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August 18 2012

The pre-Raphaelites: behind the scenes at a modern blockbuster

Tate Britain has spent five years bringing together some of the greatest pre-Raphaelite works for a show that repositions the artists as the radicals of their day. We witness the culmination of a huge project, as everything, from the largest Burne-Jones to the smallest fridge magnet, finds its place…

In a huge house in a mysterious part of London, a tall, energetic man called Rupert Maas is showing me a drawing: The Lady of Shalott by Elizabeth Siddal. "It's absolutely lovely, isn't it?" he asks, though I have the strong impression that he doesn't give two figs whether or not I agree with him. "There are no more ethereal drawings produced by any of the pre-Raphaelites than those by Lizzie, and this is a very, very good one." His voice runs on: not dreamily, exactly, but clotted with a certain kind of passion. "It has this febrile intensity. It's deeply sexy, for some reason. Look at the tightness of her dress, the yearning quality of it." Somewhat trepidatiously, I tell him that, to me, this particular Lady of ShalottLord Tennyson's Arthurian maiden, condemned forever to see Camelot only in the reflection of a mirror, was a favourite subject of the pre-Raphaelites – looks a little like a doll. "Yes, well... I think that might be part of it," he says, with a smile.

Elizabeth Siddal, the redhead who is perhaps best known as the model for John Everett Millais's Ophelia, was married to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the seven founders of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, from 1860 until her death from an overdose of laudanum in 1862 – though their relationship began in about 1851, when she first started sitting for him. "The relationship between Rossetti and Lizzie is absolutely central to the pre-Raphaelite spirit," says Maas, still peering over my right shoulder. "She is Beatrice to his Dante." But Siddal, who had humble roots and had previously worked as a milliner, also longed to be an artist in her own right; in 1855, John Ruskin agreed to subsidise her career, paying her £150 a year in exchange for every drawing she produced. "It's well-documented," says Maas. "He [Rossetti] taught her. He stood over her while she drew, and he did bits that she couldn't manage. It was a thing they did together: a journey of love into another world; a medieval paradise for them both." Did Rossetti work on The Lady of Shalott, which is dated 1853? "I think he might have had something to do with the sprite carved on the chair. I think they did that together."

In the next few days, The Lady of Shalott will depart this house for Tate Britain, where she is to appear in the gallery's autumn blockbuster, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde. There, it will join works owned by, among others, Jimmy Page and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Is it thrilling to lend to such an august institution? Not for Maas. This is the second time Siddal's drawing has holidayed at the Tate (the first was during the gallery's last pre-Raphaelite show in 1984), and there are other, equally wonderful works in his collection. "I do it all the time, quite honestly," he says. "I think it's a public duty. When it's there, I won't even look at it; I'll go and look at something I'm not familiar with instead." He grins. "But, of course, when it comes home, I'll have a jolly good gloat."

Maas inherited some of his collection from his father, Jeremy, an art dealer who in 1969 wrote a celebrated book about 19th-century British art, Victorian Painters, and who began buying 19th-century British paintings when they were still amazingly affordable. (Rupert now runs his father's Mayfair gallery.) The rest, he bought: "I'm not one of those dealers who feels he shouldn't collect." So what is it about Victorian art in general, and the pre-Raphaelites in particular, that speaks to him? They haven't always, it's fair to say, been terribly fashionable.

"Yes. But when people say they hate Victorian art, you have to ask: what is it they're hating? They're hating themselves, because they're hating the stuff of which we're made. Most middle-class people in Britain still live in Victorian houses. They gave us all sorts of things we take for granted. And Victorian genre paintings deal with such serious social issues. Look at Ford Madox Brown's The Last of England [a painting about emigration and poverty that will also be in the Tate's exhibition]. He's asking big questions in pictures."

As for the pre-Raphaelites proper, with their penchant for swooning damozels and complicated allegories, he hopes that the Tate's vast new show will persuade visitors to reconsider them. The pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848, was determined to rebel against dreary Royal Academy conventions; for this reason its members have sometimes been compared, in spirit, to the Young British Artists of the 1990s. Maas, though, likens them to punks; every young artist wanted to be one. "Millais was the greatest draughtsman. Rossetti was the romantic, the natural heir to Blake. Holman Hunt is more difficult: the priggishness, the religiosity, the density: these are some seriously wacky paintings. But they're all so big, so brightly-coloured, so powerful. You can just imagine how they must have seemed once, when everyone was used to seeing Sir Sloshua Reynolds and his school." His eyes widen. "They must have seemed seriously psychedelic."

It has taken Alison Smith, a Tate curator, more than five years to put Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde together. The idea for it came to her after the Tate's Millais exhibition in 2007. It encouraged visitors who thought of the artist as a painter of fancy chocolate-box pictures to see him in a different, more audacious light, and Smith found herself wondering if she couldn't do the same for his colleagues in the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. "I wanted to show them as modern artists rather than as soft romantics," she says. "That was my agenda."

Her case successfully argued (the Tate's programme is driven not by potential visitor numbers but by intellectual inquiry, with the result that every show must have a thesis), and the exhibition safely in the schedule, she began work. The Tate has a peerless collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings, among them Ophelia by Millais, The Golden Stairs by Burne-Jones, The Beloved by Rossetti, and The Triumph of the Innocents by Holman Hunt. But she also had a list of must-haves to be borrowed from elsewhere: Millais's Isabella, which hangs in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool; Holman Hunt's Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of His Young Brother, which is in a private collection and had not been seen in public since 1984; Ford Madox Brown's Work from Manchester City Galleries; Holman Hunt's The Light of the World, from Keble College, Oxford; and, most fabulous of all, Holman Hunt's The Lady of Shalott, from the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. This massive painting, overpowering and, some would say, overwrought, has not been seen in Britain since 1951.

So how did she do? Lizzie Siddal's drawing, just across the river, must have been relatively easy to clinch. But what about the others? "Oh, we secured them all," she says, almost nonchalantly. "Everything we wanted, we got. The Lady of Shalott was in doubt for a while; there were conservation issues, and we had concerns about travel and costs. But, in the end, all the problems were resolved, and this astonishing late painting [it was completed in 1905 after the artist's death by an assistant, by which time its subject was already long out of fashion] will be the final work in the exhibition." And once the names on her list were ticked off, did she dance a little jig? "No. But you feel good for the show. You feel it's finally coming together."

Its major paintings bagged, the exhibition began to spread its tentacles outwards. All hands on deck. Backstage in London, Kiko Noda, the show's registrar, embarked on the complex logistical task of arranging the transportation of every loan. "Most lenders insist on a representative being present when a painting is hung," says Smith. "And once a work has been hung it cannot be moved. You can't go back and say, 'Oh, that would look nicer there.' A big lender might have five or six works in different rooms, so drawing up an installation schedule is perhaps the trickiest thing of all. That's where Kiko comes in."

In America, Smith's co-curators, Tim Barringer and Jason Rosenfeld (the exhibition will travel to Washington), started working on their scholarly essays for the catalogue. At Tate Enterprises, the team began thinking about merchandise: scarves inspired by the gown Rossetti's model wears in The Beloved; bags and cushions made from fabric designed by the pre-Raphaelites' friend and supporter, William Morris; and, of course, fridge magnets and postcards, which sell in their thousands. (Tate Enterprises earns between £2m and £3m a year for the galleries, so ordering the right merchandise is a serious business.) And the marketing department considered how best to attract younger visitors. Among their ideas: pre-Raphaelite-inspired fashion shoots; a pre-Raphaelite Pinterest page; a roll call of "modern day muses" with pre-Raphaelite sensibilities (Paloma Faith; Florence Welch, from Florence and the Machine).

The months, and the years, ticked by. It's now August and the paintings are finally arriving; Kiko Noda receives every one personally. They will be hung by a team led by Geoff Hoskins, a senior art handling technician of 20 years' experience, in the fortnight before the show opens on 12 September (the wall texts were completed only in the past few days – Smith's American colleagues slaved through the night to finish them on time). What will it be like to see the work in the galleries at last? Smith smiles. "For me, the most wonderful moment is installation. It's the culmination of everything. That's when you feel you are deep in the heart of a project." And when it opens to the public? "The personal attachment loosens a bit, but you're still concerned. It's a like a child going out into the world: you want it to do well."

The Tate's pre-Raphaelite paintings are among its most popular (Ophelia by Millais, so lush and yet so plangent, has long been the gallery's bestselling postcard). "They're always on display," says Natasha Walker, a paintings conservator. "And when they're not, they're often on loan to another gallery. So it's quite rare that we get the opportunity to look at them. That's why we like these big shows. It gives us the chance to get our hands on things."

Some time ago, Walker and the other conservators examined all of the Tate paintings that will appear in the exhibition. "We have priorities," she says. "Obviously, if something is stucturally unsound, that's the first priority. This one [she reaches for some images] was displayable, but we wanted it to look its best. So I spent five months cleaning it."

The painting in question is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Beata Beatrix (1864-70), a portrait of the poet Dante's wife, Beatrice, that was also a memorial to Rossetti's wife, Elizabeth Siddall (the painter used sketches of his late wife to complete it). It's an exquisite piece, smaller and more intimate in scale than many pre-Raphaelite works, and softer, too, being more dimly lit. Beatrice/Siddal has her eyes closed, though whether she is in a state of religious or sexual ecstasy is unclear. Meanwhile, a bird, a messenger of death whose feathers are the colour of dried blood, drops a poppy into her open palms (this must, surely, be a reference to Siddal's death from an overdose of laudanum shortly after she gave birth to a stillborn child). In the background is Dante, looking towards the haloed figure of Love, in whose hands the burning heart of his wife flickers and wanes.

"The painting had a natural resin varnish over it," says Walker. "It would have been added to improve its colour rendition, the gloss of it. But it had become quite discoloured." After doing some tests to find which mixture of solvents would best remove this layer, she set to work with a cotton wool swab. "It's very painstaking. You have to be careful with the paint layer." She shows me some before and after pictures. "Look at the colour shift. Before, it was warmer and quite yellow in tone. Varnish tends to make things look quite unified. The contrast between highlights and shadows is so much greater now, and her flesh is cooler, not quite so glowing."

During the conservation, Walker x-rayed the picture; she also photographed it while casting light at an acute angle over it. "I found out quite a lot. The story goes that Rossetti had made and abandoned an oil sketch of his wife, and that it lay in his studio for many years, until his dealer took it to be adhered to another canvas, and brought it back for Rossetti to finish. The x-ray showed that there were indeed canvas additions at the top, sides and bottom, all of which would have allowed Rossetti more scope for background." She shows me the x-ray. "I could also see these losses in the lead white preparation under the paint. Rossetti left these losses. A more meticulous artist would have filled them before recommencing. When I cast light over the picture, I could also see brush hairs, studio dust and debris in the paint, which tells you something about the state of his tools."

It took Rossetti six years to complete Beata Beatrix, a long time for a painting of this size. "When I looked at the green of her cloak I could see that it had aged and cracked over a period of time; his red monogram had been added over the cracks. I could even see some of the red pigment caught up in the varnish, which tells me that he signed it and then quickly sent it away."

How do these discoveries make her feel? Shivery, is the answer – though in a good way. "You've seen it in books, or on walls. But this brings you so much closer." It's a visceral thing, a connection with the artist himself. What do her discoveries tell us about Rossetti's state of mind? Walker is reluctant to say: "I'm not an art historian," she laughs (her degree is in zoology, the chemistry she learnt then a great help). But to me it seems obvious. Rossetti took his wife's death hard, burying the bulk of his unpublished poems with her in Highgate cemetery. Afterwards, he grew increasingly depressed. Beata Beatrix was a painful piece to paint; it took him an age. But when he finally felt able to let it go, he couldn't wait to get it out of his sight.

It's not only paintings that must be conserved. When Walker and I have finished talking, she takes me to the studio of Alastair Johnson, a frame conservator. For the past year, Johnson has been working on the frame of Burne-Jones's enormous oil, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid – a project that will be completed any day now, when picture and frame are once again reunited.

King Cophetua was completed in 1884. It was inspired by a Tennyson poem, The Beggar Maid, and tells the legend of an African king who disdained women until he met Penelophon, "a beggar maid all in grey", with whom he fell in love at first sight. In the painting, the king gazes at Penelophon devotedly (the theme of male enthralment to female beauty was a favourite of Burne-Jones's), having put aside his crown and shield in deference to her beauty. A deeply sensual work – with her gently rounded belly and her curled toes, there is something so straightforwardly sexy about Penelophon – Burne-Jones's friends bought it for the Tate after the artist's death in 1898.

The painting's frame was made for it, in the Renaissance style, by the Vacani family. But a few years after it joined the collection it was altered to accommodate a glazing door (in other words, an ugly sub frame was fitted inside the original one). "The alterations were substantial," says Johnson. "They had to insert four inches of material in the bottom of the frame, removing one putto's head, and replacing it with two. They also built up the columns at the side and removed altogether the frame's lovely moulded [internal] edge."

How did Johnson know what the original frame looked like? Luckily, there existed a photograph by Emery Walker of the painting in its original frame; Johnson found it at the National Portrait Gallery, where Walker's archive is kept. Using this as a guide, he set to work. First he removed the additions. "They were quite brutal," he says. "You could see the saw marks where they'd cut the bottom of the frame in two." Then he made moulds of a putto's head elsewhere on the frame. "I used a silicon rubber mould; prop-makers use them; they're incredibly detailed. The heads themselves are made from composition, a doughy mixture of plaster or chalk." Then he set about copying the moulded edge. "Usually we find another frame which has something similar as a guide. But I couldn't find one anywhere. In the end, I just modelled a section up in Plasticine."

Finally he guilded his repairs. Johnson leads me to the frame itself, in the centre of the room. Wow. What a wonderful thing it is. But will he age his own additions? They're a bit bling at the moment. "Yes. I'll probably use watercolour: something I can easily remove, or add to. And perhaps a bit of household dirt." It will, he says, be an anxious moment when the painting is put into the frame. "A very expensive piece of Perspex – it's called Optium – will replace the glass. It has an innovative coating which makes it look like low-reflective glass. It also has an inherent flexibility, which is important with a painting of this size. Unlike glass, it won't crack." How will he feel when he sees it in the gallery? "Oh, it'll be wonderful," he says, with great feeling. "But I'll also be praying I measured the painting correctly."

As both Walker and Johnson point out, thanks to their efforts, when visitors to the exhibition come to gaze on Beata Beatrix and King Cophetua in a few weeks' time, they'll be seeing them pretty much as Rossetti, Burne-Jones and their contemporaries saw them. Will this make a difference to their understanding of these artists? Perhaps not. Only experts and passionate fans will notice such subtle changes. On the other hand, as the late, great Robert Hughes put it, for the pre-Raphaelites, "God was in the details: in the petals of a cornflower or the vein of an elecampane leaf, in the grain of stone or the purling of a brook."

Rossetti and his friends would, I think, have adored the care the Tate has put into this show. Such attention, loving and precise, reflects the extreme trouble they went to in their own pursuit of accuracy. Though what they would have made of fridge magnets is anyone's guess.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is at Tate Britain, London SW1 from 12 Sept to 13 Jan 2013; © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

How the Olympics will shape the future of east London

With plans to build 8,000 new homes at the Olympic Park over the next two decades, Stratford's future depends on a sympathetic approach to regeneration…

Long, long ago, I sat in a nondescript room with an official leading what was then a grand government project to regenerate a huge area called the Thames Gateway. Her organisation, she said, was supporting London's Olympic bid because it was almost impossible to make anything happen in the Thames Gateway, which extended from east London through south Essex and north Kent to the sea, and only the Games could change this.

She was in this position because even longer ago, in the John Major era, the relevant minister, Michael Heseltine, had made a speech christening the Thames Gateway and announcing that Something Must Be Done. So the vast effort of the Olympics had to be enlisted to make some sense of a politician's figure of speech. It was and is a seriously arse-about-face way of doing a bit of regeneration.

Over the next 20 years it is hoped to build 8,000 homes around the Olympic Park, in addition to the 2,800 already created by the athletes' village, and to create 8,000 jobs – that is, to make something like a middle-sized market town. In fairness, one should add the less tangible but real benefit of a feelgood factor to a wider area of east London. To achieve all this will have required not only the Olympic billions, but also investment in public transport in Stratford unmatched anywhere else in the country, an additional grant of £290m to be spent on legacy, and more hundreds of millions of public money spent acquiring land. Some of the public expenditure will be paid back as this land is developed, but there are no obligations as to how much or when.

But never mind. Not many people now care that Olympic claims for boosting business, tourism and regeneration are tenuous. Opinion polls show that most people in Britain think that £9bn or so is not too much to pay just for the national buzz and joy that came with the Games. So the question is: how can this place so extraordinarily blessed with aspiration and funding be as great as, in theory, it should be?

The new homes and neighbourhoods could be beautiful and desirable places that would create new models and set new standards for British house building. The park and venues, such as the Aquatics Centre and the Velodrome, could be genuinely public assets, of easy access to all.

Most critically all this has to be done in such a way that the new wonderland doesn't turn its back on its surroundings but genuinely connects with them. Early in the Olympic project, the neighbouring areas were seen as destitute wastelands  be erased or shut out, and the main weakness of what has already been built is its lumpiness – the tendency of elements such as the Westfield shopping centre and the athletes' village to turn their back. It would be relatively easy, but a complete failure, to make an exclusive residential idyll here.

At the moment, hopeful signs are emitting from the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the body in charge. Its new chairman, Daniel Moylan, declares that he wants the Olympic Park and its surroundings to be "a very desirable area and we would like as many people as possible to live there". He wants alternatives to "the limited range of standardised products" that large house-building companies tend to produce. He wants property to rent as well as buy, and homes built by their owners. He challenges the common journalistic denigration of Stratford: "This place is not a dump. There are lots of people who are entrepreneurial and enthusiastic."

Sensible-sounding management arrangements have been set up for the park and for venues such as the Velodrome, and the Legacy Corporation swears blind that these will not be over-exploited in order to turn a profit. The park, it says, will be open to absolutely everyone, which presumably includes those who might be a bit annoying or unsightly and not good for property values. The LLDC is rightly proud that, compared with previous Olympic cities, London's planning for the future of the site is far advanced, and it has set up an impressive quality review panel to oversee the design of whatever is built.

The LLDC has produced a masterplan for the new neighbourhoods that suggests a large proportion of family houses arranged around pleasing open spaces, and with an overall coherence that is rare in regeneration projects. It is planning 29 playgrounds and has made impressive declarations of principle in relation to sustainability, accessibility and design.

In the scruffy fringes of the park there has been a change in attitude. Where earlier plans saw them as places to be obliterated by blocks of flats, the idea now is to make the most of what is already there, such as the artists' studios and small businesses and unexpected bits of canal and workshop. Muf architecture/art, a design practice that has helped lead this change of attitude, is now involved in the first of the new residential neighbourhoods, which is a good sign. "Obliteration is not in our lexicon," declares Moylan.

They still have some headaches, most notably the future of the stadium. But the real question is whether the current high ambitions can survive the pressures that will come to bear. How inclusive can the new developments be, for example, when changes to housing benefit are likely to push people out of places like this? How kindly will the big house-building companies take to alternative models to their preferred way of doing things? What if progress is seen to be going too slowly and pressure grows for quick results? It's too early to say. For now we can only observe that the masters of Olympic legacy are saying the right things, and wish them good luck. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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August 17 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My dad's last step on Burmese land

My father, Wilfred Carroll, left his homeland of Burma twice. First in 1942, when the Japanese army forced a retreat of allied troops into India, and then in 1951 when, having retained his British nationality after independence, he made the momentous decision to emigrate to England.

This picture captures his very last step on Burmese land, as he boarded the SS Salween in Rangoon on 21 March, holding my brother Michael's hand and carrying me. Also with us were my mother, Norma, and two-month-old sister, Denise, ready to sail to Bristol and a new life.

I can only imagine the first culture shock, departing in tropical heat and disembarking, four weeks later, into the cold and damp of Avonmouth. My father was never to return, or to see his parents again, but he always believed he made the right choice for his family, despite the hardships endured in establishing a home and a career in postwar London. He worked at the head offices of the Co-operative Wholesale Society for 30 years, and helped to raise seven children, spending eight years of his retirement in Western Australia. He died in Sidcup, Kent in 2004.

I was two and a half when this picture was taken, so I have no memories of that day on the dockside.

As we grew up, my parents made us aware of our diverse ethnic background, which was half-Irish mixed with Burmese and southern European, frequently recounting stories of strict Catholic schooling and a hectic social life in prewar Rangoon, and keeping their Asian culinary skills very much alive in the kitchen of our council house in Essex.

The one thing my father did not speak of was his experiences as a Chindit in the jungles of Burma.

So it was with much excitement and fascination that in February 2012, 61 years after this photograph was taken that I returned for the first time to the street in which I was born in October 1948. We managed to deviate from our package holiday tour long enough to track down my parents' house, their schools, the church where they were married and the hospital where my older brother and sister were born.

Places had been renamed and there we saw some crumbling facades, but these were still the unmistakable edifices of my family's colonial past that I had seen in many a photograph album. At the docks in Rangoon, I conjured up a vivid image of my father taking that nervous step into the unknown, against the best advice of friends and relations.

When the aircraft wheels lifted off the Rangoon Tarmac, I had that sense of abandoning something that was dear to me, forever lost in the past. I knew then how my father had felt in 1951, and I cried. Patricia Perrin

Playlist: My grandad's financial dealings

Pop! goes the Weasel (nursery rhyme)

"Half a pound of tuppenny rice / Half a pound of treacle / That's the way the money goes / Pop! goes the weasel"

As a small child, whenever we visited (or were visited by) my nana and grandad, I could expect to be lifted up on to a knee and sung to. I am sure there were lots of songs, but the one that is clearest in my memory was a favourite of Grandad's.

I am unsure now, as I was then, what the song is all about, and a Google search hasn't enlightened me. Of one thing we can be sure though, "that's the way the money goes".

My grandad's financial dealings are something I wasn't aware of until later in life. As a nipper, when I was told he was popping out to the Salvation Army, I believed that was where he was headed. It would be many years until I found out that this was code for the bookies. One such trip, long before my time, resulted in a winning accumulator bet that eventually (after much debate with the company involved) came through and pretty much paid for their family home.

There is a photograph in my home of me as a toddler on Grandad's lap, and this song always drifts through my head when I see it – complete with index finger in cheek "pop" sound effect. I hope my little niece, Alice, will also treasure memories of having this sung to her by Great-Grandad.

My grandad would have been 100 this year, but sadly missed this landmark by a few years. To mark the occasion, the extended family is meeting on his birthday this month for a reunion. There will be lots of tales of Tom (or Thomas on Sundays) to be told and I suspect this tune will be sung. Ruth Goodwin

We love to eat: Fairy sandwiches


Sugar sprinkles/hundreds and thousands

Sliced white bread (sliced pan, preferably)

Soft butter


Butter the bread, cover with the sprinkles and cut into tiny, dainty triangles, fit for a fairy. Be sure to take the crusts off – neither fairies nor children like them!

I used to love fairies, especially the flower fairy books of Cicely Mary Barker. I would dress as a fairy and hide at the bottom of my grandparents' woodland garden in the hope of catching a glimpse of these magical creatures.

After one such adventure I asked my mother: What do fairies eat? Why, fairy sandwiches and flower tea, was her swift response, which she probably lived to regret. Soon I was demanding fairy sandwiches for birthday parties and afternoon teas on the lawn.

I have no idea if she got the recipe from somewhere or created them from her own imagination. The bread (sliced pan as we called it, according to Irish custom) was thickly buttered and sprinkled with multi-coloured hundreds and thousands. The soft, savoury bread, rich butter and crunchy sweetness of the sprinkles was magic itself.

I still get to enjoy fairies through my three young children. My seven-year-old son doesn't believe in fairies – but still requests these. And I am only too happy to sprinkle a little magic on them. Lucy Pearce

We'd love to hear your stories

We will pay £25 for every Letter to, Playlist, Snapshot or We love to eat we publish. Write to Family Life, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU or email Please include your address and phone number © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Flight of fancy: how aviation changed art for ever

What balloonists and then pilots saw from the air – the mountainous cloudscapes and the grand designs on the ground – still strike us as sublime. And as a current exhibition makes clear, flight changed art for ever. By Gillian Darley

In 1836, a hot air balloon flight broke all the records, covering almost 500 miles from London to central Germany in less than 20 hours. News of that journey into the unknown fired JMW Turner's imagination and he wrote to one of the pilots, Robert Hollond: "Your excursion so occupied my mind that I dreamt of it, and I do hope you will hold to your intention of making the drawing, with all the forms and colours of your recollection."

Turner's fascination with the extraordinary, evanescent architecture overhead, of the "parapets and turrets, batteries and bastions" that the balloonists saw, strikes a chord with us all. That view out of the plane window into a mountainous cloudscape or, coming in to land on a clear day, a glimpse of lovely yet inexplicable patterns, be they the sewage treatment beds of Slough or relentless Soviet era apartment blocks, can momentarily lift air travel from the humdrum to the near sublime. Not even Google Earth has yet sated our appetites.

In the current exhibition at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, Flight and the Artistic Imagination, many versions of reality contest with impressions and myths, with human aspirations and physical limitations. There's just one certainty: as a species, we are physiologically unable to fly. Goya's grim airborne figures leave viewers to draw their own conclusions. Were they soaring away into enlightenment or descending, irrevocably disillusioned, from some muddied utopia? Icarus, Mephistopheles and the Valkyries fall, saints and angels ascend either on wings or up Jacob's ladder to the certainty of heaven or cosmic oblivion.

In 1783 the first successful flight of a hot air balloon introduced the real, as opposed to imagined, overhead view. It suggested military potential, and by 1794 the French revolutionary Aerostatic Corps was ready for action. Later, it was from a balloon basket that Felix Nadar took the first known aerial photograph, a view of Paris in 1858. The aeroplane delivered a deliberate overhead perspective – which were to prove invaluable to many areas of study, from cartography and defence to archaeology and aesthetics.

That most lyrical pioneer pilot and writer on aviation Antoine de Saint-Exupéry saw that the aeroplane itself would quickly become "a tool, like a plough". And so, in the early 20th century, it did. As powered flight exploded the range and tempo of our physical reach and intensified our gaze, it simultaneously gave new angles on the familiar, and offered glimpses of the entirely unfamiliar.

In the first world war, Richard Carline of the Royal Flying Corps sketched the pock-marked, cratered scene at Albert from the air and then painted it. To quite different effect, the Russian supremacist Kasimir Malevich saw the potential of the aerial view, its elements abstracted. In 1926 the teachers at the Bauhaus proudly commissioned a night view of Gropius's new complex, sparkling with electricity; the Junkers factory was there, in Dessau. The company also loaned a plane from which the Bauhauslers – as the students were known – could shower presents down on Paul Klee's pristine Master's House in the woods to mark his 50th birthday. Unfortunately, several sheered through the flat roof. Flying, and the lens it provided to the world, was the ultimate response to the modernist (and futurist) dream, providing "a new standard of measurement, a new basis of sensation" as Le Corbusier wrote.

Corb immediately grasped the potential of flight and the splendour of the aeroplane itself, as an object, but it was not until he flew over Moscow in 1929 and the next year over Rio de Janeiro, sketchbook to hand, that he saw the revelatory potential of "a vast programme of organic town-planning". In the coming years he warmed to the theme, "the airplane eye … now looks with alarm at the places where we live, the cities where it is our lot to be." That scene was an indictment, and the festering old capitals must be "extricated from their misery, come what may. Whole quarters of them must be destroyed and new cities made."

But it was the Italian futurists who inaugurated an artistic movement dedicated to the dynamism of the air. Aeropittura, an expression of Futurism's second generation, required "a profound contempt for detail and a need to synthesise and transfigure everything", and was epitomised by the painter-pilot Tullio Cralis's troubling image Nose-diving on the City (1939).

The posturing and rhetoric, as well as the destructive energy, was essentially fascist. The contrived words and synthetic images of these artists would come to haunt the postwar world once the terrifying aerial views of Coventry, Dresden and Hiroshima emerged, a reality far beyond even the wildest polemic of Le Corbusier or the futurists.

In the 1930s, preservationists fighting the remorseless spread of arterial roads and inchoate development often took to the air. John Moore, a contributor to Clough Williams-Ellis's campaigning Britain and the Beast (1937), took off in a hired Tiger Moth to describe how towns and even villages were "nibbling their way outwards … as haphazard and casually as caterpillars nibbling at a leaf … the mess creeping along the sides of all the roads that radiated from the towns".

Stationed with the RAF near Norwich just after the war, the maverick 19-year-old flying officer Ian Nairn put his Meteor to unusual use, flying over Norfolk, seeking out unsuspected or lost buildings by the architect John Soane. When he found an exquisite overlooked garden building lurking in shrubbery, he immediately wrote to tell the bemused inspectress of the Soane Museum, Dorothy Stroud. In 1950, as now, architectural historians were usually on the ground, if not deskbound.

Turning to architectural journalism, Nairn was the author of the famous polemic Outrage (an outspoken report on unhindered urban sprawl from Southampton to Carlisle, published in 1955) and continued to use his pilot's licence for some years, frequently setting off with the in-house photographer, embarking on research from the air. Many architects trained in the postwar years had done their national service in the RAF, which had stoked a professional passion for the aerial view. It took Nairn to sound a warning: "Everything looks fine from the pilot's seat. The most sterile of formal schemes looks superb from a thousand feet on a sunny morning … alas, we are not birds, and neither is architecture just an exercise in solid geometry."

Of his generation of architects, Norman Foster has remained the most passionate about flying. The creator of Stansted airport, for me his finest work, chose the Boeing 747, the Jumbo jet, as his "building" when he took part in the BBC2 series Building Sites in 1991. Describing the plane, already more than 20 years old, as "awe inspiring", he extolled its style and beauty, noting that this had never compromised its functionality. More recently, on his 75th birthday Foster realised he had, by then, piloted 75 different types of aircraft and was hatching a plan to display them, as models, in his chateau in Switzerland.

Foster's latest and most ambitious hymn to the aerial view is his design and promotion of an airport island, floating in the Thames estuary. So far it has been blessed by Boris Johnson, but few others.

In Hiraki Sawa's video Dwelling, showing at Compton Verney, the empty rooms of an unexceptional west London suburban house fill with diminutive planes: they lift off, circle and land on kitchen surfaces and mattresses, and use the passage as a flight path. The relentless rituals and conventions of the daily traffic through Heathrow have been subverted to other ends.

The aerial view tends to offer a glimpse of the unknown, or at least an unfamiliar version of reality. The land artist James Turrell, also a pilot, captures a portion of sky, and frames it within a custom-made structure or an aperture such as a volcanic crater. At the other extreme is the almost unimaginable, such as the glorious image of Orion's Nebulae, photographed from Nasa's Hubble Space Telescope, as distant from us as the immersion of an adventuring balloon in a lyrical cloudscape was for Turner. The aeroplane may have been a tool, but the sky is still the limit.

Flight and the Artistic Imagination is at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 30 September © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Written in stone: the UK's best historic towns

TV historian Dan Cruickshank picks beautiful towns around the UK noted for their historic architecture and the tales they tell of life down the centuries

Our historic towns are a precious cultural treasure. I've been exploring them for decades, extracting secrets about the ways people built, lived, toiled and took their pleasures through the generations.

A particular joy is the great diversity in the building materials and methods with which towns were built. Within a few miles the very nature of the settlements can change, depending on available materials. So you find brick in much of south-east England, timber in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, limestone in Somerset and the Cotswolds, sandstone in Cumberland, and granite in much of Cornwall and Scotland. Architectural and building styles also change, evolve and survive in a most charming way, to give each town its own vernacular character.

The most beautiful and best- preserved of our historic towns are well-known, and rightly so, but one of the wonders of these islands is that many fascinating places are taken for granted or overlooked. Ludlow in Shropshire is a perfect example: rising on a plateau above the river Teme on the border of England and Wales, it was a frontier town and fortified with wall, gates and a mighty castle.

It was also a market town, so it has a long wide market square and a "shambles" of alleys once home to victuallers and butchers. But best of all is its glorious mix of building materials and styles. You find 16th- and early-17th-century timber-framed structures with late Gothic or Renaissance details – such as the Feathers Inn – jostling with sedate brick-built Georgian houses. A stroll through the city gate and up Broad Street – lined with the mansions of long-forgotten rural grandees – is a great urban experience.

Frome, in Somerset, is very different. It is primarily a limestone town, its houses built of square ashlar blocks or coursed rubble rendered with lime. Its golden age was in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it flourished as a market and coaching town and a centre for the wool industry. The old weavers' quarter, called the Trinity, dates from the late 17th century and incorporates charming and pioneering industrial housing. It was almost swept away in the 1970s but, at the 11th hour, enough was saved to remind us of what had been, and give extra character to this most rewarding town.

As with all the best towns, the pleasure of a walk through Frome is far more than the sum of its parts. The spaces, the sustained streets, the sinuous forms, the vistas framed and enclosed, the surprise as corners are turned and amazing buildings or compositions emerge, offer great aesthetic thrills. There is Cheap Street – lined with early buildings, steep, paved and with a central gutter or "canal", once a common feature in our towns and cities – the steep and cobbled Catherine Hill, Stony Street and Gentle Street with their generous Georgian houses, and the astonishing temple-like early 18th-century Rook Street Chapel.

For urban brick at its best, explore Blandford Forum in Dorset. Here the town centre, destroyed by fire in 1731, was soon rebuilt in a splendid English baroque manner by equally splendidly named local builders the Bastard brothers. The bricks are of superb quality and colour, and the way they are laid and detailed displays superlative craftsmanship and deep sensibility. Add to this the Bastards' eye for baroque styling, particularly fashionable in the West Country: facades articulated with pilasters and dressed with details inspired by the work of Borromini in Rome.

It's all amazing, and organised around a splendid baroque parish church, also designed by the Bastards. This heady combination of grand church and swaggering houses gives this little town the architectural sophistication and, at moments, the presence of a great city.

For yet greater 18th-century architectural and metropolitan sophistication in a smallish town, visit Stamford in Lincolnshire. Here all is stone-built – to the highest quality – and baroque in spirit. The building types – theatre, assembly room and elegant shops as well as large terraced houses – act as reminders that provincial towns were once the centres of their own world, places of culture, sophistication, fashion and local pride.

A walk through the streets of Stamford today offers striking contrasts. There is wonderful 18th-century architecture – the memorable George Hotel on St Martin's offers a vivid vignette of the glorious age of coach travel – and there are the more commercial streets, now too often strewn with litter and lined with bland shopfronts and chain stores.

In Wales the coastal town of Tenby, with its nearly complete late-13th-century walls, was created as a fortified redoubt of English and Flemish settlers and merchants within Wales. Much survives of this period, but there is also evidence of the town's brief time as a resort for the early-19th-century novelty of therapeutic sea-bathing. So elegant walks look onto splendid beaches that were once part of the town's medieval defences and by the Regency period were picturesque attributes of a fashionable pleasure.

Among defensible towns, little can compete with Berwick-upon-Tweed, the long-disputed border town between Scotland and England. It has Britain's only complete set of 16th-century town defences, and within these the town is mostly Georgian, including a sprawling early-18th-century barracks designed in bold and masculine baroque manner by Sir John Vanbrugh's Office of Works.

One of my favourite towns, and one often overlooked, is Armagh in Northern Ireland. Its two cathedrals, both dedicated to St Patrick – one medieval and Protestant, the other mid-19th-century and Catholic – eye each other from high ground at either end of Armagh. Because of the cathedrals and its administrative importance, Armagh was made a city in 1994, one of the UK's smallest. Both cathedrals are remarkable – the Protestant one largely because of its glorious monuments, the Catholic one because of its astonishingly ornate and colourful Gothic Revival architecture.

But for me the great glory of Armagh is its domestic and civic architecture, much of it Georgian and the legacy of an enlightened late-18th-century Protestant cleric, Archbishop Richard Robinson. He gave the town a number of buildings of fine design that express admirable and civilised virtues, including a handsome neo-classical public library, built in 1771, and an observatory, built in 1790.

More visually thrilling are the streets: the park-like Mall, lined on one side with splendid late-Georgian houses, and, best of all, the terrace on Vicars Hill, by the Protestant cathedral. The house facades have no ostentatious detail: the doors are simply marked with blocks of stone, the windows no more than holes punched in the rendered wall. But what holes! In their proportions and relationships they reflect classical design stretching back to the Renaissance, Rome and beyond. In their humility and self-effacing beauty, they are emblematic of all that is best about UK architecture.

Dan Cruickshank presents BBC2's The Country House Revealed, and Brick by Brick: Rebuilding Our Past © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Leonardo's womb, gold postboxes and crazy golf – the week in art

Da Vinci's anatomy drawings make the must-see show of the year. Plus, guerrilla gold postbox painters and battling Hitler at crazy golf in Blackpool – all in your weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist

These are the greatest drawings in the world and this is the most important exhibition of the year, so try to see it. They include Leonardo da Vinci's moving depiction of a foetus in the womb, among many awe-inspiring studies of the human interior. Leonardo's apparently scientifically rigorous study of the womb contains a bizarre mistake: it is modelled on a cow's womb. This is not just because at the time he made this drawing Leonardo had no access to human dissection; it is also because he believed so strongly that human anatomy must be similar to that of other animals. He recognised, like a true scientist, that we too are animals – an outrageous notion in the early 1500s. Leonardo did get to do a series of brilliant dissections of people who had died at a hospital in Florence. Today, that hospital – Santa Maria Nuova – is still a busy city infirmary. You can go and watch ambulances arriving and ponder the mystery of human life, so fragile and beautiful, that Leonardo captures in these drawings.
The Queen's Gallery, London SW1A 1AA until 7 October

Other exhibitions this week

Picasso's Vollard Suite
These sensuous prints burst with life and imagination and are among Picasso's greatest works.
British Museum, London WC1 until 2 September

Adventureland Golf
Jake and Dinos Chapman, David Shrigley and others reinvent the seaside pastime of crazy golf.
Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool until 6 October

Olympic and Paralympic Posters
There are some fine posters here by , Chris Ofili and others.
Tate Britain, London SW1 until 23 September

Simon Patterson
Last chance for a memorable exploration of the strangeness of statues.
Haunch of Venison, London W1 until 31 August

Masterpiece of the week

Unknown artist, A Dead Soldier
This eerie painting of a man dead, his body lit by an oil lamp, has the realism of a Caravaggio but is not by him. No one knows who painted this disconcertingly modern work of art. In the 19th century, it fascinated Edouard Manet, who was inspired by it to paint a picture of a dead toreador. As Manet recognised, this is a raw, blunt and unredemptive portrayal of the cold fact of death. Not only is the artist anonymous: so is the unknown soldier whose passing is remembered here forever.
National Gallery, London WC2

Image of the week

What we learned this week

How John Minihan celebrated snapping Samuel Beckett

That psychics have taken over the live art space at London's Tate Tanks

What your timeline of top artworks looks like

That gold postboxes were the surprise illegal street art of the Olympics

What upcoming photography shows you should put straight in the diary

And finally...

There's still time to share your art about sport now. Reflect on the Olympics, or look forward to the Paralympics

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August 16 2012

Artist of the week 203: Sung Hwan Kim

This Korean-born, New York-based artist spins beguiling tales that mesh elements from sci-fi, folk tales, personal memories and history

Sung Hwan Kim has a gift for getting under the skin. The stories he and his friends spin in his beguiling videos and performances are delivered in the hushed tones you might use to soothe a child or an invalid. His restrained bedside manner is pitch-perfect, casually launching into parables with an ominous psychosexual charge and mysterious symbolism, which builds to fever point on unsuspecting ears.

In one of the Korean-born, New York-based artist's most haunting film works, From the Commanding Heights, a woman finds a family of snakes set up home in her throat. She manages to bite off their heads but their bodies remain lodged in her slender neck.

Kim brings the tale to life with a green marker pen, sketching phallic snakes on to a transparency, placed over a camera lens that he talks into, so that the felt-tip snakes seem to grow in his own gullet.

This flair for quick-thinking low-fi effects, coupled with the gang of chums who act in Kim's videos, might call to mind current Turner-nominee Spartacus Chetwynd's dishevelled performance troupe and their DIY wardrobes. Typical costumes for Kim's works include hand-drawn paper masks which call to mind both children's fancy dress and S&M gear, or bedsheets used to conceal crouching bodies so they become volcanoes with human heads. Simple camera tricks make everyday things hallucinogenic: see Manahatas Dance, where footage of a woman dancing in a Native American top is projected upside down in slow motion, so that her leather tassels and hair start to look more and more like the tendrils of a jellyfish.

Kim's approach always flits between reality and fiction and draws on different mediums and cultures. A single work might mesh elements from sci-fi, folk tales, personal memories and human history, as in the unsettling Summer Days in Keijo. The Dutch traveller who narrates this story of Keijo, the formerly Japanese-ruled city that is now Korea's capital Seoul, starts out like a dull tour guide. Soon enough, though, things take a sinister turn.

We're told that the little kids innocently dancing and playing have been wheeled out creepily for her amusement, having been rescued from sewers to become industrial workers. Nothing is to be believed, it seems, in a city whose name is always changing. Even the architecture in the film is subject to reinvention, with buildings pushed around, their landmark status revoked. It seems that in both life and art, you cannot trust what you see or hear.

Why we like him: For the delirious soundtracks Kim creates with New York-based musician David Michael DiGregorio AKA dogr: intense orchestrations of experimental acoustics, found sounds and eerie vocals.

One plus one: Kim originally studied maths and engineering. He was on the way to becoming an architect before he attended a class taught by performance and video art legend Joan Jonas.

Where can I see him? At Tate Modern to 28 October. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 15 2012

John Minihan's best photograph

'This is Samuel Beckett in a cafe in Paris. He set it all up. He wanted the picture to say: This is who I am'

I'd never heard of Samuel Beckett until he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1969. After that, I went to see some of his shows and quickly became fascinated by this Irishman living in Paris. In 1980, he came to London to direct Endgame. Sam was a recluse, with a real aversion to journalists, but an Irish porter at the Hyde Park Hotel gave me a tip-off that he was staying there. I left him a note and, when I called the hotel the next day, I got put straight through.

At our first meeting, I showed him pictures I'd taken at the wake of a woman from Athy, the Irish town where I grew up. She was called Katy Tyrrell and I took shots of her and her family for three days and two nights. Clocks were stopped, fires were put out, and the mirror was covered with a sheet. He was intrigued. Then I took several pictures of him. Sam probably thought this was the last he was going to see of me, but I don't operate like that. To my mind, a 16th of a second is nothing out of someone's life.

After that, I would photograph stagings of his plays, starring everyone from Patrick Stewart to Ian McKellen. Actors would appear for nothing, simply because the work was beautiful to perform. It was perfect for a black-and-white photographer, too. I sent Sam all the photos, and he would write me thank-you notes on postcards.

In 1985, just before his 80th birthday, Sam invited me over to Paris. We agreed to meet at his local cafe in Montparnasse at 3pm on a Sunday. I arrived at 2pm and found a secluded table by the window with good light. I can still see Sam walking towards me with a smile on his face – he knew exactly why I had chosen that spot.

We talked until 4.50pm. He mesmerised me. Daylight was quickly disappearing and I thought the moment had passed. Then Sam said: "John, would you like to take a photograph?" I got out my Rolleiflex and took three frames. They turned out better than I expected because Sam directed the whole scene. He wanted it to say: "This is who I am."

That night, I was so excited to have snapped Samuel Beckett in Paris, his chosen city, that I went out and got completely and utterly pissed.


Born: Dublin, 1946.

Studied: London School of Printing and Graphic Arts.

Influences: Cecil Beaton, EO Hoppé, André Kertész.

High point: "As an apprentice on the Daily Mail, developing images and seeing them appear before my eyes."

Low point: "When I lose a subject I love, like Beckett."

Tip: "Research your subject. If it's a writer, read their books – it will tell you who they are."

• John Minihan is speaking on 27 August at the Happy Days Enniskillen Beckett festival, where his photographs are on display; 23-27 August. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 12 2012

London 2012: Team arts go for gold

David Hockney fumed at the opening, Gillian Wearing captured Bolt, and Susan Philipsz mashed up some anthems . . . but what else happened when we challenged artists to respond to the Games?

Opening ceremony

David Hockney
The painter and committed smoker was inspired by a detail in Danny Boyle's spectacular that passed others by: Isambard Kingdom Brunel's unlit cigar – and this in spite of belching chimneys and live soldering. Hockney's iPad painting appeared in last week's g2, and read: "I noticed there was a lot of smoke from fireworks but none from Brunel's cigar. Does this mean that the BBC sees art as directive (unlit) and not reflective (lit)? Debate." People did (look up the comments).

Day three

Olafur Eliasson
The artist who put an artificial sun into Tate Modern's Turbine Hall used one of his own-design solar lamps to pay tribute to the Olympians' speed and dynamism. He wrote: "For me, the Games are about being together, about sharing attention and ideals. They are about feeling connected to people from all over the world, physical engagement and energy. Light generates action: it is as physical as anything you will see in the Olympics."

Day four

Mark Titchner
The Turner 2006 nominee picked up on the anxious mood of the early days, before the medal rush. One layer of text in his artwork quotes from the tabloid press ("Historic bronze for our brilliant gymnasts, but please can we have just one gold. Any sport"); the other layer pays tribute to Team GB's eventing horses: Lionheart, Opposition Buzz, High Kingdom, Miners Frolic, Imperial Cavalier ("Do they get medals, too?").

Day five

Richard Wentworth
The sculptor, curator and lecturer took a break from a camping trip (location undisclosed) to watch Bradley Wiggins take gold in the time trial. He wrote: "The 30-year habit of summer camping sets me apart from world events. Catching sight of televisions in bars is the kind of glimpsing I enjoy – images, languages and events all arbitrarily associated with time and displacement. The latch on this door will remind me of the warm domestic afternoon in early August 2012 when our friends invited us to watch London as a site of Olympic spectacle. An odd thing if you know the city well, but much stranger if you are camping a long way away."

Day six

Michael Rosen
The poet and former children's laureate performed his own new poem about gold medal anxiety – still an issue even at this stage, with Team GB behind France. "I love sport," Rosen said, "but become uneasy when it is overly shackled to nation, corporate grabbing and only-first-will-do-ism. All three and I'm nearly out of here. Imagine there's no countries, it's easy if you try." Here's an extract from his Olympic poem:

I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis
Day 1 day 2 day 3 day 4
you was down I was on the floor
feeling such a failure
would I finish below Australia?
Then from the heavens came day 5
I discovered the reasons I am alive
better than when I met Christopher Biggins
Glover, Stanning and Bradley Wiggins.

I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis

Then before I came to grief
came the moment of pure relief
as the afternoon began to unfold
I ... won ... double gold.
And yet I had cause to fret
there were silvers for me to regret
I gave the medal table a glance:
Horrors! ... Above Brand GB ... France!
• Read the poem in full

Day nine

Gillian Wearing
The Turner prize 2007 winner was in the Olympic stadium on Sunday 5 August as Usain Bolt crossed the 100m finish line, and took this image (right). She said: "I got into track and field through watching Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett's memorable races against each other at the Moscow 1980 Olympics. After that, I have never missed the opportunity to be a couch Olympics supporter. I was in row 48 of the stadium, quite high up, but just above the finishing line. This image is just after the 100m final. Both Chris Gatlin and Usain Bolt have cameras trained on them. In the corner of the image, Yohan Blake, the silver medal winner, congratulates Gatlin on his bronze."

Day 11

Jackie Kay
The poet and novelist read three new poems, a kind of writer's triathlon, inspired by the Brownlee brothers' medal success in that event, as well as Team GB performances in javelin and cycling. She wrote: "I was struck by the idea that sharing somebody's disappointment is as intense and intimate as sharing their success. I used to be a long-distance runner, a Scottish schoolgirl champion, until I broke my leg and didn't walk properly for a year and a half. So I was thinking about that, too. How quickly we move into our unfit futures!" Here's the final leg of her poem, Point of View:

Farewell Victoria Pendleton
It was a day of drama in the velodrome
As you watched agog, OMG,
As Trott took the omnium
Against the odds of a collapsed lung
Coming home, coming home.
Not one but two golds to her name.
You saw the photo of not so long ago
With young Laura and her Bradley hero.
Not long later, you watched Victoria
Who rode as close to her rival
As a synchronised swimmer
And all the drama was in the lane error
Where the line was crossed in the velodrome
As close as step to pets; palindromes,
The Mearest of lines, the closing line.

So, farewell Victoria dearest, you say.
You salute her. She runs her last lap, and bows.
The last time I'm going to go through that, she says.
And even her brave coach is in bits.
We knew it would end in tears, the TV says.
And they roll down your cheeks too – your armchair, you.
The greatest ever theatre – sport's soap opera.
Victoria. Oh Victoria. Collect your silver!
Your ordeal is over: take your seat on the throne.
Read the poem in full

Day 13

Cornelia Parker
The sculptor and installation artist took this image of her own living room, explaining: "I haven't been able to focus on art since the Olympics started, not quite managing to peel my eyes away from the TV. After too many days of viewing, gorged with patriotism and pride, I starting to behave oddly … too much information perhaps, too much success. Now I find myself draping my daughter's union flag over the TV in a feeble attempt to blot it out – but in the process I manage to cause a minor marital rift as my enraged husband misses a crucial bit of action."

Day 14

Wolfgang Tillmans
The artist and photographer, newly returned to London from Berlin, took this photograph of an Olympic traffic lane in east London. The lanes are now suspended but will come back into force for the start of the Paralympics. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 11 2012

It bag creator Katie Hillier turns her talents to jewellery

Katie Hillier, the designer behind one of the most desirable fashion items of our time, the It bag, is now focusing on jewellery

Katie Hillier is the most important designer you've never heard of. When bags became big business in the 2000s, she created many of the accessories that made the big brands millions. She's one of the people who, with the beading and bobbles she stuck on her bags for Luella in the 2000s, is often credited with creating the It bag, the iconic fashion statement of our time, a highly decorated object of desire that changed seasonally, cost a month's salary, and often weighed an absolute tonne.

Today, sitting in the sun-drenched yard of her east London studio, Hillier remembers those years with a dry fondness. "I had this denim Fendi Baguette I'd covered with badges and key rings," she says, ponytail bobbing. "At the same time, Giles Deacon at Bottega Veneta was reinventing what you could do with luxury fashion – taking this pure thing and fucking it up in beautiful ways. Until then, accessories had no… personality."

That's what Hillier did best: personality. She gave names to bags then, adding 'hardware' (chains and buckles); she made them clink. You could hear them coming. "Hardware was a way to add value. Then the price of gold rose and it began to disappear. When Phoebe Philo started at Céline [in 2008] she brought in a cleanness to design."

The It bags Hillier now creates for Marc by Marc Jacobs, Victoria Beckham and Loewe have evolved. "Hardware now seems gratuitous. We think more about the leather. If you're killing an animal, you ought to acknowledge the skin."

She grew up in south London with her grandmother, a cleaner for the BBC, who she followed round the costume department, and her grandfather, who'd take her to a museum every day of the holidays. "Which is where my love of collections comes from. I'd curate my bedroom: the displays on my rocking horse, my Madonna wall. I still collect stuff – shoes, brooches, things with rabbits on, bags…"

In a tall room near her office, Muji storage boxes line the walls. They contain a fraction of her collections. Fifties box bags, Chanel purses, vintage leather cracking at the spine. This room, and her mood boards, with photos and notes like "too normal" on handle details, help put her work into context. "It's not about me," she says of her work. "There's more to success than ego." What is it about her, then, that led Victoria Beckham to her door? She ponders. "She thinks I'm nice."

In 2010, after being named Accessory Designer of the Year, Hillier launched her own label, a collection of fine jewellery she calls "luxury with a wink": little diamond-eyed rabbit doodles that look like they've been bent from 18ct-gold paper clips and nestle on the sternums of Britain's most fashionable ladies, including editor-in-chief of Love Katie Grand. "I've known her forever," says Grand. "She was one of my students at Harrow. I got into trouble for giving her 100% for her degree project. "

Hillier's new collection includes glow-in-the-dark ceramics, and those rabbits again, this time joined by a menagerie of other animals. "Our customers are people who love fashion, but are a bit ironic with it," she explains. "A bit girly, a bit quirky, a bit arty, a bit clever." A bit like her.

"I'd like the paper-clip rabbit to become iconic, but not as ubiquitous as, say, the Tiffany heart. It has to stay a bit secret."

Why? "So cool girls carry on wearing it."

As the person behind the trend, how does she feel about the It bags? The way they Towie-fied, and climbed in price? Can you ever justify a £28,000 handbag? "It's all relative," she sighs. "There will always be a customer who wants to buy one. And sometimes it's grotesque. But I understand if a skin is treated with respect. The term 'luxury' has changed. Now it's often just used to validate a price point."

Does she still love the clinking bags of her early career? "Yeah, you have to," she laughs. "You have to love everything you make. I love it all." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

The inescapable power of architecture

In an extract from his new book, our architecture critic deconstructs the mysterious ways in which buildings shape our lives

An architect used to tell a story. Invited by a couple to design an extension to their house, he dined with them, listened to their needs and desires, heard his and her versions of what they wanted. At the end of the evening, he gave his professional advice. "You don't need an extension," he said, "you need a divorce."

It is advice that could have saved the software entrepreneur Larry Dean tens of millions of dollars. Dean is a man who grew up in a house without indoor plumbing, overcame his early poverty and went on to become a millionaire many times over. In 1992, he and his wife, Lynda, completed the biggest house in Atlanta, Georgia, a mansion of 32,000 square feet, the colour of salmon mousse. According to its architect, Bill Harrison, each square inch of it was given the attention to detail of "a Fabergé egg". The interiors were designed by their son, Chris, then a design student aged 21. The Deans' dream, it would later be reported, "was to raise their four children here in an atmosphere like Dynasty, only happy".

It is hard to do justice to the extravagance of Dean Gardens, as it was called, and the promiscuity of its inspirations and appropriations. To use the words of others: "Inspired by the dome of Florence, Italy's Brunelleschi Cathedral, the Rotunda is perhaps the mansion's most dramatic element. Three and a half storeys high and capped with a circular skylight, the Rotunda sets an elegant tone for this exceptional home." Or: "At the end of this east wing of the main floor is the octagonally shaped Peacock Room. With its baby grand piano and cappuccino bar, this unique space is perfect for entertaining large groups. The room has 11ft x 15ft arched windows which weigh some 12 hundred pounds each. From the centre of the ceiling, 43 feet above the floor, an eight-foot tall 'pendant' lighting fixture is suspended. The ceiling mural was painted by James Chadwick of Atlanta. The table in the centre of the room is carved from English limestone and weighs four thousand pounds. It sits atop a steel beam buried in bedrock under the home."

And these are only a few plums from the feast that was Dean Gardens. There were also the Moroccan rooms, the Egyptian suite, the Oriental suite, the Hawaiian art gallery, the games room got up as a 1950s diner, the malachite bathroom, the silver suite, the raspberry-coloured kitchen, the Old English bedroom, whose en-suite bathroom "is quite masculine, with fixtures reminiscent of a fine locker room".

Dean Gardens is a variation on the theme of Citizen Kane's Xanadu, or its real life inspiration, William Randolph Hearst's Hearst Castle. Like them, it is a compendium of lootings across history and geography. Its architecture reaches across millenniums and continents to assemble a microcosm, an image of the world for the personal enjoyment of its owner. The only parsimony shown by Dean, relative to Kane and Hearst, is that he did not seize whole chunks of historic buildings and have them imported bodily to his home. He only had them mimicked.

A distinctive feature of Dean Gardens was the contribution of young Chris, the interior designer, whose appointment echoes less Xanadu than Kane's purchase of an opera house as a showcase for the singing of his mistress turned second wife. Familial love eclipsed clear perception of talent. For Chris could no more make a room than Susan Alexander could hold a tune; Dean Gardens, the first of two commissions before he wisely ended his design career at the age of 24, proceeded arhythmically and out of key.

Cliches of opulence mingled with spasms of student surrealist angst. It was oysters in ketchup, double fudge caviar and Tabasco ice cream. There were tritons unicorns dolphins jukeboxes waterjets topiary astrolabes chinoiserie tassels flounces marble damask leather abstraction trompe l'oeil statuary four-posters leopardskin zebraskin pediments corinthian ionic doric palms stars moons mosque lights neon globes stripes peacocks pianos chandeliers chandeliers chandeliers gold gold gold royal blue putti lions and a decorated camel. In the games room, a giant anthropomorphised cone of french fries gave a sinister wink. The parental bed, "crafted by North Carolina artist Jane Goco", was engulfed by writhing turquoise vegetables, with terminations like crab claws and by gooey blossomings the colour of vulvas.

With the benefit of hindsight, one can guess that Chris's designs were an unconscious commentary on the state of his parents' marriage. It turned out that Lynda would be only the first of Larry's three– to date – ex-wives. She and he separated in 1993, shortly after moving into the house, and there followed a 17-year struggle to sell the place. In 1994, Michael Jackson was said to be interested. Perhaps sensing that this was a temple to problematic matrimony, he wanted to buy it as a surprise present for his fiancee, Lisa Marie Presley, until news leaked and his plan was ruined.

The house cost $25m to build and a further $18m in upkeep. In 2010, it was finally sold, with the help of the estate agents' encomiums quoted above, for $7.6m. The contents were auctioned for charity. Larry Dean, to his credit, frankly admitted that he had made a mistake, while telling the New York Times that he still considered himself happy and successful.

One can also guess that whatever brought down the Dean marriage was already incubating when the house was conceived and developed, that the house was intended as some kind of remedy but exacerbated the ills it was supposed to cure. The frenetic accumulation of motifs can be seen as a way of covering a void. In which case, Larry and Lynda would be very far from the first people to imagine that homebuilding can fix relationships and be proved wrong. In the early 19th century, for example, Sir John Soane conceived his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields as an ideal environment, laden with archaeology and art, for the edification of his sons. He fell out with them violently, but persisted in creating what is now a preserved, venerated and indeed mesmerising work of domestic architecture.

At the heart of this enduring syndrome is the double meaning of the word "home". It means physical residence, but also the family that inhabit it. It means building, people and relationship. It is easy to imagine that, by fixing the bricks and mortar, one is also fixing the flesh and blood, the more so as buildings seem easier to sort out than people. The results are more tangible, measurable, demonstrable. Because they are expensive and effortful, construction projects offer the appearance of serious attempts to fix something, even if they are irrelevant to the matter in hand.

Dean Gardens, like Soane's house, is a personal cosmos, an image of a world its maker would have rather had than the one in which he found himself.

The idea of home as cosmos can be expressed abstractly, as a geometrical order underlying all things, or physically and explicitly. It is present in Renaissance theory and in the fantastical structures hand-built out of broken china and other debris by untutored obsessives that occur rarely but persistently around the world. It is in the gathering of family photographs and mementoes on a mantelpiece, and in the promise made by interiors magazines: choose the products shown in articles and advertisements and you can form them into your own universe.

The common wish is to dream up a world of which the maker is master, where everything is as he or she would wish it. The same wish drives children to build homes out of cardboard boxes and impose strict entry conditions, and it is a powerful reason why, functional questions apart, clients commission and architects design buildings. As people and cultures learn more, the ambitions of these cosmos-makers increase, to include in their spheres as much knowledge, history and geography, science and religion as they can.

But, if homes aspire to the cosmic, they can also be nomadic. If one desire is to create a static, rooted image of perfection, another is to migrate, colonise and adapt different places, to make a home out of a city or a landscape. If Larry Dean and John Soane wanted to gather the world in one place, others roam it, seeking to make sense of it through the patterns of their wanderings.

A significant portion of humanity lives or lived on the move: Bedouin, Maasai, Roma, peddlers, salesmen, migrant workers, the ever-airborne businessman played by George Clooney in Up in the Air. People live in tents, boats, caravans, igloos, boarding houses and hotels. For sailors, according to Joseph Conrad, "their home is always with them – the ship; and so is their country – the sea". Many in cities have come from somewhere else and are, or hope to be, on the way to another place. It is normal for most city-dwellers to have several different homes during their lives.

People who inhabit through motion include desert-dwellers, obliged to move with herds in search of feeding grounds and markets, and 19th-century flâneurs, gentleman strollers in search of fascination. Some distinctions should be made. There is a difference between the desert nomad or economic migrant who wander to survive and the dandified poet in search of diversion, between necessity and choice, and between escaping hunger and escaping boredom. But all show an ability to construct space out of the tracks they follow and the landmarks, whether a shop window or a sand dune, that they see. They do not need a house to make a home.

In south-east Amsterdam, an enormous housing development called Bijlmermeer, or the Bijlmer for short, was planned in the late 1960s. It aimed to be the ultimate example of the internationally recognised Dutch genius for planning and an attempt to apply with breathtaking consistency and determination the theories of the time. Homes for 100,000 inhabitants were created in almost identical 10-storey concrete blocks, whose walls and windows were mass-produced in factories, laid out on a hexagonal grid. Parks and lakes filled the spaces between the blocks and roads were built on viaducts, to separate cars from pedestrians and people.

The architects, inspired by Soviet models, planned collective facilities – bars, daycare centres, hobby rooms – to stimulate communal life and serve the new society of almost limitless leisure time that modern technology would soon create. Five-room flats, of reasonably generous dimensions, were designed for the needs of a typical Dutch family. An overriding principle was the avoidance of danger or discomfort: covered walkways meant you could get from car to flat without getting wet; vehicular traffic was separated from people; flats were designed to catch the maximum of sunlight and fresh air.

Although it attracted optimistic and idealistic early residents, problems arose. A promised metro line to central Amsterdam did not materialise, leaving the Bijlmer cut off. Nor did the provision of adequate shopping come to pass. No one had worked out who would pay for the communal facilities and the maintenance of the parks, meaning that the latter degenerated. The former stayed closed, except when opened by residents' initiatives. The construction cost more than expected, so rents went up to recoup costs. Flats emptied or were never occupied in the first place.

Then, in 1975, Holland ceded independence to its colony Suriname, on the north coast of South America. Citizens there were entitled to a Dutch passport, with the result that soon there were nearly as many Surinamese in Holland, in search of economic opportunities, as in Suriname. With inevitable logic, many moved into the vacant flats of the Bijlmer, despite official attempts to stop it becoming "Holland's first ghetto", by rationing the provision of homes there to immigrants. The prices remained high, leading to overcrowding, in one case 12 adults and 12 children in one flat.

The new residents adapted the flats, designed for typical white Dutch families, to their own needs. They knocked through walls or floors to make larger homes for their extended families. Many were from rural backgrounds and lived as they had in tropical villages, only adapted to a colder climate. Livestock was kept in flats, campfires lit indoors and rubbish thrown from balconies to the ground, rather than down chutes into bins. Catholic churches were set up in disused garages and flats became part-time temples to the Surinamese religion of Winti. Bird-singing contests were held in the parks, with betting on which brightly coloured bird would sing the longest. A petting zoo and farm were set up and for a while a Bijlmer cheese was made. The architects' dream of communal activity came true, but not in the orderly form they had imagined.

The estate's original problems of disconnection and poor facilities remained, with the result that more stable and better-off families left when they could. The Bijlmer declined, crime grew. The walkways, products of the original ambition for complete safety and comfort, became dangerous and ground-floor lock-ups became brothels and drug dens. The estate's bad name, acquired when the first residents started complaining about its defects, got worse. Racists called it "Negro-ghetto" and "monkey mountain." Masterplans for its improvement by leading architects came and went unrealised. In 1992, an El Al cargo-carrying 747, trying to return to Schiphol airport after two of its engines had fallen off, crashed, made a 10-storey gash at one of the 120 corners in one of the hexagonally-planned blocks and killed 43 (or possibly more, as the large numbers of unregistered immigrants made it difficult to be certain). It was a random catastrophe, but confirmed Bijlmermeer's image as a place of ill omen. Following the aeroplane's lead, the authorities later demolished most of the blocks and replaced them with lower buildings.

Meanwhile, however, the blighted place began to show glimmers of success. The residents, who included Hindus, Antilleans, Ghanaians and white Dutch as well as Surinamese, had organised themselves into a community group substantial enough to get itself heard by official bodies. A thriving weekly market started and a cultural festival, Blij met de Bijlmer ("Happy with the Bijlmer"), was set up. The latter, perhaps burdened by the forced upbeatness of its name, closed after 16 years, but a more successful festival, called Kwakoe, grew from a series of informal soccer matches into an event of music, dance, sport and food that now attracts 400,000 people. Crime started to fall, and if the Bijlmer did not become paradise on earth, it was no longer the sink of despair it was once thought to be.

The point of the Bijlmer story is partly how an obsessively planned development could be thrown off course by the unexpected: the independence of Suriname, a plane crash. It is also about the way in which a migrant population can, not easily but with some success, make a home in an unpromising location. It is hard to imagine anywhere less domestic than the huge, repetitive blocks of the Bijlmer or more alien to the incoming Surinamese. The population of the Bijlmer had to discover, in a few decades, how to inhabit a place through adaptations, actions, successes and mistakes. It is the opposite of the Deans and Soane, who invested everything in the fixed fabric of their homes. The residents of the Bijlmer make their universes around and in spite of the fabric.

It is easy to see the absurdity of a belief in the healing power of masonry – it is a superstition, animism – but people fall for it again and again and they are not entirely wrong to do so. For, if it is a mistake to think that a house can mend a family, the opposite is also false. That is, the built background to our lives is not irrelevant, either. To put the case negatively, the wrong kinds of buildings can inflict misery and frustration. A world in which the dwelling becomes a purely technical question is not appealing.

To be more positive, we want buildings to embellish, beautify, dignify, distract or divert. We want them to propose and to enable: to suggest what could be, to make things possible, to give freedoms. The idea of home, whether expressed as stable cosmos or as nomadic wandering, shows a basic truth, which is that the space we occupy is not neutral to us. We cannot look at it with detachment. We are in it, we make it and it makes us. What are mysterious are the ways in which physical surroundings interact with our desires. If Dean Gardens seems over-determined and clumsy, where exactly did it go wrong? How might a builder or an architect make a happier relation of stuff to humanity?

The assumption behind Dean Gardens, or the Soane house, is that there is a close alignment of form and content: that if a mansion represents happy family life, such life will take place within it. Similar conceptions have played their part in the global economy, when the illusionary solidity of owning a home contributed to the American sub-prime crisis. As the US secretary of housing and urban development Shaun Donovan put it, "the built environment helped create the economic crisis".

The Surinamese colonisation of Bijlmermeer suggests that people can make their home anywhere, without or despite the contribution of built form, albeit with considerable struggle. Other examples suggest that the planning and design of cities can, after all, make a difference to the futures they will contain, but with luck and unpredictable events along the way.

The failings of Dean and Soane show that they misjudged the power of form and imagined a too direct connection between the inanimate and the animate. If there is cause and effect in the relations of minerals and people, it is more circuitous and reciprocal and less linear. If there is truth in architecture, its shape is not immediately obvious. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Through Edward Hopper's eyes: in search of an artist's seaside inspiration

Gail Albert Halaban follows in the footsteps of the great American artist, photographing the elegant houses he painted almost 100 years ago from the same vantage point

Gail Albert Halaban has identified 16 houses in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that were painted by Edward Hopper over several summers in the 1920s and she reckons there are a few more that have, as yet, escaped her notice. Over the past three years, Albert Halaban, a fine art photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Time magazine, has been tracking down the Hopper houses in Gloucester, a picturesque city on the Atlantic coast, and photographing them from the same vantage points that the great American artist used to paint them from nearly a century ago.

Albert Halaban was not trying to imitate Hopper's watercolours, nor was she the first to discover the houses – the subject of The Mansard Roof (1923), a large, elegant residence in the city's Rocky Neck area, has had homage paid to it by Hopper enthusiasts for decades. Her interest has more personal motivations – her father grew up in Gloucester and she's been spending summers there since childhood, so was intrigued to see how another artist had responded to the city. "It's given me a fresh set of eyes on something I know very well."

Hopper is a name that crops up regularly in relation to her work, particularly Out My Window, a series of photographs – soon to be a book – in which she portrays New Yorkers at home as viewed from neighbouring apartments. "People kept comparing me to Hopper and I wanted to know where that came from."

She was also keen to make contact with the occupants of houses and find out how living in places of art-historical interest had affected them. "Some were aware of it; others had no idea. I called on one old man in his late 90s and he didn't know his house had been in a Hopper painting. He was very excited because he had lived in another Hopper house in Gloucester as a child and that house had burnt down."

At first, she was surprised by the differences between the Gloucester paintings and Hopper's better-known later works. "When I think of Hopper I think of Nighthawks and all those New York paintings. His work is very moody, mysterious and lonely, but the Gloucester pictures are bright and sunny and much less dramatic."

When she photographed the houses, however, she found subtle connections and similarities. "I tried to stand where Hopper stood, to make the composition the same, and was amazed that, for so many of the houses, he picked the least pretty perspective. In Houses of Squam Light, there's this picturesque lighthouse just to the left of frame and he cropped it out. Gloucester is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to, but he seems to have depicted the more hard-edged, working-class end of it. He turned his back on some of the prettiest places, which is what he did in his New York work."

She was also intrigued to discover that Hopper, who is regarded as a realist and who painted the houses in Gloucester with great precision, manipulated one important aspect of what he saw. "He changed the light and shadows in his pictures a lot and combined different times of day so that the shadow might go in two directions – that's how he created his narrative, his drama." Albert Halaban responded to this by taking a more painterly approach to her photographs and manipulating the light as Hopper had done in the 1920s. "The houses that he painted remain, but the narratives he created only exist on his canvases. Standing in the same places, I was inspired to take my own liberties and create narratives that are my own."

Out My Window is published by Random House © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 10 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Laura's wedding challenge

This is a picture of my daughter Laura and her husband Jamie about two hours after they had promised to love and cherish each other in 2006.

I am not keen on weddings. Having been happily unmarried to my partner Eileen for 33 years, I am not sure I see the point. The cheesy commercialism, extravagance and stupid cupidity surrounding many marriages these days does not endear me to the custom. So when my eldest daughter announced her intended nuptials, perhaps I was not as enthusiastic as I could have been; even less so when a small family affair escalated into an event for around 100 guests.

Fortunately, others involved saw it as an opportunity, a challenge even, to have a good old shindig without bankrupting families and friends alike. And so we all (even me) sat around a table with Maureen, Laura's mum, and made a plan.

It went like this: hire a beautiful but dilapidated castle on the banks of the River Tyne, usually used by youth groups, for three days. Spend a day cleaning and decorating it. Have enough food delivered from a supermarket to provide two breakfasts, lunch and an evening buffet. Prepare the food ourselves. Ask guests for a small contribution per night for basic dormitory accommodation and meals. Ask them to bring their own alcohol.

Book a local register office for the ceremony and use our own cars for transport. After the vows, arrange a mass game of football back at the castle. Do not hire a disco. The bride and groom will concoct a playlist.

Ask for volunteers among family and friends to help in the organisation.

What could go wrong? Er … that might have required another, much longer list! Fortunately, though, we pulled it off.

The football game was not that incongruous because the bride and groom had met while he was coach of her football team, who were all guests. One of my personal highlights was sneaking away from kitchen duties (briefly) to join in the football just long enough to nod in a cheeky far-post header. Other games, scenic riverside walks and fishing were available for footyphobes. Asking for help was also a masterstroke. People I had never met were clamouring to join in our collective effort.

At times we thought we had taken on too much, especially with the food, but when the weekend was over and the bleary-eyed guests made their various ways home, there was a definite feeling that we had all shared in something special, something personal, getting to know people in a way that wouldn't have happened at a "normal" wedding.

Oh, and I almost forgot, the last ingredient: a warm September weekend with cerulean skies, after a week of rain. Perfect. Anthony Peacock

Playlist: Now I can hear what I didn't before

Wow by Kate Bush

"Ooh, yeah, you're amazing! / We think you're incredible"

This song reminds me of visiting Crystal Palace park in south London during my early years. My childhood memories are of outings to parks and museums, and we often went to Crystal Palace park, with its fake dinosaurs and open spaces for riding bikes.  

My parents had a blue Vauxhall Astra estate and there was always a tape playing in it. Kate Bush is the soundtrack to my early childhood in the mid- to late 80s and this must be one of my earliest memories – in the car, staring out of the window at the tall south London terraces of Norwood and Beulah Hill while Kate shrieked in the background.

I have started listening to Kate Bush again and the memories come hurtling through time. The lyrics of Wow are about being "alone on the stage", the lone actor in your own story, the selfishness of the human condition.  

Music is a significant part of my life and listening to this again is also an exercise in reinterpretation. At four or five, I just heard the tune, but now that I'm 30 I hear the meaning of the words.   Frances Hawkins

We love to eat: Granny's chocolate pudding


2 tbsp cornflour

1 dessertspoonful cocoa

1 dessertspoonful sugar

1 pint full-fat milk

Place the cornflour, cocoa and sugar in a saucepan and add the cold milk a little at a time, stirring until it blends. When all the milk is added, put the pan on a medium heat. Stir slowly and continuously until the sauce thickens smoothly, making sure it doesn't catch on the bottom. As soon it starts to boil, take off the heat and pour into bowls. On a cold evening, eat straight away, like thick, hot chocolate, or wait until it cools and a delicious thick, rubbery skin appears on top.

Granny used to make this for my sister and me when we were children. We adored staying at her little cottage in a bleak coal-mining valley in County Durham. As Mum drove us over, we would watch for the smoke from her chimney and then chant, "I can see Granny's house! I can see Granny's house!" all the way down the fell until we arrived.

Her house was a ramshackle treasure trove of adventures. Mum despaired at the fact that she had no fridge, there were cobwebs in the larder, and she never brushed our hair, but my sister and I loved the wildness of it.

At Granny's house, preparing lunch involved a scramble up the bank to "South America" to dig up potatoes. Bread was toasted on a fork in front of the fire while we guzzled "pink drink", a homemade elderflower brew, which, looking back at the increased zest it gave us for handstands in the garden, must have had a bit of a poke to it.

I love to remember my special Granny by making her chocolate pudding for my small children now. These days you can buy a hundred varieties of chocolate pudding from the supermarket, but there is something special about putting a few store-cupboard ingredients together to make a simple teatime treat. Holly McEnaney

We'd love to hear your stories

We will pay £25 for every Letter to, Playlist, Snapshot or We love to eat we publish. Write to Family Life, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU or email Please include your address and phone number © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Edinburgh festival: art comes out of the gallery

A haunting sonic work, a pub crawl and films projected on to the walls of a department store – this year visual art at the Edinburgh festival is coming into the open. Karen Wright reports

In past years, the visual arts have always appeared to take a back seat during the Edinburgh international festival. Perhaps it seemed impossible to compete with the cacophony of the main festival, the fringe and the book festival. Sorcha Carey, director of the art festival, has decided to redress the balance with Festival Promenade, a series of works intended to bring the visual arts out of the galleries and into the places where people will be gathering for events. This "magical playground" will feature commissions allowing the artist "to create works that interrogate their spaces". To quote one participating artist, Anthony Schrag, "art is the thing that allows us to ask interesting questions about your life".

Carey's first commission as director of the arts festival in 2011 was a permanent "legacy" installation, Martin Creed's Work number 1059. The work, 104 outdoor steps clad in differently coloured marbles, accompanied Creed's retrospective show at the Fruitmarket Gallery. This year, with a commissioning budget of £250,000, she has turned away from permanent installations and chosen instead to commission a daring set of new interactive works, declaring that the choice is "unabashedly about showcasing Scottish artists". While the ambitious list includes some well-known artists, including Susan Philipsz, the 2010 Turner prize winner, and Callum Innes, a 1995 Turner prize nominee, it also embraces recent graduates of Scotland's art schools.

Carey says her chief aim is "to establish the delicate but important balance between the permanent and temporary in this massive World Heritage Site". I first met her during the opening week of dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, where she introduced me to Philipsz, whose Study for Strings, a sound piece responding to the history of the Hauptbahnhof, was one of the most affecting works for many visitors.

Philipsz confessed that when she made her first site visit to Edinburgh she did not really know the city. As a child growing up in a large Catholic family in Glasgow, she spent little time in Edinburgh, later studying in Belfast and New York and eventually settling in Berlin. She says her inspiration for Timeline, her Edinburgh work, was the spectacular view spread out below Nelson's Monument, and the tradition of the daily one o'clock gun in Edinburgh Castle, which was originally connected by a mile-long cable to the ball-drop on Cable Hill for sailors at sea to set their chronometers.

Philipsz's work will replace the long-removed cable, her sung tripartite chord being taken down the hill through seven individual speakers in a kind of domino effect. The work is a homage to Edinburgh resident John Robinson, who invented the siren, and to the sirens from Homer's Odyssey who lured sailors on to the rocks with the devastating beauty of their sound. Philipsz plays me the chord, simple and pure, which sounds to her, she says, "somewhat like a train". Its magic in Edinburgh will be its fleetingness, under a minute in all, and the mystery of where the sound is coming from.

Philipsz's sound trajectory will finish near the gun itself, in the gardens beneath the castle, where Edinburgh College of Art graduate Emily Speed will stage a one-off performance of Human Castle. The work will be composed of 10 "acro-balancers" in cardboard costumes, counterbalancing to form a castle-like shape before dismounting. Carey observes that Speed "draws out fragility in something that we often think of as solid and immovable by making them animate".

This is Speed's first performance back in Edinburgh, having left the city in 2002 to live and work in Japan before settling in Liverpool, and will be the first time she has not taken part. Instead she will assume the role of director: "It's quite strange to lose control of the work," she says. "It's terrifying but exciting working with the acrobats and I know that people will ask if it is acrobatics or a piece of art."

She describes the commission as "an act of faith", saying Carey "is not scared to take risks." When I speak to Speed she is in the midst of making the costumes. "I won't know if it works until they do it," she says. "I am asking the acrobats to do something they have never done before: counterbalance." There will be only one performance lasting a few minutes, but it will be filmed and screened throughout the festival.

In her determination to integrate the programme into the city, Carey identified Rose Street, a short road dominated at one junction by a brutish modernist BHS, as an ideal location for works. The Rose Street film programme will include Speed's film and will show on small screens in shop windows along the street in daylight, while at night films will be screened on BHS's large external wall.

Rose Street will also be the location for Kevin Harman's work 24/7. Carey first saw the work of Edinburgh native Harman in his degree show. She says his work is "engaging people about the world and the art, 24/7," and her ambitions for the festival as a whole seem to be summed up in the way she describes his piece as a "facilitation of dialogue".

Harman stole 210 of his neighbours' doormats from three enormous tenement buildings, leaving notes that they could be reclaimed at his degree show, where they were arranged as a giant work of art. The work sought to bring the community together in an unexpected way. Harman says he "comes to an environment open to the ideas of the viewer". He chooses not to talk about details of his festival project, saying: "If I think too much about the project it becomes too contrived."

The contribution of artist Anthony Schrag – a pub crawl tour – is bound to be popular. It too will take place on Rose Street and is part of Carey's aim to "encourage people to broaden their idea of what art can be". Although Schrag is currently based in the city, he is billed as the Edinburgh "Tourist in Residence", reflecting his interest in the changing landscape of his beloved city. He will take small groups around Edinburgh on unusual outings ranging from an early morning walk to a blindfold tour and a communal nap in a park, as well as the Rose Street pub crawl. Although the majority of Schrag's work has been produced outside the gallery context, he does not see himself as a performance artist. He observes that "unlike in performance art, the viewer takes equal part in the creation of the work". Rather than the city's beauty spots, his tours will explore the dark alleyways, turning away from the idea that "art looks at beautiful things".

Of all the artists participating in Festival Promenade, Callum Innes, an Edinburgh resident who shows with a local gallery, could be called the most traditional, with his paintings unashamedly exploring pure abstraction. But for the first time, he works here in light: in his installation The Regent Bridge, two "paintings" made of light will change colour with random variations. He says he wanted to "bring attention and to re-emphasise" the structure and beauty of the Regent Bridge. "This is such a dark part of Edinburgh, behind the station, that the changes have to be quick. It's a work of art, not a Georgian project," he says firmly. Like many others, Innes felt that the "festival has always deserved a good visual arts festival", so he donated his fee and says nervously, as he has not seen the finished work yet, "it challenged me and works for the city".

The Glasgow-based artist Andrew Miller provides the seeming centre of the installations with The Waiting Place, a temporary structure that will provide shelter from the elements, a starting point for Schrag's tours, and information including artist Peter Arkle's fantastical yet useful map of the festival. Miller has been exploring the interplay between design and art for years. I tell him that his piece seems the most imposing, in a sense, and he laughs. "It's hard to find – you have to go off the path and go into the trees, and after the festival it will disappear unless someone comes and decides to buy it and they have both space and a tree to put it round." I point out how different this seems from the more grandiose Serpentine Pavilions. Miller admits that he had a "quite generous budget, but the structure, while it is temporary, is robust. This is a cross between an Alvar Aalto summerhouse and a Trinidadian shack." The Waiting Place appears to be more of a whimsical summerhouse, and is appropriately named after a line from Dr Seuss: it offers a space "in which you're welcome to simply enjoy the act of waiting for something to happen". Miller says "it will keep you dry, but it is well ventilated deliberately, as it is about looking out. People animate it."

In Edinburgh, Carey is channelling artists' energy to act outside the cossetted space of the white cube. But if interactive work is not your thing, there are promising shows of Dieter Roth, Philip Guston, John Bellany and the blockbuster Picasso and Modern British Art, recently at Tate Britain, in Edinburgh museums. For me, though, I imagine Susan Philipsz's haunting sounds will hang in the air long after the festival, encouraging tourists to retrace the mile-long journey of her lost chord. After all, the definition of "promenade" is to walk with pleasure.

Edinburgh Art festival runs until 2 September © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

From Shakespeare to Sunflowers: masters take over the week in art

From the birth of modern culture to Van Gogh's classic work. Plus a Picasso fiasco in Edinburgh airport and a child saves a Manet – all in today's weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Shakespeare: Staging the World

Popular theatre was Britain's most spectacular contribution to the cultural movement called the Renaissance. For Shakespeare and his rival Christopher Marlowe, the culture of Italy where the Renaissance was centred was the definition of modernity. Shakepeare for instance made the name of the dangerous Renaissance thinker Machiavelli famous in Britain. This exhibition is not just for theatre fans, but for anyone interested in the birth of modern culture.
British Museum, London WC1 until 25 November

Other exhibitions this week

Metamorphoses: Titian 2012
Modern artists help to celebrate the nation's purchase of two Venetian Renaissance masterpieces.
National Gallery, London WxC2, until 23 September

Picasso and Modern British Art
The British modernists are dwarfed by Picasso in this show which has some terrific works by him.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until 4 November

Tino Sehgal
Interaction is the action in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.
Tate Modern, London SE1, until 28 October

Turner, Monet, Twombly
Luscious survey of pure painting.
Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, until 28 October

Masterpiece of the week

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888
Summer blazes so hot in this painting it hurts. Van Gogh's north European eyes are aflame as he settles into a new home in Provence. When Van Gogh, after a difficult struggle to learn art as an adult, went to live in Arles he started to turn his home there into a community for artists and painted this heady work to decorate it. The yellows are invincible, joyous and unbearably intense.
• National Gallery, London WC2

Image of the week

What we learned this week

Why Robert Hughes was Australia's answer to Dante

The story of Edinburgh airport's Picasso-based prudishness

How artists are taking on the coal industry from a disused mine in Belgium

That an 11-year-old saved a £7.8m Manet this week

All about one artist's mission to Mars

And finally …

Share your art on the theme of sport now

Post your personal images that sum up what London means to you on the Guardian Art and Design Flickr page

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August 09 2012

Artist of the week 202: Hariton Pushwagner

After a period sleeping rough in the 90s, this artist and his portraits of a dehumanising modernity are enjoying a resurgence

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Pushwagner's magnum opus, the graphic novel Soft City, is as feverish as a nightmare acid trip. Across 154 now-yellowing original sheets, in thin pen lines, a numbed world unfolds in relentlessly repetitive detail. It pictures identical family units en masse, going about identical lives, in apparently infinite identical flats and offices, in tower blocks that stretch upwards and outwards forever.

The story is simple and circular: get up, take a pill, kiss the baby, go to work, punch in, punch out, go home, kiss the baby, go to sleep. Everyone frogmarches to the same rhythm, ruled by the clock (if you're late, you're fired). Everyone drives – the multistorey car park is a major fixture. Everyone's happy: for Soft City inhabitants, the mind is as much a prison as the routine lifestyle and oppressive architecture. There is no sky; there is no way out.

Soft City was created in the 1970s, fuelled by a dystopian vision the artist shared with his friend and mentor, the counter-culture novelist Axel Jensen, whose celebrated science fiction books he illustrated. The graphic novel then disappeared for decades, in which Pushwagner's life went on a downward spiral from making art to marital breakdown, heavy drug use and, in the late 1990s, two years sleeping rough.

In his native Norway, the septuagenarian is now a celebrated square peg, as notorious for his wild lifestyle as he is for his unforgiving comic art. Literally "picked up from the gutter" by his manager, Stefan Stray, he's only been more widely appreciated in the last decade. The recently rediscovered Soft City was one of the standout works in the 2008 Berlin Biennale, while a Norwegian documentary released last year chronicled his topsy-turvy life.

All of Pushwagner's work builds on Soft City's core themes, which are rooted in classic dystopian sci-fi. Think of the mechanised underworld of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, or the social classes polarised by Blade Runner's soaring skyscrapers. His 1990 painting series Apocalypse Frieze focused on military factories churning out war machines and carnage. A Day in the Life of Family Man, a wickedly funny set of pink, grey and black silk screenprints conceived with Jensen in 1980, brings billboard advertising, surveillance technology and TV-as-placebo into the picture.

Indeed, with the recent rapid rise of power with a friendly face – from Ikea villages to self-policing social media – his vision feels more and more prophetic.

Why we like him: For the fiendish work Jobkill, the central painting in Apocalypse Frieze. Revellers dine and dance on the decks of an armoured battleship, sailing on a sea of bones. The landscape is black with tanks, police vans and fighter planes, and parachuting soldiers fill the sky.

Name game: Hariton Pushwagner is a moniker that the artist, born Terje Brofos, adopted in 1970. It's a nod to Hare Krisna and Eastern philosophy, and push wagons or shopping trolleys.

Where can I see him? At Milton Keynes Gallery until 2 September 2012. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 08 2012

John Stezaker's best photograph

'I collected pictures of smokers. But it was only when I gave up cigarettes that I found a use for them'

I call my combinations of images of men and women "marriages". It is an old idea for me, although this is a recent work, from my series Muse. Each picture consists of a man smoking combined with a female other half, the idea being that he is "inhaling inspiration", which is classically associated with the female. When I started producing marriages, I felt I was creating new beings. They were more like people than the original bland glamour shots of the 40s and 50s that I used as source material. Somehow, when they got broken up and recombined, real people seemed to emerge.

My best work happens during explosions of activity, mainly late at night. The next morning, I might decide to dismantle the results, but this also counts as a creative process. The great thing about collage is that, because production is so minimal, you are always close to the vantage point of the viewer. I am often asked why I don't just get two people, pose them for photographs and splice the shots more accurately, but that misses the point. It's the imperfect match, the failure of unity, that makes us identify with these beings.

I have used the actor in this work, Mischa Auer, before. He was a very interesting character, married four times. I collected pictures of smoking figures for some time, but it was only when I gave up cigarettes that I found a use for them. A few years ago, I gave up alcohol, too – and, sure enough, drink has started to appear in my images. It is nice to think my art has that therapeutic immediacy, even though this is not my conscious intention.

I know nothing about the woman, but she has a number of attributes I look for. Women with their hair up are useful because they combine easily with a male haircut. She is also wearing a watch: I'm fascinated by the particular time they tell, because it represents the here and now. The portraits exist in a fantasy world, but the watch is real, the only objective thing in the work.

When people say I'm not a real photographer, I tell them I work with the medium rather than in it. In the internet age, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the producers and the consumers of images. I see my work as merging these two worlds.

When I was showing this in Los Angeles, a memorabilia collector told me he thought I must have a secret agenda because the characters in my collages all had terrible lives. Although this was a coincidence, maybe I was looking for a certain kind of vulnerability.


Born: 1949, Worcester

Studied: Slade, London

Influences: Giorgio de Chirico,Joseph Cornell, Picasso

High and low point: When I took care of my son, 12 years ago, I was not producing anything because I was absorbed in domestic duties and at a low point as an artist. Then the artist Jake Miller discovered my work, and I gained recognition.

Tip: Don't listen to the nonsense you get from art historians, teachers and critics. Just follow what your eyes tell you and what moves you.

• John Stezaker is nominated for the Deutsche Börse photography prize 2012, at the Photographers' Gallery, London W1, until 9 September. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 07 2012

Bussy-Saint-Georges, the town with built-in religious harmony

Planners hope construction of a multi-faith district will bring together the citizens of a new town near Paris

Hugues Rondeau is the Radical party mayor of Bussy-Saint-Georges, a new town in the Paris suburbs. His taste for "ordered urban space" has led to an innovation: the multi-faith district. On a plot of land just beyond the built-up area, he has authorised the construction of several places of worship.

"Here there will be two Buddhist temples, a mosque, a synagogue, a Chinese evangelical church and an Armenian cultural centre," said the mayor, a practising Catholic who is convinced that in a secular state the government should not turn a blind eye to religious fact. "Our 30,000 inhabitants are mostly of foreign origin with 45% from Asia," he said. "We couldn't deprive them of their religious practice."

To date only the Taiwanese temple, a prestige €15m ($19m) project, has been completed. The shaven-headed nuns in traditional brown robes worked hard to make every flower, lantern and stone Buddha look perfect for the inauguration of the European headquarters of Fo Guang Shan, a Chinese Buddhist order, last month.

There is nothing exotic about the temple, built on what used to be agricultural land. The mayor insisted that the architects blend the buildings into the landscape to avoid creating a religious Disneyland, just 10km from the real thing. The elegant wood and glass building covers 7,000 sq metres. A five-metre-tall jade Buddha towers over a prayer room for 400. The monastery has 36 bedrooms in addition to exhibition space, classrooms for Chinese, French, English, calligraphy and cookery lessons, and a restaurant. More than 80% of the cost came from the Fo Guang Shan headquarters in Taiwan. The 300 faithful in the Paris region also contributed.

The centre, mainly geared to its international followers, is one that least meets the needs of the local community. "But it's a project that has been put on hold for years," said the venerable Miao Da, who leads Fo Guang Shan and profited from the mayor's open policy. The organisation acquired the land at an attractive "agricultural land" price of €50 a square metre.

Just a few dozen metres away, a more modest Laotian temple is nearing completion. A common parking lot separates the buildings, while a large plot of land is earmarked for a Jewish centre, a Chinese evangelical church and the Muslim cultural centre adjoining the 2,000-square-metre mosque, which will include a tearoom and a library. Its curved roofs are already visible, and behind them the walls of the prayer room for 400 faithful.

"We've been praying in a pre-fab since 2010, and before that we had to go to neighbouring towns. The town hall lent us their functions room for Eid," explained Farid Chaoui, vice-president of Tawba, a Muslim association that is sponsoring the project for town's estimated 400 Muslim families. They are still one third short of the €1.5m required to finish the mosque but Chaoui has given himself to the end of the year to raise it "without foreign donations".

The mosque project is the one that caused the most controversy. "I've been accused of handing Bussy over to the Mullahs," said the mayor, who had to do some "educational work" and explain that he preferred to put a mosque in this open district with identified partners, rather than have people pray in a garage. He believes that people's reservations will disappear once they explore the neighbourhood for themselves. Ultimately it will also house the town's cultural centre complete with theatres and cafes.

The mayor's "living together" project is supported by most of the people involved but the town's Catholic priest, Pierrick Lemaître, is rather more sceptical. His church was built 13 years ago and falls just outside the municipal zone. "It's important that every religion has a place of worship," he agreed, "but it's not enough to place pretty buildings side by side for people to actually get together."

"The mayor started this process ... He asked us to sign a charter committing us to mutual respect. Now it's up to us to make the project work," said Chaoui. "Live and let live is the only solution if you want to avoid stigmatisation," agreed Guy Benarousse, from the town's small Jewish community, whose project is delayed due to lack of funds.

The mayor sees his concept as "an attempt" but not necessarily one that would work everywhere. A new town "where you start from scratch" is a good template for such experiments, "And I was dealing with tolerant communities, not tense ones," he added. Unlike some of his critics, he does not see this concentration as a "religious supermarket", but rather as an opportunity for people of different faiths to share resources, promote dialogue and enrich the town's cultural life.

This article originally appeared in Le Monde © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 06 2012

Manifesta 9: a rich seam of art in a disused mine

This year's Manifesta is an exploration of coal-mining, featuring dodgy DIY prosthetics, John Coltrane and WH Auden

The coal mines that dotted this corner of eastern Belgium, Holland and the northern Ruhr were once photographed in all their melancholy grandeur, un-peopled and under flat skies, by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Now this place is home to Manifesta, the ninth edition of the roving European Biennial of Contemporary Art. I walk along a bleak corridor on the top floor of a dilapidated building, to a crisscrossing rhythm of unseen hammers, beating on anvils. There is a metallic tang in the air, dry on the palate. Little windows in the walls give glimpses of an empty landscape with a distant, grass-covered slagheap. A now-defunct railway leads over a viaduct to an abandoned pit-head. Just as the Bechers fussed with their camera, waiting for the right windless and deserted moment, I wait at the window.

The hammers beat on. This building was once the headquarters of the André Dumont mine in Genk, in the Limburg region of Belgium. The mine ceased work in 1987; the building itself was completed in 1924, a handsome example of art deco industrial architecture.The smell in the corridor, says the artist Oswaldo Maciá, who worked with perfumer Ricardo Moya, is meant to evoke failure. Like many of the works here, Martinete (Maciá's "audio olfactory composition") is a kind of elegy. The legacies of the industrial revolution, the migration of labour and the geopolitics of Europe and beyond are Manifesta's theme: the world as it was and what it is becoming.

The exhibition takes us from the fossilised head of an iguanodon, discovered during mining, to an engraving of the ironworks at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire at the beginning of the industrial revolution. It takes us from reimagined scenes of the carboniferous forests, with giant horsetails, ferns and giant dragonflies, to Duncan Campbell's film of John DeLorean's attempt to build his futuristic gull-wing car in Northern Ireland. On the way, we pass through John Martin's subterranean illustrations of Milton's Hell, meet the Ashington Group of pitman artists (whose story has become the subject of both a play and a musical), and quota-breaking Russian miner Alexey Stakhanov, poster-boy of Stalin's Russia.

Small stories and larger histories, piles of coal and fragments of lives fill The Deep of the Modern, as this exhibition is subtitled. There are photographs of the 1984 miners' strike by Guardian photographers Denis Thorpe and Don McPhee; Jeremy Deller and Mike Figgis's re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, and a documentary about the shooting of Belgian miners during a 1966 strike. With real lives and history, artworks and ephemera, mining engineering and Marcel Duchamp, this is, quite deliberately, a move away from the biennials we are accustomed to.

This Manifesta is a rejoinder to the malaise besetting many ambitious international art events, which its chief curator, Cuauhtémoc Medina, pithily itemises: the feeling that there isn't time to see things properly, the despair of participants and audiences alike, the curatorial egomania and opaque themes, the homogenisation of different cultural practices, the "usual suspect" artists.

While biennials invariably take some account of their places and its contexts, Medina and his team try to do it better. Past Manifestas have filled venues across San Sebastián in Spain's Basque country, based one in the Trentino valley in Italy's south Tyrol, and attempted cultural reconciliation in divided Cypress (a disaster). The Deep of the Modern fills a single building and can be seen in a day. The sense of context is inescapable. Another Manifesta co-curator, Katerina Gregos, examines the ongoing economic crisis, describing how the majority of us "will experience grave social and economic circumstances in years to come". She continues: "One thing is for sure: we will not be able to eat our iPhones or find comfort on Facebook unless there is a fundamental move away from the complacency for which we are responsible."

The challenge is overwhelming, so we are left with our encounters with individual things, some of which are rich in ways we might not expect. A collection of samplers that once decorated mine-worker's homes in Genk are embroidered with homilies. "Even though you are in love, you always need to eat," says one. "Be careful with fire, coal is expensive," reads another. And here's an old, battered photographic portrait of a young Greek couple, Spyros and Polyxeni; when Spyros left Greece to work the mines in Limburg, they tore the photograph in two and he took the half depicting his wife to Belgium. When she later joined him in Genk, carrying the other half of the portrait, they sewed the image back together. It is a small family memento, but deeply telling.

Thousands of Greeks, Turks and Italians came here to work in the mines. Their communities are still here though the mines have gone. Now I am listening to Rocco Granata, son of an Italian, who bought his family to Genk when the boy was 10. Rocco briefly worked in the mine but became a singer, and his international hit, Marina, recorded in 1959, drifts through a lower gallery. Sound is everywhere: WH Auden reading his verse to Britten's score for the 1935 film Coal Face; the thwack of a stick beating Tomaž Furlan on the back of his head, in a video that shows him "operating" his machines wearing gimcrack industrial prosthetics. The Slovenian sculptor is an heir to Keaton and Chaplin, or even Norman Wisdom, a mechanised man who won't fit the bill. He'd probably even hurt himself clocking-in.

There's humour and absurdity here. I turn the tiny handle of a musical-box mechanism that tinkles out the tune of the Internationale, little knowing that the sound is relayed to speakers on the forecourt outside, the tune forlorn amid the birdsong and the decaying buildings, in Croatian artist Nemanja Cvijanović's Monument to the Memory of the Idea of the Internationale.

In a video by Mikhail Karikis and Uriel Orlow, a choir of former Kent miners stand in a field, singing Sounds from Beneath, a recreation of remembered noises of the pit. They shush and roar and hiss. And here's John Coltrane, blasting from David Hammons's 1989 Chasing the Blue Train, a landscape of piano lids, some upright, others prone on the floor. Toy train tracks wend their way between the piano lids – like hills and plains and the curves of a woman's body – to disappear into a tunnel of coal. The little blue train sits stalled on the track. Hammons's work sucks other sculptures around it into its own landscape. Far across the floor are three little conical mountains of coal, topped by the Belgian flag, by Marcel Broodthaers. And nearby Richard Long's 1992 line of Bolivian coal runs the length of the gallery, and Bernar Venet's 1963 indeterminate mound of coal, is a black island rising from the concrete. Coltrane gets to you, along with the catch-in-the-throat smell of coal dust, as you stand beneath Marcel Duchamp's 1200 Coal Sacks, suspended from a ceiling like hams.

Manifesta has a reach and breadth I wasn't expecting. There's so much more to it than the dark matter of coal.

• Manifesta 9 is on until 30 September, click here for details © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 04 2012

Why the Southbank Centre redevelopment plan is sheer folly

Cramming London's South Bank with restaurants and retail will rob the capital of precious open space

This summer saw an exhibition called Invisible, about the value of things you can't see, and about spaces left open for the imagination to inhabit. It shows how important it is to have some places where no one is filling your head with messages or sales pitches or commands to take part in some scripted and planned activity.

The message of Invisible, at the Hayward Gallery, appears to have been lost on the administration of the Southbank Centre, where the Hayward stands. For they are currently pushing forward a plan for redeveloping the Hayward and the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Hall that will mean thrusting commercial space into almost every spare void in and around these buildings. They want to put restaurants on the roof and shopping in the undercroft and to the sides. They want to stuff the place, in the words of John Donne, before, behind, between, above, below.

They are currently running a "competitive interview process with a selection panel" to choose architects for the development. According to the brief issued to shortlisted practices, the plan is to insert more than 5,000 sq metres of food, drink and retail. That's about one-and-a-half times the space currently available to the public for enjoying art and music, which is going to be only slightly increased. A glass atrium is suggested between the gallery and the concert hall. At the nearby Royal Festival Hall a familiar blend of chain restaurants has already been installed – Yo! Sushi, Eat, Giraffe, Strada, Wagamama – and there seems every reason to believe that this pattern will continue.

The plan seems to be, in other words, to make the Southbank Centre resemble Terminal 5 or Canary Wharf or any moderately upmarket shopping mall you can think of, where steel and glass frame a predictable retail offer. It will also further the transformation of the southern side of the Thames into a long strip of importuning and pitching that starts at the tawdry fringe of the old County Hall and continues past the London Eye. Here, anything left open for wandering or reflection is seen as a missed opportunity for exploitation.

Yet the Southbank Centre should not be like everywhere else. It should be a place apart, where you can breathe a different kind of air and see the city in a different way. Its raised walkways give you a new perspective on the river, and its rugged 1960s architecture, like a craggy rock formation, creates a different sense of time to central London's frenetic streets. These concrete structures have been much criticised but even though they have been minimally cared-for over several decades they still have nobility and – something increasingly precious because it is getting rarer – the provision of space and surface that is open, free, unprogrammed, unconsumed by branding and marketing.

Its obduracy could be an obstacle to the mall-ification of the South Bank, but the Southbank Centre has taken care to obtain from the government immunity from listing for five years – that is, it will be impossible for the Hayward and Queen Elizabeth Hall to be listed as buildings of architectural or historical importance, which considerably weakens their protection against inappropriate changes. This decision is plain outrageous: whether you like these buildings or not, they are by any measure significant buildings of their time and deserving of listing. The centre says it is working on "a conservation management plan" for its buildings but it's hard to see how their essential qualities will withstand smothering in retail.

Nor can we be confident that the centre is going about choosing its architect in the best possible way. This is an important commission and also a challenging one, requiring particular skills and sensitivities, and in most European countries there would be two independent architects on the selection jury. Here there is only one architect, Rick Mather, who is the author of a long-standing masterplan for the South Bank as a whole. Rather, the key decision-makers seem to be figures such as the centre's property director Mark Rushworth. Rushworth was formerly at the developers Brookfield, whose Strata tower was awarded the Carbuncle Cup for the ugliest building of the year, and whatever his skills as a developer, the South Bank would benefit from a level of architectural advice that it does not appear to be getting.

A shortlist for the competition was recently announced, which includes some good architects but whose rationale is not obvious. It looks like a bet-hedging list, with several who might be regarded as safe pairs of hands but who don't have a special affinity for the location. Grimshaw is there, famous for its Eden Project, but which doesn't seem particularly well suited to the nimble footwork this project would require. One international superstar, Rem Koolhaas's practice OMA, is there, which raises the question why it was chosen and no others like it. Somewhat bizarrely, another practice, Allies and Morrison, was added after an initial list of seven was announced. It was said that its first emailed application was wrongly rejected as spam.

Of course the Southbank Centre is not making these plans out of a desire to vandalise the place. It wants to improve the backstage areas of its concert halls and art galleries, and it needs to fix the Hayward's roof. It wants larger foyers. It needs money to do these things, and although the Arts Council has put up £20m (subject to plans being developed by an absurd deadline), it is not enough. It also likes the idea of "activity", of having people buzzing over every available surface, and so if it can install money-making business that also attract  people it looks like a win-win.

These ideas are not new. Over the past quarter-century successive administrators of the Southbank have put forward similar ideas. They got the architect Terry Farrell to design one such project in the late 1980s, which was roundly criticised for its excessive commercialism. Later, Richard Rogers proposed a giant glass roof that proved too ambitious for its own good. More recently they succeeded in making over the Royal Festival Hall and inserting that Giraffe and Yo! Sushi, the profitability of which has emboldened them to take the idea further. But the restaurants and shops are a relatively small part of the Festival Hall; they do not engulf it.

It's not that the Hayward and Queen Elizabeth Hall are beyond improvement, or that it's a bad thing to have a bite to eat from time to time. But these things require care, an awareness of what is special about the place they already have, and an idea of what it could be. None of these things are evident in the brief, in the selection process of the architects, and in the decision not to list the buildings.

The Southbank Centre says that we are at an early stage, and that it will "refine the brief, which will include an appropriate mix and usage of space". The trouble is that the brief doesn't need refining so much as tearing up and starting again. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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