Sunday, 30 January 2011


Maggi Hambling is a celebrity by anyone’s standards and we like to call her a local celebrity, because she has been teaching art at nearby Morley College since the 70s. Any woman who wants to learn how to wear a black Fedora  hat with style should hang around and watch out for Maggi. 

After years of campaigning, this tribute by her to the playwright Oscar Wilde was unveiled in Adelaide Street, near Trafalgar Square, behind St Martins in the Field, and opposite Charing Cross Station in 1998. Directions are necessary to find it, because the sculpture is darkish (bronze and green granite) and low-lying. Most people-monuments are situated spectacularly high above us mere mortals. Around the base is a line from Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan: ‘We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars’.

Wilde’s head and shoulders appear to rise from a granite ‘coffin’. It’s a bit unnerving. But it’s a coffin with a difference: it doubles up as a bench to sit on, a place to share a quiet, still moment of ‘conversation’ with this famous Irish wit and playwright, amid all the noise and movement of central London . You can even - to enter into the spirit of the thing - consider sharing a cigarette with him, for Hambling intended Wilde to be defiantly smoking.
Unfortunately when she designed the piece she did not foresee that the bronze cigarette would get repeatedly stolen. 
Barry Till, former Principal of Morley College, by Maggi Hambling
If you look closely you can see that when I took the top photograph this morning he had the stub of someone else’s in the palm of his hand. He usually does. Hambling, who gave up smoking in 2004, campaigned against the total ban on smoking in public places in England on the grounds of freedom of choice. We know that such a ban saves thousands of people, born and yet unborn,  from illness and early death in this country alone.  
But Wilde is outside anyone's jurisdiction.

Friday, 28 January 2011


Courtesy the artist, Spruth Magers Berlin London and Metro Pictures

On the way to my computer I pick up the post. From inside an envelope, someone enquires in large  pale olive print ‘Lines and wrinkles getting you down? (Try) age–erasing eye cream with mimosa’. Things do get me down from time to time: the weather, sarcasm directed at children, the death of a close friend. But ‘crepiness on eyelids’ is not a priority. ‘Crepiness’ is not even a word in my huge Oxford Dictionary, but I know why they’ve used it. It looks so like creepiness, and we don’t want that, do we?

Pigment print on Phototex adhesive fabric.Photographer
© Stephen White

Thank God for Cindy Sharman. The murals on the walls of Spruth Magers Grafton Street Gallery are an antidote to such absurdity. They release her from the confines of a picture frame where I've usually seen her in galleries,  and display her in a romantic forest (New York’s Central Park, actually), which looks as though it’s crying out for damsels, knights, ogres and dragons. Instead it's got Cindy in among all that black greenery, standing four square and twice as large as life: on other walls she's a woman in a long gown or with a bunch of spring onions or in a blue flouncy dress, a feathery cape and clumpy shoes.

Here she’s a stocky woman without a waist. Thank God none of us look like that...where her waist should be is a baggy tunic of shiny red fabric. Her wrinkled saggy tights are an unhealthy flesh colour. And there are little bits of black braid strung across her like tinsel on a Christmas tree, highlighting just those bits of her which are least appealing.  But is there a twinge of recognition? We also play different parts. We too are not in control of other people’s reading of us. Is it ourselves we see?

Sherman is playing with the idea of portraiture in general, self-portraiture in particular. We all use pictures of ourselves: on passports and identity tags to convince people that we are who we are; and in our albums which document and display our lives, our travels, family and friends. We focus on the person in the picture and ask ‘Is it a likeness?’ or ‘ What does the background say?’ or ‘ What sort of a person are we looking at?’

But Sherman won’t have that.  Her work shifts the focus away from the subject and onto you and me, the viewers. How do we react? We know that what we see is a self- fabricated fiction and that Sherman can turn herself into hundreds of ‘characters’. Her poise and pose are uncanny. I think I can see fleeting references to classical portraiture in the way the head is tilted, the gaze held. But there’s no wink at the viewer, no open irony, no irritating ‘knowingness’. What you see is what you get.

Back to that ‘age-erasing’ eye cream. Although Sherman questions ideas about femininity, she insists she’s not a feminist. (As far as I know she was not one of the American Guerilla Girls in the 1980s who appeared in gorilla costumes and posted slogans like ‘Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum?  Less than 5% of the artists are women but 85% of the nudes are female’). But her work is controversial and at its best asks challenging questions about the role of women in general, and our air-brushed sisters in the media in particular.

So what’s the sensible response to a cream which claims to erase age? As far as I can see the only thing that erases age is death, which is not on my shopping list.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011


When I see the names Fischli and Weiss I think  'do not believe your eyes'.

At first glance it looks as though I’ve strayed behind the scenes at Tate Modern. All I can see is a room which looks like someone’s workshop, including the grubby workbench with discarded tools, dirty ashtrays, Styrofoam cups, assorted left overs, and paint bespattered boxes... Are they preparing for a new exhibition?  Perhaps I didn’t notice a barrier? Perhaps the workmen have just nipped out for a fag? 

But I’m wary. I know that these two Swiss artists, who’ve been working together since the late 1970s, delight in baffling us with everyday objects and activities. They describe their working method as ‘concentrated daydreaming’.  In fact it’s polyurethane sculptures I’m looking at, each meticulously hand-carved and painted until you can’t tell them from the ‘real’ cheap mass-produced thing. A huge amount of time and skill has been spent imitating banal objects from their studio. Why? 
What emerges is a back-to-front version of what Marcel Duchamp did when he presented to galleries ‘readymades’, i.e. everyday objects – most famously a men’s urinal – and insisted they were works of art. Now in this room the process is reversed – Fischli and Weiss have made ‘simulated readymades’, i.e. sculptures which pretend to be cheap everyday objects. It’s a bit like looking at a trompe l’oeil still life painting. Suddenly you see the ‘trickery’. Here it’s in three dimensions instead of two.

And that’s the snag. A still photo is little help. The best way to get a feel of their work is to watch their 16 minute film ‘Der Lauf der Dinge’ (The Way Things Go 1986-7). It’s pure slapstick: buckets, teapots, rubber tyres, balloons and shoes crash, fall, fly, tip, crawl across the studio in a chain reaction of explosions and collisions which is spellbinding.  Water, chemistry, fire and gravity determine where the things go next. To the viewer every moment is unpredictable. It’s a heady mix of painstaking mechanical skill and art; precision and what looks like abandon. The Guardian called it Post-Apocalyptic. I see it as an anthropology of everyday life, in which the familiar objects we barely notice suddenly become strange. They hint at possibilities we hadn’t dreamed of, just as artefacts from other cultures can sometimes jog us out of  staid and joyless banality.

Finally, to give a flavour of their moving work, here is Outlaws from another film Quiet Afternoon.. Fischli recounted that the chairs always collapsed after a few seconds , provoking the artists to question how they could harness the energy of these breakdowns. In The Way Things Go  chairs – and much more - appear as you have never seen then before.


Tuesday, 25 January 2011



As you cross Lambeth Bridge to go towards the Houses of Parliament, you pass Victoria Tower Gardens, at the moment inhabited by some large and lusty figures you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night. They come from Mexico and cluster together in a circle, ten giant inscrutable figures cast in bronze, with a white and ochre patina, each one almost five metres high and weighing in at about a ton.  A metal plate covers each mouth, ‘symbolising the importance of individual and collective freedom of expression’. The text on the notice nearby lists what that means. It sounds familiar: ‘freedom of the press, self- censorship, copyright, intellectual property, the flow of the Internet, human rights, public order and protests, and the gradual erosion of public space’.

The sculptures have already been displayed in Lisbon, Madrid, Brussels, Berlin and Rome as part of a European tour to celebrate the bicentenary of Mexican independence.
 Perhaps it’s not just a co- incidence that they’ve been sited close to the Buxton Memorial ,a sculpture with a fairly recent bicentenary of its own:  the 1807 Act which ended trans-Atlantic slave trading.An over-the-top drinking fountain is a monument to Sir T Fowell Buxton for his part in the campaign which helped to bring about the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. It is pretty and delicate, Gothic and exotic. ‘The spire is timber framed, and clad with enamelled sheet steel. Many different materials and decorative techniques are used, including grey and pink granite, limestone, grey and red sandstone, rosso marble enamelled metalwork, wrought iron, mosaic and terracotta’. 

Nuestros Silencios also shares the Gardens with Rodin’s Burgers of Calais and a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 - 1928), each reminding us of our own struggle for dignity and equality. 

Rivelino was the first Mexican artist to present a sculpture on this monumental scale in London. Now (9/2015) he is back in town again - in Trafalgar Square (see Blog 341)

Thursday, 20 January 2011

48. HOME 1999 by MONA HATOUM

Hatoum is one of the artists I most admire, but at first sight this is testing my loyalty. A bare table is covered with shiny new metal cooking utensils. An electric current surges through coiled wires to potentially lethal effect. An irritable and relentless buzz runs through the wires, made audible by an efficient sound system. Lights flash at random. Worse still, the table is protected from us (and we from it?) by a grid of taut barbaric wire through which we have to peer. Those hooks can be centimetres away from your face.
The text on the wall says that the home is not always a safe nurturing place but contains the threat of violence and harm. I calm down and look at the table. It’s scary. These utensils are designed to leave nothing alone. They’re what we humans use to transform nature into culture. We pluck bits from the earth (and from animals) and shred, grate, cut, mince, squeeze, stamp and scrape them. Then we bake, roast, fry, marinate, poach, steam, boil, baste, simmer or grill them. Each culture decides the right way to do this. It’s what makes us who we are.  Hatoum differs. She sees 'kitchen utensils as exotic and beautiful objects' and' I often don’t know what their proper use is’.  

The Independent,22.3.00 E Woodman.S Bancroft
Hatoum says she was ‘raised in a culture where women have to be taught the art of cooking as part of the process of being primed for marriage. I had an antagonistic attitude towards all that... (this work is) more hostile than comforting’. 

I’m reminded of the first time I saw Hatoum’s Mouli-Julienne x 21 , a copy of a 1960s vegetable shredder, in the Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain. I used one like it to purée carrots and spinach and apple for my children, only this was enlarged 21 times. And at its feet were three discs with multiple cutting and shredding edges, also like the ones I used, except that they were two metres in diameter. They lay there slim, flat and self-effacing, as if carelessly lying around in a terrible Hansel and Gretel kitchen. 

 Once again attraction and repulsion meet and heighten our physical & psychological response.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011



Father, Father where are you going?
O do not walk so fast.
Speak father speak to your little boy
Or else I shall be lost.

The night was dark, no father was there
The child was wet with dew
The mire was deep and the child did weep
And away the vapour flew

The mosaic is one of many decorating the walls of a railway arch just round the corner from where William Blake lived between 1790 and 1800.  You hear the sound of Waterloo trains rumbling overhead.  In 1784 Blake had set up a print shop in London where he engraved and published Songs of Innocence (from which this poem is taken) in 1789. Songs of Experience followed in 1794. Blake always wrote out poems by hand on an engraving plate, rather than using type, then engraved illustrations and hand-coloured them. The mosaics are a contemporary attempt at illustration.

Southbank Mosaics was originally managed and run by volunteers and is located in the crypt of St Johns Church Waterloo. It still has a regular group of volunteers who  offer their time and talent, learn new skills, find support for their return to work, and meet new friends. Their website says ‘Each person has an unique contribution to make and you will see your work installed on the streets of London. The process of installing work is complicated, so you will also learn negotiation, diplomacy and patience, along with technical expertise’. The aim is to '(transform) the public realm with colour, rhythm and artistic form’. 

And what of the poem? Eight short lines, with only five words longer than a single syllable.  Call it sickly High Romanticism if you like but it's clear and simple and addressing our deepest fears of being lost and helpless. I visited the mosaic on the morning after BBC2 Panorama showed Where's Dad? (an alternative title for the poem?) about the growing number of fathers who play little or no part in their children's lives. I never knew my father so have to declare an interest. 

But is it the boy’s father who’s absent - or Our Father in Heaven? Blake, a deeply spiritual man, had little time for organised religion.  And the last line is intriguing. If you want to know what happens next, Blake continues the story in Little Boy Found. On the right is the better known The Tyger, but Blake's most famous poem ,Jerusalem, is not yet illustrated in the railway arches of Centaur Street.

Try › Poems & Poets
for some of Blake's poetry

Sunday, 16 January 2011


C type print, edition of 5, 76.2 x 96.5 cm 

There is art where you have no time to stop and look at the picture - because you are drawn straight into it. Which is what happened when I saw first London Fields, one of Hunter’s empty interiors in his current show at Purdy Hicks.  Just as there are artists whose fantastical works invite speculation about reality, Hunter’s realistic photograph invites fantasy. It’s empty of narrative so I make up my own.

This is a photograph of a community/ church hall in East London. At once I was bounding over the parquet floor, up on the stage to take a good look at the Wendy House with its turquoise roof, a folded Z-bed; a stack of black plastic chairs, a bare table. Fire extinguishers stand guard each side of the stage.  Six wooden doors are painted lime green, with cupboards above. What’s inside? Theatrical costumes? Toys for the Mother and Toddler Group? Dozens more chairs for  bingo or a baptism, a funeral or a Fair Trade stall? I glance up at the ceiling (painted the colour of margarine) and find fixtures which might mean there are sliding partitions to divide up the space. Then there’s are a couple of cords which could release a screen for a projector. There’s even a small door accessing the space under the stage. Everything is standing quietly to attention waiting to disgorge its hidden possibilities.
  It’s a bit melancholy. I’m looking at an alien space, empty of commercial interest. No one can make money out of it so what is it worth? All it has are ghosts and histories: ladies who pour you out a cup of tea for 50p (custard cream thrown in); boys and girls who stand at the entrance selling you a programme when the Young Wives Group dance to Blue Bayou wearing crepe paper lei leis over their blouses and raffia skirts; ladies crocheting blankets, stitching layettes for refugees and their babies; an allotment club; a fat slice of home-made Victoria sponge with raspberry jam. 

The title is London Fields. The parquet floor could be a field, stretching away from view in lines which suggest rows of crops or of furrows ploughed. The light from the widows on the right falls on the polished floor like a pool of water. Wikipedia tells me there’s a real London Fields which has been used for over 400 years for many purposes and currently offers cricket, tennis, swimming, galleries, markets, cycling, picnic spots... This picture also hints at fecundity.

Tom Hunter takes some of his pictures with a pin hole camera. He says it’s less intrusive, quieter. He talks candidly about photography sometimes being like an act of prayer, a time of suspense and concentration, allowing the atmosphere to pour in. Perhaps it's the opposite of  photographers-as-dentists or miners, intent of extracting what they want when they want it, however intrusive and costly.


Hunter was the winner of the John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award in 1998 with his iconic Woman reading a Possession Order, on the left, a take on Johannes Vermeer’s A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window,1647-9 on the right

 A Place for Us is a documentary film by Hunter said to be a moving account of life at the Woodberry Down estate in Hackney.


Friday, 14 January 2011



My fascination with flying and falling has practical consequences. Fear stops me from going to the theatre frequently, because the seats I can afford are high up and vertigo kicks in. But there’s a pleasurable side to it too. For years I haunted the Swiss Bon Marché restaurant in Victoria to look at its mural of workmen sitting strung out along a girder, eating sandwiches, their legs dangling over one side, nothing between them and the ground hundreds of feet below. I don’t even have to see the picture – just thinking about it makes my stomach clench with fear and pleasure. 
An image of Leap into the Void after 3 Seconds , which I saw at the Nothing New Under the Sun  exhibition at the Royal Academy, should be right here on this page. I have email permission from Ciprian Muresan to use it. But I have just spent over an hour trying to insert it into this page and each time it is rejected because I 'do not have permission'. I've never had this problem before so am baffled...Problem solved 19.10.15

On the right  is the image of Leap Into The Void,  which Muresan's work is referring to - a famous gravity defying  photo montage made forty years ago by the French artist Yves Klein. It’s a dramatic picture  suggesting freedom and abandon, yet in reality it's highly contrived. I first saw it 15 years ago at the Hayward Gallery and could not resist buying the poster (2 metres high). Now tattered and torn it's rolled up in a wardrobe but I can't bear to let it go.

Muresan's work on the left is one (of several) alternative versions artists have made of the original since 1960. He gives us (in a Roumanian street) what we might have seen 3 seconds later, Klein's light bird-like figure dumped and slumped on the unforgiving road surface. The man lies stretched out straight, face downward. Klein’s romanticism, optimism and mysticism is smashed by the cold hard impact of scientific rationalism. A joyous flight of fancy is turned into a suicidal act. 

Yet there's an intriguing detail. It's as if the man fell with his arms raised above his head, in a gesture which usually means surprise or supplication or prayer or  even delight. The arm we can see suggests peace and paradox...

Now here's someone who knows something about the fear/fascination of falling:

Fear of Happiness by A.E.Stallings

Looking back, it's something I've always had:
As a kid, it was a glass-floored elevator
I crouched at the bottom of, my eyes squinched tight,
Or staircase whose gaps I was afraid I'd slip through,
Though someone always said I'd be all right -
Just don't look down or See, it's not so bad
(The nothing rising underfoot). Then later
The high-dive at the pool, the tree-house perch,
Ferris wheels, balconies, cliffs, a penthouse view,
The merest thought of airplanes. You can call
It a fear of heights, a horror of the deep;
But it isn't the unfathomable fall
That makes me giddy, makes my stomach lurch,
It's that the ledge itself invents the leap.