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August 12 2012

Chavela Vargas obituary

Hard-drinking, pistol-packing, taboo-breaking singer of Mexican rancheras, revolutionary ballads and tangos

Gut-wrenching renditions of Mexican popular classics combined with a taboo-breaking personality and an iron liver ensured that Chavela Vargas, who has died aged 93, lived her own legend to the full. Vargas's raw, rasping voice and intimate arrangements stripped down well-known rancheras, boleros, revolutionary ballads and tangos to leave them as haunting laments, punctuated by waves of tenderness and bitter irony.

In the 1990s, the Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodóvar, whom Vargas described as her "soulmate", included her music in his films and championed her work, thus ensuring that she will be remembered not only as a tequila-soaked cantina singer from Latin America, but also an international artist who could sell out the most formal venues. "Chavela Vargas turned abandon and desolation into a cathedral within which we all fit," Almodóvar wrote after her death. "She emerged reconciled with the errors she had made and ready to make them again."

Vargas was born in Costa Rica. By her own account, she hardly knew her parents and was brought up by relatives in the countryside, dreaming of the day she would escape to bigger things. Vargas left for Mexico as a teenager and, after a while singing on the streets, became a fixture of the effervescent artistic scene of the post-revolution years. Even in that context, she stood out. She not only slept with women, but also sang love songs about them, wore trousers, smoked cigars, drank heavily, carried a loaded pistol and credited her recovery from polio to shamans.

"Chavela carries with her an aura of grace, charm and a legend," the writer and journalist Paco Ignacio Taibo said in a 2009 television documentary about his friend's life, "but she is also an emotionally possessed earthquake."

Vargas was particularly close to the painter Frida Kahlo. "I admired her deeply," the singer said, "but my love was much bigger than my admiration." She lived for a couple of years with Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera, whom she described as "a bit amphibian in his ways".

Vargas was also inextricably associated with José Alfredo Jiménez, the singer and composer of many of the best known ranchera songs. The title of her 2002 autobiography Y Si Quieres Saber de Mi Pasado (And If You Want to Know About My Past) comes from a line from a Jiménez song that continues "... it will be necessary to tell a lie".

Vargas and Jiménez would go on drinking binges together that lasted for days at a time and included helping each other serenade the different women they desired. But while Jiménez died young, Vargas continued to drink bars dry until she was in her 60s. She then stopped, abruptly. "Life offered me the most beautiful things that a human being can have," she said, "and I preferred to sink into alcohol."

Vargas suffered deeply from the homophobic atmosphere that enveloped Mexico and helped ensure she was not fully embraced by her adopted homeland until after Spain had elevated her to stardom. "I opened my arms and I said to the world: 'Come here, let's talk.' And the world and I talked every night and sometimes it rejected me," she said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País in 2009. "It required tears of blood for me to get ahead."

In her final years, for all the talk of pain, she was also notably satisfied with her achievements. She continued to travel and perform, making the last of her 80 albums, La Luna Grande, in 2011 – a homage to the poetry of Federico García Lorca, with whose spirit she said she chatted regularly.

"I am proud that I do not owe anybody anything, and it is wonderful to feel free," she said in 2009. "Now I have the desire to lie down in death's lap, and I am sure that will be quite beautiful."

• Isabel "Chavela" Vargas Lizano, singer, born 17 April 1919; died 5 August 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

March 26 2012

Grow a sunflower to solve unfinished Alan Turing experiment

Manchester Science Festival sows the seeds of a very bright idea to honour the computer genius in his centenary year

If ever there was a man for bright ideas, it was Alan Turing, and he would have loved this.

The whole of Manchester is being invited to plant sunflowers as part of the current centenary celebrations of his birth; and not just as a sentimental gesture.

Fittingly in the tradition of the great computer scientist, whose vital role in World War II's Enigma code-cracking was over-shadowed by his public disgrace for having gay sex, the event is practical and scientific. The Museum of Science and Industry and partners, including Manchester University where Turing made extraordinary strides in computer development after the war, are trying to conclude an experiment which he left unfinished.

Fascinated by numerical sequences and geometric patterns, Turing speculated that both the petals and densely-packed seedheads of sunflowers include striking examples of the Fibonacci number series – a mathematical phenomenon which is explained much more clearly than I could ever manage on this link here. When he was prosecuted in 1952, humiliated and put on a primitive course of hormone treatment, or chemical castration, this project joined many others in gathering dust.

Here's the sequence: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89…. Can you work out the next number?

Although he had been awarded an OBE, the significance of Turing's wartime work was unknown to his colleagues at Manchester university or the public at large. His death in 1954 from cyanide poisoning has been widely assumed to have been suicide although this was never officially confirmed.

His interest in Fibonacci numbers in sunflowers, and other plants, stemmed in part from his own observations and partly from his knowledge of the history of science. The excellent Turing Centenary website has a lovely drawing of him by his mother, opting out of a hockey match at school and in the words of her pencilled caption: 'watching the daisies grow.' Most daisies have 34, 55 or 89 petals – the 9th, 10th, and 11th numbers in the Fibonacci series.

Turing knew about Leonardo da Vinci's interest in the subject and acknowledged the work of a Dutch scientist, J C Schoute, who studied the patterns on 319 sunflower heads just before the Second World War. That was cited in a paper Turing wrote in 1951 about patterns and sequences in biology which he also enjoyed testing on his fledgling computers.

Then it all ended. So the Turing Sunflower Project is taking it up, with a database which will be thousands strong. Professor Jonathan Swinton, visiting professor in computational systems at Oxford University, says that the numerology could be important to understanding how plants grow. He says:

Other scientists believe that Turing's explanation of why this happens in sunflowers is along the right lines but we need to test this out on a big dataset, so the more people who can grow sunflowers, the more robust the experiment.

The project's manager Erinma Ochu says:

We hope to provide the missing evidence to test Turing's little-known theories about Fibonacci numbers in sunflowers. It would be a fitting celebration of the work of Alan Turing.

The results of the experiment will be a highlight of Manchester Science Festival in October. Details on how to register for seeds are here. Tweets on progress are here, and a blog on the festival, sunflowers included, is here. © 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

December 11 2011

Gavin Bond's photos of influential gay figures – in pictures

A selection of portraits from Out magazine's 17th annual portfolio of the most compelling people of the year

December 05 2010

Too shocking for America

These images, from America's first major exhibition of gay art, have outraged the country's right – leading to one of them being banned. Brian Logan meets the show's defiant curator

A month ago, I met the art historian Jonathan Katz in Washington DC. Katz was showing me around an exhibition he's co-curated at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, entitled Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. It is, amazingly, America's first major museum exhibition to look at art history from a homosexual perspective. "I have spent 15 years trying to get an exhibition like this at a major American museum," Katz told me, daring to dream that what he calls "the blacklist on queer representation in the US museum world" may be coming to an end. "If we're a hit, then I think we'll start seeing a different political atmosphere in American museums."

One month on, his dream is in tatters. Last week, after a sustained attack by opponents, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner and the Catholic League, the Smithsonian withdrew from Hide/Seek a video by the artist David Wojnarowicz, Fire in My Belly, which includes a crucifix covered in ants, symbolising the suffering of people with Aids; Wojnarowicz died of the disease in 1992. Georgia congressman Jack Kingston, railing against the gallery's depictions of "male nudity" and "Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts", is calling for a congressional review of the Smithsonian's funding. Katz, who was not consulted before the artwork was pulled, is livid: "When the Smithsonian starts bowing to its censors, it abrogates its charge as our national museum."

All this heat is quite out of proportion with the actual show, which takes a queer-themed but uncontroversial look (at least by UK standards) at 100 years of art and social history. Works include The Shower-Bath (1917) by George Bellows, a scene of barely concealed homoeroticism in a public sauna. Modernist artist Marsden Hartley's Painting No 47, Berlin, ostensibly abstract, is revealed as a tribute to Hartley's dead lover, the German soldier Karl von Freyburg. "There's a painting from the same series in the Metropolitan Museum in New York," says Katz. "And there's no mention on the wall label of the love affair." No such reticence at Hide/Seek. Nearby hangs a hilarious photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, of the artist Charles Henri Ford emerging from a Parisian pissoir, his groin positioned next to a long, curling tongue on a billboard advertisement for "Krema".

You'd have to bury your head deeply in the sand to avoid these artworks' gay content. "But that's exactly what American museums have done," says Katz. Hide/Seek is the first show, he claims, to address the sexuality of two of America's major modern artists: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Their eight-year relationship in the 1950s is no secret. But there's a conspiracy of denial around the subject – to the extent that, when Katz tried to ask Rauschenberg about the relationship, at a press conference at New York's Guggenheim Gallery in 1995, he was evicted from the premises.

Katz dates this anxiety to the outrage that greeted photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's retrospective at Washington's Corcoran Gallery in 1989. The Christian right and particularly Senator Jesse Helms forced the show's cancellation; the Helms Amendment then prohibited the use of National Endowment for the Arts funds for "obscene" or "indecent" materials. This "no promo homo" clause was the first blow in America's culture wars, says Katz. Since Mapplethorpe, the country's museums have been running scared of the right. And so, getting an exhibition like Hide/Seek off the ground "has been extremely difficult," he says.

Finally, the show was programmed by the National Portrait Gallery, which relaunched in 2006 with a mission to chronicle the advance of civil liberties in the US. According to Katz, its director Martin Sullivan promised him that "[although] we know we are going to get bricks thrown at us, this show is the right and necessary thing to do". (Privately funded, the show is the NPG's most expensive ever.) But not everyone was that supportive. Securing loans was difficult, says Katz, because neither museums nor collectors want their artworks associated with homosexuality – which would (it is assumed) detract from their dollar value.

Besides which, American galleries are mainly private, and run by rich art collectors. "And the presumption is that those collectors are conservative. And you don't want to piss those people off." So was Katz denied loans to Hide/Seek? "Plenty. The museum asked me not to say which ones. But you'll notice that there aren't any major Rauschenberg combines. And there's no work by Cy Twombly. That's not irrelevant to this story."

Katz had been optimistic about remounting Hide/Seek with those missing artworks. But first, he had to demonstrate that America was ready for this debut major-museum exhibition of queer art. Hence his distress at last week's attack, and the way the Smithsonian capitulated. "When," Katz asks, "will the decent majority of Americans stand against a fringe that sees censorship as a replacement for debate?" Hide/Seek sought to conquer what Katz calls "the last acceptable prejudice in American political life" – but the conservative right, rampant after last month's midterm elections, won't relinquish their prejudices without a fight. And so, "an exhibition explicitly intended to break a 21-year blacklist against the representation of same-sex desire," says a dispirited Katz, "now finds itself in the same boat."

Until 1 January. Box office: 0844 482 8008. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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