Category Archives: Reviews

Best of December 2010


UCU Rally Victoria Embankment Dec 2010

This has been both a troubling and a perversely rewarding period for everyone committed to the idea of education, including Higher Education, as a public good.

Despite our collective efforts, devastating cuts in education funding are being implemented at community and local authority levels, and in HE. And, as we know only too well, the government’s  bid to treble university tuition fees was passed in both the Commons (9 Dec) and the  Lords (15 Dec).

But what can’t be dismissed is the scale of collective political ACTIVATION that has arisen on the part of students, academics, school children, community activists, and a minority of politicians. We haven’t seen anything like it in the UK for years. Our task in 2011 will be to keep this momentum going with the right kind of productive, non-violent energy. Because we can no longer ignore the extent to which market-led values are undermining education’s highest aims and ends: to provide — as nothing else can — the necessarily open-ended and (provisionally) unregulated spaces in which learning can be properly advanced, and, above all, in which we can commit to the challenges of free thought, free speech, and the often uncomfortable critique that these generate.

It was precisely such a free space for speech, thought and critique that the police closed down on the 9th and the 15th, through the strategy of kettling. On the 15th, this prevented the majority of NUS and UCU (University and College Union) members, held in Parliament Square, from reaching and supporting the official rally taking place— so near, but yet so far away — on Victoria Embankment.


Dapper, Forest Hill, London

The retail world usually immerses us in the new and the mass produced. And I enjoy the latest, gleaming thing as much as the next person. But I like uniqueness better. Including the way in which, through use, love, accident, and amendment, those new, mass produced things gradually acquire the qualities that mark them out as mine.

Which is why another great retail pleasure is browsing in, and if you’re lucky, buying from,  good  second hand, vintage, and charity shops, those eclectic havens of out-of-dateness, where even what were once the most ordinary mass market objects have become one-of-a-kind. Because of the parts they’ve played in the lives of  unknown others. And because of their own stubborn capacity to survive  obsolescence.

A great place to browse and buy second hand, a personal favorite,  is the newly opened DAPPER on Dartmouth Road, just minutes from South East London’s Forest Hill BR and London Overground station.

Dapper, Forest Hill, London, interior

There is a small but varied range of well chosen items, and a constant turnaround, which means that there is always something new and wonderful to discover. I’ve found beautiful pieces of mid-20th century furniture here, including two stylish G-Plan side tables, and a stunning coffee table, which was renovated for me by the shop’s owner, Douglas Watson. All at incredible value for money.

Coffee Table 1Coffee Table 2












John Kiser Interview

OF GODS AND MEN (Des Hommes et des Dieux) directed by Xavier Beauvois, and winner of the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. This extraordinary, understated, devastating film dramatizes the lives of French monks in the Cistercian monastery of Tibhirine, Algeria, where they live in a mutually harmonious and respectful relationship with the largely Muslim local population. But Islamic extremism is on the increase and decisions must be made whether to remain, or retreat to physical safety in France.

Retelling real events, here individual struggles for spiritual integrity and the realities of political violence intersect. In the end, it’s a perspective on what true counter-culturalism may be all about.  One of several underlying themes is the freedom, particularly the freedom from fear, that emerges from the biblical paradox that “if you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me (that is, Christ), you will find it.” A book recounting this story is also available: The Monks of Tibhirine by John Kiser.



Best of June 2010


Planning Meeting for Heterotopia Provocation

HETEROTOPIA PROVOCATION (Stamford Works, London N16, 9 – 11 June, curated by Alyssa Ueno, Attilia Fattori and Lauren Lapidge) was a mix of collaborative art works, installations, live music, and performances as well as lectures, discussions and book groups held in Elena Colman and Daniel Nield’s eclectically constructed The Library. It was also a remarkable demonstration of the artistic and intellectual richness that can emerge from even relatively short periods of intensive, creative working and thinking together across disciplines.

Given that this project was organized around a specific philosophical concept (coined in the late 1960’s by Michel Foucault, a still-much-idolized and much referenced thinker), it was apt that a centrally positioned work was Christopher Collier and Mihaela Brebenel’s installation Philosophy. Prêt-à-Porter. This was a display of ‘designer’ t-shirts suspended from the ceiling and modelled, in photographs. Each garment was embellished with the name or initials of a philosopher currently in vogue but designed to emulate the logo of a well known fashion house. Thus, simply and powerfully, using the rhetorics of fashion and merchandising, the artists highlighted what they saw to be a danger “widespread … within art and critical discourse of selectively adopting keywords and ‘soundbite’ concepts from theory and wearing them as a badge of intellectual gravitas or cultural relevance.”

Heterotopia Provocation itself both acknowledged and, I think, evaded these dangers, presenting a compilation of differently navigated commitments either to question Foucault’s concept on its own terms, or to think it through and flesh it out with respect to various more contemporary circumstances or questions. So, in Alternative Present (Reconsidering Modernization), Luna Lee and Yoon Kei Lee asked what other, non-Eurocentric models of modernity might have become available if, contrary to historical fact, ‘western’ and Korean cultures had been allowed “to integrate more naturally”. Constellation, by Alyssa Ueno and Sylwia Dobkowska, presented a series of small, self-enclosed worlds-in-boxes that opened up only to those who were willing to deform themselves, physically and mentally, bending, twisting, and otherwise reconfiguring our bodies and our minds to accommodate them. 7/7 Heterotopia (David Rose and Ian Parkin) presented, side-by-side, narratives that could have circulated in the media after the 2005 London bombings, but didn’t. And TV Commons by Justin Pickard, Stacey Pitsillides and Stephen Fortune, imagined the new affiliations, ventures, and challenges that might emerge from Britain’s planned digital switchover in 2012.

The overall outcome was a space that was as generous and permissive as it was critically and artistically engaged. One in which polished works, like Philosophy. Prêt-à-Porter, and Christopher Collier and Nicola Rae’s DeriveLab, a compilation of powerful audio and screen-based works by practitioners from around the world, could co-exist with other evocative, but still relatively incomplete, unresolved, or in-process pieces — like TV Commons — without the former jeopardizing the interest and impact of the latter. Or vice versa. Not surprisingly, collaborations birthed for and by Heterotopia Provocation are already overflowing into new projects and exhibitions.


Best of February 2010


Brixton Market (Source: Spacesavers Website)

Rather than board up empty commercial properties, as in many urban locations BRIXTON VILLAGE (Brixton Market) is making them available to artists and residents to put on self-directed projects. Some are one-off events, others longer term. In Brixton, this repurposing initiative is led by SPA (Space Makers Agency). See also their blog.

This month, for instance, the academic and activist John Cussans presented a one-off Free School talk, ‘Our Debt to Haiti — Haitian History Lessons (Part 1)’ in a tightly packed temporary shop that was already being used for an exhibition, Andrew Cooper’s ‘The Rabbles Furious Struggle Against Inequality‘,  a collection of animated totem- and fetish-like sculptures and objects with which (during performances) viewers could enter into conversation.
Cussan's Our Debt to Haiti Talk, Brixton Market

Also taking place in the arcades of this still beautiful 1930’s building, alongside new and existing businesses, were theatre performances, exhibitions, and collaborative art and craft-making. In one otherwise disused corner shop, what may have been several generations of an ordinary family were working with paper, scissors, and glue, as if around their own living room table. On the one hand, watching them behind the large store-front windows was like watching reality TV without the TV. On the other hand, it was like being suddenly transported to a pre-TV-age when, more often than not, Saturday afternoon entertainment at home was strictly home-made, low-key, and often utterly satisfying.


FILM STUDIES FOR FREE is an invaluable archive of open-source, web-based film resources (scholarly articles, reviews, audio visual materials) set up by digital curator, essayist and researcher Catherine Grant. It appears to have begun in 2008 and it is constantly being enlarged. Included amongst the many, varied approaches to thinking about film on offer, are links that reflect on the fresh impact that phenomenology has had on film studies, particularly since the turn of the twenty-first century. This is a diverse archive united around what might best be described less as a set of theories and more as a philosophical practice dedicated, at once, to the study of the world — here, the filmic world — as it is given to us in (lived) experience and to the study of our own responses, orientations, and experiences in relation to that world. Amongst several gems is a discussion found in the essay ‘A Phenomenological Aesthetic of Cinematic “Worlds”‘ by Christopher S. Yates in which, inspired by Martin Heidegger’s “On the Origin of the Work of Art” (1935) — with its famous study of Vincent van Gogh’s 1885 painting of a pair of peasant shoes …

Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes, 1885
… Mikel Dufrenne’s phenomenology of aesthetic experience, and Terrence Malick’s cinematic and narrative uses of point-of-view, issues of convergence between “artist and viewer intentionalities” are explored. (Intentionality, as a phenomenological term, asserts that human consciousness and other modes of being are always fundamentally orientated or directed towards others and towards broader scenarios, towards some thing, never self-enclosed or non-relational.) What particularly struck me, in the second section of this essay, ‘The Work of Art as World Disclosure,’ was Yates’s discussion of the way in which, as we attend to the agency of artworks to open up worlds beyond those that we might initially assign to them we can find ourselves radically reorientated in the process. For instance (and as discussed by Heidegger in his epic Being and Time), we might find ourselves moved from a pervasive everyday human condition of relative alienation and ‘anxiety’ with respect to the world and our place in it (“the ordinary, uncanny elements of existence”), to one of ‘concern’ or ‘care.’

Barbara Hepworth, Family of Man, Snape Maltings, Suffolk

Barbara Hepworth’s FAMILY OF MAN at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, part of the unfinished Family of Man sculptural project created in 1973 which made up of nine large bronze pieces. More on this to follow — about the value of thinking about this piece from a phenomenological perspective in the light of some of the comments above, particularly those concerning the capacity of works of art to enable transitions in orientation from anxiety to concern…


Orford Castle, SuffolkOrford Castle, Suffolk Orford Castle c 1600

ORFORD CASTLE is a polygonal tower keep in Suffolk built by  Henry II from 1165 when he also transformed what was then the small hamlet of Orford into a busy port in need of substantial defenses. The structure is remarkably intact and is fascinating as the material remains of a particular model, and logic, of communal living supported — from the basement with its central well, to the roof with its bake house, watch towers, and system for gathering rain water — by well-considered methods for storing, circulating, replenishing and expelling life-related substances like warm air, water, fire, food, and human waste.


Best of January 2010


Tyra is back  with her master-classes 0n the intricacies of how the mainstream image-world works. Of course AMERICA’S NEXT TOP MODEL shamelessly promotes those mainstream values — for instance, this series (13), is focused exclusively on models generally thought to be too short, particularly for the catwalk, but their brief is to learn how to compensate for this so that they nonetheless emanate length. And of course ANTM is shamelessly seductive. But through its strategically edited look behind the scenes, it can inevitably also sharpen our critical faculties where questions of visual display and self-display are concerned.  Key here are the ways in which extreme stylization and artifice (not only of dress and of bodies in space, but also of speech) keep getting re-combined and contrasted with elements that we are meant to read as unstaged or natural. In fact, where the models themselves are concerned, a consistent  make-or-breaker revolves precisely around their own ability to get the balance right in this regard. Here, the eyes are taken to be central. The issue is whether, and if so how effectively, a model is able to penetrate — or activate and enhance? —  the artifice of the scene revolving around her by letting her eyes communicate  life, warmth, energy, or character.


Still from S1 Ep 17 The Big Bank Robbery - opening credits Still from S1 Ep 17 The Big Bank Robbery - Wilma sewing

THE FLINTSTONES are 50 years old this year. Episodes from the first season (1960) are available on Virgin’s TV On Demand. Often described as an animated variation of the US sitcom The Honeymooners, here 1950’s/early 60’s gender politics are transposed from the Brooklyn apartment of the former to stone age Bedrock.  The nature and, in turn, the politics of this, and other such transpositions provide much food for thought.  Absent from these episodes, of course, is the famous Flintstones’ theme song penned by Hoyt Curtin. It wasn’t introduced until season three. But I prefer the soundtrack here — also by Curtin, I believe — and the title sequences by Lawrence Goble. Particularly sublime is the mix of music, visuals, action, and reaction in the closing credits (the ruckus that builds when, contrary to plan, it is the cat that locks Fred out for the night). On a weirder note — linking back to, and inverting, my final observations about  ANTM — what to make of Wilma’s flat, cavernous “eyes so black, like frying pans” (Fred’s words, in the courtship love letter featured in episode  21)? For even with their intrinsic lack of expression, Wilma remains the Series’ sparkiest character.


ROROTOKO — an online ‘ideas’ site in which some of the most challenging authors around are interviewed, and summarize, recent books. For lovers of photography, in this case, un-lovely disaster photography, see Ariella Azoulay’s entry on her book The Civil Contract of Photography, MIT, 2008.

Screenshot from Rorotoko Site

Balka, How it Is, 2009, Unilever Series, Tate Modern 2010


Now, a  montage of art-moments savoured in TATE MODERN this month. First, Miroslaw Balka’s Turbine Hall installation ‘How it is’, 2009 — to say anything more would be to spoil the experience for anyone who hasn’t been yet. Although I could add that for me the work’s appeal did not necessarily match up with the artist’s stated intentions for it (in part to recall dark horrors associated with Poland’s WW2 concentration camps).  As has been noted often enough by others, the fact of such differences between intention and viewing experience are not necessarily in the artist’s hands. For as has been argued by others, it is difficult for even the most imposing and spectacular art-works installed in the large-scale but informal and interactional space of Turbine Hall not to become somewhat domesticated. While this might be seen to undermine their gravitas (if gravitas is their aim), this doesn’t invalidate them. It just opens up additional questions, including, again, questions about visual display and audience-artwork encounter.

Second, in Pop Life: Art in a Material World which ended on 17 January, a chance to see Warhol’s Gems series, works which, as Tate puts it “playfully spoof the artist’s own awestruck fascination with the trappings of wealth.” Installed in a narrow room to themselves, each full-frontal, phosphorescent-paint image glowed ethereally under ultraviolet light, as did we, upon passing through. As is usual, with Warhol, iconic simplicity turns out to be rich in socio-cultural, pop-cultural, consumerist associations. Another of his takes, too, on the traditional ‘vanitas’ theme in western art. One that could be said to share, particularly with certain examples of Dutch 17th and 18th century still life painting, a refusal to take on an explicitly moral tone.

Third, in Tate’s Material Gestures gallery, Cy Twombly’s red-loopy paintings are energetic and melancholic at the same time. The curving lines are loose and free but have left a fragile mass of dripping, trailing lines. You can’t see and feel one, without the other. Likewise, their formal simplicity and enormous emotional space that they open up seem to go hand in hand.  And then there are the further artistic and cultural dimensions indicated by their titles and organisation into a themed set. The image here is his Untitled VII from the Bacchus Series 2005.

Cy Twombly, Untitled VII from Bacchus Series 2005, Oil on canvas. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery © Cy Twombly


“VIDEO PAINTING.” At the recent London Art Fair (at the Business Design Centre from 13th-17th January) I almost missed seeing the Open Gallery’s showing of Alys Williams’ quietly stunning works. The definition on Williams’ website puts it beautifully: “Video paintings explore the notion of non-narrative. There is no dialogue, no sound. The camera is static and there is no subsequent editing or manipulation of the material. Through the video painting, usually between five and twenty minutes in length, the artist leads us into a way of seeing which has no determinable meaning but which carries a unique emotional hue. Video paintings challenge us to let go of the endless search for closure or understanding and approach instead what it is to experience the world.” What I value, too, is the way in which it challenges us to rethink our conditioned assumptions about video as a medium. For what is normally defined as characteristically time-based, fleeting, and in some cases also somewhat ‘throw-away’, becomes spatial, a densely textured environment in which we are invited to linger.