Friday, 29 April 2011



This photograph represents the most controversial art work I have so far tackled.

Heldenorgel (Heroes’ organ) looks like a huge (240 x 380cm) photo of the largest open-air organ in the world, built in 1931 in Bavaria to commemorate Germany's war dead. It plays the same piece of music at the same time every day. 

But this is not a photo of the organ, it is a photo of a three-dimensional, life-size paper replica, which took Demand ten weeks to make. He comments: '(The organ pipes)  are very fragile: half of the day I spent renovating the things I made the previous week.’ The damp German climate means the paper sometimes wilts and the glue comes unstuck. 'If I get up in the morning and see that it’s raining, I think, “Oh, man.”. 

After he has photographed his work he destroys it.

The 2011 Deutsche Borse prize of £30,000 annually rewards a living photographer of any nationality who is judged to have made the most significant contribution to photography in Europe between October 2009 and September 2010. The  short-listed artists are  currently showing at Ambika 3, the University of Westminster’s vast subterranean gallery.This work is Demand's entry – and at the moment tipped to win. 

The prize,  doesn’t go to the ‘best’ photo, which you might expect, but to the photo with the most innovative ideas behind it. It’s a contest which stirs up a rich controversy including the role of the Photographers' Gallery, the largest public gallery in Britain devoted to photography. The objectors are those who value practice over theory.

The organ looks oddly flat and unreal. This is intentional. You try to work out why and how the image was constructed. I first saw Thomas Demand's work in Rem Koolhaas's 2006 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, an ovoid inflatable canopy which seemed to float over the trees and lawns of Hyde Park like a giant setting moon. I was captivated. Inside Demand covered each room in wall paper in four colour tones: a night wall paper, a sunny mid day wall paper, an abstract winter version and one that referred directly to the exhibits. Close up the design looked artificial and abstract. It only regained its photographic appearance when seen from a distance. He claims he's not a photographer but a conceptual artist.

He's also an illusionist who challenges our illusions.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011


This striking installation makes an impact as soon as you walk into the gallery. The small figure of a child with a perky pigtail, which echoes the curve of the wolf’s back,  stares warily ahead  unaware of  the shadow behind her. Black-and-white is satisfyingly minimalist, sharp and clear, yet intriguing.

'My sculptures can never be totally grasped, like a picture that has something unresolved about it. They stay in your head like an enigma… It's simply a recognition of the fact that life is ambivalent’. This quotation from the German artist Katherina Fritsch about her own work, has some resonance with what Yasman Sasmazer is doing in The Treacherous Wolf

In myths and legends and fairy tales the child is usually seen as precious and sacred, a tabula rasa, free of social conditioning. But wolves are in a rather different category and certainly up to no good. This one is poised for action, back arched, ears pricked, jaw no doubt full of angry teeth. And look at those legs - they could leap over mountains.  But child and wolf are inseparable, joined interestingly enough at the heel. Again this draws on a rich mythology. Heels are where you are vulnerable – think of Achilles’ downfall. 

And the third element is the shadow, believed by some to be those parts of oneself you haven’t brought into your consciousness. Although it has a kind of threatening autonomy, you can’t be truly human without it and if lost it has to be sewn or glued back (as in Peter Pan) onto the heel .

The installation is unsettling, but the way it manages to embrace myth, cultural history  and everyday life transforms it into something open and mysterious.

P.S. Fritsch has been chosen as the next artist to have her work installed on Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth.

Sunday, 24 April 2011


satin and embroidery on canvas 235 x 145  


From the opposite wall of the gallery it looks like a full-length picture of a church dignitary in sumptuous surroundings, recognisably within one of the classic genres of painting – portraiture. Except that there seems to be a narrative here: this man seems oblivious of the peril engulfing him. Walk nearer and the subject matter suddenly becomes less important than the way the picture is created, for it is an exquisite collage of satin and embroidery on canvas. The work is so fine, the colours so gorgeous and the craftsmanship so impeccable it’s hard to go back to the question ‘what is it about?' What you see is a beautiful work of art which has a cinematic quality about it. You’ve moved from long shot to close up. I feel I’m looking at the fragments of a story having not yet grasped the plot.

It’s the Pope. Under a threatening glowing sky of the kind you only see when it is reflecting  some terrible catastrophe: a volcano, apocalyptic warfare, Armageddon. And the flames themselves? Hell fire? Or the descent of the Holy Spirit on Christ’s disciples as described in the New Testament? Or a reference to other Christian iconography about the Holy Spirit when flames represent zeal, enlightenment and ardour?

Back to Bayrakoglu’s unconventional method of making a portrait. Intricately stitched details are blurred by tangled masses of delicate threads, a device which creates a surreal and dream-like impression. I immediately thought of the Dutch born artist Michael Raedecker,  short-listed for the Turner prize in 2000, whose work – using a combination of thread and paint - is described as ‘suggestive of unsettling narratives, presenting an eerie dislocation of idealised luxury and a sense of discomfort’.  What is unsettling is the unlikely intimacy between lowly craft materials (more used by women) and the more conventional styles and techniques of portraiture.  Ambiguities and tensions abound.

Turkish contemporary art is known for pushing at  boundaries and this work in a commercial exhibition at the Phillips de Pury space on the top floor of the Saatchi Gallery - Confessions of Dangerous Minds -  is no exception.It’s a risky business having the confidence to introduce an element of bathos into a serious investigation into the contemporary state of painting. It works beautifully.
Image © Phillips de Pury

Friday, 22 April 2011

72. BRUTALISM:Stereo Reality Environment 3 by JOSE CARLOS MARTINAT

Today with the sun well and truly out and the temperature in the mid 20s, the 2011 Southbank Festival opens, the beginning of four months of fun and games to celebrate the 60th birthday of the Festival of Britain. It was a happening planned and built to inspire and encourage a war-ravaged nation.

What has this to do with the squat, sharp-angled,   uncommunicative not-particularly-joyful picture on the left?

It’s a scale model of Peruvian military HQs, which, during the Fujimori presidency, became notorious for the torture, murder and disappearances orchestrated by the secret services. In a section called States of Flux: Architecture and Power  Tate Modern is drawing  attention to the way architecture is used by the state to shape our environment - and so shape us. 

Martinat’s sculpture glowers in the corner of the room. a squat, blind, repressive structure. Inside, a computer searches the internet for references to Brutalismo/Brutalism, and picks up extracts about Latin America and global dictatorships – and that form of Modernist architecture called Brutalism. It spits out random scraps of paper which flutter like white butterflies to the floor. The ones I picked up were in what I think is Spanish.
This harsh piece by the Peruvian artist José Carlos Martinat made me think of other conflicts between the artist and the state. WeiWei’s sunflower seeds fill the Turbine Hall downstairs. They are the work of a beguiling and persuasive artist who has recently been arrested and is in custody in his homeland, China.

In the 50s when the Southbank was developed, Brutalism was fashionable because of its 'honesty', its uncompromising, anti-bourgeois style and the fact that it looked like sculpture. It was good at shouting at the top of its voice new age Utopian aspirations. No cosy domesticity here, nothing integrating and protective.

Which made me think of what has happened to those Festival of Britain buildings built in ‘brutalist’ concrete by the river 60 years ago. They've worked brilliantly, with the help of  much care and imagination over the years. By the 90s the Royal Festival Hall had become one of the busiest concert halls in the world. Now the Southbank Centre is one of the most capacious free-and-easy places in London where you are welcome to sit all day, picnic, use the cafes and bars, dig into a book or your laptop, hold a work meeting, conduct interviews, hold tutorials, run a mother-and-baby group – and that’s all in the public space – while concerts and dancing and jazz and poetry are going on around you.


Just around the corner from Tate Modern this gentleman stands at a great height. Monument to the Unknown Artist  is a piece of interactive public art created by Greyworld,  a world-renowned artists' collective founded by Andrew Shoben, Professor of Public Art at Goldsmiths College., London University.The sculpture stands in front of the monumental Blue Fin building, named after the 2,000 blue aluminium fins that cover the building's facade and change its appearance as you walk round it. 

At first glance the Unknown Artist looks harmless enough: a massive bronze statue of a man in a loose- fitting suit, wearing a neck scarf. His stone plinth is so tall that any potential  protesters (who keep central London on its toes) would have to bring their own scaffolding before they could climb and deface this particular gentleman.

He’s probably up so high because he’s susceptible to trouble. He’s animatronic: ‘a mechanised puppet using electronic and robotic ways and means to simulate life' indeed to copy the movements of passers by.  Alas, he’s been a bit  lifeless recently. I wondered if he’d been turned off for health and safety reasons? Or was he just dispirited by the noise and clutter of the huge building sites now surrounding him? (The Tate was originally designed for 2 million visitors a year. Now numbers are reaching up to 5 million and there's serious building going on). But whatever else happens, if the wind is blowing  his clothes - which look as though they’re made of bronze too - gently flutter.

But this morning he's back in form, playful, even mischievous, waving his paintbrush about to strike a pose or two as I move around on the pavement below,

What’s written on the plinth? Non plaudit, modo pecuniam jacite  which means, ‘Don’t applaud, just throw money’. I think he’s a bit of a mystery. Why communicate to us in Latin? What would he do with the money anyway?

Nearby  is a paradox. The bronze Unknown Artist on the plinth is programmed to be life-like; walk along  Southbank and you see real live human beings pretending to be statues. With paint and costume and props they try to earn an honest crust by posing motionless  and being endlessly photographed.
 With that Latin motto ringing in my ears, what could I do but toss some coins into a silver horn lying on the pavement?

Wednesday, 13 April 2011


Country Walk, Birdsong 137 x 170 oil on canvas

Birdsong is usually thought of as something beautiful and pleasing, even though it is often  a call of distress or a defence mechanism.  And how does it become 'art'? I wrote about one way of doing this in Blog 347. Something Going on Above My Head (1995-9), then in Tate Britain, brings together the sounds of two thousand birds, creating what the artist calls a ‘sculpture’. For five years, Oswaldo Maciá collected bird calls from international ornithological archives and audio libraries, reworking them into a symphony, scored according to the birds’ pitches.
Heathcote’s Country Walk, Birdsong at the GV Gallery in Chiltern St is another expression of birdsong, this time by an artist who has linked it with a passion for ‘a deeper understanding of my world of landscape’. 

Birdsong is a tricky subject to paint. For many it's just a memory anyway. It's in short supply in central London, where I live, though birds do their best in the many magnificent parks, despite competition from traffic in land and sky. The water birds on the lakes and ponds are the loundest, squawking and squealing as they go about their daily business. It’s only on hot days that they fall silent and other birds get a look in.They retract their legs, settle their plump chests on the ground and angle themselves to face the sun – like sun-worshippers on  beds on Rhodes’ beaches.

Let’s begin with the artist’s own lyrical description of his early years:
 ‘I had grown up with landscape all about me. I was at home with it, with its sights...scents and sounds. I was at ease with it. Now I am on a creative path to re-explore it. I am on the beach. A flying bomb clatters over me, and as it rackets across the estuary towards London, the Spitfire trying to catch it is giving up and banking away. I am on the sea now, rowing with a friend from Whitstable to Sheppey, straining to the limit. The tide is turning strongly against us. Now I have netted a great crested newt in the pond on the hill. Taken home it will escape. I am fishing on the marshes, watching a heron landing. I see my father hurrying to the pigeon loft to take the ring off a bird that has streaked in at the end of a race...’

But when I do pay attention to birdsong I'm at the bottom of an ocean of air which is filled with darting creatures above my head making random (to me, not to them) musical notes. How can you possibly paint that?  Heathcote uses strong vibrant colours and lucid patterns which run or meander downwards against a breath-taking blue. Some of the strokes are strong, some fragile. Mingling, clashing, tumbling, they remind us that birdsong is a beautiful gift outside our control, reaching us unbidden, when and where it likes. His landscape drawings breathe an air of contemplative calm,
woman in a long dress, 43x19x20, edition of 10

David Heathcote has produced a great range of work: media, form, style, ambition and reach. He taught art in Rhodesia and Nigeria, then turned to sculpture – “almost by chance”, he says – when he returned to his home country. This bronze, Woman in a Long Dress  is still and calm,  her long arms strong, capacious, confident.  Elegant and lithe, she has substantial presence, firmly grounded and with a profound inwardness.  


Thursday, 7 April 2011


When I've come across Jenny Holster's eye-popping  slogans strung across the walls  and ceilings of various galleries, I've been less than enthusiastic.  But when Tate Modern gives her an Artists’ Room devoted solely to her work, it’s time to think again.
Up 5 floors of escalators, turn left, find Room 8 – and light sweeps over you like a wave of water or sound.  Blue Purple Tilt was created specially for the room and takes it over: seven double-sided vertical LED signs in luscious colour. It's a shock. Only the far wall feels safe.
At her best, as the artist Lucy Cumming said in The Guardian last year, Jenny Holzer 'can make a cliche mysterious or a haiku monumental'. The notice on the wall cautions ‘Its scale emphasises that it is a sculptural object in its own right. Indeed the viewer’s response may be shaped as much by the hypnotic glow of the letters streaming smoothly or flashing abruptly as it is by the words themselves’.
Amen to that!

But what are the words saying? I edge cautiously nearer as they move in and out of my vision, marching up the slope and disappearing round the back:
  • Enjoy yourself because you can’t change anything anyway
  • Everyone’s work is equally important
  •  Exceptional people deserve special concessions
  •  Good deeds are eventually rewarded
  •  Extreme self consciousness leads to perversion...
The savage colours and the anonymity invite a response. People I don't know are trying to make sense. Is she bearing witness or lamenting or provoking or reassuring? Would it be  a pantomime audience's 'Oh no, it isn't!' or a more reflective 'It depends what you mean by...'. 

If you want to find (and argue with) more, then try  where her Truisms  are listed in alphabetical order.

Holzer says that since childhood she has been interested in ‘rapturous writing’ and wanted to write ‘ecstatic, fantastic things’, inspired by the texts of political, religious and other passionate writers.
On the right is one of her
Inflammatory Essays,, each consisting of exactly 100 words in 20 lines. They were originally fly-posted across New York Holzer uses more or less anything to carry her messages: plaques, printed fliers. stone benches, telephone booths, stickers, T-shirts, condoms, paintings, photos, video,  light projection,  and the Internet. To see even more go to .  


Friday, 1 April 2011


Viola as twins (c) the artist

Blogging combines three of my favourite things: walking, researching and writing. And some days you accidentally discover pure gold.

I was at the Mall Gallery with a friend at the 2011 Renaissance Photography Prize exhibition, sponsored by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, to raise funds for the Lavender Trust (for the care of younger women with breast cancer). We both decided that Viola As Twins was the image we would most like to take home and live with. When  I started to research the artist, to my delight I came across a photograph I saw at the National Portrait Gallery in 2008, one of the most memorable images I have ever seen. It’s Quints (below) and won the  Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize that year.

Both images are part of a portfolio of Dreams and Nightmares, drawn from the memories of the artist and her friends. Not knowing this, what first drew me to Viola As Twins  was the calm 'authenticity' of a film set.  Perfection. I can stroke that leather sofa, know how to switch on that fringed lamp, might slip on the polished parquet floor, am poised ready to jump down and pick up that ball of wool if it runs out of control. And the colours... My school corridor was painted green (exactly that shade) below,  cream on top, with a black line separating the two. All our rugs at home were beige and fawn and rust and brown... yes, yes, you're right! 
But what is going on? The children stare ahead as if each is alone in the room. The ‘mother’ is oblivious of them, distracted by something outside, yet that badge of caring motherhood - hand knitting - is in her hands. Why haven’t the girls raided that exquisite 1930s dolls house? Who could resist it?

This is how the one of the artist's friends recounts her dreams;
It's a very sunny, positive atmosphere. Viola (my three year old) runs up to me with her arms open wide, calling "mummy, mummy", a big smile across her face. As she gets closer another Viola coming from behind her does exactly the same thing. The whole atmosphere shifts, turning the dream into a nightmare. I'm left speechless, wondering who the second girl is and, by the same token, if the first one is really my little girl at all.

Another, very brief dream; Viola's there again, happy and smiling. She's blonde with blue eyes (in real life and in the dream). Then suddenly another little girl appears. In the dream I know her to be Viola too, but this second girl is dark, with green eyes, also very pretty. They both behave like I'm their mummy but don't seem to notice one another. I feel like something's wrong, then I realize I can't remember having had twins. I don't know who my daughter is.

copyright: the artist
 Quints  on the other hand has all the majesty, sensuality and vigour of a Titian or a Caravaggio. It's a grand and beautiful setting, usually reserved for celebrities like the Madonna and Child. But there's not just one baby here, there are ...three, four, even five. Davies used a model for the mother together with her 10 week old niece who posed as all 5 of the quins. Here, as they say, is the back story, told by the friend whose dream it was:

Bizarre nightmare... I was pregnant with quintuplets, and this was scary... (having a 10 and 13 year old already)... I had to convince my midwife (who has retired) to be with me throughout the pregnancy and birth, as she had been with my other kids. Then ...I was worried about the size of vehicle we now needed... How was I going to park that in London as easily as the small car we had already? I wasn't able to pursue my career, and my husband had to give up his music career... would our relationship suffer? How would our 10 and 13 year old cope? Where would the finance come from? Would they have to become show babies like the French-Canadians in the 1950's (I think) who had the state looking after (them),and the mother had restricted access to her babies? I then woke up, rather bemused!

What makes this image so outstanding is the brilliant way Lottie Davies captured  what she said she set out to do: the 'calm and serenity of motherhood, as well as the feeling of imprisonment'. And how imaginative to make the setting so lush, so glorious. We're used to seeing pictures of young babies in medical surroundings or as part of a quotidian family tableau. But here birth is celebrated as the gorgeous, powerful and disruptive event it really is.

Lest anyone thinks this artist confines herself to multiple births, go the websites and see her portfolios of workportraits, travel photography, photojournalism and fine art - on locations as far apart as the Kalahari, the Arctic Circle, Guatemala and Japan.