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April 01 2012

New faces on Sgt Pepper album cover

Amy Winehouse, JK Rowling, Noel Gallagher, Mick Jagger and the Monty Python foot to feature in update of 1967 original

British pop artist Sir Peter Blake has taken inspiration from his most famous artwork – the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club album cover – to celebrate the British cultural figures he most admires as he marks his 80th birthday.

Twiggy, Amy Winehouse, Grayson Perry, JK Rowling and even Monty Python's emblematic foot all feature in a reworked version of the 1967 cover created for his birthday celebrations.

Blake, often called the godfather of the British pop art scene, said: "I've chosen people I admire, great people and some who are dear friends.

"I had a very long list of people who I wanted to go in but couldn't fit everyone in – I think that shows how strong British culture and its legacy of the last six decades is."

Singer Noel Gallagher, formerly of Oasis, was "chuffed" to be included. "To be on there with the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Mick Jagger and Paul Weller, just those three people alone, is amazing for me as I wouldn't put myself up with any of those," he said.

Rowling said: "Given that I've devoted quite a lot of time to gazing at the original Sgt Pepper album cover, you can perhaps imagine what it means to me to be featured."

Playwright Tom Stoppard said his inclusion was "an honour that outdoes delirium" while singer Elvis Costello said: "I always dreamed that I might one day stand in the boots of [Liverpool footballer] Albert Stubbins."

The original 1967 artwork also featured James Dean, Bob Dylan, Karl Marx and Marilyn Monroe.

The new version has been created for a special birthday celebration of Blake's life at Wayne Hemingway's Vintage festival at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, in July.

Hemingway, co-founder of the Red or Dead fashion brand, said: "The new artwork is a tribute to Britain's standing as the world's leading creative nation."

It was "an incredible honour" for Blake to "reimagine such an iconic work of art", he said, adding: "We are proud to be dedicating the Sunday at Vintage this year to celebrate his 80th birthday and creative and cultural legacy."

Terry Jones, the actor, director and original Python, said: "Monty Python is flattered to have had his foot selected, but there are better parts of his body available at very little cost."

The foot itself was borrowed by Terry Gilliam from Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, a work by 16th century Florentine painter Bronzino.

His Python co-star, Michael Palin, added: "It's a great tribute to a fine foot – just don't tell Bronzino or he'll want royalties."


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February 12 2012

Designs of the Year 2012

The Design Museum's annual awards show is absorbing, but doubts persist about plans for its new London HQ

The Comte de Lautréamont, the French-Uruguayan poet who became a hero to the surrealists, once wrote of the beauty of the "chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella". It is hard to forget this line when touring the Design Museum's Designs of the Year show. Here, too, disparate artefacts are brought together with apparent randomness, leaving you to scrutinise what meaning, if any, lies behind the collection.

Thus you find Kate Middleton's wedding dress, the Stanley Parable video game, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the torch for the 2012 Olympics, a care home in Belgium and a film promoting the fashion designer Gareth Pugh. There is an ambulance that could save lives and money, and something which, looking from afar like a giant 60s-style light fitting, is actually a low-cost device for clearing landmines.

Somehow, in a process that describes itself as "the Oscars of the design world", a panel of "high-profile judges" will have to choose an ultimate winner from this array. All awards have a degree of arbitrariness, which is part of their attraction and their provocation, but the Designs of the Year more than most. Still, it makes for a diverting if wandering exhibition.

Certain themes do emerge. There is an undercurrent of affection for tradition, for things made well, and of real stuff, such as the Oak Inside range of furniture based on 400-year-old Dutch designs, and the remaking for women of the traditional men's coat, the Crombie. There is an edgy stand-off between things digital and things physical, with apps and websites celebrated alongside works that defiantly reassert the value of printing or drawing by hand. As is now usual in this annual show, some of the more impressive pieces of design are not only the official entries but the iPads on which they are exhibited.

Above all there is a desire for "design with a conscience", a wish to do more than create a slightly more stylish light fitting than the next person or help sell a few more frocks. Design covers everything from the ultra-frivolous to the deadly serious and the current mood favours the latter. It is a safe bet that the Gareth Pugh fashion film will not win, and the tone is set by the promotional graphics for a Dutch conference called What Design Can Do! These graphics are a few steps from applied reality, being only pieces of paper about a discussion about the ways that design might be useful, but they set out an aspiration.

More directly helpful might be such things as the Solar Sinter, a mobile device for making objects out of sand and solar power in deserts; a bicycle storage facility; the ambulance; and Autolib, the public hire scheme in Paris that enables people to pick up electric cars in the same way the city's Vélib – imitated by London's Boris bikes – does with bicycles. There is also Vivienne Westwood's Ethical Fashion Africa collection of bags, made of recycled materials, which "provides long-term work to women in marginalised communities" in Nairobi.

This admirable exhibit is only slightly spoiled by the inevitable snap of Dame Vivienne grinning in front of a crowd of Africans: wouldn't it be nice if, just once, celebrities who aim to support the disadvantaged would modestly put the people they are helping in the centre and themselves at the side?

A question that hovers over much of the exhibition is whether all the inventions on show will really, truly do all the things they hope to do and on a significant scale. Many are untested, and awaiting the investment necessary to have an effect. Projects such as Autolib, which are up and running, therefore stand out.

There is also a case for making the Boeing Dreamliner the winner. Boeing says it is the fastest-selling airliner in history, with more than 800 on order, and thanks to its use of lightweight composite materials it uses 20% less fuel than comparable planes. Boeing also says that noise at take-off is reduced by about 60%; there are more modest benefits, too, such as larger windows and nicer interiors.

It goes against the spirit of these awards to recognise a giant corporation rather than plucky little groups, but given that flying is a huge and highly energy-consuming business, the Dreamliner is likely to make more difference to more people than almost anything else on show.

Its quietness could also change the planning of airports in cities; maybe Heathrow could be expanded after all, rather than relocated at colossal financial and environmental expense to the Kent marshes. Then again, the awards include another plane, called the Taurus Electro G4. Although this only has four seats, it is electrically powered and uses astonishingly little power; it's a more radical contribution to aviation than the Dreamliner, but its overall effect is less clear.

Meanwhile, as well as the awards the Design Museum is pursuing the larger project of creating a new £80m home, with three times as much space, inside the former Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington High Street, west London, a grade II-listed building. This is another case of sewing machines and umbrellas, the items in question being the eccentric 1960s modernism of the original building, a pavilion with a somewhat wonky paraboloid roof, and Pawson's minimalism. One favours odd angles and curves and eclectic materials; the other right angles and straight lines. To add to the Lautréamont mix, the museum is surrounded by three chunky residential towers by Rem Koolhaas's practice OMA.

At the time of Pawson's appointment I expressed concern that the Design Museum was not looking hard enough beyond a circle long known to its director, Deyan Sudjic, and its founder, Terence Conran, in its choice either of the architect for its new building or of the subjects for the exhibitions. Pawson is a good architect but the reasons for choosing him for this project did not seem compelling.

Pawson's recently revealed designs don't allay that concern (nor, for that matter, does the exhibition on Terence Conran that is running alongside Designs of the Year). They are, as you would expect, thoughtful, with a big stairwell that widens as you ascend to a top deck that is open to the billowing vault of the 1960s structure. The disposition of uses is sane and reasonable, even if the upward journey seems to involve some long traipses around the stairwell's galleries.

But Pawson does not seem to be very much in love with the 60s building and there is not much rapport in his designs between the old and the new. The former aspires to soar and fly, albeit in a somewhat pterodactyl-like way, whereas Pawson's architecture grows solidly from the ground. One is playful and surprising, the other too normal. He is proposing to clad walls with oak, which does not seem in keeping with the modernist spirit of the place. In the various private houses that he has designed Pawson typically uses his restrained architecture to frame gorgeous views of the Alentejo, or Yorkshire, or Okinawa, or – in his retail design – the no less gorgeous models, products and clientele of Calvin Klein. Here he is framing an upward view of the old ceiling and does not seem as excited to be doing so.

There could be creative tension in the differences between Pawson and the older work but I can't see it yet. Rather, the original Commonwealth Institute seems to be reduced to the point where the purpose of keeping it at all becomes questionable. The OMA flats had already entailed the removal of administrative buildings that supported the pavilion with the funny roof, and the Design Museum says it is essential to rip out the pavilion's interior too – a dynamic but apparently inefficient affair of decks and flying staircases. Pawson's design further encroaches and suffocates its spirit a little more.

In Lautréamont's incongruous image there might be found hidden affinities and tensions between the objects – an umbrella might be seen as a thing resembling bones and skin, which therefore could be found on an operating table and which might be sewn up following dissection. The proposed assemblage in Kensington does not yet have these kinds of poetic resonances.

It could yet do so. Pawson's palette is austere but none the less capable of deadpan surprises that would liven the place up – perhaps an unexpected cantilever or moment of structural daring. He could allow the playfulness of the older building to enter his style without staining its purity. I hope so; I would greatly like my doubts to be proved wrong.


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April 02 2010

The high art of fashion

The Enchanted Palace takeover of Kensington's Royal residence – ghostly, ethereal and layered with subtext – helps fashion finally hold its own with art and theatre

Fashion as art isn't a concept that has escaped the country's museums, galleries and artists; so why are fashion exhibitions so difficult to get right? Curating style isn't just about the chronological, fusty presentation of couture behind glass boxes, nor should it be an exercise in fashion mag fanaticism. Take the V&A. The institution's glorious archive aside, even they managed to make Kylie Minogue's extravagantly sequinned Dolce & Gabbana stage outfits look limp, listlessly lined up next to each other at a bog-standard – if well attended – retrospective back in 2007. The same goes for the beautiful, but po-faced, Golden Age of Couture show also that year.

Step up the Tim Burton-worthy Enchanted Palace, a fairytale takeover of Kensington's Royal residence. This west London show raises the bar for how best to translate this billion-dollar business into public art when it's not sloping down a Parisian runway. Inspired by the stories of the seven princesses who've lived there, the maze of rooms in the palace's state apartments have been given over to a handful of the country's most notable design talents – from Vivienne Westwood to Fashion Week favourite William Tempest – by the Historic Royal Palaces curator, Alexandra Kim, and the production company Wildworks. Together, they've created a space where fashion comfortably holds its own at a crossroads with art and theatre. It's not just a grand wardrobe of clothes being paraded as artefacts, but a genuine effort to create a unique event: multi-sensory, magical and, at times, quietly eerie.

The exhibition moves from the gloomy purple cubby hole of the Room of Beginnings, where white lace gloves point towards Aminaka Wilmont's jewel-embellished, marble-dyed silk Dress of Tears in the Room of Royal Sorrows. Moving in further, Westwood's typically dramatic corseted Dress for a Rebellious Princess stands to attention amid black-veiled candle lanterns and shrivelled autumn leaves. It's Tempest's nimbus skirt of a thousand origami birds that really stands out, though, melting into the antique wallpaper and topped with a hovering halo of pink roses. Tempest says: "An exhibition has to be able to spark people's imagination ... created or arranged in a way that stimulates our emotions and senses." If innovative presentation is the key to producing a successful fashion exhibition, the Enchanted Palace has it spot on: the show is staged in the middle of the palace's £12m makeover, disguising the industrial evidence (stepladders! Dulux tins!) of building work that isn't due to be completed until 2012. Storytelling with a Wonderland-like bent, it's also well timed, given fashion's current fondness for all things Lewis Carroll.

Purists will grumble it's not strictly a fashion exhibition; granted, not every presentation would benefit from Enchanted Palace's added theatrical elements. The Yves Saint Laurent designs currently clothing mannequins in Paris's Petit Palais for instance, in the first full-scale retrospective of the designer's work, are doing a good enough job on their own. But rather than think of it as spoonfeeding, let's imagine this is one way of upping the ante for work that can be enjoyed even more when it's really brought to life, for an industry that's based on selling an image (or around 15, depending on how many trends you'll be buying into this season). 

Even stripped of its superfluous trimmings – see the stewardess sitting under a spotlight reading to herself at a school desk, the mad scientists replete with headlamps and Egor-style overalls swishing through the rooms as whispering tour guides, and the just plain creepy dancing shadows on the ceiling – this is a couture spectacle that does away with any "Is it fashion, or is it art, or is it both?" to-ing and fro-ing. It opens up the opportunity to see the latest fruits of each couturier's labour to a wider audience, democratising the industry in a way that it isn't usually used to. It's whimsical, it's beautiful and above all it's fun. All the things fashion is supposed to be. The show also (whisper it) makes for fantastic art: ghostly, ethereal and layered with subtext. These are museum pieces created for an exhibition true to the conviction that high fashion and high drama go hand in hand. Curators should take note: no more dutiful dusting down of designer archives, please. Fashion's very essence is living, breathing and moving – something its art shows should cotton on to.


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