Friday, 22 August 2008

Cy Twombly: Il Miglior Fabbro

So occasionally I get a bit sick of living in London and want to pack it all in for a more exciting existence in Zambia or Puglia or anywhere "exciting." Generally though, I'm pretty content living in this city, and some days I even thank my lucky stars that I get to call the capital home. Today was most definitely a star thanking kind of day. I suppose it might seem odd that it only takes an art exhibition to garner such praise, but I need my humanist batteries charged regularly. Otherwise I tend to get grouchy. And I'm not much fun when I'm grouchy...

I had been putting off going to the Cy Twombly exhibition because I didn't want to be disappointed. Although I find the building magnificent, the exhibitions drive me to despair: Duchamps, Dali, Gilbert and George, yawn, yawn, yawn. Surely it would be far more inspiring and educational for the art-viewing public to have regular exposure to less well known artists. When Nicholas Penny was appointed as the new director of the National Gallery earlier this year, one of the first things he said to the press was that blockbuster exhibitions don't teach anyone anything, and insisted he would concentrate instead on erudite shows of lesser-known artists. Finally, I thought, a man with some bloody good sense. As of yet, he hasn’t been director long enough to make good on his word, but he appears to have struck a chord with other galleries if this exhibition is anything to judge by.

The human mind must derive immense pleasure in the making of cross references, patterns, and connections in works of art; whether literature, music, or the visual, as we seem to love saying things like, “this band sounds like a cross between early David Bowie and Brahms!” or “this author is the new Hemmingway.” Twombly excels at this sort of cross-pollination and there are references, both ancient and modern, aplenty. Twombly makes no secret of his love of great poets, especially Rilke and Homer, but for me, the subtle or even unacknowledged connections were more intriguing. Twombly's early works, for instance, reminded me very much of some of the commercial work of Gary Fernandez, a modern illustrator. While the similarities are entirely tenuous (though I suppose it is possible Fernandez takes Twombly as inspiration), the vibrant, fresh, looseness of the Twombly is very evident in the illustrations of Fernandez. There’s something very illustratory (nice word, I know) in general about Twombly's early pieces which give them a surprisingly modern sensibility.

One of my favourite paintings from the exhibition,
Treatise on the Veil, was entirely different from any other work displayed. Evidently these paintings were inspired by an Eadweard Muybridge photograph of a bride in motion. Muybridge was a photographic pioneer, using multiple cameras to create stop-motion action sequences of things like horses galloping or a couple dancing. Twombly’s series of six interlinked panels brilliantly echoes the concept (and the inspiration of a stop motion bride seemingly floating under her veil) while simultaneously remaking the technique into something completely new.

Quattro Stagioni
, perhaps Twombly’s most well known work (the Modern's publicity for the exhibition is taken from this work), is hung in two different versions, completed roughly around the same time, 1993-95. These reminded me of something, but it took me a while to remember that, especially Estate, echoed the work of Clyfford Still, which I'd seen at an exhibition
in Washington DC in 2003. You can see the difference between the two immediately, but that's hardly the point. The stylistic similarities are perhaps more intriguing. Still is far more controlled; he’s cleaner, harsher, more primitive, while Twombly is all whimsy, ragged, carefree, reckless insouciance, but it was Still's yellow painting below that I remembered and brought the resemblance to mind. I love discovering connections like these – as I'm not approaching this from an academic perspective, I don't have to consider the implications of whether they actually knew each other. I can simply enjoy the thrill of recognition and the remembrance and clarification of that recognition. I suppose it's this sort of thing that makes an unpersonal gallery exhibition into a far more personal experience.

The first two are the Twombly's, and Still's work is below.

The last series of work in the exhibition is from Twombly’s 2005 Bacchus, Psilax, Mainomenos (for
those non Greek speaking, anti-mythologists, Bacchus is the Roman equivalent of the Greek god of wine Dionysus, and even if you do know that, you probably don’t know that his rites were celebrated with orgies and animals being torn to pieces and their raw flesh consumed – see Euripides’ The Bacchae for more fun and games). This was the only time where I felt the work on display represented something quite different to me than it did to the curators. The accompanying blurb indicated that Twombly’s initial inspiration for the work was Homer’s Iliad, which seemed sensible enough given Twombly’s classical leanings. The curators then went on to say that the brilliant, massive, red looped paintings were an expression of pure drunken abandon. Having three of the paintings in the room at once, there was little euphoria to be felt. They are marvellous pieces of work, but all I could think of was Christopher Logue’s War Music, a contemporary, pseudo-translation of the Iliad, with its haunting evocation of war, “Dust like red mist/Pain like chalk on slate. Heat like Arctic” and also “Moving at speed, but absolutely still/The arrow in the air. Death in a man/as something first perceived by accident.” In particular, the long streaks of dripped down red paint create a sense of morbid frenzy, the body exploding into a fine red mist. Not exactly jubilant...

Still, I found the exhibition to be absolutely superb (how many adverbs in one post?). I was so enamoured that I sought out a feedback form from the information desk and filled it in then and there. It basically said, “more like this please.” I hope they take my advice.

Monday, 18 August 2008

When did the Labour Party turn into the BNP?

I'm seriously reconsidering my views on whether I actually want to become a British resident/citizen after the flurry of new and ridiculous regulations spat out by the Home Office in the past few months...

Border and Immigration Minister Liam Byrne:

“Britain is not anti-foreigner, we're a welcoming, tolerant place. But we do expect newcomers to sign up to a deal if they want to stay and build a life in Britain.”

If the Devil asked you to trade your soul for permanent residency, would it be worth it? I think not. But what I perhaps find most difficult to stomach is that Britons apparently have little to no interest about what rules and regulations their government passes, with or without their consent. Where are these 70 percent who think newcomers should “earn the right to stay?” If you think it doesn’t concern you, fine, hooray for apathy, but without sounding completely apocalyptic, natives will be next. I met a woman today who just got a job at the Home Office as a project manager working on the ID card project. She’s being sent to the US to learn how JFK and LAX airports use the new retina scanners to keep track of everyone entering the country. I don’t understand why this doesn’t bother the people in this country enough to take some kind of (at the very least) ideological stand.

Kids, apathy is nothing to be proud of.

14 July 2008

Foreign nationals wishing to become British citizens will have to earn the right to stay, the Government announced today.

The tough new approach will require all migrants to speak English and obey the law if they want to gain citizenship and stay permanently in Britain, while speeding up the path to citizenship for those who contribute to the community.

The reforms are at the centre of a sweeping overhaul of all immigration laws dating back to 1971 and confirm new modern laws reserving full access to benefits and social housing will be reserved for citizens and permanent residents.

Foreign nationals who commit serious offences will face automatic consideration for deportation - and even minor offences will delay access to citizenship by up to three years.

Public support for the proposals was confirmed by new Home Office polling released today. A Mori poll carried out for the Home Office revealed that:

70 per cent of the public think that newcomers should earn the right to stay in Britain;
83 per cent think that immigrants in Britain should be made to learn English; and
69 per cent agree that newcomers should be penalised on the path to citizenship if they don't obey Britain's laws.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said:

"In recent months we have listened to people across Britain and the message is clear - they want those who want to make Britain their home to speak English, to work hard, and to earn the right to stay here.

"We are making the biggest changes to our immigration system for a generation, and part of that is making sure those who stay in the UK make a positive impact on their local community."

The draft Immigration and Citizenship Bill published today replaces ten Acts of Parliament and enshrines into law the Government's biggest ever shake-up of the immigration system. The key measures are:

Strong borders
1. new powers for frontline UKBA officers at foreign ports and airports to cancel visas.
2. bringing customs and immigration powers at the border into the 21st century, consolidating and strengthening civil penalties for bringing passengers without the right papers and clandestine entrants to the UK.

Selective migration
3. the Bill proposes a clear legal duty on migrants to ensure they have permission to be in the UK, for example under our new points system.
4. the Bill introduces a single, streamlined power of expulsion for those without permission.
Earning the right to stay
5. migrants will now have to earn their right to stay in the UK.
6. automatic bans on returns with new powers to exclude offenders and powers to require those who are expelled to repay costs to taxpayers if we allow them to come back.

Playing by the rules
7. the Bill gives a new power to require large 'bail bonds' for those awaiting decisions or expulsion, part of a tough menu of conditions for "Immigration bail" as an alternative to detention.
8. confirming tough measures to prevent organised illegal immigration by attacking illegal working with civil penalties for employers who do not make the necessary checks.
9. simplifying our appeals system to cut red-tape; ensuring that the system is properly sensitive to the needs of vulnerable groups: honouring our international obligations to refugees and ensuring the UKBA safeguards and promotes the welfare of children.

Managing any local impacts
10. full access to benefits for citizens and permanent residents, with migrants contributing a little extra to the cost of local services.

The Home Office confirmed that newcomers will have to pay a little extra before they become citizens to create a fund of tens of millions of pounds a year to help police, schools, councils and local health services to use the money to deal with the short-term pressures of migration in their areas.

Border and Immigration Minister Liam Byrne said:

"Britain is not anti-foreigner, we're a welcoming, tolerant place. But we do expect newcomers to sign up to a deal if they want to stay and build a life in Britain.

"The public overwhelmingly supports the idea of newcomers earning their right to stay. Today we show how we'll make these ideas law, hand in hand with our new points system for selective migration, like the one that's worked so well in Australia."

These changes are part of the biggest shake-up to the immigration system for a generation, and to make sure these changes stick today's Bill will see the currently complex immigration laws replaced by one simplified piece of legislation. By updating the law, and getting rid of any room for misinterpretation, the UK Border Agency can cut red tape and accelerate the speed of its work.

The Kielder Observatory

Sunday, 17 August 2008

State of the Art

I recently had the pleasure of an unintended viewing of Martin Creed’s new Work No. 850. Unintended in that I wrongly assumed the work was showing in the Tate Modern, which meant I was quite surprised when a runner whizzed past me in the Great Hall at Tate Britain. My mistaken assumption is revealing: Creed’s work is contemporary and conceptual; one expects it to be housed in the Modern, which only emphasises the work’s significance. Generally, I find little to admire about installation art, but Creed’s No. 850 says so much, not only about modern art, but about the actual experience of viewing art in modern times, that I was absolutely delighted.

The Britain's enormous hall spans the length of the
nineteenth-century neoclassical building and Creed has recruited an army of runners to sprint from one end of the hall to the other every 30 seconds. The Guardian’s Adrian Searle called the work “gloriously pointless,” which, excuse the phrase, misses the point entirely. In these increasingly paternalistic, health and safety obsessed times, I expected the Museum would contain Creed’s runners in a cordoned off space. But because they haven’t sectioned off the hall, visitors and runners must interact, the latter dodging the former. This statement of (perhaps unintentional) defiance, not only to our patronising society, but also to the hush-hush reverence now fostered in museums, is refreshing. I kept expecting a guard to appear and shout, “no running allowed!” And though it is not presented as such, in a city always telling you what to and not to do this is a superb show of artistic anarchy in one of Britain’s most revered cultural spaces.

Another provocative point made by Creed’s runners addresses the nature of museums; in particular, the adjustments required to accommodate modern consumerist culture, in tandem with government spending cuts in the arts. While we are at least lucky that most of our museums are free, unlike Paris or New York where the price of admission is discouraging to say the least, the pressure to be cost-effective and self maintaining is increasingly altering the way museums “do business.” At £10 a pop, exhibitions provide a significant source of revenue (in 2006/07 the National Gallery took in £1.1 million from exhibitions), but perhaps unsurprisingly the consumerist side to art is where the big money is made. Last year, the National Gallery’s shops took in just over £6 million pounds, which is quite an impressive feat considering about five million people visit the gallery each year.

This is why Creed’s No. 850 is not only seditious
and compelling, but also timely and relevant. It confronts the strain of throw-away consumerism that has infected major museums. The pressured feelings which accompany trips to vast museums (e.g. the Louvre) result in compulsions to speed through so as to take in everything on display in a manageable time frame. The more cynical would point to those who nearly do run through museums, ignoring a wealth of art, in order to have a look at the "star" of a museum's collection. One could even go so far as to say that we may as well just run through museums anyway, as even if we languidly amble, we're so distracted by taking photographs, noisy children, or inquisitive friends that we hardly have the time or the attention to properly take in the art.

So go, see, linger, and enjoy Creed’s Work No. 850. It’s at the Tate Britain until 16 November, which leaves plenty of time. And let me know what you think.