Today was the new Tate Tanks members preview day. For those that don't know, the Tate Tanks are the first stage in the redevelopment of Tate Modern, which will eventually allow 60% more of the collection to go on show. This is great news. It will also allow for even more touring exhibitions. The Tanks themselves are vast underground oil tanks, and will be used for a mixture of contemporary art and performance. They open to the public tomorrow.
It was interesting being able to walk down the iconic ramp and then turn right. Whilst the Turbine hall is an incredible space, I think that having things on both sides of it helps to create a sense of balance, something that will only increase as the new structure takes shape, and a new high level bridge arches across it. Walking into the Tanks leads to a sense of palpable excitement. The architecture is chunky and, to a fan of Brutalism such as myself, deeply appealing. I did wonder if the air conditioning would be up to scratch, though. With hundreds of excited members all crammed into this thick walled, subterranean space, it was a little bit sweaty and unpleasant at times.
It's perhaps hard to remember the hope we felt during the first flushes of the Arab Spring, when I, for one, was glued to the news websites, reading their live streams and dreaming of real change. Despite the good news coming out of Egypt at first, it seems like the army have been playing for time, hoping that the people would grow tired of revolution and settle for something that doesn't really shift the status quo. It can feel odd cheering on the Muslim Brotherhood, but despite what a raft of internet warriors would have you believe, there are many shades of Islamism, and the Freedom and Justice Party so far have proven closer to the Turkish sort than the Iranian.
So, how to keep the army busy and out of politics? With nearly half a million active soldiers (the 10th largest army in the world, who knew?) they certainly have plenty of personnel. Perhaps if the UN were serious about securing peace in Syria some of these guys could be sent over there, rather than the paltry 300 observers on the last mission. I can't say it's a flawless plan - the Alawites in Syria might be a little worried about letting a largely Sunni force in, for a start. Then again, Syria and Egypt were the same country in the lifetimes of most officers, if not of the grunts. And generals with some proper action on their hands might be less inclined to spend all their time defending their personal fiefdoms.
A pipe dream at best, but given that its clear which side Saudi Arabia is on, it's a more practical solution than asking them to step in and keep the peace.
Sunday in the City is an odd time. Mammon's many priests have abandoned it to a scattering of tourists and photographers, two tribes who seem to worship the sky given the way their necks crane back to appreciate the immanent skyline. They congregate around the Gherkin and the Lloyd's building and take their snaps of these strikingly different examples of modern architecture.
Having a job in the City this morning I joined them and pondered about why they were doing it. Taking a photo of a tall building surrounded by other tall buildings from the ground is difficult: the angle required distorts their dimensions and it can be practically impossible to get them all in from so close. Yet the motivation is harder for me to work out. Why try and photograph such endlessly reproduced objects, especially as your own effort will most likely be inferior?
It reminded me of being in the Louvre, of the scrum around the Mona Lisa that makes the contemplation of such an important work of art impossible. I would wager that less than 10% of those engaged in the fight for Their Own Personal Shot of the work have any idea why it's important in the history of art, or indeed what sfumato means. They don't care that the Mona Lisa is the most reproduced image ever, and that their photo Will be worse. Some of them don't even care that their flashes are destroying the artworks around them, and that we all have to enjoy the painting more obliquely, through a glass darkly, to stop their flashes ruining this priceless work - these people will be denied the use of their eyes when my Aesthetic Justice vigilante group catches up with them.
I was asked to contribute to a piece of devised theatre recently, on the subject of restoration, and the urge to restore order. I'd just read an article recently on Isaac Asimov's Foundation, discussing how it was in fact a giant metaphor for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. I had read the book when I was a child, and perhaps understandably this all went over my head. However, one passage in the book had disturbed me so much I had stopped reading it. It wasn't graphic or adult in nature, it just described people tirelessly trying to impose order on the galaxy to stop the increase in entropy, which eventually would cause the universe to end (I had to some extent sublimated my trembling fear of death into a terrible fear of the universe ending, even after I was dead). I thought the text might lend a rather leftfield angle to the play, so I thought now might be a good time to revisit the book and see how it matched up to my childhood reading.
...at the right time
...in the right light.
Surely everyone who frequents galleries has had this experience: You're wandering round an exhibition that you don't really care for, your scepticism slowly rising. You're not sure if you're missing something or if there's nothing to miss, but every time you're confronted with another indifferent picture with an obscure title you care a little less.
Then you come across something that stops you in your tracks, something that announces its greatness and makes you take your time to consider it. Zarina Bhimji's recent exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery had this exact effect on me. As you enter you are presented with a series of stills from her latest film. Anyone who has had the misfortune of sitting through my holiday snaps knows my predilection for shots of urban decay ("When are we getting to the Pyramids?" "After the two rolls of film I took at the cement factory.") but when coupled with portentous titles of little discernible relevance my guard was up.
Upstairs, the samples of earlier work manage to achieve the unhappy balance of seeming both facile and obscure, with a tedious insistence on poking sexuality into every orifice, even those where it doesn't belong. Does a photograph of some spray painted pubes really complete an exhibit of photographs of gardens owned by slave merchants, and mirrors engraved with old press cuttings of slave auctions?
It's understandable, then, that I approached the centrepiece of the exhibition, a new film called 'Yellow Patch', with some hesitation. I am not against Video Art, yet only a few of its practitioners seem to approach competency in my eyes, and a previous work by the artist shown upstairs had all the clumsy literalness of an overexcited student documentary maker.
Luckily this film captivated me within a few seconds, such was its beauty. It's a cliché to say that each frame could be a work of art in itself, but the photos outside testified to its truth in this case. Each shot, whether of mouldering books in dusty courtrooms or houses filled with ruined furniture slowly collapsing, was ravishingly beautiful. When I went to see it a second time, an entire class of 5-year-olds sat transfixed throughout its entire 30 minutes runtime, without making a peep. Credit has to go to the cinematographer for composing such beautiful shots, as well as moving the camera so precisely, slowly, and gracefully.
The first thing that struck me when I arrived in Egypt proper (as opposed to the Sinai), was just how lush and verdant it was. Throughout history Egypt has been the breadbasket of empires, and driving through the fertile delta region where blocks of flats squeeze together to leave as much field space as possible it's easy to believe. With this and the entire Nile Valley under cultivation since the Aswan Dam came into being, the contrast with much of the rest of the Middle East & North Africa couldn't be more marked.
Growing sugar in the Nile Valley
Perhaps that's why there's been such interest in a couple of sentences thrown into a report on malnutrition by The Economist:
Egypt’s agricultural value-added per person rose more than 20% in 1990-2007. Yet both malnutrition and obesity rose—an extremely unusual combination.
Some bloggers have been swift to see the not quite so invisible hand of capitalism slapping away. Certainly meat has been in increasing demand from the new Egyptian middle classes, with all the inefficiency of food use that implies. Egypt has also been switching increasingly from growing wheat to growing cash crops, and the traditional fellah tending his little patch of land has been displaced by increasing levels of agribusiness.
As part of my Journalism course we were looking at different magazines that were out there. Someone brought in a copy of Vogue with the accompanying cover. Whilst I agreed with the women that it was a striking image, my first thought on seeing it was that it was obviously faked. Check out the size of her torso compared to those infinite legs.
The women in my group were complementary on my astuteness, although I'd imagine most men would see it given that we probably look at more women than most ladies do. I'm not sure if "Men's" magazines still distort images of women regularly, as I'm bored by anything that pushes masturbation as a viable lifestyle choice, but I remember it being vaguely scandalous when Kate Winslet got her legs shooped back in the 90s.
Aside from the rather obvious point about creating unrealistic expectations for women to measure up to, what attracted my attention was that this has the same effect as foreshortening. That is, this kind of technique would normally be applied to a painting hung high above the viewer to make it look more realistic. In the visual language we all imbibe, if not explicitly, this image is literally looking down on you.
Thank God for cameras on mobile phones! Just popped in here for lunch and caught this couple together with a perfect backdrop...
You can get a bigger picture by clicking on the photo.
It’s always been a great source of dismay to me that despite predicting the financial crisis in ’07, I didn’t have the foresight to write anything down and thus claim my place amongst the economic gurus of our age. Admittedly the horror stories I would describe to friends were a little more rooted in a post apocalyptic imagination than a sound grasp of Credit Default Swaps and their likely implications, but I thought it fitting that I get my current vague forebodings down in writing at the start of this blog so that I don’t miss another chance to claim my rightful title as Seer Extraordinaire.
Whilst it’s hardly news to say ‘Keep your eyes on China’, I have a feeling that in the next few years, the meteoric rise of the Dragon may stutter, or indeed change direction. I must confess to having little insider knowledge – I’ve only spent a couple of weeks in China, and all of that was within Xinjiang. However, as with the financial crisis, my belief that something will change comes from looking at everything in the public domain and deciding something doesn't make sense.
If you asked the man in the street about China, then you might expect to hear something about its inexorable rise. Yet there’s something very rotten in this state that comes to the surface with only a little digging. We have grown immured to the constant strikes and protests, but it still comes as a shock to hear that an estimated 90,000 happen every year. The current spate of immolations in Tibet will probably be controlled like the riots in Xinjiang before them, but the anger of the Han Chinese majority may be harder for officials to contain.
Little ideas that spin through my mind.