'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

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Rumour has crystallised into copy – blood on the walls and one foot in the grave - the ICA could well be dead by May.

When I was at Goldsmiths’ in 2000, the art content of my MA in contemporary art history consisted of the tutors telling me to go to the ICA. That might suggest that the ICA is the heartland of London’s contemporary art scene, but I’m not really sure it is these days.

I love the ICA. Contemporary art aside – priorities people, priorities! - the bar is the perfect after hours hang out in an otherwise fairly derelict area of town, joyfully free of city boys, American tourists and acrylic nails, and vending those yummy wasabi coated peanuts. The cinema programming is second to none, showing a glut of wonderful movies and documentaries you can’t see anywhere else. Lastly, and in all honesty, probably least, some of the exhibitions are interesting too. Up to a point. But the fact is the programming hasn’t kept up with the pace of change elsewhere across our colourful metropolis and over the decades what was once the edgy place to be has become just one of a generous helping of places showing mid-career good but tried and tested contemporary art. Sorry folks, I know we all love to love the ICA, but it’s true.

In recent years the ICA has failed to maintain a strong identity for itself. Not quite edgy niche – that place is now filled by a small handful of really meaningful idiosyncratic little spaces, both commercial and not, largely dotted out in the middle of nowhere, somehow managing to scrape together the resources to support dynamic programmes of genuinely innovative and seemingly un-commercial multi-disciplinary work. Neither is it the staggering behemoth-like Cathedral to modernity and contemporaneity that Tate Modern has burst into, relegating everything else to its shadow. Mr Serota, with his incredible success on Bankside may have brought the Monty Python foot down more or less smack in the middle of the ICA’s once dominant skyline. However, success always has its victims and if the ICA didn’t see it coming and act accordingly then we certainly can’t be blaming Great Uncle Nick. And let’s face it, we wouldn’t dare.

No, the ICA has just become too darn ordinary, a bit long in the tooth, a bit wrinkly, crinkly and set in its ways. The space itself doesn’t even really work that well. A bit of exhibition here, a bit there, a bit in the bar, a bit in the corridor and a bit up thirteen thousand flights of stairs. That’s alright if you’re engaging the quirkiness somehow, but to work around it as if it’s an issue you aren’t even seeing any more isn’t really good enough. So, maybe it’s a relocation they need? Somewhere cheaper and edgier. That’d be a massive gust of fresh air. Get the blood pumping again.

Anyway, the death knell rang out once and for all when, at the insistence of Arts Council England apparently, and as a condition of a fairly fatish bail-out loan last year, they scrapped the day membership fee allowing entrance to non-members. Not surprisingly, since then nobody, bar one or two stalwarts, has bothered to renew their annual membership. A few other unforeseen goings on and revenue fell off a cliff. Tricky. It seems to me though, and perhaps I’m financially naïve, well, there’s no perhaps about it, I am financially naïve, but I’ll ask the question anyway… with all the wealth that’s knocking about in contemporary art these days, can’t they tempt some generous collector / benefactor into bailing them out? There must be a lot of cache in that for some wealthy wannabe. Alan must know a few big hitters mustn’t he? OK, I can see that would put a different slant on things, and we’d have to listen to the fantastically dull conflict of interests brigade once again, but at least it’d stave off closure for a while. And after all, without sugar refinery, where would Tate be now?

The ICA may not be perfect, but who amongst us is? Everything goes through cycles in its lifetime and nobody’s on top of their game a hundred per cent of the time. There will always be peaks and troughs and in that real life context it’s difficult to deny that for most of its sixty-two year history the ICA’s performance has been unsurpassed. Set against the 80 / 20 rule it’s doing extremely well. Add to that the undisputed fact that the government happily shovels seemingly endless resources into any number of crappy, if not down right damaging schemes, and the fact that even in these relatively tough times there still seems to be plenty of money out there if you know where to look, I don’t think I’m just being sentimental when I say I really do think it would be a great shame if we were to lose the ICA. Who knows what the future may hold when (if) it enters its next roll. It might have started putting its teeth on the bedside table of an evening, but as ee cummings tells us: “whenever men are right they are not young.”

Sunday, 24 January 2010

I went to the dentist this morning for the first time in four and a half years. There’s a new one, opposite the yoga centre, so I felt at least I’d be turning up in a positive mental state even if I’m leaving more or less traumatised. Through that rationalising route I was able to chivvy myself into making an appointment. The experience still took some years off my life but compared with previous nightmares it was like a date with the Lord Buddha himself.

Before today it was my belief that nothing could deflect a dentist from the task in hand. You could go into cardiac arrest right there in the chair and they’d just carry on drilling. Not this one. Peroxide plaits and an Eastern European gentleness behind the white surgical mask and the rolling vowels. It’s a curiously intimate situation. You can see every pore and scar on the face of a complete stranger hovering inches from your own, the tiny brown flecks of her blue irises. You’re putting yourself into a position of vulnerability at their hands. You’re trusting them not to hurt you, despite the fact that, of course, you know they will. Not deliberately, but they will hurt you. The thing about this woman was she acknowledged it. She didn’t just put a wall up and pretend it wasn’t there. She acknowledged the pain. Surprising things can come out of dialogue. And it’s not even the words. It’s the connection that’s the balm. Just allowing the connection.

So I suppose I should give the Royal Academy their due for attempting to further the dialogue around our crusade du jour with the exhibition Earth: Art of a Changing World, rather than wondering if they aren’t just jumping on the nearest bandwagon in town with their agenda firmly nailed to the flag post in the shape of the letters GSK – Glaxo Smith Kline that is, if, like me, you’re not up on your TLAs.

I enjoyed quite a lot of the work in the show actually, but I did experience some resistance to the idea of an exhibition about climate change sponsored by a pharmaceuticals company. Quite possibly I’ve been brain-washed by the over active imaginings of John le Carre - but doesn’t this smack slightly of corporate hypocrisy, the auctioning of the grandmother to the bidder in the John Galliano suit? I don’t know, I just suddenly came over all Swampy in front of the Amazonian Field. When is the flu not the flu? When it’s renamed to include some sort of animal life in its title, splashed all over the dailies for months so they can flog a few more copies by aiming their sharpened arrows right into the heart of modern Britain’s unacknowledged existential terror, and simultaneously generating the perfect marketing vehicle for the latest over priced drug only a few of us need but all of us seemingly must buy. It’s safety we’re after. We so want to be safe. I’m not criticising the artists. I’m just saying. It feels like a cynical world some days. Some days.

One of the high points of the show is Yael Bartana’s strangely disturbing Kings of the Hill, a 7 minute anthropology styled film of a bunch of slightly thuggish posh blokes amusing themselves driving huge Big Foot type vehicles up and down preposterously steep mounds of compacted earth next to the sea. The sea, in its vastness, seems poignantly to highlight the tragic futility and utter smallness of the action it foregrounds. What’s all this for? What’s anything for come to that? I don’t know, dominance, I suppose. The impulse to prove to ourselves that we are capable of beating the world into submission before it beats us. Or perhaps that we’re capable of corralling our own demons before they destroy everything we’ve built for ourselves, all the things that tell us who we are and fool us into believing we’re safe. Only, like the looped film, it’s a battle that never ends, because it’s a battle that can’t be won and yet we won’t wave the white flag. We will always be vulnerable and we will always rail against that. As this film - and the whole exhibition and in fact the eco-crusade itself - so eloquently demonstrate, that’s the one thing we’re most afraid of. We can’t stand our own vulnerability. Not for a minute. Which is the sad thing because the vulnerability is the beauty. It’s a big chasm to leap though isn’t it?

Friday, 15 January 2010

You know when you’ve spent too long looking at a bright object it seems to burn itself onto your retina and for a while all you can see is its negative. You’re looking at a grey sofa but you’re seeing the greenish white outline of the slats on the window blinds. Or you’re looking at a blank white wall and you’re seeing a ghostly yellow figure floating there. I’m a bit worried the same thing might be happening with the arrangement of letters that make up the words Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Is this shape really appearing on absolutely everything I look at or is there a glitch in the programme? Every newspaper, every magazine, every book, every exhibition, everything. Perhaps it’s time for a trip to the optometrist. Or maybe these visions are evidence of deeper problems and it’s a shrink I need. It’s either me or everyone else. I’m just not sure which.

And something else that’s concerning me - what’s going on at the Serpentine? I don’t get it. I don’t get Deleuze and I don’t get Design I’m afraid. In both cases I’m willing to be educated if anybody out there has the patience and the wherewithal to penetrate my seemingly bullet-proof cranium.

Hettie Judah in her Art Review errr review, gives me a bit of a heads up with her delightful opener: “Check it out, art kids: sometimes a urinal is just a urinal”. Whilst I laughed aloud at her good-natured wit, below the surface I’m struggling with the concept. Am I really to believe that “objects lack hidden meaning”? Am I seriously being asked to accept that “notions of good and bad are linked simply to functional success”? I just don’t buy that actually. When is anything ever that straightforward? When is anything ever only and exactly what it appears to be and nothing more? It seems to me that even a perfectly ergonomic object is always operating on more than one level. A urinal is never just a urinal. If it were there’d only be one design wouldn’t there? In fact, if it were, we’d just pee in the hedge. If it were, there’d be no R Mutt.

But let’s assume for a minute that we’re going with this argument. An object is just an object. A pair of silver jelly shoes by Zaha is purely something to protect the feet and facilitate ambulation. Fine. So then why am I looking at them in a glass case in the Serpentine? If their success or failure is exclusively down to their functionality then looking at them is presumably a complete and utter waste of time. I need to be wearing them, road testing their functionality, in order for them to have any sort of raisonne d’etre whatsoever. And whilst the security at the Design Real exhibition isn’t a patch on the preposterous and offensively overblown shenanigans we endured for Jeff bloody Koons, I’m still not sure they’d be exactly loving it if I strapped the silver jellies on and took a few turns around Hyde Park in my new wedges, just to monitor their feasibility you understand!

Michael Glover in the Independent goes for a different slant. He too though comes up with a few blanket statements that I just can’t quite get with. Not that I’m slating the presentation of half-baked subjective waffle as hard fact (whatever that might mean) no, I’ve no problem with that, I’m not bringing it up just to shoot it down, I’m bringing it up to try and see a way through the maze via paths already trod.

Michael Glover states: “Art, as we all know, is perfectly useless. It exists to be admired. Now, all of a sudden, the Serpentine Gallery has had a change of heart.” Do we? Do we all know that? I’m not sure I do. In fact I’m not sure I even begin to agree with that statement. The best art for me is not there to be admired. It’s there to be engaged with and to assist me on my unavoidably solitary life’s mission of finding a way through the anarchy of yesterday’s forgotten spider’s webs that is my mind, towards some sort of clarity and integration. “Know thyself,” advised Plato. And art, for me, provides many of the crucial sign posts towards this end. Anything calling itself art that asks simply to be “admired” is on pretty thin ice in my book.

And I further have to disagree with Michael Glover in that it seems to me that this is exactly what the objects in Design Real are asking us for. They are seeking our approbation, our love and attention. Sick to death of being dumb objects strapped to the feet with such habitual regularity as to be near invisible, they’ve charged at the holy grail that is the vitrine and are crying out: “we are so much more than you think”. No disrespect, but I can’t help thinking he’s got the whole thing completely arse about tit. Art is not useless. Art is everything. Compared to art, limited edition silver jelly wedges from the studio of Ms Hadid really are an effervescence of profound uselessness. Ok, they might get you from A to B (presumably, I wouldn’t know, I haven’t tried them) but so what? Life is far more than the sum of the cultural habits of our myopic age.

I’m not saying designers aren’t highly skilled. Of course they are. Some of them. And no doubt curator and leading industrial designer Konstantin Grcic has chosen well. But why am I wandering around the Serpentine looking at stuff that doesn’t bring me a jot nearer to what I am? I have absolutely no idea. Everyone else seems to like it though, so I can only assume either I’m missing something or everyone else is. But then life’s a bit like that sometimes. Thank God for the art, that’s all I can say.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

I have a friend who runs a yard. A horse yard. As such she has, naturellement, a plethora of doggies. My unashamed favourite is Jez, a red border collie I adore to such a degree that were he a person I would surely marry him. He is without doubt the most splendid canine in the world. Handsome, laid back, affable, sense of humour etc. Then there’s Jack, a black border collie. A touch of neuroses going on here but infinitely sweet and I adore him too. Then there’s a cocker spaniel bitch. And here’s the rub. For some reason, and despite my usual love of all things spaniel, my relationship with her suffers from a certain froideur. She’s a perfectly nice person and I’m a perfectly nice person, but together the chemistry just doesn’t work. And we both know it. I can see it in her eyes. She wouldn’t go as far as to say she dislikes me, but she ain’t shedding no doggie tears when she sees my Ariat climate controlled all terrain boots heading for the car park, is about the size of it. And the feeling is pretty much mutual.

I was remarking on this fact to a buddy whilst visiting her in hospital, whence she had been dispatched by a horse related incident that had resulted in her being airlifted from the commons of Surrey writhing in agonies with a punctured spleen and various cracked ribs. Hoping aboard a flight animal and taking it for a spin about the Surrey countryside is not, it turns out, a pass time for the faint hearted. Anyway, apparently glad of the company irrespective of the randomness of its conversation, she responded, as if it were almost too obvious to need saying, “she’s a Princess, that’s your problem.”
“Oh, I don’t mind a Princess,” I chirped, always one to speak first, think second.
Then I thought about it.
“Oh, you mean this yard isn’t big enough for the two of us?”
She raised an assenting eyebrow.
Which is how I discovered, at the age of thirty-six, that I am a Princess.

The thing about Princesses is they don’t mix well together. Like oil and water in fact. There’s nothing wrong with a Princess per se, just take it one at a time and you should be ok. But any more than that and you’re eyeballing disaster. In life as in the movies, there is one leading lady and one best friend. And if you’re not cut out to play the sidekick, don’t audition for the part. Which maybe explains why I loathe exhibiting at art fairs with such a passion. Upwards of eighty art world princesses all under one air-conditioned roof? And I, being amongst the youngest, stuck at the back? That is just not going to be fine. Not fine at all. (“Ahem, excuse me Madame, could I ask you to lean a little to the left please, I’m afraid your ego is blocking my view of this fine Nicholson.”)

So this year was the first time for a while that I’d visited the LAF on foot rather than tear-arsing around the capital in a white van and a state of near blinding agitation at the prospect of a week of torture at the gnarled hands of the art buying arm of the general public. As a visitor rather than an exhibitor I saw the fair from a completely different perspective. Oddly enough I had an almost enjoyable time - the words enjoy and art fair not normally appearing in the same sentence. Not one of mine anyway. Although, come to think of it, it probably wasn’t so much enjoyment as pure intravenous relief. It felt deliciously indulgent to be pottering about the Business Design Centre without the Fuselian demon of costs and sales perched menacingly on my chest, ripping to a bloody pulp even the merest hint of a lighter mental state, should such a thing have the audacity to poke its head above the parapet at all.

I was so happy in fact that I celebrated by purchasing a shamanistic Marcus Coates’ print from the Whitechapel stand, this being as near as LAF gets to performance art. Cheered on by the prospect of a 35% discount and my artist-cum-collector chum pointing out that a trip to Sainbury’s would cost more (for her it would, she’s got four kids) I handed over the flexible friend and… right on cue, the Whitechapel credit card machine broke down. Oh the waves of sheer joy that this technological nightmare was somebody else’s waking torment. I can barely describe it to you. It was pleasure such as I’ve never known. I was so happy I’d have waited a week. The poor darling woman showered me with apologies. I felt her pain as a distant but unforgettable memory.

On attempting some form of vaguely objective reflection I suppose I’d say the LAF is ok. It’s probably the best of the London fairs outside of October. There’s a healthy Modern British contingent and we saw some nice Mary Fedden’s. It’s very safe though and if you’ve been before you’ll know what to expect. But then some people like predictable, the good old tried and tested. And why not?

The Project Space was my favourite spot of course. Not that it was exactly balancing on a knife-edge, but hey, it was ok.

One interesting thing I noticed about the London Art Fair this year was the unmissable stream of advertisements for the Affordable Art Fair on the final haul of the escalator journey up to the Angel from the bowels of tube land. They’re a canny lot that AAF bunch. Don’t miss a trick. The subtext of course being, whatever you are about to see you’ll be able to get cheaper from us in a few short months. That’s not quite how it works, but what does an advertising man care about such technicalities? Competition is competition and when it comes to art fairs you’re in it to win it. There’s only room for one Princess and if you’re not she, then by default you’re the sidekick. And let’s face it, who wants to be that?

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Humanity i love you
because you would rather black the boots of
success than enquire whose soul dangles from his
watch-chain which would be embarrassing for both

parties and because you
unflinchingly applaud all
songs containing the words country home and
mother when sung at the old howard

Humanity i love you because
when you’re hard up you pawn your
intelligence to buy a drink and when
you’re flush pride keeps

you from the pawn shop and
because you are continually committing
nuisances but more
especially in your own house

Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it’s there and sitting down

on it
and because you are
forever making poems in the lap
of death Humanity

i hate you

ee cummings

My best friend Beezie has informed me that I’m getting more and more like Edith Sitwell. Apparently it’s mainly the pointy nose, but also the odd outfits. Then my dear old Ma gently responded the other day to a passing comment in which I’d had cause to refer to myself as normal, “I don’t think anyone would call you normal, sausage,” and a beloved school friend I’ve known since I was eleven introduced me at a Christmas party as “Bev: lovely but bonkers.”

Well, it’s news to me I must say. Rather a shock actually. I thought I was a fairly straight forward type. Either I know myself not or everyone else is guilty of something of a misjudgement. I was disheartened to stumble upon Henry David Thoreau’s words: “it is as hard to see one’s self as to look backwards without turning around.” I think he may be right. But then I thought, bugger it, I don’t care. I don’t care how bonkers people might think that I am as long as I am my own bonkers.

And besides I’ve had a technological break through. I’ve downloaded the entire School of Saatchi series off the iplayer. I had been trying, unsuccessfully and possibly slightly foolishly, to locate it on You Tube, until a stranger at a party whose TV had inexplicably exploded, introduced me to the iplayer. Now I love the iplayer. You can see informative art related stuff without having to live with that monstrous jailer nagging on day and night encouraging you to stick pins in your eyes. It’s not an avalanche, it’s a torturous drip, drip, drip. A dealer in class A drugs. An insidious dominatrix. And only insidious now because we’re so used to it we can’t see it. Rather like oneself, it has become impossible to make out through its own numbing fug. By comparison he in the sky has nothing when it comes to expressing the sigh of the oppressed creature.

I suppose my venom towards it must represent some sort of a fear of anaesthetisation. It’s true. I don’t want to go to sleep. I don’t want someone else making my decisions for me. I don’t want someone else telling me what to wear, and think and do and say. I don’t want to internalise the world around me until I become nothing but a parrot, unaware that none of my thoughts are my own, and unaware that the only thing that drives me is my fear. Fear of life and fear of death. It does that to you. It sucks the love from you and replaces it with fear. I should know because I watched not one but one and a half Midsomer Murders over Christmas and let me tell you it was one and a half Midsome Murders too many. Why does everyone die at Christmas? It’s a Yuletide stitch up bigger than Santa and his fat coca cola branded knickers.

Henry David Thoreau also said, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears.”
"If you press me to say why I love him, I can say no more than because he is he and I am I."
Michel de Montaigne (1533 - 1592)