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June 08 2012

Yoko Ono profile: from John Lennon to a Wish Tree

An artist for the age of Occupy is given a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London

The most famous thing anyone ever said about Yoko Ono was, inevitably, said by John Lennon, and for years it held true. He called her "the world's most famous unknown artist, everyone knows her name, but no one knows what she actually does".

As the artist, musician, film-maker and peace activist nears 80, that could be changing. After decades demonised as the witch who destroyed the Beatles she is emerging from the shadow of that complicated personal history.

Since a groundbreaking exhibition in New York in 2001 re-established her reputation, she has come back into focus as a significant artist, winning the accolade of the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2009 Venice Biennale. New generations of artists have discovered her as an inspirational figure.

Basement Jaxx, Flaming Lips and Lady Gaga have collaborated with her in recent years. Younger visual artists as different as Jeff Koons, Pipilotti Rist and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster cite her as an influence; the photographer and film-maker Sam Taylor-Wood even jokingly calls herself an "obsessed fan".

This summer the artist – a tiny figure, usually to be seen wearing trademark sunglasses and hat – will be the focus of a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

According to Julia Peyton-Jones, co-director of the gallery, it is her prescience as an artist that makes her an intriguing figure for today. "As her relationship with the Beatles fades into the past her own reputation is crystallising. What is so extraordinary is that her work chimes with the times we live in now. Her activism is immensely relevant for today, in the age of Occupy."

Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim, organised the 2001 exhibition at New York's Japan Society. She says Ono's importance is only just being fully appreciated "after 40 years of her being dismissed – either as a Japanese artist, or a woman artist". She adds: "What makes her so slippery is that she is so wide-ranging. She is a musician and a poet, a peace activist and a performance artist, a maker of objects and a conceptual artist – and married to John Lennon."

The sheer breadth of her output, says Munroe, has taxed curatorial and critical skills. But, she says, Ono's originality cannot be underestimated, even though it has often been unrecognised.

"She was the first artist, in 1964, to put language on the wall of the gallery and invite the viewer to complete the work. She was the first artist to cede authorial authority to the viewer in this way, making her work interactive and experimental. That was the radical move of art in the 1960s."

Ono's energy remains undimmed and she continues to make new work and harness new technology. Her Twitter followers number 2.3 million. Recent works include her Imagine Peace tower (2007), a column of laser-light on an island near Reykjavik, and My Mummy Was Beautiful (2004), an image of breasts and vagina that was exhibited on posters around the city of Liverpool, causing controversy in some quarters.

She was born in 1933 into a wealthy Japanese family firmly ensconced in the ruling classes; her father was a banker. She began piano tuition at two and was educated at a specialist music school as her family shuttled between New York and Tokyo. War brought unfamiliar deprivations to the aristocratic family. In 1945 she took charge of her siblings, at the age of 12, when they were evacuated to the countryside after the capital's fire bombing. They struggled to eat. Her father was imprisoned in a Saigon concentration camp.

After the war Ono completed her education, becoming the first woman accepted to read philosophy at Gakushuin University. The family moved to New York, where she studied at Sarah Lawrence College, and, in 1956, she married the composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. By this time Ono was discovering a downtown scene of musicians, composers and artists, with John Cage and La Monte Young key figures.

After the collapse of her relationship with Ichiyanagi she married the American producer and art promoter Anthony Cox, and they had a daughter, Kyoko.

By the early 1960s Ono was working on the periphery of the neo-Dadaist Fluxus group, organising performances and happenings in her Chambers Street loft in Tribeca.

A key work was her book Grapefruit, first published in 1964, which has artworks framed as sets of instructions, or "event scores"; as such it is an important early example of conceptual art. (One example, entitled Painting to Exist Only When It's Copied Or Photographed, runs: "Let people copy or photograph your paintings. Destroy the originals.")

Another significant work of this period was Cut Piece, a performance work in which Ono invited the audience to take scissors and snip away her clothes as she sat, silent and still. The critic Michael Bracewell notes: "It is amazing how well that piece has lasted. When you see film of the piece done originally, she seems so vulnerable as a young woman, especially a young Asian woman. There are extraordinary undertones – submissiveness, the idea of the geisha. Enacted, it becomes incredibly tense."

Bracewell saw the piece when it was re-done in Paris in 2003. "The piece had automatically updated itself. It had become a piece about celebrity. The place was crammed to the gills, a couple of rows full of gilded young people, and absolutely no security. There she was, this elegant woman in her 70s and anyone could approach her with a bloody great pair of scissors."

For Munroe, Cut Piece was "absolutely revolutionary. "The idea that the artist's body in time and space is itself a work of art was totally radical."

In 1966 Ono held a show at the Indica Gallery, London. John Dunbar was the gallery's director. "I introduced John and Yoko," he recalls. "I was a friend of John and Paul, and suggested they come in; I thought John would enjoy it. Yoko had never heard of John. I had to explain that he was a rich person who might buy something … It wasn't immediately clear that anything was going to happen. She is a strong woman. John had never met anyone like her."

After two years they got together. But the corollary was that Cox, after a custody battle for Kyoko that Ono won, effectively kidnapped the child, and Ono did not see her at all between the ages of eight and 31.

Ono's union with Lennon of course represents the pivotal moment in her life. According to Bracewell an immediate effect was her artistic influence on Lennon – which also served to damage her, since she was "regarded as the demon face of the avant-garde and, particularly in Britain, what she did was largely seen as unintelligible".

Sean, Lennon and Ono's son, was born in 1975, five years before his father was gunned down on the street outside the Dakota Building in New York . Ono still lives there with her superb collection of art that includes Magrittes and Warhols. And mother and son have  collaborated on music projects in recent years.

An often expressed doubt surrounding Ono is that the peace-and-love mantra she expresses through her art and through her activism can look like a relic of a lost time, a statement stuck in the era of the 1960s.

For example, her Wish Tree, which she has instigated in various locations and will appear outside the Serpentine this summer, is a tree on which members of the public are invited to attach labels on which they have scribbled their wishes.

Bracewell, who believes Ono has suffered from "a sexist and racist response to her from people who regarded her as a giggling, inscrutable Japanese woman who had stolen one of our national treasures", argues that to regard such works as childish is unfair.

"Why would we have a problem with Yoko doing peace and love when we are quite happy for the Beatles to sing All You Need Is Love?" he says.

Perhaps Ono has, in the end, more right than most to tackle hatred and violence in her own way. She experienced war in Japan firsthand; her husband was shot down; her life was clearly soured by hatred directed at her from some Beatles fans.

It is her resilience in the face of disaster that, for the musician Antony Hegarty – who has collaborated with her on performances – makes her a personal as well as an artistic model. "She has  shown me, by her power of example, how to stand by one's values, even in the face of fear," he says. "She  has endured brutal storms and never surrendered."

Munroe agrees. The peace-and-love message, she says, is authentic. "She really believes in love as the transformative energy in the world. That's her faith."

Potted profile

Born 13 February 1933

Age 79

Career Ono has worked in the avant garde of the art world since the 1950s, her practice taking in music, film, poetry and performance – including her two famous week-long "bed-ins" with her husband John Lennon, a twist on the sit-in.

High point Meeting Lennon at a preview of her exhibition at Indica gallery, London, in November 1966; also her 2001 retrospective Yes Yoko Ono, which cemented her work's reputation.

Low point Ono was vilified for decades for breaking up the Beatles and even after Lennon's death in 1980 attracted little public sympathy. Also suffered the abduction of her daughter Kyoko by her second husband, Anthony Cox.

What she says "No one person could have broken up a band, especially one the size of the Beatles."

What they say "I learned everything from her … That's what people don't understand. She's the teacher and I'm the pupil." John Lennon, 1980 © 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

May 07 2011

'It feels rotten in Ai Weiwei's absence'

While Ai Weiwei remains interned by the Chinese authorities, Nicholas Logsdail, director of the Lisson Gallery, talks about a forthcoming exhibition of the artist's work and his growing influence on the global stage

My last conversation with Ai Weiwei took place in January. My colleague Greg Hilty and I went to Beijing for three days to make selections for the forthcoming show at the Lisson Gallery, and we got a sense of great foreboding from him. He had been placed under house arrest in November and had subsequently been released, but he was already worried about whether he'd get out of the country. He had all these commitments abroad – in Berlin, in New York, and with us in London – and he was very concerned about fulfilling them.

There was a discussion then about whether we should do the show now or delay it for a year so that he could produce an entirely new body of work. We decided to go ahead because there was an urgency to it, due to his situation at home, and we wanted to give a London audience a sense of the range of his work and the thinking behind it.

In my opinion, Ai Weiwei is one of the major artists of the early 21st century. My gallery avoided the gold rush for Chinese art in the boom years because, in my experience, it's almost always a false premise to group artists together by generation or nationality. What's important is the quality of the individual artist, and it was clear to us that Ai Weiwei stood apart. He's not just the most important Chinese artist of his generation but a truly international figure.

His work is a very interesting blend of traditionalism and liberalism, with a revolutionary bent. He has an outspoken nature, which is what has got him into trouble, but my reading is that his primary impulse is less to overturn society than to improve it. He is unwilling to keep quiet in the face of ignorance and prejudice and he speaks out against injustice wherever he finds it.

I've met him on a number of occasions over the last couple of years. When we were preparing for the show, I found him to be highly practical and thoroughly professional. He is a serious man of few words but he has an ironic sense of humour. He's also a big guy, physically, with a barrel chest and a commanding presence. We had some very interesting conversations about the time he spent living in New York in considerable hardship. He was an exile, partly by choice, partly out of necessity because of his family's political problems in China. It was a gestation period, a time of growth. He was taking stock of the bigger world and putting his house in order, as an artist and an intellectual.

He may not think of himself as an intellectual, but I would certainly describe him as one. Although he can be irrational himself, he despises irrationality and tries to give a clear and logical approach to the issues that are important to him. He's committed and idealistic, and unaccepting of injustice to the point of self-denial – allowing himself to get into this position is surely a form of self-denial.

All the arrangements for the show had been made before his arrest, but it feels rotten putting it on in his absence. We've been praying, metaphorically speaking, that some news of his whereabouts would break, but nothing has: it's been total silence since his detention.

The outpouring of respect and admiration for him, his honesty, his bravery – maybe you could say his foolhardiness as well – have been completely astonishing. Many other artists have shown their solidarity, including Anish Kapoor who has dedicated his forthcoming Grand Palais show in Paris to Ai Weiwei. The best we can do now is to maintain our support for him and keep up the pressure. It's crucial that all the planned projects go ahead – his work is also showing in New York and, from next week, at Somerset House in London.

How do we put ourselves into the heads of the Chinese authorities who are responsible for his arrest? How do we reach them? What is it that we need to say to them? In arresting Ai Weiwei, I believe they have failed to understand what it means to be an artist. They have failed to be culturally aware. He is exactly the kind of person they should have onside. He's actually much more dangerous now, under arrest, than he ever was before. I think he is a great global cultural ambassador for the new China, but this arrest is making China's new cultural revolution look rather unrevolutionary.

They have accused him of tax evasion, bigamy and spreading pornography on the internet, but these charges are clearly trumped up. If you want to nail somebody and put them away for a while, you can probably find dirt on anybody on the planet, let alone a controversial artist like Ai Weiwei. Some people have commented that the Chinese government saw what was going on in north Africa and the Middle East and got nervous. That may well explain his arrest.

I am hopeful though – that he's in a reasonable state and can speak for himself; he's an intelligent man and should be able to provide arguments for his release. Although of course it's not going to get you anywhere if you're talking to a brick wall. What's so distressing about this situation is that there is no obvious authority that one can appeal to or challenge about what has happened.

It's so sad that this charismatic, larger-than-life, gentle guy has been arrested. I'm deeply upset. I'd get on the next plane to China if I thought there was anything I could do, and I'm sure loads of people feel the same way.

We have organised a very different series of events from the ones we had originally planned. Alongside the show, we will have a press conference and then a big open party to celebrate Ai Weiwei's work. We will also have a moment of silence to remember his situation, although until he is released I don't think it is going to be far from anyone's mind. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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March 08 2011

Zaha Hadid | Architect

Iraqi architect who has designed buildings all over the world and last year won the Stirling prize

Born and raised in Iraq, Hadid, 60, has lived in Britain since 1971, but her adopted country has been slow to embrace her talent – that is now changing, with her waved Olympic aquatic centre due to open, joining her school in Brixton and a cancer centre in Kirkcaldy. Last year she won the Stirling prize for her Maxxi museum in Rome. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Tacita Dean | Top 100 women

Turner nominated artist who is set to fill the Tate's Turbine Hall

Tacita Dean, 45, will become a great deal more famous this October, when her work for Tate Modern's Turbine Hall is unveiled. She should already be a household name. Nominated for the Turner prize in 1998, notable In truth, she should already be a household name: the quiet seriousness, gentle curiosity and unfailing beauty of her art ought to have seen to that. But Dean, who lives and makes her work, largely in film, in Berlin, is not a limelight-seeker; she inspires not through personal flamboyance but through the careful seriousness of her practice. works include The Presentation Sisters, which quietly and observantly follows a group of Irish nunsas they perform the ritual of their daily lives. A recent work, Prisoner Pair, filmed pears suspended in schnapps as they grew and ripened in the bottle (an Alsatian delicacy), an almost eventless 11-minute work in which one's attention was brought to bear on to the minute incremental changes to burnished light and brooding shadow. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Paula Rego | Top 100 women

Portuguese painter who broke boundaries at the Slade School of Art and was nominated for the Turner prize in her 50s

To look over Paula Rego's body of work is to look over the landscape of women's experience: desire, abortion, rape, female circumcision, childbirth, family relationships, dominating and being dominated by men; her masculine female figures are sometimes lonely, but usually fierce and often bent on revenge. Success came relatively late in life – a graduate of the Slade School of Art at a time when female artists were taught how to support and inspire their "superior" male artist partners ("women were good either for going to bed with or making good wives – particularly if they came with their own money and could support the men".

Rego, now 75, was in her 40s before her first big solo exhibition, and in her 50s when she was nominated for the Turner prize. Although she was made a dame last year, Rego was born in Portugal and in 2009, a In 2009, Paula Rego – House of Stories, a gallery dedicated to housing her work, opened in Portugal. Germaine Greer, whose portrait by Rego hangs in the National Portrait Gallery says, "no other artist has ever come close to capturing Rego's sense of the phantasmagoria that is female reality." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 09 2010

Ai Weiwei: The rebel who has suffered for his art | The Observer profile

His installations have led to beatings by the Chinese police. Now the provocative artist is holding his first London exhibition at Tate Modern

As crowds converged for the opening of the Beijing Olympics, their expectation turned into a collective gasp as a red glow appeared from within the stadium known universally as the Bird's Nest. The building was the showpiece of the Games – and therefore of modern China. Entwining momentum with sturdiness, chaos with order, its vortex of 42,000 tonnes of steel latticework is a marvel of imagination and engineering, one of the great new buildings in the world.

How strange, then, that when it came to meeting Ai Weiwei, the man who designed it, he turned out to be a gentle, thoughtful, but bear-like man. The architects of the stadium, Herzog & de Meuron of Switzerland, called him the project's "creative consultant", but Ai said, characteristically, of his role: "I don't need a title – I would prefer 'the Untitled'."

Ai is China's leading artist, one of the most remarkable in the world, and on Tuesday, his work arrives for the first time in Britain, perhaps the most awaited event yet to be unveiled in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.

The timing of Ai exhibiting in London could not be more fortuitous: his installation opens four days after the Nobel peace prize committee in Stockholm had shown itself less enamoured of China's regime than politicians and businessmen when awarding the prize to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo.

Ai is based in a studio complex in a peculiar and intriguing corner of Beijing. 798 Arts Zone and the series of studios beyond it constitute a cranny where old streets and buildings have been spared by the bulldozer and turned into a kind of trendy theme park in which the authorities seem not only to permit but – unusually for them – encourage cultural activity.

This is where the pavement cafes are found, along with art galleries and boutiques that sell Mao chic clothing (silk dressing gowns printed with pictures of the Red Guard).

His father was Ai Qing, a painter and China's leading poet, who had worked in Paris and was influenced by Gogol and Dostoevsky. He was first imprisoned – as a communist – by the nationalist regime and then as a dissident during Chairman Mao's cultural revolution.

In 1967, when Ai was 10, Ai Qing and his family were exiled to a hard labour camp in a remote village at Xinjiang, in the Gobi desert. "There," says Ai, "my father was punished by being made to clean the public toilets for five years. He was beaten and kept in very severe physical deprivation." Ai Qing died in 1996.

Such an upbringing obviously moulded the artist Ai became. "I know what I know," Ai says, "because, as a child, I have seen the opposite of freedom. I have seen many people killed, the results of stupidity and cruelty, and the results of courage."

In 1978, Ai enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy, before founding an avant garde circle called the Stars. In his third year, in 1981, Ai won a scholarship to go to the US, working in New York's East Village, where he lived for 12 years and, he says, "found myself among friends, artistically – I wanted to stay forever".

But in 1993, when his father fell ill, Ai returned to China despite his green card, establishing a studio called East Village, then his current one, Real/Fake – an oblique pun on the name of an exhibition he staged in Shanghai called Fuck Off . There, his  installations included painting a Coca-Cola label on to an ancient Han vase and dropping another to smash it, a photograph of which featured on the cover of a book entitled So Sorry.

Another part of the studio's programme involved Ai's wife, Lu Qing, lifting up her skirt and showing her knickers to the portrait of Chairman Mao that presides over Tiananmen Square along with modern China's other icons, Nike and Valentino.  These antics were not to the taste of every artist on the Chinese fringe, some now seeking to acknowledge and explain, rather than challenge, the new economic order.

One critic, Xu Bing, told the New Yorker: "These things [Ai's installations] are not without value", but although China "still has a lot of problems, like the disparity between rich and poor… it really has solved many problems. China's economy is developing so quickly – I'm interested in why this has happened. Not everyone can be like Ai Weiwei, because then China wouldn't be able to develop, right?"

It was a fine stroke by Herzog & de Meuron to turn Ai from rascal of the Chinese alternative into the muse for China's second most recognisable monument after the Great Wall. It meant Ai could do what most Chinese cannot: speak his mind about the regime. On the eve of the Olympics, he said: "I feel outraged at the Chinese government and I am disgusted by the way power is abused in this country." But the Olympics, he said, were "a good opportunity for greater transparency in China".

Ai's problems with the regime continued, ironically, because of his greatest gift to Chinese prowess, the Bird's Nest. He's never visited the building he inspired: "I have never been in a stadium in my life," Ai says. "I doubt I will ever go into the Bird's Nest."

He left Beijing for the Olympics, "not as a boycott – as some have said," he explained. "I don't want to have to talk about it all the time. I am much more interested in what is going to happen to [the stadium] after the Games. I would like it to become a place where people like to go, bring their children or can come for mass weddings, or maybe mass divorces or, best of all, to have barbecues together.'

But his critique goes much deeper than either slogans or subversive barbecues and is not restricted to China.  It is in the stadium design itself: one of the most striking things about the Bird's Nest is the way the latticework makes the arena open to the exterior. Many observed that this was a way of keeping the smog from settling, by admitting a breeze.

But there was another reason, too, Ai says. "It is intended to be a statement about the need for a more open society, open discussion, greater transparency. I don't believe you can relate architecture to political statements, but architecture will always relate to ideology. And I do not see ideology as a matter of left and right, or east and west, any more. I see the tension in ideology," he says, "as being between a more interesting state of mind and a more dreadful state of mind. The artist should be for the interesting against the dreadful."

Thinking of this kind makes Ai not only a great artist, but a thinker of the world's next political and intellectual phase, beyond the turgid babble of contemporary politics. One of his recent tweets to 48,000 followers read: "One day people will wake up and find themselves unable to believe that we have been through an age of stupidity and humiliation".  His recent Study of Perspective features Ai's middle finger stuck up at the White House and Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese authorities remain acutely aware of Ai's complex and innovative heresy and in China, an "edgy" artist has to face greater challenges than mockery or dismissive critics. While he was exhibiting in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, in August 2009, Ai's hotel door was kicked down in the early hours by police goons who then beat him about the head.

Ai's "installation" in the province was a public list of more than 5,000 schoolchildren killed by the 2008 earthquake, based on door-to-door inquiries (the regime steadfastly refused to disclose how many lives were lost; it is a "national secret").

A month later, in Munich, Ai suffered a haemorrhage as a result of the blow. He was in the Bavarian capital to cover the walls of the Haus der Kunst with thousands of brightly coloured school backpacks spelling out Chinese characters quoting the lament of a mother of a dead child in Sichaun interviewed as part of Ai's project: "She lived happily for seven years in this world."

When we finished our conversation in 2008, Ai said he would next have to choose between taking a nap and playing with his beloved cat, whose name is Come Over. And 18 months ago, Ai broke his resolution never to sire a child under the present Chinese regime – Lu Qing bore him a son.

This week, this kind of man, this kind of artist, unveils what he has to say in London, and whatever it is, may we take note. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 16 2010

Caravaggio: The perfect ending to one of art's blackest tales

I can think of no other painter who imagined death so acutely from the inside, as a physical reality

Death sharpens the art of Caravaggio. An executioner reaches for his knife to cut the final tendons holding a head together to its body. A female saint cherishes a dark-bladed rapier. St Peter watches in helpless horror as his own crucified body is turned upside down. I can think of no other painter who imagined death so acutely from the inside, as a physical reality, something happening to a real person - which makes the claim to have discovered his corpse and the cause of his death all the more compulsive news. Caravaggio dealt in death, metaphorically and very literally. A life of violence led inexorably to his killing a man in a swordfight in the heart of Rome and fleeing south. But on his Mediterranean odyssey as a fugitive from justice he found more violence, more death. He joined the Knights of Saint John, a military order sworn to fight Islam, whose fortress on Malta had recently withstood a siege of macabre cruelty (heads fired from cannons, that sort of thing). On Malta he painted his greatest and most deathly work, a depiction of the murder of Saint John the Baptist in prison that anticipates every modern scene of torture and disappearance.

Caravaggio's own death became his theme: he gave his own features to the decapitated Goliath in one of his very last pictures. His palette became darker, his paintings emptier and more sepulchral - The Burial of St Lucy that he painted in Syracuse is set inside a crypt that arches up in a brown void of abandonment. By the time he died on the Tuscan shore, wandering madly, it's said, through malarial coastal wastes, his art makes you feel he was all used up, a burnt out case from some fiction concocted by an impossible collaboration between Grahame Greene and Christopher Marlowe. The idea of his body being identified is gripping, and if true, curiously moving. Here was a man alone, who fell out of his society - an outsider centuries before Romanticism existed to make sense of his case. The outsider found? The rebel redeemed, to be reburied in some dignified Roman church? It sounds like the perfect ending to one of art's blackest tales. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 21 2010

Shots of war

I saw 800 children dropping down dead in front of me. That turned me away from the gung-ho image of the war photographer

A few years ago Don McCullin, inevitably on assignment in a geopolitical hotspot, found himself hors de combat in a dusty and ill-equipped local hospital. He had a broken rib and a collapsed lung and woke up, the morning after sustaining his injuries, to be confronted "through a haze of pain and medication" by the sight of ministry of the interior policemen standing at the foot of his bed. "And of course they wanted my passport," he recalls. "Which was, of course, full of some pretty exotic stamps. Here we go, I thought. This could be fun."

Had McCullin, the great war photographer, been felled by a Vietnamese bullet or Israeli shrapnel? By Congolese thugs or Belfast paramilitaries? In fact, none of the above. For although he was in Syria, he wasn't there to chase war or discord, or at least none that had occurred within the last couple of millennia. Instead, he had been photographing the Roman ruins at the Great Sanctuary of Bel in Palmyra as part of a wider project to document the frontiers of the Roman empire. And the now septuagenarian photographer had simply tripped over some fallen masonry.

"I came round in the hospital and a rather attractive translator from my hotel explained that the police weren't even really interested in me. They just wanted to know if anyone had given me a push so they could go out and crack someone's skull. That's the flip side of a police state," he laughs. "Sometimes they can have your interests at heart. And to be fair to them, I felt less under surveillance in Syria than I do in England. Every street in London has a camera, and if you ever travel up the M4 it feels as if George Orwell should be your chauffeur."

McCullin will be discussing the fruits of his work in Syria, as well as elsewhere in the Levant and the Maghreb, on Friday at one of the early events at this year's Guardian Hay festival. His latest book, Southern Frontiers marks the culmination of three years' work for a man better known for recording more contemporary imperial adventures. The project had its genesis in the 1970s when McCullin was on assignment with Bruce Chatwin to report on the harassment by French fascists of Algerian refugees in Marseilles. "One night we just got the ferry over to Algiers to follow it up and there I got my first glimpses of these remarkable structures which have stayed with me ever since." He has now returned in the spirit of the Victorian painters and early photographers of the late 19th century such as David Roberts and Francis Frith to capture the ruined temples, theatres, colonnades and statues that marked the far corners of Roman expansion.

"Yes, it's a departure", he acknowledges. "But there is also more of a link than you might think to my previous work. I was absolutely overjoyed to be in these remarkable spaces. You feel part of the great canvas of history. But it is difficult to avoid the vibrations of the cries of the people who built them more than 2,000 years ago. The energy it took to put them up would have cost thousands of lives, and people must have perished left, right and centre. They are huge statements and wonderful achievements. But achievement is one thing and cost is another."

The cost to ordinary people of decisions made by their rulers has been at the heart of McCullin's work since he made his name with photographs on the construction of the Berlin Wall before moving on to produce legendary images from the war zones of Indochina, Latin America and the Middle East. After seeing his work, Henri Cartier-Bresson said to McCullin: "I have one word to say to you: Goya." An admiring John le Carré, with whom McCullin visited Beirut, wrote in an introduction to McCullin's 1980 book, Hearts of Darkness: "He has known all forms of fear, he's an expert in it. He has come back from God knows how many brinks, all different. His experience in a Ugandan prison alone would be enough to unhinge another man – like myself, as a matter of fact – for good."

"I've seen my own blood and broken a few bones," says McCullin, "I've been hit, which isn't an entirely bad thing as at least you have a glimpse of the suffering endured by the people you are photographing. And in a sense, crumbling empires and war have been with me all my life. I'm from England, and like every other great empire who stole bits of the world, there is a price to pay. And I was born in 1935. So since I've been conscious of the world I've either been in, or been on the periphery of, a war zone."

McCullin was brought up in north London, where his severely asthmatic father was often out of work and the family were poor, even by the standards of prewar Finsbury Park. Years later, when photographing slums in Bradford and London's East End, McCullin says he was overwhelmed by memories of the "reek" of poverty. "Even though my mother did her best, that sense of having nothing just flooded back."

When war broke out McCullin and his younger sister were evacuated to Cambridge and then Somerset. While McCullin eventually returned to London, his sister had been "sort of given away by my mother to the family who looked after her in Somerset. They were quite wealthy, so she went to boarding school, and while I was languishing in Finsbury Park with yobbos and having an annual day out at Southend-on-Sea, she was going on a Mediterranean cruise every year." (He also has a younger brother who went on to have a long career in the French Foreign Legion.) McCullin was later evacuated to Lancashire, where he had a "hellish time. They didn't bath me for 17 weeks. Then they put me in a dustbin full of water, gave me a bit of a scrub and sent me back on a night train. I was nine years of age, but I suppose it was a bit of preparation for harshnesses to come."

As a "horribly dyslexic child", McCullin found school difficult, but was always good at painting and drawing. He won a scholarship to a junior art school, but when he was 14, his father died and Don was forced to leave and take a job. Delivering film around Soho allowed him to tell the RAF that he had photographic experience when he was called up for national service. "In fact I'd never picked up a camera, but my visual interest came out like a genie from a bottle, although I did fail my photographic exams in the RAF because my reading was still so poor."

He served in the Egyptian canal zone, where he watched French ships coming home from Indochina, in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and in Aden and Cyprus. In 1956, he returned to Finsbury Park, where he took a job as a darkroom assistant. And two years later his big break came when pictures he had taken of an Islington street gang associated with the murder of a policemen were bought by the Observer.

"It was like getting a passport to a new life. Where I was, no one was encouraged to do well for themselves. You were much more acclaimed for getting your collar felt by the police or battering someone. It was full of bigotry and it was like quicksand pulling me down to oblivion. And here was the Observer, a paper I'd never bought in my life – it had always been the News of the World in our house – not only putting my name under the pictures, but paying me 50 quid, which in 1958 was a king's ransom."

He quickly established himself on Fleet Street, but it was a self-funded trip to Berlin in 1960, to witness the construction of the wall, that made McCullin's international reputation. "There was an extraordinary atmosphere, real Le Carré-land, but strangely, I felt immediately at home. It was as if I was wearing the right clothes." His work there won him a British Press award, and he was soon undertaking large-scale photo essays in the UK, on such subjects as Hartlepool's steelworkers. His work covering the civil wars in Cyprus won a World Press award, and he went on to Congo, where he was disguised as a mercenary and, most famously Vietnam, where he made the first of 15 visits in 1965.

"But strangely," he says, "not many people in the UK knew what photojournalism really was, including myself. The Americans were a long way ahead of us, and I had to educate myself." In a junk shop he stumbled across a run of Photogram photography annuals from 1886-1926 featuring work by the likes of Alfred Stieglitz, Frederick Evans and Henry Peach Robinson. "I had young children then, and after putting them to bed I'd sit down and thumb through these books. I still find them compellingly important today."

McCullin adopted quite early the methods he would stick to throughout his career, always bringing his own film home with him and processing it himself. "I never air freighted my work out which suited me in other ways in that I could come and go a bit. I always knew that if you hung around those war zones for long enough you would die. And many of my friends and colleagues did. "

He says his early motivations had little to do with changing people's perceptions. "Photography belongs to a fraternity of its own. I was young and enthusiastic and wanted to take good pictures to show the other photographers. That, and the professional pride of convincing an editor that I was the man to go somewhere, were the most important things to me." It wasn't until he was covering the Biafran war in 1969 that it occurred to him he "should have been making people think the images I was making were of things that should be unacceptable in our world. It came to me in a schoolroom being used as a hospital, and I saw 800 children literally dropping down dead in front of me. I had three young children of my own. That turned me away from the Hollywood gung-ho image of the war photographer. It converted me into another person."

But his globe-trotting continued, and he now says he thinks he's travelled more than David Attenborough. "Although he has been to the Galapagos and I haven't. Canada and New Zealand are the other places I haven't been to." And he has worked with some of the most distinguished writers, including Eric Newby and Norman Lewis, whom he "absolutely adored". Lewis said it was with McCullin that he wrote his best story, about the exploitation of Amazonian Indians, and for the rest of his life, whenever he heard that McCullin was in some far-flung part of the world he would wistfully think: "When he comes back I'd love to persuade him to go somewhere terrible with me."

The journalist Charles Glass met McCullin in 1975 in Sudan ("I remember he had Ready Brek with him, because it was the most reliable food you could have in the desert") when about to cross the border with the Eritrean Liberation Front. They have since worked together in Lebanon and Iraq and have become friends. "Don complained a lot, but I realised that was just his normal mode of speaking. He actually likes going to terrible places and is happy in miserable conditions. He works astoundingly well with people. On that trip, he had a way of charming the guerrillas and the sheepherding families on the desert fringes. And I like to think I could tell a McCullin photograph a mile off. The way he frames the subjects, the way the light broods, the way people are caught off guard, all classic McCullin."

Away from wars, McCullin had made his home in Somerset, "which never left my mind since I was evacuated there. I'm as happy as I can be down there. That's where my darkroom is and where I print all my own work." Not that his rural idyll has been accompanied by domestic bliss. He left his first wife in 1986 after 27 years of marriage, a decision he has described as "the most shameful thing I've done in my life". Tragically, just two years later, on their son's wedding day, she died after a long illness. A second marriage was "a disaster", but he says he has now landed on his feet with a happy third marriage to the travel journalist Catherine Fairweather, and he dotes on his fifth child, seven-year-old Max.

As well as his first divorce, the 1980s saw other important changes for McCullin. Sacked by the Sunday Times after 17 years by the incoming editor, Andrew Neil, who apparently thought his work too depressing, he began to move away from war zones – though he has returned several times since – and began landscape work, particularly winter scenes of his beloved Somerset Levels. Awards and retrospective shows have followed, including the current exhibition, Shaped by War which runs at the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester until 13 June before moving to Bath and London.

McCullin suffered a minor stroke a couple of years ago and, "like every photographer I know" has got back and neck problems as well as "a bit of arthritis in my hands. But I'm up at six and in my darkroom by 6.30. If I can make 10 or 15 prints by the middle of the afternoon, even though I'll rip some of them up, I'm generally happy. Even though my body is having a hard time with all this battering and being turned over at airports, I know I haven't got that many years left, and I need to devote them to photography.

He marvels that "it's well over 50 years since I first dipped my hands in chemicals in a darkroom in the Canal Zone. So to produce this book now is something I'm very proud of. And while it's nice that there are no dead bodies in it, the fact that the people who built these wonderful buildings obviously suffered in their creation seems somehow appropriate.

"While I got huge pleasure in looking at the stones and putting together composition and so on, I also seem to deny myself that pleasure by remembering how these places were built. But I know deep in my heart that if there wasn't that confusion and tension then I would probably be too happy. And over the years, if I've learned anything about myself, it's that being too happy is the one thing that will never do." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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