AI WEIWEI HAS chosen, at the request of the Blenheim Art Foundation, to host a major exhibition of mainly new work in the capacious, stern rooms and in the sprawling well-manicured gardens of Blenheim Palace, the ancestral seat of the Dukes of Marlborough.

The palace sags under the weight of four centuries of dark portraits, cabinets of pristine porcelain and gleamingly well-burnished, ornately brocaded furniture, precisely positioned in a labyrinth of chambers, rooms and corridors all carefully curated to remind the curious of the majesty and stature of the once extensive British Empire.

It is within this setting that twenty pieces of Ai Weiwei’s work have been subtly, unobtrusively placed, as if almost to suggest that they somehow fit in to this mausoleum of the mighty. What a credit to the Blenheim Foundation’s to have had the guts (and sense of humour) to have commissioned Ai Weiwei for its inaugural show. For Blenheim has quite deliberately and cheekily offered the artist (who has been under house arrest since 2011) a venue to mock both his captors and, for that matter, the pomp and ceremony of this gilded relic of a gloried past (The Churchills and China intersected briefly in the nineteenth century during the Opium Wars).

Though he’s not been able to leave China, using 3D imaging of the rooms, Ai Weiwei (who prides himself on his collaborative approach to art) clearly collaborated intensely with Blenheim and was quite precise and scrupulous in positioning each of his pieces. And they all fit in, often to great comic effect – which is part of the joy of the show. For the show seems to exist on two levels: the pieces themselves, each one offering a caustic commentary on the zeitgeist of our present commercialized, state-scrutinized life; and the context in which the pieces are displayed: each piece disarmingly matching the décor and colour palette of the rooms they’re in, like camouflage as if to disguise or disarm viewers to better deliver so many unexpected stabs of radical thinking in the fossilized environment.

The first exhibit upon entering the large and majestic entry salon is a massive hanging chandelier. It’s a display of sumptuous opulence that calls attention to the extravagant, over-the-top ornateness of the surroundings. It’s as though this first piece is both a warning and an invitation of what is to follow. I suspect most of the visitors were unaware that this was one of his pieces (most were unaware that there was even an exhibition there). The chandelier is conceptually on par with a pair of beautifully carved marble chairs (placed to match a pair of ancient stuffed ones) in one of the state-rooms. But the chairs are no more chairs and the chandelier no more a chandelier than Warhol’s Brillo Box was an actual Brillo box.


Arthur C Danto, the American philosopher notes that where art separates itself from ‘mere objects’ is in its “aboutness”. Weiwei’s chair is, wittily, about the seat of power. In his (our?) people’s government, the icons of power accurately reflect how far removed the powerful are from the ordinary people they hold power over. His marble chair –rigid, heavy, expensive – is less a chair, more an emperor’s throne, and possibly a comment on the aristocratic nature of both the Chinese government and, perhaps, governments as a whole.

Some of the works are more brutally critical. A pair of Han Dynasty vases (again, perfectly matching the reverential antiques in the room) are over-painted with commercial logos (Coca-Cola and Caonima…a sly reference to a jolly – and banned – video of Ai Weiwei dancing Gangam style). The comment is both a reference to the commercialization and desecration of Chinese culture, and is in itself a desecration, as if to challenge the kind of veneration offered by Blenheim’s impressed tourists.


His thoughtful use of Chinese cultural signifiers is taken up a few rooms later where twelve large, gold Chinese Zodiac heads line a gilded salon whose table (when we visited) was set for the annual Christmas dinner. (Who dines there? Real people?). These heads refer to the looting of Zodiac heads from Yuanmingyuan and have come to stand for icons of patriotic pride – something well beyond their original function. Ai Weiwei’s heads are symbols of symbols and perhaps suggest the arrogance of manufactured sentiment. More than that, these heads are his, ironic, version of the busts of the rich and famous that have been every empire’s stock in trade since Rome.

Several pieces refer, mockingly both – as content – to his status as prisoner, and – as art object – to the threat posed by art. On Churchill’s bed (where else?), we find a pair of lovingly carved wooden handcuffs, and in the long library, nestled on a cabinet is a marble surveillance camera. We imagine the surveillance and the restraints, by objects that are useless for either but which by simply being imagined and repurposed through art lift away the surveillance and restraints. It’s probably why dictatorships (and most democracies) can’t stand artists. They often represent the failure of state control to actually exercize control over the truth.


His antipathy to the state and the trappings of state power is a point he makes loudly in his sideways photos of famous state buildings across the world. These are a series of large, banal photos, turned sideways (a new way of looking at things?) with the artist’s finger obscuring (certainly pulling attention away) from the state building featured. It’s basically the artist giving the finger to state authority, wherever that authority is situated.


On a broader scale, Ai Weiwei’s next major exhibition will be held in the edifice of Alcatraz prison. Now isn’t that a delightful piece of symbolism?

I wonder if the Alcatraz hosts are as sensitive as the Blenheim Foundation obviously was, that his focus is as much on them and the prisoner ethos of the US, as on China.

INTERSTELLAR** Never Lifts Off


THE FIRST FEW chapters of Christopher Noland’s bloated, humourless, self-important ‘epic’, “Interstellar” are quite ravishing. We are introduced to an American heartland blasted by drought, its once green pastures now brown and cracked. Dust films every surface. It is everywhere, scuffing the sidewalks or blowing in dark tempests across the cities. And it is in this blighted, food-drained, sand-coloured world that we meet Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an ex-NASA flight pilot turned corn farmer and neighbourhood engineer. He’s a single father living with his two children, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy and, as an adult, Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Casey Affleck) as well as an ageing father (John Lithgow).

They seem like an average enough family, with the usual occasional sibling bickering and domestic chatter. The problem is that Murphy has begun to feel the presence of a (friendly) ghost. Books are pushed off shelves and she feels a presence in the room. Of course no one believes her until Cooper notices what are quite clearly signs in a pattern of sand that’s blown through her window (you’d have to be ex-NASA to notice this). The signs are map coordinates that lead them (it was a slow day) way out through the blowing corn into a spot in the middle of nowhere. These signs, this ghost are clever Shyamalan-esque touches.

Turns out this spot is the site of a now bunkered and secret NASA research centre (NASA having been roundly discredited for excessive expenditures and falsifying the moon landings as a means of stirring up the Russians and bankrupting them).

Well, one thing leads to another and (supposedly) responsible and loving dad finds it best to leave his entire family for oh, five or ten years in order to head off to space in search of an alternative planet for mankind.

Noland’s PR machine has made it quite clear that all the science in the movie is real. Apparently Kip Thorne, a respected theoretical physicist was hired as “scientific consultant”. So that you can rest assured what you’re seeing is not some flim flam sci fi mumbo jumbo. THIS IS REAL SCIENCE DAMN YOU. So the movie must be good. It would have benefitted the movie more if Noland had also hired a consultant psychologist or for that matter, anyone with any hint of experience of how people function not as humanoids inserted into a science project, but as real people.

The crew of the ship, Endurance, make small talk, evince some sort of human-like interaction from time to time, but mainly lapse into ‘rocket ship speak’ about thrusters, heat shields and the like. We even meet out there beyond the rainbow, a floating dead space-craft with a hibernating Matt Damon. But even a slightly deranged Matt, along with the stellar cast of a somewhat out of her depth Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine playing Michael Caine, can’t inject blood into this corpse. Maybe they’re all just… spaced out. Jessica Chastain, the perennially pissed off daughter is the only one who actually comes across as a real person. We are grateful for her efforts.


Sadly, what began as an interesting take on man’s self-destructiveness (with some fluffy talk about love reaching across the universe) swiftly turns into a loud science lesson the moment we have lift-off. Not that it’s a boring science lesson. Noland, who is turning into Terrence Malick without the meaningful symbolism, is a brilliant visualizer of the impossible. The images of the Endurance rattling through a wormhole (which of course you know is the tunnel that sidesteps the time space continuum) or slipping into a black hole to re-emerge into a kind of fifth dimension, are stunning.

I bet the science channel are kicking themselves that they hadn’t executed their versions of black holes as well.

NIGHTCRAWLER*** A new light shines in Hollywood


Ghoulishly pallid, his dark, ringed eyes sunk deep into his skeletal face, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a petty thief and low life criminal, protected by the cover of darkness and the unseen horrors of the night. He’s also in search of a job…any job. And the job he stumbles into, one that he feels an immediate affinity with, is filming the carnage of late night accidents. The more gruesome the scene, the more at home Lou feels. This is the world of the nightcrawler: where groups of persons (they call themselves journalists) trawl through the darkness, following the leads of police and ambulance distress calls, to scenes of murder and mayhem.

They are the support system to a news industry and an audience eager for ‘real life’ violence. As nightcrawler, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) says, “If it bleeds it leads”. Lou quickly establishes a symbiotic relationship with an equally pallid creature of the night, Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news editor of a struggling news channel in dire need of a ratings boost. Lou’s grisly videos and his amoral violation of any vestige of decency and privacy are just what it takes to boost the morning news viewership.

Lou and Nina form an unlikely partnership, each one needing the other. It is a partnership that evolves beyond mere business into a powerplay in which whatever little dignity she may have had is shredded as her lust for ratings and a steady job forces her to yield to his lust for her.


Just another one of those things hidden by the night, the dark place where the light of morality never shines. These nightcrawlers are more than ‘ambulance chasers’, they’re all those zombies ‘out there’ without a shred of ethics or morality to guide them.

They are, the movie suggests, the heart of business.

For Lou is the living marketing cliché. He’s a self taught man with a mission – to create a business empire. His – at times very funny – conversations with his abused side-kick, Rick (Englishman Riz Ahmed from “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”), who Lou promotes from “assistant” to “executive vice president”, are peppered with the language of the business-place: he speaks of career goals, strategic initiatives, business objectives, share of market etc.

Initially this seems the sad and pathetic conversation of a loser. But as the movie progresses and as Lou’s fortunes and professional skills rise, writer and director Dan Gillroy (he also wrote “The Bourne Legacy”) makes it clear that really, Lou – this ghoul, this amoral succubus on the living – is actually the face of business. Like any businessman, Lou is earnest, committed and with a ready smile. Underneath the sunshine of that smile though, lies the night: sinister, ruthless, mercenary and without any shred of a moral conscience. All the good character ingredients for a successful businessman

This is Gilroy’s first movie. His directing is crisp, efficient and densely atmospheric. It’s as though he’s combined Clint Eastwood’s efficiency with the moodiness of a Michael Mann or young Scorsese. The result is a movie whose tension never lags; as a viewer, you’re both disgusted and, like his imaginary TV new audience, enthralled. With a reasonable take of about $20M since it opened in October, I suspect we’ll be hearing much more from him.

Gyllenhaal is outstanding as usual, and is one of the names tipped for an Oscar. He lost 30lbs for the part and has turned himself from a cute guy into a corpse with greasy lank hair that he bundles on top of his head, like some sort of warrior heading out for battle. His faux smiles and soft-spoken demeanor that mask a seething, angry bully, are pitch perfect. But the outstanding role of the movie is that of Rene Russo’s Nina. The ever-glamorous Rene here looks bloated, aged and drained of light. She balances the cock-sure strut of the powerful executive with a private sense of fear and dread. She has to demean herself to Jake as much as, we imagine, she’s had to demean herself in the past to others in power.

Nothing to worry over. It’s just business.

There is however one key reservation that hangs over “Nightcrawler”. I wonder at the sincerity of the movie-making. I wonder whether the movie’s cynicism about the world of business is nothing more than a pose, a cynical stance to stand out in the clutter of Oscar-time movie titles lighting up the Hollywood night.

Dodgy Numbers and Double Speak: In Cameron and Osbourne’s dystopian world, opaque is transparent and indecent is moral


My posts are all about art. but arts isn’t all…so here is another blog worth reblogging

Originally posted on ladiesdefendinglabour:

George Osbourne’s new “annual tax statement” to households, purporting to show how our taxes are spent, is such a willful distortion of facts it leaves you gasping for air.

We get very precise figures on how much we pay out (for example, those earning £30,000 a year will see they spend £892 on education and £822 on state pensions) but these figures are based on income tax (which the government has cut) and do not include levies like VAT (which the government has increased).

They will also see that the biggest slice of the pie (£1,663) apparently goes to “welfare”. This, the most egregious of all the distortions, is clearly designed to be divisive and to further vilify the social security net and those who are in need of it.

The reality is that when the “welfare” budget is broken down, it can be seen that only 3% of…

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MR. TURNER**** Portrait of the artist as an old man


THE FIRST SCENE of Mike Leigh’s stunningly beautiful new movie, “Mr. Turner” presents us with a couple of Dutch women gossiping as they stroll along a twilight-gold dyke. The camera pulls back to reveal, in silhouette, the rotund shadow of Timothy Spall’s Turner sketching the scene. The movie has been in the works since the 1990’s and over the years, apparently, Leigh and his cinematographer, Dick Pope would, in the midst of shooting something else, be stilled by unexpected moments of Turner-esque light. As any artist would, they stored these moments of light somewhere in their cavernous memories so as to inform the visualization of the movie they eventually made ten years later.

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For in “Mr. Turner”, every frame is crafted and composed with a painterly precision. One of the most visually poignant of these is one in which Turner sights the Temeraire, subject of one of his more famous paintings, “the Fighting Temeraire”. In real life, the ship Turner would have seen, as it was being hauled away to Rotherhithe by tugs would have been a shell of its former self. No matter, here Leigh offers us a vision of the vessel, steaming into sight, hazy against an ethereal sunset. We are seeing what Turner would have seen. And throughout the movie, Leigh locates us within the observing eye of the artist to see the mid nineteenth century England as he would have seen it.

Leigh was keen to ensure that his bio-pic never descended into a docu-drama. There is no question that the artist he shows us lived a life almost entirely through the lens of the art he sketched. He is always sketching, always painting. But the more overt biographical details of Turner’s messy domestic arrangements, his near bankruptcy, his Messianic determination to outpaint the accepted masters – Poussin, Rembrandt, daVinci – the expected chronology of life events etc. are merely glanced at, never dwelt upon.

Instead what Leigh offers us is a Turner who is almost the antithesis of the reverential, passionate, light infused works we associate with the artist. The eloquence of his art (he left behind some 20,000 pieces) is contrasted by a growling, snorting, porcine man of very few words. Here is beauty produced by a man who saw himself as a gargoyle (thought Turner himself was very much the handsome, debonair gallant).

The movie offers us a series of such stark contrasts and dualities: Turner is insensitively indifferent to his wife and children, who he often does not even acknowledge as having, and yet is tender and loving with the mistress in whose arms he dies (Marion Bailey as Turner’s Margate landlady Mrs. Booth). He lives between the twin worlds of the salon with its elegance and the bordello with its dangers. His grunting inarticulateness is contrasted with the refined and nonsensical eloquence of Ruskin’s set. He is the working class cockney in an upper class world. He is both on jocular, camaraderie terms with his fellow artists (and great rival Constable) and he is set apart and slightly sneering of them. He is famous and celebrated and yet reviled and scorned. He is withdrawn and also a supreme showman (we see him pulling off a wonderful moment of artistic triumph at Varnishing Day – when artists are permitted to add last minute touches to their hanged works – at the Royal Academy). He is impecunious and yet indifferent to an offer of great wealth. He is the married Mr. Turner as well as the philandering Mr. Booth and Mr. Mallord. He is a benevolent employer and a serial abuser of his dim-witted maidservant.

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The one place he seems comfortable, where he can be master of his domain, is his studio. Leigh suggest not only that this is where it all comes together, but that Turner’s ability to focus only on the things that were important to him (and therefore to shut out anything else, no matter the consequences to others) is both what makes the man and what makes the art.

The movie therefore offer us its own fine duality as a means of suggesting the true pigments of the artist’s palette: of a rich, glowing, light-filled ‘artistic’ visual reality – the external world of the land and the sea- as well as the darker reality of his relationships and often sordid life. This an indoor, internal world of darker rooms and closed curtains (In a nice symbolic touch, patrons are shown into Turner’s darkened, unlit studio which bursts into light as the curtains are thrown back and the canvases – bearing light?- are revealed)

Timothy Spall is outstanding as Turner. He has very little dialogue to work with, and communicates his approbation, discomfiture, joy, sadness, passion and despair through nods, grunts, smirks and facial tics. If Turner only knew how to express his real self through the medium of paint, Spall channels Turner to enable us to see this self through the medium of his body language. It is a marvel to behold.

This meticulously realized movie is actually quite quiet and unassuming in the way it presents itself. In the hands of another, there’d be much more sturm und drang, more swelling music and histrionics. Perhaps for this reason, my initial response after the movie was that it all felt a bit flat. Here was a tale filled with so much inherent drama that somehow we saw the drama…but without the drama. And Mike Leigh was right. This is a movie that needs (with me anyway) to season overnight before its power soaks in. and when it does, it bears seeing again