Nobody should be surprised that I didn’t like Paul Emsley’s portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge. Still, in the interests of art and blogging I decided I better go to the National Portrait Gallery and see it. Some writers and viewers have said it looks better IRL, but it really doesn’t. I honestly have little more to say about it than it looks exactly like a reject passport photo.

Down the corridor in a separate room is a series of portraits by Humphrey Ocean that are infinitely more interesting and worthwhile seeing. Since 2006 he has made quick goache watercolours of friends, family, and visitors to his studio. He insists on only spending 30 minutes on each, to allow the spontaneity of the portrait to show. Ocean says that he wants to give the impression ‘I was there and I was with this person’.

It is this essence of personality, immediacy, and individuality present in Ocean’s paintings, that the Kate portrait lacks. Awkwardly posed, lumpy, and in thick vivid paint, Ocean manages to give more emotion in the two dabs of Rose’s eyes - shown above - than Emsley does in the whole of the Kate portrait. Then again, it was always going to be difficult for a warts-and-all painter to remove the warts and all from a sitter.

These portraits aren’t photographic reality, but their unreality makes them more real and emotional than Kate could ever be. If the choice was mine, I would much rather have my portrait done by Humphrey Ocean than Paul Emsley.

A Handbook of Modern Life is at the National Portrait Gallery, London until the 1st of September, 2013.



Prequels, sequels, and remakes are dangerous territory for any classic film. As such, I was anxious when last year I heard that Ridley Scott would be working on additions to two of my favourite films, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982).

Early on Scott made it clear that the Alien Prequel and Blade Runner sequel would be parallel storylines ‘set in the same universe’ as the originals, rather than direct chronological expansions. I was optimistic as this method would allow Scott to take the best parts from the originals and alter the storyline, but without seriously upsetting how the originals are viewed.

On Monday night, after months of seemingly endless trailers, teasers, and spoilers, I finally got to see Ridley Scott’s Alien ‘prequel’ attempt, Prometheus. Easily one of the most anticipated films of the year, I desperately wanted to love it. Unfortunately, I have to agree with nearly every other critic when I say that it was a very poor film. Those expecting a film in the vein of Alien (or even its progressively worse sequels) will be let down. Prometheus is an entirely different film to Scotts original claustrophobic, dystopian, psychosexual nightmare.

The comparisons with Alien are easy to draw as explicit references and subtle allusions to it are made. Much has been said of actor Noomi Rapace embodying Sigourney Weaver’s powerful Ripley. However Rapace’s character, Dr Elizabeth Shaw, simply isn’t the same. Doctor Shaw is a passive protagonist who never really commands - as Ripley does in Alien - even when she is awkwardly thrust into the lead role. I saw this as being down to the undeveloped relationships between the 13 strong cast of Prometheus. Scott should have known how successful a small cast is of achieving genuinely human interaction, as his intimate crew of 5 (6 including Jones the cat) does in Alien. Confusingly, in Prometheus Scott decided to make the crew strangers to one another. The chance for interaction is further compounded later on when the crew splits up, a few staying on the ship and the rest exploring the moon.

Aside from the weak lead, one of the most concerning and irritating aspects was that Scott found the need to explain the origin or background of trivial features. From the first scene of an alien sacrificing itself to produce life on earth, to the dead father story for Shaw, the film was distracted and confused by a multitude of plot points.

The reason I am concerned by this apparent need for ‘origins’ is because I fear Scott will apply the same approach to the Blade Runner sequel he is working on. Unlike Ben Child at The Guardian, it was the mysteries of Blade Runner that first captured me and continue to intrigue me with every viewing. The complexity of the film is built through hints and allusions, miniscule details that are never visited on screen. Rachael’s comments appear to suggest that leather products are illegal, the vagueness with which the design and creation of replicants is treated contributes to the questions on exactly how human they are, and of course it is never resolved whether Deckard himself is a replicant.

In my opinion, leaving the viewer to consider and imagine makes an infinitely more enjoyable film. My worry is that the Blade Runner sequel will be treated in the same cack-handed manner as Prometheus, and will lose the humanity, claustrophobia, and mystery that defines the original.



'Damien Hirst is weird'

This is the reaction fellow contributor Laura gave when I said I was visiting the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern. Months ago when I initially heard about the exhibition I was unsure whether to bother seeing it. Damien Hirst is far from my favourite artist, and his key works are so well known and reproduced that I seriously doubted whether seeing them IRL would allow me to consider them differently. It was only when a few friends invited me to a late viewing that I thought I ought to go and see it.

Viewing the exhibition at 9pm on a Sunday night we experienced it in a totally different way to most people. A friend who had seen it earlier had described queues stretching into the Turbine Hall, and said that actually viewing the artworks was nearly impossible. For us there were no crowds, the few people who were there clearly had a significant interest in the arts and I imagine they genuinely appreciated Hirst’s work. My friend George was one of these enthusiastic viewers, and he recognised I was less so. I have various problems with Hirst, which this exhibition only confirmed.

Hirst has always seen himself as a conceptual artist, however much of his work is marked by a sheer lack of concept. The low level of thought which has gone into its creation means the viewer will very rarely be challenged or forced to think critically. Like Thomas Kinkade’s work, Hirst’s is a very comforting art, easy to hate and easy to like. It is this ease of viewing that George actually finds appealing, for me, art which fails to make us think is the worst form of kitsch.

Hirst repeatedly works on the same weak concepts. The retrospective lacked variety, it felt like a single exhibition, rather than an overview of a lifetimes work. In repeatedly constructing pharmacy shelves, Hirst isn’t increasing the concept, merely his market value. The endless dot paintings are the archetypal Hirst work, mass produced and articulating one thought. Comparisons could be made with Mondrian, who likewise turned out dozens of similar abstract works, however seven decades have passed since Mondrian, and Hirst only appears to have just caught up. Perhaps though we should consider Hirst in context, the vapid vacuity of his work more suited to those halcyon days where the end of history was truth, not ideology.

The greatest problem I have with Hirst is what I see as an almost complete lack of irony. Hirst imagines himself a punk-artist or troll, operating some sort of accelerationist programme within the artworld. Instead, all I see is a sincere pandering to the ruling class and its various structures, institutions, and the state. Towards the end of the exhibition there is a room where Hirst has ‘ironically’ created new bejewelled versions of his classics. However I felt sincerity hadn’t been entirely eclipsed.


The few works I did enjoy were the ones involving living / dying animals - A Thousand Years (1990) and In and Out of Love (1991) - perhaps because they can’t be accurately replicated in images or videos. Even then though I felt that these works would be more suited to a Futurist exhibition in 1912 than 2012.

Ultimately it is the fame of Hirst supports and destroys him. The repetition of his works across all media is what has made him famous and justifies the obscene prices for his works, yet at the same time it devalues the art object. When I stood in front of the dead shark, it wasn’t the dead shark, but a dead shark, merely one of the hundreds of others I’ve seen in my life. I was glad that I went to the exhibition, precisely because it only confirmed my belief in the continual destruction of the artistic aura.


In the March 2012 ArtReview J.J. Charlesworth writes a short piece on the problems facing political art and artists in the current climate. This post expands on the shorter one I wrote the other day.

Charlesworth believes artists are making some of the most political work in decades, yet at the same time many appear to believe that the political content is of no consequence, and seem surprised when their work is censored. Artists are now finding that galleries are not the spaces for critical works, as the institutions themselves blunt the effectiveness of their message. All over Europe radical galleries have publicly funded budgets cut by governments, or corporate sponsors are questioning their support of explicitly anti-capitalist art. Will the Tate produce anything genuinely radical whilst supported by BP? - or any other company for that matter.

Charlesworth further believes that the radicalism we are seeing is merely a mirage. He states the West isn’t seeing the groundswell of organisation and mobilisation that would be expected of a crisis of such intensity. He sees art as essentially a sublimation of peoples’ revolutiuonary ideas; though art appears to become more radical, it is impotent as no action is taking place.

Essentially this is a criticism of the institution. The suggestion being that artists have to work outside the gallery or academy if they want to produce genuinely radical art. Similar arguments have been made for general political activism; whether it is desirable, or even possible, to work outside of institutions and social relations. Liberals have been criticised by the left for attempting political reform via the parliamentary system, the argument being that reform is impossible when the parameters of debate deliberately restrict radicalism. The Occupy movement has come under criticism from those on the right as well as left for essentially working within capitalism: Louise Mensch’s notable jibe at the protesters was that they couldn’t complain if they benefited from the results of capitalism, in their case, a cup of coffee. The response is that existing outside of capitalism is impossible, as capitalism is a set of social relations, not a ‘thing’ one can opt in and out of.

Unlike capitalism, it is genuinely possible to escape the gallery system. Working outside the institution in order to produce radical art has a long tradition in art history: The Impressionists, arguably the first modern art movement, was created by a disparate group of rebels who organised an art group based on the cooperative principles of a bakers’ union. They understood that the academies and the Salon would not tolerate the radical art they wanted to create. By working en plein air, literally and figuratively, outside of the academies they produced some of the most enduring works of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The reason Charlesworth fails to recognise a radical resistance is precisely because it is not working within the institutions. Instead of the the massed and easily identifiable movements of workers that the modernist 20th century saw, we are seeing smaller networks of radicalised people, relating to the precarious worker of post-Fordism. Forming and deforming on an ad hoc basis, but remaining in contact via the web and IRL; this anarchist or autonomist approach contrasts with the ‘traditional’ hierarchical and rigidly structured Leninist or Trotskyist party of the left. This decentralised form of organisation is not well recognised by the media, consider how the anti-workfare protests, largely organised by Boycott Workfare, were linked by the BBC and others to the SWP’s Right to Work front. With a lack of coverage (which should be expected as they are institutional media), it results that these new forms of political organisation are difficult to recognise.

We see a similar organisational form appearing in the Arts. The most radical contemporary work is being created by groups working outside the institution, groups such as Auto Italia, the DSG, and to a less political but more practical sense The Photocopy Club. Formal groups need not even be formed, individual artists, linked by the Internet are collaborating together on an ad hoc basis.

What differentiates these groups and links from institutions? What I am suggesting is not that organisation itself is wrong, but that the organisational form of the institution is wrong. The institution demands an orthodoxy in order to sustain its form, and orthodoxy inevitably results in an inevitably reactionary artform. It is only through autonomous networks that art can be made truly radical. Artists looking to create emancipatory art should look outside the gallery and in the plein air.



The realisation that one lives in a modern world comes about in many ways. For many the process has not begun, they move through life, feeling what Marshall Berman describes as the ‘terror of disorientation and disintegration, of life falling apart’, but unaware of its significance. If you want to see what modernity is, then few works express it better than the three pieces that comprise Euan Macdonald’s micro exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. The show is beautiful in its simplicity, and prompted a more intense contemplation on modernity than many books or articles I have recently read.

Macdonald’s work is very much concerned with the auditory experience, the exhibition space designed so that the cacophony of his short film 9000 Pieces (2010) is experienced long before you reach it. The work is a futurist-like nightmare, a looped five minute projection of a machine designed to hit the keys of a piano in order to push it to its breaking limit, in what is clinically termed ‘a repetition and responsiveness test’. The new piano, a piece of venerated craftsmanship, is thrown into a battle of machines, it is pushed to its limits, broken if needs be, by an automaton that plays not in order to create beautiful music, but to deliberately wreck the weak to ensure only the strong survive. It is the competition of daily life, in which the alienated worker is forced to engage. The noise produced is contradictory, seemingly chaotic yet arising from an instrument of order and harmony. Occasionally a melody filters through the madness, but it is soon lost in the utter confusion of the city, the noise of traffic, of relentless war, of the trading floor, of the disturbed mind. Imitating the factory and the process of mass production, Macdonald initially shows only the component parts of the machine, revealing more through montage, assembling the final product. Interspersed between shots of the frantic machine is a counting clock, which racks the tension to almost unbearable levels. I wished it to stop, yet it continued. As it finally and abruptly finished I walked into the adjacent room, aware due to the piercing screech that this next film had already started.

Brakestand (1998) is a fifteen minute looped video of the artist sat in a BMW with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake, the rear wheels spin helplessly, whining and burning as the car remains stationary. With this single motionless act dominating the entire film, Macdonald contradicts the purpose of both car and video. Instead of a narrative or journey he provides a meditative experience, I sat and watched and knew it won’t end for another 14 minutes, but sat anyway. The work is described by the artist as a comment on the economy and consumerism, made in 1998 it remains particularly relevant given the current crisis. I also took the film to be an attack on ‘common sense’, the fallacy that pervades all economic and cultural debate. We expect, we know, that at some point the car will rush forwards, but it never does. As with 9000 Pieces I was held in perpetual anticipation. What I knew was right was shown to be false.

As I exited I walked past Ritardando a poco a poco (2010), a long musical score of the earlier work 9000 Pieces, made by watching slow motion footage of the machine and transcribing the notes as best as possible. I had earlier rushed past this work, but looking at it again I now understood its significance. It is the position we find ourselves in, it is the inherently flawed and pointless task of retrospectively analysing what has happened. Based on fragmentary evidence it gives not a precise explanation of what occurred nor what will occur. The pointlessness of the score is the pointlessness of the many attempts to produce a single objective understanding of the world.

Leaving the gallery, the sounds of the films become a memory, and standing amidst the silent concrete of the south bank the truth of it all comes clear. Modern life is horrible; disconcerting, repulsive, vile to the ears and mind. We are immiserated, alienated, and the machines we are told will free us merely accelerate the process. We engage in the fruitless tasks of attempting to understand the past with fragmentary evidence, when only lived experience will provide answers. Our expectations that things will change is toyed with, and ultimately shown to be false. The only way the chaos will ever stop and things will move forward is if we take direct action, run at the screen, smash the factory, and grab the leg from the brake.

At the Hayward Gallery until the 14th of February.