'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Good news mes amis: domestic goddess-hood looms… finally. Last time the brownies came out liquid, albeit with a not entirely unpleasant crispy consistency to the outside. Thankfully I have generous friends so they got wolfed anyway. This time though they came out exactly as brownies ought. Even though they were vegan brownies. Which means no eggs. Pretty impressive huh? And last night I created the best French onion soup I’ve ever tasted - false modesty is not an advantage when aspiring towards domestic goddess-hood. I don’t think. Or maybe that rule is for when you’re after crack salesmanship. Oh well, much of a muchness. Which, by the by, is a phrase first used by Sir John Vanbrugh, of Castle Howard fame, in his 1728 play The Provok’d Husband. And no, I did not read that on Wikipedia. Do you know, it’s an automatic fail at Goldsmiths’ if you’re caught on Wiki. And so, as my favourite ex likes to say… think on!

Domestic goddess-hood, I’ve discovered, is something that has to be worked at like anything else. A few unexpectedly aborted head stands, ditto friendships (usually not for long though), a few outfit shockers (not that many thank you, there was a curious wonder-woman-esque thing a few weeks back; my friend called it wonder-woman, she was being kind, I looked like a failed Russian oligarch’s trophy girlfriend), a few business debacles (the head count’s slightly higher here unfortunately) a few torturous romances (always with hindsight, always!), a few bruised bottoms (horse riding is easy - step one: mount your pony. step two: stay mounted.) and a few liquefied cakes. All much of a muchness.

I haven’t achieved a great many successes in my life, not so far anyway, or not according to the traditional definition of success. Pleasingly though it’s going rather better by Winston Churchill’s definition: “success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” I do have an incredible ability to fuck stuff up, but thankfully that awesome talent seems matched by an ability to sail ever onwards leaving a trail of destruction in my wake, yet with almost no sense of disquiet and absolutely no loss of certainty about the jaw dropping success my next endeavour is sure to be. And I suppose that’s not too bad really. Maybe at some point my seemingly boundless optimism will prove right. Statistically it’s got to. Surely. On the other hand, even if it doesn’t, that’ll be alright. Of course it’ll be alright. What else is it going to be? You’re born. You life. You die. What’s to go wrong? Nothing. It’s just what it is.

There’s a good story about Larry Gagosian, the art world’s answer to Bill Gates (only sexier, errr much sexier), and the man who has made the art world what it is today, evidencing the reassuring fact that even the great and the good do occasionally cock-up, and sometimes they cock-up big style.

On 4 May 2004 at Sotheby’s New York, Picasso’s Garcon a la Pipe was going under the hammer. Larry Gagosian was bidding on his mobile phone on behalf of a collector. His bid had just been topped when he suddenly closed his phone, and according to the sale auctioneer Tobias Meyer, turned white and stared fixedly ahead. “Sir, do you need more time?” Meyer asked him, at which point Go-go hijacked his neighbour’s phone and began dialling urgently. Apparently Gagosian’s battery had gone flat at $77 million on the once in a lifetime battle ground for the picture that still holds the record for most expensive painting ever sold at auction, going under the hammer, a few seconds later, at $104.1 million.

Gagosian did rejoin the race and finished up the underbidder, but even so, compared to that, what’s a few squishy cakes? Thankfully he’s got a good memory for numbers. If that’d been me there’s no way I’d have remembered it. Maybe that’s why he’s Go-go and I’m not. Then again, I suppose I’d have called the office and had Gallery Girl read it out as I punched it in. Oh yes, I’d have found a way. It’d have been alright.

source: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art and Auction Houses by Don Thompson
I've now discovered from Kevin Harman's My Space page that he's a Buddhist.

What seems to be the only entry on his blog reads:

"Imagin a world with no knees!!! The olympics would be fu*kin great..
How would we get in cars? up stairs? or cycle a bike!!! imagine tryin to put a pair of socks on, man im lucky i have knees.. "

Thank you Kevin, I was having a nice week-end anyway, but you've made it so much better.

“You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Winston Churchill

Friday, 18 December 2009

I got a newsletter through last week from a yoga guru chappie I retreated with in France this summer. Not un-controversially he rarely wore clothes. I mean any clothes. He also unapologetically hit on almost everybody and could often be, by his own admission, rather silly and irritating. Surprisingly maybe, or maybe not, he turned out to be a really good egg. I’d begun the week thinking: “this idiot man is perfectly insufferable”. By the end of it I was really fond of him and his teachings have been useful to me almost every day since.

I’ve often wondered to myself how somebody so bizarre and irritating could simultaneously be so wise and integrated and I can only imagine it may have something to do with his acceptance of his own peculiarities. He doesn’t appear to give much of a stuff what anybody else thinks of him, he’s just himself, doing his thing. Not causing harm to anyone but neither causing harm to himself by denying any part of what and who he is. Just accepting the whole package deal, just as it is.

At the bottom of his newsletter he’d posed the question: “are you ready for yourself?” Hmmmm, I thought. After a few seconds of slightly traumatic brain wracking I realised, to my horror, that the answer is an unambiguous: “No”. It further occurred to me that this is not good. Panic set in.

A few days later though I began to realise that actually it’s not so bad because everything’s changing and change is good. Change, in fact, is great. Which is also good, because, let’s face it, there’s no getting away from change. And through this process of change – sometimes referred to as growing up (!) - every day I’m slowly becoming more ready for myself. I just know it in my bones. So it’s ok. Everything’s going to be alright. Remember that my friends. Everything’s going to be alright.

Then today - still vaguely wondering which of my actions bring me nearer to myself and which further away - I was reading about the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh and it occurred to me it’s a question I’d love to ask them. They’ve just taken sculptor and performance artist Kevin Harman to court over a piece of art he carried out at their gallery in November. Basically, Kevin used a scaffolding pole to smash one of their gallery windows. I know, I know, all one’s middle class sensibilities kick in. Self-righteousness floods the body. But wait… just a second. Because, firstly, Kevin had told the gallery in advance what he was planning on doing. Secondly, and extremely persuasively in my view, he unquestioningly and punctually paid the £350 it cost to replace the window. And thirdly, OK, if he’d smashed the window of someone’s home or of a business premises who didn’t give two hoots about contemporary art and neither did they pretend to, then I’d agree with the courts, of course, that would be vandalism. But that is not the case here. Kevin Harman smashed the window – and even videoed it for the purposes of archival posterity - of a contemporary art gallery whose website states: “We believe that visual art can provide experiences that change the way we look at our world and understand ourselves within it. Collective is a space where people can come to witness, to be challenged, to learn, to experience; a space where adventure is celebrated.” Well, not for poor old Kevin. His little adventure wasn’t celebrated was it?

Harman is a young, little known artist and a student. He’s already done the right thing and coughed up for the broken window, and now he’s got to pay a further £200 for nothing. Oh sorry, for “breach of the peace”. Whose peace? There’s not another sole on the street, apart from an arty looking couple walking arm in arm who seem mildly baffled. Nobody’s bothered. The peace of the Collective Gallery then I assume is what we’re talking about? But they’ve already said they’re game for a bit of adventure in the name of coming to know ourselves within the context of the world we live in. So the argument quickly becomes a circular nonsense. Or at least it does for me and probably for most people with a genuine interest in meaningful contemporary art. I’m thinking of writing to the Collective Gallery and suggesting they change their mission statement to reflect their markedly conservative actions rather than their grandiosely edgy and clearly wildly inaccurate beliefs about who they are.

The video of the work evidences its brilliance. I love the way Harman places the pole back down beside the now broken window with such gentle awareness and then walks quietly away, softly drawing his hair back from his face. What a wonderful thing - contemplative and intelligent and astonishingly gentle.

If that’d had happened at my gallery back in the day I’d have been delighted. I’d have been over the moon to know that someone’s alive out there. Someone’s got passion and bottle and common human decency. Someone’s got something to say that’s worth listening to. “Come in and have a cuppa whilst we call the glazier. Let’s hear all about it.” There’s so much more to do in life than worry about the Jones’s and the state of your bank balance. There’s life to be lived. And it’s really sad that a gallery calling itself ‘Collective’ can’t see that.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

"are you ready for yourself?"

Friday, 11 December 2009

It’s a staggering thing that a person can write 600 words a week on the subject of radio programmes and the result be near addictive every time. I never listen to the radio. Apart from in the car and that’s because the CD player’s broken and I have no idea how to fit the shockingly expensive in car ipod converter that a company called Ipod Car Kit Direct assured me, just before they took my credit card details, any idiot would have working within minutes. Disappointingly the little red LED lights on the dashboard have broken too so the radio is stuck on Heart FM – I swear I never tuned it to that - which means I have to switch the volume down to almost inaudible levels every time a calamitous tune comes on. Which is most of the time. If I’m in bombastic mood I might switch it up for Gloria Gaynor, but otherwise probably not.

I’d love to be the sort of person who listens to Front Row and Woman’s Hour and Jeremy Vine (whoever he is). But I’m just not. How I’d adore to say to friends and family and anyone unfortunate enough to be within ear shot, “oh I heard on Thought for the Day this morning…” But despite my best pretensions towards cultural middle age I just can’t do it. Even a radio programme dedicated to Richard Wright’s £25,000 victory is a turn off. Every time I switch the radio on I’m instantly and invariably gripped by the urge to switch it off again. Which I suppose makes it all the odder that I should be such a fan of Antonia Quirke’s New Statesman radio review column. I almost never have even the slightest clue what she’s talking about, but it’s thoroughly engaging nonetheless. She writes beautifully and with an idiosyncratic random humour. It’s a pleasure to get lost in the eccentricity.

Not so Enrico David’s surrealist strangeness. I can see that for some it’s probably playful and witty and obscure, but it doesn’t tickle my fancy a bit. It’s just not my bag. I do like the other three though. Particularly Roger Hiorns - on first thought more for the sparkly elephantine council house than for the atomised passenger airplane. On further thought, almost the plane more actually. Apparently planes get atomised all the time. That’s just what happens to ex-planes. Retired planes past their useful age. It’s rather a tragedy. Seeing the dust on the floor one is confronted with the theme indisputably central to human life, articulated with such haunting, almost terrifying beauty in Eliot’s immortal line: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

And I like the way Hiorns looks like a school boy. He reminds me of the really clever boy at school. The slightly gawky fellow who looked twelve but had the smarts of a wizened old man. It’s endearing. But I’d best make no further comment on that as I’ve already had my knuckles severely rapped for flagrant sexist objectification of the male of the species in my musings on Me and Orson Welles. Aha, boot on the other foot for a change. And they don’t like it any more than we do!

Former jury member Adrian Searle points out rather wonderfully – as always – that Tomma Abs is the only woman to have won the prize this decade and suggests that this imbalance needs to be addressed. I shall say nothing further on this either, as it’s much better coming from him than from me. It’s a hot one to handle and - once again - I tip my hat to you Mr Searle for having the bottle to get stuck in there.

I was also delighted to encounter the re-introduction of the word ‘beautiful’ into the lexicon of art speak this year, apparently without the encumbrance of the ill-fitting psycho baggage of its type casting in recent years as the embarrassing uncle at your big sisters wedding, who insists on pinching everyone’s bottoms, much to the mortification of all. If Stephen Deuchar and Alan Yentob are both to be heard using the ‘B’ word, seemingly in auspicious tones, to describe Richard Wright’s prize winning and almost universally lauded abstract gold-leaf murals, then it must be ok. Joy.

My favourite comment on this year’s Turner Prize exhibition though came from the perennially peachy Scotsman and former victor Martin Creed: “I think it’s really nice. The works are gentle and soft and nice.” I couldn’t agree more.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

I heard yesterday from a dear girlfriend who, I now discover, is a rubbish source of Hoxton / Hollywood gossip, that Sam Taylor Wood is seeing Zac Efron. I was like, no way, Zac Efron is, like, seventeen. How wrong could I be? A bit of googling informs me that Zac Efron is in fact twenty-two years old and as such perfect toyboy pickings. But it’s of no consequence because it transpires that Sam Taylor Wood is not dating Zac Efron, but is in fact dating some guy called Aaron Johnson. Apparently Aaron Johnson appeared in a teen movie called Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. I saw this movie on the plane back from India. Strangely, I can’t remember what happens in it.

The key fact is though that Zac Efron, star of Me and Orson Welles, looks like a baby faced Marlon Brando. Aaron Johnson slightly less so. But no matter. That he doesn’t look like Lily Allen counts for much.

It’s important to note that there are certain rules of engagement with this sort of thing - the toyboy thing that is. To claim that love knows no bounds is naïve and frankly a little tired. These days, if you’re an older man having an affair with a bimbo half your age, you’re stomping around in fairly passé territory. This argument though is particular only to the bimbo genus. If the female concerned is a thirty-something educated, articulate, demi-goddess, for example, then having an affair with an older man is just fine. However, as a forty-something glamorous, sexy and confident woman about town, taking a hot young toyboy is not only just fine, it is super cool. When I’m ready to take a toyboy - you don’t simply have a toyboy darling, you take one - I will be insisting on one golden rule: he will be at least as beautiful as me at all times. The whole point of a toyboy is that he is, first and foremost, a source of aesthetic wonderment, not just pleasing to the eye, but stomach churningly exquisite. He must, of course, also have a sense of humour, but if he doesn’t look like a Greek God to boot then really, no amount of wit is going to be enough. Zac Efron fits the bill perfectly. Who even cares if this guy is funny.

Anyway, ahem, back to the film review. Sam Taylor Wood has executed what could prove to be a seamless transition from film making as key element in her multi-disciplinary concept driven Turner Prize nominated art practice, to film as populist feature length movie, with the release of her, as they say, ‘directorial debut’, John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy, staring… you guessed it, Aaron Johnson as Lenny. For me, there’s always a huge hurdle to overcome with movies about people whose faces are iconic. It’s almost impossible to suspend disbelief. And anyway, why would you want to? Me and Orson Welles on the other hand is a cracker. And not just because of Zac Efron. Although, let’s face it, mainly because of Zac Efron. And because of Orson Welles. Oh yes, Orson Welles. Him too.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Trafalgar Square is lovely in the rain. It’s grey and shiny; timeless and romantic. The red buses, the turquoise ponds, Landseer’s immovable leonine protectors - reassuringly familiar yet curiously unexpected.

I’m standing in front of the National Gallery, my collar turned up against the December drizzle, looking out over the puddled paving slabs, hearing the ballyhoo of the fountains and listening to my companion recounting tales of the heroism from behind a desk of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park. Apparently he would never have donned such a glamorous flying outfit, but what more fitting site for poetics than our beloved Trafalgar Square.

Inside the home of the national collection of Western art from the 13th to the 19th centuries, the temporary exhibitions we saw are less engaged with the fanciful and idealising aspects of storytelling and more with drawing out the real, whatever that might mean to you or me, or to the artists or curators for that matter.

It has long seemed to me that the tendency of our ever expanding bourgeoisie to decry contemporary art for its perceived dependence on shock tactics, as if such a phenomenon were local to the contemporary alone, could perhaps suggest a want of art historical reference points. If my theory, which is probably about as peculiar to me as shock tactics are to the YBAs, were in need of evidence, it could not be more eloquently presented than by consecutive viewings of The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Paintings & Sculpture 1600 - 1700 and Ed and Nancy Kienholz’s 1980s installation The Hoerengracht, (‘Whore’s Canal’) both currently showing at the National Gallery.

Page one of the bumph describes 17th century Spanish religious art as “stark, austere and often gory, with the intention of shocking the senses and stirring the soul.” That sentence could be transposed word for word to describe the work of so many of today’s artists. Up to a point, it could also describe The Hoerengracht.

The Sacred Made Real is powerfully curated to maximize the emotive potential of the work it shows. Descending the staircase I’m already feeling on the back foot from the psychological impact of plunging downwards into the windowless basement of the Sainsbury wing on a dank rainy afternoon. Once there you’re greeted with nearly black walls and lighting so exaggeratedly spot-lit that in one room I could only just identify the figure hidden in the corner as the gallery’s security presence.

Whether you are in anyway religiously inclined or not, this show is gripping from the moment you enter to the moment you leave. There is a timeless universality that has to be experienced to be understood. Something of the divine is certainly present, perhaps because of, or perhaps despite, the literal subject matter and realistic rendering.

Surprisingly, the pieces that catapulted me most unexpectedly back to territory more familiar – contemporary art - were the sculptural images of Christ.

Occasionally these images of Christ’s suffering hint at latent homo-eroticism, or as my companion chose to put it - ironically a padre himself albeit not of a Christian disposition: “bit porno aren’t they?”

In one or two instances they do more than hint. No coincidence perhaps that Brian Sewell chose an image of Fernandez’s Ecce Homo to accompany his review of the exhibition, describing it as Michelangelesque, by which he means presumably, camp as Christmas. Neither does it come as a great surprise to discover that when the fabric loincloth was removed for restoration purposes in 1989, the genitalia were revealed fully carved beneath. Fernandez had conceived his figure totally naked.

More harrowing is the same artist’s Dead Christ, showing his tragically battered and broken body lying alone on a white sheet. Reminiscent of the notorious Jake and Dinos Chapman sculptural works after Goya’s etchings, this painted wood figure is affectingly gruesome, incorporating bone for the teeth, horn for the finger and toe nails, and glass for the eye balls, as well as the bark of a cork tree painted red to simulate the effect of still warm, coagulating blood.

This scene is usually depicted showing the lamenting figures of the Virgin, Saint John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene. By omitting them, Fernandez invites us to become the mourners, an invitation almost impossible to refuse as our subconscious is powerfully engaged, whether we like it or not, by such a dynamic assault on our ancient archetypal system.

Next door in the Sunley Room a not entirely dissimilar assault is presented to our senses by The Hoerengracht, a life-size sculptural installation showing a part of Amsterdam’s red light district in the 1980s by Ed and Nancy Kienholz. Once again we’re introduced to life like mannequins, now modelled on the real dimensions of the Kienholz’s friends. This time, rather than saints and virgins, we’re being asked to engage with the suffering of prostitutes and pimps. These tragic semi-clad figures sit around in grotty twentieth century Netherlandish windows waiting to appeal to the lowest form of life.

The symbolism is a bit heavy handed. Each face is mounted behind a box frame. Clear gunge seeps down the windows and walls. Otherwise the scene is largely realistic. It isn’t real though of course, it’s art, and oddly enough, taken in that light, I’m not sure it does quite enough. How moving would The Hoerengracht have been seen on its own, rather than in the wake of Sacred?

The physical context also heightens its impact and the National Gallery are keen to highlight, or possibly run the risk of overstating, the polemic nature of the work. Is anyone under 70 really going to be that shocked by the appearance, even in the National Gallery, of explicit reference to the world’s oldest profession?

The only thing that is surprising perhaps is the National Gallery’s prostitution of itself to the demi-God of contemporary art, its pandering to the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for the now. Slightly confusing also, is the mixed message in the form of “crumbs, look how shocking and contentious we’re being” whilst at the same time implying, via the hanging in the ante-chamber to the installation a handful of Dutch master paintings of seventeenth century prostitutes, that prostitution in art has been around almost as long as the profession itself. The curation starts to look a little contrived and attention seeking, and let’s face it, we’ve got Charles Saatchi for that, we don’t need the National Gallery at it too.

Seeing the two shows consecutively they began to merge in my consciousness. After a while I found it difficult to remember where one began and the other ended. Is the spiritual distance between the disparate characters really so great? Or are these exhibitions each presenting us with the martyrs of their own time?

Saturday, 5 December 2009

I went to the launch party of a friend’s vintage couture boutique the other evening. Whilst enthusiastically knocking back the bubbles in Clerkenwell I met a woman who said she used to work for the New York Times. Apparently there were, or possibly are, seven words banned to anyone writing for the New York Times. The list includes ‘spin’. This woman was extraordinarily vociferous in her dislike of the word spin.

“Why?” I asked.

Was it, I wondered to myself, the choice and arrangement of the four letters she had difficulty with? Was it the perceived meaning of the word in its abstract sense? Or was it the implementation in relative terms of the notion of spin?

“It’s lying,” she responded rather tartly. “I don’t like people trying to manipulate me and pull the wool over my eyes. I’ve been taught to question, question, question.”

This whole interchange I found utterly baffling. Firstly, the notion that if one doesn’t like something one should ban the word that speaks of it from ones vocabulary seems a little despotic to say the least. It also seems naïve. Does making class A drugs illegal automatically rid the country of heroine? Errr, no. Will banning the word ‘spin’ from her vocabulary, or even from the vocabulary of the entire New York Times, instantly rid the country of politicians more generously endowed with the talents of recounting a good yarn than of running the country wisely? Equally not I’m afraid. In fact, pretending that something doesn’t exist by means of not openly referencing it, in my experience, usually serves to give it only greater power. Drawing attention away from it, one is effectively protecting it. It becomes the elephant in the room.

Secondly the notion of teaching someone to question is a misnomer. Or rather, if understood effectively, such a teaching will lead, ultimately, to the teaching itself being called into question. As the Buddha said: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own common sense.” So, in the New York Times scenario, if one really were to question, question, question, one would end up questioning the ban itself; probably sticking to the ban, if one values one’s job, but nonetheless questioning it. To internalise the ban and then perceive the internalising process as coming from one’s tendency to question life’s apparent truths is deluded.

And thirdly, I can’t agree that spin is the same as lying. For me there’s a complication with the notion of lying from the kick off because it assumes the notion of an absolute truth and there is almost never an absolute truth to anything. There are myriad different, simultaneous and often conflicting truths, that, when taken in combination, might be understood as some sort of truth. Every person witnessing a car crash, for example, will see something different as a result of their individual physical (and mental, and emotional) perspectives. They will all be right in one way or another. It’s physics.

However, above and beyond this definitive difficulty, to put spin on something cannot be understood in the same way as lying, even in the conventional sense of the word. To lie is to invent a perspective that is not the speaker’s own and that they believe to bear little or no resemblance to any version of the truth as they understand it, as in: “No, I did not eat the last chocolate biscuit,” munch, gulp. To put spin on something is to pick out the element of it that best suits the narrator’s purpose, to recount a story from a favoured perspective, even though one might be aware that other equally valid perspectives do concurrently exist and go unmentioned, as in: “I’m afraid I probably did eat the last chocolate biscuit, darling. They were those rather ropey bourbons you’re not keen on. I’m just nipping out now to get your favourite yummy Gǘ ones. Wait till you get your chops around those, my angel!” That’s not lying. That’s privileging one side of the story over another. We all do that ever time we open our mouths. It’s impossible not to, through the medium of speech at any rate. The only way to be absolutely truthful is to stay schtum. Which I have no intention of doing because pointless pontification is far more fun.

So, now I’ve brought everyone up to speed on the term spin, I thought I might engage in a bit on behalf of the aforementioned vintage couture boutique: www.junosayshello.com - check out that Chloe mini-dress. I want. I want. I want. Ah, now… is that spin or is that a plug? Who cares? I want that Chloe mini-dress.

Friday, 4 December 2009

I received my first Christmas card today. No sooner have you put the last Yuletide nightmare behind you and it’s time for the next. What a pointless waste. Although it’s not pointless of course. Like taxes, it exists to generate income for those smart, or cynical, enough to manipulate it. Christ lived so we could make a buck or two.

Personally I can’t be bothered any more. The whole ghastly thing makes me want to weep. Usually I try and skip the country in favour of a bit of sunshine and solitude. Escape the short days and long nights, the endless grey drizzle, the annual brawl in the turkey aisle at M&S that makes a night club on Coldharbour Lane seem convivial by comparison, and the inevitable farrago of family rows and existential discontentments played out over the backdrop of yet another re-run of Only Fools and Horses. There’s only so many times I can watch David Jason falling comedically through a gap in a bar top before it begins to drive me towards a nervous breakdown. So, usually I prefer to get on an airplane and head for a place where they can’t even pronounce Coca Cola, let alone Santa.

But not this year. This year holidays are a-coming. This year I shall be doing the same as any self respecting middle class Londoner, namely punching fellow passengers out of my path as I make a dive for the last remaining seat on the 15.33 to Crewe, in the process accidentally dribbling the cold remains of my eggnog latte onto the bald pate of the equally wretched fellow now sitting beside me. Oh God. How mind bogglingly monstrous. It makes me feel profoundly depressed. And the more I sit here feeling sorry for myself the more depressing it becomes.

But it’s equally monstrous of me to drivel on so self-pityingly. Self-pity is a pathetic sight.

So I turn my mind, reluctantly if I’m honest, to others. What of others at Christmas time? What about those people who seem not to have a family or friends with whom to share the warmth of Christmas? In this peculiar fragmented society we’ve created, what happens to them on Christmas day and for the interminable weeks running up to it? How rubbish are we to make them feel about themselves as we play out the empty charade of warmth and love under the family Christmas tree, whilst they sit alone in a chilly dank bedsit in Harlesden, or even in a plush tropical mansion block in Kensington. What difference? Loneliness is just as sorrowful in a fur coat as it is in an old fleece.

If Christmas really were the time at which we put ourselves aside and think of others then wouldn't we be doing something as a community to work together to support each other, rather than tanking up Aunty Lily on cheap sweet sherry so she doesn’t hear the domestic meltdown over who burned the goose for the umpteenth year in a row and why the gravy's gone lumpy. Maybe I’m just being naïve but it makes me sad. I feel I should be doing more, or at least doing something, to improve things for others. But what to do? It all sounds so horribly evangelical and self-gratifying.

My wonderful friend Nicky is planning to take her two charming twenty-something sons to help out at the soup kitchen for the day. What an inspiring thing. That’s what I should do and in an odd way that’s what a part of me would like to do.

But what will I do? In all likelihood I’ll sit on the sofa stuffing mince pies down myself, waiting for it to end and feeling terrible for not having done something worthwhile, something generous for a change. The irony is that even from an entirely selfish perspective I really do think it would be a far more gratifying experience to spend the day, or a part of it at least, helping other people - possibly total strangers, possibly not - who aren’t able to help themselves.

Instead of kidding myself that gift giving is my annual altruistic and kindly act, perhaps I should experiment with putting my credit cards away this Christmas and giving from my heart rather than my wallet. Why though is that so much harder than it sounds?

Monday, 30 November 2009

Newsflash (not), sex sells. Advertisers, marketeers, business people, basically everyone except Mary Whitehouse (God rest her soul) can’t get enough of this joyous orgiastic bandwagon. Everyone wants to leap on its back and sell, sell, sell. And the art world is no exception. And never has been.

Interesting it should come at a time when everything our society holds most dearly to its heart, ie money, is in freefall – that suddenly the exhibition circuit is awash with sex. When money is in short supply, wheel out the only thing everyone loves almost as much. Everywhere you look people are shagging. Or if not actually shagging then alluding to it with varying degrees of subtlety or lack thereof. I’m not complaining. It’s the stuff of life and as such an entirely fitting topic to come under the microscope of artistic investigation. It’s just the sheer volume of it that’s surprising.

Take Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy. He’s the first living artist ever to be given the entire gallery space. And what has he filled it with? Sex.

Ok, there’s a bit more to it than that. His work is about the human condition. Its absolutely reductive nature allows space for the viewer to open into, thereby catalysing engagement with the spiritual. Within that context, much of his work is intensely visceral. It’s about the body and the memories stored in the muddle and mass of tissue that constitutes our human physicality.

Whatever. The fact remains that, at what my history teacher used to term a ‘grass roots level’, it doesn’t get much more blatantly sexual – without being a larger than life sized sculpture of the artist shagging his Mrs of course – than Shooting into the Corner. As the title suggests, every twenty minutes a cannon fires its load into the corner. For twenty minutes the tension builds, the anticipation is almost unbearable, finally the performance: violent and deadpan. There’s a loud bang… and it’s all over.

If that weren’t unambiguous enough, two rooms across and we’re looking at Svayambh, translated from the Sanskrit as ‘self-generating’ apparently, wherein a gigantic blood-red loaf on wheels trundles phallically through a series of arches, leaving its gooey mess in its wake. “That’s a very large loaf Anish. You know what they say! Mid-life crisis peut-être?”

And where is this loaf off to? It terminates its trajectory at Slug, a twelve-foot high bright red shiny vulva attached to a Laocoön-esque trail of imperiously writhing tubes. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud.

So, if that’s got you in the mood, then it’s off to Sold Out at Tate Modern, aka Pop Life. Pop Life wonders whether Andy Warhol may have been the first to tread the path since followed by a handful of ǜber-commercial artists, to prostitute their work to such a degree, that arguably, it becomes artistically bankrupt, utterly void of integrity and meaning, and no more intellectually or spiritually relevant than, say, a $3000 handbag or a pair of very expensive pumps. I’m not saying this is my view. I’m not saying it’s Tate’s view. But it is a question worth asking.

What I am saying though is that Andy Warhol didn’t invent vacuity. He didn’t invent selling the everyday as art (and what realm of the every day sells better than sex?) He didn’t invent producing art in such a way that he was able to make a shed load of money out of it. Neither was he the first person to employ a studio full of assistants to help him keep supply in line with demand at the most profitable tipping point. What about Gainsborough? How many versions did his studio knock out of prettified society ladies dressed up as Hebe or some such, wherein he’s painted the face and some minion’s coloured the rest in. Plenty. A whole career based on it. A livelihood. And what about Hogarth? So ecstatic with the popularity of his titillating morality tale A Harlot’s Progress in 1731 he virtually invented etching as we know it so he could hang ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, we’ve all got to make a living. I’m just saying, I don’t think we can lay all the credit, (or blame?) exclusively at Warhol’s door for the ‘Pop’-ularisation of art. Whether popularisation is the same as sell out is another question, but presumably not given the outcome of the row over the proposed title of the exhibition.

But back to the topic du jour. When it comes to no frills sex in art it doesn’t get much more in yer face than Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven series. This guy surely must be a few sandwiches short of a picnic? The reluctant recipient of one too many wedgies in High School perhaps. Just looking at him freaks me out, his gurning faux naïve face conjuring up unwelcome images of a perverse Sunday school teacher. It’s disturbing even before you’ve seen the close-up shots of his ex-wife’s genitalia that dominate Pop Life. And far worse than the work itself is all the random banality he dribbles out about it - cynically or crazily - like some sort of new age motivational fodder for the emotionally depleted: “It's about control, and chaos - do you want to serve or be served? Do you want to show a lot of love to your dog or do you want your dog to bring you the paper? Do you want to show your neighbour the same kind of respect that you'd like for yourself? It's about humankind's relationship to itself, the external world, whether there's a higher power outside of oneself ...”

Bollocks. It’s about money. Money and power and sex. He claims his work isn’t ironic or kitsch. He claims it’s optimistic, it exists (apparently) to make people feel better about themselves. What an altruistic little bunny he is. The whole thing makes me frightened, it really does.

So, it doesn’t get much more in yer face than the horizontal antics of Jeff Koons and La Cicciolina, but, it turns out, it does get a bit more so. The boys have had their stab at it. Now it’s the girl’s turn. And this one takes the biscuit. For the boys it’s all about scale and power. For the girls, a little more interrogative: Andrea Fraser’s 60 minute video Untitled (2004).

Jerry Saltz in an article written in 2007 describes a conversation he had with a fellow critic wherein Saltz mentioned he was writing an article about Fraser and the other guy responded: “Andrea Fraser is a whore”. God Bless America!

In fact Andrea Fraser is not a whore. She’s a performance artist who uses her own body to undertake a highly engaged enquiry into the workings of art institutions. For Untitled (2004) Fraser asked her gallerist to find a collector who would be prepared to pre-buy a piece of video art documenting that collector having sex with the artist. The selection of the collector was left entirely up to the gallery. The result is a silent, unedited video of Fraser in a hotel room having sex with a collector who’d pre-paid an ‘undisclosed sum’ reportedly in the region of $20,000.

It’s a powerfully extreme and honest way to conduct an investigation into the machinations of the commercial art world and the function of art itself. The question it asks is “what do we want from art?” The answer it ultimately provides is “transcendence”.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Miroslaw Balka link on the Tate website is a very irritating piece of over-engineering.

Tate consistently brings us superb, if sometimes overly monumental, exhibitions. Recently though I’ve noticed an increasing Tate tendency (Tate-ency?) towards what, for want of a better word, I’ll borrow from Baudrillard and call the Disney-isation of exhibitions, in a way that could, perhaps contentiously, be seen as the slippery slope of insidious artistic sabotage.

Miroslaw Balka’s Unilever commission is a hulking yet unexpectedly beautiful steel shipping container, raised on Corbusier-esque stilts, sitting like a misplaced and unfathomably vast UFO at the far end of the Turbine Hall.

You can walk around it. If you’re brave enough, you can walk under it. And at the back, the ramp is gently lowered, enticing you to walk into, its dark cavernous depths. Inside is the void. Part warm and inviting womblike peace regained, part unknown and destabilising day trip to hell - a sense perhaps of the double-edge of eternity.

Conceived as the equal and opposite of Eliasson’s gigantic sun, as dark as The Weather Project was light, Balka’s How It Is will probably call to mind for many of us disturbing narratives of persecuted peoples. Balka grew up in a town in Poland in which 75 per cent of the population had been exterminated in the death camps and inevitably that informs his creativity. But How It Is also speaks symbolically and poetically of that which lies beyond the beyond.

Walking up the ramp to enter this installation is a collective, visceral experience. It brings the participant experientially into touch with our own boundaries and fears, whilst simultaneously we are reassured by a strong sense of the same in others, as we all edge tentatively and disjointedly through the deep, absorbent, warm darkness towards who knows what.

At one point I thought I’d bumped into a particularly inanimate being, but eventually realised I’d reached the end and what I was touching was the surprisingly soft, velvety reassurance of the inside wall. The person next to me I couldn’t see, or even make out a shadow of, but I heard his disembodied voice gently enquire: ‘is that it?’ Whether he was referring to the end wall, the significance of Balka’s work, or the meaning of life hardly matters. ‘I’m afraid so,’ responded another eerie voice.

Miroslaw Balka’s Unilever commission is a significant piece of theatrics, and I don’t say that with even a hint of denigration. I found it to be an awesome and inspiring creation. Consequently, in trying to research it retrospectively, and starting with Tate’s website, I find myself wondering: does it really need Ghost Train inspired technological spinnery, clicking and bleeping and silly spooky noises to big it up?

Which gets me to wondering once again whether Richard Long’s exhibition at Tate Britain needed floor to ceiling sized multi-coloured bits of text riding rough shod over the enigmatic subtlety of the work in order to keep us in the moment? Or could that have been curatorial ego inserting itself where it didn’t need to be?

And what about the ludicrous Andy Warhol portrait wallpaper, or whatever it’s supposed to be, in room 3 of the Pop Life show? Given the theme of that exhibition is the commodification and popularisation of art you might think it’s more in keeping there, but the fact that it’s just one example amongst many suggests that’s not the reason it’s there.

Presumably these curatorial add-ons are provided for us because someone somewhere imagines Joe Public to have the attention span of a gnat, and without a constant barrage of over stimulation to the senses, he’ll probably just wander off to the pub or something. Although, let’s face it, with the number of eateries and drinking holes at Planet Tate, even if he does choose bodily refreshment over visual and intellectual stimulation, it’s still cash in the bank for Tate.

Business is business; I appreciate that, and certainly a hell of a lot of people visit Tate and get much pleasure from it. A reported twenty million people have visited the Turbine hall since it opened nearly ten years ago, so they’re certainly getting a lot of things spot on right and I applaud them for that.

But could not the very question that Pop Life raises also be asked of Tate itself? Firstly, is Tate selling out? And secondly, are we, the general public, really such a bunch of half-witted troglodytes, needing everything to be in primary colours and twenty feet high, or bearing more than a passing resemblance to a win or lose computer game, in order for us to take a sustained interest in it? Personally I think not.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

"An art dealer is like a plastic surgeon. You want to go to someone you can trust."

Saturday, 14 November 2009

"When you're in downward facing dog you're not a human being pretending to be a dog; you are that dog."
David Life

Friday, 13 November 2009

I read last night that the so-called Jungian psychologist of love Aldo Carotenuto believed we humans find ambiguity so troublesome to deal with because “very few have the courage or the strength to hold the tension between opposites until a completely new standpoint emerges, because, in acknowledging contradictory truths, one has to create an inner equilibrium to keep from being torn in two.”

Ambiguity is certainly tricky. One wants things to be either one thing or another, not a little bit of both. It’s so much easier to see the world in black and white, to contain ones experiences in a series of neat little boxes with the appropriate label clearly annotated on the front, preferably typed and laminated so it doesn’t risk getting wet and doing nasty smudging things that might open the door, once again, to the horrors of ambiguity.

It’s all very well to know this intellectually. In fact knowing things intellectually is a piece of cake compared to living the knowledge, incorporating the knowledge into the choices one makes as one bumbles through life. I’ve begun to wonder even if it mightn’t be the case that the more one claims to ‘know’ things, the less one really knows anything, for to ‘know’ something intellectually is to close the door on myriad other possibilities that might also be true. Perhaps a claim to ‘know’ something is little more than an expression of the impossible desire to eradicate inherent ambiguity from ones own mind?

An erstwhile friend of mine used always to know everything. Whenever I’d say anything about anything, even my own personal emotional responses to circumstances I had experienced, she’d respond: ‘I know that’. After a while it started to sound defensive. Does the act of knowing something somehow distance one from the fear of the possibility that one might not know - the fear of the ambiguity and uncertainty of not knowing?

To ‘know’ is very self-affirming. To allow that one might not know, perhaps one needs either a very stable sense of self or else a faith in something beyond the self.

It’s all very well my observing other people’s wont always to know, but the truth is I wish I could let go of my own need to know. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be happy not knowing; to kick back and go with it, wherever it’s going and whatever it may be? To have sufficient faith that I could be content simply to believe that ultimately it’ll be alright, rather than having to know, for the sake of my own peace of mind, the details of what exactly it is, or will be, in relative, academic terms.

I went to an interactive performance at the David Roberts Art Foundation last week called Conversations with the Other Side by Sidsel Christensen and Ben Judd. There were about sixty of us in the basement. We were all instructed to sit down on one huge piece of paper. The performance went on for an hour and nobody was to enter or leave during that time. It was all rather serious.

At the start Ben explained that he was going to put Sidsel into a trance. Sidsel would then act as a medium for the audience in an attempt to bridge the gap between the audience and the beings existing on the other side. It sounded a bit bonkers and I was curious to know whether it was all very ironic and amusing or whether Ben and Sidsel really were intending to attempt some sort of clairvoyancy in Great Titchfield Street, W1.

An hour later I was no wiser. Had Sidsel really been in a trance? Had we really been conducting a conversation with beings from another dimension?

It didn’t occur to me until some while afterwards that it might not be so simple as a case of either or. Predictably my pedant’s brain had leapt at the default position of neat little boxes. Pleasingly it turned out that Conversations with the Other Side is based on a creative investigation into ambiguity. It seems Ben and Sidsel are interested in the point at which world’s collide and barriers become de-stabilised; not only between this and other dimensions, but also within our selves as individuals and within our countless inter-dependent communities.

Ben Judd’s work relies on the tension between belief and non-belief. Unlike most of us who spend our lives on a ceaseless quest for resolution and stability, Judd is on a quest for the unresolved in-between position. Instead of fighting it, Judd is proposing the position, or perhaps non-position, of inconsistency and ambivalence as fundamental truth. He seems to be embracing the very unknown that most of us are in a constantly unsuccessful battle to resolve.

“I would like to believe in clairvoyance and when I stood up in front of a class and tried to demonstrate my clairvoyance, I felt that I did do it in a genuine sense. On the other hand, I think it is absolute nonsense – a ridiculously constructed experience for everyone. Being a non-believer or an atheist is still also a belief system. I try to become the medium through which other people experience these different positions. Hopefully people can see from my own expressions that I am going through this very intensive period of questioning. Hopefully they can put themselves in my position….. The idea of questioning your own beliefs is very important. I don’t want to find a position of stability.” Ben Judd

Perhaps in a way Conversations with the Other Side is a metaphor for art itself. Perhaps that is the raison d’etre behind the creation of and engagement with art – to act as a facilitator in helping us suspend our limiting beliefs, ejecting us from our comfortable, rationalised, safe positions and forcing us out into the terrifying, but ultimately liberating, waters of ambiguity and the unknown.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

thought for the day: a bit of hurling oneself at the floor is good for the soul
I’ve come across a handy euphemism this week. What used to be referred to as making a pass at someone, coming on to, hitting on, etc is now apparently known as being ‘informal’.

I haven’t yet ascertained quite where the boundaries of informality lie. Evidently the ‘my wife doesn’t understand me and when do you get off work’ chat does count as informality. As does, when tea and chat are clearly over, hovering on a person’s doorstep looking ever hopeful, rather than simply leaving. Informality can also include hovering on the doorstep for so long that one is eventually nudged off it on the end of a polite finger and with the gentle repetition of the word ‘bye’. In some cases informality can include gazing into someone’s eyes, telling them how lovely they are, resting a weary head on their shoulder and enquiring as to their current romantic status and what sort of things they cook for supper. Oh yes girls, it’s the twenty-first century alright.

Whether the term informality expands so far as to include the antics of Boris Becker and the broom cupboard is anyone’s guess.

Saturday, 24 October 2009


Dusk, deserted road, and suddenly
I was a goat. To be truthful, it took
two minutes, though it seemed sudden,
for the horns to pop out of my skull,
for the spine to revolutionise and go
horizontal, for the fingers to glue
together and for the nails to become
important enough to upgrade to hoof.
The road was not deserted any more, but full
of goats, and I liked that, even though I hate
the rush hour on the tube, the press of bodies.
Now I loved snuffling behind his or her ear,
licking a flank or two, licking and snuffling here,
there, wherever I liked. I lived for the push
of goat muscle and goat bone, the smell of goat fur,
goat breath and goat sex. I ended up on the edge
of the crowd where the road met the high
hedgerow with the scent of earth, a thousand
kinds of grass, leaves and twigs, flower-heads
and the intoxicating tang of the odd ring-pull
or rubber to spice the mixture. I wanted
to eat everything. I could have eaten the world
and closed my eyes to nibble at the high
sweet leaves against the sunset. I tasted
that old sun and the few dark clouds
and some tall buildings far away in the next town.
I think I must have swallowed an office block
because this grinding enormous digestion tells me
it’s stuck on an empty corridor which has
at the far end, I know, a tiny human figure.

Jo Shapcott

The good thing about Damien Hirst’s latest batch of work, his first ‘serious’ foray into painting by his own hand, is that they reproduce fairly well. Unfortunately this means that when one sees them in the flesh some disappointment, if not jaw dropping horror, may result.

Poor old Damo. However rich and successful and bravade one is, it must sting to have almost every art critic on the planet pan the creative results of your latest existential crisis. I don’t particularly want to add my voice to the cacophony, but it’s difficult to get around the fact that these paintings really are so dreadful there’s almost nothing can be said in their defence.

Historically I’ve always been rather a fan of Damien Hirst. The early formaldehyde works were bold, brave and eloquent, they captured the voice of a generation whilst simultaneously creating a truly pivotal moment in the history of British Art making. On top of that he’s a unique showman and entertainer, a powerhouse of energy and an incredibly savvy businessman. All that in one man is pretty exceptional and I take my hat off to him.

So what’s occurring now?

The main problem, or perhaps one of many problems, seems to be that we’re seeing a conceptual sculptor painting. It’s a brave transition to make. Stepping beyond the tried and tested is no mean feat. Pushing personal boundaries takes guts - nobody can take that away from him. I’m just not sure of the wisdom of taking up a practice for more or less the first time and in under three years expecting to produce work that’ll stand up alongside the likes of Poussin, Velaszquez, Gainsborough, Frans Hals etc. Maybe a bit ambitious? Ambition is a laudable enough trait but it needs to be served with temperance. To make the transition from sculptor to painter is a big deal. It’s not going to happen overnight. Transitions take time and if they’re not allowed that time, if they’re rushed, then someone usually ends up with egg on their face. And the worst part of it is that the person wearing the slightly foolish eggy grin usually can’t see it. It all becomes a bit embarrassing. Trying to run before you can walk is rarely a smart move. I know because I’ve tried it often enough, and always to my detriment. Impatience and sagacity never go hand in hand.

The whole sticky mess puts me in mind of the poker player’s mantra: “to master poker you must first master patience and discipline. A lack of either is a sure fire disaster, irrespective of other talents.” Ironically the characteristics that got Hirst where he is today are probably going to be the same that’ll be his undoing.

It’s not just Damien. There’s a lot of terrible painting out there, and a lot of mediocre derivative painting, which, for my money, might almost be worse. But one artist who is neither of these is Gideon Rubin, whose work is currently forming the inaugural show at Rokeby’s new location on Hatton Wall.

One of the first things that struck me about the installation of paintings that makes up the exhibition ‘1929’ was – if you’ll excuse my coining a very cheesy phrase - its almost breath taking beauty. And for the Parmesan shavings: it literally stopped me in my tracks. It did!

For a while now the art world has been on a bit of a downer as far as beauty is concerned, particularly with regard to painting, which I think is a bit of a shame. Whilst ‘pretty pretty’ probably isn’t my thing, at the same time I don’t find anything inherently problematic with something retaining a degree of visual appeal. For me visual appeal does not automatically equate to conceptual vacuity. It seems a fairly valid notion that a thing can look good and also have interesting things to say, maybe even interesting things to say on the subject of why it looks good. Just recently it has seemed as though if a painters work isn’t down right ugly, then it’s immediately dismissed as running dangerously close to being purely decorative. And of course nobody wants to be that or even anything approaching that. So we all make sure we back the really really ugly painting so that even the uninitiated couldn’t imagine for a second that the work we are associated with is anything other than serious with a capital ‘S’. Well, call me arrogant and patronising (yes, don’t worry, I’ve been called worse, I can take it on the chin) but I think I can tell the difference between a painting that is primarily decorative and a painting that is beautiful and at the same time conceptually challenging. I know, frightfully superior aren’t I!

Gideon Rubin’s paintings are largely figure and group scenes, underpinned by an atmosphere of elusive narrative. Personally identifying features are erased or ambiguous inviting the viewer to project our own half forgotten stories onto these near archetypal compositions, ripe with a sense of overlaid history, both pictorially and metaphorically. Therein lies the beauty probably, the realisation of the otherwise inaccessible – the hidden self. This is contemporary painting at its best.

Unlike the work of the infamous Mr Hirst (whose Blue Paintings are already sold to Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk) at a couple of grand a piece Rubin’s paintings aren’t even that expensive. If I had a few quid to spare I know where they’d be going. Oh well, roll on the good times. So whilst I’m still waiting for that to happen I hope it’s not yet too late for me to hear the notoriously ill-mannered Thom Yorke’s nonetheless wise words: “as soon as you get any success you disappear up your own arse.”

Friday, 23 October 2009

Artist Helene Appel graduated her MA from the Royal College of Art, London in 2006. The first commercial gallery to show her work subsequent to that was Beverley Knowles Fine Art later that year. Since then she has exhibited with (amongst others), doggerfisher, The Outpost Gallery, Norwich (selected by Gavin Turk), Rachmaninoff’s, London, and The Approach. Her work is currently featured in Art Now: Beating the Bounds at Tate Britain until 13 December 2009 and is shortly to feature in Newspeak: British Art Now at The Saatchi Gallery in June 2010.
I thought it might be fun to adopt an alter-ego. If it’s good enough for Grayson Perry it’s good enough for me. Not that I want to ponce about in a frock and an alice band on channel 4 (oh no wait, I’ve already done that) or charge £65 for a neck scarf (sad to report I haven’t done that) - but it would be useful to have a foil.

I’m not sure what I imagine the role of alter-ego to be. The worst version of me? Someone who yells racist slurs out of the car window at offence giving fellow motorists driving up your exhaust pipe when you’re trying to reverse park in Deptford? Obviously I’d never do that.

Or the best version of me? That’s trickier. First thought best thought. Tehching Hsieh. Ok, that’s that then - my alter-ego is cult hero and 59 year old Taiwanese performance artist living in Brooklyn with his wife Qinqin Li.

I have dodgy ankles from a performance piece I did in Taiwan in 1973 that involved jumping out of a second floor window and recording it on Super 8.

So what’s so great about that? So some nutter jumped out of a window when he was twenty-three, broke his ankles and called it art? So what?

So everything. There is nothing else.

Tehching Hsieh is famous for his one-year performances that took place in New York in the 80s. Each performance was prefaced with a statement.
On 30 September 1978 Hsieh wrote:
“I, Sam Hsieh, plan to do a one year performance piece, to begin on September 30, 1978.
I shall seal myself in my studio, in solitary confinement inside a cell-room measuring 11’6” x 9’8”.
I shall NOT converse, read, write, listen to the radio or watch television, until I unseal myself on September 29, 1979.
I shall have food everyday.
My friend, Cheng Wei Kuong, will facilitate this piece by taking charge of my food, clothing and refuse.”

If that doesn’t sound staggering it’s only because most of us, myself included of course, have so little idea as to how fantastically traumatic such an experience would be.

In 1981/2 Hsieh lived outside for a year. He did not go into a building, subway, train, car, airplane, ship, cave or tent for a full year. He had a sleeping bag only - in New York, which as we know, gets cold.

The point is he did these things not by accident, not in the course of life simply unfolding in the way that life does, but with self-awareness, consciously, as ‘art’. As performance art he was able to identify with what was happening to him and to witness it at the same time. That’s the difference between simply doing something and undertaking it as a piece of durational performance art in this way. He was able to see it. He employed positions of physical, emotional and mental extremes over sustained periods to investigate the notion of art and life as pure simultaneous processes. This is quite something. This is intellectual commitment to artistic practice second to none. This is passion with a capital ‘P’.

Having spent the last decade or so living in relative obscurity Hsieh has now released a book, so everyone’s talking about him again. Even Hans Ulrich Obrist calls him: “one of the great artists of our time. With immense courage, Tehching Hsieh revolutionised performance art.” And what Mr Obrist says goes, awight!?

So I’m wondering… when I’ve got an alter-ego will life be simpler? Will having an alter-ego help me to step back from the pain and the joy? To see them instead of always having to be them? I’m afraid to say the question that begins to emerge, to quote that immortal piece of cinematic history, Brian Johnson in The Breakfast Club (1985), is – “who am I?”
There’s wisdom in the strangest places:
“Saturday, March 24,1984. Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois, 60062. Dear Mr. Vernon, We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong. But we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us - in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. That's the way we saw each other at 7 o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.” (How overjoyed I was to spot the poster for that film in Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation Cavemanman (2002) in Walking In My Mind.)

And why limit myself to one alter-ego? Forget who do you want to invite to a dinner party. Who do you want to be? Hell, who are you? When you see the holy light what’s it going to look like? The Dalai Lama? Robbie Williams? JJ Charlesworth? the bank manager? (oh come on) Lucrezia Borgia? Japan’s favourite poet? Yayoi Kusama? Dr Who? Maggie Thatcher? (oh my God) Thích Nhất Hạnh? Joseph Beuys? John and Edward? Josephine Baker? Ziggy Marley? (“I don’t condemn. I don’t convert.”) Albert Einstein? Tehching Hsieh? just plain me?…. or the whole lot … simultaneously?

I think I’ll name my alter-ego Ann-Lee after the Manga character Pierre Huyghe & Philippe Parreno bought the rights to in 1999. A bit of attempting to free myself symbolically from my fixed position as product and to question the nature of identity and particularly my identity is just what I’m in the mood for.

What are we anyway? Are we all one? Are we all just the world manifesting? On a good day I think we probably are. On a bad day everyone else can go to hell. That’s what Ann Lee thinks anyway.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

if it's good enough for Zwirner, it's good enough for me!

om namah shivaya
I bow to my inner Self, the Divine in me and Others

Monday, 5 October 2009

So good it deserves quoting verbatim:

October 2009
Value Added
State of the Art
The myriad uses of art and artists
Dominic Eichler
(contributing editor of frieze)

"I have an artist-friend who enjoys a healthy sense of personal satisfaction and an externally verified, peer-assessed sense of worth. In the last few years he has had a steady run of success with galleries, critics, curators and collectors, although he has not yet become a household name, nor made enough money to live lavishly. He recently told me an anecdote which drove home, once again, the otherworldliness of contemporary art. His story is ostensibly about money, but my point is not to dwell on that, but rather on those moments when ‘art people’ realize that the only ones who really understand them are other art people.
Facing his own cash-flow crunch, my artist-friend had to go begging for patience at the tax office, where he explained that the cultural capital he had painstakingly accrued over the past decade hadn’t granted him much leeway with regards to revenue collection. At around the same time, he had also to go explaining his sorry financial situation to his local bank branch in Berlin – a city that contains more art and more artists than almost anywhere else in the world. There, after looking through his financial affairs – the fiscal equivalent of an intimate medical examination – the nice enough woman sitting behind her plastic desk at the bank confessed to him in a solemn whisper: ‘I could never live like you do.’ The first thing that entered his head, and remained there, was, ‘And I could never live like you do, either.’
What her statement implied was that she would never want to be an artist because: a) you don’t get paid regularly, if at all; b) she couldn’t see the real-world value of the profession; and c) she feels quite comfortable with maintaining her opinion because everything she knows about the expansive and difficult subject of art has confirmed to her that it is close to the bottom of her ‘relevant’ pile and can stay there. There are myriad variations on this story: the protagonist might be a young intern, an impassioned student of art history, a writer, almost any freelance curator, even a brave-faced gallerist. The scene could take place somewhere else: at a parent’s kitchen table, at a yawnsome school reunion or in an out-of-the-blue email. But the leading question will always be: ‘What are you doing now?’ To many civilians, art people are still suspicious aliens. Money might talk in shrill tones, but the same widespread incomprehension can greet even extremely well-heeled members of the art world. In other words, the suspicion with which art is generally
regarded does not stem from the fact that only a few can live well from it.
Even with things being a bit economically wobbly recently, those involved in the art world are unlikely to win much sympathy, since they are still thought of as a bunch of snobby and spoilt purveyors of highly specialized luxury goods which may or may not be a splendid investment or look half-pleasant hanging on the wall. So why on earth do we in the art world continue to do what we do? Is it possible to mount a reasonable defence, which might make sense to the sceptical bank clerk or lay person, or even just to comfort ourselves in dark moments of existential doubt?
Ranging from the serious and seductive whisper to the arms-waving, tearfully impassioned plea (OK, just drunk and exasperated), all of the following points are ones I have tried in conversation, to mixed results:
art is the only place left that still allows a relatively autonomous, wild and profound discussion on just about anything that matters to anyone and everyone; art is just as pointless, useless and necessary as any other activity in the world; while there has arguably never been a truly adequate depiction of art in film or on television, no good film or television programme could have been conceived without lessons learnt from art; whether justified or not, contemporary art has symbolic power in Western culture, and this power gives art context, responsibility and agency; art can transform images, things and situations into more than they would be if art didn’t exist; art is the sibling of language, and sometimes they have good fights; art embraces the absurd, irrational and irreverent; art people often abandon conservative notions of family; art has a wayward conscience in an unconscionable world; there are gender issues and all kinds of racial and sexual discrimination in art, but at least they are being discussed as problems; art is preferable to religion because it’s not about finding a ‘one size fits all’ resolution; some experiences of art can be better than the best love affairs; history shows that art is what remains; art is an alternative value system; art is in everything people do, so someone needs to address that; there are hierarchies within art, but they are volcanically volatile – bursts of energy can come from nowhere and change the landscape overnight; the idea of art is nimble enough to defy definition; art loves problems, misfits, hermits and the reckless; art challenges death and despair; art may be full of contradictions, but at its core lies the idea of championing freedom."

Thursday, 1 October 2009

There was a squirrel chasing the cat across the garden the other day. Then today a squirrel came into the lounge and buried a gigantic nut in one of my pot plants. “You should write children’s stories,” one of my friends said. But it was true. I’m not good at making stuff up.

And I cooked a cake. My first ever cake. It didn’t rise in the middle. My friend who I was bridesmaid for was visiting from Hong Kong. What more do you want from a trip to Blighty than a flat Victoria Sponge lovingly made in Ladbroke Grove? How very English. In fact - my friend’s husband generously offered - there’d have been no problem with the cake at all if the words Victoria Sponge hadn’t been mooted. Ah, labels, labels, labels… “dirt is just matter in the wrong place.”

My grandmother used to cook cakes. Not that successfully if lightness is valued above stability. Tedious conventionality - means nothing. Knowles folklore tells of one occasion when she tripped whilst carrying one of the finer of her fruit genus. Allegedly it bounced off the floor and not a crumb was lost. There’s always more than one definition of success. It was the war. How’s one to create lightness on rations?

And I met two pet piggies: Salt and Pepper, who were divine. And I met a yogi called Godfrey who believed in the divine, a quality I admired very much – but not in wearing clothes overly - interrupts the flow of chi apparently.

I slept in an eco-dome under the stars and went to the loo out of doors. It was heaven. Although I didn’t recognise it as such at the time. But then I had Proust to remind me of the profound odiousness of human nature. You don’t read Proust to restore your faith in humanity. And you definitely don’t read Proust in A&E if you’re looking for reassurances whilst your world’s slowly crumbling. Rather like A&E, not a lot happens. Or not a lot is perceived to be happening, which may or may not be the same thing, but probably isn’t, although it could be. Nonetheless, if you like a book wherein not a lot happens this might be the puppy for you. The plot began to thicken last night when our hero / anti-hero depending on your perspective, left his bedroom to go and visit the neighbours. I still probably wouldn’t call it a page turner quite but there’s truth there. Underweight plot, overweight truth. And let’s face it nobody wants too much of that. It gets a bit much to stomach after a while. Too much truth doesn’t sit that well on top of the fried plantain and okra.

Meanwhile Jill Magid’s telling me: ‘I can burn your face’ and then, more alarmingly… ‘the secret itself is much more beautiful than its revelation.’

Is it ‘real’ or isn’t it? A question only Jeff Koons can truly put a bullet through. After two visits to the Serpentine this summer – that’d be two visits too many - it wasn’t long before I could no longer give a monkey’s uncle whether anything is ‘real’ or not. To quote the awesome Scotsman Momus: “Every lie creates a parallel world. The world in which it is true.” Whilst Koons speaks like someone who’s learned the twelve steps parrot fashion and not very well.

A much more subtle and engaging enquiry into the blurring of the boundaries between the ‘real’ and the imagined is Authority to Remove (Tate Modern, Level 2, until 3 January 2010). I really don’t care that somebody can make a piece of aluminium look like an inflatable and then make it two dimensional and then paint boobs on it. And then strut about like a peacock playing with smoke and mirrors. I care so little it makes me cross. It makes me very cross. The profound pretending to be banal? Or the banal pretending to be profound? If I were one of those crashing bores who go on about such things I might care to mention tax payer’s money. But I’m not, so forget I mentioned it. Except if it were so banal I suppose I wouldn’t be so cross… but I’m in no mood to investigate that right now so I’ll gloss over it and get back to the surreal and the hyperreal, wherein I’m far happier this particular evening.

I’m not sure if this Jill Magid exhibition is real or isn’t real. At first I thought it was real and then I realised it wasn’t real, but then I wasn’t sure again. And now I’ve no idea. Can she burn my face? Can she burn anyone’s face?

Answer me that Popeye or the squirrel gets it.

Friday, 14 August 2009


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

What’s needed now is a toy boy. My friend’s got one. Hers is great. So now I want one. She kept telling me hers was twenty-eight, but eventually it popped out he’s not twenty-eight until next birthday.
“And when’s his birthday?”
So that’ll be twenty-seven then. Any discernible twist of bitterness in my voice is exclusively down to the fact that I am green with envy. And I’ve noticed lately that getting older doesn’t necessarily mean getting smarter. Was it Tom Stoppard who said “wisdom is a high price to pay for getting old”? And let’s face it, not everybody’s in on the kickback. So why bother? Well ones got to of course. And that’s ok. I don’t think I mind that so much. Well actually that’s nonsense. I mind terribly. Who wants to get old and saggy? And who wants to die? Be honest. Nobody. But there’s no getting out of it, and I’m certainly not about to have an industrial strength hoover attached to the back of my head to suck the skin out of my eyes and take my brain with it. So I’ll just have to learn to live with it. Aging that is. And in that light, a toy boy will do nicely. It’ll be liberating; moving away from the drab idea of getting married that everyone seems to be so sold on. Even the nicest, apparently brightest people seem eventually to succumb to this bizarre eccentricity, this anomaly of the twenty-first century. Do I sound like some sort of hairy arm pitted bra burning lesbian? Probably. Oh well. My meditation teacher told me on Sunday (the new one, the old one’s Benny Hill moments were starting to get up my nose) that the point of meditation is not so much to make yourself a better person but to make yourself more accepting of the person you are. So sometimes I run the risk of sounding like a hairy arm pitted lesbian. So what?

And whilst I’ve already dug that particular social grave for myself I might as well crack on and tell you that I went to an exceptionally brilliant evening at the ‘Tate Moderna’ the other week-end – Once More with Feeling – an abbreviated history of feminist performance art curated by visual artist Oriana Fox, supported by The Women’s Art Library and Goldsmiths’. I could wax on for hours about this. It’s so my bag. But I’m vaguely aware that boring an audience rigid with tales of what fun something was is not the way to their hearts, so I’ll keep it brief. If I may I’ll just impose upon you one tiny art historical aside for the benefit of those who may be interested but not especially au fait with performance art, and that is that performance art at its inception, ie around the 60s, was lassoed by women artists, mainly, or rather partly, because performance as a medium was young enough to avoid carrying much of the baggage of historical male colonisation that say painting and sculpture unavoidably came and continue to come with.

The first thing I saw at this extravaganza of feminist performance art history, besides a sea of eccentric looking women of all ages, was two women in wedding dresses, one strapped to a cardboard model of a nuclear missile holding up a placard reading: ‘This demonstration is the happiest day of my life.’ I knew immediately I was at home. Entitled ‘Brides Against the Bomb’ this was first performed by Shirley Cameron and Evelyn Silver at Greenham Common and this re-enactment at Tate was the first time it had been seen inside a gallery. Without wishing to sound ungenerous (although if I do, so what!??) the fact is, if you don’t get this then nothing I can say will help. So I’ll leave it with you.

The rest of the evening was a series of updated honorific references to performance work by a huge range of women artists from Orlan to Yayoi Kusama to Yoko Ono to the brilliant Cunt Cheerleaders, whose performance at Fresno State College in 1970 involved the four artists donning satin cheerleader costumes adorned variously with the letters C U N and T and chanting light-hearted transgressive cheers to women – an attempted re-appropriation of a slang term for a fairly harmless and thoroughly indispensable part of the human anatomy that has somehow found itself the most offensive word in the English language. I’m not sure whether or not it worked but the performance was hilarious and very cheering.

Another high point was an homage to Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh who bound themselves together by way of an eight foot rope for one full year in 1983/4. Oriana Fox added an interesting twist to the reproduction in asking her divorced parents to play the protagonists – although for one evening only this time, not one year. Over from stateside for the week the estranged old pair seemed a little baffled but game enough to have a go. Towards the end of the evening I spotted Mr Fox standing on a chair trying to get a better view of a particularly gripping performance piece, whilst the much shorter erstwhile Mrs Fox was left standing on the floor looking at the back of the tall fellow in front. One began to see why divorce might have found itself on the cards for that particular famille.

Or perhaps we girlies have brought it on ourselves have we? Perhaps, as we’re often told by people who apparently know about these things, perhaps chivalry and feminism don’t make particularly compatible bedfellows. I rather disagree. I think feminism and chivalry have a lot in common. Both have much to do with respect and generosity towards oneself and other. Or perhaps it’s me who doesn’t get it is it? Perhaps. But then… so what?!