Monday, November 26, 2007

Planet of Slums

As if it were not already a challenge trying to rationalise the grotesque sums changing hands at the top of the international art market, that task just got a whole lot harder having read Mike Davis's astonishing eye-opener of a book, Planet of Slums.

I was guided towards this bleak chronicle by Laurie Taylor's BBC Radio Four programme Thinking Allowed, but nothing could have prepared me for what the book contained. Indeed I defy anyone but the most emotionally-cauterized Pentagon policy wonk to emerge unaltered from its conclusions.

Davis has been called the Raymond Chandler of urban geography, but while that might suggest something of the pacy nature of his story-telling — urban geography as film noir — it rather belittles the import of what he's recounting. I took it as nothing less than the descent of humanity into a hell that not even Dante could have dreamt up. And if you think I'm exaggerating, then grab a copy here and see what you think.

The evils of colonialism are not new to me, but the longer term impact of the catastrophic modernity which colonialism helped shape (a process which is by no means fully played out, as Davis's book makes clear) is truly terrifying. Add to that legacy the venal instruments forged from the Bretton Woods agreements — namely the IMF and the World Bank — and the result is that two thirds of the world's population are now living, quite literally, in shit. (Nairobi's infamous Kibera slum, (Google Earth image above right), home to an estimated 1m people, is the site of the scatological innovation known as the 'flying toilet' or 'scud missile' — in which residents, deprived of formal sanitation, defecate into plastic bags which are then thrown onto the roof of the nearest house.)

Davis begins by outlining a world urban population growing at a staggering velocity, viz:

London in 1910 was seven times larger than it had been in 1800, but Dhaka, Kinshasa, and Lagos today are each approximately forty times larger than they were in 1950.

The present urban population is larger than the total population of the world when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated.

Slum populations, according to UN-HABITAT, are currently growing by a staggering 25 million per year.

China — urbanizing 'at a speed unprecedented in human history' — added more city-dwellers in the 1980s than did all of Europe (including Russia) in the entire nineteenth century.

The neoliberal restructuring of the Indian economy in the early 1990s produced a high-tech boom that created one million new millionaires, but 56 million more paupers.

Drilling down through the statistics reveals the unpalatable impact on human lives, with women and children often the real victims. For example, human organ-harvesting has become an integral part of the hypertrophic informal economies of the Third World as poor women sell their kidneys to raise money to support themselves and their children.

The material Davis has assembled to describe the planet of slums makes uncomfortable reading:

"In Accra, the Daily Graphic recently described 'sprawling refuse dumps, full of black plastic bags containing aborted fetal bodies from the wombs of Kayayee [female porters] and teenage girls in Accra. According to the Metropoloitan Chief Executive, '75 percent of the waste of black polythene bags in the metropolis contains human aborted fetuses.'"

Elsewhere, we find the re-emergence in parts of Africa of indigenous witchcraft in which children become "sacrificial receptacles" for poverty-induced "family immiseration and urban anomie."

Meanwhile, the wealthy barricade themselves into 'edge-cities', a Shangri-la of high-tech security and sanitation. As Davis observes, "these fantasy-themed enclaves bring us full circle to Philip K. Dick. In this 'gilded captivity', Jeremy Seabroook adds, the Third World urban bourgeoisie 'cease to be citizens of their own country and become nomads belonging to, and owing allegiance to, a superterrestrial topography of money; they become patriots of wealth, nationalists of an elusive and golden nowhere.'" (I'm tempted to add that this is where a fair proportion of blue-chip contemporary art ends up).

Another by-product of the disastrously polarised world we are creating is the changing nature of urban conflict. In the words of one leading US military theorist, rapid urbanisation results in "a battlespace environment that is decreasingly knowable since it is increasingly unplanned."

Davis's closing paragraph evokes a rapidly approaching cycle of epic mayhem reminiscent of the scenes enacted in Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down:

"This delusionary dialectic of securitized versus demonic urban places, in turn, dictates a sinister and unceasing duet: Night after night, hornet-like helicopter gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts, pouring hellfire into shanties or fleeing cars. Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions. If the Empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Authenticity of Aboriginal paintings called into question

Some doubt seems to have been cast on the authenticity of certain paintings purporting to be by Australian Aboriginal artists Rover Thomas and David Mowaljarlai, due to be auctioned today by Sydney auction house Lawson-Menzies (left.

The full story can be read on the website of The Australian broadsheet here.

If the paintings are not authentic, which is what is being alleged by certain parties close to the two or three artists concerned, then this is a disappointing development in the market for Aboriginal art, which has been enjoying unprecedented buoyancy in recent months. See my earlier notes on this here.

But if what is being claimed is true, that the paintings are indeed fakes, then one can only gasp at the stupidity of the person who fabricated them. The pictorial codes of Aboriginal art are so complex, the stories they represent so deeply personal, and the iconography laminated so tightly into tradition and cosmology that only the most short-sighted and cynical opportunist would attempt to fake examples of it. Moreover, as the market profile of indigenous art rises, should not the real experts from among the Aboriginal community be consulted to authenticate the more significant examples, particularly where there is doubt over provenance?

I see from The Australian's report that the pictures come from a single well-known source of consignments to Lawson-Menzies sales, reportedly a source that Sotheby's refuses to deal with. Would that Sotheby's took the same care over vetting vendors who consign to its antiquities sales.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Is this the ghost of Diana Brooks?

Yesterday's Guardian report on the disastrous results at Sotheby's recent Impressionist and Modern auction included an image (left) of a vaguely familiar, pink-suited, blonde-helmeted woman conducting the auction.

Could this, by chance, be disgraced former Sotheby's CEO Diana 'DeDe' Brooks, sentenced in May 2002 to six months house arrest, a $350,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service for her part in the Sotheby's/Christie's price-fixing scandal? Surely she's not back on the rostrum? Could this explain why Sotheby's share price has just taken such a hammering?

Er, no. Sotheby's high-end Impressionist and Modern sales are now invariably conducted by the flamboyant Tobias Meyer whose magical gavel clearly failed to work its usual magic at the recent New York auction.

So why is the Guardian using an old archive photo signifying one of the darkest episodes in Sotheby's history and which led to a plummeting share-price?

A different kind of risk

Asked by me in an interview for The Art Newspaper in 2003 whether Sotheby's were over-exposing themselves by taking up vendor guarantees (or 'principal positions'), Sotheby's Chief Executive Bill Ruprecht (left) said:

"You take a different kind of risk when you take a principal position and I expect to be rewarded for that."

It seems those rewards were thin on the ground at Sotheby's recent New York Impressionist and Modern sales. A few days ago, while trying to shore up the company's sliding share price, Ruprecht revealed that the principal positions his company took at the Imp and Mod sale resulted in a $14.6 million pre-tax loss (more on that here).

In the same series of interviews conducted for The Art Newspaper, Christie's CEO Ed Dolman (right) told me, "Guarantees are absolutely here to stay. There's no question about that, unless there's legislation against them, but I can't see that could ever happen."

I wonder whether today Dolman has the same confidence in the art market's ability to resist external regulation as he had four years ago just prior to the great art-rush. Recent revelations would suggest that it's only a matter of time before the Securities and Exchange Commission, or whatever agency monitors ethical behaviour in today's financial markets, steps in. After all, art has now become little more than a crudely tradeable asset class and perhaps ought to be regulated accordingly.

With Sotheby's and Christie's clipping the tickets in and out, swinging from the chandeliers, and offering kick-backs to dealers for early paddle-waving, surely it's only a matter of time before high-end fine art auctions are exposed for what they are — an elaborate form of insider-trading.

Friday, November 9, 2007

In Fairweather's footsteps

I'm re-posting this item (blogged earlier this summer) as part of the retrieval of the old Artknows content and because the Australian art market seems once again to be on the rise.

The rock shown left – on first glimpse easily mistaken for one of sculptor William Tucker’s chthonic lumps – is a memorial marking the now vanished home on Bribie Island, Queensland, Australia, of painter Ian Fairweather (1891-1974).

Prior to my recent three-week Queensland sojourn, my limited knowledge of Australian painting had been derived almost entirely from Ronald Millar’s introductory text, Civilised Magic, which I acquired in the late ‘70s (and which barely mentions Fairweather), and from occasional forays into the work of the great Sydney Nolan. Fairweather’s work was therefore entirely unknown to me.

Born in Stirling, Scotland, Fairweather (left) spent a good deal of his life as a hermit on Bribie Island, off the coast of Queensland. He is now widely acknowledged as one of Australia’s finest painters. Deeply moved by the works on display in Queensland Art Gallery, some of which recalled the work of Arshile Gorky and his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, I set off for Bribie on a Fairweather pilgrimage.

Ian Fairweather’s life was an extraordinary odyssey. Born of well-to-do parents in Scotland (his father was Surgeon-General in the Indian Medical Service), much of his childhood was spent under the guardianship of his aunts on the island of Jersey. After military service in the First World War, in which he was captured in France by the Germans, he studied under Henry Tonks at the Slade School in London, winning second prize for figure drawing in 1922.

This period marked the beginning of Fairweather’s lifelong fascination with Asian culture and particularly Chinese calligraphy, which he practiced diligently throughout his life.

After a stint as a farm labourer in Canada, Fairweather sailed to Shanghai to travel and paint. Thus began an extended period of peripatetic wandering through Asia and the Pacific, during which time, despite living in near penury, the quality of his painting was gradually recognized in London and elsewhere. In the late 1930s, he exhibited at London’s Redfern Gallery and in the USA and Australia.

After developing an allergy to oil paint, he worked in gouache and other more experimental media, invariably choosing materials that allowed him the freedom to develop his own calligraphic pictorial language. Kite Flying, 1958 (right) is a representative example.

In 1952, after two years living in an old boat in Darwin in the Northern Territory, Fairweather constructed a makeshift raft from discarded aircraft fuel tanks and parachute silk, evidently inspired by Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki adventure of 1947. The reconstruction (above right), entitled The Gift, by New Zealand artist Michael Stevenson (born 1964), is currently on show in Brisbane’s 5th Asia Pacific Triennial.

Using a rudimentary knowledge of navigation picked up at Darwin public library, Fairweather set sail for Timor. After sixteen days at sea, pursued by sharks, physically weak and running dangerously low on rations, he was washed up on the Indonesian island of Roti. His hosts were not amused and after shuttling him to and fro between detention centres for derelicts in Timor, Bali and Singapore, he was forcibly repatriated to the United Kingdom where he worked as a road-digger to fund his passage back to Australia.

In the mid-‘50s, after returning to Bribie Island, Fairweather constructed two primitive huts (in what were then isolated woods) in which to live and work (see the artist at home left). However, in 1965, feeling beleaguered by the number of people arriving on the island, he set off again, this time to Singapore, India and, briefly, London, where he considered setting up a studio. Unable to adapt to a conventional social ambience, he returned finally to Bribie where he continued to paint until his death in 1974.

During the early 1970s, perhaps embarrassed by the eccentric clochard in their midst, the local Bribie authorities erected a special building (shown right) in an attempt to coax Fairweather out of the primitive shack in which he was domiciled back into civilisation. Two months in this breezeblock environment was all he could bear, however, and back to the woods he crept. Today, the building is owned by the Bribie Island Toc H Association, which conserves its connections with the painter.

Ian Fairweather largely eschewed the company of other artists and the social networks of established art communities, although he was said to receive occasional guests reluctantly but always with the utmost courtesy. Happily the quality of his painting has finally earned his work a permanent home in Queensland Art Gallery.

Were he not seen as an ‘Australian’ artist, one suspects that Fairweather’s work might be better known and its quality more widely acknowledged. But Australian painting is generally viewed as marginal and perhaps even somewhat parochial (Christie’s pulled out of the Australian market altogether in 2006). Viewed in the context of his Aussie contemporaries in the Queensland Art Gallery, however, Fairweather’s work seems of an altogether different order – intense, disciplined, compositionally complex, and with an extraordinary sense of colour.

Today, Fairweather’s paintings seldom appear on the open market. His auction record is Aus$552,600 (US$398,989) for Tea Garden, Peking (1935) (left), achieved at Christie’s in Melbourne in May 2004, against an estimate of Aus$120,000-180,000.

Bizarrely, apart from the appropriately primitive rock marking the former site of his ‘humpy’ as the locals call it, all that remains of Ian Fairweather on Bribie Island today is a crude totem pole bearing his likeness (right), which sits among the kitsch souvenirs and naïve amateur landscapes in the island’s Community Arts Centre.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Doris's crack - too much information?

I suggested in my piece on Doris's Salcedo's Shibboleth at Tate Modern here that occasionally curators' explanatory texts can kill a work stone dead. This is a particular problem where conceptual art is concerned.

Now Alice O'Keeffe has run with this theme in a good piece in the New Statesman entitled Information Overload.

Alice writes:
"Shibboleth is not "the experience of a third world person coming to the heart of Europe". It is a crack in the floor. Schoolchildren given that explanation would be quite right to feel confused by it and alienated from the work as a result. If, however, they were simply encouraged to explore how the crack made them feel, they might begin to appreciate the real value of Shibboleth and to understand the unique, mysterious power of an image."

Hear, hear.

Friday, October 19, 2007

It's a game

"You see, all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself; and you may say it has always been like that, but now it's entirely a game. And... what is fascinating now is that it's goin to become much more difficult for the artist, because he really must deepen the game to be any good at all."
— Francis Bacon

Provenance? What provenance?

Cosmetics magnate, Ronald Lauder, for whom art collecting is "like a sickness", is being accused by the New York Times of a lack of openness by refusing to reveal the full provenance details of his magnificent art collection.

His refusal to comply with the glasnost now expected of any responsible museum or private collection has naturally led to speculation that his collection might, or could, contain works looted by the Nazis. Mr Lauder himself claims a spotless record where Holocaust restitution matters are concerned, so why then his refusal to do the right thing?

Asked by the New York Times to release an inventory of his German and Austrian works, Lauder refused. “It’s my private collection," he said. "Would it be O.K. for people to see what dresses you have in your closet?”

I'm only blogging this as an aide memoire to myself in case I forget that provenance is still a critical issue. Full depressing story here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Rock, Paper, Scissors? Game theory work on market mechanisms wins Nobel Prize for Economics

A few years ago, the head of a Japanese corporation consulted both Sotheby's and Christie's for their advice on selling his company's corporate art collection of important Impressionist paintings and other masterpieces.

The sales pitches offered by the heads of the two auction houses were so close that the Japanese mogul couldn't decide who to give the instructions to. So he hit upon a novel solution. He invited the two men back to his office where they were expected to engage in the children's game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. The winner would get the business.

Rumour has it that prior to the big match the Sotheby's representative consulted his two daughters who were regular players of the game at their prestigious private school in upstate New York. After receiving his daughters' wise words on playground probability theory, Dad promptly flew back to Japan and won the game, thereby securing the contract to sell the corporate art collection.

I suspect this isn't, strictly speaking, an example of 'game theory' as it is understood by economic scientists. But as an equitable solution to a difficult commercial dilemma it's hard to beat.

Thus it came as no surprise to hear that this year's Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences has been awarded to three U.S. academics — Leonid Hurwicz (aged 90, right), Eric S. Maskin and Roger B. Myerson (both 56) — for their work on game theory in markets, or more specifically on how people's knowledge and self-interest can affect their behaviour in market situations. The idea that knowledge and self-interest play a crucial role in markets seems pretty bloody obvious to me, but hey, what do I know?

The full story (here) refers to, among other things, how this Nobel Prize-winning work touches on auctions. For example, Eric S. Maskin has conducted research to determine which auction mechanisms bring most revenue to sellers.

Funny, isn't it, how economists spend their lives meditating on these issues, eventually winning the Nobel Prize, while Pierre Omidyar pops out of nowhere to invent eBay, at a stroke revolutionising the auction universe. I guess that's why the three Nobel Prize winners get to share $1.5 million, while Omidyar is said to be worth $8.8 billion.

Meanwhile the art market is still governed by the traditional gavel and rostrum auction procedure which remains open to all manner of sharp practices (hence the furious letters to Antiques Trade Gazette every week). Perhaps this partly explains why the art market is still exploding like a stick of Nobel dynamite.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Crack Addicts

It's only been there a few days, but already Colombian conceptual artist Doris Salcedo's installation at Tate Modern's Turbine Hall (left) has generated plenty of coverage about how dangerous it is, plus noisy speculation about how it was made, but very little about what it might signify.

Meanwhile, UBS — the bank that sponsors the other series of major Tate displays upstairs — has seen a huge Northern Rock-size crack appear in its own balance sheet.

Shibboleth, as Salcedo's piece is called, is basically an earthquake-like fissure running the length of the Turbine Hall. It starts by the entrance as a hairline crack in the concrete floor and then meanders down the sloping ramp, widening steadily as it goes, breaking off here and there into tributary cracks, and continuing until it finally disappears beneath the wall at the far end of the hall.

At its widest, the span is about 10in — not much, but evidently enough for two or three people to have already 'fallen in', according to news reports. Nobody has been seriously injured (yet), but it's only a matter of time as works like this (and Carsten Höller's slides) will always attract the Munchausen Syndromers.

The Guardian assembled some architects and builders on site and invited them to speculate on how Doris had done it. Their professional suggestions were credible enough but no more so than those vocalised by members of the public when I visited last Tuesday. Then a local builder popped up and blew the gaff. The Tate had been trying to keep it all a secret, but this guy had been on site during the installation and had seen it all through a crack in the tarpaulin. Cat out of bag.

But does it matter how it was made? Artists can slice and dice buildings any way they like if they put their minds to it, as Richard Wilson demonstrated a few months ago.

If you get down close enough you can see a wire mesh embedded in the sides of the Shibboleth gorge — which at its deepest is three or four feet deep. It looks structural, like an armature to stabilize the concrete, but it's an integral part of the work's meaning.

The Tate provides visitors on arrival with a lengthy printed essay pamphlet explaining what the crack's all about. This is what contemporary art galleries do these days. There's always a worry that the more complex conceptual works will leave people utterly mystified, but also a risk that explanatory texts will over-interpret or over-determine, foreclosing the process of imaginative engagement and impairing the visitor's enjoyment.

The dark side of colonialism
Salcedo has suggested that Shibboleth alludes to "a colonial and imperial history that has been disregarded, marginalised, or simply obliterated ... the history of racism, running parallel to the history of modernity and ... its untold dark side." I'm not sure Doris's cracked floor is entirely successful in this precise respect, but perhaps visitors will connect her expressed intentions with their own experience of the work and take those resonances away with them.

There is a certain irony in a major work at one London gallery drawing attention to the disregarded, marginalised and obliterated colonial past, while other museums in London continue proudly to display the material fruits of that same colonial exploitation as if the oft-cited shibboleth of "that was then, this is now" is enough to justify it.

The wire mesh obviously evokes political issues such as the Israel/Palestine divide as well as regimes of incarceration and state retribution — perhaps most obviously and topically, Abu Ghraib. This is a rather more subtle allusion to those human rights abuses than the recent powerful Abu Ghraib paintings by Salcedo's compatriot, Fernando Botero, recently gifted to the Berkeley Museum.

The Turbine Hall may be too big for its own good. Its overpowering size has given birth to a number of projects in the Unilever series that in their attempts to wrestle with the Piranesian proportions of the space end up being too grandiose and overblown to have any lasting resonance other than as entertaining spectacles. It was clearly all too much, for example, for Rachel Whiteread and the wrong place for Bruce Nauman.

Needless to say, the critics are lining up to point out that the crack in the floor has been done before. Arts Journal blogger Tyler Green recalls how Andy Goldsworthy cracked a courtyard in San Francisco. For me it recalled Gordon Matta-Clark's interventions into buildings (as well as Richard Wilson's recent architectural incision Turning the Place Over in Liverpool, but also something of the heroic earthworks projects of the late '60s and early '70s by Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria et al. They dug their big trenches in the Nevada desert and other wildernesses. Doris has torn a bit of the city asunder.

One suspects that as the crack addicts flock to Tate Modern in the coming weeks and as the idiots fall in or trip over it, some of Shibboleth's more subtle allusions will dissolve in a predictable welter of tabloid wingeing.

As a site-specific work it's one of the best things the Turbine Hall has hosted, up there with Anish Kapoor's Marsyas (2002-03). As I left the Tate on Tuesday I found myself singing that Leonard Cohen line: "There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The three-year cycle of stolen art: Leonardo painting recovered, weeks after owner's death

The Duke of Buccleuch died in early September aged 83, evidently still brokenhearted at the theft four years ago of Leonardo da Vinci's The Madonna of the Yarnwinder (left) from his ancestral seat in Dumfriesshire.

Now, just weeks after the duke's death, the painting has been recovered and four men arrested.

It is widely known among loss adjusters and specialist art detectives that important pictures taken in art heists tend to re-emerge around three years later. This 'three-year cycle' seems to have been the case with the Duke of Buccleuch's Madonna, which was stolen in broad daylight during a public tour of Drumlanrig Castle in August 2003. Two men dressed as tourists overpowered a guide, snatched the painting and drove off in a white Volkswagen Golf.

Apparently the thieves recently started to enter into some kind of negotiation to try and sell the painting. They were arrested after police intercepted a meeting between five people in the centre of Glasgow.

This is good news for art theft detectives as it demonstrates that not all stolen masterpieces disappear into oblivion. But it remains just the tip of an iceberg that has made stolen art the third most lucrative illicit trade after arms and drugs.

Stolen art is now used as collateral in an extensive subterranean criminal network that embraces people trafficking and prostitution. Human misery is the main product issuing from those global pipelines. Meanwhile prices rise inexorably in the art market.

Turkish Delights

Strange, these coincidences. I've recently been reading Snow, a recent novel by Nobel Prize winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk.

Turkey's precarious place on the threshold of East and West is one of the most interesting current geopolitical issues. How will the country reconcile its identity as a 'secular' Islamic state with its prospective membership of the European Community? Will something have to give? Pamuk has been acclaimed for his imaginative meditations on this issue in his award-winning novels.

Then yesterday, Douglas McLennan's Arts Journal digest included a link to Peter Schjeldahl's recent New Yorker piece on the 2007 Istanbul Biennial.

Schjeldahl is very good on the "shallow, frantic" nature of contemporary art biennials and the "yuppie-ish, wine-swilling social milieu" around which they revolve. One doesn't get much sense from his piece of the quality of the art on show, but then these colossal, masturbatory, incontinent art jamborees resist cogent description and are unworthy of intelligent criticism in my opinion. Nor are they really about art, although quite what they're about nobody seems able to say.

But I guess if your publication is prepared to sponsor an expenses paid trip to Istanbul, you would, if you're wise, choose to spend a certain amount of your available time as Schjeldahl did, soaking up the numinous attractions of the Süleymaniye mosque rather than necking booze with odious corporate art sponsors at the 'main event'.

Such carnal pleasures were certainly denied to Michael Dickinson — "the Istanbul representative of the Stuckism International art movement" (whatever that means) — who is currently 'stuck' in an Instanbul jail awaiting trial. Which brings me to the third Turkey-related trimming to tumble into my inbox over the past 24 hours.

This morning I was copied on an email from Charles Thomson, a founder-member of the Stuckists. The members of this loose affiliation of superannuated chip-on-the-shoulder Sunday painters are still whingeing about the state of the Turner Prize and what they see as a Serotacratic conceptualist conspiracy at the heart of British visual culture. Excuse me while I take forty winks.

[40 minutes later...]
Where was I? Ah, yes. Thomson has taken up the cause of his fellow-Stuckist, who was locked up for making a collage depicting Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as a dog on a stars-and-stripes lead, eating dollar bills. It seems that Mr Dickinson could be rewarded with a two- to three-year stretch in jail (cue Giorgio Moroder theme tune) for his ill-advised 'satirical' swipe at the Turkish PM.

The Stuckists have never been the most intelligent purveyors of social and political comment, as Dickinson's offending collage, entitled Good Boy, makes clear. I'm sorry, try as I might, I can't take this seriously. Why on earth do the Stuckists need an, er, "Istanbul representative" when their founding beef is with the British arts establishment?

Thomson has now written to Gordon Brown to ask for the PM's intervention. I can see Gordon wrestling with this in Cabinet. Call a General Election, lobby Turkey for the liberation of Michael Dickinson, or have another shortbread biscuit? Decisions, decisions...

Why are museum picture clearance fees so exorbitant?

I've been considering updating and republishing a paperback book I wrote some years ago about the body in western sculpture. The Body in Sculpture is long out of print but there are often a few copies still available on the invaluable secondhand book site ABE and it remains a core text on a number of arts courses and earns me a sprinkling of annual library photocopying royalties.

I've been advised by the packagers of the original edition (above right) that I should consider seeking an academic publisher for any future edition as this would keep the picture clearance fees to a minimum.

This brings me once again to the thorny question of museum publishing rights. Am I wrong to resent having to pay national museums for the right to publish images held in their collections? After all, in writing about their objects in a serious (albeit accessible) way, I am trying to foster a better understanding of the material culture they hold, which surely is an essential part of a museum's founding premise. I can understand museums levying a charge, but surely when those charges become prohibitive, they are shooting themselves in the foot and impairing the progress of visual education. And don't their objects belong to me anyway in some meaningful way?

Finally, were I to re-publish the book under an academic imprint, I would effectively be ring-fencing it into a realm that is largely inaccessible to the common reader at whom the book was originally aimed.

Am I missing something here?

Benin chief appeals for help in tracing missing artefacts

A Benin high chief has appealed to his Federal Government for assistance in tracking down a significant quantity of his country's missing cultural heritage.

But this is not the usual pleading to the British Museum and other Western museums whose Benin collections were formed largely as a result of the 1897 Punitive Expedition which stripped the country of the finest examples of its ancient sculpture (example show above left). This time, it seems, there is evidence that insiders might be responsible for the disappearance of the artefacts, valued at over $100 million. At any rate, that seems to be the subtext of high chief Chief Sunday Emokpae's recent appeal.

"The  government must come in and assist in unearthing those that stole our artefacts in the Benin museum," said Chief Emokpae. "It must not be swept under the carpet."

If true, this is very bad news, not only for Benin, but for many other developing nations across Africa and beyond. Many previous attempts to win repatration of objects plundered during the colonial era have brought a return volley from Western museums who claim that these source nations are not capable of looking after their own treasures. The losses from within Benin itself, if they are as serious as Chief Emokpae claims they are, will merely harden Western intransigence over restitution.

Full story at one of Nigeria's leading newspapers, The Vanguard, here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Moore turds in the park

Consider the humble cheese grater, one of Henry Moore's favourite tools. He used it to scrape away at the surface of his sculptures, one of the largest exhibitions of which has just opened at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, West London.

 On a late summer's day it's an impossibly glorious arcadia in London's urban sprawl. Why hasn't anyone thought of putting Moore's work there before now? Well, Kew only relatively recently became an art destination, but in future looks set to become a key place for displays like this. The current exhibition — a superb selection of 28 large-scale bronzes — is the largest installation of Moore's work ever shown in the UK outside Perry Green, Hertfordshire, the late artist's home and location of the Henry Moore Foundation.

 The press view offered a rare opportunity to tour the work in the charismatic company of Henry Moore Foundation curator David Michinson. Not only is he arguably the most knowledgeable authority on Moore's work, he is still, after many years of keeping the Moore flame alive, brimming with infectious enthusiasm for the Moore legacy.

 The Kew project has been two and a half years in the planning and I think it's clear from the few pictures I've posted here that the works look marvellous in this environment — hardly surprising given the umbilical link between Moore's creative project and the English landscape. If there is any problem with the location, it is the constant presence of trees as a framing backdrop and the unavoidable 'picturesqueness' that results from placing his forms in the centre of long rides, within enclosed glades, atop grassy mounds, against the white-ribbed glasshouses, or beneath the spreading chestnut tree. "Wow!" "Nice!", "Lovely", "Oh, beautiful!", "Fantastic!". I mean what else can you say?

I confess I did have a private moment of fun as we approached Large Upright Internal/External Form. The rear view (right) brought to mind the old "turd in the piazza" jibe so often levelled at Moore's urban placings, William Chambers' distant pagoda lending it a fresh Orientalist spin. But once you move to the front where its complexity is revealed framed against the graceful arches of the plant houses, it takes your breath away. I guess I was longing for some rugged windswept moorland, a much longer vista with perhaps an anvil of grey cloud descending over a big family group, or two large interlocking forms. The mood did move momentarily into a minor key as we approached Two Piece Reclining Figure: Cut (1979-80), with a couple of roughly contemporaneous brutalist tower blocks on the horizon echoing its vertical thrust. It was a welcome counterpoint to the pervasive postcard views. Amazingly, this is the first time this group has been shown in the UK outside Perry Green and it was a joy to see it. It reminded me of Lynn Chadwick's broken reclining figures of the early 1970s.

Winter's skeletal trees may yet bring a note of melancholy to the Kew display. The show is scheduled to run until next March after which it will leave for the New York Botanical Gardens. And that's the great thing about the Foundation. It is continually shipping Moore's work around the globe. He is unarguably the most geographically widely distributed artist in history. With mammoth touring shows like this still continually trundling around the planet his reputation as the most internationally renowned sculpture since Michelangelo is unlikely to fade. What the Kew exhibition does offer, once you get up close, is a chance to see a wonderfully wide range of work and to meditate on Moore's technique and his approach to form.

A related display in the Nash Pavilion offers enlightening contextual background on the flints, shells, bones and other natural found objects that provided the inspiration for many of the pieces on view in the park. When I returned a few days later, the public were thronging round the works, clearly enjoying the novelty of seeing Moore's sculpture in one of London's most popular open-air environments.

David Michinson pointed out Moore's enthusiasm for modelling in polystyrene, which allowed him to work on a very large scale while obviating many of the transport problems associated with working in heavier materials. Many of the finished bronzes reveal evidence of how Moore then often coated the polystyrene in plaster to achieve a smooth texture. When they're at Perry Green, the sculptures share pasture space with Moore's beloved sheep. The sheep brush up against the bronzes as they graze around them and over time the lanolin in their wool wears away the patina. As a result one or two pieces have had to be re-patinated for display at Kew.

 What is rather less easy to put right is the damage done by graffiti and the scratches left by eager children who understandably feel the urge to climb all over them to explore their inviting surfaces. But we can excuse the toddlers if in the process they discover the thrilling physicality of sculpture.