. But if you read his great work Feudal Society, traces of his political beliefs are impossible to find. It is an attempt to imagine the entire society of Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries and it does this without judgment, without false contemporary parallels. For the past is another country, and there is a liberation in imagining a world that is human yet utterly different from our own. As the globalised economy ravages the last pockets of truly pre-industrial culture everywhere on earth, it is increasingly in history – in the contemplation of other times when people thought in other ways – that we can free our minds to imagine otherness.

Starkey, in his history books, does that. He reveals a past Britain utterly remote from today's debates. It is going too far, and probably playing into the hands of those who would seek to defend his "freedom of speech", to deny that he deserves respect as a historian. His books remain as good as they were. It is just his views on the present day that should be dumped in the garderobe and dealt with by the Master of the Stools.


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August 12 2011

A rogue gallery for the rioters | Jonathan Jones

Exhibiting pictures in this way reveals a desire to classify the world, collect it, put it in categories – including moral ones

The faces began to appear as soon as the courts got stuck in. By late Wednesday, newspapers were showing galleries of accused rioters on their websites and the following morning, when David Cameron was due to address parliament, the Daily Telegraph printed a row of three pictures of the accused under the headline "Our sick society".

Another grouping of photographs on the Daily Mail website was titled "A rogues' gallery", and showed a grid of photographs of men charged in court. In the Guardian too, a story on the fast-track court proceedings is accompanied online by a triptych of three of the accused.

Newspapers, like the courts, are trying to assimilate a lot of information very fast. These groupings of riot portraits are an effective way to stress the sheer number of people being prosecuted. Eerily, the pictures of defendants arriving at and leaving court, or pictures of happier days pulled from their Facebook pages, give individuality to fragments of what was originally a faceless crowd. The grid arrangements, meanwhile, stress the bigger story of collective outrage that links them all. But there is more to it than that.

"Our sick society": the Telegraph headline said it all. Its front-page display of three faces was inviting readers to contemplate moral decay. The faces of a white 11-year-old boy with his face blanked out, a white 19-year-old woman whose father is a company director and a black 31-year-old man who works in a primary school – in that order, from left to right – were exhibited as specimens of the "sick society". What does this mean? How can photographs reveal the moral state of anyone, let alone a category of people, or a society?

The instinct to exhibit these pictures in rows, galleries and grids originates in our mental habit of classifying the world, collecting it, putting it in categories – including moral categories. This is how the mind makes order from chaos. The genre of the typological portrait – a collection of people with something in common – is part of that instinct and originates in early modern Europe when every ruler kept a cabinet of curiosities, a collection of the world. The palace of the Medici in 16th century Florence had a cabinet of rare wonders while the nearby government offices – the Uffizi – boasted a vast gallery of portraits of famous men.

Portraits of the great and the good are one thing, but it was the Romantic age that turned the genre upside down and started to collect portraits of the outcast, excluded and condemned. The most moving such portraits are Théodore Géricault's paintings of "mad" people such as The Kleptomaniac, done as a series in the 1820s at the request of the psychologist Étienne-Jean Georget. The stage was set for the birth of photography. The cool eye of the camera proved perfect for compiling vast collections of criminal faces, deviant faces, anarchist faces, all pictured in the same pose and displayed in a vast grid to be studied by policemen, psychiatrists, physiognomists and cranial measurers.

The 19th century definitely thought it could see "sickness" in a face. The man who invented criminal photography was Alphonse Bertillon, in 19th-century France, whose systematic method of portraying the criminal type – full frontal and profile – is the origin of the modern mugshot. Bertillon's technique was taken up by American detectives and police forces where his grid displays of criminal faces got the name "rogues' gallery". The useful practical side of Bertillon's technique has endured in modern policing, but it would be naive to see him as an objective scientist of crime. The vast collections he created of deviant portraits, including political subversives, fed the fantasies of an age that believed mental conditions were inscribed in the shapes of faces and skulls.

So here we are, with the new rogues' gallery of the UK's 2011 riots, as newspapers compile their collections of the socially and morally outcast. Do conservative rhapsodists really believe we can look at these pictures and see a moral nightmare? If so, we need to resurrect 19th-century ways of looking at the human face. We need to scrutinise these people for signs of "degeneration", for muscles whose saggy disunity betrays a loss of moral control, for brutal brows that signify murderous passion, eyes that reveal a sly madness.

In reality, the Daily Mail shied away from such archaic beliefs. All it could muster, as an analysis of its rogues' gallery, was to say that one man looked just like a character in the underclass-caricaturing television drama Shameless. Next, they'll be saying one of the looters is planning a Fat Gypsy Wedding. Indeed, how soon is it before looters start telling their tales in the press?

For the great, pregnant moment of Us and Them that crystallised this week will never hold. The sense of a morally upright majority united against the "scum" will not last. The way the photographs of rioters and looters have been handled reveals the impossibility of sustaining a Cato-like moral condemnation of the rioters. Already by the end of the week, the grids and galleries of rogues with their invitation to diagnose a category of deviant personality were giving way to more detailed portraits of strange individual stories. The tales emerging from the courts seemed wildly various and fragmented, impossible to see as one single strain of moral sickness. The moral decision made by a man who took a case of water from a looted shop is simply not the same as the moral decision made by someone who committed arson or murder.

The Daily Telegraph's arrangement of three pictures of people of different ages and class backgrounds was intended to show that social and economic factors cannot be blamed for the riots. These people do not share the same social context – ergo, they must share something else, a moral failing. It is a powerful argument – for a moment. But as soon as you follow that very logic, looking for common moral threads, you face exactly the same problem that undermines easy economic explanations. It is just as hard to see a common ethical story as a common social story. Rightwing columnists blame the riots on fatherless families, but the well-off parents of 19-year-old Laura Johnson, one of the first rioters to have her named photograph published and one of the Telegraph Three, both supported her in court.

Photographs reveal very effectively how meaningless the moral interpretation of the riots actually is. As more information came in, the very conservative papers pushing the moral line started showing more and more ordinary visual details of ordinary British lives – from a teenage athlete involved with the Olympics to incredibly thin boys who, if the pictures came from another country, we might have no trouble calling hungry-looking.

Andy Warhol saw through the moral iconography of the rogues' gallery. In 1964 he decorated the New York pavilion at the World's Fair in Flushing Meadow with a silkscreen mural of the faces of 13 Most Wanted Men. Warhol's wanted men are mugshots of gangsters issued by the FBI – but his insidious eye saw eroticism and fascination in their pictures. The outcast are desirable, suggests Warhol, the criminal is sexy. He undermines the barrier between right and wrong so effectively his mural was painted over because it seemed to – and did – glamorise crime. But in doing so it pointed out the obvious, that all images are ambivalent and all human life an enigma.


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Constructive criticism: the week in architecture

A first glimpse of the soaring new concourse at King's Cross, Norman Foster defects to China, and architects wonder if they are to blame for the UK riots

In a week dominated by images of buildings burning to the ground, there have been at least a few people out there still building the things. The press was granted a preview of King's Cross station's new concourse, ahead of its opening in time for the Olympics next year. Designed by architect John McAslan, it is a majestically conceived space which stands alongside the Grade 1-listed sheds and replaces the cramped and grotty 1960s extension that currently serves as the station's entrance. We will have to wait until after the Games to see it demolished, at which point the ground it occupies is set to be given over to a new public square.

Its steel diagrid roof design owes more than a small debt to the one with which Norman Foster enclosed the British Museum's Great Court a decade ago. Since then, Foster's practice has grown at an extraordinary rate. That growth has been fuelled by its pursuit of work in emerging economies, particularly China. It established a team in Beijing in 2003, having won the competition for the city's new airport. This week, Foster revealed that he is planning to consolidate his presence there by building his own office on a site neighbouring the Ai Weiwei-designed Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. Talking to Building Design magazine, Foster explained: "It will in part be public, in the sense that it will have galleries, it will have a cafe. It will host exhibitions by young artists and architects in China. It will have an apartment for an artist in residence. It will also be a centre for ourselves. It will have all the facilities for designers. We'll have workshops and model shops."

Another British architect who has been pursuing work in China is Will Alsop, architect of the Stirling prize-winning Peckham library, and rather less happily of West Bromwich's widely reviled digital arts centre, the Public. Alsop was in China this week when news broke that he had escaped the clutches of his employers for the past two years – the Edinburgh-based mega-practice RMJM – and set up a new partnership. This, it has to be said, came as no surprise. Thirty years ago, Alsop set up a practice called Alsop & Lyall before jumping ship to Alsop & Stormer, which became Alsop Architects, before financial calamity prompted a string of relationships with dead-eyed multinationals – SMC Alsop Architects, Alsop Sparch and finally Will Alsop at RMJM. An exuberant painter, Alsop presents himself as the artist/architect par excellence. But as his peripatetic history suggests, business management skills aren't necessarily part of the package.

Rather inevitably, discussion among the architectural community this week has focused on the UK riots and the question of whether the cities we have been building have contributed to social breakdown. The past two decades have seen an extraordinary revival of urban centres, after years of post-industrial decline. In the early 1990s, Manchester city centre was home to a mere 90 people. Today, that figure stands in excess of 25,000 – a story echoed in scarcely less dramatic form in urban centres across the country. The events of the past week have made painfully clear that the fruits of this urban renaissance haven't been extended to all. The fear is that many cities' efforts at regeneration may have exacerbated social divisions.

So what now? A particularly incisive commentary on the relationship between social unrest and urban transformation was provided this week by the Dutch architectural historian Wouter Vanstiphout, who is currently researching a book on the subject. His description of the wholly misguided response by the French government to the 2005 riots in the banlieues should be essential reading for UK politicians. He writes: "It is much too soon to say anything about the relationship between the gentrification of Brixton, or the coming of the Olympics to London, and the current explosion of violent alienation. But if we imagine another kind of urban politics, one that does not take into account a marketable image of the city, but the reality of the entire community, it would probably have entirely different priorities."


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London riots: lessons for urban policy

At architecture journal bdonline, Wouter Vanstiphout's piece about the planning and related political implications of the riots begins in urban France:

In November 2005 French President Jacques Chirac welcomed back normality, after weeks of riots in the French banlieues. Instead of 1,000 to 1,500 vehicles being burnt every night, it went back to 163, and then kept to the normal 50 to 150. Every night of the year dozens of cars are being set on fire in the French banlieues and this had been going on for years on end.

What is normality to a French banlieue? It can mean that in the morning the elderly, women and children – and sometimes architects and historians looking for modernist housing projects from the sixties – can freely roam between the slabs and blocks, shop, play and look around.

After that the unemployed young men appear from their bedrooms and take up their positions near the entrances of the apartment blocks and on street corners. The elderly, women and children scuttle back home and the tourists leave altogether. The young men whistle and sign to each other, taunt and threaten the belated visitors and the semi-militarised police that buzz by in vans.

In many French banlieues, day turns into night around noon. Once, in one of these places, we approached a group of heavily armed policemen to ask for directions on the central square of a French housing estate.

They looked around nervously and said we shouldn't stand still for too long, because one of the gangs could start throwing rocks. They then said that we should really really be back in the historic city centre within the hour; it was 3pm. They themselves would be out of there at dusk, at the latest. This was between riots, this was normality.

I know of nowhere in London that matches that description, but can we rule such scenarios out of the capital's future? The comparison is inexact: "banlieue" means the urban outskirts, not the inner city areas where our riots began and mostly occurred. However, some fear that the effect of the government's housing and other benefit reforms will be to foster banlieue-type concentrations of social marginalisation in London's poorer suburbs, making the capital's current situation even worse.

Vanstiphout continues:

In many ways, the [French] riots were "just" spectacular worsenings of a chronic condition, extrapolations on a permanent crisis lived by millions, but neglected by tens of millions. Something became visible for a moment, and then disappeared again, as a bad dream. Behind the scenes however a mechanism is in place that contains the badness, that keeps it from spilling over again, while making it inevitable that it will...the banlieues and their inhabitants have been effectively abandoned...

One person did well out of it, though: Nicolas Sarkozy, who as a minister of the interior fanned the flames by going on television, standing shoulder to shoulder with the riot police and calling the rioters scum (racaille) who would be wiped away; then rode the wave of popular fear all the way to the presidency, from where he invited a battalion of international architects to give back France its glory, by designing futures of the French capital, "Le Grand Paris"....

Right now it has become very difficult to think of an urban politics, let alone an urban planning or design approach that would be able to take on the underlying problems of riots like the ones in the UK in a serious way.

I do not think that the reason is that politics and planning have realised their limitations to shape society. I think that the reason is that urban politics and hence planning and urban design are too often treating the city with ulterior motives, instead of actually working for the city itself. The city has become a tool to achieve goals, political, cultural, economic or even environmental [my emphasis].

Treating the city in this way means that we are constantly passing judgment on what the city should be, and who should be there, and what they should be doing, instead of trying to understand what the city actually is, who really lives there and what they are doing. This produces a dangerous process of idealisation, denying whole areas, whole groups, their place in the urban community, because they do not fit the picture.

Something there for politicians of all persuasions to reflect on. And there's more:

It is much too soon to say anything about the relationship between the gentrification of Brixton or the coming of the Olympics to London, and the current explosion of violent alienation. But if we imagine another kind of urban politics, one that does not take into account a marketable image of the city, but the reality of the entire community, it would probably have entirely different priorities.

The first would be to work against the ever sharpening inequality of London, making it one of the unfairest cities in Europe, in poverty levels, education, crime and other indicators.

But then the reality of urban riots is that they have always turned out to be the opposite of a learning experience for a city. Riots have nearly always resulted in politicians simplifying the problem even more, and citizens looking away even further.

After a riot, your average city will become more afraid, more authoritarian, more segregated, more exclusive and less tolerant. That is the real tragedy of the post-war western urban riot, first it shocks and terrifies us, then for a moment it makes us see flashes of the kind of city we should be working towards, which then fades away into the darkness. Back to normal.

A "normal" that is unacceptable.

Wouter Vanstiphout is a partner at Crimson Architectural Historians in Rotterdam and professor of Design & Politics at the Technical University Delft. He is currently researching the relationship between urban riots and urban planning. I'm very grateful to @amarkodio for bringing Vanstiphout's article to my attention.


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August 09 2011

I depict a riot

London's current mayhem has a history and some great art perfectly captures the terror and lawlessness of past upheaval

These are the worst social upheavals in London in living memory, say police. What about beyond living memory? The capital has seen some spectacular riots and rebellions. The early ones were not filmed or photographed, but can be seen in old paintings and prints.

In an illumination from a medieval manuscript of Froissart's Chronicles, the king and his lords in their pageantry confront an army of poor men in front of the towers and spires of London. The peasants' revolt in 1381 stormed into the capital and overran the Tower of London, whose defenders were massacred. The feudal nobility knew how to fight back. After the rebellion's leader Wat Tyler went to negotiate with the king he was stabbed to death – the nobles claimed he started it, and there were no mobile phone pictures to contradict their story – and the social order violently reimposed.

King Charles I was not so lucky in the 1640s, as his quarrel with parliament degenerated into war. In London, the radical Levellers staged debates on social justice at Putney. Anthony van Dyck's portrait of two aristocratic brothers, Lord John Stuart and Lord Bernard Stuart, in the National Gallery, conveys the scale of the conflict. The painting is a silken assertion of ruling-class hauteur; these young men in their lace and long hair seem born to rule. But they never did, because both were killed fighting on the royalist side in the civil war.

Neither the 1381 peasants' revolt nor the English civil war have much in common with the rioting and looting in London in August 2011, but there is far more of a parallel with the Gordon riots in 18th-century London. A contemporary print illustrating the destruction of Newgate prison during these massive riots in 1780 looks oddly familiar to anyone who has been looking at this week's images. The prison has been set on fire by the crowd and blazes uncontrollably. Meanwhile, prisoners escape and the prison is looted.

The Gordon riots were not pretty. The poor of 18th-century London lived on the edge, in a gin-sodden urban nightmare, if we are to believe William Hogarth's print Gin Lane. Desperation did not breed lofty ideals: the riots were provoked by a softening of the laws against Catholics. Bigoted rioters attacked foreign embassies and Catholic neighbourhoods. Yet the images eerily resemble London this week: in another 18th-century print, the crowd stoke a bonfire of furniture in front of the blazing hulk of Newgate, recognising, as rioters did this week, that furniture and furniture shops burn well.

The Gordon riots surely were the biggest in London's history to date. Hundreds of people were shot dead to bring the insurrection to a close. The cause of radicalism in Britain was hindered by the spectre of mob rule.

Looking at prints of the capital in flames in 1780 the contemporary parallels are striking. On this evidence, the riots of 2011 will take their place among the most epic upheavals in the entire history of London.


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