Monthly Archives: July 2016

Meadow art

Crickets bounce, bees wobble, hoverflies dart and Jessica Albarn stands in the middle of her steep, sunny meadow and scrunches up her hands in delight. “Quite a bit of my work is about layers,” she says, crouching down to investigate the depth of the grass with her fingers. “It’s about being able to get right in there and explore an area.”

Albarn is a visual artist best known for her beautifully detailed pencil drawings of spiders, bees, butterflies and other insects. Perhaps it is inevitable that peering through a microscope at dead insects in her London studio led her to the lanes of south Devon to create a meadow, and capture some of its richness in a series of artistic adventures.

If you feel there’s something familiar about the name, you’d be right: Albarn is the younger sister of Damon of Blur, and her meadow is on the old farm he bought for his family 20 years ago. “I’m lucky to have this antidote to London,” she says. “Damon bought this as a family place, so we could all have somewhere to meet. This work is part of him, because I wouldn’t have had this otherwise. It’s been wonderful.”

Spider … a drawing on paper. Photograph: Jessica Albarn

Albarn spent most of her childhood in rural Essex. Her dad, Keith, taught at Colchester School of Art. “It was great for me as a kid. We had a bit of freedom. You could walk to the woods and down to the river, and I had loads of animals. That’s where it all began for me.” Her mum came from a farming family in Lincolnshire and Albarn thinks a love of the land “is also probably a bit in the blood”.

She took her art foundation course under her dad at Colchester (“He was great, but I had a bit of a hard time from some of the other staff”) and moved to London to complete her degree. She was just getting going as an artist when she gave birth to her daughter, who is now 21, and she has an 18-year-old son. But just when she might have had more time to make art, she had another daughter, who is five. Some artists struggle to continue working with family and financial demands. Albarn has “fought like crazy to keep going”, she says. “I’ve been very dogged about it. Being a woman and having children, your career takes a different path. I didn’t get the opportunity to do an MA, but I’ve found my path – and it’s made me very disciplined.”

Field-good factor … the artist’s meadow at the family farm in Devon. Photograph: Jessica Albarn

She likes to go out on a forage, she says, and her art “usually begins with something I find”. She has been particularly inspired by bees, and undertook a “bee marathon” at the Natural History Museum, drawing bees all day in “homage to their industry”. She laughs. “Everyone is going on about the bees dying, which is very tragic and depressing, so it is nice to try and do something positive.”

Albarn began raising money for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and learned of the importance of “creating corridors for wildlife and wild flowers”. And that’s when she decided to turn a small, steep south-facing sheep field into a meadow. “It’s incredibly lush down here and there’s a lot of wild flowers, so my parents thought I was a bit mad when I said I wanted to create a meadow. But I hope to encourage two species in particular – the shrill carder bumblebee and theblaeberry bumblebee. They are around in this area but they are very, very rare.”

Following advice from a BCT outreach officer, she created the meadow. “Although I’ve been studying insects for a long time, I’m quite a novice and am learning as I go,” she says. Much of her art mixes insects with geometrical forms and the meadow is marked out in six hexagon shapes – inspired by beeswax – arranged in a triangular shape. She and her mum collected as much local seed as they could find (locally sourced seed is always best for “new” meadows) and bought extra BCT-approved native seeds, and scattered them over the slope.

The new one of momentous Artangel project

Cell C22 is scarcely bigger than the narrow bed and table it contains. A bucket in the corner, in Oscar Wilde’s time, turned his “numbered tomb” into a foul latrine. The window is shockingly high, so that the prisoner can see nothing of the outer world but a fraction of sky, and even this freedom is qualified. “With bars they blur the gracious moon and blind the goodly sun.”

This is where Wilde was imprisoned for two years, from 1895. This is where – miraculously, eking out the sheets of paper that were removed every night by warders – he wrote De Profundis. He spent each day in solitary confinement, with nothing but the Bible to read for the whole of the first year. And so did every other inmate.

In Artangel’s momentous new project, Reading jail itself is Exhibit A. The cruciform architecture is insistently ecclesiastical; the cells are unchanged; the silence remains oppressive. In the so-called separate system, prisoners were not allowed to converse, or even to see one another’s faces. They stood in boxes to worship in the vaulted chapel and took their daily exercise, walking round in barren circles, concealed in thickly veiled caps. They must reflect on God and the nature of their crimes.

There are extraordinary moments as you pass among the iron corridors and dank cells
Wolfgang Tillmans has thought hard about this hell. A looped film by the Turner prize winner shows his camera trying hard to see through the windows, registering little more than a bright glare that comes in and out of focus. Tillmans has also photographed all he can see of himself, distorted to something between a botched Soutine and an agonised Freud, in the so-called mirrors used by the last offenders before the jail closed in 2013. Rectangles of blurred metal, these mockeries of mirrors censor the human face. Nothing of life can truly be seen.

Tillmans is something of an exception in that he actually made work inside the prison walls. Other artists invited to contribute have sent pre-existing works, not all of them perfectly suited to the story of Wilde, the campaign for prison reform or, indeed, the agony of forced separation from the beloved (Bosie, in Wilde’s case) that is the subject of some intensely beautiful letters written for display in the cells by Ai Weiwei, Jeanette Winterson and Gillian Slovo, among others.

‘Nothing of life can truly be seen’: Wolfgang Tillmans’s Separate System
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‘Nothing of life can truly be seen’: Wolfgang Tillmans’s Separate System. Photograph: Marcus J Leith/Artangel
It is by no means certain that Vija Celmins’s trademark nightscapes, for all that they show the dark infinity of the cosmos, perhaps conjuring dreams of freedom, add anything to the sense of lost hope and endless night these cells embody. Roni Horn’s photographs of the roiled surface of the Thames feel almost irrelevant. And although Doris Salcedo’s array of coffin-length tables – one below, one above, sandwiching a layer of soil from which green shoots grow, emerging up through the wood as if reasserting the force of life – have clear associations with confinement, their origin as a memorial to the dead is surely more potent. Salcedo made them to commemorate Colombia’s disappeared.

Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis – one of the greatest love letters ever written
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But there are extraordinary moments as you pass among the iron corridors and dank cells. Nan Goldin has installed a peepshow: one imagines the warders horrified to see Jean Genet’s film about gay prisoners staring back at them through the spyhole. And she has plastered another cell with nude photographs of the mighty German actor Clemens Schick, pin-ups for a gay prison that could never have existed and a reminder (under the crafty eye of Bosie, whose portrait appears like a punctuation mark) of the reason Wilde was jeered as he waited in prison uniform at Clapham Junction for the prison train to Reading.


Robert Gober has created two post-surreal sculptures. A man’s suit, apparently disappearing into the wall, is pierced by an opening through which a full-scale grotto is visible; water trickles down among its sorrowful blue stones. Look down through a hole in the floor and you see the torso of a woman, a bright stream running through her like some butchered Ophelia. One thinks of Charles Thomas Wooldridge, the wife-murderer whose execution is the centrepiece of Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Sometimes serendipity pleads a case. The free bird lifts into the sky on Félix González-Torres’s poster, which you may take away gratis, leaving prison as the inmates could not. Such a bird becomes emblematic in De Profundis, written in C22 (or C33, as it was known in Wilde’s day). This took the form of a letter, because letters were permitted where books were not. In a letter to her long-dead mother, the South African activist Ruth First, Gillian Slovo remembers that First was not even allowed to write letters. She wanted – tried – to kill herself in solitary confinement. Lifting the lid of a wooden warder’s box upstairs, I found modern graffiti: “You Want to Kill – Yourself”.

‘Like a headstone in the chapel’: the original door to Oscar Wilde’s cell.
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‘Like a headstone in the chapel’: the original door to Oscar Wilde’s cell. Photograph: Marcus J Leith/Artangel
Marlene Dumas’s devastating portrait of Wilde, beautiful and mournful, hangs in a cell a few feet from her equally powerful image of Bosie, his pretty face a mask of slyness. Never can Dumas’s paintings have appeared anywhere quite so strange. But Artangel has not made an art gallery out of Reading jail, nor theatricalised this catacomb of suffering. It still appears sinister and harsh, smelling of today’s carbolic.

Of all Artangel’s tremendous projects down the years, this may be the most important, not least because directors Michael Morris and James Lingwood have put so much into it themselves. Here are 1890s mugshots, showing the people of the past in fear, defiance, apology, some already filthy from incarceration, others “with crooked arrows starred”. (The Ballad is always in your head.) Here are images of the children who starved; news of the warder sacked for feeding a child. Here is Wilde’s pamphlet on cruelty to children.

Having opened the prison to the public for the first time, Morris and Lingwood bring Wilde back into it as a living force. His words are everywhere. The small door of his cell stands like a headstone in the chapel, carved with its Cyclops eye. It isn’t hard to imagine Wilde’s hand on the wood, as so many others have left their mark (I love Mary, 10 days left). He knew the back of it by the inch, and now you know it too. The jail is astonishingly timeless.

And so is Wilde himself, of course. How perfectly he would have understood the redemption of history through art, the idea of installation art, of places and sounds as commemorations. How seamlessly he would have joined the cast of performers – Neil Bartlett, Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes, Ragnar Kjartansson, among others – reading De Profundis in jail. They will do this every Sunday in the chapel to a fully visible audience. How Oscar Wilde would have loved it.

Arts of sauciest

Facebook’s habit of censoring great art has gone from the silly to the utterly surreal after it claimed that a drawing of a hand by Holbein breached its community standards.

The social media giant has previously been criticised for banning Gustave Courbet’s painting The Origin of the World (1866), a masterpiece of modern art that hangs for anyone to see in the popular Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Now, not content with censoring a painting studied by every art history student, it has temporarily banned a work whose offensiveness is very hard indeed to discern.

Poussin’s Nymph With Satyrs (c1627). Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

After all, Courbet’s Origin of the World is a work of genuine erotic provocation. But who can see kinkiness in a 16th-century drawing of the hand of Erasmus? Apparently there was something suspect about Holbein’s precise study (paywall) of the great Renaissance humanist’s right hand in the eyes of a Facebook regulator. The online empire has reversed its decision after art fans posted hands by artists such as Dürer and Leonardo as a protest: it blamed “human error” for the bizarre act of censorship.

It would be more reassuring if computer error were to blame, yet according toFacebook this is no algorithmic accident. An actual conscious human brain honestly thought a Renaissance drawing of a hand was obscene. Or did the curator think it was being published without proper copyright permission? That would open a huge hornet’s nest, but Holbein’s drawing is about 500 years old so fair use surely applies.

It is baffling. Still, it got me thinking. Hands can be obscene in art – of course they can. Fingers can be suggestive, saucy things. Here are some hands Facebook should watch out for.

Nicolas Poussin’s painting Nymph With Satyrs (c1627) features a hand that a nude nymph is using – as the National Gallery’s wall text helpfully explains – to give herself pleasure. She is “so absorbed in her activity”, points out the wall text, that she doesn’t notice the satyrs getting their own pleasure by watching her. The graceful fingers of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) also lie suggestively placed, ready for fun.

This is a frequent scenario in Renaissance art. No wonder that when Edouard Manet gave his modern nude Olympia a pale white hand whose fingers caress her own thigh, the shocked salon audience fixated on this hand as an especially obscene detail. Perhaps Manet was thinking of Hokusai’s Shunga masterpiece The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife when he made Olympia’s fingers look vaguely octopoid.

A still from Un Chien Andalou. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

In surrealist art, the hand becomes even dirtier. Salvador Dalí’s 1929 painting The Lugubrious Game shows a statue of some distinguished man with a hugely enlarged hand. This guilty masturbator covers his eyes in shame, as his fantasies unfold in front of him. In the same year that he painted this, Dalí collaborated with Luis Buñuel on the film Un Chien Andalou, which features a young woman who fixates on a severed hand in the street, and another image in which a man sees his own hand covered in ants.

Perhaps the Facebook censor who made this “human error” had been watching Un Chien Andalou the night before and mistook Holbein for a surrealist. It turns out hands are not so innocent after all.