Return to Life
National Portrait Gallery
Busts -- and we're not talking porn here, sculptured portraiture -- have their roots in the masks of gods created by many ancient societies. In Europe they are an innovation which probably coincided with the importation of white marble into fourth century Greece. And busts finally made it to Britain via Italy about three hundred years ago, growing especially popular in the Victorian era.
Often it seems as if the busts we see around us blend into the architectural background, which is where Return to Life, a new exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery, comes in. It shows us that busts have as much variety as any other art form. It also gives the bust two distinct functions: to represent an ideal, or to be a true portrait of a particular person. The exhibition encourages us to notice how some busts sit complacently on their pedestal, while others appear to have been torn from a living, breathing body.
The final exhibits explore once again the relationship between masks and busts, with the representations of George Combe and Dr Andrew Combe in both media. The Combe brothers were nineteenth century phrenologists - believers that character could be determined by the size of the skull - and their masks were part of a collection which documented the physical characteristics of "gifted" individuals alongside "criminal" types.
From their glass display box, George Combe's life mask sleeps peacefully while, disturbingly, Dr Andrew Combe's death mask -- with its squint and drooping flesh -- appears to move.
Return to Life continues as the National Portrait Gallery in London until the 20th May 2001 before moving to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh from 21st June to 14th October 2001. Admission is free.
Under the swooshstika
I was reading No Logo, sitting on a stool upstairs at Burger King in Leicester Square the other night. I congratulated myself on my ironic postmodern statement as I enjoyed a spicy beanburger. Through the window I was surveying the tourists surging through the damp and unappealing square, and suddenly I got it.
Naomi Klein talks about the fact that although vast corporations like GAP or Nike or Microsoft create multiethnic adverts they are actually in the business of reducing diversification. Everyone ends up wearing khakis.
And if you've been through a few towns in the States, for example, you'll encounter the same fast food joints in every one. And here am I in the centre of London eating a Burger King burger next to a table of far eastern tourists, looking across at the MGM studio shop.
No Logo is written with all the hurt and betrayal that only a one-time "mall rat" can muster. Klein describes the sweatshops -- so called "Export Processing Zones" -- in third world countries. And when she talks to the workers who create the badged tat that we all wear, you can feel her rage and disappointment. For all the universality of this great book, it is very North American. She notes the phenomenon of temporary jobs is "eroding our collective faith, not only in individual corporations but in the very principle of trickle down economics". I'm not sure that I've met too many people who seriously believed the trickle down theory of economics in the UK.
One of Naomi Klein's major targets is Nike. And I've begun to notice, as I walk down the street, how many people I pass are adorned with the Nike "swoosh". This very morning, walking from the tube station in the rain, I passed a man with a swooshed black umbrella. And now, according to No Logo, the swoosh is the most requested tattoo in the US.
Oddly, this is also a great book for anyone interested in marketing. People in advertising are always told to provoke emotions. Klein quotes Nike CEO Phil Knight in a "prescient" moment: "there's a flip side to the emotions we generate and the tremendous well of emotions we live off of. Somehow, emotions imply their opposites and at the level we operate, the reaction is much more than a passing thought." So the danger of creating an emotive brand is in the backlash.
There is a fightback against the corporations. Klein documents the Canadian "skulling attacks" (where anorexic GAP models and others are "jammed" to make them look like deaths heads), Reclaim the Streets in the UK, computer "hacktivists" and many more.
I've been thinking about No Logo constantly since I started to read it. Without doubt, this is the agenda-setting book for 2001. You must read it.
Art minus money
Culture has never been solely the preserve of those with money - look at Shakespeare's audiences. However, the creation of art remains relatively elitist, a situation increasingly challenged by exhibitions such as Artspeaks which is presently touring the country.
The show is the result of a three year collaboration between professional artists and children and adults coming from deprived housing estates around London. It includes collaborative, mural-sized paintings, a clay Mandala, photographs, wood carvings, poetry and textile paintings. And the art speaks. It communicates the realities of the lives of those contending with poverty in Britain, while also showing their desire for respect.
The art is also a meeting place, maybe the only one possible, for people from differing backgrounds. The professional artist who worked on the clay Mandala, Rosalinde Waugh, explains, "A lot of the participants were going through a really hard time. I couldn't even begin to identify with what they were experiencing. It was hard, but together we were creating something new, they could leave all their history behind them. When you're concentrating on the art, the outward appearances which can be so difficult to deal with, the barriers between people, they just dissolve."
To get on the road Artspeaks has had to rely on a great deal of unpaid, voluntary input. It has found it difficult to gain entry into the usual art spaces and has struggled to gain any media coverage. Such is the result of being on the outside looking in of the traditional art establishment.
Artspeaks venues 2001:
9th to 12th April 2001: Emmanuel Church, Trumpington Street, Cambridge.
1st May to 1st June: West End Centre, Queen's Road, Guildford.
14th to 30th June: London Camberwell Arts Week.
July: St Mary Church, Hull.
27th October to 12th November: St James, Piccadilly, London.