Here are a couple of contrasting photos taken in the last eighteen hours of the different aspects of England that feature in the novel.
The first is one of the photos I took on the fascinating Love Art London graffiti tour of Shoreditch last night. I’ll have to try and remember the artists featured — or perhaps someone can comment. I’ll post more up on the blog soon and describe the tour in more detail — but not while it’s amazingly sunny outside.
And the other photo is of the verdant English countryside. After the miserable, wet April and early May, the grass and trees have had plenty of water to push into the leaf burst so this year has the most vibrant, stunning greens for a long while — showing the beautiful landscape at its best.
The last post dwelt on art at the celebrity and ‘major gallery spaces’ level Â (asÂ Time OutÂ describes them). But my novel is about an artist trying to make a living, someone who doesn’t have the reputation of Picasso or Hirst nor has the resources or the inclination to re-stage the battle of Orgreave. To get an appreciation of how art is produced and sold at the more accessible end of the market I went along to theÂ Affordable Art Fair in Battersea ParkÂ in March (handily getting a discount on entry with my Art Fund card!).
The Affordable Art Fair differs from the London Art Fair by maintaining a price ceiling of Â£4,000 on all works for sale (although I was shown an under-the-counter Â£20k picture by Billy Childish), which means that those of us who don’t run hedge funds might have a prospect of picking up a decent piece of work for an amount that’s, well, affordable.
I only had a lunch-hour to look around the huge pavilion with hundreds of stands from galleries all over the country so I was intrigued by the ‘Egg Timer Tour’ offered by Love Art London. This was a free tour of ten of the most interesting stands which was guaranteed to take no more than an hour — and to ensure punctuality Chris Pensa, who ran the trip, took along a clockwork egg timer. When it buzzed, it was time to move on, at pace, to the next stand.
(One of the stands we visited had miniature figures within glass containers created by Jimmy Cauty, ex-of the KLF — which is an interesting connection with the Jeremy Deller exhibition mentioned in the previous post.)
I thoroughly enjoyed the tour — it was a fast-moving (literally) and very approachable introduction to the contemporary art world. After the tour I learned more aboutÂ Love Art LondonÂ — they organise eventsÂ approximately once a week,Â for people interested in art, often visiting galleries for private tours, having Q&A sessions with artists in their own studios and so on — ideal for my writing research purposes. Chris sold membership to me instantly when he said the whole thing was so friendly and informal that they usually end each event in the pub — often drinking with the artists. This organisation could have been created specifically for me!
The first event I went to — a private viewing of Glasweigian duoÂ littlewhiteheadÂ ‘s installations in the Sumaria Lunn gallery near Bond Street — was fascinating from my perspective of learning how artists interact with their galleries and collectors. Unfortunately, with the gallery being close to the Mayfair hedge fund types, the pub afterwards was so packed with suited chinless wondersÂ five-deep ordering Roederer Cristal at the bar that I didn’t have time to order myself a drink before I needed to get my train home.
Fortunately, at the next event, I was successfully able to pop into the pub — the Owl and Pussycat in Shoreditch, just round the corner from Kim’s fictional studio in my novel — with fellow Love Art London members and Chris Pensa himself. He told me that he’d set up Love Art London after working for a while at Sotheby’s and he found it very rewarding to provide this sociable and fun way of becoming familiar with the London art world — he also provides a similar service for corporate clients — a different sort of experience than the normal team away-day.
We were in Shoreditch after having had a private viewing of work exhibited by the shortlisted artists for the Catlin Prize. Art Catlin curator, Justin Hammond visits shows by students graduating from British art schools and picks forty artists to feature in a publication — the Catlin Guide — which has become known as an overview of new British art.
Ten of the artists were selected to exhibit in a gallery in Londonewcastle, which appeared to be a warehouse currently undergoing conversion in Shoreditch (I know this as I had to be sneaked round the rest of the building to go to the toilet, having had a very quick couple of pints near Monument on the way) and four of these artists gave us a short talk about the work they had on show, which was fascinating for me in trying to improve my understanding of the way young artists work in London.
Jonny Briggs‘s works were mainly in what wasÂ probably the most conventional form — photography — but his photographs had a very surreal quality. He explained that he explores themes related to his awakening as an adult in his teenage years — and rather than alienate his parents as is the stereotype — he involves them in his art. His father appeared in several works — sometimes wearing a latex mask of himself — and providing a bronze cast of a toe for one non-photographic piece.
Max Dovey’s work as a performance artist earned him a place in the Catlin prize shortlist — and he exhibited something that resembled a fixed monument both to an event he’d organised and to mark the passing of the technology that event had marked — the ceasing of analogue television broadcasts.Final Broadcast, a short online video, records a party Max had organised to celebrate the last night of analogue television transmission in the London region (the last in the country). The Last Day of TV, his Catlin exhibit, was a series of five sets of five boxed videotapes which were recordings of the last hours of the type of transmission that had first started about 75 years ago. The videocassettes, which are an almost archaic item themselves, were set on a wall like an apt combination of library books and tombstones.
Julia Vogl, who was named as the overall winner of the Catlin prize last week, designed a very clever participatory exhibit — Let’s Hang Out. She constructed a Mondrian-style grid of black and white, both on the floor and against the wall, like three sides of a cube. This was surrounded by carpet tiles, stacked in about half-a-dozen different colours.
A slogan on the wall challenged viewers to declare what they’d do in a spare ten minutes by tossing a square carpet tile into the grid. A key on the wall assigned colours to activities, which included: ‘Tweet’, ‘Call Mum’, ‘Daydream’ and, the only activity whose colour I remember, ‘Masturbate’ (a yellowy-gold). Â I think these gold tiles were winning when we saw the installation, which says something about the visitors to the exhibition — probably their honesty.
On her website, Julia Vogl categorises Let’s Hang OutÂ Â as a social sculpture and it captures the Zeitgeist of the times – with its physical, participatory interaction encouraging viewers to share their ‘status’. And the use of such familiar and (literally) workaday material as office carpet tiles also emphasises the democratised perspective of the work (apparently the artist used to work in political polling). Let’s Hang OutÂ was last week declared the winner of the Catlin Prize 2012 — by judges who included the art critics of The Times and Time Out.
But there was another prize, awarded to the artist who polled highest in a public vote — entries were either submitted online or in a ballot box at the entrance to the exhibition. This was won by Adeline deÂ Monseignat. Her work Mother HEB/LoletaÂ also explored touch and texture. The work comprised several glass spheres partially buried in sand — exploring the connection between the smoothness and solidity of glass and the graininess and liquidity of its component material. Most of the spheres were small, set around a much larger glass ball about 70 cms in diameter. Pushed against the inside surface of the bigger globe was something with an organic, furry texture which was folded in irregular ridges like the surface of a brain — and if one looked at the sculpture for long enough, this inner material could be seen to move up and down almost imperceptibly — as if it were alive.
The sculpture had a surreal but soothing other-worldly quality, as if some alien life-form had descended into a desert-scape. With Adeline’s permission, I’ve linked through to a photo of a similar installation on her blog — Emerging.
Adeline gave us a very illuminating talk about how she constructed these unique objects — which I referred to as furry orbs. The material inside was old fur coats, picked up from charity shops and the large glass sphere was custom made by a glassblower and was likely the largest of its kind in the country (any other large transparent sphere would usually be made out of perspex for weight and resilience purposes).
With its understated ‘breathing’, juxtaposition of the sensuality of fur on the inside of the sphere and the sterility of glass on the outside, and the spheres’ resemblance to eggs scattered in a barren desert, the work raises questions about some of the most fundamental issues — such as fertility and the creation of life.
From my novel’s perspective, it was interesting that the two prizewinners were both young women artists who’ve moved from abroad to work in London — Julia Vogl is from the US and Adeline is from Monaco — so it’s a relief that my character is credible in that respect. However, I’m probably never going to a character in a novel written by me that can come up with the sort of innovation and insight that any of these real-life young artists have shown — Kim mainly works in painting with an interesting side-line in photography.
But one thing that’s great fun about writing about art is trying to give enough of a description so the reader can then imagine the work — creating imaginary artworks that exist in the individuals’ minds but that have never actually been physically created — a concept that’s reminiscent of Keats’sÂ famous lines in Ode to A Grecian Urn: ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter.’ (Later recycled in the 1980s by ABC as ‘The sweetest melodies are an unheard refrain‘.) Both basically mean that the conception of an artwork is always more perfect than any eventual physical realisation — something also very true of writing.
And so I ended up drinking with the Love Art London people and a few of the Catlin Prize artists outside the Owl and the Pussycat pub. I’m back in Shoreditch again on Friday for Love Art London’s graffiti tour, which I’m looking forward to enormously — again it will be excellent research for the novel. As I prepared to walk back to Old Street station, Chris pointed out some work immediately around the Londonewcastle Gallery — including a stickman by Stick — who’s apparently something of a mysterious celebrity.
I’m not sure if Redchurch Street, Shoreditch is the ‘land where the Bong-tree grows’Â but it’s where, for the next few days until 25th May, the works by all ten of the Catlin Prize shortlisted artists can still be seen — and I believe it’s free to get in.
When I started writing the novel there were certain themes that I thought IÂ was fairly knowledgeable about: pubs, for example — I knew a lot about those. And food. And London geography and the pleasures of the Chilterns. And Germany and Germans. AND the tortures of corporate life as a ‘senior manager in a FTSE-100 company’, as my CV likes to mention (though not the torture part).
(With so many themes, it’s no surprise the novel is on the long side.)
However, I realised the more that I wrote about Kim, the contemporary, urban artist, the more I was relying on supposition and less on experience. I realised that it might be a valid reason for rejection of my novel if I got my depiction of life as an edgy artist horribly wrong (allowing of course for artistic licence — no pun intended — and exaggeration for comedic purposes).
So I started taking I more active interest in things art-related, as previous blog posts have illustrated…at the end of last week I managed to develop that interest to the point where I was standing outside a pub in Shoreditch drinking with a few of the most fÃªted young artists working in this country (although this story will be concluded in the next blog post).
To go back a little, I’d started to go to events like, earlier this year, the London Art Fair at the Business Design Centre in Islington. I wanted to see how art is sold at the sharp, commercial end – and I went on a tour of some of the stands set up by the younger, lesser-known artists in the artprojects area.
It was at the London Art Fair that I signed up as a member of the Art Fund, which is a brilliant scheme for anyone interested in art. It’s philanthropic – your membership fee is used to procure art for the public benefit and the Art Fund awards an annual prize for artists – and you get a magazine. But the main attraction is very good discounts off entrance prices to the best art galleries in the country — in the case of those that are free, like the Tates and National, the discount applies to special exhibitions that have an extra charge.
I’ve made reasonably good use of my membership, although I was sadly too slow off the mark to book for the Hockney and Leonardo exhibitions at the Royal Academy and National Gallery respectively. I made sure, therefore, that I got in early to see the Tate’s Damien Hirst retrospective. So now I’ve seen for myself the sharks (see sneaked photo), sheep, rotting cows head, pills, sliced cows, bling and so on.
I’m not sure what I think about Damien Hirst. I found the exhibition quite entertaining — but that’s possibly because it contained so many works that have become modern icons. There was certainly a progression that reflected his ability to now create art from obscenely expensive materials — the later gold pill cabinets and the diamond encrusted skull ‘For the Love of God’ (which is on display for free in a separate display in the turbine hall).
Perhaps it’s the British animal lover in me but I feel somewhat uneasy about creating fromÂ of the dead bodies of previously living creatures — be it butterflies, sharks or cows — even the flies zapped in real-time after feasting on the decomposing cow’s head or the picture made entirely from black dead flies.
But I guess that’s how the artist might say he wants the viewer to feel — to think about how art can be created from death — especially in the case of the butterfly pictures (see photo) — which, to me, were the most impressive part of the show.
Given Hirst’s controversial reputation and persona perhaps the most illuminating thing that I took away from the exhibition was physical — Gregor Muir’s book Lucky Kunst.
(For those unfamiliar with German, Kunst is the German word for art. I’m not sure what the technical reason is for using Kunst in the title of a book subtitled ‘The Rise and Fall of Young British Art’ beyond the punning homophonic aspect that might seem appropriate for Hirst’s inversion of the artist-in-a-starving-garret stereotype.)
The book has been very useful research for the novel in describing the origins of the artistic colonisation of Shoreditch in the mid 90s — where you were more likely to see a rat in the street than a Pizza Express or Crowne Plaza or pop-up container-shop mall as you might these days — a place where it was apparently easier to buy drugs than a pint of milk (that probably changed when the Tesco Metro opened).
The Art Fund pass got me reduced entry into the Picasso and Modern British Art exhibition at Tate Britain, where, because I’d done little research in advance, I was surprised to come face-to-Cubist-face with what was at the time (it was superseded earlier this month by a version of Munch’s The Scream) the most expensive painting ever sold at auction: Picasso’sÂ Nude, Green Leaves and BustÂ — with its suggestions of black bondage straps — which sold for over $100m.
It’s interesting that a Picasso should have sold for so much because it seems to flout one of the basic principles of economics — scarcity value. Even that single Tate exhibition was crammed full of his works — much more so than I realised from the title — I’d wondered if there would be any Picasso’s in there at all or just works inspired by him. From reading the documentary material provided in the exhibition, it’s obvious that Picasso was an extraordinarily very prolific — and fast-working — artist. Compare the near 2,000 paintings that Picasso made with the 15 that it’s thought Leonardo startedÂ (some he never completed).
MyÂ Time OutÂ subscription has been invaluable for listing the shows worth seeing in London and I had to rush to catch the last couple of days of their highly recommendedÂ Jeremy Deller and David Shrigley joint exhibition.
Neither are what the layman would describe as conventional artists. (A layman might argue that Leonardo’s Anatomical drawings from 500 years ago, which I saw at the Queen’s Gallery yesterday,Â show more technical accomplishment.)
I didn’t really ‘get’ Â Shrigley’sÂ Brain ActivityÂ — which seemed to work at the level of Baldrick humour fromÂ BlackadderÂ or Terry Jones’s historical inquests — trying to generate searching questions from positions of faux naivety. Interesting and diverting — but, as a reviewer said, ‘so what’?
By contrast some of Jeremy Deller’s work in ‘Joy in People’ captivated me in a way I can’t fully rationalise.Â Deller is a specialist in performance art — creating events and ‘happenings’ rather than enduring artefacts (like paintings or photographs).
Some of his work I found too pointed and obvious — such as the wreck of an Iraqi car bomb that he towed across the United States. But I found some of his other work connected with me profoundly.
While Deller is a Londoner (a recreation of his teenage suburban bedroom opened the exhibition) he has an attachment to the north, particularly my home city of Manchester — and the ‘otherness’ that Manchester and the north represent. This includes Deller’s homage to ‘Madchester’ and the 90s acid-house culture, such as the Fairey brass band
playing the KLF (Fairey engineering was a well-known employer in the north-west, I remember my uncle’s first job being at Faireys). Â Sadly most of the visitors to the exhibition probably had no clue where the towns on the Procession banner (see photo) were located, nor really cared. It’s probably the first time in years, if ever, that Manchester’s unglamorous satellite boroughs, such as Rochdale, Oldham, Tameside, Bury and Stockport have been celebrated in a London gallery.
Deller’s The Battle of OrgreaveÂ also touched me. He staged a recreation, almost 20 years later, of the infamous conflict in the 1984-5 miners’ strike. The exhibit is a documentary of the event and various artefacts associated with the recreation. As with the snack bar, the unpretentious dignity of the ex-miners and police is disarming and justifies the title of the exhibition of Joy in People. The Battle of Orgreave is also symbolically important from the perspective of the current wreckage of worship and pursuit of global capital that followed Thatcher’s defeat of collectivised labour. I’d argue it was the defining moment when the power of the state was used to literally bludgeon away any impediment to its Faustian pact with stateless global capital heralded by Big Bang in the City the year after the miners were defeated, 1986.
Twenty five years on, with most Western economies running dire deficits largely caused by indebtedness to the countries to which we outsourced our industrial base (principally China), the argument that manufacturing doesn’t matter compared to financial services seems about to be exploded finally in the turmoil that the consequent indebtedness has caused in the Euro zone. (However, the Euro crisis is interesting from my novel’s point-of-view in highlighting the elephant in the Euro that is Germany).
It can be argued that the miners contributed to their own downfall and that some change to the unaccountable unionised self-interest of the 70s was necessary but The Battle of Orgreave demonstratesÂ the amount of spite and violence that was deliberately used to settle political and social class-based scores. I’d argue the polarisation of social and political attitudes that arose out of support of the miners still persists and is at the root of many attitudes today — in the light of what later happened, it’s instructive to remember the sense of celebration in the country when Blair was elected in 1997 — A Joy in People event if ever there was one?Â Nearly thirty years on, the antipathy of much of the cultural establishment to the current government is rooted in the miners’ strike, especially the hostility directed towards Nick Clegg for propping up the hated Tories.
Deller is right to treat Orgreave like a battle in a civil war because its scars are still evident and, while not art in the traditional sense, when his work succeeds it does so in a way that art should — to provoke recognition and resonances within the viewer so that it creates a lasting impression much greater than the physical work itself.
I’ve sadly under-nourished this blog over the past few weeks for a couple of good reasons and one that’s, unfortunately, not so satisfying.
The first good reason is that I’m trying to get the novel manuscript revised after Emma Sweeney’s feedback (the two solid weeks mentioned in previous posts) and I’ve decided to ask her to look over the first three chapters of the novel in more detail as these are what it will initially be assessed on by agents.
Incidentally I was invited by Emma on Thursday to the Literary Club at New York University in London, where she teaches, and I met the novelist Edward Hogan who was giving a reading. I had a short chat with him and he’s really nice chap. Several people have recommended his novels Blackmoor and The Hunger Trace and the reading he gave us from the latter was very compelling.
The second reason for lack of blog updates is fitting in lots of commitments in general life. As well as the evening at NYU in London, we had a rare evening workshop with the ex-City stalwarts on Tuesday and there have been some gripping, if disappointing, Premier League matches that haven’t escaped my attention.
But Saturday was something of a ceremonial milestone as I went to up to Birmingham,
where I spent three years as an undergraduate, for my Open University MSc degree ceremony at the Symphony Hall.
(As a strange co-incidence, the redeveloped canals of city-centre Birmingham — one of which I’m posing next to — play a part in my MAÂ course-mateÂ Kerry’s novel-in-progress.)
It’s been over a year since I finished the MSc (see this post about when I got the hard copies back) and I could have gone to earlier graduation ceremonies but I wanted one at a weekend and I thought it quite appropriate to return to the scene of my undergraduate dissolution. The Birmingham Symphony Hall was an impressive venue — preferable imho to the OU’s London location for graduation — the Barbican (where I was presented with my MBA from Kingston University) — described as a ‘concrete bunker’ by someone I work with who had a choice of Barbican or Brighton Pavilion for his OU graduation.
I’m such an OU advocate that I went back to look at the website to see if there were any courses I could do that might advance some of the interests I’ve picked up in the long process of researching this novel — art being an obvious choice but also architecture and psychology.
I had a shock when I saw the cost of a 60 point humanities course had shot up to Â£2,500. I had a look at the prices for the Creative Writing and Advanced Creative Writing courses — and both were also the same price. When I first enrolled for Creative Writing back in 2007 I’m sure the cost was more like Â£600.
Perhaps the government has cut the OU’s funding — but the OU may also feel it can justify charging more because 360 points earns a student a bachelor’s degree — so Â£15,000 at current prices which is far less than the Â£27,000 or so students will have to pay at most conventional universities.
This means anyone taking the same creative writing courses as those I did will need to shell out Â£5k nowadays — which, I suppose, makes me appreciate more the amount and quality of creative writing teaching that I’ve been taking almost continuously for the last five years — and this in turn makes me think that I need to push myself to try and get a return on all this investment (hence less time spent blogging recently and more writing the novel). And perhaps mercifully for my leisure time the OU’s new fees deter me from casually signing up to a new Arts course on the basis that it looks interesting.
It’s very easy for an aspiring writer to spend a lot of money in the quest to become published and I wonder if more money is now made by people charging for courses, manuscript appraisals, consultancy, conferences and so on than is made by writers in the act of writing itself (if you take the likes of J.K.Rowling out of the calculation). It seems that plenty of excellent published writers supplement their scandalously meagre income from writing in this way.
However, this might not be such an odd model for the future — it’s how activities like sport, art or cookery are organised — with a few star professionals whom the masses aspire to emulate. Even though they know they’ll never be Wayne Rooney or Damien Hirst or Jamie Oliver, millions are happy to practice in their own leisure time and pay others for tuition. If writing hasn’t already adopted this model it might be because of the high fixed costs of publishing — but now with cheap access to e-publishing and print on demand — then there are fewer barriers to much wider, paying participation as with sport.
But back to the graduation ceremony. One thing that struck me was the demographicÂ compositionÂ of my fellow graduates. Probably two thirds of those being ceremonially conferred with a degree were women — and women of all ages. The men were skewed much more towards the older age group — I was told that I was one of the few who didn’t have grey hair (not enough to notice on a stage anyway). This might not have been surprising for postgraduates but the undergraduates outnumbered us by about 8 to 1.
This ties in with evidence, such as that cited in The Economist’s Megachangebook that I was given to read, that women already outnumber men overall in the tertiary education sector. If, as we’re told by forecasters like The Economist, that the future of work will depend much more on the sort of intelligence and innovation that comes from a higher level of education then the larger proportion of women than men! who seem to put in the sort of timeÂ commitmentÂ and motivation that an OU degree requires, ought to manifest some profound changes in the workplace.
I travelled up to Birmingham on the train and, as if to re-inforce the point, there was a large party of Scottish twenty-something men in my carriage. At 9am they were swilling Rab C Nesbitt’s favourite tipple — Buckfast — straight from the bottle and washing it down with cans of Red Stripe. Like most people I guess I have a fairly hypocritical attitude to public drinking if it’s not me that’s doing it — if I’m sober and I smell beer on someone’s breath on the tube I think ‘alky’ — even though I must often be that beery-breathed person myself. Â So I was pretty appalled by this bunch even though they were (at that time in the morning) fairly good natured. Presumably they were on some weekend bender of which I was glad to have only to witnessed the beginning.
Nevertheless, while extreme, this seemed to sum up the contrast between feckless under-40 males and their more diligent and industrious female counterparts.Â At the risk of making sweeping gender stereotyping generalisations, the fact that, on average, men manage to hold their own in the workplace against better qualified women seems to me to be another instance of the ‘bias towards bullshit’ in British corporate culture.
This prejudice leaped out of one of Lord Sugar’s comments in the latest Apprentice — where he reasoned that Azhar ought to be fired partly because his sensible points and good ideas were ignored by other the more loud-mouthed and egotistical contestants — and that telling idiots who are too self-absorbed to listen that they are wrong is somehow ‘too negative’.
This is a theme, possibly unintentionally, of my novel — with two contrasting but highly educated and highly motivated female characters. Both Kim and Emma have Master’s degrees and are ascending to the top of their professions (albeit in ways that might not seem obvious at the time). James also has an MBA but he’s disaffected and marginalised by working life and the novel starts with him wanting to get out but drifting rather than than being driven to achieve his ambitions.
The MSc in Software Development is something of a clue that my ‘day job’ is something to do with IT, which is thought of as a fairly male-dominated industry. However, I tend to have always worked quite closely with women. My first job was as a graduate trainee at British Airways and I had a female on-the-job tutor and I’ve worked very closely with many women — for a long time in my last job I was the only male in a team of three who travelled abroad a lot together (mainly to Germany — hence the background to the novel) and I ended up for a time sitting next to the two PAs who worked for a FTSE 100 company’s UK IT director — which provided quite a few fascinating insights. (No surprise there’s also a PA in the novel.)
I’ve consequently found it odd to be working recently (the third reason for under-nourishing the blog is having to spend lots of time commuting for this job) in a team of people who are 100% male — the office environment and projectsÂ I mostly work on are fortunately quite mixed but the team meetings have been quite strange affairs. Today there was a discussion in blokily knowledgeable detail about how the missiles planned to be stationed in London for the Olympics would be used to shoot down any errant airliners. It’s as if it’s unsaid butÂ everyone realises there’s something indefinable that’s missing –I’m sure there’s a similar sort of dynamic in all-women teams too in professions where women are dominant (apparently publishing is meant to be one).
Ironically, if someone said ‘what we need on this team is a few women’ then it would get exactly the sort of ribald, guffawing, nudge-nudge response that would prove the point. And I suppose a lot of the novel is about this subject too — the interactions between working men and women provide much of the novel’s momentum.
[NB. Post has been cleaned up after up the mess of trying to edit a blog on an iPad using Safari on a 3G connection on a train.]