One of my friends returned from Brussels recently and I met her along with some other pals in town. Before I arrived though I had called into a bookstore and enquired whether they might have a biography on Bernadette Devlin. In fact I’d gauged the answer the night before when I put her name into Amazon; I discovered that yes, there was a biography, but no I couldn’t buy it on kindle or even firsthand.

The shop I called into tends to carry a sound selection of books and I figured that being Irish and in close proximity to Trinity it would likely carry works on Northern Ireland along with bios on key figures. But like Amazon, they didn’t have what I wanted and when I arrived to meet my friends (doing my round of meagre waves before sitting down), I launched into a bit of a tirade. My visiting friend is interested in women’s history but she hadn’t heard of Devlin. I wasn’t surprised – neither had I until a few weeks ago.

I live quite close to IMMA, The Museum of Modern Art, and frequently ramble around the grounds and through the gardens. I love seeing the same artworks again and again, sometimes discovering a new detail or re-experiencing a sensation through meticulously applied paint.

A cluster of new exhibitions had just launched and after taking in the permanent collection I slinked into a dark room playing black and white clips of a young woman with bushy eyebrows. I’d arrived late (the film’s around 40 minutes long and I’d walked in at the 25 minute mark) but I was so intrigued that I vowed to visit again and watch the film from start to finish. I did just that, arriving the following week three minutes before the next showing (all coincidentally, I’m not that organised on Saturdays).

The film, Bernadette, by Dublin-born artist Duncan Campbell, is an open-ended narrative about the Northern Irish dissident, Bernadette Devlin. It explores the subject matter along with the mode of communication (documentary film form) blending fact and fiction to examine Devlin’s fiery media persona versus the softly spoken, self-reflecting one. Told in three distinct phases, it begins with grainy footage and morphs into first person narrative, then third. It’s a conscious admission of the limitation of the documentary film form and instead of building up to a conclusion it consciously dissipates into something muddled, nothing.

Yesterday it was announced that Duncan Campbell had won this year’s Turner Prize for his series of films called It For Others. And as for me, well, I finally got hold of Devlin’s biography, The Price of My Soul, through the library. Now I can discover the real space and lived tension that rests between one newsreel and the next.


Stockholm Syndrome


I visited Stockholm last week, confirming my suspicions that Sweden is the glacially cool epicenter of Scandinavia.

Small and easy to travel, the city’s medieval architecture unfurls like a fairy-tale town in a children’s pop-up book. The temperature was a brisk subzero, but I couldn’t appreciate the sights or fresh air on my first day. Instead I was plodding along feeling hopelessly lost.

I had set out early that morning for the Royal Palace, blissfully unaware that Stockholm’s museums and shops don’t stir till 10 or that my iPhone (and by extension my Google maps) would go temporarily AWOL.

Freezing and slightly frantic, I suddenly had no idea where I was. I couldn’t see a street name and even if I had found one I can’t read maps. So I walked. I walked down the river past clusters of boats towards a beguiling Renaissance castle. This had to be the Palace I told myself. Surely I was in Gamla Stan? A signpost confirmed just how geographically challenged I was: this was Djurgården, two islands beyond my destination.


I decided to start at the rustic castle I had followed down the river, pushing my way through a large door into the rectangular hall of the Nordic Museum.

A remarkable building with a collection to match, it featured a temporary exhibition on the role of stripes in Swedish culture. Gimmicky, yes, but very intelligent, it was a lot of fun and a solid introduction to the city’s cultural heritage. Afterwards I braced myself for the cold once more, turning my back on the city’s ABBA Museum in favour of the Vasa ship.

A solemn presence against the Stockholm harbour, the Vasa Museum is a one-of-a-kind structure designed to look like the 400 year-old Vasa ship salvaged from nearby waters. Despite its imposing masts and steel roof, this charming building integrates seamlessly with its harbour surroundings.

Inside, Vasa’s all-encompassing education centre was outstanding: blending six floors of interactive history and culture, it created a rich, faceted view of this remarkable ship and its passengers. The Vasa itself is displayed in the central hall, its high stern and oak timbers glimmering on glass surfaces while several of the ship’s passengers are meticulously recreated using scientific reconstructions.


The following day – and several cinnamon buns later – I visited The Modern Museum, trudging up-hill through snow in search of some Swedish avant-garde.

A spectacular site met my pilgrimage: four contorted sculptures by Alexander Calder stood in stark relief against the grey Skeppsholmen sky. Beyond these stood the museum whose austere glass shell shielded the city’s preeminent collection of modern art.


Presented chronologically, the permanent collection drew parallels between Swedish art and the European avant-garde. Moving seamlessly from the turn of the century to the inter-war years, it displayed photographs, prints and painting by neue sachlichkeit artists including George Grosz and Max Beckmann, creating a clear trajectory across the different cultures and countries.

A Futurist and Kraftwerk installation ran alongside the permanent collection, underlining a century-long fascination with industry, mechanics and the potentials of the machine.

Meanwhile, in the basement, Marcel Duchamp’s silly, conceptual artworks were concentrated in a custom-built space, his surrealist contemporaries lining the walls and Luis Buñuel sound bites drifting from nearby video cubicles.


Of course I visited other sights while in Stockholm: I finally made my way to the Palace and its accompanying museums; had what can only be described as a bucket of hot chocolate; did the Architectural Museum; found Acne Archives, and ate a fancy geometric Semla in bed, slathering whipped cream over my face like a recalcitrant little kid. But it’s The Photography Museum that stands out as my final highlight.

Several exhibitions ran simultaneously at this museum but the Elliot Erwitt show caught my eye. Erwitt’s images were eloquent but juxtaposed and imbued a one-liner quality. I took out my phone to snap this would-be romantic scene of Paris. Definitely the first photo-bomb, I thought.


Girl Crush: Helen Steele


Originally published by Image magazine: 

So, what do the Danish supermodel, Helena Christiansen and the inventor of the wrap dress, Diane Von Furstenberg, have in common with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi? A shock of white-blonde and pink hair plus a duck farm in Monaghan, it seems.

No, no, neither the Prince nor Helena has gone punk or signed up to Big Brother in rural Ireland – but what a weird and wonderful changeup that would make. Nope, what this lot have in common is their shared interest and collection of the Irish abstract artist (who last year added Fashion Designer to her CV), Helen Steele.

And before you say it, we’re aware that a punk called Helen who lives on a farm sounds like an oxymoron.

Indeed, maybe we’re reading into her punk sensibilities a bit much, but with funky hair like hers and an abstract, print-oriented fashion label carried by twenty international stores plus a past pinned-down as the front-woman of a punk group, let’s just say she’s more Courtney Love than Simply Red.

So, other than her client list being almost as varied as her biography, what makes this lady and her label, Helen Steele, different from the rest? Well, this stuff is art. Literally.  Steele explains, “[My plan was always] to put into practice what I do on canvas in the studio onto fabric… The process always starts with the paint.”

Indeed, her methods sound somewhat in keeping with Jackson Pollock’s paint splatters – all chance and chaos – except the outcome is far more psychedelic.  “Myself and my team propel layers of multi-coloured paints into the air with the aid of wind machines, leaf-blowers and chainsaws. We ground the busier bright prints with little bits of black and blue, and then use mad fluoros to balance that out. We then film the process, taking stills from the footage and creating our prints from this. The print dictates the shape of the garment.”

Perhaps most significantly, Steele describes how she picked each colour with colour therapy in mind, adding, “To me, what I am creating is a work of art that you can wear.”

So, whoever quarrelled that fashion couldn’t be art, or said that a good outfit wasn’t a legitimate pick-me-up for when you’re feelin’ blue, Helen Steele would beg to differ.

One-hundred years of Grand Central

In University I studied History of Art and Architecture and in my final year I took a course on architecture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of the essay questions I received in my second term (and avoided answering) was something horribly convoluted (despite looking marvellously simple) like, ‘Is a building just a building?’

Had I stuck with that question (instead of taking the easier option and arguing something-or-other on Frank Lloyd Wright), it probably would have resulted in some very questionable defence, which, when broken down, was about as concrete as ‘I’ve tasted real butter and I can’t believe it’s not real butter’.

Anyhow, now that I’m out of college and not being marked out of 70, I thought I might as well take a light-hearted stab at that question, with Grand Central Terminal (the station’s proper title!) in mind.

This month, Grand Central, located in New York City’s Midtown, turned one hundred. Externally, the building is a stunning example of American Beaux Arts Classicism, while the station clock, which faces onto 42nd street, is the world’s largest example of Tiffany glass (according to Wikipedia). More significantly however, Grand Central consolidated train use and travel as a very central part of modern American life.

New York City has forever been the backdrop to countless films and TV programmes, including Sex and The City, Girls, Gossip Girl and The Sopranos – let’s not forget Medow’s undergrad years in Columbia. But where New York’s been a backdrop, Grand Central’s been the film-set where some of the best-known scenes in celluloid history were made.

There’s Carey Grant fleeing New York in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest; Al Pacino running, ducking and firing a gun on an escalator, trying to dodge thugs and make a train to Miami in Carlito’s Way, and the beginning of Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin’s friendship in ‘80s classic, Midnight Run.

So, is Grand Central simply a building? Technically no, because it’s a train station, too, (remember!) But I’d also argue that it’s one of the most remarkable film-sets on earth.

Rabble-rousing on O’Connell Street

Some time towards the end of last year I saw Tom Murphy’s “A Whistle in The Dark”, a DruidMurphy production staged as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. The story centred on an Irish emigrant, his English wife and the Irishman’s dysfunctional family, all of whom had come to stay and none of whom showed any signs of leaving. But “A Whistle in The Dark” wasn’t a family vignette. It was a magnifying glass hovering over a combustible situation and shining a spotlight of white heat. It was insidious like a family argument and by the end I wanted to stand up, walk in and tell everyone to just STOP.

I was thinking about “A Whistle In The Dark” recently as I walked down O’Connell Street. In one of Whistle’s many heated scenes, a family member trying to talk up Dublin exclaims, ‘O’Connell Street is the widest street in the world!’ That line provoked giggles from the audience and circled the family’s ignorance and insecurity with a thick felt pen.

Of course, O’Connell Street is not the widest street in the world; it’s the widest street in Ireland. I walk up O’Connell Street most week mornings, then down again that evening. My trip starts at Daniel O’Connell and ends at Charles Stewart Parnell. And between these two figures stands (amongst others), The Spire, Jesus in the box, and, my favourite, Big Jim Larkin.

(image via

George Bernard Shaw famously described Jim Larkin as being the greatest Irishman since Charles Stewart Parnell. Sadly, if a statue’s appearances were a measure of greatness, then Parnell’s legacy would presumably be about as inspiring as a bowl of rice. What’s more, Parnell’s outstretched hand – historically a sign of excellent oratory skills – now looks slightly fascist, as though he were half attempting a Heil Hitler salute. It’s only a coincidence but it’s an unfortunate one all the same.

Jim Larkin however, erected some 68 years after Parnell in 1979, by Oisin Kelly, is a life-size bronze stationed on a 4.5 metre granite plinth. The statue, which is modelled on a photo of Larkin addressing a crowd on O’Connell Street in 1923, captures a variety of emotions: his wide-set stance and high-flung arms electrify him, as though he has reached the end of an invigorating and rabble-rousing speech. But the statue also has a sense of jubilance about it, as though some hundred years after the Dublin Lockouts (a century this August!), Larkin is celebrating a truly historical victory.

Oisin Kelly’s figurative statue was the second and last commemorative statue to be erected on O’Connell Street in the twentieth century, only preceded by Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Charles Stewart Parnell. But unlike Parnell, where each little detail from his pulled jacket buttons to the loosely hanging and creased trouser cuffs are delineated; these intricacies are virtually overlooked in Larkin’s case. Funnily however, the exclusion of these minutiae makes the statue’s impact more effective over all.

There’s a timeless maxim that goes, ‘show not tell’. Jim Larkin lacks any pernickety details, for example it’s difficult to attribute any kind of age to the figure or tease out the kind of shirt he might be wearing or whether his trousers have pockets. Yet the hollowed out apple-size hole for the mouth; the cut-away hollows-for-eyes, and the hands, which morph into jacket sleeves and evolve into a loose garment that flaps outwards and articulates a body in motion at the height of an electrifying speech are more significant and telling than any ruching of fabric or button detail.

Public art is about engaging people in a sense of ‘place’. In secondary school I often found history tedious because without modern resources like YouTube, the subject seemed depersonalised. Oisin Kelly’s Larkin however is provocative and reiterates the power a stationary object can have in unravelling great scenes from the past.

There is a plaque included on Larkin’s plinth, which reads: The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise.” One hundred years later, that quote combined with Larkin’s gaping, howling mouth, still stands to remind workers to free themselves from the tyranny of their employers.

Palmerston Park: A Dickensian Design

Chinese Whispers: a game in which a message is distorted by being passed around in a whisper.

Last month I saw Lenny Abrahamson’s third directorial feature What Richard Did. It starred Jack Reynor as the titular character Richard and offered an intense psychological portrait of a depressed teen with a jealous streak who inadvertently kills a classmate.

In an article for The Irish Independent, one journalist wrote, “The film is primarily based on a 2008 novel by Kevin Power called Bad Day in Blackrock but the real inspiration will be obvious to anyone who has opened a newspaper over the last 12 years.” Inevitably I suppose, this was how the film was constantly marketed both in print and by word of mouth; it was about the guys who killed Brian Murphy.

Several days later I was on the bus and heard two strangers discussing the film. As they chatted and touched on the movie’s climax – what Richard did, exactly- they referred to the film’s murder scene as having taken place in Blackrock, a fair assumption given the constant real-event spoiler alerts and Blackrock-centricity that surrounds the public’s perception of the film.

They were however wrong. In fact the scene in question took place only ten minutes away from my house on Palmerston Road in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines.

I was thinking about this recently and decided to take a trip to Palmerston Park, which I rarely visit despite its close proximity.

Walking through the park, the diameter feels smooth and even and, for me at least registered as being probably rectangular or even square. Hours later I crosschecked this on a map and was surprised to discover it’s far from even. In fact it’s more of a crescent.

The park was opened in September 1894 and excluding the modern inclusion of a children’s play area equipped with slides and swings Palmerston Park has remained unchanged in the hundred years since it was designed. In fact it is a perfect example of a Victorian recreational park designed for all seasons and intended for all people.

If the park appears to mirror Stephen’s Green somewhat, this is because the landscape gardener William Sheppard designed both. Both use the same geometric and formally laid pathways while the pond in Stephen’s Green resembles the pond in Palmerston Park.

Occasionally when I’ve mentioned the pond, people have responded and said that they have no recollection of a pond, but it’s there, nestled at the base of a mound and marked with large limestone blocks and a waterfall. The only minor difference is that there is no water in the Palmerston Park pond. Instead it’s now used as a dumping ground for bark and debris.

On the west side of the park and facing onto a staid lawn is a red brick shelter, very much a period piece, bedecked with brick string coursing beneath the eaves, roll-moulded corners and prominent plinths.

The shelter’s interior is of glazed white tiles while the double pitch roof is made using terracotta tiles. The gables meanwhile are finished in a half-timber Tudor-revival style, similar to the nearby Tramway House on Dartry Road.

For me however, my favourite thing about Palmerston Park are the benches: across the park are cast iron timber benches whose legs and frame are moulded so as to look like the gnarled bark of a tree.

My other favourite detail – shared by pretty much everyone – is the pathway that cuts across the park and goes from Palmerston Road toward St. Philip’s Church. Now, in late October, this pathway surrounded with Gothic railings and finished with steel arches and hanging lanterns is covered with a mixture of crispy autumn leaves as well as the wet golden kind.

For a city that boasts more parks per square kilometre than any other European capital, Palmerston Park is unique: it is virtually unchanged and reflects, in conjunction with the surrounding Victorian properties, the ideas and ideals of Victorian architecture and recreational park design.

It’s also probably the only park in Dublin where you’ll have genuine problems spotting a mongrel. In fact I’m pretty certain I have yet to see one non-thoroughbred.

The Ups and Downs of Project Arts Centre’s “Elevator”

I went to see Elevator in the Project Arts Centre on 21 September. I wrote this review a few days later but never managed to put it up until now. Ewps…


I once told two friends that I thought I’d like to be a psychologist. They each looked at each other and started to laugh. At the time I was a little insulted but in reality they were probably right. I’d be a rubbish psychologist. Instead of taking notes, I’d probably spend the entire session jotting down the different prices of various sparkly jumpers on the Topshop website and having inner-debates about newly released books for Kindle, which I want to buy but will probably never get around to reading.

This kind of egotistical distraction is exactly what happened last Friday during Elevator in the Project Arts Centre at Templebar. For the first ten minutes I stared at the actors onstage and thought to myself, ‘HMMM, these guys sure have problems. But I bet none of them knows what it feels like to be a phone-less audience member who can’t remember where they’ve seen actor Conor Madden before.’

And for ten straight minutes this continued. I stared at the stage as my conveyor belt-brain looped and looped again with the same caps-lock question each time:


It turned out that I had seen him in the Irish television series Love/Hate, which although totally different is not necessarily a bad place to start in terms of describing ThisIsPopBaby’s recent musical blow-out, Elevator.

Elevator, like Love/Hate is about excess except instead of pushing life to the brink like Love/Hate’s John Boy and Hughie, the brink has been passed and now the free fall is in motion.

The story is straightforward enough: five life-long friends (plus the house-maid) come together for a party except their host, Johann, is gone. And in his absence, the hedonistic quintet of men and women resort to an evening of cocaine and copulation. They do this of course in total elegance, switching from evening gowns to frilly underwear to expensive furs. Throughout the night, the group’s gender orientation is constantly in flux, and it flies from left to right like a pendulum that is out of control.

Inevitably like all Poor Little Rich Kids, the group push the boundaries of drugs and fornication and ultimately find themselves empty, lacking and alone as their drug ravaged-membranes force them to discuss their deepest feelings. Until of course the drugs wear off that is, and then the techno beats resurface to jump-start the party all over before it goes into crash down mode once more.

Regarding Elevator’s cast, they were without a doubt, excellent: each could sing, dance and act; they were provocative and dare I say it, each remarkably handsome. But Elevator’s standout contribution was its music: throbbing beats permeated the show and amplified the characters’ mixed emotions while the show’s finger-tapping synth songs, mixed with layered vocal harmonies, recounted the story while bringing the musical-theatre genre into a more grown-up sphere that shirked the silly spontaneity associated with many popular musicals.

Elevator certainly had its flaws: at times the story stagnated, and I personally felt that the questions it raised regarding the characters’ excess and extravagance were never really answered; simply posed. Nevertheless it was enjoyable, it was fun, in fact it was what I imagine Cruel Intentions and The Rocky Horror Picture Show would be if the two procreated and produced a play. Now if only they’d put the soundtrack on a disc.

Review: Damien Hirst, Tate Modern, 08.09.2012

I wrote this review for Irish art website Click here to read the original.

“The best person who ever painted spots for me was Rachel. She’s brilliant. Absolutely fucking brilliant. The best [Damien Hirst] spot painting you can have by me is one by Rachel.”

For me, Damien Hirst does that thing that I think modern art does to a lot of people: he makes my brow wrinkle, my lips purse and my eyes squint. Who is this clown? In fact, while I’m at it, who’s Rachel?

As Britain’s reigning YBA (Young British Artist) Hirst has permeated popular consciousness like no other artist of his generation – certainly more so than his surname-less assistant Rachel. His work is characterised by its directness: it is deadpan and yet remarkably touching. It provokes outrage from some viewers and amusement in others.

In one article for The Mail on Sunday, the BBC art critic, Julian Spalding, described it as ‘con-art’ while The Telegraph’s Richard Dorment wrote, “For reasons that I don’t understand, [Hirst] insists on presenting himself as a fraud… And that’s a pity, because in Tate Modern’s full-scale retrospective he comes across as a serious – if wildly uneven – artist.”

Other critics have insisted that Hirst’s hypnotic power over the art world is simply a result of being famous. “Damien Hirst makes Damien Hirsts,” wrote Jerry Saltz in The Village Voice. “The paintings themselves are labels – carriers of the Hirst brand. They’re like Prada or Gucci. You pay more but get the buzz of a brand.” And this point, in my opinion, is the reason that Hirst is revered and reviled amongst critics. A buyer could easily purchase a ‘Rachel’ at a fraction of the cost of a Hirst. But while a Hirst is technically a ‘Rachel’, a ‘Rachel’ is certainly not a Hirst.

These are the eye-ball-spinning facts that send many critics into frenzy-mode. And they don’t stop at Spot paintings. In 2007, The Sunday Times restaurant critic, AA Gill, attempted to sell a painting of Joseph Stalin to Christie’s Auction House. The auction house rejected it. ‘They did not deal in Stalin or Hitler art,’ they said. Gill asked if that decision might be reconsidered if the Stalin were a Warhol or a Hirst. The answer was Yes. Gill contacted Hirst and requested that he paint a red clown nose over Stalin’s. Hirst agreed and the Stalin, which Gill originally bought for £200, sold for more than £100,000.

Stories like these have earned Hirst a reputation as a convoluted and talentless wheeler-dealer. Indeed, he is probably better known for the exaggerated headlines he’s generated over the years. Headlines like, “No, it’s not your fault you can’t see the genius in Damien Hirst’s work – there is none”.

And herein lies the problem: Hirst’s art is ubiquitous but more through newspaper headlines and photographic reproductions than through direct experience of the work. Last weekend, I visited the Damien Hirst retrospective at London’s Tate Modern, which accumulated more than twenty years of Hirst’s art, all of which was spread out over twelve rooms; finally offering London’s gallery-goers the opportunity to experience Hirst’s work directly.

It will perhaps sound naïve and a touch simplistic but what struck me throughout the exhibition were the colours. The vibrant aquamarine blues of Hirst’s cows and sheep immortalised in formaldehyde, and the overwhelming scale of his ‘spin’ paintings, and the austerity of his spot works.

Entering Room One, a large spot canvas stood propped against the wall as though the curators had forgotten to hang it. A hairdryer was positioned in the centre of the room and a ping-pong ball levitated above it. But the most interesting object in Room One was a photograph that hung on the wall, and which showed Hirst aged 16. Rather, it showed sixteen-year-old Hirst, a big smile across his face, posing beside a decapitated head in the Leeds University anatomy department. This photo, sandwiched in amongst early installation works was the first insight into what was to come: death, death and more death. Welcome to Hirst’s world of cadavers where sheep appear to be submerged underwater and sharks seem to swim on land.

Dead Head (1991)

For me at least, the exhibition was a little like a three-course meal. Room One was the starter. It looked great but lacked any substance. While the last room, Room Twelve was opulent and obnoxious. It was like a chocolate cake haemorrhaging more and more chocolate. After such a great main course in rooms Two – Eleven, it was simply too much.

As I moved between Room One and Room Two, Hirst’s A Thousand Years (1990) came into focus. Small children clamoured around the glass, their hands spread, staring in as though enraptured. Their parents however tended to step back, wrinkling their noses at the smell, many of these looking disgusted. But A Thousand Years is the quintessential Hirst, with the cycle of life and death openly on display.

The work starts with a dead cow’s head, which lies flopped on the floor. When I visited the exhibition, the head had decomposed. Its eyes were missing, its fur was gone and the remaining flesh was red and sinewy. Blood leaked across the floor, thick and treacly like a raspberry syrup. In an adjoining vitrine a large white box stood in which maggots hatched and developed into flies, which then fed on the cow’s blood. Resting between the two vitrines was an Insect-o-cutor, which regularly zapped the bumble-bee-sized flies. It goes without saying that the air smacked with a subtle but putrid fetor.

A Thousand Years (1990)

From here, visitors had a perfect view of Hirst’s most famous and iconic work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) as well as one half of Hirst’s, Mother and Child Divided (1993), or ‘The Cows’ as it’s probably easier to refer to it as.

Hirst’s Physical Impossibility is probably his best-known work but the reproductions, which I’ve seen on the Internet, in books and on gift shop postcards, are a whole other kettle of fish (couldn’t help it!) when compared with the real thing. To begin with, it’s huge. And most bizarrely, it appears to be smiling.

Where Andy Warhol produced silk-screens of Marilyn Monroe and Chairman Mao, Hirst in a similar such vein brings one of Stephen Spielberg’s more terrifying on screen stars into the gallery space. Cue the music and prepare to come face-to-face with Jaws!

Of course, the irony here is that the killer, his teeth bared, mouth open, ready to swallow my hand and go back for my arm, has been killed. And in death, he’s vulnerable. Eloquently, Hirst parodies popular culture and makes an articulate point about death – the incomprehensibility of it. The sheer strangeness of it.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in The Mind of Someone Living (1991)

So, given how strange and terrifying death is for most, Hirst can’t help but scrutinise the absurdity of smoking in a culture obsessed with life longevity. In Dead Ends Died Out, Examined (1993), a large display cabinet exhibited lines of extinguished cigarette ends, all rubbed out, some standing up, each displayed like a prehistoric fossil or precious stone. It suggested how odd smoking was, how, in thousands of years when the twenty-first century is part of some ancient world, that archaeologists might frown trying to explain or indeed understand the curious and ancient habit.

Medicine cabinets were also prevalent throughout the exhibition and in one room Hirst set up a full-scale installation entitled Pharmacy, in which presses ran across the walls and sterile white tubes and packages with generic brand names were lined up as premeditative weapons against illness and other maladies. Above the installation, a green fibre-optic pharmacy cross flashed, as though the zone were invested with some kind of religious power capable of staving off death.

Pharmacy (1992)

Preceding Hirst’s Pharmacy was the butterfly installation, In and Out of Love. This room, like the proceeding rooms in the exhibition, lacked the brilliance of Hirst’s earlier works – the pickled cows, shark and sheep of Hirst’s early career. That said however, it was probably the most exciting piece in the show.

Heaters were installed in each corner of the room to create a muggy, balmy atmosphere. On white tables, bowls of rotting fruit were left out, and on the walls, cocoons hung from canvases while brightly coloured flowers grew below. Before I had entered the room I wasn’t entirely sure why I was queuing exactly, or why the entrance had been cordoned off with plastic sheets. It soon became clear though. Unlike A Thousand Years, where death and regeneration are experienced through the boundaries of glass, the viewer gets to enter the life-cycle process. And in this case, dozens of different size and colour butterflies flapped through the artificial fug and flittered across the floor. In later rooms, the same species and brightly coloured wings that had previously walked across my hand were recycled into large Gothic-like window cycles. It was odd. Something, which was so real only rooms ago, was now dead, glued down, painted over and encased in glass.

In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies)

The last room in the exhibition will probably go down as one of the worst sights I have ever seen. The walls were gold, the works were clones and the only thing that separated each work from its older sibling was the fistfuls of diamonds slotted in or glued on where possible. The final work in the exhibition, which stood between the Gold Room and the gift shop, was Hirst’s 2006 piece, The Incomplete Truth. Here, a dove flutters upward like the Holy Spirit except that the spirit appears to have gotten lost and become wedged between this Gold Room and the gift store. All religious connotations as a result are inflected with irony as the curators play with idea that wealth and consumerism are the core religious beliefs of the modern retail society. Exiting, I couldn’t help but smile.

The Incomplete Truth (2006)

Hirst once scoffed to his good pal David Bowie, “I’d never show at the Tate, that’s for dead artists.” At 47, Hirst is far from dead but over the years his art has certainly begun to stale. The Tate exhibition dutifully reflected Hirst’s varied career and exposed the visceral nature of his earlier works in a way that no postcard or Google Image could. Works like In and Out of Love stunningly rejuvenated the white-wall space and drummed a sense wonder and excitement into the air. But the exhibition also exposed the older Hirst and his later work as repetitive and insipid, like a brand name that chugs on regardless of originality or flavour. More than anything however, this exhibition made me excited. It reminded me that amidst the convoluted ideas, the white-plaster walls and the people wandering around and pontificating the minutiae of Hirst’s Wikipedia page, that art’s a lot of fun. But especially when its creator is a toothy-teen posing with a decapitated cadaver.

TV Review: All in The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry

Part 1: All In The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry,
Channel 4.

Grayson Perry

Even before the opening credits began to roll, a siren was sounding in my mind.

Channel 4’s new three-part series, presented by the Turner Prize winning artist and transvestite, Grayson Perry, was an hour-long “safari through the taste tribes of Britain,” kicking off from “the bottom up” in the industrial city of Sunderland.

From the get-go, I imagined a row of media-minions, all lining up and hunching over as their paper capes, fashioned from old tabloids flapped in the wind. As the credits rolled and arms, wrists and fingers prepared to point and fire, I foresaw a torrent of classist abuse, spooled around some superficial and impalpable idea of ‘taste’ that would fly and swirl in the air like confetti that fails to fall. Fortunately however, I was wrong. I was really, really wrong.

The first episode in the series previewed on the final night of the Queen’s diamond jubilee weekend. But Perry and his posse of guys and girls were immeasurably more fun than Her Royal Stuffiness. If we weren’t going to be made privy to some goose-bumpily shots of England’s reigning monarch in a paper thong awaiting her jubilee spray tan, then Perry was glad to fill her shoes. Donning a plastic shower cap and lifting his arms on cue, the artist introduced us to some of Sunderland’s pre-boozing, beauty rituals, all the while laughing and declaring, “Naturalness, it’s so, I don’t know, boring, isn’t it?”

Perry’s hour-long search for a working class taste mostly wound up focusing on style, appearance and home décor. As he ducked and dived through changing rooms, salons and tattoo parlours, he explored the significance of religious tattoos, the quasi-sacral role of men’s cars and the impact celeb culture has had on Sunderland women’s appearance. Throughout, Perry’s gift as a narrator was unequivocal and his central role in the programme painted him as a chameleon of sorts, as he happily jumped ship from male-centric, football-obsessed Sunderland to the girly world of lashes and tan.

Undercutting the fun of his physical transformations however were Perry’s own musings. As the people of Sunderland invited him into their homes, Perry in turn gave the viewer an insight into his own world, explaining how, “as somebody from a working-class background, I’ve spent most of my life in the very middle-class background of contemporary art.” He later reflected that his art was the only place that his working class roots still bloom.

At last, turning to his loom and depicting his trip up North, Perry told the first part of his tapestries’ story, introducing us to his central character, Tim Rakewell. Rakewell, he explained, was going to be a modern spin-off of William Hogarth’s Tom Rakewell, from Hogarth’s eight-part series, A Rake’s Progress. Would this be a modern-take on the classic tale of a wealthy merchant’s son, who lived it up and spent it all and wound up mad?

Outside of the pseudo-anthropological take that ran throughout the programme, the highlight of course was seeing how the ideas outlined in the show were trickled out and distilled into two carpet-sized works that referenced ideas of taste as much as they referenced major works in the history of art.

The end of course was about the big reveal. And, yes, it wound up being a bit sentimental. And no, of course no one turned to Perry and said, ‘Well, I think you’ll find my arse is nowhere near that size,’ although admittedly there were few side-portraits. But in all, Perry’s first TV entry was an exciting introduction to one of the three ‘British taste tribes’.