Home is where the art is

Most people find the prospect of complete strangers barging around their house as appealing as coming across Freddy Krueger inspecting your knife drawer. But at this time of year, artists across Brighton and Hove throw open their doors and invite the public into their most intimate places – both domestic and imaginative.

Not all visitors come with the aim of discovering marvellous new art. Like prospective house buyers, some people seem to be driven by a desperate need to know what other people’s toilets look like. There’s nothing wrong with this – part of the charm of the Artists Open House project is that it mixes the rarefied endeavour of artistic creation with the quotidian concerns of a normal household.

For those who are more interested in craft than kitchenware, there’s plenty to see this year. More than 1,300 artists are displaying their works in 234 venues – that’s an awful lot of shoe leather. Fortunately, the open houses are arranged into trails and grouped into geographic areas, so a little forward planning will obviate the need to hurtle from one side of the city to the other in some ill-advised remake of Wacky Races.

The Hanover Art Trail is a reliable scene of imaginative and intelligent work. At the Church of the Annunciation on Washington Street, seven sculptors have mounted an appropriately contemplative show – Valérie N’Doye’s ‘Mother and Child’ light boxes are moving and delightful. A completely different note is struck at Egremont Place where the ‘Open House Virgins’ have produced a witty and sexy collection.

Over in Hove, The Happy House and Garden is an exemplar of the Open House idea – pastels, abstracts and figurative work showcased in a home that would render Kirstie Allsopp deliquescent. Off the arty track, up in Withdean, AfricArt on Redhill Drive features fantastic contemporary African and British sculpture.

The festival closes on May 23, so next weekend is your last chance to indulge in a spot of aesthetic house hunting – unless loo seats really are your thing.

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In praise of Alan Watkins (and a diatribe on the office of prime minister)

Alan Watkins Pic: Amit Lennon

Alan Watkins Pic: Amit Lennon

 

Many years ago, I received a letter of thanks from the great political commentator Alan Watkins, who died at the weekend aged 77. Typically our correspondence had nothing to do with politics. Watkins wrote a column about beer for a magazine (I forget which) and I wrote to him to suggest that bars in the House of Commons should stock Pilsner Urquell. He wrote back to thank me and said he would follow the idea up. I’ve no idea whether or not he did, but I am certain that he is enjoying a celestial tipple and laughing his head off at the current contortions in Westminster.  

But Watkins would have been dismayed at the cant repeatedly broadcast about elected and non-elected prime ministers. The television debates seemed to have persuaded some people that we just had a presidential election. We didn’t – and as the result showed all the showbiz hype counted as nothing when weighed against ties of kinship and class. Watkins in his last column predicted that Cleggmania would not translate into votes and he was right. He would have relished the irony of Nick Clegg playing kingmaker even though his party fared poorly.  

The role of prime minister is an accident of history. There is no real ‘first’ prime minister and the position was resisted by those who held the office in the 18th century. How very different to the attitude of our modern pols who will do, say and agree to just about anything to get the measure of the Number 10 curtains. For anyone who is interested, the modern prime minister is the leader of the part that commands a majority in the House of Commons. He or she will have been elected as a member of parliament and elected as party leader. The public elects local MPs.  

The current situation is exactly what we voted for. In his final column Watkins wrote: “Mr Clegg is adept at the soft answer that turneth away wrath.” Clegg is going to need that skill is spades over the coming weeks.

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Savagery and civilisation on a sunny day

On the Guardian website earlier this month, Carol Rumens hymned the praises of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘startlingly experimental’ sonnet ‘The Windhover’. As Rumens points out, although the poem is intricate, metaphysical and allusive, it draws great energy from the straightforward but sensational description of a kestrel in flight:  “As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding/ Rebuffed the big wind.” 

I was reminded of the brilliant aptness of this imagery yesterday during a walk across the Castle Hill nature reserve, east of Brighton. No sooner had my friends and I climbed the gentle slope than we saw the kestrel hovering above the chalk grasslands. Behind us to the south-west, the city and the sea shimmered in the sun, but our eyes were fixed on the bird’s beautiful stillness. 

Around the corner and we were brutally back in the modern world, returned to what Wyndham Lewis called the ‘moronic inferno’. A burnt-out and abandoned car lay upended in an open field like some casually dispatched vermin. 

This invites the occult mind. Pic credit: Julian Cloran

 

This is not to say that all urban life is ugly while the country is a pastoral paradise. Later on, past Balsdean Farm, a dead sheep lay in a field, its eyes pecked out by crows. Only the wilfully innocent can ignore the fact that today’s cute lamb is tomorrow’s lunch. 

Beauty and brutality are handmaidens, as Hopkins knew:  “No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion/Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,/  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.” 

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Think before you bin the politicians’ bumf

As the general election lumbers ineluctably into view, householders across the United Kingdom must brace themselves for an avalanche of political leaflets. But hold on a minute before you bin the bumf.

According Richard Pope, web designer and political provocateur, there is a mine of unintended information in the annoying pamphlets littering your doormat. Pope told the meeting of the Brighton Future of News Group (BFONG) at the Skiff last night that careful monitoring of such material can prevent politicians getting away with murder.

Pope’s election leaflet project, The Straight Choice, is an attempt to turn the propaganda back on the spin doctors. He outlined a number of ways that journalists (and by implication any engaged citizen) can use leaflets to dig out inconvenient truths. Among these were:

  1. Track down ‘fake supporters’. Pope highlighted how a supposed group of British National Party members featured in one leaflet were, in fact, a group of Italian models whose photo the BNP had lifted from another source.
  2. Follow the money. A close reading of the small print detailing where the leaflet was printed can lead you to often surprising information about political donors.
  3. Spot the spoof: in a desperate attempt to snare your attention, the parties will dress up their dreary slogans as gossip magazine fodder. And you thought photos of celebs in front of their mantelpieces were dodgy – you ain’t seen nothing yet.
  4. Capture the contradictions. We all know that politicians of every stripe will promise the moon in order to get elected. But they trust us to forget about their lunar pledges as soon as we have tossed aside the handbill. Pope’s website aims to keep them on message and under the microscope.
  5. Splat the stats. It is amusing and instructive to compare the surreal use of statistics as politicians play the numbers game to support any policy they choose.

  

Pope was candid over his desire to see a party official lose a job over a gaffe highlighted by his website. A more measured ambition is to improve the quality of political debate – moving it away from gratuitous character attacks to sensible arguments over policy.

 Don’t fret, however, if you are not deluged with leaflets in the coming weeks  – this simply means that you live in an area where a donkey with the right rosette would find itself in Westminster. As Dan Wilson, who is campaigning for Nancy Platts in the Brighton Pavilion constituency, told the meeting, the prime purpose of leafleting is to gather names and addresses of each party’s supporters so they can get the vote out on the day. And he sucked the air out of the room when he suggested that the influence of newspapers on voting intentions is negligible.

“I’m not convinced that the Argus wields political influence,” he said.

It’s time politicos made their minds up about this.  They accuse newspaper owners of claiming the prerogative of the harlot in one breath and of inconsequence with the other. Inconsistency from our elected representatives? Perish the thought.

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Glazed and confused

Art gallery invitation

A new exhibition at the Ink_d gallery in Brighton promises a “selection of British artists who work in traditional methods but with a subversive nature and walk the fine line between craft and fine art.” I went along to the private view last night to see what kind incendiary material was on offer.

I suppose if you think the Iraq war was an unmitigated success and that fellatio is the epitome of decadence, then you might be irreversibly scandalized. Call me uncouth, but I found the show less shocking than Lady Gaga’s new video.

The first item I was confronted with was a vase by Dan Baldwin bearing the legend ‘Fuck Religion’. I ventured upstairs where a brass plaque by Lori Bell aka Lady Muck informed me that ‘Bankers are Wankers’. Within a matter of minutes I had absorbed two messages akin to the shocking information that Paris is the capital of France.

In the upstairs front room the Lichtensteinesque depictions of oral sex created by Carrie Reichardt aka The Baroness (what’s with all the aliases btw?) struck me as witty on first encounter, tedious on the second – like an acquaintance who insists on repeating the same salacious joke. And Nick Reynolds’ piggy banks have no place at all in this supposedly anarchistic company – they are irredeemably cute.

The point is that setting out to shock is a shaky strategy for the modern artist. We’ve seen Jeff Koons bring porn into the public gallery. Julian Schnabel’s numbskull plate paintings tested our patience ten years ago. Artists can’t go on provoking gasps with the same old routines. I guess a truly subversive artist would suggest that bankers are martyrs and that Jesus saves.

One artist of true power in the Ink_d show is Paul Scott. His Cumbrian Blues series features bucolic scenes which on closer inspection reveal unsettling significance. They are subtle and satisfying and they prove that the quietest voice often speaks with the most authority.

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Every flower enjoys the air it breathes

 

At the close of ‘Humboldt’s Gift’ by Saul Bellow, the narrator, Charlie Citrine visits Humboldt’s grave in New Jersey. Citrine’s friend, the redheaded tenor Menasha Klinger, spots tiny flowers struggling through the soil in the dreary cemetery. 

 “What do you suppose they’re called Charlie?” he asks. 

Citrine replies: “Search me. I’m a city boy myself. They must be crocuses.” 

Spring flowersI was reminded of this scene at the weekend during a walk through Kipling Gardens in Rottingdean. After a brutal winter in the UK it was stirring to see these harbingers of spring. It was freezing cold, though, in the wind – a reminder not to cast off the overcoat just yet. The gardens were originally an enclosed area surrounding The Elms, where Rudyard Kipling lived for five years from 1897 to 1902. As late as the mid-1980s the gardens were a wilderness. They were restored by the Rottingdean Preservation Society who then handed them over to the care of the council. The grounds feature a woodland garden; a rose garden; a small herb garden; and a chalk garden. Fans of croquet can enjoy the only formal lawn in the area. 

  

Sculpture in Kipling Gardens, Rottingdean. Photo credit: Julian Cloran

 

There seems little prospect of a spring-like revival in the reputation of Rudyard Kipling but it is worth noting that he was once the most feted poet and writer in the country. Indeed it was the pressure of his fame which led him, in part, to leave Rottingdean to seek a more secluded place to live. Today he is mainly known as a jingoistic booster of the British Empire. 

But Kipling genuinely broke new ground in his sympathetic portrayal of ordinary soldiers. At a time when our televisions show scenes of grief, as hundreds of people line the streets of Wootton Bassett to honour fallen servicemen, it is hard to imagine how soldiers were mocked, reviled and shunned by polite Victorian society. Kipling wrote: “For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’/ But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.” 

No help for heroes from Britain’s imperial rulers.

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Brian Eno launches the Brighton Festival

Brighton FestivalHow do you describe Brian Eno? Composer, producer, Renaissance man – and now guest artistic director for the upcoming Brighton Festival (May 1-23). Back in the day, Eno gained notoriety as the high-camp heart of the original Roxy Music line-up. On stage at the Brighton Dome today, at a press conference called to launch the festival, he proved a puckish presence dressed in a black jacket, silk turquoise shirt and black denim jeans. When he laughed – which he did often – he flashed a gold molar.

“We hanker after surrender,” he said. “Sex, drugs, art and religion are all forms of surrender. They give us the chance to lose ourselves.”

Another Eno aphorism: “The artist is a gardener – not fully in control. You plant a seed and you see what happens.”

One interesting fruit from his husbandry is ’77 Million Paintings’ which runs throughout the festival at the Fabrica gallery. Produced by ‘generative’ software, the installation features Eno’s hand-drawn images which are sliced and diced in limitless variations to an ambient soundtrack.

David Eagleman’s cult book ‘Sum: 40 Tales from the Afterlives’, which Eno described as ‘Borgesian’, provides the inspiration for a live performance at the Dome’s Concert Hall on May 22. Eno said it will feature the spoken word in a ‘sonically considered setting’ – almost a sung lecture.

At the Corn Exchange on May 16, the accent is on positive thinking as Eno presents a Panglossian take on our contemporary problems. “Our problems are so enormous,” he said, “that if we succeed in rethinking them we will have reinvented ourselves. You create the world you believe in.”

In the world Eno believes in, the singing voice is a central element. He became animated when discussing an evening of acapella on May 7. In particular he hymned the praised of the New York sextet Naturally 7. Here they are using their vocal cords to deliver a performance as overwhelming as any amped-up instruments.

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