Thursday, 14 August 2014

Mona Lisa smile – please!

Have you ever wanted to take a photograph in a gallery – and found that you couldn’t?

While many museums and galleries do ban any photography, others don’t. Still others allow some – Tate Modern, for instance, will allow visitors to snap the permanent exhibits, but not the special exhibitions.

But the announcement that, in future, the National Gallery in London is to allow photography has inspired indignation from some visitors, and allowed the Telegraph to provoke a small measure of ire, as well as agreement, in an opinion piece on the decision.

In one sense, it’s quite amusing that publicising a quiet decision – made in part because it’s increasingly difficult for staff to know whether a visitor is using an electronic device to photograph an exhibit or look for information about it – might actually increase the likelihood of people now taking pictures in the gallery by raising awareness of it.

The issue, however, is not really about photographing exhibits, but in many ways, about what galleries are for and how we look at art and what we expect or want from art.

There’s nothing wrong per se with photography in a gallery. Allowing photography doesn’t suddenly mean that every painting is going to be obscured by people taking snaps of it – with or without the added ‘selfie’ element.

Some might ask why you’d photograph anything in a gallery.  

I do so on occasion – almost always for later reference. Many galleries don’t have general catalogues or postcards of every single work. And that’s particularly true of smaller galleries outside major cities.

Sometimes I might make notes – on my phone or even (say it quietly) in a little, old-fashioned notebook. With a pen.

But sometimes, when it’s less likely that you’ll be able to find a reproduction online, a might take a snap.

As an interesting contrast, in Paris, photography is banned in the Orangerie and the Orsay, but not in the Pompidou.

On a personal level, it was helpful in July, in the latter, to be able to take a few photos – and I didn’t get in the way of anybody else and nobody got in my way.

I don’t think it made any difference not to be able to in the Orsay, but in the Orangerie, where there’s a specific effort to create a peaceful, almost meditative space around Monet’s vast Nymphéas canvases, it would have been totally out of place.

There is an element of snobbery involved in at least some of the complaints. Nobody, I suspect, grouches about a visitor sitting quietly in a gallery and sketching a work.

That, of course, has a sort of discipline about it – it was one aspect of a traditional art education, so has a certain ‘legitimacy’.

The big problem in major galleries, though, is not photography, but overcrowding. And I mean when it’s 10 deep near a famous work.

Scrum at The Night Watch
Then, as I’ve said before, I do start feeling irritated by the ‘selfie with Rembrandt’ syndrome, as it occurred when we were visiting the Rijksmuseum last year and you had no chance of really seeing The Night Watch and a bloody struggle to get near any Vermeer.

I actually had to get rather rude myself and push through a crowd, pulling The Other Half behind, so that he could actually get to see The Milkmaid, which he loves.

Equally, when visiting the Courtauld in London last year, I was revelling in being alone in the gallery of gothic and medieval works, when the door opened and a group of tourists flooded in and I was pushed out of the way so that people could start snapping the exhibits.

I fled upstairs, only to be interrupted by them again as their guide nearly sprinted them around the place, barely allowing enough time to cast more than a cursory glance at anything – oh, apart from taking pictures of each other in front of Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve, making crass gestures at the picture.

This is not a question of expecting people to genuflect toward works of art, but of basic good manners and a little bit of respect for the others you’re sharing a gallery space with.

In the Courtauld, I eventually sat it out in the Cézanne room. There are worse things in life.

But it begged a question that why people visit galleries – particularly in those sort of groups – and what art is for.

Is art simply another commodity – an attraction to boost tourism, for instance? Or does it have a value beyond that? In our price-of-everything-value-of-nothing world, I suggest that there is clash between these two.

If, as Picasso said, “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”, then that implies the need for some sort of contemplation. In the Orangerie, with those Monets, it could hardly be truer.

I get the sense that, with the likes of that Courtauld group – and others I’ve seen being dragged around cities on tours, led by bored individuals carrying a brolly or a plastic flower aloft to identify themselves – this is tick-box tourism and has nothing to do with really seeing or experiencing what they’re looking at.

At the heart of this, ultimately, is the gross over-commercialisation of our society, with its attitude of instant gratification and the dumbing down that goes with that.

These are problems that spread across all sorts of realms of life, not just art, but one small illustration of it is the use of ‘selfie’ to describe a self-portrait by someone like Rembrandt, effectively removing any appreciation of the skill involved or even what self-portraiture is really about.

Not that this should be any surprise. After all, concentration camps are on tourists trails these days, while visitors stand grinning as they’re photographed next to the statue of Anne Frank outside the Westerkerk in Amsterdam.

And all this works in combination with the technical/digital revolution, leading to a world in which people visit cultural icons – not to look at them and wonder at what made them such, but, in effect, to digitally play a version of I spy, before moving rapidly to the next one.

There is another problem with that. Let’s shrug our shoulders and say that, well, if someone wants to race around a gallery and merely glance at stuff, then that’s up to them and they are free to do so.

Which is entirely true, of course.

But at what point does the sort of behaviour and crowd chaos outlined above become unacceptable where it impinges on the experience of other visitors?

You can ask the same question another way: why should someone have the right to play their music so loudly that all their neighbours have no choice but to hear it too?

Those are the problems: not photographing the exhibits in galleries.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Tabloids prove – yet again – that they won't learn

Here’s a thing: what will be the tipping point that means that the UK press faces regulation – however much it doesn’t want it?

The mainstream media has, thus far, managed to squirm out of any form of independent regulation, following the Leveson Inquiry.

And that bit about “independent” is important: no matter what some papers claimed, there was no plan for what the press publish to be subject to the machinations of politicians.

To remind ourselves: Leveson followed revelations about widespread phone-hacking – which, it is increasingly clear, did not just happen at the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World, although there was an industrial amount of hacking there. The Mirror group is now in the spotlight too.

In an interesting little side note, it seems that four members of staff on the Mail on Sunday were told by the police in 2006 that their phones had been hacked by the NotW, but bosses at the Mail group decided to keep it secret – and they didn’t bother to mention it in evidence to Leveson either.

Mail on Sunday editor at the time, Peter Wright, has been a member of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) since 2008, taking over the position previously held by Mail editor in chief, Paul Dacre, from 1999-2008.

During that time, the PCC issued two reports on hacking, in essence backing up the version of events from News International that it hadn’t happened often and that it was all just the work of a “rogue reporter”.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, though, Wright and Dacre have subsequently succumbed to amnesia over the entire business of the hacking of their members of staff’s phones.

Mind you, amnesia, ignorance or straightforward incompetence seem to be the defence de rigueur of senior newspaper folk when it comes to such matters.

After all, her admitted total lack of knowledge of anything that went on in Rebekah Brooks’s newsrooms was accepted as a defence by the court in the recent hacking trial, while News International godfather, Murdoch himself, has been known to be remarkably vague when being questioned over the affair.

It says something for the confidence many of these people have in their power over government that the revelations have not noticeably improved the behavior of the tabloid media in particular.

Not that it’s the tabloids alone: Murdoch’s Times – which used to be the paper of record – has plummeted so far since he bought it that it’s current idea of political ‘debate’ is to call the leader of the opposition “weird”.

Such an approach, by nobody’s definition, can be remotely positive for the public discourse.

But for the sake of this article, let’s stick with the tabloids.

It’s not so long ago that several papers revealed themselves entirely happy to splash pictures on their front pages of the moment that Mick Jagger was told that his partner had taken her own life.

Public interest, anyone?

In the last few days, the odious Richard Littlejohn,whose bilious ignorance was just the most well-known example of the ‘mostering’of Lucy Meadows, who also took her own life, has again used his column in the Daily Mail to illustrate his ignorance of and attitude toward trans issues, with comments about Kellie Maloney – formerly known as boxing promoter Frank – looking as though she is in “drag”.

But a glance at this morning’s tabloids reveals a general approach that blithely ignores basic humanity, together with any idea of journalistic ethics (yes, they do exist).

The subject is the death of Hollywood star Robin Williams, who died by suicide.

The front pages alone seem to be competing to see who can publish the most details.

In the rush for sales, editors have chosen to deliberately ignore the guidelines on reporting suicide issued by the Samaritans.

These call, among other things, for great care to be exercised on details about how a person ended their life, precisely because readers who are themselves in a vulnerable situation can be influenced to copy a sensationally-reported suicide.

But sensation boost sales and sales matter more than human beings when it comes to the tabloids.

Point six of the National Union of Journalists’ Code of Conduct says that a journalist “does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest”.

That’s the biggie, isn’t it: what is ‘the public interest’?

What was in the public interest that justified seeing Jagger’s reaction to the death of a loved one?

What was in the public interest that justifies the additional pain being inflicted on Williams’s family, and the potential danger to other vulnerable people caused by the nature of the reporting?

Here’s a clue: there is none.

The apologists can whine all they like that the public interest is what the public is interested in, but this is nonsense.

Let’s look at an example of ‘the public interest’.

Some years ago, during John Major’s time as Prime Minister, with a government set on promoting ‘family values’, a junior minister called Tim Yeo stood up at the Conservative Party annual conference and made a speech lambasting single mothers as the biggest problem of the day.

A couple of months later, it was revealed (in the News of the World) that he had been having an affair himself, and was the father of a child to a single woman. He resigned.

Here was a member of a government that was promoting one thing to the public, and condemning those who didn’t behave as it wanted, who included members who were themselves behaving in the same way.

And yes, the people that buy tabloids – particularly when they buy promises of lurid, sensationalist copy inside – are complicit in this pimping of other people’s private lives.

And as long as there is no regulation of the industry, it is a situation that seems likely to continue.

So, as I asked at the top of this: what will be the tipping point? What will it take before tabloids are forced to clean up their act?

After all, the hacking of a murdered schoolgirl’s phone quite clearly wasn’t enough.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Redevelopment with Moore than enough going for it

King's Cross Square
Contrary to what you might think from yesterday’s post about the gutting and ‘redevelopment’ of whole swathes of inner London, not all the redevelopment that is going on is bad or unwelcome.

Take King’s Cross, for instance.

Originally built in 1851-52, it was designed by Lewis Cubitt with an incredibly simple façade rising to 120 feet on the central clock tower.

The Great Northern Hotel was added next door a couple of years later, also designed by Cubitt.

The station is Italianate in style – much in vogue at the time. Indeed, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight was designed in that fashion by Prince Albert, and built by Cubitt’s brother Thomas between 1845 and 1851 for Victoria and her consort.

But however impressive the main station is, it was ruined in 1972, when a dismal extension was added to the front to allow for concourse space and shops.

It’s worth noting that this was not the first time that King’s Cross had been blighted by crummy buildings in front of it – old photographs reveal that it’s far from being a recent phenomenon.

But finally, in 2005, a plan was revealed plan for redevelopment and restoration and now – finally – we’re seeing the completion of that.

King's Cross, 1998
Much of the work was completed in time for the London Olympics in 2012.

In the space between the station building and the hotel, a new concourse was constructed with a vast, curving roof linking the two, designed by John McAslan – and it’s not difficult to see the influence of Norman Foster’s central court at the British Museum.

It’s an elegant, curvaceous and spacious solution.

But the ghastly carbuncle on the front of the station remained for another few months, until the end of 2012, before it was finally consigned to the history books.

Now unless my memory is really poor, the new square was originally due to be completed by the middle of last summer. But work dragged on. And on. And was only halted briefly for last September’s official opening.

After that, scaffolding returned, along with plastic barriers, as work continued into and through last winter, although gradually, the barriers reduced in number.

Before the 1972 extension, but every bit as bad
And then last week, the remaining scaffolding was removed from the top of the roof that links the café that’s been built around one of the ventilation shafts with an entrance to the Tube station.

The entire restoration project was awarded a European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Award last year.

The overall result is perhaps fussier than some might have expected – you suspect that the architects had a fit of panic at all that space – but it does allow for plenty of seating space, and is most certainly a 100% improvement on what existed before, allowing Cubitt’s clean lines in golden stone to soar properly once more.

But last week came what felt like the crowning glory – a new work of sculpture was set to be unveiled in on the piazza.

Well, I say “new”: the planning permission notices suggested that it was a work by someone whose name rang no bells, but the sight of abstract bronze beneath sheeting and scaffolding piqued my curiosity enough for a spot of research.

King's Cross Square, for #DrawingAugust
Forget that bit about it being by someone I didn’t know: it turned out to be the three-metre high Large Spindle Piece, which was created in 1974 by Henry Moore and which is now on loan at the station for at least five years.

The Other Half is particularly pleased with this, since Moore was a son of Castleford.

And Moore’s own enthusiasm for public art gives it an added suitability – plus the point, while probably not uppermost in the minds of those responsible, that to get from London to Castleford by train you depart from King’s Cross.

It was apparently selected both to compliment the vertical lines of Cubitt’s façade, and also because it would be difficult to climb or sit on.

The frame for the unveiling was only being removed as I headed down to see it on Friday afternoon, so it was only yesterday that I could finally see it up close and personal.

Large Spindle Piece, for #DrawingAugust
This morning I headed back, intending to sit and sketch it for #DrawingAugust – a daily, Twitter art challenge that’s great for building a daily discipline of sketching – but after being approached for money as I was about to sit down, I found myself photographing it and then heading to my usual café to doodle away over breakfast.

The exercise offers a wonderful opportunity to get an idea of the work.

And it’s an impressive piece, inspired by a pebble that Moore picked up one day, and with a twisting, multi-faceted surface that changes with the light.

Some of London’s public art is, at best, of dubious merit.

Besides the obvious corporate stuff, just wander to St Pancras next door to see The Meeting Place (2007), the ludicrously overlarge – at nine metres – bronze by Paul Day, featuring an embracing couple (modelled on the artist and his wife) who are supposed to illustrate the ties between France and Britain.

Martin Jennings’s 2007 statue of Sir John Betjeman – who helped save the station and chambers from demolition in the 1960s – is, on the contrary, rather wonderful.

But against that background, having a real Henry Moore as a public work in London is something that can only add to an area that shows that redevelopment, done well, really can work.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Marketing at its brightest: the towering twaddle edition

What could be loosely termed as ‘my’ day-to-day patch in London is largely defined by the bus journey that takes me between Hackney and the area around Euston and King’s Cross.

The latter has been a hive of building activity for some years now, but Haggerston is rivaling it these days, with almost frenetic redevelopment on Whiston Road, after the Kingsland Estate was finally torn down.

There is already ‘Silk House’ and ‘Velvet House’, next to another smaller block that has been thrown up on the site of just one more of the pubs that have been lost to flats in the last decade and a half.

And on the other side of the road there is going be far more of this vast development, which all goes under the banner of ‘City Mills’.

Passing, you notice site hoardings that declare, among the pictures of bright young things looking happily domestic: “Made for living”. Well, what a jolly good thing that will be, since they’re building flats for people to, err, live in.

It’s a fine example of marketing twaddle – but pales into insignificance beside what’s happening on City Road.

First, let’s start with the Canaletto London.

Yes. That’s right: the Canaletto, as in the 17th century painter of Venice.

You can call it 'Canaletto London' all you like ...
Most certainly an interesting-looking piece of architecture – and given that it appears to be taking rather longer to build than some other nearby blocks, the finished building might actually be of a high standard.

But really, just because it’s next to City Road Basin, which butts into the Regent’s Canal, doesn’t justify the suggestion of the Grand Canal.

“Extraordinary waterside apartments overlooking the City of London,” proclaims the website for this 31-story tower. Well, if you’re on one of the higher floors, obviously.

And it’s near “Tech City” too, apparently. Which is news to me.

I thought it was near Old Street roundabout.

It’s been with some relief that I have discovered that I’m not the only one who didn’t know there was anywhere in London called “Tech City”. But we’ll come back to that.

Just a few metres away, the Lexicon London is taking shape in an upwardly fashion. It’s going to have 36 floors, making it the tallest building in Islington – at least until the planned 39-storey one goes up a five-minute walk further down the road.

It’s the place from which to write your own life story,” wibbles the website.

“The one, two and three bedroom apartments take their inspiration from the culture and landscape of Lexicon’s location.”

I’m not sure that scruffy and run-down interiors are going to sell very well. Will rooms come complete with the smell of traffic fumes too?

The Eagle – also on City Road – is going to be “Art Deco inspired” and, like the Canaletto, will include a residents’ private cinema, a pool and god alone knows what else.

The Caneletto will have a restaurant too, so you won’t even need to cook in what will be, judging by the architects’ computer-generated images, your rather bijou kitchenette.

... but being next to this ...
We may not have gated communities yet, but you won’t need that with such developments.

Not far down the road, the Link is already complete – and is really rather disappointing, given that it was apparently “designed for stylish living”. Surprisingly, it never mentioned the stunning views over the next-door carpark, which is on the site of an old workhouse.

Another block nearer Old Street roundabout that’s well on the way has diamond-shaped windows set in steel cladding – which would probably do your head in on the morning after the night before.

The gobbledegook isn’t limited to developers, though.

According to the London Evening Standard: “The eastern side of the canal basin falls into Hackney borough and has a grittier feel. This is where Jamie Oliver opened his Fifteen restaurant, giving apprenticeships to out-of-work youngsters. Shepherdess Walk is one of the best addresses, with authentic lofts available at The Factory, a decade-old development by Manhattan Loft Corporation. Urban Spaces is selling a 1,481sqft loft for £945,000.”

Haggerston is so cheap by comparison! But Shepherdess Walk – “one of the best addresses”? Is that complete with the bits of workhouse wall still visible around the carpark? Or is it because of the cop shop?

Seriously, though – how the hell do you get a sensible mortgage for nearly a million quid?

... does not have anything to do with this ...
The old rule of thumb used to be that you didn’t go above three times your annual household income. 

So whoever buys a loft apartment like that should – to be sensible – need to be earning £315,000 a year.

And don’t forget that the average UK wage is around £26,500, according to the Office of National Statistics, while employment agency Reed suggests that the average salary of someone in “strategy and consultancy” is £56K.

In the “media, digital and creative” industries, Reed lists the average annual income as £34,553. A software developer is listed as having an average salary of £44,050.

“Tech City” is nearby, remember.

Who is buying – and going to buy – these properties at such prices and how?

Shepherdess Walk – one of "the best addresses"
Either there’s been a substantial rise in the number of people earning vast salaries or financial institutions are playing the very same games that helped to cause the financial crisis in 2008.

And it is not the former.

The extra infrastructure is not there – and Crossrail and yet more bleeding supermarkets do not count.
Indeed, local infrastructure is going as the developers move in. As just one small illustration, on Kingsland Road, just around the corner from the nonsense that is ‘City Mills’, a dentist’s surgery and the pub next door have both been demolished to make way for more blocks of flats.

Next to Euston, the community around Drummond Street is threatened by the high-speed rail link to Birmingham (which scheme has both pros and cons about it).

The Link: "stylish living". No. Really.
Camden Lock, with all it’s small, independent businesses, was under threat from that too, but the plans are shifting.

While further afield from ‘my’ patch, Soho is undergoing massive change as the developers waltz in and completely change it’s character with, apparently, the acquiescence of council and police, as Rupert Everett suggests in a remarkable article.

According to Everett, plans are afoot to build huge towers topped by helipads on Walkers Court – after knocking down the houses, of course. The London Evening Standard and assorted architects are merrily trilling about cleaning up one of London’s last “seedy areas”.

Oh yes, the whole city is being sanitised in a puritan’s wet dream.

One visualisation of what might happen to Walker's Court
Denmark Street – Britain’sTin Pan Alley – is also under threat.

They seem to have conveniently forgotten that it is not currently out of use. And you can bet your bottom dollar that most of the new retail outlets will be too expensive for most small, independent businesses.

The company also says that “a new urban gallery space will celebrate these [musical] links” and “recreate a music quarter for London”.

More verbal diarrhea, intended to calm criticisms of this gutting of the area.

The planned 'redevelopment' of Denmark Street
It happened in the City at Leadenhall Market – oh, they kept the market structure itself, but rising rents forced the last, real market shops out years ago.

Now, it’s yet another cathedral to the homogenised blandness of corporate franchising.

On Euston Road, right opposite the British Library, there used to be a marvelous bookshop, Unsworths, full of second-hand, remaindered and antiquarian books.

It was driven out by a similar policy of hiking rents. As was a tiny – and very convenient in that area – convenience store a few doors down in the same Clifton House office block.

It took several years after those businesses were forced out to see what we were going to get – I suspect that that means that planning permission was rejected initially by Camden Council before being overturned by Eric Pickles, secretary of state for the biscuit barrel.

Computer visualisation of Clifton House, with hotel
Now, there is a new three-storey glass box on top of an initial six-storey building – which has become a new Premier Inn, and which is near enough to the next Premier Inn on the street for Usain Bolt to make it between the two in little more than 10 seconds.

His initial attempt to get planning permission for a seven-storey block on the site, with restaurant at the bottom, was rejected by the council, so it remains to be seen whether he offered Eric a custard cream and that’s what’s going ahead, or whether there have been modifications to the plans, such as it not having so many more floors than any other building on the street or whether, as plenty of local people mutter, the council is just bent.

I remain curious as to how that happened, since the council told me that the entire process had been abandoned after extensive local objections from residents and small businesses alike.

Under-construction and planned towers on City Road
Those businesses included some that have subsequently been thrown out of their premises by this development.

Since I had written to the council on that issue at the time and asked to be informed of any council meeting where it was raised, it is interesting to note that I have never received anything about the subject.

So much for local democracy in Hackney, it seems.

I am not against development and redevelopment per se, but it must have human beings at its core – and building vastly overpriced “multi-storey rabbit hutches” as Lucian would have described them in The Liver Birds, is not the answer to our housing problems.

However, I am against simply ripping the heart out of places – not just because of the arrogant disposal of history or even the dreadful, soulless homogenising that follows, but also because of the impact on small, independent businesses and local people who cannot afford the increasingly ludicrous prices for rent or mortgages.

Boris Johnson might have pretended to combust at the mere suggestion that government changes to housing benefit would ‘cleanse’ London of its more lowly citizens, creating Paris-style Banlieue outside the city proper, but all development, the trendification and the gentrification is helping to shove up rents and mortgages, and it will have the same effect.

How will the cleaner who wipes away the wine glass marks from the tables in the Canaletto’s private cinema be able to afford to live anywhere near their place of work?

Denmark Street – still in use
The whole thing is unsustainable insanity that has nothing whatsoever to do with the majority of the city’s people.

Somebody, somewhere needs to seriously start asking why a constantly growing London population – both residential and working – goes generally unchallenged as being positive or inevitable.

Why can not more businesses, in these times of digital communications, locate outside London?

Does “Tech City” really have to be lots of companies all physically based around Old Street?

Locating elsewhere would even provide boosts to local economies outside the capital.

How many more people do we need in a city that already struggles to cope – not least in terms of transport? What will be the tipping point?

In the meantime, while the developers hold sway, it’s small comfort to highlight the towering twaddle that they spout as they try to persuade people to line their pockets.

PS: I have not edited these bits of marketing nonsense: they seem, however, to share a common link of not understanding how to use a hyphen for a compound adjective. Just as the ‘City Mills’ people don’t understand what an apostrophe is.