Antigone, National Theatre

June 5, 2012

Christopher Eccelston as Creon, with Jodie Whittaker as Antigone

The downfall of a leader who has the arrogance to believe his views are the wishes of God and so rules against the will of his people: now there’s a cautionary tale for our times. Sophocles’s tragedy may be 2,500 years old, but there is much timely relevance to mine here in the National’s new production of Antigone.

The third of the Theban plays is about as pitch as tragedy gets. Creon succeeds to the throne on the death of his two nephews, who die fighting each other for the succession. In his role as newly appointed leader, Creon decrees that the brother who died defending his country will receive a proper burial, and the other will not. Furthermore, anyone who attempts to bury the disgraced brother will face death. Step up Antigone, sister to the two brothers.

The horror of the piece is further impounded by the familial history entangling the characters. Antigone and her siblings are the offspring of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta, while Creon is the brother of Jocasta and therefore Antigone’s Uncle. Antigone happens to be romantically involved with her cousin Haemon, Creon’s son.

Director Polly Findlay sets the play in a concrete military bunker in what could be the 1970s. As the action unfolds, a tableau is struck – a group of leaders captured as they watch two men killed on a screen. It is a near exact recreation of that Osama bin Laden photograph, complete with a blonde-bobbed Zoe Aldrich as Creon’s wife Eurydice, temporarily evoking Secretary of State Clinton, in the much-discussed hands-over-her-mouth pose.

It’s a bold opener, and the modern day references continue. The large state portrait hanging over the scene evokes an American President, maybe George W Bush. The madness, the delusion, the destruction and the killing could refer to any number of modern day leaders from Mugabe to Assad.

But surely the finger points most deliberately towards Tony Blair. The man accused of eroding a democracy, of reducing a cabinet where he was ‘first amongst equals’ to the point where it became almost a dictatorship. As Creon stands in the final scenes, covered in the blood of his niece, son and wife, whose deaths are directly attributed to his decree and unmoveable belief that he alone is right, one cannot help but think of Blair, the bloodshed in Iraq, and even David Kelly and 7/7. Much has been made of Blair’s conversion to Catholicism and his admission that he turned to God when deciding whether or not to send troops into Iraq. Here Creon similarly quotes God in his decision to condemn Antigone. And the Blair parallels resonate throughout Don Taylor’s text; there is much talk of the state, of terror and terrorism here, and of two dead young men – one who can be buried honourably as a soldier who patriotically died fighting for his country, the other a traitor who attacked his own people.

Christopher Eccleston is supremely, unremittingly evil as the deluded despot Creon. Surrounded by a chorus of yes men, he commands the stage with ferocious energy – his body and speech acting in opposition to each other to create a lively, jangling realism. Jodie Whittaker shines, but never quite tugs at the heartstrings, as the solid, determined martyr Antigone, and Luke Newberry turns in a convincing, impassioned performance as her lover, and son of Creon, Haemon.

But ultimately, the modern-day conceit never quite comes off. The actors and the action are somehow confined by the millennia old format: the long monologues, interspersed with the chorus responses; the one set; the bloodshed taking place off stage. It all adds up to leave the actors caged and restricted, so that the piece never fully comes to life, but remains flat and two dimensional. Eccelston’s brilliant, nuanced delivery of the language manages to transcend, and his performance is worth the ticket price alone, but he is the only actor to really successfully do this.

The unwillingness to root the play decisively in any one decade, era, country or regime, leaves the audience dangling; the modern-day parallels hinted at, but never quite confirmed. When Creon announces that Antigone will be buried alive, the Blair analogy is shattered, and suddenly we are transported to Saudi Arabia perhaps, where women are still stoned to death. Eccleston and Whittaker’s Northern accents befuddle things further. It’s all a bit confusing and unsatisfying.

A full modern-day update is never fully realised, as the play is still centred on the Greek belief system. Antigone is willing to go to her death to secure a holy burial for her brother. When Tiresias, the blind prophet, tells Creon of his visions and prophecies, such is the Greek belief in the power of the Gods to damn for all time, that Creon quickly performs an about-turn. Central tenets such as this are never fully integrated into the setting and thus constantly return to jar and alienate this modern proposal.

Antigone continues at The National Theatre until July 21 (020 7452 3000,

The Avett Brothers: I and Love and You

April 4, 2010

Scott and Seth are two North Carolinian brothers, who, five albums and two EPs in, have hit the big time with this Rick Rubin-produced major label debut. The pair take turns on vocals and songwriting duties, crafting tight piano ballads, coloured with bluegrass, 60s beat pop and indie rock (“Kick Drum Heart”). Following the Rubin formula, the songs are stripped down, perfectly formed packages. It’s hard not to succumb to the relentless stream of rousing choruses and simple chord patterns, but this is a series of brash mainstream hits rather than an album to cherish.

This piece first appeared in Observer Review.

A review of the decade in UK feminism

March 31, 2010

When Labour entered parliament 13 years now, they coasted in on a wave of optimism, sound-tracked by D:Ream’s ‘Things can only get better’. But when it comes to women, have things got better over the past decade or worse?

With all female shortlists leading to the most women MPs in the UK ever, doubling from 60 in 1992 to 120 in 1997, it was expected that the Labour government would bring about a revolution for women. Yet despite the surge in female MPs, female representation in the UK parliament is still only 19.4 %, lower than in Bulgaria (21.7 %).

It is clear that for women to effect real change in politics, a critical mass is needed, and less than a fifth just isn’t enough. For services to women Harriet Harman has become a modern day witch to be burnt at the stake. The day after she attacked The Sun’s record on women’s rights at the Labour party conference in October last year, the same newspaper featured a topless model called ‘Harriet’ from Peckham, Harman’s constituency, giving her views on employment. Against this backdrop it’s not surprising that Labour wins for women have been slight and a frustratingly long time coming. In 1997 women hoped for so much, but so few of our dreams have been fulfilled.

If the Eighties are seen as the decade of the power suit, the Noughties could be seen as the decade of the high-profile sex-discrimination lawsuit. In 2003 Sian Heard and Sian Fellows won £7m between them after a partner at City law firm Sinclair, Roche and Temperley told them ‘The firm should sack you all and get in some better-looking recruits rather than you old bags.’ In 2005 1,600 women who worked for Cumberland Infirmary and West Cumbria hospital won between £35,000 and £200,000 each, in a case of fair pay for comparative work.

But despite these victories little seems to have changed. Women working full time still earn on average 17 % less than men per hour, either through being paid less to do the same job, or because jobs seen as traditionally female are devalued.

When it comes to work and children, women still find themselves between a rock and a hard place. The Fawcett Society estimates that 30,000 women a year lose their jobs in the UK by becoming pregnant, and Labour have recently backtracked on their pledge to extend paid maternity leave to year. Instead men will have the right to take three months of paid paternity leave in the second six months of their child’s life, but only if the mother returns to work. There is little shift to accommodate flexible working hours and job sharing, so that women, who often do the majority of childcare, lose out again by being forced to downgrade their jobs to poorer paying part time work.

London Feminist Network on the Million Women Rise march 2008
London Feminist Network on the Million Women Rise march, 2008

The government’s Equality Bill is pending, but this does little other than unify and simplify existing employment law into one act. There is a ‘duty’ on large companies to publish pay disparities between the men and women they employ, but no legal compulsion, and no extension to all UK businesses. What seems patently clear is that in order to achieve equal pay we need a legal compulsion for every company to publish the salaries of all their employees by gender annually. As long as women occupy such a fragile space in the workplace they will not feel safe to speak out on issues of sexual harassment, flexible working hours and jobs sharing, and so the culture of misogynist workplaces will continue.

Women are just about holding on to our right to a safe, legal abortion in this country, but despite decades of campaigning and favourable public opinion, there has been no move to remove the need to get the signature of two doctors, nor have women in Northern Ireland gained the right to free, legal abortions in their country.

Labour came to power with a clear manifesto to embrace the free market, committed to doing whatever it took to allow businesses, and by extension, the UK economy to prosper. Like rules on 24 hour drinking, the 2003 Licensing Act swept away much bureaucracy and red tape for business. But crucially for women this meant lap dancing clubs could now be licensed in the same way as cafes, so that since 2004 clubs have doubled to over 300 in the UK.

Labour’s move to the right and 1997 election came at a cost to its traditional voters. Broadly speaking the Labour government as a whole has let down those women who need the most help and support – particularly low-income single mothers and female asylum seekers, this is a cost of being in the pocket of big business and striving to please the middle classes.

Benefits for lone parents were slashed in 1997 and last year Labour changed the law so that all lone parents have to come off income support by the time their youngest child is seven, where previously it was 12. Labour’s recent pre-election pledge to place all teenage mothers in a ‘network of supervised homes’ has been compared to Victorian reformatories and penitentiaries for fallen women.

The idea behind all government policy in single-parenting is that ‘work is the best way out of poverty’ which is fantasy and contrary to the latest research. A 2007 report by the OECD found that Britain has the worst benefits trap for women. A single mother re-entering employment has to forfeit 101.3 per cent of her wages through extra tax, childcare costs, and relinquished benefits payouts. Jean Phillipe Cotis, the OECD’s chief economist stated: ‘Quite simply, it’s not really rewarding to re-enter the workforce if you are either a lone parent or a second earner. We are basically forbidding a lot of women from going back into work.’

Labour’s record on female asylum seekers is similarly bad. Currently women asylum seekers who do not have indefinite leave to remain in this country cannot access many of the things other women take for granted, such as free healthcare when pregnant and maternity benefits, and crucially for a group so at risk of domestic violence they cannot seek refuge in a women’s aid shelter because the spaces are government funded for UK residents only. The UK is letting down the very women who are the most in need of our help – those who have suffered and are at risk of rape, domestic violence, so-called honour killings and female genital mutilation, which is a shameful situation.

When faced with the effects of legislation of the last three Labour governments, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that their interpretation of liberalism and libertarianism has been bad for those who are oppressed or belong to a minority. Ditto, when it comes to the biggest revolution of the decade, nay the last 100 years, which is of course the internet; is it a free, liberating super invention, or an unregulated, out of control breeding ground for hatred? The biggest revolution of the decade, nay the last 100 years, is of course the internet. But is it a free, liberating super invention, or an unregulated, out of control breeding ground for hatred?

For feminists, the internet has provided a brilliant means of organising, communicating and gathering for action, through email, e-groups and social networking sites. Free publishing with unlimited space has allowed feminist expression to flourish through blogs and alternative news and comment sites such as feministing in America and The F Word in the UK.

And yet, the anonymity of the internet has created a free frontier which is largely misogynistic. Far from being a haven for minorities, the internet, in many spaces, is a world where bigotry is exaggerated, not diminished. You only have to look at Comment is Free, the user interactive sphere of the Guardian to see that the internet is largely the empire of the white, middle class, English-speaking male.

Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to pornography, and the facts are not cheering. 25 % of all internet searches are porn related. The porn industry generates approximately £30bn worldwide; double that of the mainstream film industry. Mainstream porn video production has increased exponentially in the past ten years; it’s pervasive output increasingly extreme and violent, showing women being harmed, degraded and humiliated both verbally and physically. A quick Google search reveals that mainstream porn is no longer a video of reader’s wives or a naked Playboy centrefold. Acts previously seen as extreme, such as multiple penetration and ass-to-mouth penetration are now rarely exempt from mainstream porn, much of it available for free.

Amidst this increased acceptance of sexualised violence towards women, perceptions among the general public, and therefore by extension juries, are still that women are somehow responsible for rape and sexual violence. Studies show that after viewing pornography men are more likely to report decreased empathy for rape victims, believe that a woman who dresses provocatively deserves to be raped, experience anger at women who flirt but then refuse to have sex, report decreased sexual interest in their girlfriends or wives and report increased interest in coercing partners into unwanted sex acts.

This gradual liberalisation has led to the acceptance of the “pornification” of women generally – in music videos, on billboard advertising and in mainstream films. American journalist, Ariel Levy, documented the phenomenon in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, but unrestrained by America’s religious right “family values” brigade, the UK has this wall-to-wall objectification of women can be seen to greatest effect on our streets and in our shops.

The Nineties gave birth to Laddism and a new genre of publication – the lads mag. 20 years after Clare Short published a collection of letters from constituents imploring her to do something about Page 3, one page in a daily newspaper has mutated into two weekly magazines full of such images, largely purchased by teenage boys. Nuts and Zoo, displayed at toddler eye-level in most family supermarkets, include campaigns such as a competition for male readers to win breast implants for their girlfriends.

Object Feminist Friday, January 2010
Object Feminist Friday, January 2010

Pornography is distorting the sexualities of young people experiencing sex for the first time. Girls are coming under increased pressure to wax their pubic hair off entirely, have their faces ejaculated on and take part in ever more extreme acts. It’s unsurprising then that there has been an explosion in women seeking cosmetic surgery and women with eating disorders and other self-esteem related issues.

This misogyny has become so mainstream that women are increasingly perpetuating misogyny against themselves. Nowhere is this compulsion for women to view each other as enemies, to divide and conquer, stronger than in the new celebrity landscape of gossip magazines and websites. No part of a woman’s body, personality or personal life is safe from criticism, and women are encouraged to develop hatred and self-disgust of themselves and other women.

In wider society, despite the joyous outpouring of the Riot Grrrl movement, white, privileged, male culture presides. In the UK most heads of public arts institutions are men, yet the industry is disproportionately female. Of the top 16 theatres in the UK, only four have a female artistic director and it wasn’t until 2008 that the first original play by a female playwright was shown on the National Theatre’s main stage. Less than 10 % of UK film directors are women, the National Gallery only owns ten paintings by women and women artists make up just 13 % of the Tate’s collection. Women are grossly underrepresented in parliament, the judiciary and the boardroom. Just four financial directors of FTSE 100 companies are women.

But if progress for women has been poor on issues of pay and equality, when it comes to male violence against women the feminist activists of the Seventies must be horrified. Amidst a dropping crime rate for most offences such as burglary, murder and muggings, the British Crime Survey 2009 showed a 5 % increase in reported rapes. In the 1970s there were rape conviction rates of up to 32 % in the UK, now it stands at a low of just 6 %. Two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner and one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, yet this pandemic of male violence against women goes largely unreported in the media.

There are massive shortcomings in the police treatment of and failure to prioritise cases of violence against women and sexual assault. Earlier this year the Independent Police Complaints Commission found that a Detective Constable in charge of the Worboys attacks did not believe a woman who had been raped because he had ‘formed a mindset that a black cab driver would not commit such an offence.’ Given these shortcomings is it any wonder that the police are often accused of institutional sexism?

Compounding the situation is the crisis in rape crisis funding – ten years ago there were 80 rape crisis centres in the UK, that has now more than halved to just 39 and many are struggling to keep their doors open through lack of central and local government funding.

In contrast while men are getting away with murder and have impunity from rape, statistics released in November last year revealed that in the past decade the number of women in prison has increased by more than 50 % – hitting a record 8,862 in 2008. The Daily Mirror reported that ‘More than two thirds were jailed for non-violent offences, despite guidelines that it be used only for serious crimes.’

So as the decade closes we are faced with a depressing prospect. We have achieved precisely none of the seven original demands of the women’s liberation movement outlined at the Birmingham conference in 1978. Attacked, harassed and under siege from male violence, it is little wonder that women are finding it hard to speak out. But a growing movement is doing just that.

Object on the Million Women Rise March 2009
Object on the Million Women Rise march, 2009

Earlier this month thousands of women took to the streets of London for Million Women Rise – a march calling for an end to male violence against women. Every November thousands of women march to end male violence against women on Reclaim the Night marches across the UK. A key supporter is the campaigning group Object, a canny mixture of grass-roots activism and political lobbying is leading to real legislative change.

If the Noughties were a decade of feminist resurgence, then the last year of that decade, 2009, could be seen as feminism’s big year out. Despite the many obstacles facing them Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith and Fiona Mactaggart presided over three key pieces of legislation, which will be seen as Labour’s legacy for women.

Following a two-year consultation, Labour launched its Violence Against Women and Girls strategy, which included among other things provision for classes on domestic violence as part of the national curriculum. Harman also announced a drop in domestic violence incidents by 64 % in July 2009 as well as an increase in convictions by 25 %, but Women’s Aid dispute the way this data is gathered and suggest a far higher incidence of unreported cases.

By far the most significant win for women for many years, has been a small clause in the Policing and Crime Bill (2008-9) lobbied for by Object and Eaves. For the first time ever, the law is moving away from criminalising prostituted women and towards criminalising those who pay to abuse them. Clause 14 of the Crime and Policing Bill states that those who use women who are controlled for gain, through trafficking, drug addiction or any other form of coercion, will be prosecuted, whether they knew about the coercion or not. It’s a tiny step on the way to criminalising all those who abuse prostituted women and offering funding for safe exit strategies, rehabilitation and housing, as enacted in Sweden and Norway, but those who have been campaigning on this issue for years know what a significant step this is in changing the cultural mindset towards prostituted women.

Object also fought a two-year campaign to stop the proliferation of lap dancing clubs. The stripping the illusion campaign, in association with Fawcett Society, successfully pushed through legislation to ensure that lap dancing clubs are now licensed as ’sex encounter establishments’ like sex shops and cinemas, rather than in the same way as cafes.

Another 2009 success was the overturning of the provocation defence. This defence has traditionally been used in murder cases by men who have killed their female partner and successfully downgraded a charge of murder to manslaughter by arguing that their violence was not premeditated, but a crime of ‘passion’ as a result of a woman asking for a divorce, revealing an affair or even nagging.

Frustratingly, just as Labour seems to be taking some tiny steps which could be built upon to achieve something really momentous, it looks like things will regress with the imminent arrival of a Conservative government. Amidst huge resistance to the final introduction of Conservative party all-female shortlists, just one female member of the Conservative shadow cabinet (Teresa May) and many stridently anti-feminist Conservative female MPs, it looks like the feminist fight is about to get harder.

If the Eighties were a decade of backlash against the feminist achievements of the Seventies, then the Nineties can be seen as the decade of ‘fake feminism’ with lies such as ‘we’ve never had it so good’ and ‘women are having it all’ trotted out to placate women. In the wake of Thatcherism we had the ugly and damaging twin evils of ‘ladette’ culture and ‘girl power’. Noughties feminism saw those consumerist male led moments for what they were. Women are organising and demonstrating on a scale unheard of ten years ago and it’s clear that there is a growing surge of feminist activism and female anger.

So here’s to the Noughties – a decade of growth and gathering for feminism. A decade that thanks to the proliferation of porn, has increased our challenges and made our battle harder. Our victories may seem slight, but there’s no doubt that change is a coming.

This piece first appeared on TMP online.

Akron/Family, The Garage, November 17th

November 24, 2009

Akron/Family are a band guaranteed to make you feel good. First there are the compliments: ‘You’re so polite. You’re so intelligent. You’re so spiritually advanced. You’re so sexy,’ cooed Seth Olinsky spreading well-being across the small crowd at London’s Garage.

Then there is the uplifting atmosphere they create. It’s practically impossible to leave an Akron/Family gig without joining in a communal hand clap. The band are famous for their riotious sing along complete with audience choreography to the nonsensical feelgood of ‘Circle, triangle, square (yeah, yeah, yeah yeah, yeah)’, filmed here spilling onto the street outside Emo’s at SXSW 2008:

Since Ryan Vanderhoof departed two years ago to join a Buddhist Dharma Centre, the band have performed as a threesome. Drummer Dana Janssen, guitarist Seth Olinsky and bassist Miles Seaton took turns on vocals, and for the final half an hour they were joined by a flautist, saxophonist and trumpeter.

With the tie dyed bastardised American flag seen on the cover of their fifth album, Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free, pinned up behind them, stripey shawls draped over their mixing desks and obligatory sweatbands and beards in place, the scene evoked band practice in a student’s bedroom.

They played a diverse set moving from African inflected tribal drumming and township guitars of River and Ed is a Portal to bouncy dance beats, Indian rhythms and various prolonged psychedlic wig outs.

Yet things didn’t quite descend into the delicious chaos the band are capable of, instead we got protracted noodling. Perhaps the crowd was too sparse and too polite, perhaps it was because the vocals were so low in the mix they were barely audible, maybe 12 dates into a 20 date European and Antipodean tour the band are weary and homesick.

Akron/Family still sprinkled their warmth and joy across us frosty Brits, but those who came with the hope of partying on the streets must have been bitterly disappointed when the band left without so much as a goodbye or whiff of an encore.

This piece first appeared on Drowned in Sound

Seasick Steve: Man From Another Time

October 18, 2009


“Why do you wanna listen what I got to say?” asks Seasick Steve on this album’s title track. The former hobo pensioner, embraced for his colourful backstory as much as his music, asks a good question. Songs about riding the freights, roaming the States, doing time and casual labour veer dangerously close to hollow self-parody, but when he sings of the present – driving about on his vintage John Deere tractor, and his wife and anchor, Elisabeth, we get the raw emotion he is famed for. Best of all is “The Banjo Song”, a mournful soliloquy on his wandering spirit as death moves ever closer.

This piece first appeared in Observer Review

Wedlock by Wendy Moore

September 20, 2009


It is the late 18th century and Mary Eleanor Bowes, great-great-great grandmother of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, future wife of George VI, is about to embark on her second marriage. But like a modern-day celebrity millionaire, Bowes is hostage to her vast fortune. Tricked by some elaborate play acting, she finds herself married into a relentless eight-year sentence of violence and mental torture. Wedlock is meticulously researched and Moore, mistress of suspense, writes in the gripping language of a thriller so the pages flash past. This book has it all – the blackest of villains, the strongest friendship, kidnap, abortions, riches and all completely true. Ripe for film adaptation.

This piece first appeared in Observer Review

Radical Nature, Barbican art gallery

September 10, 2009
 Agnes Denes: Wheatfield – A Confrontation, 1982 Two acres of wheat planted and harvested in Battery Park landfill, downtown Manhattan. Commissioned by Public Art Fund, New York City. Photograph: © Agnes Denes. Courtesy the artist

Agnes Denes: Wheatfield – A Confrontation, 1982 Two acres of wheat planted and harvested in Battery Park landfill, downtown Manhattan. Commissioned by Public Art Fund, New York City. Photograph: © Agnes Denes. Courtesy the artist

Mounting an exhibition about the environment in one of the most built up, densely populated areas of one of the most built up, densely populated cities in the world may seem a provocative decision.  But this overdue survey of environmental art featuring 25 artists or collectives, from the big hitters of the Land Art movement to idealists and environmental crusaders is a perfect fit for London’s Barbican centre.

Built 27 years ago, and blown in on the same optimistic wind of Sixties idealism that gave birth to Land Art, the Barbican, all mass concrete and architectural ‘brutalism’ provides an oasis of calm amidst the urban sprawl; a contrasting backdrop against which to consider our relationship with nature.

Providing the centre-point of the exhibition is the work of Richard Buckminster Fuller, presented as the unlikely grandfather of the Land Art movement. Inside a wooden geodesic dome plays Modelling Universe (1976), a beautifully shot 15-minute interview in which the architect explains his philosophies and life’s work. Sharing his joy and wonder in nature and the universe Fuller explains; ‘I’m not trying to imitate nature, I’m trying to discover and employ the principles she’s using’. Baffled by the human penchant for building with cubes, Fuller examined the tessellated shapes and complex patterns found in nature, and invented a geodesic dome made of triangles; ‘the most stable shape in the universe’. Notable exceptions to the human cube fixation can of course be found among cultures living closest to nature: the yurts of the Central Asian nomads and the tipis of the Native American Indians, or the often rounded dwellings built by utopian communities in the Sixties and Seventies.

The latter are the inspiration for I Am So Sorry. Goodbye (2008) created outside in the Barbican courtyard by the British partnership Heather and Ivan Morison. The wooden structure consists of two interconnecting domes constructed from tessellated triangles, roughly clad with split logs and built using the same principles as Fuller’s dome. Inside there are tables and stools fashioned from logs and an invigilator serving hibiscus tea in little white china beakers. Nine of the triangles are left open, offering peepholes on to the lake and plants beyond. Designed as a ‘tea house’ this is the perfect hideaway to sit and chat or read to the sound of nearby rushing water as sunlight reflects off the water and ripples across the inside walls.

If some artists in this exhibition explore the serendipity found when humans understand and work with nature, others refer to what happens when we don’t. American artist Mark Dion’s Mobile Wilderness Unit – Wolf (2006) is a comment on our dangerous detachment from nature and the arrogance of believing we can treat it as a commodity. An artist interested in taxonomy and classification, Dion displays a stuffed wolf on a small open trailer; shiny silver, clean and utterly man made. The wolf stands on fake grass, moss and shrubbery – a pathetic recreation of its natural habitat. With no glass case surrounding the work, the viewer can stand millimetres away from the wolf and stare deep into its eyes. The effect is frightening and humbling; a reminder that nature isn’t a part-time leisure pursuit featuring Hunter wellies, tea lights and plastic garden chairs.

Similarly Simon Starling’s Island For Weeds (2003) highlights the human capability for foolishness when it comes to nature. Imported into the UK as an ornamental beauty in the late eighteenth century, rhododendrons have become so invasive in Scotland that they are now seen as a weed. Starling presents a floating island, offering ‘space for the rejected plant to grow freely’. The rhododendrons rest in their own personal flowerbed – a metal tray with floats ready to be pushed out into a lake and anchored with chain weights and oil drums.

Meter (2009) sees Scottish artist Anya Gallaccio bring an entire tree into the gallery – cut into sections, then reassembled and held in place with wire tethers, screws brutally rammed into the bark. Swedish artist Henrik Hakansson goes one step further and uproots an entire section of tropical rain forest. His Fallen Forest (2006) is tipped over so the trees appear to grow horizontally rather than vertically.

Bringing nature into an art gallery in this wholesale manner is certainly striking, but perhaps not the most enduring demonstration of the human appetite for environmental destruction. Expressing this with far more power is LA based collective The Center For Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), founded in 1994. The group exist to research and disseminate information about land through databases, lectures, bus tours, photographs and publications. Shown as part of Radical Nature, is The Trans Alaska Pipeline (2008) – 38 minutes of beautiful still images and brief text accompanied by an undulating cacophony of piano and strings. The group travelled the length of the 800-mile oil pipe taking photos from start to finish. Much like films such as Our Daily Bread, which shows various food processes from ground to plate, this documents a process key to human existence that most of us can only ever imagine.

The pipeline attracted much controversy when it was built in the early Seventies from environmental campaigners and native Alaskans, concerned both about wildlife and land rights. The film reveals that the public are not allowed access to the sea because of the oil drilling, while graffiti on the pipeline reads ‘You went too far north’. Although the text contains only bare facts about the pipeline, such as how many people work there and what shifts they do, the film grips and mesmerises with what seems like secret information, forcing us to question whether this is what’s best for the Alaskan wilderness.

The exhibition also contains examples of artists who play with nature, where the environmental agenda is often more understated. Interventions and interactions include remnants of the Joseph Beuys piece Honeypump In The Workplace (1977), in which he pumped honey through plastic tubes using a motor lubricated by margarine. The transformative, energy giving properties of these materials attracted Beuys in much the same way that the texture and temporality of rocks attracted perhaps one of the most revered Land Art practitioners; Robert Smithson. Film documentation of his Spiral Jetty (1970), the huge 15 foot wide now salt encrusted rock coil he created in the Great Salt Lake, Utah, is shown here alongside Yucatan Mirror Displacement (1969) – fragments of mirror photographed against the diverse colours and textures found in the forest of Yucatan, Mexico.

Also included is the early, less political work of the seminal German artist Hans Haacke; evolving pieces using liquids, seeds and animals. His mound of turf, Grass Grows (1969), is recreated here alongside photo documentation of work such as Ten Turtles Set Free (1970), in which he released endangered pet shop turtles back into the wild, Chickens Hatching (1969) and his Rhine Water Purification Plant (1972), which transformed the polluted water of the Rhine into water clean enough for goldfish to swim in.

Danish artist Tue Greenfort is perhaps the most playful practitioner exhibited here and the only one to investigate what happens when the tables turn and nature becomes dependant on the urban environment. His set of animal ‘self-portraits’, DaimlerstraBe 38 (2001), in which a frankfurter is planted as bait to lure a fox into detonating a hidden camera are a humorous delight.

Adding a political dimension to artistic interventions in nature are R&Sie (n), Paris based architects who take their cue from artists like Haacke and Smithson to create structures that grow and evolve. Symbiosishood (2009) is a proposal to cover a former minefield on the border of North and South Korea with an invasive plant, so that the site of such destruction becomes invisible and boundaries are blurred. Shown here are drawings, a three dimensional digital animation and a scale model of the site.

Human obsession with land owning and the prohibitive nature of planning permission is something that has increasingly concerned utopian groups and artists since the Sixties, with many who try to live at one with nature, such as the residents of Wales’s Teepee Valley and Tinker’s Bottom in Somerset being obstructed by the very governments who urge us to consume less and be more ecological.

The Ant Farm collective, active in San Francisco between 1968 and 1978 and most famous for their line of Cadillacs half buried in the desert, imagined alternative extra-territorial structures, such as their floating Dolphin Embassy (1974-8). The artists promoted their idea of interspecies communication to both humans and dolphins. Documentation, including drawings of the structure, promotional booklets, clothing, pin badges and business cards are all on display, alongside photographs of their efforts. In one Jim Nollman and Nancy Caldewood float on a raft in the sea of Cortez, Mexico, 1977, playing instruments to the dolphins. In another Doug Michels explains the idea with the use of a sketchpad to a dolphin in a tank. If their ultimate aim for humans and dolphins to communicate through ‘psychic methods’ seems faintly laughable and rooted in the outdated hippy ideals of their era, thirty years on their basic notion of human harmony with nature is undeniably mainstream.

Argentinean Tomas Saraceno also seeks to transcend borders and the concept of a nation state through his visions of alternative, often floating, utopias. 3 x 12 MW (2007/9) is part of his ‘airport city’ concept, a conjoined network of cells that use solar energy to float. With no border restrictions Saraceno imagines a world where synergy is encouraged between people and nations. The giant floating bubbles, crossed with ropes and weighed down with other bubbles filled with water, hover deliciously against the massive concrete pillars running through the gallery space.

Ideas about reclaiming land and taking on big business are nowhere better demonstrated than in Agnes Denes utterly breathtaking Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982). The Hungarian artist planted and harvested two acres of wheat in New York, on land worth $4.5 bn, in the shadow of the city’s imposing financial district. Shown here are amazing photographs of the golden wheat juxtaposed against the statue of liberty and skyscrapers, including the twin towers. There are also beautiful conical ink drawings showing a fir forest planted by the artist in Finland – Tree Mountain (1992-96), but it is the astonishing image of Denes standing in the middle of her wheat field, staff in hand, the iconic New York skyline as her backdrop, which burns into the retina long after leaving the exhibition. The piece was recreated for this exhibition on wasteland in Dalston, east London.

Operating in New York at the same time as Denes was Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Her manifesto to celebrate and explore everyday processes led her to shake hands with every one of the city’s ‘sanmen’ and thank them personally for their work dealing with the city’s sewage, in her famous piece Touch Sanitation (1970-80). Exhibited here is her letter to the workers. ‘Thank you for keeping New York city alive!’ she writes, and invites the public to join her in thanking the workers by waving whenever they see them.

The ideas of Denes and Laderman Ukeles are brought up to date with the work of Lara Almarcegui and Luke Fowler. Spanish Almarcegui offers a slideshow and pamphlet detailing the wastelands of the Lea Valley, currently being redeveloped for the 2012 Olympics, while Glaswegian Fowler exhibits Bogman Palmjaguar (2007) a 30 minute film of interviews with a man diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic who passionately campaigns on behalf of the now drying out Flow country peat bog in the far north of Scotland.

The legacy of this exhibition is the work of Newton Harrison and Helen Mayer Harrison – a recreation of their 1972 piece Full Farm. As part of their commitment to only make work that benefits ecosystems, Full Farm is an installation of the crops needed to maintain a balanced diet. In raised wooden beds, tomatoes, beans, raspberries, courgettes, celeriac, beetroots and chard grow in orderly rows, whilst outside on the balcony a wild meadow has been planted for animals to feed on. In order to show the work, the Barbican had to agree to donate the garden to a local school after the exhibition closes. The piece is just one of the deeply moving, often joyful moments that radiate throughout the gallery.

While it may be short on ‘solutions’, by being open to the relationship between art and nature in all its forms the Barbican has triumphed. Radical Nature conveys not an angry, whining plea to recycle and grow your own, but rather a sense of hope that the rural and urban can be happy bedfellows, as long as we respect and understand that ultimately nature is top dog. A concept that’s not really so radical after all. As Fuller advised; ‘To continue on this planet, humans must comprehend the way nature works.’

This piece first appeared on

The Horrors: Primary Colours

May 3, 2009


They whipped up a storm with their haircuts, celebrity girlfriends and thrilling live performances, now the Dickensian undertaker lookalikes have changed their tune and embraced melody. The sparse, trashy garage rock of their debut has opened into a lighter, brighter experiment in new wave and distorted electronica. Chris Cunningham and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow produce, the influence of the latter heard most distinctly on seven-minute keyboard soundscape “Sea Within a Sea”. Faris Badwan presides majestically over this album of two halves, segueing from the pulsing discord of opener Mirror’s Image to the soaring grandeur of “Do You Remember?”

This piece first appeared in Observer Review

Being British, Stephen Lawrence Gallery

March 22, 2009


Scream Queen, by Hew Locke. Photograph: Courtesy of the Stephen Lawrence Gallery

Scream Queen, by Hew Locke. Photograph: Courtesy of the Stephen Lawrence Gallery

This small but powerful survey of British art brings together work created over the past six years by nine artists based in the UK who all have at least one parent born outside Britain. Creating a perfect discourse between work and surroundings, the show explores British multiculturalism amid the buildings of Greenwich’s Old Naval College, with their long heritage of maritime and monarchy.

Beneath Wren’s dome in the imposing King William courtyard hang two of Chris Ofili’s Union Black flags, reimagined in red, green and black to represent black skin and African blood spilt over green land. Small yet defiant, they make a powerful political statement in a part of London steeped in slavery and black history.

In the only remaining part of the palace where Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Mary I of Scotland were born, Seamus Harahan’s video splices footage of train journeys between Dublin and Belfast to question the notion of borders and a split Irish identity torn apart by religion.

Appearing throughout the work, the union flag provides a common link, with much of the work standing as an angry reaction against it and the British establishment. There is a Tracey Emin neon, Red, White and Fucking Blue, and two of Hew Locke’s menacing, acid-hued watercolours of the Queen’s head. Cai Yuan and Xi Juan Jun, the two artists who in 1999 famously jumped into Emin’s unmade bed, now exhibit alongside her, their photographic diptych proposing that the only way to be accepted as a citizen is to die fighting for Britain.

The mood is sombre, evoking the powerlessness of the oppressed against the might of British rule and rules. Unsurprisingly, there is little consensus to be had here about the multicultural British experience, nor is a new unified British identity proposed. Yet in challenging what it is to be British, these artists make the template less rigid for us all.

Being British, The Stephen Lawrence Gallery, London SE10

Starts 18 March Until 17 April Details: 020-8331 8260

This piece first appeared in the Observer Review

Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun

March 22, 2009



When she died at the age of 77 in 1982, Irmgard Keun left behind no memoirs. What she did leave, alongside a clutch of brilliant novels, was this delightful, harrowing account of her life between 1936 and 1940, in exile as an “immoral, anti-German” writer.

Keun’s masterstroke is to tell her story from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl. A headstrong, defiant child, Kully might not attend school, but she knows all about visas and passports and has an ever-expanding repertoire of languages.

While her father, the alcoholic and unreliable writer Peter (widely regarded as a portrait of Keun’s sometimes lover, the Austrian-Jewish novelist Joseph Roth) bluffs advances from publishers, pawns their belongings and begs from the rich, Kully and her sad, put-upon mother Annie camp out in hotel rooms, running up bills and hiding from the staff.

The trio are on an enforced grand tour of Europe rendered nightmarish by near-starvation, constantly expiring visas and the shadow of war. But in order to keep the credit coming, they must perpetuate the illusion of wealth by staying in the best hotels, eating in the finest restaurants and only ever travelling first class.

Keun captures Kully with such clarity that her words skip off the page. “It annoys me when people don’t hand over their money when we need it”, she says. “Money isn’t something that becomes unhappy or starts crying if you leave it.”

Written during Keun’s own exile, this is at once a historical record of prewar Europe and a glimpse into the chaotic life of an alcoholic. But the novel’s real power comes in capturing the freefalling anxiety of the displaced person, who cannot be homesick because home no longer exists.

This piece first appeared in the Observer Review