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June 18 2012

Yinka Shonibare's ballerina twirls into action above Covent Garden

Artwork commissioned by the Royal Opera House will pirouette above crowds before opera and ballet performances

From this week, and for at least the next five years, if there is an opera or ballet on at Covent Garden, Yinka Shonibare's ballerina on the corner of the building will swirl gracefully into animation, turning slowly on one impossibly long, silk-shod foot, encased in the bubble of her own small world.

"I wanted to make a playful piece, a work that children would like, that would be somehow dreamlike, a figure of fantasy that would draw people into the building," the artist said, smiling up at her in the workshop in south London where his original sketch has been brought to life. "She's also like a lifesize version of those little dancers you get in jewellery boxes."

She may also give spectators an uneasy sense of vertigo. When she is unveiled high above one of the busiest areas of the market, the corner of Russell Street, the vertical wall will become her stage. She will pirouette parallel to the pavement below, and on her shoulders is not the typical dancer's immaculately coiffed head, but a turning Victorian globe of the world.

The Royal Opera House has wanted to commission a piece of contemporary art for the dullest corner of its building since the extension was completed in the 1990s. Shonibare first worked with the Royal Ballet on a film, Odile and Odette, the white and black swans of Swan Lake, and will return at the end of August to curate a weekend festival embracing African culture. He was invited to come up with an idea for the wall after being shown the blank space.

"I had a bit of a panic first about what I could do – and then I saw a photograph of Margot Fonteyn, in this exact pose, and that gave me my idea.

"But I wanted to make her a metaphor for humanity, for inclusiveness, not just a portrait. That is why she has a globe for a head, she is very obviously mixed race, and she wears Indonesian patterned cloth – she has become a universal figure."

Her body is fibreglass but was cast from a sculpture of a real dancer, Melissa Hamilton, a soloist who is regarded as a rising star with the Royal Ballet.

The bubble-like sphere that shelters her was made by a firm in Italy that specialises in aquariums. The company also made the gigantic bottle to hold Shonibare's scale model of Nelson's HMS Victory, which has sailed off the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square and moored permanently – after a major public appeal – at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich. There is now a small memorial to the ship and the artist in a corner of the factory floor, his studio assistant revealed.

A lot will be going on in the streets below Shonibare's serene ballerina, particularly late on Friday and Saturday nights.

"What will she think of the people below her?" he wondered. "I think she will be thinking 'You lot stop fighting. Why can't you be magical like me – and dance?'"


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April 23 2012

Yinka Shonibare's ship in a bottle goes on permanent display in Greenwich

Artwork that won fans on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth is moved to new home after public help raise £362,500

Yinka Shonibare's ship in a bottle is to remain on public display in the UK after the success of a public fundraising appeal, it has been announced.

The work, a scaled-down replica of Nelson's ship Victory first seen on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, was this week being installed in its new home in Greenwich, outside the new Sammy Ofer wing of the National Maritime Museum.

The work was secured with the help of £264,300 in contributions from the public after the Art Fund launched an appeal last November. Shonibare said he was "absolutely delighted and touched by the public's generosity".

He added: "The piece was wholeheartedly embraced by the public while at Trafalgar Square and I am glad that the same affection for the work will continue at Greenwich."

The appeal for £362,500 was launched by the Art Fund after it gave a grant of £50,000. As well as the public money, both the National Maritime Museum and Shonibare's gallery, Stephen Friedman, gave £49,100. Overall, the work was valued at £650,000, but £140,000 of that – production costs – had been met by the Fourth Plinth programme and the gallery had given a 15% museum discount of £97,500.

Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, 4.7 metres in length and 2.8 metres in diameter, goes on display in time for the museum's 75th anniversary on 25 April.

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said it had been the charity's first fundraising appeal for a contemporary work. "It is not an easy environment in which to run a campaign but the campaign's success is testimony to the popularity of Yinka's work and to the continued generosity of the many enlightened individuals upon whom the charitable sector depends."


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March 12 2012

Artists come together in a Crisis

The Crisis Commission at London's Somerset House will feature new works by artists including Gillian Wearing, Antony Gormley and Tracey Emin

A small and poignant bronze sculpture of a young man called Craig – who became homeless after serving in Afghanistan – will greet visitors to a new exhibition to raise awareness and money for the charity Crisis.

The work by Gillian Wearing goes on display at Somerset House in London on 14 March along with new pieces by artists including Antony Gormley, Tracey Emin, Sir Anthony Caro and Jonathan Yeo. All the works will be sold on 3 May, with the money going to the charity for single homeless people, Crisis.

Wearing said she was inspired by the real story of Craig O'Keefe who became homeless after returning from duty in Afghanistan. Eventually, with the help of Veteran's Aid, he managed to get work and a flat and is now a volunteer tutor for Crisis.

"Crisis were great because they really wanted artists to get involved directly with their charity," said Wearing. She was part of a workshop meeting people who work for and used its services. "It wasn't a passive involvement which I really thought was important."

Emin offered four works: two self-portraits and two neon signs saying Trust Me and Trust Yourself. She said they were words we often say to others and to ourselves. "Sometimes such statements need to be reaffirmed. The use of neon makes it all the more positive."

The two self-portraits, Deep Blue III and Deep Blue V, are part of a series Emin created for her forthcoming show at Turner Contemporary in Margate, in which she explores the idea "of the body becoming older, self-loathing and the notion of self-preservation".

Emin said she did not do anything different because the show was for Crisis. "I'm quite impressed at what a big show it is and how serious it is and not just a charity event."

Gormley has made a cast iron sculpture of a person we assume to be homeless. "The most challenging social sculpture of our times is made by the quiet performances of the homeless within the shelter provided by the doorways of the shops of our inner cities."

He said he was trying to evoke a fallen body which is, nevertheless, not at rest. "This exhibition allows one to think about those bodies that have no place. I believe that sculpture can powerfully evoke the nameless, the voiceless and the placeless."

The Crisis Commission show raises money and awareness at a crucial time, says the charity. After years of declining trends, 2010 represented a turning point when all forms of homelessness began to rise. In 2010/11, 3,975 people slept rough in London, an 8% rise on the previous year.

The show runs until 22 April and will also feature work by homeless and vulnerable people who have been helped by Crisis.

The charity's chief executive Leslie Morphy said: "We are thrilled that so many leading contemporary artists are participating in the Crisis Commission. This prestigious event will raise much needed funds for our work and bring a new focus to the worrying current rise in homelessness in society."

Other works in the show include Yinka Shonibare's Homeless Man, 2012, which shows a vibrantly dressed Victorian man weighed down by 11 suitcases. The artist said: "The idea of the work is to suggest that any privileged person can become vulnerable at any time due to circumstances outside of their own personal control, such as illness, death of a relative, war or unfortunate economic circumstances."

The artist Bob and Roberta Smith (also known as Patrick Brill) has made a piece called Kite because of its association with isolation and the elements. "My kite has 'help' written on it. It is a cry for help by the person flying it."

Brill said he was aware of homelessness rising and taught in an art school where some of his students are homeless. "Homelessness is about isolation. Homes are not just roofs and walls – they are networks – about nurture and care."

The show has been curated by Laurence Sillars, chief curator at the Baltic in Gateshead and the cost of creating the works has been met by GlaxoSmithKline. All of them will be auctioned at Christie's on 3 May.


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February 19 2012

'Your world could come crashing down at any time'

Sculptor Yinka Shonibare on his exotic tribute to the despair of the homeless for the charity Crisis

When I meet British-Nigerian sculptor Yinka Shonibare, I am looking forward to being introduced to the lifesize man he has made for Crisis. The man is part of an exhibition by British artists eventually to be auctioned (with proceeds going to the homeless). I look around Shonibare's Hackney studio – no sign of him. The studio resembles a tropical toy shop filled with intriguing objects: child-sized Victorian figures playing cornets, spreading grey wings. Plastic toys wait to be swept off their feet by Shonibare's flamboyant imagination. The brilliant, Indonesian-influenced textiles he uses are everywhere.

For Shonibare, identity is never simple. "A lot of people come from elsewhere, the idea of an authentic singular culture is a modern myth." He talks about his fourth plinth ship-in-a-bottle and a campaign to save it for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (£362,000 to be raised).

But where is the Crisis man? Shonibare has oblique charm, a way of looking out from beneath dreadlocks as if he were one joke ahead. Yet there is sadness in his face too. He is almost 50 and was made an MBE in 2005. And the Crisis man, it finally transpires, is out having his picture taken. But I get to see him on computer. And he is amazing: a striking, exotically downtrodden specimen. He stoops under the weight of a dozen antique suitcases in a gravity-defying pile. His head is a black, constellate d globe displaying a quote from Dickens about a "bleak, dark and piercing cold" night where a "homeless starving wretch" might give up and die. "He is a Victorian aristocrat fallen on hard times," explains Shonibare. The intention is to rouse "empathy in those who have for those who do not… There is always a possibility your wealthy world could come crashing down at any time."

Shonibare was born in Britain, grew up in Lagos and returned to London at 17 where he contracted transverse myelitis – a virus in the spinal column. "At first, I was completely paralysed," he says. Tod ay, he cannot decide on the extent to which disability influences his work. "Your head goes crazy if you pursue what ifs." He once said his greatest fear was poverty. What does he do when he sees homeless people now? "I go through phases," he replies. He describes giving "unnecessary amounts" – to the shock of the recipients. At other times, he has worried that giving might be "encouraging the government not to…" His suitcase man is a marvellous third alternative.

The Crisis Commission exhibition is at Somerset House, London from 14 March to 22 April. Artworks will be auctioned at Christie's on 3 May, with all proceeds going to Crisis


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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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April 29 2011

Q&A: Yinka Shonibare

My earliest memory? Sitting in my Batmobile in my garden in Nigeria

Yinka Shonibare was born in London in 1962 and moved to Lagos at the age of three. He returned to London to study, graduating from Goldsmiths with an MFA. In 2002 he created his work Gallantry and Criminal Conversation and in 2004 he was nominated for the Turner prize. His Nelson's Ship In A Bottle is on display until the end of the year on Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth and he is also taking part in the I Know Something About Love exhibition at the Parasol Unit in London, which runs until 22 May.

When were you happiest?
When I got into the Wimbledon School of Art, it became somehow official that I could fulfil my dream to become an artist. Also, when my son Kay was born.

What is your greatest fear?
Poverty scares me, it means I could not do anything.

What is your earliest memory?
Sitting in my Batmobile in the back garden of my house in Nigeria.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
As a bloody artist, it's probably my ego.

Aside from a property, what's the most expensive thing you've bought?
Some years ago, this very expensive pair of snakeskin shoes which I never ended up wearing.

What is your most treasured possession?
A pebble given to me by Richard Wentworth days ago. He stole it from the grounds of Buckingham Palace.

What makes you unhappy?
Christmas.

What do you most dislike about your appearance?
I don't dislike anything.

What is your most unappealing habit?
Waking up late.

If you could bring something extinct back to life, what would you choose?
The mammoth, they were so big and hairy.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
Maybe Lady Gaga?

What is your favourite book?
The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. I found it so moving.

What would you most like to wear to a costume party?
An 18th-century costume made of African textiles and a powdered wig.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Apple crumble.

Which living person do you most despise, and why?
Despise? That's not nice, is it? I don't really despise anyone.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
O-M-G!

What is the worst job you've done?
Selling water filters.

What has been your biggest disappointment?
Not being selected for the British Art Show in the 1990s.

When did you last cry, and why?
I never cry.

What is the closest you've come to death?
A virus infection in my spine that left me completely paralysed.

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?
The removal of stairs from all buildings.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
In the words of the Artful Dodger, "You can't trust nobody."

Where would you most like to be right now?
By the Atlantic Ocean.

Tell us a joke.
I'm a miserable git, I don't know any jokes.


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February 23 2011

Yinka Shonibare, MBE: El Futuro del Pasado at Alcada 31 in Madrid

El Futuro del Pasado at Alcalá 31 in Madrid is the first solo exhibition of Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare’s work in Spain. The show features a series of photographs based on Francisco de Goya’s etching “El sueno de la razón produce monstruos” (“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”) from his “Los Caprichos” series. Also on display: the work Shonibare did for the Fourth Plinth in London; “The Big Three”, a group of sculptures representing the managers of the three major American car companies; the film “Un Ballo in Maschera”; the first group of collages made by Shonibare; and “Cannonball Heaven”, an installation produced especially for this show. The exhibition has been curated by Octavio Zaya.

Yinka Shonibare, MBE: El Futuro del Pasado at Alcada 31, Madrid / Spain, February 17, 2011.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.

PS: Click here for more ARCO videos.


October 16 2010

Meet the best new artists in Britain

We asked Richard Wentworth, Tacita Dean, Yinka Shonibare and Cornelia Parker to choose the young artist they find most promising – and tell us why

HELEN MARTEN chosen by RICHARD WENTWORTH

Sculptor Richard Wentworth is quite clear why 24-year-old Helen Marten is a young artist to watch: "I admire her sureness, fearlessness and lack of hubris," he says. "It is complicated for her generation. It is as if they were in a ludicrous souk. But she is like a fantastic tourist: intelligently acquisitive, yet editorially selective. She is a brilliant fossicker. She knows how to look."

A is for anarchy… is the title of one of Marten's series – and do not expect any of her work to be law-abiding. She is an artist for whom anything can be subverted: the world's potential grist for her satirical mill. She is captivatingly articulate about what she describes as "environmental window shopping". She was not sure she was going to be an artist (there has always been a competing literary pull), but she did a foundation year at Byam Shaw – part of St Martins – and a degree course at Ruskin (which she calls Oxford's "dirty little sibling"). She introduces me to a sculpture that invokes George Nelson, father of American modernism, made of "slick, sleazy powder-coated aluminium". She describes it as "at once corporate and semi-baroque" and "anchored" by a white PVC tailored suit jacket that is "seedy and flaccid". We also inspect A is for anarchy…, two 3D letter As. The first is sub-titled "Thug Life" and is a "hard, knotty ringleader". The second, his "sidekick", is "slobby, messy, getting into bad scrapes".

She revels in the "remeshing" of the design canon (the more you know about design, the better you will be able to unlock her work). She describes herself as "nomadic", travelling between Macclesfield, where she grew up, and London. Most of the "brute manoeuvring of materials" gets done in Macclesfield. The "condensed thinking" happens on trains and the "grappling with verbal stuff" happens in London. She works with metal and wood, "hard, lofty boys' material", which she describes as "unforgiving" and also with clay which is "relaxing and yielding" – more feminine and spontaneous. In one of her wittiest pieces, three gorgeously entangled clay figures hobnob. They are animated but inconclusively human. The title is: Um, you mean we have to be serious now?.

Marten's aim is to produce a "family of objects and ideas with some sort of circuitry". Wentworth says: "She is making codes – her work is like a contemporary Rosetta stone. It is part of a broad conversation. She is enormously respected. She has a hidden grandeur but no grandiosity. And she has such wisdom… I can talk with her about how the world is made." Kate Kellaway

CHARLOTTE MOTH chosen by TACITA DEAN

'Her work feels like she's travelling, noticing and absorbing, and is not, for the time being, studio-bound or stuck to a particular place or orthodoxy," says Tacita Dean of her chosen artist, Charlotte Moth, before praising her "eclectic use of materials" and "delicacy of touch".

Charlotte Moth's art has taken her all over Europe, but it was in her hometown, Bexhill-on-Sea, as a teenager that she had her first shiver of inspiration: walking past the De La Warr pavilion every Saturday on her way to work, she noted with curiosity the white Modernist hulk amid the old-world grandeur of the seaside resort.

Sixteen years on and Moth, 31, is still fascinated by the shapes and spaces around her, from apartment blocks to empty streets to striking interiors, but is now an established artist who draws on these photographic subjects as a sculptor draws on their material. She avoids restricting herself to one discipline – "I always had a problem at art school because they made you choose departments" – and her work takes in photography, sculpture and, occasionally, film, theatre and music: an exploration of space in all its aspects.

Moth shares with Dean an interest in analogue – Travelogue, her ever-growing collection of photographs of spaces such as hotel lobbies, seaside resorts and deserted offices is shot entirely on film – and an affection for continental Europe: Dean left Britain for Berlin in 2000, Slade graduate Moth has lived in Paris, "on and off" for the past four years. "It's this idea of displacement that's really important," she says. "When you're removed from something, then maybe you can look at it in a different way."

In ParisMost recently, Moth has been working on installations of a "sculptural dialogue" between two works – the one a shimmering curtain, the second a slide show behind the curtain. She also continues to add to Travelogue, in which images are stripped of all context: "Someone who comes to see [them] might not have been at the De La Warr Pavilion but they might have been to a lido in Cornwall, for example, or some exotic place that feels the same. The sense of ambiguity is important because there are many readings an image can trigger." LD

BJORN VENO chosen by YINKA SHONIBARE

Yinka Shonibare was initially drawn to Bjorn Veno's work because, while artists such as Tracey Emin, Cindy Sherman and Paula Rego are renowned for scrutinising the female self in their work, Veno seemed to be the only contemporary male artist doing the equivalent. "I'm older than him but maybe I'm having my own mid-life crisis," Shonibare says, "because I find his exploration of male identity very intriguing. He's very brave to expose himself like he does. It's not something I could do."

Captivated by tales of heroism as a child, 31-year-old Veno uses photography to explore his sense of disillusionment at the man he has become. "I had this idea," he says at home in Rochester, Kent, "that adults were in full control, a bit like James Bond or Indiana Jones. Suddenly I found I'd become an adult and I was actually worse off. You have these perceptions of what it means to be an adult which you cannot live up to."

For the first chapter of Mann, his four part self-portrait series, Veno returned to his childhood home in Norway to photograph himself playing the games of his infancy: set within dark, haunting landscapes, Veno, often naked, looks pale and powerless. In one he crouches next to a Lego spaceship, his underpants round his ankles. Elsewhere he emerges limp and dripping from a lake, the opposite of a triumphant James Bond coming to shore. "I find failure interesting," he says. "As a man you're not supposed to fail." By the final chapter Veno is playing out his hero fantasies. In one shot he's a "confident" swaggering fisherman "ready for a fight".

Shonibare also describes the "odd" quality that Veno's photographs have, something he works hard to achieve, particularly through lighting. For the "tableaux vivants" he works with his camera on timer and performs in character, selecting the final shots from hundreds. In the chapter Veno found the most cathartic, his mother and aunties were also required to react on camera to him "in a bad state, hyperventilating, screaming". The resulting images are both moving and disturbing.

Veno has just started an MA in photography at the Royal College of Art and is represented by London's Nettie Horn gallery. It seems his study of failure is likely to bring him great success."He deserves to do well," Shonibare says. "He has a vast body of work and is more rigorous and focused than so many of his contemporaries." IC

KATIE PATERSON chosen by CORNELIA PARKER

Katie Paterson is an astronomical artist – in the fullest sense of the word. The sky is not the limit for her. It is a beginning. Her champion Cornelia Parker describes her as someone who can "take you out of your realm … she is so original, engaging and expansive – I fell in love with her and her work. She makes us realise how inconsequential we are in relation to the universe." Her work has involved plotting a map of 27,000 dead stars, bouncing Beethoven's Moonlight sonata off the moon in morse code and returning the results into a self-playing piano, making an electric light bulb that duplicates moonlight.

More recently, she has become a connoisseur of darkness. In her beautiful, playful, fastidious The History of Darkness, she has catalogued and dated darkness with the help of telescopes – including the Keck telescope in Hawaii – the most powerful telescope in the world that can look back 13.2 billion light years. Questions that tease us out of thought obsess her: "I like work on the brink of impossibility," she says. She loves immensity – and particularity. One of her works tells the story of a single grain of sand taken from the Sahara desert which, with the help of a nanotechnologist, was turned into the smallest grain imaginable ("I like the idea that it is a sculpture") and then released back into the desert. "The sand is smaller than a blood cell, as close to nothing as you can get but it still exists." Paterson's boyfriend photographed her, in black and white, returning the sand to the Sahara. "I suddenly felt so sad," she said. It was to do with scale – the immensity of the desert and her almost invisible enterprise.

Paterson, 29, laughs as she talks about her work – and acknowledges that it is finely balanced between seriousness and play. She is a romantic (with the romantic's understanding of futility) and with the patience, curiosity and technical persistence of a scientist. Scientists champion her work: she has recently become University College London's first artist in residence in the department of physics and astronomy. She grew up in the western highlands of Scotland and studied at Edinburgh and the Slade, where her MA involved recording a melting glacier – a work that launched her career but is likely to prove just the tip of the iceberg. KK


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May 29 2010

Review: Alexander Melamid and Yinka Shonibare

Phillips de Pury, London SW1; Trafalgar Square, London WC2

Komar and Melamid – those great Russian satirists – are back! Or, at least, one half of the duo has returned. For decades, they conspired to send up official Soviet art with their marvellous parodies of socialist realism in tones of borscht and grey; mock-heroic portraits of bureaucrats and commissars; visions of the Kremlin kissed by glowing sun. Until the police bulldozed their famous "unofficial" art show in 1974, whereupon they decamped and continued in the west.

In America, they mocked the art world too, establishing a market for paintings that turned out to have been made by trained elephants. They used polling companies to establish the least and most popular traits of art according to country (in China, they liked blue paintings; in America, they preferred winter landscapes) and then worked up the supposedly "ideal" results.

In 2003, they parted after 30 years of more or less humorous projects. Vitaly Komar carried on exhibiting, typically portraits of Stalin tweaking Marx by the nose. Alexander Melamid seemed to disappear underground.

But it turned out that he was working on what might seem to be the least probable of all his subjects thus far, namely American rappers. Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Kanye West: all submitted to the scrutiny of this Russian star of whom they had probably never heard. There were tales of Melamid being kept waiting in the night while the musicians attended their muse. There were high prices and highly successful shows.

And now there is one in London where you can judge for yourself what is really going on in these works. Oh My God – note the lack of an exclamation mark, ebullient laughter implied but not stated – contains 30 lifesize portraits. Some are of rapper royalty, others depict Russian art dealers and oligarchs, rabbis and priests. Religion is equated with culture and both with power.

But there is also a lifesize bull nosing along beneath a blazing red sky, a painting that apparently represents nothing but hot air and a huge close-up of a horse's arse. The catalogue essay is written by the renowned aesthetician Boris Groys. One therefore proceeds with caution.

At first glance, these portraits recall the kitsch pictures of Stalin, Lenin and co from the early Komar and Melamid days, in that each makes a monument of the subject. The clerics wear their vestments and the rappers too, with their rings, caps and outsize T-shirts. Each is depicted alone, sometimes enthroned, in the same generalised but anonymous space: a backdrop from the theatre perhaps or the grand traditions of painting.

Which is where the first note of comedy comes in – the apparent mismatch of modern money-makers with old master conventions. Each painting is worked up from dark to light, ending with a rich glow in the manner of a Rembrandt. Each has this abstract space – no walls, no place – like a Velázquez. The figures are loosely worked, their spectacles and Rolexes and signet rings glimmering like the jewels in society portraits.

The idea of Melamid as court portraitist to anyone is inherently absurd. The instinct is to assume that he is mocking the rapper's brooding solemnity or the rabbi's know-it-all smile; that the Russian newspaper proprietor (and government economic adviser) Konstantin Remchukov, red-eyed, grinning and wine glass in hand, is some sort of Faust.

The white light of destiny glows behind the businessman. The oligarch chooses to pose like the rapper.

But the paintings are more ambiguous. No matter how bulky a presence, each figure appears peculiarly weightless. And then again, each image feels pressurised, built up with a deep red, the colour of iron ore, that makes very heavy weather of the atmosphere.

And there is a twinkle in the eye of the Maltese priest that Melamid has not put there, just as the rappers appear both morose and yet faintly baffled. The formality remains constant, but with this opposing hint of gleeful personal insight.

The key to this show, as it seems to me, is the sudden appearance of a painting of a statue instead of a living person – a Roman hero carved out of stone, standing in just the same baleful light. The point is that everyone gets identical treatment – the format remains the same whether you're a bull or a bureaucrat.

Melamid suppresses the momentary vitality of his sitters in favour of ceremonial stillness, turning each into an effigy of the same size and proportions. And what is so neat about his parody of official portraiture is that one can easily imagine some of the sitters admiring their own images without irony or any sense that they might be looking at pictorial conventions that run all the way back to Stalin. The ultimate clue, though, is in Melamid's signature: kitsch, florid and running like a comedy punchline across the bottom of each work.

No jokes in Trafalgar Square as the latest fourth plinth project was unveiled last week – except, of course, those cracked by Boris Johnson, who took the words out of every news reporter's account with his puns on messages and bottles. Johnson appeared not to notice, however, the one point that the artist was attempting to make with serious intent. The sails of Yinka Shonibare's replica of Nelson's HMS Victory in a gigantic bottle are cut out of densely patterned – and very recognisably African – fabric: the history of black Africans conjured in the multicultural present.

It is a sweet thing, this quaint sculpture on its plinth. The perspex is delicate, the vessel frail, the fabric looks unexpectedly chintzy in the London light. Beneath it is one of those mock seas made of resin that you see in museums and beneath that the sort of wooden stand on which sportsmen rest their trophies.

Seen from below at a certain angle, the frigate appears to sail on the wild blue of the sky itself. At a distance, it shrinks right back to what it simply is: an updated antique, a piece of familiar British bric-a-brac.

The artist has signed it with a flourish – YS MBE is inscribed on both cork and bottle – and it is absolutely of a piece with his stock in trade, which is to cover mannequins of European folk out of history or art in patently African fabric. You get the visual dissonance immediately. It is where his work begins and ends. And it is quite possibly just what this site requires, with its fast-moving stream of passers-by: an admirable trophy to the nearby admiral on his column and for our island today. It is pertinent, correct, on both a local and national scale.

But scale is the problem. Since it would clearly be dangerous to have a gigantic model of a proper rum bottle projecting out over the edge of the plinth, what you see is more like a little keg or preservative jar. It is, in short, limited by the constraints of the plinth itself. Health and safety have come between art and daring and reduced Shonibare to his own small message. "Our culture is global," as he incontrovertibly stated. "I don't really have more to say."


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May 26 2010

Letters: Black navy history

It is tremendous that there is now such an extravagantly rigged memorial to Britain's multicultural presence in Trafalgar Square, in Yinka Shonibare's HMS Victory in a bottle (Report, 25 May). In all the commentary on the memorial, however, its full historical resonances have been missed.

The navy in Nelson's time was far from a monoglot, ethnically white force. For instance, the roster on Nelson's own ship showed nine West Indian and one African sailor, and it has been estimated that at the battle of Trafalgar around 20% of the sailors were non-white.

Black figures such as the Cato Street conspirator William Davidson, the early anarchist Robert Wedderburn and the most famous black Briton of the 18th century, Olaudah Equiano, all served in the navy. As Nelson surveys the square, he is now brought face to face with this black presence by a memorial that wonderfully evokes this hidden history.

Dr Alan Rice

University of Central Lancashire


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May 25 2010

Do black artists need special treatment?

Segregating artists in the name of 'diversity' does them a disservice – as the complex multicultural narrative behind Yinka Shonibare's fourth plinth artwork demonstrates

Tonight I will be appearing on a panel at Tate Britain discussing multiculturalism in the arts, inspired by the latest fourth plinth commission in Trafalgar Square, Yinka Shonibare's Nelson's Ship In a Bottle. This remarkable artwork reproduces Horatio Nelon's ship, HMS Victory, but with a colourful twist: the sails are made of African batik fabrics, one of Shonibare's signature touches.

Even here there's another twist. As Shonibare has pointed out, the fabrics aren't straightforwardly African: the material is Dutch waxcloth, originally based on Indonesian methods of wax-printing, then exported to Africa in the mid-1800s and slowly established as the cloth of choice for African clothing. Shonibare buys the fabric (which is now largely produced in Manchester and Helmond, in the Netherlands) at Brixton market, a place symbolic of London's position in the global exchange of cultures, ideas and products. Calling himself a "post-colonial hybrid", Shonibare celebrates this element of crossbreeding: "It's the way I view culture – it's an artificial construct," he said in an interview with ArtNews in 2002.

Shonibare's works are a powerful reminder that cultures are almost never "pure", but rather made from a messy entanglement of influences. Delft pottery in Holland, which dominated the European porcelain industry in the 17th century, arose out of trade with Japan, whose oriental designs influenced early designs. Many kilt tartans you see today were designed by English tailors under the rule of Queen Victoria, rather than by Scottish highlanders. Even some of the great thinkers and writers of the western canon were "imported": the Roman playwright, Terence, one of the founding fathers of western drama, was a freed slave from Carthage. St Augustine, philosopher and seminal figure of medieval Christianity, was from modern-day Algeria.

Diversity enables this kind of cultural mixing to take place, for people to hear new ideas and acquire the best of what they see, eat, enjoy and learn. London (along with other international cities such as New York, Singapore, and Berlin) has become a place for people around the world to live, visit, consume and make culture – and, of course, do business. And while we are inevitably drawn to the culture of our upbringing, the migrant experience shows we can also be inspired by new places. Derek Walcott, Caribbean poet and Nobel laureate, famously said: "Something prickles in me when I see the word 'Ashanti', as with the word 'Warwickshire'."

But here's the rub: diversity, when the word is used to describe arts policy, seems to be a different thing altogether. Indeed, by trying to capture the essence of difference, it seems to snuff it out altogether. In this reading, culture is not fluid, but defined in rigid categories. Artists are not artists but black, Asian or minority ethnic – "culturally diverse". There are special publicly-funded bursary schemes for black artists, and targets for funding black-led arts groups. There is even a new MA course at a major art school exclusively for black and minority-ethnic art curators.

Yet what does "black art" mean, if blackness itself is a mixture of cultural influences? If black artists can win major commissions and international acclaim, why do we assume that to be black is always to be marginal, or in need of special support? We have to recognise how diversity initiatives can make black artists feel ghettoised and, as some cultural commentators have argued, bear "the burden of representation". Of course, being culturally different in the past was also to suffer prejudice, but much has changed in the past two decades, and old racist attitudes have declined significantly. Barriers today are largely class-based – income, networks, education. And those affect many white people as well.

The past 20 years, particularly in London, have seen a phenomenal change in the way cultures in Britain live together. Nelson's Ship In a Bottle marks the moment to recognise this shift, and ask again what it means to be part of an ethnic minority in Britain today. We may well be surprised by the answers.


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Turner blows this boat out of the water

Yinka Shonibare's ship-in-a-bottle expresses ambivalence about British triumphalism. But JMW Turner's painting of the battle of Trafalgar captures the sublime horror of war

HMS Victory is no stranger to art. Nelson's ship has inspired artists (not to mention putters-of-ships-in-bottles) before. As Yinka Shonibare's engaging Trafalgar Square artwork goes on show to the public, perhaps it's time to look back on an earlier representation of this ship.

The battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, took place in an age addicted to history paintings. The 18th century saw history as the highest theme for art – grand historical narratives were the summit of serious painting. The French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon and the eruption of war across Europe gave artists a living flow of new history. In 1822, George IV challenged JMW Turner to take on Britain's proudest moment, and to paint the great sea battles of Trafalgar.

In Turner's picture, HMS Victory is at the very heart of a terrifying and awe-inspiring scene. The massive wooden wall of this immense war ship will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has seen the surviving Victory in Portsmouth, where Turner had detailed sketches made to supplement his own drawings of Nelson's ship done in 1805. In the bottle on the fourth plinth, the Victory seems slight and flimsy: in Turner's painting, you feel its mass and its power. But it is vulnerable. Masts are toppling, sails ripped to shreds. Nelson led from the front, and died on his flagship's deck.

But Turner does not concentrate on Nelson's sacrifice – that had already commemorated by Benjamin West in his popular 1806 painting The Death of Nelson. Instead, Turner concentrates on the suffering of ordinary sailors and soldiers who cling to wreckage in the foreground. The sea has almost vanished under a tide of human bodies: a proud flag bears witness to their readiness to die for their country. Above, smoke mingles with the clouds, and broken ships tower and totter. It is a moment of sublime spectacle and bloody horror.

British artists of the Napoleonic wars were influenced by Leonardo da Vinci's essay on how to paint a battle, which was translated into English at the start of the 19th century by JF Rigaud. In this powerful passage in his notebooks, Leonardo says the painter of a battle should begin by showing the smoke of the guns, a rich, atmospheric visual theme. For artists painting sea battles in the Regency period, that was fascinating advice. Turner sets out to paint the smoke of war more hauntingly than his rival Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, a stage painter who turned his hand to battle scenes. In fact, Turner's Trafalgar was commissioned as a pendant to de Loutherbourg's The Battle of the First of June, 1794.

Both paintings show the suffering of a sea battle amid the smoke. It is Turner's troubling vision of war that clings at your mind. If previous fourth plinth unveilings are anything to go by, coverage of Nelson's Ship in a Bottle this week will tend to assume that no artist ever before depicted HMS Victory with any ambivalence. But Turner's painting of its finest hour is by no means a simple patriotic picture.


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May 24 2010

Yinka Shonibare celebrates Victory

Giant ship in bottle follows Antony Gormley people's art under Nelson's eye in central London landmark

The previous commission for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square was Antony Gormley's One and Other, which allowed 2,400 people to spend an hour perched high above Landseer's bronze lions.

The daily dramas – sometimes moving, sometimes buttock-clenchingly embarrassing – enacted by members of the public became such a part of London life last summer that when Yinka Shonibare's giant ship in a 5m-long bottle was unveiled this morning it was almost anti climactic.

There was no singing, no dancing, no moving parts: just a bottled replica of Nelson's flagship HMS Victory, its multi-coloured sails billowing as if in a stiff breeze.

The unveiling of the sculpture allowed the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the opportunity to show that, in the distant past, he might have read Swallows and Amazons. "Pull on the mainsail!" he cried, with rather more enthusiasm than nautical accuracy as the fabric cover failed to come off at first tug.

He also displayed his mastery of the pun. "What was the essential reason why Nelson was able to defeat the Franco-Spanish fleet? What quality did he possess that enabled him to rout the enemy fleet, establish mastery of the seas and create the conditions for the 1807 act abolishing the transatlantic slave trade? ... It was bottle, ladies and gentlemen. And it has taken an artist of Yinka's imagination to show how much bottle Nelson had."

Shonibare told the crowd: "I know what you're going to ask: you're going to ask how did you get the ship in there. Well, I'm not going to tell you."

He and his team consulted the keeper of HMS Victory, Peter Goodwin, to make the replica as accurate a representation as possible of the ship on which Nelson died at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

The sails are a departure. Shonibare said: "We think of these fabrics as African textiles; in fact these are Indonesian textiles produced by the Dutch for the African market. I'm interested therefore in their global nature, in the Indonesian, Dutch and indeed British connections, since they were also manufactured in Manchester."

London-born, Nigeria-raised Shonibare – who invariably refers to himself as "Yinka Shonibare MBE" – is known for his research into Britain's imperial past, often using the textiles associated with Africa as a metaphor in his investigations of colonialism.

He said: "The sails are a metaphor for the global connections of contemporary people. This piece celebrates the legacy of Nelson – and the legacy that victory at the battle of Trafalgar left us is Britain's contact with the rest of the world, which has in turn created the dynamic, cool, funky city that London is."

Reaction from people in Trafalgar Square was generally upbeat. John Loughrey, of Wandsworth, south London, said: "I like the fact that it celebrates multiculturalism, there's no prejudice here."

Penny Jones, a leadership and management coach, said it was "more interesting" than Gormley's plinth work, though she had hoped it would be "a bit bigger".

Edith Muller, from Bonn, Germany, liked "the colour, the idea, the look". She said: "The idea is very British. The whole place [Trafalgar Square] is about celebrating victory, but this doesn't offend people."

HMS Victory is still a commissioned warship, and as such has its commanding officer – a position held by Lieutenant Commander John Scivier from 2006-08.

Reviewing the sculpture with a seadog's eye, he said: "The modelling is brilliant; Yinka has done a lot of research. Nelson would be extremely proud. The sculpture epitomises the multi-ethnic nature of London, which was partly brought about by the admirals of that day."

Is Shonibare's ship seaworthy? "Probably a little bit more seaworthy than the real HMS Victory."

Additional reporting: Glenn McMahon


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Message in a bottle

The scale model of Nelson's HMS Victory that has washed up in Trafalgar Square brings out the sailing pond admiral in me – but its postcolonial connotations are worth pondering too

Nelson on his column looks distant and far away. Yinka Shonibare's Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, which has fetched up on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, looks delicate and small in its clear plastic bottle, stopped by an oversized cork and sealed with wax. Less a sculpture than a symbol, it is almost kitsch, and mounted on a vaguely nautical wooden stand whose portholes are actually air vents, whose hidden whirring fans prevent the whole thing from steaming up with condensation – though I rather like the idea of the ship looming in a bottled fog. Shonibare's work is the sort of thing one might come across in a coastal shopping mall, and it sits on the plinth as though on a mantelpiece. I suppose I oughtn't to like it; but I do, very much. It brings out the little boy and the sailing pond admiral in me. Perhaps it appeals to a rather conservative sort of artistic taste, like Jeff Koons's giant, flower-covered puppy, which stands outside the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao (and which has led locals to dub the museum "the doghouse"). But then I'm fond of the mutt too.

Shonibare's Victory aims for seafaring accuracy, though those bright batik-print sails would have been unwise should Nelson have tried to hide from the enemy. Nor is Nelson recorded as having said: "Pimp my Victory." But for all its seeming obviousness and disconcerting, almost camp, appeal, the latest fourth plinth commission does manage to celebrate both Nelson's success at Trafalgar and the postcolonial multi-ethnic mix and mingle of Britain today. It is an ironical corrective to Rule Britannia patriotism, as is the artist's insistence on using his MBE, which is printed on the wax seal alongside his name (the British-born Nigerian artist was awarded the title in 2004). But the thing about ships in bottles is that they're not sailing anywhere. Perhaps this is a further symbol of Britain today: a message no one wants to read.


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Nelson's ship sets sail – in a bottle

Exclusive images of Yinka Shonibare's giant sculpture of HMS Victory, unveiled today in Trafalgar Square



May 15 2010

Yinka Shonibare

Yinka Shonibare's recreation of Nelson's ship HMS Victory will soon be unveiled on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth. Here, he tells Rachel Cooke about his fascination with the British establishment

Yinka Shonibare isn't nervous about how the critics will respond to his commission for Trafalgar Square's famously empty fourth plinth. What would be the point? The ship is in the bottle: there's no going back now. And how, exactly, did it get into the bottle? He grins, gleefully. "I'm not saying." Was it perhaps a hinged, fold-up vessel, one he could unfurl inside the bottle inside using those mechanical arms that park keepers use to pick up autumn leaves? He shakes his head. Or maybe the bottle's neck is sufficiently wide that he was able to slither in and out at will? "I've told you: I can't say. It's a secret." All he will reveal is that the bottle itself is not made entirely of glass (it's some kind of polymer blend); that it was manufactured, not in Britain, but elsewhere in Europe; and that a wax seal on its side will read: "YSMBE" (his initials, followed by the honour he received from the Queen in 2005). Oh, yes, and there will be a row of Union flags along its prow.

From the moment the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group wrote to him three years ago, asking him please to submit a proposal, Shonibare knew in his gut what he wanted to stick on London's highest-profile site for sculpture. "It's a huge honour to do something for Trafalgar Square," he says. "And it seemed obvious to do a work that was connected to the square in some way. I'm surprised no one has done that before. I wanted to do a serious thing for a serious space, but I also wanted it to be exciting, magical, and playful." His big idea was Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, a large-scale model of Horatio Nelson's ship, HMS Victory, from which he commanded the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The twist in the tail, however, is that this ship's sails would be made of Dutch wax, the brightly coloured African fabric that is Shonibare's trademark. "Nelson's victory freed up the seas for the British, and that led, in turn, to the building of the British Empire. But in a way, his victory also created the London we know today: an exciting, diverse, multicultural city." So his work is intended to be celebratory rather than critical? "Both. I want to make people think. I love London. I don't know any city like it. It has a unique vibe. Maybe this is just a monument to live, and let live."

Shonibare, an unexpectedly willowy man in a spiffing powder-blue jacket, is used to attention. His work has been shown in every major gallery in London (not to mention the Louvre in Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York), and in 2004, he was shortlisted for the Turner prize. But still, the plinth commission is different. "The Turner was quite full-on. I'm a winner, not a loser, and I hated not winning. It irritated me, it annoyed me. But you move on. I was already collected, I was already making money; the Turner didn't change anything. But then came the plinth, and that was a huge compensation, and it already feels bigger than anything else. The work will be there for 18 months. So many people will see it." Where is it now? We are in Shonibare's studio in London Fields, Hackney, the smaller of two premises in which he works, and all I can see is the maquette he made when he submitted his original proposal. "It's somewhere else," he says. His face is a picture of innocence, lightly tinged with mischief.

Although he works in different media – painting, sculpture, film and photography – Shonibare's work has followed an unusually clear trajectory since he left Goldsmiths in 1991. As a student, he had been busy making work about perestroika until, one day, a tutor asked him why he didn't think about African art instead. Intrigued by the idea that he should, as a person with a Nigerian background, be expected to make only "African art", Shonibare began considering stereotypes and the issue of "authenticity". His research took him first to the Museum of Mankind and then to Brixton market. He discovered that the exuberant batik that goes by the name of Dutch wax was not, in fact, African; originally, it was Indonesian. Dutch colonialists, hoping to make a profit by selling it, had set out to manufacture the cloth commercially in the Netherlands. When their venture failed, they palmed off the surplus on west African markets, where it somehow became, over time, a kind of national costume for millions of Africans: a statement, in the 20th century, of their post-colonial independence.

Ever since, Shonibare has used the fabric in his art, with dizzying results. Initially, he began mocking up entire Victorian rooms, except their chaises longues were covered, not in velvet and silk chintz, but in Dutch wax. Emboldened by the success of these experiments, he then began using the cloth in his responses to iconic 18th-century paintings, such as Thomas Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews, and Henry Raeburn's Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. In Shonibare's Mr and Mrs Andrews Without Their Heads (1998), and in Reverend on Ice (2005), headless life-sized mannequins recreate the poses of the subjects of the original paintings, only their clothes are fashioned from Dutch wax. These installations and sculptures are provocative, of course, but they are funny, too. "Yes, Reverend on Ice is funny," says Shonibare. "I wouldn't have made it otherwise. It's a parody: it's two fingers to the establishment. I do think Raeburn's painting is beautiful, but perhaps in a way that other people don't. I see a dark history behind its opulence. I think: who had to be enslaved in order for you to be able to afford a portrait painter? So it's gallows humour, too."

His work, he believes, reflects his ambivalent attitude towards the establishment, acknowledging the perversity that, sometimes, a person can find something both abhorrent and deeply attractive. In a series of photographs called Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998), he presents himself as the frock-coat-wearing hero, playing billiards, lying abed attended by half a dozen servants, or posturing before mustachioed types in his library. "When I think of that era, I think about domination and repression. But I also admire things about it. I enjoyed dressing up in those clothes. I don't deny that. It's the same with my MBE: I love it."

Is he joking? "Honestly! For one thing, there is no British Empire. It's finished." There's still Gibraltar, I say. He laughs. "Also, I have a whole list of contradictions. Just because I'm a black artist, I don't want to have to stand on a soap box all the time. I admire the Queen; I love the royal family. A lot of people will think I don't really mean that. But I do. The establishment is fascinating – the idea that, thanks to an accident of birth, your whole life is laid out for you. The only thing is that I don't know my place. I'm not at all a good subject in that sense."

Shonibare was born in London in 1962, but moved with his family back to Lagos when he was three. He comes from a wealthy, middle-class background: his father was a successful lawyer; his brothers are a surgeon and a banker, his sister is a dentist. It would be something of an understatement to say that his parents were appalled when he started talking about wanting to be an artist. "I was a freak! Success is so important in Nigeria. When you're some young, tramp artist, you're considered a drop-out. During the early part of my career, I was always phoning home for money. My father would say: 'When are you going to grow up?' I was on something like £5,000 a year. I wanted a deposit so I could buy a house. I got the deposit, but, oh my goodness, the lecture!" These days, his family's attitude is rather different. "Too bad my father didn't live to see me get the MBE. He would have loved that – though it's ironic that I got it by being subversive, by being the opposite of what he wanted me to be. But [before he died] I was invited to Windsor Castle for a party, and he was so excited. I heard him on the phone saying: 'Yeah, I encouraged him to go to Goldsmiths.'"

After school in Lagos, there followed a stint at a British boarding school ("a Nigerian middle-class thing; I hated it – it was cold, and all the food was boiled, no spices") after which he enrolled at the Wimbledon School of Art. Two weeks later, however, he fell ill; a virus in his spine left him completely paralysed. "It took me three years to recover. I had to learn to walk again. At first, my mum looked after me. Then I moved to a rehab centre. It was extremely isolating. But as soon as I was back at art school [he went to Byam Shaw and then, for his MA, Goldsmiths, where his contemporaries included the Wilson twins and Matthew Collings] I started winning awards. That encouraged me. I thought: OK, I have a disability, but people can judge me by my work. It's about what I can do. In that sense, art has been like a life support system for me." Today, he walks with a stick, and his body is slightly curved. But he suffers no pain. "I make sure I keep mobile, I don't let myself get too stiff. You're only noticing because you're meeting me for the first time."

After Goldsmith's, with its notoriously critical tutors – "it's that military thing; they destroy you completely and then they rebuild you" – Shonibare found himself frozen for about two years, "unable to produce anything". In 1997, however, his work was included in Charles Saatchi's infamous Sensation show at the Royal Academy. After this, there was no stopping him. "I've been lucky. Audience response has always been good, and every time I've done a show, it has led to invitations to do three more." What role, if any, does he think his colour has played in his career? "I'd be lying if I said I had suffered discrimination, though I'm not naive enough to think it doesn't exist. But in any case, I love a challenge, so if you don't think much of me, I will do things to make you consider me more highly." What about positive discrimination? "People do that only once. They invite you, and if you produce crap they won't invite you again, full stop." On a blackboard, his schedule for the next 12 months is already chalked up. It includes shows in Monaco and Israel, in Spain and in Australia. He could not, he says, be busier if he tried.

I wonder if he finds conversations about multiculturalism tiresome, for all that his work invites them. I wouldn't blame him if he did. Shonibare shrugs. "Culture has a role to play. In a diverse society people have to find a way of being together, and that can only come from understanding other cultures. Otherwise, you're just fighting for space. But I'm from London, now. I've been here for 30 years. In Lagos, I would feel like a foreigner. The city has had such an impact on my work. If I'd lived somewhere else, I'm certain that my career would have evolved very differently. And I love it. I love what you could call 'vindaloo Britishness'. It's a mixed-up thing. You hear it in British music, and you taste it in British food. This purity notion is nonsense, and I cherish that." His trademark Dutch wax is, he says, a metaphor for interdependence and thus, perhaps, a metaphor for city life as well. We all pinch from one another. We take what we like, and in doing so, we are, whether we like it or not, joined together in one great and vibrant web.

Nelson's Ship in a Bottle will be unveiled in Trafalgar Square on 24 May


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April 27 2010

Poster politics

Artists including Richard Wentworth, Maggi Hambling and Mark Wallinger offer alternative poster designs for the general election 2010



The art of the political poster

Unimpressed by the few political posters around, we asked leading British artists to inspire us and to come up with their own creations. Jonathan Jones introduces their work

View a gallery of the artists' posters

I feel a warm, or perhaps it's a hellish-hot, nostalgia looking at the election posters designed by artists for G2. They all seem steeped in memories of Labour publicity in the 1970s and 80s, in its age of defeat. These are anti-posters, which aspire to be honest rather than glib. The tradition of the poster as contemporary art is, in fact, not Labour but Tory: it was the Saatchi & Saatchi poster "Labour isn't working" that created the whole idea of stylish, eye-catching campaigning.

There is, of course, a far older tradition of beautiful and inspiring political poster art; but there is no point here in raking over the history of the Soviet avant-garde, or of Aleksander Rodchenko's photomontages. This is a British election and these are British artists, who have rejected the Saatchi tendency towards killer publicity in favour of recapturing the intense emotions of us-and-them, of anger and loyalty, that Labour adverts inspired 25 years ago.

Back then, Labour was a tribe, and nothing captures the tribal feelings it must now fall back on better than David Shrigley's brilliant drawing of Gordon Brown: not so much a caricature as a delve into the primitive roots of political loyalty. As for the alternative, Jeremy Deller has portrayed a Conservative vote with the caustic accuracy that does what a campaigning poster should – it campaigns. But are there really no Tory artists? Tracey Emin, who has made positive noises about Cameron and shadow arts minister Ed Vaizey, has not yet launched a Tory manifesto policy, but you'd think she could at least do a slogan for them: "Labour isn't fucking working", perhaps. Nor is there a strong Liberal sentiment –unless Goshka Macuga is sending us a subliminal Clegg message.

These posters are the only things I have seen in the course of this entire election that capture the way I feel. Most of the artists are of my generation, in their 40s, and remember the reality of Tory rule. Shrigley speaks viscerally for the tribe: re-elect our leader Gordon Brown.

Martin Parr

I took this photograph at the St Pauls carnival in Bristol last summer, which is like a mini-version of the Notting Hill carnival. In a picture as busy as this, there will often be somebody or something that doesn't quite work: I like the fact that all the people are there and it works. The crowd is predominantly African-Caribbean, with a few white English people watching with their cameras, as I was, so it's almost like a self-portrait without me in it.

I chose "Vote for Britain" rather than any particular party because that's the whole point. This is neutral and ambiguous and loaded. What does it mean to me? Well, I quite like Britain, of course, and one of the reasons I like taking photographs in Britain is that it challenges my own feelings about it: it's not all good and not all bad; there are things I like and things I don't. I'm soft left and I live in a marginal seat, Bristol West. I vote tactically, so I'll probably vote Lib Dem.

Mark Wallinger

We have been through quite a few campaigns without memorable slogans now. Everyone harks back to the Saatchis' "Labour isn't working", but that was 1978. As a lifelong Labour person, through all the party's vicissitudes and disappointments, I was intrigued by the possibility of a campaign that revealed some of the bigger fault lines between the parties, beyond the not-very-galvanising debate over national insurance and VAT. I came up with two other slogans apart from this: "What school did you go to?" and "Who can afford to go private?"

I admit this isn't the most sophisticated, but it does go to the heart of the credibility of the man. Cameron reminds me of a bar of soap. He has been leader for a long time now and I have no idea what he stands for. I hope that the idea of the emperor's new clothes and all his empty rhetoric is implicit. The colours are those of the two main parties, and the union flag; I wanted it to be punchy.

I hope people look at this and see that there are real choices. I'm sick of people saying, "Oh, they're all the same." They're not, and it's up to us to see the differences. Labour is the party for equality and for reform in the Lords. Like most people I feel a little jaded after the banking crisis, but I will vote Labour and hope for the best.

They're a po-faced lot, though, aren't they? Let's hope someone in the campaign discovers a bit of wit: a good joke does hit home. Roy Hattersley was a wit, Robin Cook, Tony Benn – the people on the old left who can see the bigger picture. Though I did like Ken Clarke's description of the Hoon/Hewitt attempted leadership coup earlier this year: hiding behind the dagger and stabbing with the cloak. That was very good.

David Shrigley

When I'm drawing people, I tend to do it really quickly – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Nick Clegg is not easy to draw because you'd be hard pushed to think of anything physically defining about him. The only one I seem to be able to draw is David Cameron: I trace his face, then I make his features smaller in Photoshop and that seems to work. I drew Gordon Brown and it started to look like him the more I looked at it.

Historically I have voted Labour, but not since the Iraq war – I couldn't countenance that. I would never vote Conservative. This poster doesn't express my strong personal support, although of the three of them, I would like Brown to win. Originally the background was yellow, because I like black on yellow, but then I realised yellow was the Lib Dem colour. So I've gone for a rosy red, a kind of New New Labour red. The words say "re-elect", although he wasn't elected as leader, as such. I like the ambiguity.

Bob and Roberta Smith

I don't want to tell people how to vote. The important thing is just to get involved in the whole jamboree – by voting, yes, but also by finding satirical messages to deface posters with, like the person who turned David Cameron into Elvis. If my own poster goes viral, so much the better. It's made up of four timber panels. On the upper panels are pictures of some of my Labour heroes: Clement Attlee, Tony Benn, Glenda Jackson, Bernie Grant – people with extraordinary vision. I put them there to remind me why I'm a Labour supporter. I stopped voting Labour after the Iraq war, and started voting Green. But I'm going to vote Labour in this election. I'm particularly impressed with Ed Miliband's stand on green issues: he could turn out to be in the same category as these heroes. Cameron just reminds me of a disappointed school master, lecturing his students about their stupid antics.

Gerald Scarfe

They're both crap, I suppose that's what I'm saying. If you go to the extreme and call them shits, that's probably not so nice. But I'm saying, really, voters have a crap choice. You would assume Cameron would be ahead, because he is new, and a change, and hasn't made all the mistakes Brown has, but he isn't and the election is very close. The caricature must come from the character of the person. I wasn't a supporter of Margaret Thatcher but she was good material, because she had such a strong personality. I could portray her as a knife or an axe; I couldn't do that with John Major or Iain Duncan Smith. I used to find drawing Brown quite dull because he's a dour personality – a big blob with ears. I draw Cameron in his Bullingdon outfit, because he's so desperate not to appear to be a toff. How daft does he think we are? My position as a cartoonist/journalist for all these years has been to try to remain neutral and to attack all sides, because they are all capable of fallibility. I know this is a bit of a cop out but here I'm saying, I don't know who to vote for. Like I say, it's a crap choice.

Richard Wentworth

There are people who are obsessive about being born under a certain star sign, and those who believe you can only be born when you're born: that that was your time, that only those people could be your parents. I didn't want to leave people with the cheesiness of a bad joke about "labour", but I did want to remind people that they are born into a political space. I worked with some lovely designers who made this look as if it has been around for ever. The font is reminiscent of those Keep Calm and Carry On posters – it's of that period. The red wasn't a conscious decision in terms of "Labour red", just a happy accident; red goes in the eye quickly. I would love to see it reproduced very big. If people look at it and go "What does that mean?", that's good.

Jeremy Deller

This poster is anti-Conservative rather than pro-Labour. Rupert Murdoch is the most powerful lobbyist there is in this country, so I'm drawing attention to the fact that a vote for the Tories is a vote for him. If I'd made a poster for the last election, it would have looked almost the same, except it would have said "Vote Labour" next to a picture of George Bush – Bush was so close to Blair. This time around, it's Murdoch who counts for the Tories, even more than David Cameron or any other Tory politician. It's a small poster, so it could be used as a bumper sticker on a car. But I'd love to see it blown up on a massive billboard. The posters and adverts Labour are using for this election are terrible; it's as if they haven't put any thought into them at all, just sent them to the newspapers to grab that day's headlines.

Yinka Shonibare

This slogan doesn't refer to politicians: I want people to vote for me. My party is the Me party. It's not registered yet, though. I'm just celebrating the fact that, in this democratic system, anyone can stand. I like me, you see, so I assume everyone else will. People think politicians like to be the centre of attention, but artists are worse. So I'm poking fun at artists, too. They are not rosettes – they are flowers made from African textiles, in the colours of the three main parties. Flowers are attractive, whereas political posters are rarely well done. And even when they are, they're still knocking or negative. I think politicians are only interested in power and lining their own pockets. But I have always voted; who for is my own business. When I was a child in Nigeria, a military regime was in charge. There were soldiers everywhere and there was no question of voting. It started to feel normal. That's why I value the vote.

Goshka Macuga

I made this with the designer Fraser Muggeridge. It's double-sided: the "Left Right Forward" panel is the front, and the blue side is the reverse, printed on the kind of thin, textured underlay that is used underneath billboard posters to make them look opaque. I wanted to think about a political poster as a physical object, rather than just an image.

The front reflects the confused picture we have of UK politics right now. I have mixed feelings about Labour, especially regarding the war in Iraq, and the fact that what people really felt about it wasn't taken into consideration. But I'm also concerned about what a Conservative government would mean for arts funding. It seems like the two parties have merged into one: whether you vote for the left or the right adds up to much the same thing.

But without voting, you have no control. So the quote on the back of the poster is to remind us about the roots of democracy. It's from a speech Pericles made to the Athenians during the Peloponnesian wars. He's speaking about the impossibility of doing justice to the brave men who have lost their lives in the war – something that resonates with the war in Iraq. But he's also reminding us of the respect given in Athens to those involved in politics, something that today we have all but lost.

Maggi Hambling

Every morning I paint the sea, and I am always reminded of how remarkably small I am. It is a very humbling experience, and I think a bit of humility wouldn't go amiss with our politicians. So I've chosen the sea to remind politicans about the bigger picture: nature, and the way it is taking its revenge – through climate change, through volcanic eruptions, through coastal erosion. They could all do with thinking more about that, and less about political bitching and wrangling. All artists are anarchists at heart – at least, they are if they're any good. So I've chosen red – the colour of anarchy, along with black – for the quotation, which curves and curls across the sea picture like a wave. It's from Julius Caesar, one of Shakespeare's most political plays, and seems particularly appropriate at this moment. It reminds us that everything is about timing: the Falklands war was crucial to Mrs Thatcher's success, and now the changes in nature and climate are defining the issues for this election.

I vote in London, where my MP is Labour's wonderful Kate Hoey. She is pro-hunting, as am I, so she'll be getting my vote.

Maggi Hambling: New Sea Sculpture, Paintings and Etchings is at Marlborough Fine Art, London W1, from 5 May to 5 June.

Liam Gillick

As with all my art, I went back to the source: in this case, the Labour party's own website. "The democratic socialist party" is the phrase it still uses to describe itself, though you'd be hard pushed to recognise that in the way the party talks about itself today.

I find it perverse that Labour is shying away from its own legacy. There are lots of aspects of its current policies – the new tax rate, the investment in public spending – that fit with these core values. I hope my poster reminds politicians and voters alike of that.

With its strong Helvetica font, the poster is nostalgic: it reminds me of growing up in the 1970s, when Labour was in crisis, and you could recognise every Labour family in the street from their bold posters: they really stood out. Campaign posters have become nasty and cynical, taking their cue from the Saatchis' for the Tories, which were more about people than policies. Ironic, postmodern posters are not what we need: the most important thing is to remind voters what the party stands for, and to encourage them to vote.

Alison Jackson

I've been shooting a whole series of photographs, and working on some web video clips, during this election. Nick Clegg wasn't hard to cast: he's quite a normal-looking guy and there are quite a few people who can look like him. But a good Gordon Brown has been impossible to find: I held casting sessions all over England and Scotland, scouring areas where there might be someone who looked like him. He's a big man, so I focused on places where people eat a lot, in Scotland particularly, but no one wanted to put themselves forward. I put five casting directors on it, and they were practically in tears: they had never experienced anything like it. I've found one, and he's reasonably good in profile, but there's only one side that works. Cameron I'm still working on: in his case, there are lots who will put themselves forward, but I'm still looking for the perfect one.

During the first TV debate it was striking how much Brown was trying to align himself with Clegg. I wondered what might be happening behind the scenes, and came up with these scenarios: Clegg and Brown celebrating, Brown letting Clegg try out the prime minister's chair. And I'm very interested in Mandelson and his role: what a comeback, having parted ways with Brown – now he's here to help. You just never know what people are planning.

The works by Bob and Roberta Smith, Antony Gormley, Jeremy Deller, Mark Wallinger, Liam Gillick and Richard Wentworth form part of the Make a Mark project in aid of the Labour Party. For more details and to download your own copies visit makeamark.org.uk


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