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November 22 2010

The best art exhibitions for Christmas

Mangled technology, fashion statements and monstrous playpens

Nam June Paik

The Korean-born fluxus artist, composer and performer Nam June Paik was the first to really explore the artistic potentials of a new technology that has changed our lives. Expect mangled TVs, redundant electronics and sizzling experiments with technology.

▶ Tate Liverpool and FACT Liverpool (0151-702 7400), 17 December to 13 March.

British Art Show 7: In The Days of the Comet

Funny, frightening, often serious and sometimes silly, this is the best British Art Show to date. Christian Marclay's 24-hour film The Clock at the New Art Exchange is a must-see work of genius that has had viewers queuing round the block at its recent London showing.

▶ Nottingham Contemporary, New Art Exchange & Nottingham Castle Museum until 9 January, then touring.

GSK Contemporary – Aware: Art Fashion Identity

This big group show explores clothing as fashion statement, as habitation, as art and as political statement. Yoko Ono gets her clothes torn off, Grayson Perry invents an artist's robe and Yinka Shonibare uses 19th-century children's dress to make a bespoke mural.

▶ Royal Academy, London W1 (0844 209 0051), 2 December to 30 January.

Bridget Riley: Paintings and Related Work

Modesty and confidence, intelligence and pleasure mark Bridget Riley's work. Riley's early study based on Jan Van Eyk's Portrait of a Man and paintings by Mantegna, Raphael and Seurat confront Riley's own canvases and paintings made directly on the walls of the National Gallery.

▶ National Gallery, London WC2  (020-7747 2885), Wednesday to 22 May.

Childish Things

Childhood is more weird than innocent in this exhibition of surrealist and dada-inspired American and British art, which includes monstrous playpens, abject dolls, and perverse playthings by the likes of Jeff Koons, Mike Kelley and Louise Bourgeois. Take the kids.

▶ Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (0131 225 2383) until 23 January.

Len Lye: The Body Electric

This is the first UK retrospective of legendary New Zealand artist and film-maker Len Lye (1901-80). Lye made joyous, avant-garde films without a camera and kinetic sculptures that dance and rotate and sway and swish through the air. His was an art of tangible pleasures.

▶ Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (0121-248 0708), Wednesday to 13 February.


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December 26 2009

02mydafsoup-01
Play fullscreen
Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck - This is the Bonita High School Chamber Singers during the Christmas Concert Last year. I couldn't get the actual video, but here is the track from the CD that we got.

HD youtube permalink

Hodie Christus natus est:
Hodie Salvator apparuit:
Hodie in terra canunt Angeli,
laetantur Archangeli
Hodie exsultant justi, dicentes:
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Alleluia.
02mydafsoup-01
Play fullscreen
Geistliche Konzerte de Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)

HD youtube permalink

La Spiritata, dir. Marcelo Dutto
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Soledad Molina (soprano), Maximiliano Gallo (Tenor), Claudia Odoguardi (Viola da Gamba), Pieter Theuns (tiorba), Märiano Boglioli (órgano), Marcelo Dutto (clave)
Concierto en vivo 12/12/06
02mydafsoup-01
Play fullscreen
St. Thomas Boys Choir in Leipzig sings a german christmas Carol - Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her - in the Version of J.S. Bach

HD youtube permalink

1. Vom Himmel hoch, da komm' ich her.
Ich bring' euch gute neue Mär,
Der guten Mär bring' ich so viel,
Davon ich sing'n und sagen wil

December 24 2009

Snap happy

With the clan gathered in relative harmony, now is a great moment to capture your kinfolk on camera. Take our tips from the professionals to make sure you'll treasure the results

There are two types of people at Christmas time; those who lounge in front of the camera, devouring booze and chocolate, and those who stay behind it, observing the chaos through the lens.

But instead of snapping at random and hoping for the best, wouldn't it be nice to be able to take the perfect picture – to immortalise the moments that make your family's Christmas unique? We've been talking to the experts to get their tips on composing the perfect family photograph – making red eye, awkward composition and wonky exposure settings a thing of the past.

First things first. Chances are, you own a digital camera – even if it's just the one on your phone. The truth is, you don't need to have top-of-the-range equipment to take good photos. "It could be a phone or mega-expensive professional kit," says Simon Walden, 2005's Sony Digital Photographer of the Year. "But most modern cameras are so intelligent they'll do all the technical stuff for you – your job is to make sure the camera sees the right thing."

This is where, as designated Christmas photographer, being ready comes in; if you're not in the right place, at the right time, no amount of technology will help you. Of course, some moments you can be ready for – a baby beaming at their ribbon-wrapped present for instance. Others, the non-posed-for shots, you just have to be alert enough to capture. After all, it's startlingly easy with photography to suggest that your dear old grandmother is sprouting a Christmas tree from her head but an awareness of background, teamed with a bit of careful framing, can go a long way with personal photographs.

The artist Tom Hunter, whose work has appeared at London's National Gallery as well as numerous large-scale spaces elsewhere, adds that "people sometimes forget to look at what they're photographing and just point at the subject", something that all too often leads to missed opportunities. A good portrait is one that captures "the dignity and emotion of the human spirit" he suggests. As well as his artistic work – which is painterly and highly composed, often betraying the influence of old masters such as Vermeer and Caravaggio – Hunter enjoys taking photographs of his neighbours and friends in East London. He admits that "it takes practice to keep taking good photographs" but that you should never be afraid to take a few until you have the best shot as "one is rarely enough".

As for practical advice, a good tip is to focus on the eyes, says Walden, as they're key to capturing emotions. The trick is to catch them at the right moment; "just as they crinkle with laughter, or just as they reflect upon love of their partner". Keep the eyes to the top of the frame and don't worry about chopping off the tops of people's heads; it's a myth that this is a cardinal photographic sin. The fact that this style of cropping draws the viewer to the subject's eyes makes it a trend prevalent in fashion magazines. (Happily, your more folically-challenged family members may find this aspect of your photography a blessing too.)

On the other hand, don't be afraid of blank space. The rule of thirds dictates that an image is most aesthetically pleasing when the subject is off-centre. By putting the subject to one side rather than in the middle – in the first third of the space, for example – will, say the experts, create a better flowing image. (If you really want to impress friends and family, tell them that you're framing them in relation to the spiral created by the Fibonacci sequence.)

So much for dos. How about the dont's? Walden's pet hate is lining people up "like a penalty shoot-out – or worse, the firing squad". Go for natural groups, or pile everyone onto a settee. Anything but the line-up. Hunter agrees. "Having people seated can help them feel less awkward. Tell them to relax, enjoy themselves – it's Christmas!"

Another question is whether to be stealthy or overt, whether to attempt a candid shot or one that's posed. "For children, candid is best," advises Walden. "Get down on your knees so you are at the child's height and just keep pointing the camera at them. Don't ask them to look at the camera – let them be engrossed in whatever they're doing."

Louise Sumner
, a multi-award winning photographer based in Devon, suggests another option is to go for "natural, but created" shots, and if you can bear the wintry cold, to go outside. "Pretend it's a fashion shoot," she suggests. "Wear something extra-sparkly and get everyone to hold hands and walk along in a frosty scene." This kind of image will be more timeless; shots of your family in Santa hats may start to grate on you by the summer.

If you do decide to venture outside, bear in mind that you'll find the most flattering light at dawn or dusk. At midday, harsh overhead light means squinting and harsh shadows, so it's best to find a shady area to work in. If you can time your Christmas walk with the setting sun, the soft, warm glow and gradual shadows will be worth it. It's usually best to shoot with the sun behind you to make sure your subject is well lit, but if you want to do things the other way around, backlighting is another option and can create a beautiful halo around hair. If, on your screen, your subject appears as a silhouette against a bright background, using your camera's flash can fill them in and balance out the two extremes.

Final tip? Daylight really is your best friend, rare though it is at this time of year. If you are lucky enough to have natural daylight streaming through a window on Christmas Day, remember to turn off the flash. If you're relying on artificial light indoors, see if your camera has a night mode, or if you can adjust the settings on your camera to avoid needing to use the flash – some will even allow you to correct the colour to remove the orange tones left by household bulbs.

"The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive to light the camera is," says Walden. Adjusting the settings will ensure that fairy lights, candles or other twinkly bits aren't blasted to oblivion and reveal a nice, ambient glow instead. If you must use flash, stand further away, or if you have an external flash unit, point it towards the ceiling so that the light bounces evenly, he suggests as "it gives a much nicer and softer light than direct, hard flash".

"Try not to light a person upwards," says Sumner. "Shadows under eye-sockets can make a person look ghoulish." Far better to use a bit of know-how and try these tips; with practice, almost anyone can learn to make their friends and family look angelic at this time of the year.

Festive photography: a five-step path to success

1. Take lots of photographs until you're happy with the shot: professional photographers always do. Review the images as you go, checking they're sharp and haven't caught any frightening micro-expressions which may be invisible to the naked eye (the mid-blink is not a great look). You can always delete duplicates later.

2. Be creative with your compositions: shoot from an interesting angle, get in close or click discreetly to capture your family unaware. Experiment. Try shooting through a coloured glass bauble or outside against wintery trees. No firing squads.

3. Be aware of different angles: if you are photographing children, shoot from their height on your knees or stomach. Don't tell them to "smile for the camera"; make them laugh instead, or try shooting candidly.

4. Use natural daylight if at all possible be gentle with flash. Experiment with your camera settings to find a compromise.

5. Make sure your batteries are fully charged and there's enough space
on your memory card.


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December 20 2009

02mydafsoup-01
Jigsaw - Carol.

Funny how you spend a week building a new set, blowing off friends and family, so to be able to film an Xmas special that resides firmly in the continuity of the upcoming season, only to have two feet of snow drop on you and change everything. For the better, I think.

2009 has been a rough year for pretty much everybody. I like to think there's a lot of good in there with the bad, so that you get an interesting mixture of joy and melancholy as the overall theme of the year. This carol may have been on my mind for just that reason. Celebratory and sad, almost spooky. I couldn't add anything to that, so I just had Lump, Frank & Regibor sing the thing.

Snow is hard to film. This is common knowledge. What people don't talk about is how it's even harder to record. Falling snow has this… sound. A sound that apparently doesn't like microphones, at least not the cheap-o ones in the Jigsaw bag of tricks. That was the biggest difficulty with this episode. One I hope I overcame.

Jigsaw Season Four is now completely plotted and outlined. And due to the plan of placing this year's Xmas special somewhere in-between episodes 403 & 404, the new set is completely built. All I need to do now is write the jokes. And build two puppets. And put together a shooting schedule that will account for all of the, ahem, temporal necessities of the story. Oh, and audition puppeteers, because this season just ain't happening without a second set of hands. But that's it. I mean, apart from all of the other stuff I have to do.

Happy holidays, everybody. Hope that twenty ten treats you a lot better.

December 18 2009

Christmas bonuses

Spent all your money on Christmas presents? Feeling a bit of a Scrooge? From carols in Cambridge to live acts in Liverpool, here's our pick of the UK's cultural freebies

BP Portrait award 2009, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

A chance to see 56 contemporary portraits from one of the most prestigious painting competitions in the world, a selection of intimate images of friends, family and celebrities selected from over 1,900 artists this year. Also exhibited is the work of Emmanouil Bitsakis, the 2008 BP Travel award winner.

Open from 12 December to 21 February 2010

Earth from the Air, Southgate shopping centre and city centre, Bath

Throughout December and January, an exhibition of over 120 pictures will be displayed on the streets of Bath. The largescale images, created by French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand, document the effects of climate change and population growth. Running concurrently is another free street gallery by award-winning wildlife photographer and conservationist Andy Rouse, depicting the wildlife that inhabits the edges of the polar circles.

Free until mid-January 2010

Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, King's College Chapel, Cambridge

The original and best. The Festival of Nine Lessons Christmas Eve service, which first took place in 1918, is broadcast to millions around the world and includes a specially commissioned new carol every year. This year's has been written by Gabriel Jackson. It's free to attend, but make sure you turn up early to bag a pew.

Christmas Eve. Doors open at 1.30pm. Concludes at 4.30pm

Festive Films, National Media Museum, Bradford

Enjoy a selection of classic family films for just £1 each over Christmas and the New Year. Between 19 December and 17 January, the NMM is screening The Snowman, Home Alone and Laurel and Hardy classic The Flying Deuces. As well as an IMAX and numerous creative activities, the museum also hosts seven floors of free interactive exhibitions – a guaranteed remedy for children's boredom.

Entry to the museum is free from Tuesdays to Sundays, 10am–6pm

A Night Less Ordinary, Newcastle

If you're under 26, you can have free admission to a festive performance at one of Newcastle's theatres. The scheme by the Arts Council England is offering 50 free tickets a week at the Live Theatre, Northern Stage and Theatre Royal. Current performances include Peter Pan (billed as an "antidote to panto") and Cinderella. Visit the Newcastle Theatres website for an updated list of available tickets.

Go Penguins: A Winter's Trail, Liverpool

Over Christmas and New Year, an army of 200 penguin statues, each designed by a local artist, will be invading Liverpool. They form part of A Winter's Trail, a series of cultural events and festive installations across the city. Activities include free storytelling for children across 17 of the city's libraries, a winter art market at St George's Hall, and a series of free exhibitions at Fact. On Thursday evenings during the festive period, carol singers, brass bands and live performers will take to the streets.

The exhibition runs until the 10 January 2010

Hogmanay, Edinburgh

This year's New Year celebration is set to be the biggest in Edinburgh's history, with events running for five days. But if you're lacking in party stamina, a series of free cultural events will also be taking place. On the evening of 30 December, St Giles's Cathedral will host a free concert by electronic avant-garde musicians Michael Begg and Colin Potter. And the Queen's residence in Scotland, Holyrood Palace, will be hosting a free concert by young musicians playing folk, jazz and world music on New Year's Day. And if you're out and about on the Royal Mile that day, look out for an 8-metre-high blue man, produced by Puppet Lab's Big Man Walking project.

Hogmanay events run from 29 December 2009 to 2 January 2010

Live music every Wednesday at Ikon, Birmingham

Escape the cold and join guitarist and composer Jamie Fekete for some flamenco and jazz guitar at Cafe Ikon, part of Birmingham's acclaimed Ikon gallery. Fekete, who tours with Gypsy band The Destroyers, will be playing for free every Wednesday throughout the Christmas season.

Every Wednesday during December and January, 7–9pm

The London Gay Men's Chorus, Southbank Centre, London

Join Europe's largest all-gay choir for a merry singalong at the Southbank's Royal Festival Hall. The London Gay Men's Chorus will be singing festive favourites alongside extracts from their sold-out show Singderella. Let's hope their music's better than their puns.

The show takes place on 20 December 2009.

St Martin-in-the-Fields, free classical music, Trafalgar Square, London

The newly restored 18th-century church of St Martin-in-the-Fields is offering a series of 19 classical concerts throughout December and January. It'll cost you nothing to enter one of these performances, though a donation to the church's Christmas appeal is suggested. You're advised to get there in good time, as space is limited.

Lunchtime performances are held at 1pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Bristol

A chance to see one of the world's most prestigious photography exhibitions for free. The collection of over 100 images of nature and wildlife are being presented at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. On 13 January Neil Nightingale, former head of the BBC's Natural History Unit, will be giving a free lecture on new developments in wildlife film-making at the University of Bristol.

The exhibition runs from 5 December until 10 January.

Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism, Manchester Art Gallery

This is the first major exhibition in Europe to focus on women in the surrealist movement. It features more than 150 works, spanning painting, photography and sculpture, by artists including Frida Kahlo, Lee Miller and Leonora Carrington. Several events have been organised as part of the season, including a lecture on Czech surrealism and free guided tours.

The exhibition runs until 10 January. It's free to under 18s, and to everyone on 19 December.

Wonderland, Museum of Childhood, London

Folklore, myths, legends and fairytales are all brought to life through 80 artworks from the East London Printmakers group. They depict tales from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen in a contemporary context. The museum is also running an exhibition of photographs by Rohan Silva, documenting the east End during the festive period.

Wonderland runs until 10 January; Bethnal Green at Christmas runs until 17 January. Both are open 10am–17.45pm every day.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Leeds

Over-indulged on Christmas food? Then take a stroll around 500 acres of 18th-century parkland, home to sculptures by Rodin, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. If it gets too cold, you can always nip indoors to the estate's Georgian chapel, where a series of glass sculptures made by the late American artist James Lee Byars are being exhibited. Need to indulge some more? Hot food and mulled wine are served daily.

The exhibitions are open daily, from 10am–5pm, but closed 24 and 25 December.


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Christmas in the Classroom

This is how Ros Asquith, weekly cartoonist for EducationGuardian, has seen school Christmases over the years



December 15 2009

Mothers and children

The Guardian challenged nine leading contemporary artists to create their own nativities



December 02 2009

Bring back our Christmas bling

John Galliano's minimalist blue tree for Claridge's may be chic, but it's hardly traditional. So what's wrong with old-fashioned baubles and tinsel?

In pictures: This year's best Christmas decorations

Definitive proof that Christmas has been well and truly annexed by the style police was unveiled yesterday at Claridge's. In the Art Deco splendour of the hotel foyer is this year's Christmas tree, but – thanks to the whim of John Galliano – there is not so much as a hint of green, let alone a scrap of tinsel.

Galliano describes the tree, which he designed for Claridge's and Dior, as "icy frozen snow scenes mixed with a tropical twist". Think pale, twisted branches, sleeping leopards and blue parrots, sparkling crystals and exotic orchids. Is the jolly, bauble-stuffed tree to go the way of multicoloured fairy lights, and be airbrushed out of our lives in the pursuit of Christmas chic? Is the scent of pine about to be consigned to the ghost of Christmases past, in favour of the aroma wafting from Diptyque fig-scented candles?

Reached by phone yesterday morning, the style police deny all charges relating to the kidnap of Christmas. Despite the arch exoticism of his tree, Galliano is adamant that he "loves tinsel" and would sit himself at the top of the tree instead of the traditional fairy, if it were humanly possible. Talib Choudhry, deputy editor of Elle Deco, believes that trees should be "stylish, but not fashionable. We're not about encouraging people to buy whole new sets of baubles." Design consultant and ex-Wallpaper interiors editor Suzy Hoodless says that Christmas "should absolutely be about having fun", while Claudia Baillie, style writer at Living Etc, insists that the best Christmas decorations are those "which almost look like they could have come from your attic".

Aha. Note the "almost" in that sentence. The nostalgic, retro-look tree is in fact as much a style statement as a minimalist Galliano masterpiece: Baillie adorns hers with vintage baubles that she sources on eBay, but notes that good ones are harder to find than they used to be, because "everyone's after them."

Not many of us may go as far as Coleen Rooney, who last year hired an interior decorator to design and decorate several trees in various colour schemes for her Cheshire mansion, but among the smart set, having your tree professionally "done" is par for the course. Hoodless has designed fabulous trees this year for private clients in Holland Park, west London ("it's not about having help decorating your house every five years, any more. These days we're continually involved with our clients"). In my own lo-fi way, I suppose I'm guilty too: I do my tree while the kids are at school, supposedly as a "ta-da" moment for them but really because small children have the tackiest taste in baubles and zero understanding of design symmetry.

When pressed, the interiors gurus admit that the Christmas tree is, these days, as subject to the whims of fashion as the shopfloor of Topshop. Baillie tips paperchains as this year's It accessory (she suggest buying prettily aged sheet music from vintage shops to cut them from. I am not making this up). She has noticed an abundance of bird decorations this year, and what she dubs the "German Christmas market" style of bauble – "woodland animals, a bit kitsch". Two months ago the Paris catwalks were abuzz with Planet Earth chic, from kitten prints at Miu Miu to armadillo shoes at Alexander McQueen – and lo and behold, department stores are now selling glass squirrels and owls, while Hoodless is waxing lyrical about Sainsbury's glittery reindeer.

If Christmas has had a glamorous makeover in the last decade, Hoodless sees this as part-and-parcel of Britain taking a lead from America and revelling in winter rituals, pointing to the revival of Martha Stewart-esque wreath-making, the fetish for cashmere blankets, the Ugg boot obsession, even the continuing ascendance of Halloween. Others see the notion of the chic tree – particularly the all-white, Narnia-esque tree that dominated department stores for most of this decade – as symptomatic of how fashion has spread feelers into all aspects of our lives. However, Susan Crewe, editor of House & Garden, points out that our image of unchanging bygone Christmases is misguided, since interior designers such as Elsie de Wolfe and Syrie Maugham led a vogue for monochrome decor back in the 1930s.

Pablo Flack, founder of east London's hip Bistrotheque restaurant, is joining Galliano in banishing pine this year – instead, this year's look at Bistrotheque and its Christmas pop-up, Patron Silver Reindeer, will be "monochrome and urban. We've got cardboard robots and skyscrapers painted black and white, with fairy lights inside – a kind of recycled, twinkly cityscape. A bit Wall-E." For the Topshop windows, which will be unveiled tomorrow, Vogue set designer Shona Heath has commissioned tangled fairy lights and broken baubles.

But what look do the style set work in their own sitting rooms? Crewe, who is adamant that Christmas should "absolutely not" be fashionable, has a family recipe. "You need two small children, a tree, a dustsheet, fairy lights, a water spray – the kind you do the ironing with – fake snow from snowbusiness.com, and a box of robin decorations from C Best at Covent Garden flower market. Drape the lights on first [without plugging in], then stand the Christmas tree on a dust sheet. Give the smaller child the water spray and the bigger one the fake snow. They dampen the whole tree first, chuck the fake snow over it and then hang the robins. It takes all morning, makes the most wonderful mess, and looks divine." Even Flack admits that he won't be taking his monochrome cityscapes home. Instead, he will have "the traditional look, with tartan ribbon – very Ralph Lauren, very fabulous. I love it. It's just Christmassy, isn't it?"


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