Monday, October 26, 2009

A gold medal for the Cultural Olympiad?


Detail of a crocheted lioness by Shauna Richardson
Detail of a crocheted lioness by Shauna Richardson Matthew Andrews

Worries that London 2012’s Cultural Olympiad had fallen at the first hurdle – as it seemed when the proposed Olympic Friend-ship, carrying a cargo of British artists and philosophers around the world, was scrapped – can be assuaged. The organisers of the London Olympics have, in fact, turned their course around: instead of this monumental, nationalistic, elitist, pretentious idea, they have moved to the local, the inclusive, the relatable. Artists taking the lead, a co-production of Arts Council England and London 2012, has announced the 12 public art projects it is commissioning for a total of £5.4 million, all to come to fruition by the Olympics.

There are certain projects whose boldness or silliness make them tall poppies, visible and ripe for a critical scything. Shauna Richardson, representing the East Midlands, will create the Lionheart installation, exploring the values lions and the Olympics share (supply your own qualities here) through the medium of crocheted wool, one of the chief exports from Richard the Lionheart’s heartland. (It all comes together.) Three lions, each 30 feet tall, will be displayed in Nottingham, to loom over the city.

Scotland will see the destruction of part of a forest for Craig Coulthard’s Forest Pitch, where a football pitch will be created deep within a forest by felling trees. After one match has been played, the forest can reclaim its space.

The environment is at the centre of the North-East’s project, FLOW, a floating watermill and mill house, which will power itself and some musical instruments. FLOW, by Owl Project and Ed Carter, aims to examine how local industry and the river have sustained and exploited one another. Quite what is artistic about this apparent science project is not clear.

Alfie_Dennen_and_Paula_Le_Dieu_Artists_taking_the_leadLondon_cMatthew_Andrews_2009Other artists take the term “public art” to mean “art created by the public”, which – as Anthony Gormley’s One & Other on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square has demonstrated – can be provocative and kaleidoscopic. London probably has the most kaleidoscopic project, called Bus-Tops: bad pun, good idea. Alfie Dennen and Paula Le Dieu (pictured right) will install LED panels on top of 40 bus shelters in London, and the public can submit their own ideas for images, text and animations through the web, mobile apps and other media.

This concept seems much more consciously ‘artistic’ than many of the other projects: there are ideas of beauty and image, contemplations of the aesthetic, as much as of community (as with other projects). Bus-Tops engages with both words in “public art”, since it is concerned with what those outside the art world think is beautiful, an approach which is much more likely to provoke a public dialogue on art than the aforementioned mill.

The public are intimately involved in Robert Pacitti and the Pacitti Company’s project, in the East region. The Pacitti Company will produce a feature film whose material is drawn from "a series of large-scale participatory, outdoor events, exploring themes of trade, defence and migration".

This is another project which is driven by the community, but some of the happenings proposed are terrifyingly anaemic: 205 black flags along the coast will be gradually replaced by the flags of the 205 countries attending the Olympics. This is fine for vexillologists, but what do we learn about the local community from this? It is a vapid gesture, which will work visually for the film but not intellectually.

Marc_rees_crop Marc Rees’s project for Wales is in danger of being the most condescending of the lot. Titled Adain Avion, it is a DC9 fuselage converted into a "mobile art space", which will be pulled across Wales as a "social sculpture". The towns it visits will welcome it with a festival and will engage with it through artistic, sporting and community activities, which ought to be praised.

Unfortunately, however, this is reminiscent of nothing so much as missionaries landing their planes in Africa, Bible in hand, to the whoops of astonishment of the "natives". The Welsh have seen planes before – they are not as wide-eyed as this project would make them seem.

All of these projects are aimed at taking art outside (even if many of them struggle to qualify as art). London’s Dennen and Le Dieu say, “The ‘art public’ is a new audience for art, one that looks for artistic expression that touches on their world,” and this neatly captures the direction public art is taking us in: art is not just what one finds inside a gallery, but should invade the public sphere too. In this way, these projects are perfect embodiments of our time, art reaching out.

If we contrast these projects with previous commemorative grand artistic schemes in Britain, we have to wonder whether it will have the same effect. Consider the pleasure and enlightenment still available from the museums in South Kensington founded after the Great Exhibition of 1851, or from the Festival of Britain’s impact on the South Bank.

This will leave us, by design, with nothing permanent, which suggests a worryingly evanescent conception of British society. Large museums or concert halls would not be the only way to fix the Cultural Olympiad in the national memory: encouraging a whole generation of children by spending this £5.4 million not on incidents of "art" but on instruments in schools, not on watermills but on watercolour paints, would also have a long-term positive effect.

The reason people enjoy involvement with public art is because they so often feel neglected by the rest of the culture, especially its artistic side. Public art projects are partially used to unify communities, and indeed, one of the key reasons for London bidding for the Olympics was so that East London could be regenerated, building 21st-century communities. What we should be considering, however, is not what wacky sculpture will bring people together but why we have not brought them together in the first place. Public art is a sticking plaster for our wider failures.

While London seems set on the most temporary form of Olympic public art, Olympic public art projects can involve the contrary danger too: Barcelona ossified in its 1992, with its large-scale Miro-esque projects which now dominate the skyline yet mean very little. Britain's, perhaps happily, are temporary. Still, only after 2012 will we be able to tell whether we have been left with a cultural legacy.

Middle picture: Alfie Dennen and Paula la Dieu by Matthew Andrews

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Frieze Week: Thursday

Héctor de Gregorio

Go to the Fair? Now why would I do that? After a few frenzied hours at the Fair on Wednesday, the call of actual work cannot be ignored. The call of several good post-work parties, however - that's a different call altogether.

First was the most newsworthy of all things happening this week: the Trafigura Prize in association with the Cynthia Corbett Gallery at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane. The show is called Young Masters and features artists who take inspiration, techniques or subjects from the old masters.

There are the Renaissance pictures updated with modern young men by Hector de Gregorio, who paints and varnishes over posed photographs; Alice Evans' Easel, a lightbox which recreates a Vermeer-like aura; and Constance Slaughter's Invasion, a modern Bayeux Tapestry where soldiers are surrounded by assaulting pencils.

There are lots of excellent pictures, and I would encourage you to go, but it is one of the sponsors which is proving particularly interesting at the moment. In case you haven't been following (tho' if you're on Twitter, you will have been), Trafigura, an oil shipping company, obtained a super-injunction to prevent the Guardian reporting a Parliamentary question about a report into a company Trafigura hired dumping (allegedly) toxic waste on the African coast. With me so far?

After several thousand people had Tweeted about where said question could be found online, the injunction was effectively broken and Trafigura's solicitors (the eminently loveable Carter-Ruck, no enemies of freedom they) withdrew the injunction. Victory for the untraceables of the internet.

Well, as part of their PR effort to pour oil over troubled waters (sorry), Trafigura has sponsored this prize, and when I caught up with Cynthia Corbett last night, she confirmed that Trafigura had come on board "two months ago", a relatively short time in the two years she had been planning this show (which you really should go see). I would never suggest Cynthia had done anything wrong or improper: no, it is Trafigura who are trying to paint over (oil paint, I'm guessing) their bad PR.

If we've learned one thing this week, it is that art audiences aren't especially stupid, Trafigura.


And now a happier topic. The Embassy is an installation of work by the 20 Hoxton Square gallery at the former Sierra Leonean embassy (and afterwards alleged swingers' venue) at 33 Portland Place. It had its opening last night and after hotfooting it from the Trafigura Prize on Brick Lane, I managed to grab fifteen minutes amid the complete frenzy. The congestion on the staircase was so hip, so chic, that you could have thrown a paper plane and hit a Vogue model.

The idea behind the Embassy, according to Alex Dellal, whom I spoke to yesterday afternoon, was formed after hearing how modern embassies (such as some of those being built in Dubai) are using some of their premises to promote national artists. Alex wanted "to do the exact opposite by inviting artists from all over to recreate the national identity of an anonymous country". Instead of having an embassy defined by artists' nationality, the artists would definte the embassy's nationality.

So the Embassy has everything from a flag to an anthem. Alex says that plenty of research went into the anthem: 'From America to Europe to South-East Asia, there's this very repetitive feeling you get from national anthems: they sound fairly similar, all in four-four beat. They often sound like a backing track reminiscent of a James Bond theme.'

The recession has made it more difficult to sell works, Alex, the brother of noted denizen of the gossip columns Alice, concedes, but he says that 'people are now more open to seeing new things. [They don't want to see] a lot of these huge artists who get huge sales, they want to see things beyond that. People are going to more art fairs, they've got a better understanding than ever before.'

It is that sort of sophistication which makes a conceptual project like the Embassy more approachable. It is (just in my view) not a wholly successful project: while there are some very interesting pieces, too many seem to be a simplistic reaction to America. I am not passing judgment on America one way or the other, but I think a post-national embassy could cease fighting the battles of 2001-8.

For example, Wolfe von Lenkiewicz's melange of art history features Jesus' head on an American eagle while the Lincoln memorial sits on top and a plane crashes into it. I believe Rufus Wainwright best encapsulated this approach in his song Going to a Town, which was also a lot more timely. At least Alastair Mackie's Mud Hut, a model of the Capitol Building made from mud, straw and horse manure, was made as sectarian violence in Iraq was rising.

Still, I particularly liked Michael Lisle-Taylor's Crossing the Line and Black Knight Square Away, two miliarry uniforms turned into straight jackets, which are direct but quite moving.


And after all that, I turned down my chance to go to the Omega party with Cindy Crawford because I spent the rest of the evening (and early morning) at the Paramount Club with some good friends over from New York. Cindy Crawford is one thing, but friends - that's what Frieze Week is about.


Tonight, the Kandinsky Prize and the Art Review Power 100.

Read Monday's diary here
Read Tuesday's diary
Read Wednesday's diary here

Pictures from top: Héctor de Gregorio - Absinthes, Alice Evans - Easel, Constance Slaughter - Invasion, Wolfe von Lenkiewicz, Michael Lisle-Taylor - Crossing the Line

Frieze Week: Wednesday

So important my camera can't even capture it all

Cometh the day, cometh the fair: Wednesday saw the official exclusive preview of the Frieze Art Fair. It was indeed an exclusive, rarefied group of five thousand* international collectors, journos and bon vivants who thundered round the 165 stands, causing gallerinas to tremble and artists to thank god. Orange stickers appeared on labels across the fair like a rapidly-spreading outbreak of chicken pox. (Of course, the real collectors were allowed in at 10.30 and had disappeared by the time we were let in.)

And that wasn't the only piece of good news: as well as seemingly buoyant sales, the work this year, like at Art Basel, was much subtler, much more subdued. There was not even a Pharrell Williams-Takashi Murakami bejewelled frog to relieve the parsimony. This meant that there were fewer look-at-me million-dollar pieces and the great works of the greatest contemporary artists were by and large absent: there may well have been a revolt if a spot or spin painting had turned up.

There were, of course, plenty of pleasant discoveries, among whom I would include Hiroyuki Masuyama's lightboxes layered with modern photographs which, taken together, recreate Turner's paintings; Jim Hodges' That day (Blue) I through X, ten swirling blue pastels mixed with saliva which resemble Raphael's sketches for heaven; and Lucy Williams' Reading room (seinajoki), a piece of craft truly, where bookspines in a bookshelf are slivers of paper.

One new aspect to Frieze is Frame (Frieze Frame, geddit?). This is dedicated to solo artist presentations from galleries under six years old, curated by Daniel Baumann and Sarah McCrory, and is a genius way of drawing attention (admittedly, at the rear of the fair) to those who could not afford a White Cube-size stand or position. Gareth Moore at Lüttgenmeijer from Berlin had a field full of flags, where the flag was black zig-zag material or think pink sheeting or wooden sticks. It was a witty way of playing with nationalism and representation.

Pommery broke out the champagne at 5.30 although some had broken out the vodka even earlier. Spotted earlier that day were Grayson Perry, looking like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane if Bette Davis had been a YBA; Lily Allen; and Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Galleries.

Despite tremulous qualms about whether the recession would condemn Frieze to the abandoned paint-pot of history, it is clear that its influence - and more importantly, its rejuvenating creativity - has been maintained.

* Author's estimate based on number of times his toes were trodden on.


Later that evening, the Frieze hordes descended on church. Not for religion, of course. (Well, not a religion with a bible, unless you count the Art Review Power 100, more of which in Friday's diary.)

Just across from Regent's Park is One Marylebone, a deconsecrated church by Sir John Soane, he of the museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields. This regularly hosts events (I once went there for the launch of what I thought was a TV series but was in fact for a series of TVs) and now is showing The Age of the Marvellous, an exciting and refreshing exhibition of the collection of All Visual Arts.

There are some thrilling pieces of work. Not so much Paul Fryer's ape on a crucifix, which (if we're being honest) is rather obvious, but Ben Tyers' Breathe, an egg-shaped container wherein water falls and rises at the rate we inhale and exhale at. It is an understated, contemplative piece, even among the crowds grabbing cocktails from the waitress' tray before she even leaves the kitchen.

Alastair Mackie's Amorphous Organic is a chessboard whose pieces are small amber columns with insects suspended inside and a lightbox-board to illuminate them. It is a Darwinian version of the match with Death in the Seventh Seal. Indeed, Darwin's presence is very much felt: there are monkeys, feathered Möbius strips, Alyson Shotz's Helix (outside the church) and (the most beautiful work in the show) Paul Fryer's Venus and Mars, an orrery (look it up here) with just mythical lovers Venus and Mars orbiting yet never meeting.

All Visual Arts is a joint project between former LA gallerist and director of ArtNet Joe La Placa and the founder of Europe's third largest hedge fund, Mike Platt, utilising the art smarts of the former and the business smarts of the latter to amass a collection of works produced especially for it. This art and financial nexus makes it the perfect combination for Spear's, and so I caught up with Joe as he fended off crowds of admirers.

What is their collecting philosophy? 'The theme of the collection is a not very used word, consilience. Consilience is the unity of knowledge. Edmund O. Wilson wrote a book in 1998 that called for the unification of the sciences, which were the chopping up of knowledge.

'I’m very much influenced by the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century method of collection where you can have in one room a cosmological vision of the knowledge of mankind, like the Pitt-Rivers Museum. I think that art unifies knowledge and I’m interested in artists that look outside the normal aesthetic criteria to things like science, like anthropology, like the humanities and unify them.'

What about the business side? 'I used to direct ArtNet and I was an expert on art as an asset class. My partner Mike Platt is the third-biggest hedge fund in Europe. People mistake us for a fund – we’re absolutely not a fund. Our business model is a long-term strategy over five year to make a collection so we’re not interested in any of the methodology that a fund or a hedge fund would follow.

'Mike often says, "Joe’s forgotten more about art than I’ll ever know." The thing about Mike is that he’s an autodidact, and he wants to learn, and the way to learn is to take a plunge, so what I rely on Mike for is financial expertise and acumen, and Mike relies on me for the art side and the production side. We don’t raise money – just he and I.'

On their method of collecting: 'The concept of the AVA collection is that unlike a lot of other collections which go around to galleries and buy things, I produce things because I love working with artists and have done so for 30 years. It’s not commissioned, because that would imply we’ve bought it – ‘produced’ I like to say. We’re like Hollywood producers: someone pitches me an idea and I say, "That’s fantastic, how much do you need?" and they say, "Fifty grand," and I say, "Let’s go for it'."

How has the recession affected AVA? 'I have to say for me, "What recession?" I’ve been doing this for a really really long time. I think the point is that great art, meaningful art that people connect with, you’re always going to have a market for. Even in a recession, it’s not the high-quality works that suffer, it’s the middle ground that actually suffers.

'For us, it hasn’t really affected us. My collaboration with Mike has made us recession-proof, because the way we’ve designed All Visual Arts as a hybrid organisation, without a gallery for instance, clocking 250 grand a month overhead. We have a nice humble production office, but when we do shows, we go for it.'


Tonight: Trafigura Priza, The Embassy of 20 Hoxton Square and more.

Read Monday's diary here
Read Tuesday's diary

Frieze Week: Tuesday

Damien Hirst - as may well have become evident in the past decade - is not a man to do things by halves. Not a skull with zirconia, not a cabinet of real pills, not a pickled terrier, and now not a normal white-walls-and-bare-brick Soho gallery. No, Damien has paid £250,000 to refurbish rooms in the Wallace Collection, hanging them with his own blue silk as a backdrop to his 25 new paintings. And last night everyone came to see, spectate and gawk.

Damien was keeping well away from the throng upstairs, almost all of whom were talking about whether he would turn up or not, looking gleeful at both possibilities. It was pure luck that when I went in search of a drink, I found him in the courtyard, which was mostly empty; he was looking much more relaxed than he would once word spread and the photographers realised.

His new paintings - all done by Damien himself, rather than his previous production-line approach - are not a wholly-new departure for him, since they feature his favourite motifs: skulls, butterflies, spots. They float on deep blue backgrounds with thin white cages locking them into the plane. There is some terrific brushwork and not a little Francis Bacon.

'Bacon? Who's he? Never heard of him,' says Damien when I ask him about his influences. 'I prefer eggs and beans.'

Setting himself against the old masters of the Wallace Collection - Gainsborough, Velazquez, some great Murillos - creates a grand prospect for failure. I'll leave his degree of success up to you.

What was a certain success was the party: Tracey Emin, one of the Chapmans, one of the Gallaghers, Alexander McQueen, Patrick Cox, Nicky Haslam, Jay Jopling, Lily Cole (looking like one of the baby-faced Gainsboroughs). Ivor Braka, the art dealer, was almost refused entry because he looked too scruffy.

The core crew peeled off to Jay Jopling's dinner afterwards.


The other big dinner last night was that for Ed Ruscha, who is having a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, at Skylon. Guestlist to follow...


Afterwards, to the Anish Kapoor after-party at the Royal Courts of Justice. Oh yes, art has invaded the law. (Only a matter of time before there's an art gathering in the PwC boardroom.) Anish had been showing new work at the Lisson Gallery, but many people went straight to the Royal Courts, which looked more like Cannes in July than the Strand in October. There was gentle orange lighting, plenty of trees and sofas, and so many cocktails it gave new meaning to 'being called to the bar'.

The crowd was mainly collectors early in the evening and gallerinas later on. Plenty of people made a beeline for Nick Hackworth of Paradise Row, but there were also notable spots from Sotheby's, Sky Arts and almost every gallery north of the river.


Today: Frieze opens to collectors, Frieze launch party late tonight, the Tatler and Vanity Fair parties, a party at Christie's for their contemporary sales this week and All Visual Arts at One Marylebone.

Read Monday's diary here
Read Wednesday's diary here

Frieze Week: Monday

Frieze Week started last night as it meant to go on: with art, with an auction, with charity, with glamour. Laurence Graff's FACET Foundation (For Africa's Children Every Time) raised over $1.2 million with a sale at Christie's of work donated by Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and more.

Laurence Graff told Spear's that he had always wondered what it was like to stand on the other side of the podium instead of sitting in the front rows. He brandished his panel with enthusiasm and alacrity, but also proved a generous consigner: the first lot - Khotsa Nala Earrings - was donated by him.

The actual auctioneer was Jussi Pylkkänen, president of Christie's Europe. At the afterparty at Sketch, Jussi told Spear's: ‘The crowd here is a testament to the pulling power of Laurence Graff, not just with serious collectors but more importantly with artists, who he’s been a big supporter of, hence all their donations.’

Jussi also broke one of his rules when Spear's asked what his favourite picture of the sale was: ‘Anyone who knows me knows that I very rarely announce any sort of personal preference for a picture when it comes up for sale, however I did come out and say I really liked the Lionel Smit.’

The biggest surprise of the evening was that Raqib Shaw's 'Mild-Eyed Melancholy of the Lotus-Eater', an oval of delicate flowers and Hindu symbols rendered in acrylic, enamel, rhinestones and glittery, went for £200,000, well above its £80-120,000 estimate.

Mr Graff set up FACET after his mother's death in 2008 to give back to Africa, the source of most of his diamonds. It is currently funding the Graff Leadership Centre in Lesotho, in association with Help Lesotho. The centre will provide a leadership camp for orphans and vulnerable youth in a country where Aids has reduced life expectancy to 37 and made it the third poorest country in the world.


Tomorrow: Hirst at the Wallace Collection, Anish Kapoor at Lisson and Royal Courts of Justice

Read Tuesday's diary here
Read Wednesday's diary here

Art London looks up


The Frieze Art Fair is a little too contemporary for some tastes: last year’s smoking booths are not what most of the patrons of Art London in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea would consider art. Not art, at least, that one could hang in one’s drawing room. That was the problem Art London had last year: too much drawing-room art. This year, I’m pleased to say, Art London moved out of the drawing room and into a more daring room.

Don’t get too excited – we are still not in a world of neon tubes leaning against white walls or projects so large they have to be installed in a separate building (as at Art Basel). But some of the 60 galleries showing had evidently striven to avoid the staid and give buyers a more exciting choice. (Having said this, there were still a disturbing number of Monet-lite works this year.)

Piers Bourke’s Bhutanese Monastery (Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery) was a tall digital print which seemed to have gone through a shredder before being roughly reassembled in three dimensions. It was challenging in a Cubist manner – the angle of approach is always changing, there is no way to see it all – and looked like it might fall apart at any moment, which gave it a nice tension.

Galerie Olivier Waltman, from Paris, exhibited three interesting artists: Jean-Pierre Attal, with his external photos of occupied office buildings, looking in on at activity within; Tali Amitai-Tabib, showing from her series of libraries, geometrical yet humane in their emptiness; and Charles Fazzino, whose lurid decoupage scenes of metropolitan life seem like novelties but are actually rather neat social commentary.

Irish artist Marty Kelly had a one-man show at BlueLeaf Gallery. His work is Uglow-like and arresting: roughly-painted grey, yellow, blotchy orange humans are caught in black backgrounds. He told me that “there’s an automatic assumption that the paintings are gloomy, but for me the black just serves to illuminate the figure.” And it does: they look like they have been caught in a shaft of light, just beyond our reach. His best painting on show was of one figure turning through five stages, where he convincingly captured the motion of his ballet-dancer models.

There was also a large presence of the work of Frederic, Lord Leighton, a Holland Park resident whose house is now a public museum (closed for refurbishment until 2010). Many Leighton paintings – including a fine and sombre Clytemnestra – were on show, giving the fair an excellent anchor in a serious piece of art history, just in case it ever threatened to blow away in the stormy October weather.

Finally, it is impossible to forget the Tatler stand, which may have been a post-modern joke or indeed a serious business proposition (they were flogging the new issue, out the day after the private view). Celebrating its tercentenary, the magazine displayed some of its finest covers, which really say quite a lot about the modern world – more than many of the other galleries.

From the full-text first cover, promising the best gossip London’s coffeehouses had to offer, through those featuring notable women of the twentieth century to the bland blondes on today’s, you saw the past three centuries flash before you, and the ending wasn’t pleasant.

The art world may have suffered along with everyone else, but it seems to have brought out a little bit of fighting spirit in Art London. It is not meant to be avant-garde – it never has been – but at least it now looks beyond the heavy curtains of Carlyle Square.

Top picture (c) Piers Bourke/Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery
Bottom picture (c) Marty Kelly/BlueLeaf Gallery

Friday, October 09, 2009

Museum of Everything, Primrose Hill


The art world has never been un-self-aware – its navel is deeper and more gazed-at than almost any other art form. So what happens when you bring artists unaware of the art world into the contemplated and contemplating fold? The Museum of Everything, a new space in Primrose Hill, north-west London, which opened this week, is devoted to outsider art and by extension to answering this question.

James Brett is the founder of the Museum of Everything and a keen collector of art made by non-traditional artists; he rejects the term 'outsider art' as being too loose and inaccurate.

He sees his artists as “anyone who’s making art privately – or feels that they have been called”. As he says this, we walk past the work of Hackney medium Madge Gill, who felt compelled to draw over and over a spirit who came to her: the two sides of a corridor contain dozens of these small black-pen drawings.

The main space is hung like a Russian aristocrat’s palace, with pictures jostling on every inch of every wall, from floor to 30-foot ceiling. There is Indian-influenced work and Pop Art-esque work, Incan animals and urban sprawl. By being outside of the mainstream, there is no-one to dictate fashion in their art.

“They are not always artistically talented,” says James, reflecting on the varying quality of the work, “but they tell the truth, and the truth finds the form.” What perhaps unites all of this work is indeed that truth-telling, the lack of restraint. This is not to imply the work is gross or unsubtle, only that you do not feel the artists are holding back through dogma or ‘dignity’.

It would be patronising to say that a museum for outsider art is a daring move – we’re very liberal, don’t you know – but art from outside the mainstream by definition is harder to place in context, to assess as part of a wider tradition, and runs the risk of drawing from viewers either blank looks or beneficent glances, not serious consideration.

The crowds milling round the 10,000 square foot former dairy which houses the museum are the Hampstead smart set, which lends a slight air of unreality to a show of work by their social polar opposites: theirs are a combination of polite blankness and genuine enthusiasm. James cannot move for being crushed by an embracing fur coat.

This insidering of outsider art is akin to the tree falling in the forest: is it still outsider art if it’s looked at in a gallery, or does it become just another part of the art world? Some of what makes this art-for-art’s-sake special is that it was never intended for show. In arriving at greater exposure, the semi-illiterate placards quoting the Bible and damning communism and Aleksander P Lobanov’s self-portraits with gun lose a little of their intimacy. Of course, you are trading this for access to unknown worlds, and I think the price is fair: Sister Gertrude Morgan’s visions of her literal marriage to Christ are a beautiful revelation.

The official opening is October 14. James plans to keep the museum open throughout Frieze Week, next week, and depending on demand perhaps Thursday to Sunday afterwards. What is certain is that in bringing the outside in, he has added a valuable new dimension to the London art scene, but not one without its own conflicts.

The Museum of Everything, corner of Regent's Park Road and Sharpleshall Street, London NW1

Conrad Shawcross: Chord

Conrad Shawcross - Chord
Conrad Shawcross - Chord. Photograph by Alex Delfanne

Is site-specific the new collaboration? What I mean by this is that where it was once the fashion for artists and dancers (think Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham) or film directors and opera houses (Anthony Minghella and the ENO) to mix art forms, now it is fashionable to have work inspired by and installed in a particular place.

Take Punchdrunk with their Faust, which nightmarishly overran a Wapping warehouse, or Turner Prize nominee Roger Hiorns: his Seizure featured a flat in South London whose walls were daubed with liquid copper sulphate, eventually producing a blue crystalline cave. The latest in this line is Chord by Conrad Shawcross, who has installed a rope machine in an abandoned tunnel in Holborn.

chord_4The tunnel itself, opened in 1906 by Edward VII, is of historical interest: through it used to run the Kingsway Tram from Southampton Row to Aldwych; it closed in 1952 as tubes and buses took over. Now it is soaked in an aura of mystery: its entrance gates at the surface are locked and in even the least curious passer-by this is bound to stoke an interest, a question about such a public yet abandoned space. It is, in fact, used by Camden Council to store things, such as timber and recalcitrant workers.

IMG_0407Conrad Shawcross, the young sculptor of abstract scientific ideas, was offered the space and returned to an abandoned technique of his, rope-making: here there are two machines spinning thick thread into a omni-hued cable, retreating along a track as the rope gets longer. “I haven’t made anything with rope for about seven years,” Shawcross says. “It just seemed that the linear structure of the tunnel [suggested] this work. It gradually recedes backwards and will eventually make about 100 metres of rope each run.” As he speaks, the whining and creaking of the machines echo down the tunnel.

The machines fit in quite elegantly. You have to descend far into the tunnel, past the former platform, with its Union Street signs and contemporary posters in tatters on the walls, until you reach a level stretch, where Shawcross has laid down a wooden track. They are beautiful objects: both specially made by Shawcross, from a distance they look like flowers in a Japanese print, a thick stem and regular petals. They whir round rhythmically and the cable produced echoes the tunnel’s shape.

SIMG_0405hawcross is quite keen for visitors to devise their own interpretation of the work: “It’s whatever you want it to be – hopefully it’s quite a conceptually open piece. It is essentially a rope machine and it’s been made in a very neutral, diagrammatic, ethereal way.”

He does concede that it is space-time and visions of time which inspired him: “My original interest in it is to do with space and time and the linear perception of time – whether it’s a line or a cycle. This rope being a linear structure formed from a rotational system, it has quite a good reference to that.” In line with this, when the rope is finished, it will be cut into editions whose length is not measured by metres but by minutes.

IMG_0402Time certainly plays a role, but to me it seems that these machines have been here eternally and we have only just discovered them – they are the spinners of the threads of fate (as the Greeks knew them), churning away as they programme human action. We are observers who cannot interfere. This is in the abandonment of the location too: it is a place untouched now by humans, a melancholy place for a melancholy contemplation of free will.

Bottom three pictures by Josh Spero

Chord, Kingsway Tram Subway, until Sunday 8 November. Book free tickets here

On BBC 3 Counties Radio

Every so often, I get a phone call from BBC 3 Counties Radio to talk about Classics (which is my weekend job - I tutor). This time, it was as part of their Mastermind commentary, where they have someone come on and talk about one of this week's specialist subjects, in this case, Greece from 490-323BC.

It's a bit like choosing Britain from 1509-2009, so capacious a period is it: Persian Wars, rise of the Athenian empire, Peloponnesian War, seventy years of inter-city fighting, rise of Alexander the Great. That's not forgetting the literature, philosophy, art, architecture...

Anyway, here I am wittering on: enjoy.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Friezing Already

I can't quite believe it's got to that point in the year again: 'summer' 'holidays' over, Spear's Awards out of the way (not that they weren't a pleasure) and it's already time for the Frieze Art Fair.

There have been some good private views already (Ryan McGinley at Alison Jacques Gallery was a star turn) but things kick off properly with Frieze (15-18 October): it is the starting pistol for the art world's runners. The interesting question is whether it is a sprint, a marathon or an aesthete's Supermarket Sweep.

A case can be made for each. The last category is not in fact a joke: if you have ever seen the Wednesday preview, which is when celebrities and major collectors are let in to snap up what's good and hot before anyone else, you will note its resemblance to that much-maligned show of the Nineties. Essentially, buyers speed round trying to pick up the most desirable objects, rather than leisurely wandering through, alighting at a gallery here, a gallery there, appreciating the work and coming to a reasoned decision.

You can't blame them: everyone wants to stop the inexorable march of Dasha Zukhova as she strides across the globe, cherrypicking the best on offer. And you know she's serious about Frieze: she even has rollerblades for extra speed.

Sprinting is obvious. Frieze Week consists of a round of parties not seen since VE Day: every hauntable place in London is celebrating an artist or a gallery or their continued existence, and you will run up a considerable taxi bill to get to the best ones. It's the 100m canape-grab.

But it's the marathon aspect which really shows how important Frieze is. It's a bellwether, a harbinger, a sign of art times to come: in brief, it sets the mood for the months to come. If you have a bad Frieze, the talk can turn against you and you may as well burn your canvases. If the whole of Frieze is bad - poor sales, poor attendance, poor quality of work - then the art market may stay depressed into the winter.

It's the major event which launches the year in art, and like the Iowa caucus or the first night at Covent Garden, it may not just herald but influence what's to come.