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November 26 2011

Annual RCA secret postcard sale draws Emin, Perry and Ono

Almost 3,000 artworks were donated by artists and designers whose identities were hidden until £45 purchase price was paid

Art lovers discovered whether they had bagged a mini-masterpiece by the likes of Tracey Emin, Yoko Ono or Anish Kapoor on Saturday when they took their chances on the almost 3,000 secret postcards on sale for just £45.

Wallace and Gromit film-maker Nick Park and fashion designer Sir Paul Smith also contributed to the fundraiser, organised by the Royal College of Art.

More than 1,000 invited artists – including up-and-coming students and graduates – donated 2,900 works to the 18th RCA Secret event, held at the college in Kensington, west London.

Among the postcards on offer were four pencil drawings of a woman lying on a bed by Emin and two from Park featuring a beaver driving a tractor and a happy squirrel.

But unlike traditional sales, the artist's identity remained a secret until the postcard was purchased and the buyer was able to read the signature on the back.

Also appearing in the collection were film-maker Mike Leigh's photo-collage of a gentleman with a pig and five colourful pen drawings by ceramicist Grayson Perry, including one of a tiger with the words "Most art is shit".

The postcards, some of which are potentially worth thousands of pounds, were offered on a first come, first served basis on Saturday after a week-long exhibition.

Organisers hope this year's event – the largest to date – will raise more than £130,000 for the college's fine art student award fund.

The collection's curator, Wilhelmina Bunn, said: "We are enormously grateful to all of the artists who have donated postcards this year, making it the biggest event we have ever staged.

"As future funding for art education is likely to be reduced, it's encouraging that established artists and designers are willing to help support a new generation of students."

The sale has raised more than £1m over the past 17 years. © 2011 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 Royal College of Art Secret Postcards 2011 – in pictures

Around 3,000 postcard sized artworks were created and donated by undisclosed artists and designers for the annual RCA Secret sale on 26 November. Now, some of the artists can be revealed …

November 25 2011

David Cameron, we have a few questions for you…

From Piers Morgan to Polly Toynbee, Jemima Khan to Jarvis Cocker – David Cameron takes questions from public figures who want answers

Hear what the PM has to say in our audio interactive

David Mitchell, comedian
Do you wish you were less posh?
"[Laughs] No. You can't change who you are. For a long time I thought my full name was 'The Old Etonian David Cameron'. I had parents who gave me a wonderful start in life, who sacrificed a lot to give me a great education. So I don't ever want to change – I don't want to drop my accent or change my vowels. I am who I am."

Piers Morgan, TV presenter
If you could relive one moment in your life, excluding births of children and marriage, what would it be?
"God, that's a really good question. Piers, why don't you ever ask really good questions like that normally? I think it would be this holiday in Italy when I met Samantha properly. It was that sort of carefree wonderful time when you get together with the person you end up spending the rest of your life with. That feeling of happiness and a wonderful holiday with your family around you and the sun is shining and the sea is beautiful and you're with someone who makes you laugh, makes you happy with that sense of excitement in the future."

Richard Dawkins, ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author
Why do you support faith schools for children who are too young to have chosen their faith, thereby implicitly labelling them with the faith of their parents, whereas you wouldn't dream of so labelling a "Keynesian child" or a "Conservative child"?
"Comparing John Maynard Keynes to Jesus Christ shows, in my view, why Richard Dawkins just doesn't really get it. I think faith schools are very often good schools. Why? Because the organisation that's backing them – the church or the mosque or the synagogue – is part of the community. And it brings a sense of community and the backing of an institution to a school. The church was providing good schools long before the state got involved, and we should respect the fact that it's not just the state that can provide education but other bodies, too."

Adrian Chiles, TV presenter
What's the most tedious thing about being PM?
"Waking up on Wednesday morning and realising it's prime minister's questions."

Diane Abbott, Labour MP
You recently met Obama. Do you regret supporting John McCain?
"No. John McCain is a friend of mine. I've always liked and admired him. He speaks his mind. He's a good friend of the United Kingdom. I've always had a very strong relationship with Barack Obama. But I still see John McCain."

Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist
On the basis of your government's present policies, the IFS predicts child poverty will rise steeply, after nine years of falling. What emergency measures will you now take to correct this trajectory and fulfil your pledge to cut the numbers of children living below the OECD recognised poverty line?
"I note that she doesn't refer to that fact that we've had a series of budgets that have not added to child poverty and the reason is we took steps to increase child tax credits, to demonstrate that while we were making cuts, we were doing so in a way that was fair… There are many things I can do in life, but making Polly happy is not one of them, I'm afraid."

Steve Coogan, comedian
The Daily Mail's silence during the hacking affair was deafening. If, as many suspect, Paul Dacre is found to be "up to his neck in it", will you please please, please give him a "second chance" by making him your director of communications?
"[Laughs] I'd rather have Alan Partridge."

Christina Schmid, war widow
Your father and your son dying while you were holding the reigns of the country seemed only momentarily to pause your pace. How have their deaths affected you, and what was your relationship like with your father? What did he say to you before he died about your political career?
"Well, my son died while I was leader of the opposition, so I did take… probably not enough time out, but I did drop everything for a bit. I had a very strong relationship with my dad. He was an amazing man. Great optimist. Always believed the best about people and thought things would turn out OK. He was very proud of what I was doing. He was always very worried about all the responsibility I was taking on. The last time I saw him properly was when I got him to Chequers just before he went off on the holiday on which he died. I got him upstairs to this lovely room – the long gallery. We sat and had a drink together and a chat… I didn't know it was 'goodbye'. His last bit of advice to me was, 'Do the right thing.' That was always his advice."

Tinie Tempah, rapper
Did you go clubbing when you were in Ibiza?
"No. My wife did, the night before I got there. I went to some very nice restaurants, but I was tucked up in bed at a ludicrously un-Ibizan hour."

Justine Roberts, co-founder of Mumsnet
Do you ever worry that if you weren't prime minister you'd be a better father?
"Yes, I do. You'd have more time. The advantage of being prime minister is that you live above the shop, so I do get to see my children more than some dads do because I can pop up and read them a bedtime story and go back to work."

Michael Winner, film director, producer and restaurant critic
On a scale of one to 10, how happy have you been since you became prime minister?
"I haven't really had time to stop and make the calculation. I enjoy this incredibly challenging job. It is a huge honour to do it. It's not meant to make you happy, but if you believe in politics as a vocation, it is a worthwhile thing to do. I won't give a number, Michael, I'm afraid. It's not like one of your restaurant reviews."

Hilary Mantel, author
What are you ashamed of?
"A few things I've done in my past that I'm not going to tell you about."

Mike Leigh, film-maker
What is your moral justification for the state not providing free further education for everybody, and for the principle of student loans? And I do want to hear your moral reasoning: not any economic, political or historic excuses.
"I think there is a strong moral case for this, which is the evidence that going to university brings a benefit to that individual person over the course of the rest of their life. Therefore, I think it is morally right that they make a contribution to the cost of that course, which is what our fees policy does. And I think it would be morally wrong to ask the taxpayer to bear all of the burden of that cost, not least because there are many taxpayers who don't go to university who don't have that benefit."

Ian McEwan, novelist
There's still a very strong general feeling around that wage earners are picking up the tab for the excesses of the banking sector. Why not take seriously the "Robin Hood" campaign? (And don't be blackmailed by bankers' empty threats to move abroad – the proposed levy is tiny on any given transaction.)
"I'm all in favour of the idea of a financial transaction tax, but only if you can do it globally. And while of course it is a tiny tax on transactions, if the effect is that you just move the transactions to another country, you then lose the tax revenue. The EU keep talking about it, but in the end they know the problem is that even if you did it throughout the EU, the transactions would all go outside the EU."

Miranda Hart, comedian
What's the least favourite part of your job (apart from the difficulty of ordering takeaways to Number 10)?
"The thing I dread the most is news of casualties from Afghanistan, because that's the greatest responsibility. The thing that is odd and weird is having to have people open car doors for you because they weigh two tonnes and if you tried to do it yourself you'd cut your leg off."

Richard Branson, businessman
An 18-year-old girl who is dying of liver disease came to me on the street and begged me to use my influence to ask you to change urgently the law in Britain so that she can get a new liver. She believes – and all the research I've done since meeting her shows – that if organ giving could be done on the opt-out system, rather than people having to opt-in, then every single person's needs would be met and the young woman's life and thousands of others' lives would be saved. I'm someone who forgets to fill out forms for my organs to be donated and believe very strongly that the government should pass an emergency law to save this woman's, and thousands of others', lives. Will you support the opt-out policy?
"I think it's very difficult to have a policy that basically says if you haven't filled in the form, your organs can be harvested without your permission. It is a huge leap. But there are hospitals and healthcare systems we can learn from that have encouraged people to sign up to make their organs available. So there's a lot we can do without going the whole hog to opt out."

Mariella Frostrup, writer and broadcaster
What's your favourite line in literature, and why?
"Henry V's speech at Agincourt: 'Men of England who lie in bed...' You think of all that band of brothers, we few… there are more lines in that one speech that have become famous than probably any other."

Eine, graffiti artist whose work Cameron gave to Obama as an official gift in 2010
Imagine it's your stag weekend, which is being organised by Silvio Berlusconi. There are five places spare on the coach. Based solely on their ability to have a good time, which world leaders would you invite (past or present, but they have to be living)? If you don't choose Bill Clinton, why not?
"That is so difficult. I don't know that many past world leaders. I think you probably would choose Bill Clinton because he'd be fascinating to talk to. But God, that's difficult. I like Obama – I always enjoy chatting to him. My new best friend is the president of the Maldives. He's great. That's a weird mixture, isn't it? I like Sarkozy, we'd have fun. And I like John Key, the prime minister of New Zealand."

Jemima Khan, writer and campaigner
Are you aware – and is it true – that your phone was hacked by News Of The World?
"I've absolutely no idea. No one's ever told me. That's a new one on me."

Jamie Oliver, chef
Hi, Mr Cameron. In the light of rocketing obesity rates in the UK and the spiralling costs to the NHS of diet-related diseases, what importance do you personally place upon ensuring that every child in school is taught the key life skills of how to cook for themselves, where food comes from, and how it affects their bodies and their future health. And are you committed to the continued investment in improving school food, particularly in the new academies?
"Yes. Cooking with my own children is one of the things I enjoy most, and when people see the connection between diet and behaviour and obesity and all the rest of it, they see why this is not an add-on but a must-have. But in the end you've got to encourage schools to take this seriously themselves. My own children's school has just put in proper kitchens and food on-site, and my children have given up the packed lunch and gone to the school dinner, and we want to see that happen elsewhere."

Terry Wogan, broadcaster
What does the PM think the public think of him?
"All sorts of things. Of course, there are people who profoundly disagree with you – and sometimes people can get very angry with you. But I think people are basically very fair-minded and as long as they see you trying to do your best, and doing what you believe in, they will be reasonable with you."

Francis Wheen, journalist and broadcaster
What was the last novel you read? And the last nonfiction book?
"I'm reading something called Made In Britain, which is nonfiction. It's a very nice, rather old-fashioned history book about the great figures and inventions of British history. It's just rather good – I've been reading bits with my children. I'm also reading Laurence Of Arabia, by Michael Korda, which is fantastic. And weirdly, I'm also reading Max Hastings' book on Churchill's war years. I'm sort of reading three things at the same time because I don't last very long before I fall asleep. The last novel I read? Gosh, I haven't read one for quite a long time. I read this very good book by this Irish author Paul Murray called Skippy Dies. He very kindly sent me his new book, the name of which I can't for the life of me remember [it's An Evening Of Long Goodbyes], but I dipped into it the other day."

Lord Norman Lamont, former Tory chancellor of the exchequer
If there were no coalition and you were governing as a Conservative prime minister alone, what three things would you most like to have done that you have not been able to do in coalition?
"Further action on welfare reform. Perhaps the control of immigration. But I don't buy the argument that because it's a coalition it's an inactive government. It's a pretty rolled-up sleeves reforming government." [Guardian: And the third?] "I thought two was enough."

Jon Snow, broadcaster
Given Britain's historic links with Israel, is it not time the UK took a more assertive role in bringing about a two-state solution. Why did you abstain in the vote to give the Palestinian state status at Unesco?
"The reason for the abstention is that I don't believe you create a state by making declarations. I believe you create a state by bringing together the two relevant parties – Israel and Palestine, and hammering out an agreement. Britain is doing everything it can to put the pressure on. The problem is, we can't want this more than they want it, and the frustration I have is that it's so clearly in Israel's interest to reach an agreement and we need to persuade them of that."

Riven Vincent, mother who put her disabled daughter (left) into care
Dave, why couldn't you do that one thing, to ensure disabled children have the nappies and incontinence products they need? You made a promise, we are still waiting.
"Some local authorities put a limit on the number of incontinence nappies for disabled children and I know from my own personal experience that there are times that that's not enough, and if you're facing financial difficulties that's a real problem. I went to Riven's house. I spent time talking to her and we went back and checked the health advice, and I think made some changes to it. I'll double-check. In the end, you can't order local authorities what to do, but I think we did change the advice they get from the department of health."

Kirsty Wark, broadcaster
What piece of art has had the most impact on you, and why?
"Picasso's Guernica is one of my favourites. It's one of those pictures you can look at for ages and still find new things in it. A picture that says so much about the nature of conflict and the nature of suffering is very, very powerful."

Jonathan Freedland, Guardian columnist
Now you know the pressures of the job, and how hard it is, do you have sympathy for Gordon Brown and think perhaps you were too harsh in your treatment of him?
"I think in prime minister's questions and in political discourse we can sometimes get very rough and tough in the House of Commons. I don't ever feel I was tougher on Gordon Brown than he was on me. But I recognise that as prime minister he tried hard to do the right thing, as he saw it. And not everything he did was wrong."

Angela Eagle, Labour MP whom Cameron told to 'Calm down, dear'
Your cuts hit women harder than any other group. What's your problem with women?
"It's absolutely true that, when you face a big budget deficit and great debts and all that Angela Eagle's party left us, you have to take some difficult decisions. But I don't accept this characterisation. Labour wants to make a series of political points about cuts and women because they see it to their political advantage."

Nicky Campbell, broadcaster
Will you consider sending your son to Eton?
"I've always said I'd like my children to go through the state system. But I'll always do the right thing for them."

Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey writer
Soon after the election last year, the coalition was memorably portrayed as the cast of Downturn Abbey on the cover of Private Eye. Supporters of both parties were accusing the other of setting the government's agenda. Do you feel you have now achieved a more comfortable balance of power with Mr Clegg, that will allow you to govern without alienating your own electorate?
"Notice Julian's brilliant ability to promote his great series, even in a question to me. I've never accepted the coalition government has acted against the interest of Conservative supporters. Most recognise going into coalition was the right thing, given we didn't win the election."

Rio Ferdinand, footballer
Will the government start providing more facilities and staff for children, such as sports clubs, youth clubs and invest more into apprenticeship schemes?
"Yes, we are investing record amounts in apprenticeship schemes, £360,000 a year. And I'm pleased to say that, because we're returning the lottery to its original good causes, including sport, there will be an extra £135m that will mean more sports facilities."

Alastair Campbell, Labour spin doctor
You fought an election with the fallout from the economic crisis still dominant, people worried about jobs and living standards, MPs expenses having done considerable damage to Labour, Time For A Change as a powerful force, Gordon Brown getting battered daily to take his ratings even lower, with your party's finances in great shape while Labour was close to being bust, a hugely supportive media promoting the image of you as a new leader of a changed or at least changing Tory Party… why on earth didn't you manage to win a majority?
"Well, there's clearly something eating Alastair Campbell. How did I upset him so much? Look, I'm responsible for the election campaign and I take full responsibility for the result. We had a massive mountain to climb. We didn't quite make it over the line. I think that at a time of economic difficulty, people were nervous of change. And we were quite frank that we'd have to make spending reductions and I think that probably held us back."

Jeremy Paxman, broadcaster
After what he said and did on student fees, can you see any reason for the voter believing a word of Nick Clegg's next manifesto?
"My job is not to promote Nick Clegg's next manifesto. As someone to work with in government, we have a good relationship, and I believe we're getting things done for the good of the country. Sorry, that's a bit boring, I'm afraid, but when you do a Jeremy Paxman interview that's the only way through it."

Jacqui Smith, former Labour home secretary
What is the most serious security threat that we currently face?
"Al-Qaida. I think they've been damaged very badly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but clearly they still have evil intent and evil people to carry out that intent. And Britain has to be on a high state of alert, not least because of the Olympics."

Tony Benn, former Labour minister
Under what circumstances, and against whom, would you be prepared to use British nuclear weapons?
"As Tony Benn well knows, the point of having nuclear weapons is to deter people and not to use them, and I'm afraid it's just one of the many subjects where he is splendid to read but splendidly wrong."

Simon Hattenstone, Guardian interviewer
How did your parents react when you were grounded at Eton for smoking cannabis?
"Good try."

Jonathan Ross, broadcaster
Will you or your cabinet be the first to see sense and do something about the expensive, time-consuming and ultimately pointless "war" on drugs. Time to legalise some and legislate others, surely?
"I don't believe in legalisation. If you legalise, you make more available; and if you make more available, you build up a larger problem."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty
The late Tom (Lord) Bingham is often described as the greatest Briton of his lifetime. He famously said of the fundamental freedoms in the Human Rights Act: "Which of these rights, I ask, would we wish to discard? Are any of them trivial, superfluous, unnecessary? Are any of them un-British?" As a critic of both "unelected judges" and the Human Rights Act, how do you answer Bingham's question?
"By saying that of course the freedoms originally written down in the European convention on human rights are things that we'd all want to support. The problem is that the Human Rights Act, in my view, [has been] incorporated into British law in such a way that it's given the courts an ability to come up with a lot of very odd and perverse judgments. What's required is to write a British bill of rights so we can have it set out in our own law, in our own way, so that we don't have strange decisions handed down by Strasbourg."

Nigel Farage, leader of the Ukip party
Why do you refuse to give the British people a referendum on the EU, despite your earlier cast-iron guarantee?
"I made a policy of having a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and if the Lisbon treaty had been still extant at the time of government, we would have had a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. I don't believe Britain should leave the European Union, but I do believe there are powers we can retrieve from Europe to have a better balance."

Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace
Prime Minister, you famously visited the Arctic and saw for yourself the impacts of climate change. Indeed, the warming is now so rapid that the North Pole could soon be ice-free in the summer. As the ice retreats due to rising temperatures, the oil companies are moving in to drill. As someone who has associated himself with the fight to protect the Arctic, do you support or oppose deep water oil drilling in the Arctic?
"The Arctic issue is a matter for those countries directly concerned. For Britain, we have a strict and tough licensing scheme for oil drilling. I think it's important we maintain our energy independence. And that means continuing to invest in the North Sea. And that does mean looking at some quite deep water drilling, but only under this very strict regulatory regime that has so far been admired in other parts of the world." [Guardian: But he wants your answer in the Arctic.] "But we don't own any of the Arctic." [Guardian: But you can have an opinion on it.] "I think it matters much more what you actually do in your own bailiwick."

Tracey Emin, artist
Dear prime minister, I'm aware that you are a fan of my work, but where do you think I would be if I hadn't received the amazing art education I had?
"I'm a big fan of art education. My wife went to art school and read fine art at Bristol poly, and I think still reaps enormous benefit from having such a great education, so I'm all in favour of us having well-funded art colleges."

Lord Ashdown, Unicef  UK president
What will your pitch be – and what do you expect Nick Clegg's to be – when you both appear before the TV cameras in the leaders debates before the next election?
"I hope it will be that we've dealt with extremely difficult economic circumstances and debts we've inherited, and we've got the country back on the road to both an economic recovery and, I hope, something of a social recovery, too." [Guardian: But how is that different from Nick Clegg's pitch?] "Well, I'm only responsible for my pitch." [Guardian: What do you expect his to be?] "I expect he'll say, 'I agree with David and think you should all support him.' [Laughs]"

Salman Rushdie, novelist
The deep and disproportionately large cuts in the teaching budgets of the arts and humanities departments of British universities have been described by many commentators as evidence of this government's philistinism. Are you not concerned that you are crippling university education in the United Kingdom?
"I completely disagree. What we're doing is making sure that universities will be property funded. What's going to happen is the success of universities and different courses will depend on the choices that students make. Once students are paying the bills, they will be keener on really good courses, really good lecturers, really good materials. So universities will have to respond to that demand and we'll see a strengthening of our university sector."

Katharine Whitehorn, journalist
Do you think the catastrophic situation at Southern Cross old people's care home company, and the abuse at Bristol's private home for young handicapped people will shake your party's rooted conviction that private and profit-driven provision of service must always be better than public provision?
"I don't believe private provision is always better. There are brilliant examples of state provision, voluntary provision and private provision. As Chairman Mao once said, what matters is not whether a cat is black or white but whether it catches mice. Or was it him? Either way, it was a great quote." [It was Deng Xiaoping.]

Alexis Petridis, Guardian music critic
You said the Jam's song Eton Rifles was important to you when you were at Eton. Paul Weller, who wrote the song, was pretty incredulous to hear this, and claimed you couldn't have understood the lyrics. What did you think that song was about at the time? Be honest.
"I went to Eton in 1979, which was the time when the Jam, the Clash, the Sex Pistols were producing some amazing music and everyone liked the song because of the title. But of course I understood what it was about. It was taking the mick out of people running around the cadet force. And he was poking a stick at us. But it was a great song with brilliant lyrics. I've always thought that if you can only like music if you agree with the political views of the person who wrote it, well, it'd be rather limiting."

Peter Kosminsky, film director
The NHS is the most dearly loved of British institutions. You made no reference to sweeping changes in its structure in your election manifesto. How, in good faith, can you now seek such changes just weeks after you came to power? Isn't this exactly the kind of dishonesty and breach of trust with the electorate that has led to dangerous levels of disillusionment with the political process in this country?
"I recognise that we had left behind too many of the public and too many of the professionals on this, which is why we had a pause in the process and listened to people. The full abolition of the primary care trust is what some people point to (that wasn't in our manifesto), but I would say that was a fairly natural evolution. If you're going to put doctors and clinicians in charge of decision-making and commissioning, then inevitably you have to ask the question, 'What are all these local bureaucracies for?'"

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian
David, Do you think that every child in the UK should have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument, and have you done enough, as prime minister, to make this opportunity a reality?
"We are spending £82.5m on our new music strategy and we're going to do more to try and make sure this money gets through where it is needed. I was profoundly unmusical at school and only managed to play the drums in the school band. I got about as far as Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree. So I'd like the opportunity for my children and other children to do better."

Philip Pullman, author
Why, when other countries such as France and Germany find no difficulty in including long-term considerations (the effect on unemployment, the protection of living city centres, the preservation of the craft base) into questions of procurement, do we insist on going only for the cheapest option and damn every other consequence?
"Very good question. We are conducting a review of procurement right now. There are rules in Europe to stop people just picking the national champion and forbidding anyone else to apply, and it's very important that we apply those rules. But there is a case that we over-interpret the rules and as a result don't make them work for Britain."

Fiona Phillips, TV presenter
Isn't the Big Society just a way to get ordinary people to step in and supply services for the most vulnerable – essential services that the state should be providing, but isn't any more because of Conservative party cuts?
"No, I don't accept that for a minute. The fact is that Britain has always had a big society approach of treasuring and valuing voluntary bodies, charities, faith groups, churches – all the elements of civic society. My point is, should we try and do more of that? And the answer to that question is yes."

Toby Young, journalist and free-school founder
Do you keep a diary?
"No, I've never been a diary keeper. I'm too tired to write anything down at the end of the day."

Bill Bryson, author
A lot of people in positions of responsibility seem to want to cover your glorious countryside in pylons. Can't you do anything to constrain them?
"There is a very big cost, but there are occasions when it makes sense to bury [the cables] and, as someone who loves the countryside, if it's possible to bury more, I'm all for it."

David Blanchflower, economist
There are one million youngsters under the age of 25 currently without a job. How are you going to prevent them becoming a lost generation?
"As David knows, there is no simple answer. You've got to improve the quality of education so you don't have children falling out of school at 16 without skills, you've got to have proper apprenticeships that take people from school into work, you've got to make sure that there are training programmes to help those who can't find jobs. Youth unemployment went up in the years of economic growth as well as recession, so this is a deep underlying problem with the British economy that we have to solve."

Clare Balding, broadcaster
If you had to swap jobs with one other current world leader, who in turn would then lead our country, and why?
"That's a difficult one. Who wants to take on the deficit, the debt, the problems? I often think there are brilliant politicians in other countries, but if they tried to run each others' countries it'd all go disastrously wrong. So it doesn't really work, I'm afraid."

Charlie Brooker, Guardian columnist
According to Private Eye, earlier this year you personally intervened on behalf of Rebekah Brooks to convince Rupert Murdoch to let her keep her job. Is that true, and if it isn't, how true isn't it?
"It's not true."

Jarvis Cocker, musician
Re: abstract finance ideas such as derivatives and futures, do you actually understand how all that stuff works? And if so, can you explain what a derivative and future are?
"I do. I worked for a company where one of my jobs was actually to present and explain the company to its investors, so I do have a reasonable understanding of shares, derivatives and futures and all the rest of it. A future, very simply put, is when you are effectively buying something in the future. A derivative is something that is related to an underlying stock or share. Of course, there's speculation that this is pointless and does not create any wealth or value. We shouldn't write off all derivatives and futures, because, of course, if you're a farmer you might want to sell your next crop now at a future price, or you might want to protect yourself – hedging effectively – against wild fluctuations in the wheat price, the grain price, the sheep price. So, while the tragedy is that it's become a sort of great casino that has caused some of the problems we've had, the original purpose was to try and help give people some stability. There we are. Not as punchy as Jarvis Cocker on Michael Jackson, but it's the best I can do. I was there that night, at the Brit awards. I saw him led away. I saw his bum." © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 21 2011

Art to download is little more than dead-eyed commercialism

The vogue for selling digital editions of art by Hirst and Emin at 'affordable' prices is a trivial luxury for a fabled moneyed elite

Human beings are better at inventing things than we are at asking why we invented them. If we can do it, we will. But just occasionally, a supposed wonder of the new age makes me mutter the question: "Why?"

That is how I feel about the vogue for digital art marketing. This week sees the launch of s[edition], a website dedicated to selling digital editions of art. It has been founded by top art dealers and offers the works of top artists, including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, to download for "affordable" prices. You can get a limited edition Hirst skull to put on your mobile phone for £500.

Emin, telling the BBC about the project, said it gives art back to the people by making it affordable (or something like that). But are the starving masses or the squeezed middle really going to fork out £500 for a mobile phone picture? Isn't it more like a trivial luxury for the same fabled Russian moneyed elite who buy their art yachts at Frieze?

To put it another way, what kind of person would want a Britart phone image anyway?

The website kept crashing for me this morning – I don't know if the problem was at my end or theirs – but I saw enough to be uncharmed. The enterprise is straightforwardly commercial in a way that opposes the culture of the internet. If artists such as Emin wanted to reconnect with the youth, surely they would give images away online – not participate in a site that presses you to sign up and join the collectors' club.

This is not the first attempt to marry the modern-art market with the internet. The VIP art fair takes a comparable approach, inviting visitors to sign up – and pay an entry fee – for access to its exclusive dealer rooms. The difference is that it sells material works of art.

Both enterprises seem oddly clumsy to me. The art market works through snobbery and sleight of hand, but here it becomes a bit like a TV shopping channel – watch out, the dead-eyed determination to shift product is showing.

One news story compared the artists involved to Hockney on his iPhone, but where is the comparison? Hockney has played creatively and idealistically with a new medium. This is just a less than charismatic new way of flogging a few ephemeral images.

Could the cold wind of financial crisis be driving the art market to cheapen its style? Will we soon see besuited art dealers hawking their products from disused stores on Oxford Street? These really are the last few skulls and the jewels were hand-crafted … © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 20 2011

Lumiere 2011


There were many marvellous things to see in Durham on Thursday night: a bridge that had miraculously turned into a waterfall; a cathedral that danced all about with flames; a souvenir snowdome so vast it had unaccountably swallowed one of the city's most famous statues. But my favourite sight had a human form. In the cathedral cloisters, where a vast sphere of fire turned mesmerisingly in the breeze, I caught sight of a nun. Yes, a nun. She was hopping from foot to foot with excitement, and grinning broadly, her pale, gentle face lit by both the spectacle and – here was the surprise – by the bright blue glow stick she was waving. I wondered about this glow stick. Had she bought it from a market stall? Or had mother superior handed them out at matins? I was about to ask, only then the crowd swallowed her up, and she disappeared into the night.

Ah, yes. The crowd. It rather got in the way on the opening night of Lumiere, Durham's second festival of light (the first was held in 2009, and attracted some 75,000 visitors). At times, the city's narrow, winding streets were so full you simply couldn't move. Not that you could feel too cross about this. I cannot remember the last time I was in a British city so full of cheerful, excited people, and of every generation. Artichoke, the creative charity behind Lumiere (they are the people who brought London a mechanical elephant, and Liverpool a mechanical spider), believe that art is for everyone, and so they take it out of the gallery and on to the streets – and in Durham you could tell by looking at people's faces, and ear-wigging their conversations, how successful this strategy is. The throng was charmed and amazed, and it kept saying so, sometimes in reverent whispers, and sometimes with a joyful shout.

Lumiere 2011 is more than twice the size of the first festival: the work of some 30 British and international artists is on display in locations around the city, lit up between 6pm and 11pm (the organisers have persuaded their partner, Durham county council, to turn off many of the city's street lights, the better that we might enjoy it). I started in the market place, where the French artist Jacques Rival has built his installation, I Love Durham. The crowd around this piece was 10 deep, and it was easy to see why. Over Raffaello Monti's 1858 statue of Charles Vane, the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, a local landowner, Rival has placed a transparent dome, thus turning poor Vane – a distinguished soldier, but also a loutish drunk – into a kitschy joke. On his plinth is written the legend "I Love Durham" in pink neon. Meanwhile, he is beset by blizzards of fake snow. Shoppers and workers walk by this statue every day without giving it a second glance. Now, though, they were agog, seeing it as if for the first time.

From here I walked up to the cathedral. Heart-stopping. Ross Ashton's Crown of Light had turned the building's north face into a huge canvas, covered with images of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Inside, Compagnie Carabosse, a group of French "fire alchemists", have filled the building with lanterns, each one made from a miner's vest. This was incredibly beautiful – the glowing torsos peaceful rather than sinister – though the soundtrack, performed by a man with a guitar by the altar, was a bit too Enya for my taste: silence would have been better. The best bit, though, was outside, in the cloister and the grounds, where a garden of fire – they call this work Spirit – licked and spat excitingly. I was so delighted by this – there were spirals of fire, and plumes of fire, and strange spherical braziers like red planets – that I didn't, at first, stop to consider the fact that we were allowed to wander among these things entirely freely (were the health and safety people too busy at St Paul's?). It was amazing: like some strange medieval pageant. (And since you ask, when Artichoke told the chapter clerk that their plans for the cathedral involved fire, his response was a cool: "Well, it's made of stone…")

After this, my two must-sees out of the way, I wandered willy nilly. You will perhaps not be surprised to hear that Tracey Emin's neon Be Faithful to Your Dreams leaves me cold, even if it is in an abandoned Durham graveyard rather than some noisy Shoreditch restaurant – and Deadgood Studio's Rainbow on Prebends bridge was a huge disappointment, being merely a series of coloured lights. But these are small gripes. Mostly, I was in heaven. Peter Lewis's Splash, in which Ove Arup's 1963 Kingsgate footbridge has been turned into a vast waterfall (it's best seen from Elvet bridge, a little distance away), is a piece of exceedingly clever engineering that transports you in an instant from County Durham to Victoria Falls. And I loved Cédric Le Borgne's Les Voyageurs, a series of spectral human forms that hunker mysteriously on roofs and walls in South Bailey, an ancient street so inkily dark you would be spooked were it not for the crowds. At South Bailey's every twist and turn another one would come into view, a staging that made you feel these exquisite sculptures were not static but moving; to me, it was as if they were gathering, though whether for benign or malevolent reasons I could not tell.

Finally, on my way back to my hotel, I took in Lightwriting, a collaboration between the designer Richard Wolfstrome and the writer Ira Lightman. This piece is in Millennium Place, a cultural "square" – theatre, library, plus requisite coffee shops and chain restaurants – so bland, so utterly characterless, it makes me want to kill myself. But reading the brightly lit, haiku-like stories Lightman has gathered from people who live in County Durham, you stop worrying about this. They are as authentic as Millennium Place is ersatz. "Witton Le Wear," said the last one I read before I headed for bed. "A pheasant flies into a dint's car." I puzzled that one all the way home. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 11 2011

And what do you paint? Queen meets Tracey Emin in Margate

Two pillars of the establishment come face to face when monarch visits Turner Contemporary gallery in artist's home town

Tracey Emin was soberly dressed, head to toe in dark grey Vivienne Westwood. The Queen had also made an effort. She wore a pink and white basket weave dress and coat by Stewart Parvin. And together they met on a cold, grey Friday in Margate – two pillars of the establishment albeit of a very different kind.

The occasion was a visit by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh to the Turner Contemporary, the David Chipperfield-designed gallery which opened in April. A royal seal of approval, perhaps, for the glut of galleries which have opened over the past decade from Gateshead (where she has also been) to Wakefield and Nottingham to Colchester.

Emin – Margate-born and bred, bad girl turned near national treasure – was introduced to the royal couple in front of JMW Turner's 1815 masterpiece, Crossing the Brook, part of an eclectic show celebrating youth culture.

It is not clear if the Queen – who has quite a large collection herself, of course – was entirely aware of Emin's work, apparently asking if she exhibited internationally as well as Margate.

But they seemed to get on extremely well. Afterwards Emin said the Queen had been very relaxed and funny. "She knew that I'd grown up here and I told her about my misspent youth and I said I was trying to make up for it now," she said.

They also talked about a show Emin is taking part in next year, in which there will also be works by Turner and Rodin.

"They were both quite enthusiastic and surprised that I was having an exhibition in the whole space and I explained I was sharing it with Turner. I didn't say it was the erotic works of Turner.

"It was brilliant, very nice. She had a big, beaming smile so I immediately felt really relaxed."

Prince Philip also passed on some advice to the Tate, suggesting the gallery should put some other artists in the Clore galleries other than Turner.

The couple seemed to enjoy their scoot around the show, with the Queen asking what one work by the New York collective Bernadette Corporation was. In truth, it's hard to tell – a banner wrapped around a small scaffold. It is in fact a damning critique of the sexualisation of young women in advertising.

After viewing the exhibition it was downstairs for a lunch of locally caught halibut and local beer.

This was a big day for Turner Contemporary, which is playing its part in helping Margate to claw its way up from the doldrums.

Since it opened in April, more than 300,000 people have visited – a remarkable figure since the gallery had been expecting just over 156,000 for the entire year.

Victoria Pomery, the gallery's director, said: "It has been hugely successful, beyond my wildest expectations.

"It has been amazing and goes to show that in a time of economic downturn and recession, the arts are more important than ever, they really are. There's a real demand and appetite for what the arts can bring to any of us."

Margate itself is a town on the up, with 35 businesses opening in the old town in the past year, including a cupcake shop, also visited by the royal couple.

"There is still lots of change to happen, we'd all agree on that," said Pomery. "There's a real impact being felt as a result of Turner Contemporary. But the building will only work with fantastic art and people in it."

Emin recalled growing up in a town that felt "incredibly glamorous" – packed with tourists, beauty competitions, variety acts. "It felt like it was sunny all the time."

And then there was the downturn.

"I still think there should be an inquiry into what happened to Margate. How did it happen? Who was responsible? It's good that things are getting better but how did this happen to Margate?

"The thing is, wherever art goes, commerce follows. I just didn't expect the Queen to follow it."

Emin, who said her 17-year-old self did not think she would be alive at this age let alone meeting the Queen, was accompanied by her mum Pam.

"I'm very proud of her," said Emin senior. "It's such an honour that she's meeting the Queen."

"I came to Margate over 40 years ago and it was thriving and busy and suddenly everything became different. This gallery is making a difference, it's lovely here at the weekends." © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 04 2011

October 31 2011

Art, poems and pop-up proms

Tracey Emin and Thomas Hirschhorn among top artists to harness the spirit of the Games for a giant public festival in 2012

The Hayward Gallery in London is to be turned into a giant art school next summer, with classes for the public held by artists including Tracey Emin and Turner prize winners Mark Wallinger, Martin Creed and Jeremy Deller, as well as famous international names such as Thomas Hirschhorn and Marlene Dumas. Artists will hold lectures and workshops, and the event will culminate in an exhibition of work produced by the public in the gallery.

"It's going to be crazy," said Patrick Brill, who makes art under the name Bob and Roberta Smith. "The idea is to make it a great big sandpit of ideas." Southbank's artistic director, Jude Kelly, said: "It will be open for anyone from the public for a month to learn not just art, but anything else that the artists want to teach."

The Hayward's Wide Open School is one of the expected highlights of Southbank Centre's Festival of the World, which runs next summer from 1 June to 9 September, to coincide with the London Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Other highlights will involve the largest-ever gathering of poets, spearheaded by Simon Armitage; a residency by the Venezuelan Simón Bolívar Orchestra and its chief conductor Gustavo Dudamel; an African strand led by Senegalese musician Baaba Maal; and a four-day celebration of Wales led by the renowned bass baritone Bryn Terfel, regarded as the greatest British singer of his generation.

There will also be a programme led by disabled and deaf artists, including Graeae Theatre and Candoco Dance – the largest such event, aiming to provide a parallel to the Paralympic Games.

The festival is inspired by the conviction of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympic movement, that every young person has an Olympian spark of talent waiting to be drawn out – not just on the track or field, said Kelly.

The festival's focus will not be art being "done" for audiences, but audiences getting involved in making art.

According to the Hayward gallery's director, Ralph Rugoff: "Wide Open School grew out of a response to the Olympics, as being the moment when for three weeks most of us become couch potatoes and watch people with glorious bodies do things we could never ever do in a million years – and we become passive. So I began to think what kind of offer we can make that's going to flip that on its head. We are going to ask people to become much more active and to make work themselves."

Armitage's project, Poetry Parnassus, will invite more than 200 poets to gather at the Southbank for readings and workshops, including a final gala event with all the writers.

He said: "The dream is to bring a poet from every country participating in the Olympics to the Southbank and to make the Southbank a great community of poets."

Each writer will also contribute to an anthology called The World Record, to be published by Bloodaxe Books, celebrating poetry in translation. The event will look to the spirit of the ancient Olympics, in which poets competed, and composed victory odes to successful athletes – Pindar's Olympian Odes being the most famous case.

The Simón Bolívar Orchestra, which has always proved a crowd-puller on the Southbank and at the Proms for the committed musicianship and passion of its young players, will return for a four-day residency.

This year, they will create pop-up concert halls and will be on hand for teaching sessions for young British players. There will be a children's concert and musicians will set up a fiesta of Latin music.

Baaba Maal's Africa Utopia will be a series of talks, debates and concerts focusing on what the African continent can offer the rest of the world.

A number of younger people will be joined by "elders" – African musicians, artists, writers and activists – to debate social change in the context of African examples. © 2011 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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October 15 2011

The best and worst of Frieze 2011 - review

Regent's Park, London

Frieze art fair has become a monster. A giddy, hilarious, silly-shoed one that looks slightly like a hedge-fund manager and slightly like a madcap genius and quite a lot like FUN. But still: a monster. After just eight years of existence, we now talk of "Frieze week": the seven days when, to coincide with Frieze's opening, London's galleries unleash their big guns.

The list of shows is staggering: Gerhard Richter at Tate Modern, with Tacita Dean in the Turbine Hall, Doug Aitken at Victoria Miro, Rebecca Warren at Mauren Paley, everyone and everything at the new White Cube. Tracey Emin, Jeremy Deller, Sarah Lucas, Ryan Gander, among others, have one-off works on show across London. And that's before you get to the big, white tents of Frieze in Regent's Park, packed with art art ART from all over the world.

Fine by me: I like being overstimulated and having too much to do. Plus, Frieze is amazing for people-watching: scruffy-bearded artists mingling with pink-chinoed money men, all sozzled and chatty. There are a lot of impressive women around: they stalk through the week, hard-boiled in Botox and Pantene. No matter what their age, their legs are slim and lovely.

On Tuesday, the day before Frieze opens, my art friend Louise sends me a list of parties and private views. We plan to hit the opening of White Cube Bermondsey, the Lisson Gallery party and finish off at the poolside shindig for Doug Aitken at Shoreditch House. But then Louise cries off with a cold, so I go to what I want instead. Which is: Charles Avery at Pilar Corrias and the Museum of Everything party. At the Charles Avery show – which builds on his Islanders project, with work including a utopian yet scary depiction of a shopping precinct – I bump into my artist friend Keith Wilson, plus Ian Dench, ex-EMF (who was an art student for one year, pop fact fans). We go to the pub for a bit with their mates. "Don't peak too early," I am advised. "It's like a massive wedding. There are parties all week."

Yes, but some of us have only one night out. So off to the Museum of Everything party I trot. Held in a derelict hotel behind Selfridges, also the site for the Judith Scott retrospective (runs until 25 Oct), this turns out to be a proper, old-school, warehouse knees-up: big queues for the portable lavatories, free booze and plenty of it. A brass band plays bonkers mariachi. People wear stupid hats. It's great.

The partygoers mingle between Scott's colourful wrapped pieces, which hang in groups from the ceiling. Judith Scott, who died in 2005 aged 61, was born deaf and with Down's syndrome. She was institutionalised until her 40s, when she started making art. I really recommend this exhibition: not just for the artwork, which is impressive, but also for the environment – it's so exciting to be in a big, rough space slap in the middle of London.

M of E also has a group show, displaying pieces made by artists with learning disabilities, held in a series of ram-a-jam rooms at the bottom of Selfridges (to 25 Oct). I found it very moving; there is some beautiful work. You're left with interesting questions, too: can a creation actually be art if its creator doesn't – or can't – classify it that way?

At Frieze proper, on Wednesday afternoon, we queue between barriers like we're at the log flume at Disneyland. Once in, the fair is bewilderingly big. I sit down to consult my map and see Matthew Slotover, Frieze's co-founder. He tells me that "you need to do your research before you come". All the artworks at Frieze are online and you can search for, say, "European photographers under 35". I've done no research at all. Still, I wander about and manage to clock the Chapman brothers' warped Virgin and child piece, Michael Landy's Heath Robinson machine, which chews up credit cards, and Pierre Huyghe's aquarium, one of Frieze's commissions. A hermit crab bobbles about, wearing a shell that looks like a Brancusi head, clacking its pincers, happy in its new home. The aquarium is in a darkened room, lovely and restful.

Slotover tells me that this year, although buyers are cautious, there isn't the panicky feeling that there was during Frieze 2008. Then, the fair came straight off the back of the collapse of Lehman Brothers "and no one was buying anything, not art, not property, nothing for about three months". He says that worries about the euro are holding some back – the majority of buyers at Frieze come from Europe and the US – but that Latin Americans are investing. "They buy more contemporary stuff, by living artists under 50. And they live with the work, rather than put it into storage. It's not a trophy or an investment." Unlike the Russians, apparently, who are still in search of blue-chip, high-end, modern works.

I wonder if anyone will buy Christian Jankowski's piece, which is all about art and money. He has bought a beautiful motorboat, made by a specialist boat builder, and is offering it for €500,000. Or €625,000 if Jankowski adds his name, in shiny letters, to it. The letters are scattered on the carpet, waiting. You can also commission a 65-metre super-yacht, via him, at €65m; €75m with his name plaque.

Jankowski is a cheerful bloke. We have a chat: he says he's trying to stop rich buyers just investing in a Picasso and then displaying it "with matching cushions in the colours of the Picasso". He wants to encourage them to be more imaginative. "Maybe they want a boat. With this, if they use the boat, and it's not an artwork, its value goes down. But if it's art, its value should go up." I can't believe that anyone will buy it, but he says he's had interest from one lady, who is bringing her husband to see him on Saturday.

Frame is my favourite section of Frieze. Established in 2008, it showcases smaller galleries, which are allowed to exhibit just one artist in their allotted space. The floor is uncarpeted, there's a rougher feel. Mostly, the work is made by younger people, though I was happy to see that Channa Horwitz, who's almost 80, is displaying her playful sequences at Aanant & Zoo. At Hunt Kastner, a gallery from Prague, I liked Eva Kot'átková's work: her collages of old books and photographs, as well as a slideshow, cluster and fold together. Apparently, she's exploring identity disorder, where troubled individuals create parallel personas to cope with their roles in society. We can all relate.

Outside Frame, in the main corridors, which increasingly resemble an out-of-town mall, or an insane asylum, I pop into Gavin Brown's enterprise, winner of the Stand prize. Bright canvases by Joe Bradley and poppy pieces by Martin Creed encircle an enormous golden, folded coat hanger by Mark Handforth. I dislike that one.

Still, at Frieze, as soon as you've seen something you hate, you fall over something you like. Casey Kaplan, a New York gallery, has given over its whole space to Matthew Brannon. There are handpainted posters, little railway station signs, a collection of coloured bottles. On the wall hang two coats: the detective's and the dentist's. Naughty ladies peek out from the coat pockets; a ribbon with "my fingers in your mouth" hangs from a collar. Brannon has written a murder mystery that takes place in several countries (there's an accompanying exhibition opening in New York) and his work offers clues to the story. The whole thing is entrancing: funny, detailed, confusing. I have found a new artist to follow.

Frieze is an overlit, overpeopled, overheated carnival of excess that has given me a couple of new images to mull over. I hold them close, to calm me down, and leave before my migraine kicks in. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

My Frieze week - in pictures

It's the biggest week in Britain's art calendar when thousands of visitors come to check out the fair and London's galleries unleash their big guns. Art-world figures, including artists Tracey Emin and Polly Morgan, pick their highlights from Frieze 2011 and the dozens of other shows across the capital

Rewind TV: Comic Strip Presents: The Hunt for Tony Blair; Joanna Lumley's Greek Odyssey; Who Do You Think You Are: Tracey Emin – review

The Comic Strip's handsomely made political satire had mischief at its heart, while Joanna Lumley proved that a little charm goes a long way during her adventures in Athens

Comic Strip Presents: The Hunt for Tony Blair (C4) | 4oD

Joanna Lumley's Greek Odyssey (ITV1) | STV Player

Who Do You Think You Are: Tracey Emin (BBC1) | iPlayer

We see so little of the Comic Strip ensemble these days that it's easy to forget how long they've been in the trenches of British spoof, tossing out a grenade every now and then, as if cursed to spend the rest of their days striving to match the perfection of their hilarious first episode, Five Go Mad in Dorset, which introduced high jinks to Channel 4's inaugural broadcast in 1982 and the term "lashings of ginger beer" to the cultural memory.

The Hunt for Tony Blair – a parodic splicing of noughties politics and 1950s British film noir (though what Herman's Hermits were doing on the soundtrack I don't know) – wasn't uproariously funny but it was handsomely made, with melodramatic shadows and enough money for fog, flat-footed policemen and steam trains. The plot, such as it was – a madcap chase across country, with the PM on the run for murder – threw up knockabout humour and vignettes from Blair's WMD fiasco, featuring a cast of the usual suspects: a languid Nigel Planer as Mandelson; Harry Enfield in East End shout mode as "Alastair"; the excellent Jennifer Saunders as Thatcher in her dotage (and full Barbara Cartland drag), watching footage of her Falklands triumphs from a chaise longue.

Director Peter Richardson, whose comic talents aren't seen enough on screen, played George Bush as a rasping B-movie Italian mobster ("I'm gonna get straight to the crotch of the matter here"). With the exception of impressionist Ronni Ancona (whose 10 seconds as Barbara Windsor seemed puzzlingly extraneous), no one went for a direct impersonation. Stephen Mangan didn't make a bad Blair, though he could have worked on the grin, and he couldn't quite make his mind up between feckless and reckless as he capered from one mishap to the next leaving a trail of bodies. Did Blair's moral insouciance ("Yet another unavoidable death, but, hey, shit happens") call for a look of idiocy or slipperiness?

The comedy had mischief at its heart in mooting that Blair had bumped off his predecessor, John Smith, and accidentally pushed Robin Cook off a Scottish mountain, while Robbie Coltrane's Inspector Hutton (aha!) tacitly invoked the spectre of Dr David Kelly (we never found out who Blair was charged with murdering). But it was hard to squeeze fresh satire from the overfamiliar stodge of the politics ("Tell Gordon to run the country and trust the bankers"). Mangan was at his funniest hiding among sheep in the back of a truck or kicking Ross Noble (playing an old socialist) off a speeding train, though there was amusement elsewhere. I had to laugh at variety theatre act Professor Predictor, shoehorned into the story to enable Rik Mayall in a bald wig and boffin glasses to answer questions from the audience. Would the Beatles still be at No 1 in 50 years' time?

"No. The Beatles will no longer exist. But Paul McCartney will marry a woman with one leg."

How the audience roared. "Pull the other one," someone shouted. Arf, arf.

My heart sank a little when Joanna Lumley started her Greek Odyssey with the words: "I'm in Athens, the capital of Greece." Well, OK, I suppose she could have meant the one in Ohio. But it wasn't long before she won me over, not least by climbing what looked like a homemade ladder to the top of the Acropolis to watch restorers scraping away, using toothbrushes and dentists' drills. You wouldn't have got me up there. "Don't look down," said her interpreter. Joanna, bless her, tried to take her mind off her vertigo by telling us about the traumatic day she got stuck on a ladder as a girl and had to be rescued. She was only up here now, she said, out of duty to the viewers. "Because I love you," she said, shooting a toothy smile at the camera.

After a day at the ruins she was ready for a night on the town and was soon heading for a club where it was tradition for the customers to pay 60 euros for a plate of flowers to throw at a singer on stage. Apparently, a wild evening here could cost five grand. Economic crisis? Pah!

"We live only for this day," reasoned one reveller. "Tomorrow, maybe everything boom!" Maybe? Still, it was good to see philosophy alive and kicking in the home of Aristotle and Plato.

There were gods to be worshipped, in particular 1960s bespectacled diva Nana Mouskouri, whom Joanna met at the remains of a huge amphitheatre. She was taken aback when Joanna asked her to sing, but she didn't need asking twice. The tourists were stilled as Nana trilled, as if required to observe a minute's silence. Joanna does make friends easily. She wooed the odd women of Evia who communicated by whistling at each other. They could speak, too, but if you wanted to banter with a goat on a roof – as one did – only whistling would do. Admittedly, the goats could only say "meh" but frankly it's eerie to see one converse in any tongue. Whistling was a dying language, though, with most of the children in the tiny community of 40 unwilling to learn it, perhaps seeing English or Chinese as a more attractive option in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Then on a remote peninsula, Joanna stumbled upon an old woman living in a deserted hill village. Everyone had left, she said, when they built a road in the 70s. What on earth did she live on? For her answer she took Joanna out to forage for wild asparagus, which she cooked with oil and salt, and lemons as "sweet as oranges". Tucking in, Joanna asked if she didn't get lonely out here in this ghost town in the middle of nowhere. "I'm not afraid of anything," she said. Homer would have put her on the itinerary.

Art's tough girl Tracey Emin has spent her career answering the question Who Do You Think You Are?, or at least creating an effigy of who she wants us to think she is. As a medium of revelation itself, WDYTYA? admits no such cunning. After all, you can't choose your own family. Tracey was a nervous wreck. Would she get the ancestors she deserved – gritty swashbucklers, salts of the earth, creative mavericks – or would they turn out to be loss adjusters from the home counties?

It didn't start well, with maternal great-grandfather Henry having been a product of reform school. Tracey's inventive mind fizzed with wishful thinking. Perhaps young Henry had been plucked out of poverty and earmarked for an education by a rich patron, impressed by his native gifts and promise? In fact, he had stolen two brass taps. But, hang on, he had a spotless record during his years there and acquired skills with saw and lathe that would stand him in good stead if he now emigrated to Canada, which was all the rage with former inmates. Tracey's eyes lit up, but no – he burgled a house instead and stole some cocoa, £8 and a violin. Tracey was sad for poor Henry (whose mother had died) but not without hope: "Maybe he wanted the violin to play," she suggested, adding that there had been guitar players in the family.

Perhaps, said the researcher gently. Tracey blamed the father, but then it transpired that he'd done a year's hard labour for thieving in the 1880s, when hard labour meant walking the treadwheel six hours a day – and that was the equivalent of climbing Ben Nevis twice, said the narrator, who throughout this fascinating programme talked us through pictures of grimy urchins, old lags and scenes of corrective punishment.

But just as Tracey was losing heart, the next archive provided thrilling evidence of a "besom-maker" in the family and then, blimey, a line of tent-dwellers, pedlars, tinkers and Gypsies as long as your arm – kindred free spirits to the blood and bone! Tracey's face said it all. You couldn't make it up and yet it looked as if someone just had. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 14 2011

Frieze's Neon lights the way to artistic appreciation

Zoe Williams falls in love with OH DEED I DO and Marxist Disco Cancelled but wonders if it's because they're like something someone would say on Twitter

Neon is huge at the Frieze art fair this year. Tracey Emin has a work in neon that says: "And I said I love you." I'm trying not to nitpick about tenses and punctuation here. It's hard, because if the second verb isn't going to match the first, it really needs some quote marks round it. Curses! It slipped out.

Glenn Ligon was showing a neon piece entitled Warm Broad Glow II, which said "negro sunshine". That's controverso-neon.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster was showing a neon sign that said After, so I looked around for a Before because they'd definitely want you to buy them both, but there wasn't one; so maybe this was apocalypto-neon. You think I'm making some lame point about how neon can be art, when clearly the artist just got it made by a neon-factory.

On the contrary, I understand the ready-made tradition because I heard a programme about it once: you don't have to make the object. You just have to choose the object, and then it is art, so long as you are an artist. This tradition is referenced and, if you like, defamiliarised in Claire Fontaine's work, THIS NEON SIGN WAS MADE BY VLADIMIR RUSTINOV FOR THE REMUNERATION OF ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY-NINE THOUSAND RUBLES. I couldn't tell what was a bin and what was an installation.

The ready made idea hits its apotheosis though, not in neon, but in a boat: Christian Jankowski bought it for £60m as a boat, but is selling it as art for £75m. My first thought was that that's quite a wedge, since it's small; but I'm looking at the wrong one. The Aquariva Cento, showing here, is only €500,000 (£438,000) when it's a boat – as art, it's €625,000.

I think it looks sinister and dangerous on its carpet covered mount, too expensive and shiny to survive on land, an apocalyptically costly accident just waiting to happen. But I think that when I see little boats on trailers going down the motorway. I should say that I'm impressed by the consistency of the markup. If it was 20% on the big boat and 10% on the little boat, that wouldn't be art; that would just be a scam.

This is the fanciest crowd in London, most of their hair is a work of art in its own right, and they all whisper, either out of respect or inhibition; the only people you can hear are the ones who are fighting.

The soundscape is like a conch, with the occasional explosion of "excuse me, I take exception to that" and "rubbish!" I approach a giant book, Michael Johnson's Slaying the Dragon, I guess pretty true to the original, except giant.

My sister told me once that I had to remake the parameters of my appreciation to take into account how ill-educated I was. "Relying on your own taste works in theory," she said, "but not if you don't have any."

In the spirit of remaking, I fall in love with a wonderful large canvas by Dan Colen that says OH DEED I DO, and a cool poster by Scott King that says Marxist Disco Cancelled, but I don't know that's just because they're like something someone would say on Twitter.

The French artist Marine Hugonnier appears in the show with a wall of front pages of the Guardian, some stories redacted in vivid primary colours, from the late 70s and early 80s. UN Calls on Iran to Free Hostages, reads one headline.

Labour Pushed Closer to the Brink by Owen, reads another. "Good old Guardian, still going on about the same old bollocks after all these years," I think is the message.

Someone approaches the gallerist and asks whether you can get them separately. No, you really need to keep all 17 of them together. Otherwise that's totally not funny.

I started off sounding a little bit like Richard Littlejohn ("my five-year-old could do better than that!"), and by the end, it's as if he's crawled into my head. But don't listen to me – it's pure envy, that other people can see things so feelingly. That's all it is. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 11 2011

TV highlights 12/10/2011

All Roads Lead Home | Who Do You Think You Are? | The Fades | Mount Pleasant | Valentine Warner Eats The 1960s | Fresh Meat

All Roads Lead Home
8pm, BBC2

Another outing with Sue Perkins, Stephen Mangan and Alison Steadman attempting to find their way back to their various ancestral seats using only twigs and sheep dung. This week, Stephen drags them to his parents' home in Ireland; as usual, "natural navigation" expert Tristan Gooley is on hand to help. Much more useful would be a five-minute show that explained where one could find cheap last-minute rail fares. Ali Catterall

Who Do You Think You Are?
9pm, BBC1

Now that Tracey Emin has progressed from being the somewhat tedious enfant terrible of Brit Art to being a national treasure (albeit one who still swears on TV), it's probably fitting that she's taken up the bourgeois pursuit of tracing her family tree. She's all sweet naivety, a little fearful of what she might find and worried that she'll uncover a can of worms. She starts off close to home, tracking down relations who lived a mile from her own East End address, but soon she's in Suffolk, looking at prison records and discovering Gypsy ancestors. Martin Skegg

The Fades
9pm, BBC3

After an unfortunate tête-à-tête with an articulated lorry, Paul lies comatose in a hospital bed. While his family come to terms with his condition, the threat of corporeal fades – vengeful sprits in human form, for those who haven't been paying attention – is growing. Neil is busy searching for a weapon that could prove effective against the coming hordes of the not-quite-dead, while the mysterious character who emerged fully-formed from a cocooned state in last week's episode is now a very real threat. Gwilym Mumford

Mount Pleasant
9pm, Sky1

2011 may be regarded as the year in which "dramedy" bottomed out, with some truly risible attempts at marrying kitchen-sink melodrama and edgy humour. Mount Pleasant is probably a touch better than the BBC's lamentable Sugartown – surely this year's worst new show – but that hardly stands as a recommendation. This final episode revolves around Barry and Sue's 40th anniversary celebration. Lisa and Dan, not wanting to ruin the big day, are forced to keep up the pretence of being a couple. Essentially it's Crossroads, but with haphazard eruptions of bad language. GM

Valentine Warner Eats The 1960s
9pm, Yesterday

After the rationing of the immediate postwar years, the 1960s – with its supermarkets, fitted kitchens, labour saving devices and new ingredients – represented an exciting renaissance for British food. Valentine Warner is just the kind of TV chef to road-test its recipes to see if they've stood the test of time, or if they're better filed alongside fondue in the archive of irretrievably kitsch things we don't eat any more. All of this is a bit academic, however, until he can figure out how to get his food processor (the once-ubiquitous Kenwood Chef) to work. John Robinson

Fresh Meat
10pm, C4

The house is awash with hormones tonight as Oregon continues her mucky liaison with Shales and another couple discuss doing the hokey-cokey in a totally no-strings deal. Meanwhile, Kingsley begins to unexpectedly reap the benefits of swapping courses to drama and Vod has an epiphany with one of her English set texts. It's the halfway mark of series one (a second series seems a no-brainer) and anxiety is already mounting about what they'll do after series three. If Howard doesn't sign up for an MA in something, he'll have to leave and that will never do. Julia Raeside © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 29 2011

Shooting stars: Scenes from the Art World – in pictures

Arts society photographer Dafydd Jones has spent 30 years photographing key art events. Here is our pick of the major moments

August 24 2011

Letters: Tracey's voice

Jonathan Jones should do his homework before associating Tracey Emin's tent piece with immorality (Shortcuts, G2, 23 August). I seem to remember the tent was embroidered with the names of all the people she had ever slept with, including her grandmother, nothing to do with who she had sex with. And oh dear, to be drunk on TV seems to be good enough reason to brand her a defiantly unrespectable woman who, heaven help her, will never be middle class. Perhaps Jones could offer us another contemporary artist who sets a stern moral example. I can't think of one. What he does not understand is that Tracey has given a voice to the mass of troubled women through the self-exposure of her own difficulties. She rose above these difficulties through her work and talent. Was it not also Emin who campaigned to save the Titian for the nation? Is this the act of an immoral artist?

Marilyn Mann

Norwich © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 22 2011

What Cameron's passion for Emin really means

The prime minister has installed a neon artwork by the controversial artist in No 10. What would Melanie Phillips say?

This week's unveiling of a neon artwork by Tracey Emin in 10 Downing Street looks very much like an attempt to balance the new image of Cameron the moral conservative backlash-surfer with a sop to contemporary cultural cool. For any remaining liberal supporters of the coalition, don't despair – here's an Emin to show how modern Cameron really is.

Emin is 48 but her art still carries the tag "young British". A neon by her in No 10 can only signal youth, glamour, and a dash of naughtiness. It even alludes to her great themes of love and lust in its slogan "more passion". Wow, the prime minister must really be down with the kids, we are presumably supposed to think. Is that why he is locking so many of them up?

Right now the prime minister is standing shoulder to shoulder with conservative pundits who claim the riots are the result of decades of liberal rot. If there is an icon of such supposed rot – never mind who she votes for – surely it is Emin? This woman first became famous because she put the names of her lovers on a tent. She photographed herself sitting in a pile of cash and appeared drunk on live television. Her much-debated Turner prize exhibit was an unmade bed cluttered with evidence of a lifestyle the columnist Melanie Phillips, whose trenchant social views Cameron now appears to side with, would have no trouble diagnosing as morally sick and probably the product of a broken home.

In the Sunday Express this weekend the prime minister appealed directly to older voters scared stiff of the rampaging young. Emin is exactly what many older conservatives loathe - a defiantly unrespectable woman who will never seem "middle class" however rich she becomes. Emin is in her own description Mad Tracey from Margate, and whatever you think of her art, a stern moral example it is not. What does it really mean, this Downing Street neon?

Perhaps it means Cameron does not mean a word of what he says. His new rigidity is as fake as his old capaciousness. The new conservatism is a cynical appeal to voters who are themselves filled with contradictions. There has been no sudden change since the riots in how people amuse themselves, and laughing at freak shows such as Big Brother and The X Factor remains popular. In other words, as is the way of things, those who call for a moral reform of society do not include themselves, or their tastes, in the reform. In the same spirit of glibly refusing to think anything through, Cameron installs a work of art by Britain's most "immoral" artist even as he calls on the nation to change its ways. More passion? I don't think so.

Tony Blair has criticised Cameron's "highfalutin wail about a Britain that has lost its way morally." It is a reminder of how different they actually are as politicians. Blair associated New Labour with new culture, but there were no direct affiliations between him and any particular artist (Blair notoriously mistook a novelist for an artist at the opening of Tate Modern). And that is wise: get too close to artists and you open up all kinds of ironies. Especially if you propose to clean up Britain while cosying up to one of its most gifted creators of filth. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 22 2011

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Jonathan Jones's top shows this week

Robert Rauschenberg: Botanical Vaudeville
The recent death of the painter Cy Twombly adds to the timeliness of this look back at Robert Rauschenberg, who passed away in 2008. Sixty years ago these two artists, along with their friend Jasper Johns, reinvented art. They lived at a moment when abstract art seemed the ultimate modern creation. Instead they turned back to real life, and above all it was Rauschenberg whose messy, rich combinations of painting with found objects created a pungent aesthetic of the street, the bedroom, wherever life is.
• At Inverleith House, Edinburgh, 27 July until 2 October

Tony Cragg: Sculptures and Drawings
The sculpture of Tony Cragg is – well, it's sculpture. In an age of objects, Cragg creates form. His orotund and irregular creations tower and totter. They grow and live. Like giant molten chess pieces, his shapes are at once authoritative and decadent. Here is abstract art for our time, tactile and elusive.
• At Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 30 July until 6 November

Nan Goldin: Fireleap
If there is one artist in the world today whose works stop you dead in your tracks it is this photographer of raw life. You may be entranced or enraged by Goldin's colour-saturated, lyrical and sleazy slideshows, but they are undeniably compelling. This show brings together her photographs of children, so if you are easily offended it might make your day.
• At Sprovieri Gallery, London W1, until 6 August

Mario Merz: What is to be Done?
Clear blue neon light cuts through natural and man-made forms in this survey of the Italian sculptor who died in 2003. Merz had strong themes: the survival of nature in an industrial world, the endurance of meaning and community in fast times. His famous use of the basic architectural form of the igloo synthesizes his concern with natural and human vulnerability. There are igloos here as well as an old car pierced by a shaft of neon, like a mechanical Saint Theresa redeemed by light.
• At Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 28 July until 30 October

Ryan Mosley
This young British artist paints up a storm with fictional figures, eerie characters, gothic and rococo fantasies in a subtle, texturally convincing style. It is worth following his progress in his latest exhibition which includes surreal pastiches of portraiture and allusive scenes out of some Bloomsbury era memoir.
• At Alison Jacques Gallery, London W1, until 13 August

Up close: artworks in detail

Tomb of the Black Prince, c1376
The massive metal body of this 14th-century prince and warrior lies on his tomb in a fierce challenge to the world to forget him. It never has. The Black Prince is remembered for his military glory, but his tomb effigy is a great work of art in its own right, with its startlingly fierce and powerful face emerging from scaly chain mail. This is is a totem of potent knighthood that no visitor to Canterbury Cathedral – which also boasts dazzling stained glass and eerie Romanesque monsters – will ever forget.
• At Canterbury Cathedral, Kent

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples, 1877-8
If the economist John Maynard Keynes is currently in the news, it is because his remedies against depression are being ignored – even despised – by western governments determined to repeat the mistakes he condemned. Looking at this time-stopping, entrancing painting by Cézanne, you get the feeling that Keynes represents a lost age of civilised reason. For Keynes owned this painting. Today, its solidity and grace suggest a sanity that eludes this century.
• At Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Titian, The Three Ages of Man, c1512-1514
The face of a girl looking intently at her lover glows out of this profoundly poetic painting. Titian has painted a rustic landscape, hilly and rugged, that surely evokes his own childhood in the mountains of northern Italy. In it we see allegorical figures of the ages of life, but the most compelling, and the painting's true heart, is the young woman in love. This is simply one of the greatest works of art in Britain. If you are headed to Edinburgh over the summer make a date with it.
• At National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Thomas Gainsborough, The Byam Family, between 1762 and 1766
The Holburne Museum in Bath recently reopened after an ambitious architectural refurbishing, and it is well worth visiting this gallery close to 18th-century terraces that evoke the Bath of Jane Austen. No artist captured the elegance of 18th-century visitors to the waters and assembly rooms better than Gainsborough, who had a business here, and whose grand portrait of the Byam family is one of the Holburne's delights.
• At Holburne Museum, Bath

Artemisia Gentileschi (attributed), Susannah and the Elders, 1600s
With Tracey Emin at the Hayward and crowds flocking to the Hepworth, it is easy to forget that for most of European history it was all but impossible for women to become professional artists. Artemisia Gentileschi was an exception, fighting her way to fame in the 17th century. Is this striking painting in Nottingham one of her works? It portrays a young woman naked being spied on by two old men. What makes the picture strange is that the voyeurs don't hide behind a hedge, as was conventional in paintings of this Biblical story, but instead press claustrophobically close to their object of desire. The effect is surreal and unsettling.
• At Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery

What we learned this week

That the Lucian Freud once turned up at someone's house with a live eel in his bag

Why Pringles are such a favourite with the bookies

Why the Tate Modern had an exorcism

How one man snuck sleek modernist designs into every part of British life

How art finally went down the tube

Why society may be too crazy for museums to stay free

Image of the week

Your Art Weekly

Have you been to any of these shows? What have you enjoyed this week? Give your review in the comments below or tweet us your verdict using #artweekly and we'll publish the best ones next week.

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June 25 2011

Folkestone Triennial

Folkestone, Kent

Unlike Margate, just along the coast, Folkestone's creative plans for regeneration do not include the building of a swish gallery by a big-name architect. Instead, the town has taken a more subtle route. In 2008, backed by the Creative Foundation, whose chair is the local philanthropist Roger de Haan, it staged its first triennial, an event so joyful and clever its memory ha s outlasted, in my own case, that of pretty much all the art I've seen since. Scattered so as to make you feel that you alone had discovered each piece, the work was frequently beautiful, occasionally funny and always thought-provoking. Even better, it brought Folkestone's considerable charms – the town, after all, was once so grand it was the favoured holiday destination of Edward VII and his mistress, Alice Keppel – into sharp relief. Stumbling on all this art, so cunningly situated, the future and the past seemed suddenly to work together. I left feeling full of hope.

Three years on, and the Creative Foundation's wisdom is now obvious. Gallery or not, Folkestone is already well on its way to having something that Margate painfully lacks: a permanent collection. Several of the pieces that were commissioned for the 2008 triennial have remained in the town, most notably Tracey Emin's poignant Baby Things – a bonnet, booties and matinee jacket cast in bronze and then "abandoned" on railings and beneath park benches – and Mark Wallinger's Folk Stones, a collection of 19,240 numbered pebbles, each one representing a soldier killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, many of whom would have departed there from the town's harbour (Wallinger's piece has grown so beloved, it gets its own poppy wreath come Remembrance Sunday).

Meanwhile, the foundation's investment in existing real estate is slowly paying off. Fewer shops stand empty. On the harbour, a fabulous new restaurant has opened, its fish fresh off the boats each morning.

It pains me, then, to report that the second triennial is not quite so successful a proposition as the first. On the train, inspecting my blisters – there is a lot of walking to do: its brilliant and determined curator, Andrea Schlieker has commissioned 19 artists, some of whom have contributed more than one work – I tried to convince myself that disappointment was inevitable, given my ecstasy three years ago. But the truth is that this a more patchy affair. In 2008 artists were encouraged to use the town and its ghosts as their inspiration, something that more than justified the triennial's obsession with site specificity. In 2011 the feel is deliberately more outward-looking: its subtitle, after all, is A Million Miles From Home, a theme that nods both to Folkestone's geography – gazing out to France on a grey day, it can feel like the end of the world – and its status as a place where asylum seekers and other immigrants often end up.

The result, though, is a show that is sometimes off-puttingly preachy. The Israeli artist, Smadar Dreyfus, for instance, has recorded in their entirety seven lessons in Israeli schools, lessons that take in such loaded issues as citizenship and the Law of Return. Sitting in the pitch black of an abandoned office building listening to these lessons – a translation is provided on screen in the form of "word pictures" – is an object lesson in the bullying and self-indulgence involved in a certain kind of contemporary art. It's unendurable.

My advice? Avoid the film installations (I counted – yawn – four). Ditto the work that requires too lengthy explanation (in Folkestone's delightfully spooky Masonic Hall, a new and extremely winning venue in 2011, the artist Olivia Plender gamely tried to unpick for me her film installation Are Dreams Hallucinations During Sleep or Hallucinations Waking Dreams; alas, I am still none the wiser – all I can tell you is that it involves a local am dram group doing improvisations). No, head instead straight for the stuff that will hit you bang, smack in the solar plexus. Luckily, there is plenty of it.

The best work makes the most of Folkestone's beguiling topography. Begin your tour high on the Leas, almost as far west as HG Wells's house (designed by Voysey, it's now an old people's home), where you will find Cristina Iglesias's magical Towards the Sound of Wilderness. Iglesias has cut a path through undergrowth – a kind of secret passage – which leads to her "intervention", a terrific mirrored box-like structure whose walls, crafted to resemble thorns, call to mind The Sleeping Beauty. Step into it and, from a window, you will see a Martello tower now entirely covered in ivy. When the hundreds of birds that nest there sing, the experience is genuinely otherworldly.

From here, head east towards the Victorian water-powered Leas Lift. Riding the lift has always been a hairy experience – the descent is dramatic and always, somehow, unexpected – but now it's comical, too. As the mechanism begins to roll, so does Martin Creed's sound installation Work No. 1196, Piece for String Quartet and Elevator: a series of descending scales. Impossible not to smile.

Leave the lift, and you're on the site of the still-mourned Rotunda amusement park. Here stands AK Dolven's desolate and beautiful Out of Tune, a huge tenor bell suspended on wire between two beams. Pull the rope, and it will ring out, melancholy and ghostly. Dolven, who is Norwegian, speaks of having brought something – this old bell – back to life. But to me, it sounds more like a death knell, or a warning.

And perhaps it is. There is so much of Folkestone still to save. Close by is the old harbour railway station: hard to believe, standing among the rust and the weeds, that it was here that the Orient Express used to call. On the tracks is Paloma Varga Weisz's sublime Rug People, a group of men with Modigliani faces cast in bronze, standing on an oriental carpet. For all that is it so physically heavy, this sculpture, it seems to me, is the very embodiment of transience, a family's world reduced to the scant acreage of a patterned rug. I adored it, though it is Cornelia Parker's bronze, The Folkestone Mermaid, on Sunny Sands beach, that the townspeople will want to claim as their own. It's a delightful joke, of course, this nicking of Copenhagan's most famous landmark, but Parker has made a beautiful work in its own right. Strong, proud and human – no flipper for her, though her feet are draped with seaweed – this mermaid's jaw suggests the same patient indefatigability as that of the town she symbolises.

Nearly there now. At the top of the Bayle, hanging in the nave of St Eanswythe's church, is Hew Locke's For Those in Peril on the Sea: a flotilla of votive offerings in the form of model boats in every shade and style you can imagine. It's a work that manages to be both impossibly cheery, and contemplative. Just below it, in the Old High Street, is Erzen Shkololli's Boutique Kosovo. Shkololli, who works in Pristina, has gathered together traditional Kosovan costumes, made by this country's craftswomen – except he has displayed them as if in some upscale minimalist store (think Marni). This is not the most nuanced commentary on globalisation that I've ever seen, but the garments are so fascinatingly exquisite – they seem almost to have the quality of religious relics – I'll forgive him. Besides, isn't this what we want for towns like Folkestone? Small (and possibly useful) shops rather than chain stores. Beauty rather than blandness. What you might call, feeling daring, a soul. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 20 2011

Top British artists to design 2012 Olympics posters

Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley, Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili among selected 12 as countdown starts to London festival

Posters for next year's Olympics and Paralympics will be designed by top British artists including Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley, Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili, it was announced.

The 12 commissioned artists were named to coincide with the one-year countdown to next year's London 2012 festival – part of the Cultural Olympiad celebrations – which opens on 21 June .

Among those on the panel that whittled more than 100 names from the art world down to 12 was the Tate's director, Sir Nicholas Serota, who predicted "colour, vitality, energy and diversity" in the 2012 posters that will be seen all over the capital next year.

Six male and six female artists have been chosen. The others asked to create a piece were Fiona Banner, Michael Craig-Martin, Martin Creed, Anthea Hamilton, Gary Hume, Sarah Morris, Bob and Roberta Smith and Rachel Whiteread.

The posters are still at the design stage but Emin, who will create one for the Paralympics, said she wanted to do something that celebrated the coolness of London.

She is considering drawing prominent landmarks such as the London Eye and the houses of parliament, adding words that offer encouragement to the participants. She is still working on her final design.

Emin said she was surprised but pleased to be asked.

"The posters are intrinsic to the Olympics, they are the things that are going to stay around," she added.

She had been sent a book of posters from previous games, she said, but was unlikely to take inspiration from the designs.

"A lot of them are about values which aren't so important now," she said. "I'm interested in the party side – the celebration."

The artists have been asked to produce a poster that is identifiable with their own style. "For me, that could be a bit tricky," Emin admitted. "The poster has got to be for everybody and it has got to be a celebration of London. The Olympics is going to show the world that London can really throw a good party. It is going to give everyone a high."

Hodgkin is the only one of the artists of the 12 who has experience in this area, having been commissioned by Andy Warhol to produce a poster for the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.

Hodgkin said he had a pragmatic reason for agreeing to the Olympic commission.

"I said yes because I thought it would be nice for a lot of people to see my work," he said.

His enthusiasm for the Olympics was also rather more muted than some, as he admitted looking forward to it "only in so far as there'll be something else to see on the telly".

One of the younger artists on the list of 12 is Anthea Hamilton, who was clearly more enthused by the games than Hodgkin: "It's really exciting – you can feel the tension building in the city," she said. She called the commission "a big honour and a nice surprise", adding: "I get a lot of the images which I use to make my work from the city, everyday life and mass media, so the idea that I'll get to make a work that goes back into that is a really nice way for me to develop."

The London 2012 festival, which celebrates the Olympics through the arts, will feature artists such as the late Pina Bausch, Plan B, Mike Leigh, Leona Lewis, Miranda Hart and Damon Albarn.

Tickets for the festival go on sale in October but many events are free, including one of the first and most intriguing, which takes place on Lake Windermere in Cumbria. The spectacular show with music, drumming and pyrotechnics features the French company Les Commandos Percu.

London's mayor, Boris Johnson, said: "A year from today, on midsummer's day, the festivities will begin with the launch of the London 2012 festival.

"The capital will be alive with extraordinary music, film, art, poetry, performance – a festival on a scale never before seen to celebrate the greatest sporting show on Earth." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 11 2011

Government Art Collection: At Work – review

Whitechapel Gallery, London

Does art have its uses, other than to civilise, enlighten, stimulate, console? Purists would say certainly not. Art has no function whatsoever. But anyone visiting the Whitechapel Gallery, where the notoriously closeted Government Art Collection is being shown in public for the first time in its 113- year history, will discover that this is not the case. Art can be a cunning form of diplomacy.

Take one of Bob and Roberta Smith's fairground-like signs, brightly painted in chip shop colours and currently hanging in the first tranche of the collection at the Whitechapel (there are several more selections to come). 'Peas are the New Beans,' it says, advancing a silly paradox about legumes, but punning on the bean-counting profession as well, at least if you have a mind to spot this.

And plenty have, it appears. When Paul Boateng became chief secretary to the Treasury he hung the painting outside his office, to laugh the waiting accountants and civil servants out of heaven knows what negativity. Apparently it worked every time; full pictorial efficiency.

Sir John Sawers, currently head of MI6, previously at the UN, used to invite hostile nations into his office to dwell upon the beautiful cobalt ground of Claude Heath's Ben Nevis on Blue – all dots and doodles (Heath draws with his eyes closed) and just shy of figuration. Which was extremely helpful during some particularly heated negotiations on Iran, where the painting was used as a kind of soothing time-out for eyes and mind. "Agreement," according to Sawers, "was reached an hour later."

And so it continues: an Anish Kapoor for the high commission in New Delhi to demonstrate how far Britain and India have come together (world-class artist born in Mumbai, resident in London: perfect symbol); Thomas Phillips's magnificent portrait of Byron posted to the British embassy in Athens, where he remains a hero for taking part in the Greek war of independence; the latest Britart sent to impress smart Parisians, if not to shame their euro-pudding artists. These are works to impress, co-opt and persuade.

So the subtitle of this particular selection, At Work, may be coarse but perfectly apt. It really is as if the artworks are part of the staff, sent out to work as ambassadors for British culture with extra responsibilities during a crisis. And viewed this way – the works at the Whitechapel are put in political context – it no longer seems quite such an affront to the public to be coughing up for a collection it never actually sees.

A good deal has been written about the invisibility of the GAC. I wrote some of it myself, around the time of Blair's triumphant entry into Downing Street when there was so much press coverage of New Labour receptions, who was in, who was out, and we sought the secrets of the art equivalent: what was displayed (Cool Britannia), and what removed (Old England), from the walls of No 10. For the GAC supplies not just embassies and consulates across five continents but scores of ministerial offices in London as well. Of its 13,500 works, more than two-thirds are displayed at any given time. It is the largest, most widely dispersed collection of British art in the world, and it keeps on moving as governments change and new ministers make their selections.

Hansard is full of questions about how much it drains the public purse, how much of it is mouldering away, how much has been clandestinely sold (none at all). Behind these questions is the lingering grudge that, unless we happen to be ministers, their cronies, or belligerent kids from Jamie's Dream School granted an audience with the PM, then we will never clap eyes on the mandatory Lowry or the dingy oval view of the Thames by the deservedly neglected William Marlow selected by the Camerons.

What's ingenious about At Work is that it replicates these selections so that you see the art but also the implicit self-portrait. So Boateng chooses Osmund Caine's striking group of second world war soldiers from 1940, the whites playing cards in uniform, the blacks separate and naked. Nick Clegg goes for an outsize thermos flask standing alone at a gloomy picnic, surely a post-referendum choice. Ed Vaizey, current culture minister, and Save 6 Music campaigner, continues to show his contemporary credentials by pushing Tory Tracey Emin.

Most piquant of all, Peter Mandelson has chosen a contemporary portrait of Elizabeth I that resembles Margaret Beckett. It's an awful painting, flesh like Bakelite; but along with a photograph of Lucian Freud painting Elizabeth II, a statue of the artist-diplomat Peter Paul Rubens and one of Cecil Stephenson's designs for the Festival of Britain, we have two queens, a super-urbane diplomat and a memento of Herbert Morrison, Mandelson's grandfather (and chief sponsor of the festival), which allows for some self-serving allusions to his own grand projet, the Dome, in the exhibition leaflet.

The choices of Sawers and Dame Anna Pringle, our woman in Moscow, are much stronger as art: Walter Sickert, Heath, some bittersweet space-race Pop by Derek Boshier and Bridget Riley's beautiful Reflection, bought for the British embassy in Cairo partly because her sheaf of stripes was inspired by the colours of tomb walls in Upper Egypt, but also because the abstraction dovetailed felicitously with Muslim culture.

All these works were purchased on a shoestring budget, just to add to the complex GAC criteria: works must be cheaply acquired, they must act as an extension of the diplomatic service and fit with all sorts of unusual environments. The result is a most quirky collection that has no major Bacon, Hockney, Sutherland or Freud, no Turner, no Constable landscapes, few museum stereotypes. But which is rich instead in great works by Sickert, Joan Eardley and Paul Nash.

That eccentricity went out with New Labour and the hyping of Britart, which is extensively represented in the GAC. This is not reflected in At Work, though one sees how successfully the Emins and Michael Landys have crossed the floor, because so much of the recent art is commissioned to be site-specific.

What you do see at the Whitechapel is just how fine a face the collection gives to Britain at home and abroad, from Edward Burra's satirical drawings to Bridget Riley. Of course, there is no need to put good art on the walls of our government buildings. But what this first show reveals is just how civilised it looks as our national image instead of a flag or a framed photo of the latest dictator.

'At Work' is at the Whitechapel until 4 September, with further GAC selections then running until September 2012, then at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery followed by Ulster Museum in late 2012-13 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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