31 December 2015

Andrew Marr’s ‘Head of State’

A disappointing first novel from a political insider, neither thriller nor satire 

At last I have got round to reading the paperback edition of Andrew Marr’s first novel, originally published in September 2014. At the time Head of State came out, I was intrigued by a piece in Private Eye (No 1376, 3 October, page 29 – familiarity with this magazine can only be helpful to readers of Marr’s book) which reported the launch in 10 Downing Street:

Head of State received faint praise from the critics then, and, when I looked recently on Amazon, it had acquired an oddly balanced set of Customer Review scores:

However, Marr, as well as having written other books about history, politics, poetry and the Queen, has been editor of a national newspaper (the Independent) and the BBC’s political editor and also, as the host of BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, has regularly interviewed top politicians for over 10 years. And his Author’s Note (dated April 2014), prefacing Head of State (which is subtitled A Political Entertainment - echoes of Graham Greene), seemed encouraging:
… I had long wanted to write a political satire that would help lift the lid on how aspects of government and the media really worked in a way that’s not possible in conventional journalism. 
… Some of the characters and stories in the novel are derived directly from my thirty years as a political reporter, though of course almost everything here is fictional.
I would guess that the bulk of the writing was done in 2013 when Marr was recovering from a stroke. At that time, well before the 2015 general election, a referendum on the UK’s leaving the EU (Brexit) set in September 2017, the motor of Head of State, must have seemed only a possibility and safely distant at that. By comparison, Michel Houellebecq, who must have been writing Submission at about the same time, was setting his novel in 2022. Now, Marr’s readers, less than 18 months after publication, are having to put to one side the facts that there will be an EU referendum this year or next and that David Cameron is still Prime Minister leading a Conservative government since May 2015. Fortunately in Marr’s 2017 the Tories are obviously in power, the Chancellor of the Exchequer being one Jo Johnson (Boris’s brother, currently Minister for Universities and Science (page 339).

Is Marr’s novel a roman à clef? Houellebecq mentions quite a few contemporary personalities in his future France but keeps them in the background, his main characters being plausible, but imaginary. Head of State mentions no end of real people, including, Marr himself (page 96), and Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, (eating a cake on page 247). Moreover, while most of the foreground characters are fictional, readers of Private Eye’s Street of Shame column could make a guess at the inspirations, and there are several, for Ken Cooper, editor of the fictitious National Chronicle. However, one of the few admirable characters in the book, the modern historian, Lord Briskett, is surely without parallel in the real world:
Dressed in his trademark coarse green tweeds, with his halo of frizzy white hair and heavy horn-rimmed spectacles, part A.J.P. Taylor part Bamber Gascoigne, Trevor Briskett was famous enough from his TV performances to attract second glances from his fellow commuters. On the streets of Oxford that crowded, clucking duckpond of vanity and ruffled feathers - he was stopped-in-the-street famous. 
And rightly so. For Briskett was the finest political historian of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. His early biographies - Blair, Thatcher, Johnson - were still in print, while the memoirs of scores of almost-forgotten politicians had long since vanished to charity shops and recycling dumps after selling only a few score copies. Briskett's account of the modern constitution had been compared to the works of that Victorian master-journalist Walter Bagehot. His history of British intelligence during the Cold War had been praised by all the right people. Emeritus professor at Wadham, winner of numerous literary prizes, elevated five years ago to the Lords as a crossbencher after chairing a royal commission on security lapses at the Ministry of Defence, Briskett was regularly tipped to be the next member of the Order of Merit. 
Yet somehow these decorative embellishments, which might have weighed him down and made him soft, slow and comfortable, had had little apparent effect on Trevor Briskett. At seventy he was as sharp, as boyishly enthusiastic, as wicked a gossip with as rasping a laugh, as he had been at thirty. The exact nature of the pornography discovered on the minister's lost laptop. The attempt to blackmail a senior minister over his wife's cocaine habit. Just who Olivia Kite was taking to her bed these days … If you really wanted to know you went to Briskett, and he would tap his nose, lean towards you, give a wolfish smile and a 'dear boy', and spill all the beans. (page 15/16)
Funnily enough, it was pointed out on the History Today website recently, when marking the 50th anniversary of the Journal of Contemporary History, that modern historians are dismissed as not dealing in real history, just gossip.

But without any attempt at disguise, a key role in Head of State is taken by Rory Bremner, a real British actor (and a Scot like Marr) who has made a career from comic impersonation of public figures. And what to make of a Scotsman called Nelson Fraser - did Martin Andrews have anyone particular in mind? Not to mention a female character described as whetstone-hard (page 285). Almost totally unambiguous is the King, for in Head of State the Queen has become “late” – presumably a few years after the publication of Marr’s The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and Her People in 2011. The characterisation of “Kingy”, as the staff of Marr’s Number 10 call him, owes rather too much to Silvie Krin’s Heir of Sorrows, as occasionally appearing in, yet again, Private Eye. By the way, in the United Kingdom the King or Queen is the Head of State, the Prime Minister is the Head of the Government. Marr is, of course, aware of this distinction and the title of the book is a pun on a particularly gruesome aspect of his tale.

Something similar happens with the locations: Gordon’s wine bar is real enough but Marr chose to put the “Universities and Constitutional Club” in the place of the Athenaeum – perhaps he’s a member.

If Head of State is too uneasily placed between imaginary and real worlds to be a satisfactory roman à clef, is it a thriller or a satire? In so far as the events being described are packed into eight days from 15 to 22 September 2017, the Brexit Referendum Day, surely the former. But Head of State is no Six Days of the Condor. There are 14 chapters, each titled with a date, and to explain the sequencing Marr chose rather than a normal narrative flow, a picture is worth thousand words:

The events in the eight days are too numerous, involve too many characters and mostly too far-fetched to yield a convincing thriller, and the leaping about in time reduces what suspense is mustered. On the other hand, there are too many attempts at wit which fall flat:
… ‘Fuzzy Blue oatcake’, the most influential right-wing blogger … (page342) 
Christ Almighty, a recent Hollywood adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Ronald Knox (page 20)
to provide the entertainment of one of Waugh’s comic novels, and too much grotesque unreality (for example, the said head) to make for a thought-provoking satire. There is also some poor, or just careless, writing which the editors (described by Marr in his Note as “legend[s] in the trade”) should have picked up. Just a few examples:
… hair for whose colour there was no adequate description - corngold and copper, silver birch with licks of flame. (page 24 – is this a Clairol ad?) 
… a wooden cabinet whose numbered chambers were perfectly sized to hold Blackberries and iPhones (page 82 – “with numbered chambers for Blackberries and iPhones” - they can’t be perfect for both) 
… [he] felt himself a man brimming with talents in a world that no longer needed them; an itchy-palmed electrician, as it were, during the New Stone Age (page 247 – the New Stone Age ended almost 4000 years before the practical application of electricity!).
Marr’s dislike of bloggers (discussed here in 2010) comes up repeatedly and, no doubt for related reasons, in Head of State he makes frequent and disparaging references to “Witter”, right up to page 342. So why on page 358 does he relent and use “tweeting”?

Does Marr “help lift the lid on how aspects of government and the media really work[ed]”? Well, there are a few lines about Brexit, which might provide the flavour of arguments which will appear as the real Referendum Day draws near:
… A Europe that fragmented now would soon become a mere vacuum, a playground for American technology, Chinese money and Russian political ambition. And Britain? Britain would again find itself desperately trying to negotiate the balance of power between Berlin and Paris, from a position of no significance. It would be impossible. (page 104) 
… Increasingly excited, he and Charmian began to talk numbers. 'lf the UK does leave the EU - well, the dollar is 1.55 to the pound now. Sterling will no longer be a reserve currency, so it will fall to, say, 1.35. Probably lower than that. (page 204, Sterling is 4% of all currency reserves at present – so would this happen? I’ve no idea, like many other readers, I suspect)
And towards the end of the novel there is this intriguing passage:
The whole thing is simply incredible. Oh no, it couldn't happen here. It's as bonkers as - what? - two brothers fighting each other for the leadership of the Labour Party, or a husband and wife jailing each other. over a pretty minor traffic offence, or two eminent members of the Conservative Party being in a gay relationship even as they proclaim family values, or a prime minister having an. affair with one of his own ministers. Loopy. Loony. It's as bonkers as manufacturing the case for an entire war and thinking no one would notice. Mad as cheese. No, no, none of that could ever happen here. The great British public simply wouldn't let them get away with it. (page 327/8)
I would expect that some of these ‘incredible’ happenings are recognisable to most of the book’s likely readership, but are the others figments of Marr’s imagination or things he knows about and we don’t?

In a while I will post about Marr’s second attempt at a political novel, Children of the Master, published in September 2015 and again not enthusiastically reviewed. Both books will probably become available in an Oxfam near you before long.

24 December 2015

Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain

On the edge of abstraction - a retrospective of one of Britain’s finest living painters 

Although I’ve been looking at his work for a long time, visiting the retrospective, Frank Auerbach, at Tate Britain it still came as a shock to realise that the artist will be 85 next year. Born in 1931, he arrived in Britain from Germany in April 1939 and became a British citizen in 1947. His extensive training as an artist included time at St Martins, the Royal College of Art and Borough Polytechnic where he was a pupil of David Bomberg. After some years teaching art, he became a full-time artist in the mid-1960s.

Frank Auerbach is arranged in a succession of decades starting with the 1950s and ending with the 2000s. It ends with a room of works selected by the curator, Catherine Lampert, taken from across Auerbach’s oeuvre. Portraits of the same sitters (including Lampert) and locations near his studio in London are recurrent. Because of their size and the artist’s use of heavy impasto in his earlier years, his paintings do not reproduce particularly well. However I have selected some of the images which are available – many of the exhibits are marked “Private Collection". From the 1950s, Head of EOW (1955, below left) and E.O.W. half-length nude (1958, below right):

From the 1960s, Primrose Hill Spring Sunshine (1961/62 & 64, below top) and Mornington Crescent (1967, below lower):

Primrose Hill is much painted by Auerbach, for example in the 1970s, Winter Evening, Primrose Hill Study, (1974-75, below top) and Primrose Hill (1978, below lower):

In the 1980s as well as landscapes, there is some fine portraiture including Portrait of Catherine Lampert (1981–82, below left) and Head of J.Y.M II (1984-85, below right):

From the 90s onwards, the same themes are being revisited, for example Catherine Lampert Seated (1990, below left), Mornington Crescent Looking South (1997, below right) and Head of William Feaver (2003, exhibition poster above).

Among the final selection made by Lampert was the Tate’s own To the Studios (1979-80, below):

A painter whose works, more than most, need to be seen to be fully appreciated, Frank Auerbach ends on 13 March.

14 December 2015

Palladian Design at the RIBA

RIBA's show reveals how Palladio influenced England and the world

About 85% of the 350 or so drawings by the architect Andrea Palladio (1508-80) which survive are held by RIBA, the Royal Institute of British Architects. A selection of them is on display in RIBA’s Architectural Gallery as part of Palladian Design: The Good, the Bad and the Unexpected. Appropriately, it was 300 years ago that a translation of Palladio’s I Quattro Libri dell’Architectura (The Four Books of Architecture) and Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Brittanicus were first published. The exhibition follows Palladio’s influence from his own works in the Veneto through English Palladianism to the US, India and elsewhere. Recent buildings appearing in drawings, photographs or as models range from Henbury Hall, which in the 1980s recreated Palladio’s Villa Rotunda of 1552, the Prince of Wales’s controversial Pendbury and a fine town hall at Borgoricco near Padua in Italy.

Having visited Chateau Margaux in the Gironde (SW France) in the summer (below lower), I was intrigued by the design for the building by Louis Combes (1754-1818) which was completed in 1816 (below upper):

I wonder when the chimneys were added. The exhibition catalogue makes the interesting point that:
Building a house in France in the English Palladian style was an unlikely project during the Napoleonic wars but the work of Louis Combes in and around Bordeaux demonstrates his interest in Palladianism. Combes owned a copy of Vitruvius Britannicus and, perhaps as an academic exercise, he copied a number of its plates exactly, even transcribing the English room names. Bertrand Douat, Marquis de la Colonilla, decided to replace the old chateau at Margaux in 1810. Combes's final design for the chateau was based on John Webb's Amesbury Abbey, as engraved for volume III of Vitruvius Britannicus (no 33), though with a different interior plan that does not require the staircase tower behind.
Palladian Design: The Good, the Bad and the Unexpected (a free exhibition) ends on 9 January. However, RIBA is closed from 24 December to 3 January.

5 December 2015

The Oldham West and Royton By-election

By-elections are probably over-analysed and over-interpreted but I thought this week’s at Oldham West and Royton was worth looking at. It took place on 3 December 2015 almost exactly seven months after the General Election on 7 May and three months after Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader. I haven’t seen the results presented anywhere else as below, so offer them here.

The first column shows the Oldham West and Royton results in the General Election (GE) when over 43000 votes were cast. In the By-election (B-E) there were just under 28000 votes, as shown in the fourth column. If these had been cast in exactly the same proportions as at the GE (ie the same reduction in turnout had applied uniformly*) the parties would have had votes as in the second column.

The Green and Monster Raving Loony (MRL) votes can be ignored. What is striking is the consistency of the Liberal Democrat vote between columns two and four and the “poor” showing of the Conservatives. Where did those 2600 Conservative votes go? It seems like about 2000 to Labour and only 800 to UKIP.

Perhaps it’s fair to conclude that quite a few of the voters who are interested enough in politics to turn out for a by-election will vote tactically for whatever is in their own party’s long-term best interest.

Data from Wikipedia.


* This was not the only assumption as well as ignoring the Green and MRL. It is possible that some people who turned out for the by-election hadn’t voted in May. More significantly, voters who did turn out for both could have shifted their allegiances in seven months. This diagram indicates the possibilities:

However, I can’t imagine that many May Tories have gone to Labour or Lib Dem. In fact, it seems unlikely that votes would have moved to the Lib Dems in any number from either of the other parties. Hence only the heavy arrows in the diagram,seem to provide a plausible explanation for what happened.

I don't know if the data is available, but it would be very interesting to see the numbers of postal votes, GE and B-E, broken out by party.

3 December 2015

A Visit to the Guggenheim Bilbao

A post here in May described A Visit to the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. This is a companion piece following a visit during the summer of 2015 to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, also designed by Frank Gehry. 

After the collapse of its industrial base in the 1980s, Bilbao was in desperate need of transformation. In 1991 the local administration and the Guggenheim Foundation reached an agreement to construct a contemporary art gallery on a derelict site next to the estuary and near the city centre. The Foundation had previously commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright for its museum in New York which had opened in 1959. Construction of Gehry’s design for Bilbao, which has become almost as well-known as Wright’s, began in 1993 and the museum opened in 1997. The structure is of steel, the surface being clad in titanium where not glazed and with limestone exposed on the exterior and the interior. The complex curving shapes were designed using computer applications originally developed for aerospace by Dassault in France in the 1970s. The exterior presents different forms at different viewpoints and references Bilbao’s maritime history of ships and fishing.

The interior is as just complex, as these views of the atrium reveal:

The Guggenheim Bilbao's permanent collection includes some major site-specific pieces on display externally including Anish Kapoor’s Tall Tree and the Eye (2009, below left) and Louise Bourgeois’ Maman (1999, below right):

and two works by Jeff Koons, Tulips (1995-2004, below top) and Puppy (1992, below lower):

Inside, in the ArcelorMittal gallery, are the seven massive pieces which constitute Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time (2005, below). Made of weathering steel and fabricated locally, they embody Bilbao’s industrial heritage.

At the time of this visit, most of the gallery space was given over to two exhibitions: Jeff Koons: A Retrospective (previously at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time. People seem either to like Koon’s work or dislike it, not many are indifferent. Michel Houellebecq (quoted in a post here earlier this year) described Koons in unflattering terms as seen through the eyes of another imaginary artist. Julian Barnes at the Edinburgh book festival in August
… offered a text written by American artist Jeff Koons to accompany his work Puppy, a vast sculpture formed from flowering plants belonging to the Guggenheim Bilbao in northern Spain. Reading aloud from Koons’ text, he told the Edinburgh audience that Puppy “helps you have a dialogue about the organic and the inorganic. It’s really about the issue of the baroque, where everything is negotiated. The different aspects of the eternal through biology. Whether you want to serve or be served, love or be loved, all these types of polarities come into play because Puppy sets them up.” Barnes added: “To use the technical term of art criticism, it’s bollocks. I know it’s like shooting fish in a barrel but sometimes fish need to be shot.”
In October Barnes told a Cheltenham Literature Festival audience (including me) that Koons produced “machine-tooled whimsicality”. Jeff Koons: A Retrospective provided plenty of opportunity to make one’s own mind up and included examples of his work from The New Series in the early 1980s (vacuum cleaners in vitrines) to the recent Antiquity series.  I couldn’t help being impressed by the skill of Koons’ technicians in fabricating objects like Lobster (2003, below left), with the appearance of a PVC inflatable but made from “Polychromed aluminum”, and Large Vase of Flowers (1994, below right) made in polychromed wood.

Having seen this show, it may be a while before I feel the need to seek out any more Koons. I was more taken with Basquiat whose work I was seeing for the first time – if BBC Your Paintings is right, he is not represented in any UK public collection. Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in New York in 1960 and died of a heroin overdose in 1988, a year after Andy Warhol who had been his collaborator in the 1980s. Two works which epitomise Basquiat's style and preoccupations are Irony of a Negro Policeman (1981, below left) and Dark Race Horse—Jesse Owens (1983, below right):

Typical of Basquiat’s work with Warhol are Win $ 1,000,000 (below top) and Ailing Ali in Fight of Life (below lower), both 1984:

Man from Naples (1982, below), from Guggenheim Bilbao’s own collection, is a good example of Basquiat’s street graffiti work:

While the Guggenheim Bilbao is probably an even more impressive building than Gehry’s later Fondation Louis Vuitton, I thought it was less visitor-friendly.  The gallery space is less appropriate for exhibitions, particularly retrospectives. The Warhol show was spread over two floors while Basquiat required walking back through galleries 306 and 305 after reaching 307 and then down a corridor to 303 and 302 – not so good, at least on an initial visit. Also, to enter the Museum, visitors descend a flight of steps from street level to the level of the atrium floor level. Leaving is via another flight of steps down to river level. A third set of steps, the length of the other two combined, then has to be climbed to get back to street level. If you want to get back in to the Museum – allowed during the day of visiting – you then redescend the first flight … None of this should deter anyone from visiting in 2016 when Guggenheim Bilbao will be offering shows of works by Warhol and Bourgeois and Windows on the City: The School of Paris, 1900-1945.

25 November 2015

Not so Little England

The December 2015 issue of Prospect magazine seems particularly exercised by the possibility that the UK could leave the European Union. Anatole Kaletsky tells readers that “Leaving Europe could be the biggest diplomatic disaster since losing America” – An ugly divorce. Peter Kellner, President of pollster YouGov, warns that “It cannot be taken for granted that voters will keep Britain in the EU” and Edward Docx (Word ® users should resist reading that as edward.docx) thinks that the “in” campaign is faltering, while the “out” campaign has the benefit of Dominic Cummings, who he describes as “ferocious, committed, unafraid, serious, passionate and utterly certain of his cause”. In his article, called The problem with the EU Debate? The “In” campaign… and the “out” campaign on the Prospect website and Nigel Farage’s Dream in the magazine*, Docx warns:
Make no mistake: in less than a year, Great Britain could be out of the EU and no longer Great or, indeed, Britain. David Cameron’s departure will surely follow Brexit, which will also be followed by Scotland’s attempted split from Britain. The splenetic strain of the Conservative Party will be left running Little England—for that is what we will be—and its business for decades to come will be the treaty-by-treaty renegotiation of our relationship with every other country in the world.
Perhaps he’s right, but just how small would this “Little England” be? To answer that, it first has to be defined and presumably for Docx it would consist of the UK less Scotland, that is to say, the countries of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In terms of area, he clearly has a point as the table above shows. During the discussion of Scottish independence in 2014, rUK, (r meaning rump, residual or ‘rest of’), was used rather than Little England, so for brevity I will use it here. rUK has only 68% of the area of the present UK, something which would be reflected in comparisons with the other major EU countries (and the USA):

The UK is the 8th largest EU country (of 28) in terms of area, between Italy and Romania. Curiously, rUK would still have been 9th between Romania and Greece. Scotland would be 15th between the Czech Republic (up to 14th in rUK’s absence) and Ireland. However, in population terms, because Scotland has only 8% of the UK’s people, the difference is rather different, as the next table shows:

So, within the EU, where UK is 3rd largest between France and Italy, rUK would have only dropped to 4th between Italy and Spain. Scotland on its own in the EU would be 19th between Slovakia (up to 18th in rUK’s absence) and Ireland.

Another way of presenting these conclusions is to plot population size against area as below. This shows that rUK would have remained one of the handful of EU countries with a population over 20 million, while Scotland would join the ‘shrapnel’ of over 20 smaller ones. Of course, the disproportionate influence of these countries in terms of their population is an important aspect of the EU’s democratic deficit. It might also explain in part why EU membership would be so attractive to an independent Scotland.

While on the subject of population, the UK Office for National Statitics (ONS) has recently published its projections to 2035. As the table below indicates, if Scotland were to become independent by 2025, the rUK population would be 5.6 million lower than the UK’s would have been. However, by 2035 rUK’s population has increased to the same level as the UK’s had been 10 years earlier.

Even more instructive are the equivalent Eurostat projections out to 2080. By 2050, the UK has become the most populated country in Europe. However, so would be rUK by 2060 – hardly “Little England”. (This table is calculated assuming that Scotland’s population remains at the same percentage of the UK’s from 2030 onwards, whereas the ONS figures show a downwards trend from 2015 onwards).  The quality of life in such a densely populated country as rUK (essentially England) will become is also likely to be on a downward trend.

Finally, and probably most importantly for many who will vote in the Brexit referendum: perceptions of the economic benefits of leaving the EU. The chart below, again from Eurostat, shows GDP per capita in PPS**relative to the EU’s overall 100. Many people would expect rUK to be better off than the UK, which now makes net payments to the EU while rUK is making transfers within the UK to Scotland. Conversely, Scots could be expected to be worse off. Perhaps the “in” campaign, rather than worrying about “Little England”, should concentrate on disproving this expectation – if they can get their arguments past Dominic Cummings.

* On Docx’s own website, it’s called Are we Sleepwalking to Brexit?

**According to Eurostat: “Gross domestic product (GDP) is a measure for the economic activity. It is defined as the value of all goods and services produced less the value of any goods or services used in their creation. The volume index of GDP per capita in Purchasing Power Standards (PPS) is expressed in relation to the European Union (EU28) average set to equal 100. If the index of a country is higher than 100, this country's level of GDP per head is higher than the EU average and vice versa. Basic figures are expressed in PPS, i.e. a common currency that eliminates the differences in price levels between countries allowing meaningful volume comparisons of GDP between countries. Please note that the index, calculated from PPS figures and expressed with respect to EU28 = 100, is intended for cross-country comparisons rather than for temporal comparisons."

21 November 2015

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

A year ago here I posted about the exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s works being held at Blenheim Palace, and anticipated Ai Weiwei, now at the Royal Academy in London. The current show has received considerable publicity, so this post need not be too long. The Ai Weiwei catalogue is excellent, particularly the artist ‘in conversation’ with Tim Marlow, the RA’s Artistic Director. It is a welcome addition to the surprisingly small number of books about Ai Weiwei, the first monograph on the artist appearing as recently as 2009. An Introduction for Teachers and Students can be downloaded from the RA website. Here are some of the exhibits which made an impression on me.

Only when looked at closely does the detail of works like Bed (2004, below), assembled without nails or glue in Iron wood (tieli wood) from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), become apparent:

The RA show has nothing from before Ai Weiwei’s return to China in 1993, so the oldest pieces are from that time, the Furniture series continuing since, for example Grapes (2010, below left) made with 27 wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty and similar to a work at Blenheim, and Table with Three Legs (2011, below right):

The ample size of the RA galleries means that there is space for works like Straight (2008-12, below). In 2008 an earthquake province exposed shoddy construction in China.  Government buildings are notoriously badly built and their materials are commonly referred to as “tofu-dreg”, i.e. porous and flimsy like the remnants from making bean curd.

Straight is formed from steel reinforcing bars which had to be straightened by hand after being bent and twisted when school buildings in Sichuan collapsed. The names of the victims are in a nearby large print, Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation (2008–2011, below).

A gallery is given over to the problems Ai Weiwei had with a studio constructed with the agreement of the Shanghai authorities in 2010. The central government immediately ordered it to be demolished. Concrete and brick rubble from the destroyed studio, set in a wooden frame, form Souvenir from Shanghai (2012, below top). On 7 November 2010 Ai placed an open invitation on the internet, encouraging supporters to attend a party during which they would feast on river crabs to commemorate both the completion of the new building and its imminent demolition. The Chinese word for river crabs, He Xie, is a homonym for “harmonious”, a word much used in government propaganda, but which has lately become internet slang for censorship. 3,000 pieces of porcelain make up He Xie (2011, below lower).

Ai Weiwei alters vases (ostensibly Neolithic or antique, but fakes are common in China) by painting, or more drastic means, to make points about authenticity and the tension between old and new in a rapidly changing society. Examples are Coloured Vases (2015, below top), made from twelve Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and four Neolithic (5000–3000 BC) vases with industrial paint, and thirty glass jars with powder from ground Neolithic pottery forming Dust to Dust (2008, below lower):

Gallery 5 at the RA is given over to one very large work, Fragments (2005, below left), a timber frame created from recovered materials: iron wood, table, chairs, parts of beams and pillars from dismantled Qing Dynasty temples. Fragments brings together the Furniture (see above) and Map series. Another example of the latter, Map of China (2009), was at Blenheim. The notice in the gallery states that:
The work at first appears to be a random construction made from unrelated objects. … Yet when it is seen from above – a physical impossibility within the gallery – the timber frame is revealed as a map of China including Taiwan (represented by the conjoined stools).
This seems rather a limp excuse for not putting a wide-angle camera above and a screen in the gallery to reveal the geography, which doesn’t appear in the exhibition guide either, although there is an image of sorts (below right) in the leaflet handed to visitors.

The artist’s interest in marble led him to purchase an interest in a marble quarry in Fangshan. Ai’s craftsmen have produced a wide variety of objects like a surveillance camera (see the Blenheim post), video recorder and gas mask as well as a much larger group of the Cao (2014) pieces than at Blenheim with Marble Stroller (2014, below) set among them:

The next two galleries were the least interesting with one meter cubes, albeit finely crafted, and subversive objects like sex toys and handcuffs made in jade. The Finger wallpaper (2014, below top) was, of course, wholly appropriate for this display, as was the Golden Age wallpaper (2014, below lower) for Gallery 10. 

S.A.C.R.E.D. (2014, below) is a series of six dioramas of Ai’s 81 day incarceration in 2011, all modelled at half-size. The Chinese authorities should have realised that Ai is a tough and brave man, quite capable of getting his own back.

The exhibition ends in the Central Hall with Bicycle Chandelier (2015, below):

while outside in the courtyard is Marble Couch (2011) and Tree (2009–2010, 2015) - the latter, when nearly finished in September, can be seen on Western Independent Instagram.

In retrospect, it was interesting to compare this exhibition and the one at Blenheim. By comparison with the interiors of a baroque palace, the RA galleries seem almost clinical: better probably for learning about Ai and his work, particularly the larger indoor pieces, but lacking the resonances and juxtapositions of Blenheim which provided their own insight into this most political of artists. Ai spent the years from 1981 to 1993 in the USA, mostly in New York where, among other artists’ work, he encountered that of Andy Warhol. So Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, which will open at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia on 11 December, can be expected to start with this period in Ai’s artistic development. There will be a suite of major new commissions by Ai alongside key works from the past four decades, whereas the RA show begins in 1993.  Monica Tan interviewed Ai for the Guardian just before the Australian show opened.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy ends on 13 December.

12 November 2015

Periodic Tales at Compton Verney

If anyone thought that CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” debate was no longer relevant, they would have to think again after reading an article in the Daily Telegraph on 7 November, 'My daughter shouldn't have to study science', says Cristina Odone. Apparently young Izzy
… demanded to know why she should waste her time studying three sciences to GCSE given that she did not wish to pursue a career in maths or science …
a view her mother supported. It could be that, as a former editor of the Catholic Herald, Cristina Odone’s disengagement with science has deep roots. However, last time I looked on the Telegraph website there were over 500 comments on the article and those I sampled were not particularly sympathetic to her point of view, mostly making the obvious counter-arguments. I suggest mother and daughter have a day out at Compton Verney to see and reflect on, Periodic Tales: The Art of the Elements - perhaps Izzy will have second thoughts. At least, she might take a look at Compton Verney’s video on YouTube:

To be honest, this exhibition is rather more about British contemporary art than about science*. It draws on Hugh Aldersey-Williams's book, Periodic Tales, – he co-curated at Compton Verney – and aims in his words to provide a “cultural history of the elements”. The starting point, after a brief dabble with alchemy, is the periodic table of the 118 elements (at present, 24 of them man-made). After that, about 30 works are arranged around a succession of 15 of the elements, mostly metallic. The periodic table is, as they say, iconic and its appearance can be adapted for all sorts of purposes, as in the exhibition poster above. Simon Patterson is probably best-known for his lithographic take on the London Underground Tube map, The Great Bear. Another of his lithographs, Rhodes Reason (1995, below top), and his much larger assembly of ceramic tiles Quattro Formaggi II (1992, below lower), play with the appearance of the periodic table and its namings (for example, Br becomes Bertolt Brecht; Sn, Tintoretto) are among the first things a visitor encounters.

The next section is given over to Primo Levi’s short story collection, The Periodic Table, with accompanying linocuts from 1994 and of the same title by Bill Woodrow. The first element is Silver as in the crushed and suspended Thirty Pieces of Silver (Exhaled), Sugar Bowl** (2003, below), one of eight pieces in the show by Cornelia Parker.

Gold can, as it were compensating for its price, be hammered very thin as in John Newling’s Value; Coin, Note and Ellipse (2011, below), made with pressed and gilded Jersey kale.

Mercury is present in spirit rather than its tricky reality in Marc Quinn’s Etymology of Morphology (1996, below) made of silvered glass.

Antony Gormley’s Fuse (2011, below top) is made from cast Iron (well-rusted, so we are looking at ferric oxide) and Eduardo Paolozzi’s Tin Head –Mr Cruickshank (1950, below lower) explains itself:

Roger Hiorns’ Nunhead (2004, below top), with engines covered in Copper sulphate crystals, is dramatic but hardly elemental.  Nor is Danny Lane’s Blue Moon (2015, below lower) made of glass with a Cobalt compound, also blue:

Heatherwick Studio’s Aluminium Billet 1: Extrusion 9, (2009, below top) comes with a video showing its fabrication in China, the country on whose nuclear power industry the UK will be increasingly reliant. Once we had our own, as Kate Williams’ and Keith Lloyd’s striking Uranium glass (well, uranium oxide probably) Nuclear Power Stations remind us; Springfield Nuclear Power Station (both 2006, left, below lower) and Dounreay Nuclear Power Station (right, below lower):

Whether David Nash was thinking about Carbon when he produced his charcoal Nature to Nature 4: pyramid, sphere, cube (1990/94, below top), we don’t know, but Tim Etchells was certainly thinking about Neon when he made something common in the universe but rare on earth (2015, below lower) for the show:

On the way in and out, you can hardly miss David Nash’s Big Black (2008-15, below) in carbonised California redwood:

There were some missed opportunities. I can understand that Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007, left) in diamond and platinum might have been difficult to secure for this show, but something to underline diamond as another form of carbon, and introducing allotropy, seems appropriate. More feasible might have been one of Julian Opie’s computer animations like Marina in purple shawl (2010), visible in a post here last year, its LED screen being dependent on compounds of gallium, indium and other elements. I have jibbed a little at elements appearing in this show in the form of compounds, but the latter are the basis of most colour and pigmentation, and were much developed by 19th-century industrial chemists. As Pierre-Auguste Renoir said, “Without colours in tubes, there would be no Cézanne, no Monet, no Pissarro, and no Impressionism.”

Periodic Tales: The Art of the Elements ends on 13 December

* The exhibition catalogue in its Endnotes and elsewhere states that “The chemical elements are the fundamental building blocks of all matter”. “Up to a point, Lord Copper”, depending on what is meant by “fundamental” and “matter”. The chart below comes from Wikipedia:

The periodic table arranges the elements by their atomic number which is the number of protons in the nucleus. Protons and neutrons are the Nuclei in this chart above. An element has an equal number of protons and electrons. Protons are positively charged, electrons negatively. Electrons are a type of Lepton, see the chart. The periodic table groups the elements to reflect their electron configurations, when these are similar, the elements have similar properties, eg the noble gases, like neon. The same element can have different numbers of neutrons – isotopes of the same element. For example, most hydrogen on earth has just one proton and one electron, but it can have one neutron, when it is called deuterium, or two, tritium. Tritium, unlike deuterium, is unstable and decays to produce an isotope of helium – radioactivity.

** Or possibly Thirty Pieces of Silver (Exhaled) cake stand (2003).