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Monthly Archives: July 2012

Global Feast

I must admit I’m not the biggest Olympics advocate. What with the the corporate bullying, unbelievably over-budget figure, the security farce and the fact that the British public (who paid heavily out of their own pockets for the disruption and overcrowding) have been constantly pushed to the back of the priority line when it comes to all the upsides. But, if you’re going to be involved, then damn well do it properly, as has Alex Haw, of Atmos, with his superb Global Feast.

Merging architecture and design with Olympic expression, Alex focused refreshingly on the global aspect, a welcome contrast to the popular hysterical outpouring of garish patriotism which we have been forced to bear witness to. Part brainchild of Kerstin Rodgers (The Underground Restaurant) and part designer’s dream, the concept was to bring together chefs and supper clubs from around the world to collaborate in a one-off event and to celebrate the most pertinent point of the Olympic theatre; that is, its role in bringing together nations from around the world, celebrating difference and variety.

Alex Haw at Global Feast

Kerstin with Denise and Aoife

What has emerged is two glorious weeks of cutting-edge cuisine, served up in the courtyard of Stratford Town Hall every evening by different chefs, the metaphorical food compass moving each day as the event continues. This fabulous culinary melee is set around a unique table centrepiece; a vision in MDF. The planet, in all it’s map-flattened glory and contoured loveliness, is presented through the Equidistant Cylindrical map of the world as the pièce de résistance of a year of planning and technical calculation. One look and you grasp instantly that blood, sweat, all-nighters and a lot of espresso went into the birth of this baby.

Equidistant Cylindrical Map Table Centrepiece

Table detail

On finally arriving, after being herded through the mass of over excited Olympic fans taking photographs of stairs and the like, I was handed a complimentary Courvoisier cocktail and a tantalising canape from a vast array. Very nice too, and certainly not my last. A quick tour of the table by Alex and starters were served; a blue cheese salad with sweet pickled cherries and small flowers, courtesy of Aoife Behan (Jelly & Gin), devoured greedily by myself and the BF and mopped up with beautiful map-covered napkins designed by Kerstin. As I basked in the glow of its deliciousness, I spotted various other exquisitely understated touches. Into each plate was scratched and inked a map, some drawing the shape of the Thames. Add to this scattered candles and flowering table decorations created from folded A-Zs and I began to feel as if I was at an incredibly upmarket and creative version of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. We were even encouraged to swap seats and experience other parts of the world, but alas, no doormouse to provide sarcastic commentary.

Flower Maps

Inked map plate

Main course was the classic fish and chips with homemade Tartar sauce, the only sensible choice for a truly English main. Cooked to perfection, the (sustainable) Pollock melted in the mouth, while the crunchy chips were the very apex of co-ordination and served in map cones. Cue the beginning of the opening ceremony, shown on a TV screen in the marquee to a delighted crowd (I have to admit I was a teeny bit intrigued to watch), fuelled by the fast circulating rumour that the party going on in the adjacent town hall would feature the Kaiser Chiefs – a bold claim, sadly later proved incorrect.

Main Course

As the drinks flowed and the atmosphere took a party turn we were served with dessert. My favourite dish (but then I may be biased) was cooked by my very own big sister Denise Baker-McClearn, chef and owner of the delectable Moel Faban supper club in North Wales. We were treated to Apple and cinnamon tarts, Welsh gingerbread, whisky ice cream and Vanilla salted caramel sauce, finished off with a shot of Penderyn whisky which warmed its way down to my stomach like some heavenly golden lava.

Dessert

By this point my senses were well and truly Experienced and as the night continued and we became progressively intoxicated in the process, the setting adapted with us. Low lighting and fast music contributed to a climactic celebratory atmosphere from which we piled out into the Stratford streets, sated and laughing, to make our way cheerfully homewards. Thanks for the memories, Global Feast.

Global Feast runs every night until 13th August. To book tickets click here (I highly recommend that you do)

To see more pictures of the table and from the night check out my Flickr page here

Sketch of Damian Ortega’s Hollow/Stuffed:market law ’12 (c)Kate Withstandley

Excellent. Politician art again! But isn’t all art is political, though? As is pretty much everything, in fact. Even animals have their own hierarchy system, intrinsically political in nature. We can’t avoid it, particularly us human beans, struggling to cling to the vine. We need structure. For society to function we need be told what to and what not to do, often to unbelievable extremes. Unfortunately, as is regularly the case, the top of our self-imposed hierarchy mistreat and manipulate us and we in turn mirror their behaviour in our microcosmic lives, sometimes abusing others around us and even the planet on which we live. Damien Ortega’s work often deals with political issues concerning his native Mexico, but the themes he tackles in his new exhibition, Traces of Gravity, run through society and mankind as a whole and he explores them alongside and through, traditional human emotive characteristics.

Congo River ’12

Set in the ground floor gallery of the White Cube, Mason’s Yard, Congo River consists of a number of carefully placed (but seemingly chaotic) car tyres, spread around the floor and built up in piles. What appears to be white powder can be seen in places, but it’s nature is not immediately obvious. It is in fact salt, and has been spread along the tops of the tyres in a straight line. The salt indicates the snaking stretch of a river and, depicted as a line of white powder, could be addressing the topic of cocaine smuggling. It is interesting that the line of salt can only be seen as a dead straight line from two viewpoints – at either end. At any other point the line is broken into many as it crosses various levels of the tyre, possibly a comment on the continued damage to great rivers through industrialisation. The same broken/unbroken illusion is created by the placement of the tyres whereby they appear as carefully peaked mountains from each end, but a chaotic sprawl in the round. Although the physical set-up can clearly be a visual metaphor for a river running through landscape, other elements complement the intended notion. It spoke to me of disruption. The choice of materials; salt and rubber – natural elements refined by humans. The contrasting natures; chaos and order – line/broken line – our human chaos disrupting the order of nature. It’s also notable that all of the works in this exhibition are monochrome, or variations of black and white, invoking the traditional connotations of white as pure, black as impure – white representing nature, while black is humanity and industry. Contrast and juxtaposition emphasising the vast gulf of difference.

Hollow/Stuffed:market law ’12

In an empty darkened room on the lower ground floor hung what looked at first glance much like a whale or shark, suspended on hooks and bleeding white matter. Moving closer I realised that no, indeed, I had not mistaken this for a Damien Hirst exhibition, the suspended being was in fact Hollow/Stuffed:market law, a representation of a submarine made from industrial sacks. Salt is used again, flowing from a small hole at the underside of the front end; a reference to the use of narco-submarines in cocaine smuggling along the South American coast to Mexico. The lighting in the room is dramatic, with a quite literal and perhaps also metaphorical, highlight on the work and the issues it confronts. The steady stream of salt, piling up like the sands of an hourglass, seem to be pinpointing ongoing wastage; not in Mexico alone but as part of our global throwaway culture. Embodying the principle of interactive, living art, the installation is constantly changing. I wondered what it might look like when the salt runs out. When the belly of the beast, so to speak, is empty. Will it just hang there as a few empty sacks, signifying our failure and as an unsettling portent for the future?

Preserved ’12

‘Preserved’, in the final room, continues to use salt as a primary material. Creating a negative image, the salt gives the spatial void around the vehicle solid form, a technique also employed for the adjacent ‘Fossilised’, concrete casts capturing the space inside old cameras. Rachel Whiteread’s House, ’93 strikes me as a precedent; the exploration of unused and unnoticed space and its transformation from void to form ties in with Ortega’s preoccupation with change and adaptation. For ‘Preserved’ Ortega utilises alternated lighting, striking the installation with two spotlights and enforcing varied viewpoints upon the viewer, highlighting again the disparity between changes of perspective.

Fossilised ’12

Damian Ortega’s work is both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating. Like all my favourite art it made me work for the meaning, encouraging and challenging me to decipher its threads. Much of my interpretation may not have been intended by the artist, but was generated through themes within the pieces linking and developing with my own ideas. Although seemingly an impassioned plea inviting discussion and dialogue, Ortega’s work could also be seen in an instructive form; an offer of guidance to our political leaders. Perhaps even, in its most abstract form, a morality tale through salt.
All images (c) Damian Ortega unless otherwise noted

Last week, in the middle of Kentish Town, I could have sworn I was in in Egypt. Or Morocco. Or even Norfolk. Nevertheless, I was in the sun; albeit that reflected sun, which refracts like a kaleidoscope, emanating a patchwork of bold colour from the paintings of Birkin Haward. In the tiny Beardsmore Gallery, on what is, currently, a guaranteed rainy day, I gazed at these pieces as if seeing a glimpse of technicolor Oz from the grey of Kansas.

Salthouse Heath, Red Tarpaulin 290111 acrylic

Tilbury Power Station from Gun Hill 210212 acrylic

I feel lucky to be able to say I have worked with Birkin. Both artist and architect, he is outstandingly accomplished in each field. When I joined van Heyningen and Haward (the architectural practice Birkin founded in 1983 with wife Jo van Heyningen) in 2008, I was instantly aware of his artistic talents – his hand-drawn perspectives alone are legendary in the architecture world. However I was not privy to his personal artworks until summer 2010 when I assisted him in producing some prints for his exhibition at Salthouse Church in Norfolk. One look and I was hooked. I took the family up to see the exhibition, was warmly welcomed into the family home by Birkin and stunned by the atmospheric monochrome pieces hung in Salthouse church, most of which were markedly different to the current exhibition.

Old sea defences Happisburgh 2010 Charcoal

The contrast between the two styles of painting can in some part be attributed to his recent change of circumstance. In 2009 Birkin moved away from architecture to become a full-time artist; still keeping links with the architecture world by working as a consultant, but primarily focusing on developing his craft and producing exhibitions. This change has resulted in a subtle shift in style, infused with the ethos of Mondrian, Rothko and a pinch of Cezanne. These bold, dramatic statements move me in a different way to the Salthouse pieces.

Sizewell Beach – White Hut, 2011 acrylic on canvas

The traditional Birkin style is of course always there as the framework; his striking gift is the ability to create a scene and evoke the accompanying emotion from mere suggestion. Line and tone are intimately explored to draw out their capacities and fulfill their ultimate potential. Birkin can see how these pieces, elements of a whole, can be pared down to the most dramatic to create almost just a clue, for us the viewer to decipher: the fence designating the line of the field, the gradual shift in tonal range of an approaching storm. He sees it inherently.

Morston Harbour 111111 acrylic

The evocative nature of his pieces was most evident in pieces such as storm at sea. You get the sense that, in the manner of Turner, he  sat and created this picture right there, in front of that storm. As if he had been amongst that melee of the elements, had felt them overwhelm the landscape with their old magic and deep power.

Storm at sea 1 2009 Charcoal

In contrast, his newer works are less a record of a place and more an interpretation. A translation of scene through unique artistic vernacular and sense experience. Their joie de vivre bursts through the confines of the canvas and inhabits the room. Since moving away from the limitation and stress of the office, Birkin has been freer to travel. To expand his aesthetic language beyond the sometimes rough and raw Norfolk setting in which he grew up and to invoke the hue and light of foreign isles. The result is a juxtaposition of colour and abstraction of view through glorious and celebratory geometrical compositions. Even brooding Norfolk is awash with sunshine, reflected, as it is on the viewer, onto the formerly brittle scenery from climates afar.

Military Post Red Pyramid dashur 130312 acrylic

His father (Birkin Haward Sr.) was also an architect and artist and it is clear that creativity is imbued in Birkin to his very core. His skill in deciphering and analysing spaces and forms runs through both his artistic and architectural work; by inserting and interpreting, he conveys something entirely his own. What is certain is that there is plenty still to come. Birkin has certainly not yet finished making his mark.

Human beings thrive on arts and culture.This is evidenced not only by the huge swathes of visitors to museums and art galleries every day (Tate Modern counted nearly 4,000 visitors per day for the 2011 Gaugin show), but also by the abundance of organisations and activities related to the arts. If you attempt to type in to a search engine some vague term such as ‘arts uk’, you are immediately bombarded with millions of links to the seemingly infinite facets of the arts industry; theatre, dance, fine art, to name just the most obvious. So with all this huge wealth of resources in the arts surely our kids have more than they need in the way of access to them. Not so. A recent UNICEF report showed that, unsurprisingly, ‘in the UK inequality was…seen in access to outdoor, sporting and creative activities, with poorer children spending more sedentary time in front of screens whilst the more affluent had access to a wide range of sports and other pursuits’, and a new report by the Children’s Society shows that half a million children in Britain are unhappy with their lives.

Some of this must be a direct result of the elitist tradition of arts and culture for the upper classes which still abounds in the UK, perpetuated by rising costs of attendance and lowered wages, which completely prices out a whole chunk of society who couldn’t possibly afford to spend £60 on a ticket to the Opera. And what of your average west end show? You’re still looking at around £20-30 per ticket. More affordable for the so called ‘squeezed middle’ but still out of reach for the average family, except perhaps as an irregular treat. No wonder then that cultural activities such as these are seen as being ‘for posh people’ or ‘for university bods’. Having grown up in a working class town on a council estate, these are genuine descriptions I still hear regularly from both adults and children, which is depressing in its self-defeatism. Any one of the people on that estate could enjoy a gallery or theatre show just as much as a ‘uni bod’ if they could go with an open mind and the self confidence that comes with knowing these things are there for THEM. Cultural public ownership often doesn’t feel as if it includes the working classes.

With these entitlement attitudes being cyclically ingrained in kids at home and the government demonising the working class even more than usual, through a constant barrage of recession-approved negative association (welfare – they don’t deserve it, jobs – they can’t be bothered, health – they can pay for it themselves etc.) the middle and upper classes dominate the market almost entirely. This attitude has to be changed and to do that, prices need to drop to a reasonable level, as well as provision of far more free outreach workshops which take the theatre out of the west end and encourage parents and children to get involved. It is do-able if the funding were there. It’s investment in our children, and you’d think we’d jump at the idea. But this brings us squarely to the general British attitude towards children and childhood. To be blunt we just don’t respect it. This attitude leaches into the top echelons of many arts organisations, where children appear to be an afterthought. I’m not saying people don’t care, or that they don’t do their best; in fact I’m generalising in a big way, but I’m talking more about an overarching attitude and social manner. Our modern family zeitgeist, if you like. Capitalism and major corporative influence of a level never seen before, sees us now buying into the commercialisation of our own children, then feigning ironic surprise when they riot angrily and prioritise free clothes and shoes. The arts have been proven to have a beneficial effect on cognitive development, so why are we allowing this aspect of childhood experience to be pushed aside by a Gove-led education system concerned only with academic league tables and in churning out future business graduates from business-run Academies expected to ‘save the failing system’? We need to mobilise.

Action for Children’s Arts, a lobbying and campaigning arts charity for whom I volunteer, recently sent Freedom of Information requests to 20 major arts organisations in the UK, asking them what percentage of their annual budget was spent on producing work for children. The results were shocking. Children under 12 make up 15% of the population and yet rarely more than 1% of any organisation’s budget was spent on them alone. We should, in fact, be spending more than the technical 15% on them – like I say, investing in their and our futures. But as well as not being bestowed with extra, they are refused even their fair share. 1% funding for our children is a disgracefully poor representation of our public arts industry. ACA held a conference on 19th June to discuss how we can work together to change this. The conference was insightful and full of optimism for future policy reform, both within the government itself and individual organisations such as the BBC and the Arts Council, among others. We are continuing to discuss and gather ideas, via twitter and on the website, to inform a discussion group in the pipeline, whereby we aim for the outcome of a solid action plan and potential children’s arts charter.

      

Let us not forget how many organisations there are who do provide arts services for children and work tirelessly to keep our children’s imagination filled with fun and play and wondrous things: Unicorn Theatre, Polka Theatre5x5x5=creativity and Imaginate to name but a very very few. However, children as a whole section of society are underrepresented in the arts and are too often lumped into ‘families’ groups whereby an adult event is deemed suitable for children rather than being devised with children in mind.

The number of arts facilities provided just for children does in no way represent their percentage numbers in society and this fact alone does them a great injustice. It’s about time we started making children our priority, the future of this country. It’s about time we started taking responsibility for the fact that they feel angry and undervalued and not lazily blame the parents, but blame the culture. When art becomes truly art for all, for the whole of society, we will have achieved our goal. Until then, join us in fighting for an undeniable right for our children, the right to have access to the arts.

To join Action for Children’s Arts or to find out more about what we do and how we do it, see our website www.childrensarts.org.uk

The Artist and his Model 1919-21

It is rare that an artist can transform a space such as the galleries at Tate Modern; rarer still to transform you, within it, into an entirely different state of mind; and even rarer to achieve these with purely 2D media. But Edvard Munch, along with the curators at Tate, has done just that.

The new Munch retrospective opened last week, following the extremely opportune timing of The Scream 1893 auctioning, which propelled the painter to the forefront of current public interest. Not that Munch has ever really been forgotten; The Scream is endlessly parodied across all art forms. It is a shame though to think of the many disappointed faces when they realise that neither the scream is on show, nor the Madonna 1894-5, another classic Munch. However I feel quite sure that any initial frozen smiles will soon melt to real furrowed brows of concentration and absorption as visitors get whisked away into Munch’s dreamlike world.

Initially, in this William Blake-esque setting, where pronounced yet unstable verticals abound and focus refuses to submit to standard optics, you feel somewhat comfortable; as if a traveller in a pastoral narrative. Then you notice that the couple you spotted kissing tenderly is named Vampyr 1893-4, and the mother and child sharing an embrace is titled The Sick Child 1885-7. As if in a dream, comfort and menace intertwine; contrasting versions of works are displayed facing one another with you suspended in the middle, caught up in a fundamental struggle which permeates the rest of the paintings.

Vampire 1893-4

The Sick Child 1885-7

One of the most fascinating elements of this show is the photographic experimentation and documentation of Munch’s interest in the new pioneering visual machines. Photography was relatively new at the time; Kodak had developed the first mass-marketed camera in 1901 – the Brownie. The sometimes transcendental effect of the photographs, created through over-exposure and double negatives, tied in with Munch’s own curiosity about spirituality as well as giving him an outlet for self-reflection. Munch dealt with an inner struggle, a fact which is well-documented due to his breakdown in later life, and threads of these issues do seem to shine through in his work. Looking through his photographs I felt a sudden concern that these images felt inherently personal. Much like the public/private battle of Gillian Wearing, I was torn between the fascination of voyeuristic intrigue and the moral inhibition around questions of personal privacy. Did Munch want these to be on show? Some show him in strange poses, and even naked; were they intended for public consumption or were they an intimate exploration of self?

Rosa Meissner at the Hotel Rohn in Warnemunde 1907

Self-portrait on Warnemünde beach 1907

One theme which repeats throughout his paintings is that of the outward gaze. I call it a gaze, when what I really mean is a stare. Often threatening, sometimes unsettling, but usually menacing. Rarely does a figure smile at the viewer from the canvas. Paintings such as Workers on their way home ’13-14 portray frightening and aggressive stances towards the viewer. Was this how Munch saw the world? Are we the figure in the painting or is he? This motif continues in The Artist and his Model ’19-21, Murder on the Road ’19 and Red Virginia Creeper ’88-89 and creates an unsettling tension between viewer and painting. In Street in Asgardstrand ’01, the figure is there, albeit not so seemingly malevolent; but its very situation and directness still set the viewer on edge. In the background, roads and pathways regularly appear, perhaps signifying ways to escape from his own state of mind. A group of people are often nearer to the path, but the solitary figure in the foreground remains, fixed and looking out from the frame; the way is there, but only in the peripheral.

Murder on the road 1919

Red Virginia Creeper 1888-9

Street in Asgardstrand 1901

Throughout the exhibition I felt the overwhelming sense of an artist ahead of his time. Despite the obvious influence of the Impressionist movement on his work, with its veritable myriad of conspicuous brushstrokes and deep variation of tone and colour, Munch’s ability to communicate tension through style and medium is sometimes reminiscent of very modern day artists. In Self-Portrait Facing Left ’12-13, he uses woodcutting to create a representation of self-image through a series of disconcertingly violent scratches. The composition of the piece I found reminiscent of Francis Bacon, creating form and raw emotion with fast movements. No wonder they named him an Expressionist. His Kiss in the Fields ’43 is intrinsically minimalist; the natural texture and grain of the wood contrasting against the sharp, imposed scoring of the suggested coupling. This piece could sit quite inconspicuously in a modern art gallery. Another of his pieces which could easily blend into not just a gallery, but a specific exhibition, is Yellow Log ’12. Anyone who saw the recent David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy could not fail to spot the extreme similarity between this motif and Hockney’s newer works; the comparisons are there in colour, form, style and technique.

Kiss in the fields 1943

The Yellow Log 1912

I hope that both Hockney and Bacon, as well as many other artists, would happily admit their debt to this great painter (Hockney for one could hardly deny it). His skill in conveying memories and emotions as almost lost in that moment between dream and wake; his ability to pick out the sharp points in those hazes, whilst still rendering the featureless forms in the background with inherent purpose. Towards the end of his life these nightmarish scenarios became reality for a period during his breakdown, in this period his paintings became less concerned with faceless shadows in the peripheral and more of a confrontation with solitary mortality. His work continues to fascinate us, and not just because he provides an insight into mental illness, but because we recognise his universal struggle with the human condition.