ARTYFACTS: May 2009

Monday, May 25, 2009

Zero the Hero - Nature abhors the vacuous

Nature abhors the vacuous
There's a recipe for good debate; a good chair, a good hypothesis and smart contributors. Not one of these was present at this event. The chair couldn't help chortling and bringing in his own, rather stupid, experiences with dervishes and the like, into the conversations. To be fair, engaging this lot was rather futile. 

Isabel Losanda was a giggling idiot, who had clearly given the topic no thought whatsoever prior to the event. She literally had ZERO to say. Apparently she's written a book called 'The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment'. Now if that title isn't enough to put you off, try listening to her banal comments and cod-philosophy. She was about as empty a vessel as one can imagine can be. 

As if she wasn't vacuous enough, enter stage left, Micheal Landy, the guy who destroyed all of his personal belongings in a C&A window. Now this was a smart and interesting idea, but he was remarkably inarticulate about this event and the topic at hand. Most of the time he was literally stuck when asked a question. Thankfully we had a mathematician who could explain the mathematical concept of zero, as a number, placeholder and its complex role in algebra.

It was ashame that Julian Baggini couldn't show up as he, at least, would have had the philosophical training to have distinguished between the several meanings of zero and nothingness that were being bandied about, and could have pointed out that we've had at least two and a half milennia of philosophical discussion aroud such concepts. the last thing deep philosophical debate needs are morons who don't understand the questions and concepts, never mind supply answers.

The only saving grace was the far brighter audience, who posed interesting questions around the use of silence in music as a negation of the concrete sounds, the comparison of conscious nothingness and a lobotomy and so on. 

Alaa Al Aswary

Alaa Al Aswary, if you've never heard of him, is a novelist, and dentist, from Cairo. The Yacoubian Building was the best selling novel in the Middle East from 2002-2007, when it was pushed into second place by Chicago, his next novel. He remains a dentist because you can't make a living in Egypt, or the Arab world, by writing. Publishing is controlled by the state and there's paranoia around taboo topics such as sex, homosexuality and so on, so he prefers to publish privately. He also adds, that being a dentist puts him in touch with real people, an essential part of a novelist's work.

Egyptians have a very open, friendly and smiling character, and Aswary is no exception. He charmed the audience with his explanations and anecdotes. He was clear about the failure of the novel to change situations other than by changing people. It strikes me that The Yacoubian Building is read by the intelligensia, but not the mass of the Egyptian voting population. Egypt has a 58% literacy level and within this few read full length novels. The illusion created in the novel-loving west is that novelists have real policical cout in the Middle East - they don't really. This is why Aswary contributes articles to the major newspapers and gets involved in politics. His reputation as a novelist may protect him, in a way that bloggers in Egypt are not protected, but they don't make much of an impact politically. Aswary was more aware of this than the audience and was clear about the separation of art and politics.

He was scathing about Saudi Wahabbism, dictatorship and the erosion of liberal Islam, that was dominant in Egypt until the 80s. He also paid tribute to the many young bloggers who are often arested and even tortured in Egypt. However, he ewas dismissive of simplistic views of the 'West' or the 'Arab world'. these he regards as heterogeneous.

What was odd was when two of the audience dared criticise him for giving his characters certain beliefs. An arab womed disliked his depiction of Arab men and gay men, then an older man in the audience criticised one of his characters for his depiction of Nasser. Aswary responded wit the usual 'these are characters and not me' argument. That's fine, but it needed a clearer argument about the role of the author to make things clear.

There's a whole debate around the intentional fallacy i.e. whether the intentions of the author really matter when expressed in a work. It is not to be dismissed by sneers from book group types, who simply regard novels as wonderful, and everything written in them as wonderful. The two questioners had a point. Of course one can't attribuet the beliefs of all characters in a novel to the author, as they may be contradictory and that may not have been the intention. But one can ask the question - do you agree with the views of that character. That's what the two people in the audience were asking.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Antony and the Johnsons

Voice of a damaged angel that filled the entire concert hall. When not doing his 'warbling' style (sorry don't really have the vocabulary to capture it) he is a very capable blues singer. You have to say that his lyrics are nothing like the usual pop fare, full of intensity and jarring imagery, and it makes you hold on and concentrate all the more.

Between songs he talked a great deal, trading comments with the audience. He's from down this way so there were lots of talk about Chichester, Brighton et al. Then his lasped catholicism (he doesn't like faith schools) and being a witch. He even interrupted some songs to finish off a comment or come out with a comeback. Very entertaining and about as comfortable speaking to a sell out audience as any singer I've seen.

The women in the row in front of me (Row A - circle), who were constantly texting during the performance, should be ceremoneously hung from the balcony with their mobiles inserted sideways into their mouths and their bodies left to rot, as a warning to others.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bon Iver - just dandy

Great voice, great songwriter, great atmosphere, great night. Songwriting at its absolute best and sung wit incredible emotion. 
Just a dandy evening, with an appreciative audience and a guy who only a year ago, at last year's 'The Great Escape', was playing in a local pub, the Pressure Point. Check out For Emma, Forever Ago.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Hofesh rocks!

At a Guardian debate last week, a bitter old soul complained about the moral decline in today’s youth. I feel like ripping their old gizzards out, these old moralists. I wish she had been at the Dome in Brighton tonight, where three bands and dozens of dancers showed what a feisty and talented bunch they really are. Guided by the brilliant choreographer Hofesh Schechter, the dancers exploded into action to blistering rock beats and swept across the stage in wave after wave. It was absolutely thrilling. Hofesh just unleashed the energy of these teenagers and they flew. They had no problem in blasting out to a venue of this size. It was loud, raw and accomplished.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Is Human History characterised by Moral Progress

At one point a man stomped out making a hell of a racket – that’s how good this debate was, at times. Set up as a sort of tennis doubles match, John Gray and Sigrid Rausing V Mary Warnock and Mark Malloch-Brown, the debate was really between Gray and Warnock. They had the intellects and philosophical skills that the others lacked.

Warnock: For the motion

David Hume was her guiding light in claiming that morals must be felt as well as thought. The world is shrinking through technology and communications making compassion and sympathy more of a felt, global preoccupation. Despite the decline in religion, she saw no decline in moral progress, as true morals are not down tom obedience but must spring from the human heart. Personal morality lies at the heart of all this and she felt that people were, for example more sensitive to the horrors of war than they were in the past. She, like many, felt that we had been tricked into the Iraq war.

Warnock must be in her late 80s but she was as smart and sharp as any of the other three. She was good because she defined moral progress and its necessary condition for success. She avoided the obvious ploy of just trading examples.

Rausing: Agin the motion

In 1963 the COIA came out against torture, but this was reversed in 2002. We’ve had World War i & II. The holocaust and the chaos of history shows that chance may be a significant factor in history. Terrorists learn from history and the politics of the Congo and Zimbabwe show that we’re in no position to claim moral progress.

Apart from ‘complexity theory’ Rausing simply trotted out some 20th century examples. She seemed to have little in the way of conceptual and philosophical skills.

Malloch: For the motion

Malloch wanted to insert the word ‘mostly’ before characterised. He arued that technology and scientific progress had led to better education, literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality and so on. Global communications had led to the exposure of moral wrongs and an increase in sympathy and action.

His, like Rausing, was an empirical tack. He relied on examples, mostly recent. Again, there was no real analysis of the terms or question.

Gray: For the motion

Is progress in morality possible? Asked Gray. Human nature, he thinks, remains the same, therefore difficult to change the basics. He denies the proposition that increased knowledge leads to increased morality. Although not a relativist, he is Humean in looking at human nature for answers. The economic downturn was a surprise. Slavery returned in the 20th century through the Nazis and Soviet Gulags.

Gray has written in some depth on this subject, and clearly had the upper hand, His arguments were more compelling and deeper than all but Warnock.


 Good questions from the floor I thought. My own query was that the panel had not mentioned Nuclear Arsenals, and that technology may, almost accidentally, have given us power beyond our ability to control such power, so that the moral debate may be neither here nor there. The Taliban are within 100 Km of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal south of Islamabad. Its forces like these we have to contend with and harnessing technology is the great task, not moral education.

Q Speakers were too ‘recent’ in their analysis – older cultures regularly and human sacrifice, slavery, murder and violence.

Q Missed point that absolute versus proportional progress was an issue – good point, both are objective measures.

Q Optimism and pessimism get in the way of proper debate – another good point, as these are attitudes

Q Worst question came from the usual posh person decrying the moral decline of today’s youth. Polly Toynbee quickly stated that this was the view of every generation. There’s always one!

Q Morality may not be a simple calculus of plus and minus ‘suffering’.

All in all a fine debate.

Wobbley Geezer

Jah Wobble’s forthcoming biography is to be called ‘Life of a Geezer’ and this was an exercise in Geezerology. Jon Savage sat perched on his chair swivelling his head like an owl, peering through his little round  professorial glasses, while Wobble charmed the audience with his cockney banter. His cosmic reflections ‘It’s all a load of bollocks’ and anecdotes were funny as he’s an honest sort of bloke who likes to tell a tall tale, but always adds that little bit extra, sometimes a little observation about someone’s character, sometimes a reflection on life.

John Lydon was ‘one of those blokes who would dump you if something better came along’. Sid was ‘uncomfortable to be around, with a vicious mother and an in-built tendency to self-destruct. He couldn’t take The Clash seriously, singing ‘My father was a bank robber’ and Maclaren and Westwood were dismissed as cold fish who didn’t really care about other people.

It’s always interesting hearing about that fateful year or so when punk exploded, like inserting your finger into an electric socket. But it faded fast for Wobble as the arrivistes took it all too seriously, bringing a dark vibe that destroyed the working class ‘have a go, have a laugh’ attitude. Above all, this is a geezer who just loves music and has followed his own path, away from punk into world music, Egyptian, African and black American rhythms. He abhors the snippy, sneering world of Graham Norton, Jools Holland and Jonathon Ross. An added bonus was meeting another geezer, not a cockney but a Glaswegian, who runs the music company Funkystar, and is at The Great Escape with his current protégé Rumer. Hadn’t seen him for 20 years, so loads to talk about.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


What a sight and what a site. Kapoor’s C-Curve sits upon the gentle green curve of a South Down’s hill. It’s concave side reflects the sky, fields, town all the way down to the sea. Walk round and the concave side inverts you

and the wings of the mirror reflect from one side of the mirror to the other. You can spend some time wandering around looking at that most fascinating of subjects – yourself, or your partner, kids, other visitors, birds, sheep, sky, clouds, grass......

Mirrors in works such as Jan van Dyke’s convex mirror in The Arnolfini Marriage or Velasquez’s use of a mirror in Las Meninas have played a role within painting but Richter’s Mirror, currently in the National Portrai

t Gallery, and Kapoor’s C-Curve and Sky Mirror are used to literally reflect and get us to reflect on the nature of representation.

"Mirrors would do well to reflect a little before throwing back images." said Jean Cocteau. They do, of course. A reflected image has a viewer and is therefore a not a pure representation. The mediating surface also has a role to play in the shaping the image, in terms of colour and the shape of the reflection. Then there’s the context of the mirror, in this case a beautiful landscape. When you stand on the convex side and see yourself framed by a big sky, gentle hills and sea, you see yourself literally illuminated by the landscape. Walk round and everything turns in on and around itself. You appear upside down, your limbs are distorted and some reflections are double up before they reach your eyes.

The piece is just the landscape it reflects but the landscape in your own mind. It can also be a portrait, a sort of Gainsborough placing you in a huge landscape. It can also be a self-portrait that distorts and magnifies. Sometimes there’s small social groups, at other times you’re alone. Mirrors are strange objects and don’t just reflect, they do much more. They do wants the viewer wants them to do.

Take a picnic, climb the gentle slope and enjoy as finely positioned a piece of polished steel as you’re ever likely to see – and reflect.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Dismemberment of Joan of Arc

Anish Kapoor

Brighton has some curious links with India. The Brighton Pavilion was used as a hospital for Indian troops during the war. It’s exotic mogul, chinoiserie rooms were meant to make them feel at home. Up on the downs behind Brighton is the Chanctry, a monument to the fallen Indian soldiers. It was here that funeral pyres were built for those who never made it through their care in the Pavilion.

So it is, in 2009, that Anish Kapoor has been asked to direct the Brighton Festival and his works are scattered around the town, huge beacons of refection and colour that radiate in Brighton’s sea light and air.

Dismemberment of Joan of Arc

The gut of this work is a huge pit sunk into the concrete floor of this no disused market hall.  a perfect ellipse, but it’s dug into the bowels of the earth and shows the dirt and rock as a huge eviscerated hole.  It draws you to the edge. But as I peer over, a young girl comes up and tells me that I have to remain 6 feet from the edge (health and safety apparently). So an edgy  work with ‘dismemberment’ in the title is emasculated by some petty H&S rule.

I loved the sexual, menstrual, gory pit, but was less pleased with the rather literal limbs and breasts. Huge sticks of rough red rock lie legs akimbo at the foot of the pit, like two giant, abandoned tampons. At the other end industrial size conical hills of red dirt rise towards the roof. These are puzzling. Kapoor’s works play with absence and presence and these additions seem to detract from the empty intestinal tomb of the pit. The many roof leaks are being held back by makeshift tarpaulins, but I’d have let them drip to form pools from blood-red wounds.

One accidental (perhaps not) consequence of being in a glass roofed fruit market is that the light, supplemented by red lights, make the piece radiate redness. It’s a deep and bloody affair, as red as the death tainted pomegranates that used to be sold here.

One last puzzle – why Joan of Arc? She famously fought to retrieve French land from the English, but was burned (repeatedly to leave no relics), not dismembered. What is the meaning of a metaphorical dismemberment? Is it the dismemberment of women in general? Is it the psychological dismemberment that we all experience as we approach old age and death? Is it the fact that we are, after all, just blood and guts, animals doomed to be gutted and discarded in time? Kapoor gave no clues in his little speech at the unveiling.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Gerard Richter – National Portrait Gallery

I enjoyed the Richter retrospective in the National Gallery of Scotland, so was looking forward to this set of portraits. British artists shy away from actual theories of aesthetics but not Richter. The Germans almost defined the European aesthetic theory and practice with its Kantian distinction between high and low art. The rest of us have ignored the subject.

Richter’s aesthetic theories are laid bare on the canvas. Theories of representation (and what is not represented) are clear to see, or not. Projected photographs, traced on to canvases strip away the artists interpretive tools, such as composition, colour and consideration of the psychology of the subject.

Some of these images come from old newspapers and magazines where he wants to turn the famous into anonymous images of people, devoid of context. He withdraws from traditional portraiture even further with his beach snaps. I would have liked to have seen his most famous beach scene, but as it was on display in Edinburgh, I wasn’t so bothered. These images, I think, are his best portraits. Stripping away the subject to leave moments on sunny days on common beaches, denies the viewer any pretentious social commentary. You’re left with the pure beauty of the image.

Family snapshots are used in the same way, leaving the subjects isolated and unknown. This is teh aesthetics of solipsism, loneliness and isolation. There’s no Freudian reading or characterisation by  the artist, only an honest, raw representation. This goes back to the German instinct for the search for the Kantian ding-an-sich behind the world of representation, which eventually ended with Nietzsche’s world of appearances (Richter's actual aesthetic).

The presence of a mirror is further proof of his serious attitude towards representation. You can’t see a Richter show without literally facing up to your own view of art. Richter is way beyond the infantile Britart movement and most of what passes for art in Europe, as he has a serious and sophisticated aesthetic. This matters in art.

The series of portraits in the hall are less interesting and the exaggerated blurb by the curator about the ‘present, triangular layout by the artist in response to the unique setting’ is worthy of Private Eye.