Category Archives: Arts

The happiness of art

Iwas just “a wee scrap”, as my father would say, when we left the north east coast of Scotland for the south coast of England. Dad is from London, but after six years living in Dundee he was pretty much bilingual.

Then he joined the army and for the next decade my brother and I were shunted around various military bases, clocking up schools and fighting over bedrooms, but the one thing that grounded us was the fact that we came from Dundee.

I learned how to be Dundonian by listening to my mother (Dundee born and bred), and from highly anticipated trips back. And I pored over The Broons andOor Wullie: iconic cartoon strips written in broad Scots that first appeared in The Sunday Post in 1936 and still come out as annuals every Christmas. My language is, I’m told, peppered with words and phrases from mid-century Dundee. “It’s like talking to my granny,” said a friend when I was last up.

Public art: the author’s Oor Wullie sculpture, which ‘snows’ when someone approaches.

So whenever I get the chance to go back, I do so in a spirit of great excitement. To my mind, Scotland’s fourth largest city has always been a little pot of gold at the end of the A92: the place where I first tasted tablet, a proper fish supper, and Scotch pies – from Doig’s, naturally. It was where my older cousin bought me my first record (“Jan-u-arry” by Pilot, second-hand from Groucho’s), where I spotted my first red squirrel but never quite caught sight of the haggis that roamed the hills.

I realise now that this impression of Dundee is not everyone’s. Often the disclosure of my birthplace is met with snorts of derision. The worst critics seem to be Dundonians themselves. Poet and musician Don Paterson describes the recent regeneration efforts as “post-apocalyptic”. ChefJeremy Lee, who admits to having a soft spot for the city, talks about “a black cloud of negativity hovering above and in many cases in it”.

But on a sunny day, with the wind behind it (so often the case), Dundee does a great long weekend – and its position just below the Cairngorms makes it a good stop-off for Highland trips. I was commissioned to make a public artwork there this summer, as part of the popular Oor Wullie Bucket Trail, and was glad of the chance to reacquaint myself with this handsome, misunderstood city.

How things have changed. Arriving by train means walking past the magnificent RRS Discovery, the tall ship in which Captain Scott travelled to the Antarctic, currently dwarfed by the adjacent building site that will, in two years’ time, become the V&A Museum of Design.

Last time I was here I built a replica of The Broons’ but ’n’ ben (their highland cottage) at the McManus, the fantastically gothic museum and art gallery. This time, continuing what has become something of a theme, I made an interactive sculpture, Oor Wullie in a 7ft snowglobe, which was duly wheeled into its temporary home at Ninewells Hospital on a surgical trolley by a consultant anaesthetist.

Ninewells arrived after I first left, and the hospital I was born in, the historic Dundee Royal Infirmary, has since become “yuppie flats”, a taxi driver told me. Doig’s, our family pie purveyor of choice, is gone. If you want a decent hit of grey meat in water-crust pastry you must go to Goodfellow & Steven on the Perth Road.

The Oor Wullie Bucket Trail has been very popular among Dundonians and tourists, with more than 50 painted sculptures of the comic-strip laddie installed all over the city, from the top of the Law to the banks of the Tay. Among them are Oor Bowie, a homage to the Starman himself, and Woodland Wullie, by the first female cartoonist at DC Thomson, who worked on The Dandy. All will be auctioned on 13 September.

Wild at heart: the famous statue of Desperate Dan. Photograph: Alamy

I often wonder if my decision to study art was somehow mixed up with Dundee. The city has long been a hub of creativity – albeit a quietly seething one. Some of the derelict jute mills are now occupied by artists and designers. It’s a little-known fact that the computer game Grand Theft Auto was created here. There’s Dundee Contemporary Arts, renowned for its exhibitions (and restaurant). And you can’t miss the statue of Desperate Dan near the Caird Hall, testament to the enduring legacy of DC Thomson’s comic heroes.

Down at the Overgate, I nipped out to the shops, dodging the giant seagulls that divebomb passers-by for their sandwiches. Inside is the biggest branch of Greggs I’ve ever seen. Maybe that explains the size of the birds. Weirdly, right next door to the shopping centre is the Howff, an atmospheric and ancient cemetery, which makes for a slightly jarring transition when stepping from one to the other: like a very dark episode of Mr Benn.

My uncle Jim once told me that a one-eyed gangster named “Och Aye’’ stalked Dundee’s badlands, but I’ve yet to spot him. He’d make a great comic strip character though.

Great art

Why do people go to art galleries? For me, it’s to improve the taste of a cup of tea.

This is something my mother taught me, early in life, about buying clothes. If you make a successful visit to a clothes shop, you can have tea and cake afterwards.

Some people evidently consider clothes shopping a pleasure in itself, but my mother was not of that school and neither am I. There’s no joy for us in schlepping up and down crowded high streets, squeezing in and out of silken disappointments. The experience is hot, dull and demoralising. (Less demoralising for my mother than me, because she’s slender and everything fits, but, like the guests at Jay Gatsby’s parties, she is both slender and easily bored.)

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So I was not brought up to believe that shopping is a viable leisure activity. It can be hell, my mother explained, but it’s a hell mitigated by the presence of cafes. I would trot happily behind her round the Brent Cross shopping centre, knowing we’d soon be sitting in Lindy’s with a cup of tea and a cheesecake (in my mother’s case, a cigarette) (and in my case, a cheesecake and a cigarette), rewarding ourselves for acquiring whatever lay in the C&A bag at our feet. Owning new clothes was, and is, exciting; the problem was the acquisition bit.

That’s all fine. I’m happy to declare it openly. Being bored by clothes shopping feels smart and intellectual: “Ooh, get me, insufficiently entertained by racks of skinny jeans; my mind is on higher things.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t on higher things. Privately, I feel the same way about art galleries. The best thing about them is the cup of tea afterwards. Its taste is improved by a sense of achievement, of a well-earned rest, of something done.

I’ve been thinking about this because of a certain Stephen Ellcock. He’s been in the news after being banned from Facebook for “breaching community standards” with a Holbein drawing of Erasmus’s hand.

Whether the disembodied hand was considered too sexy for Facebook, or too grisly, nobody knows. Facebook admitted it was a mistake and lifted the ban. The whole story has been rather useful for Mr Ellcock, as it has drawn attention to his bigger Facebook project: he is posting myriad images of artworks in an attempt to create a fully accessible cyber-gallery. Most major galleries put their collections on the internet these days, but Mr Ellcock says he hopes to build his own “online museum, in the same way Uber is a cab company without any cabs”.

I’ve had a look at the museum so far. He’s certainly energetic. On the evening of 28 August, between 7.15pm and 10.07pm, he posted a different Japanese artwork every three minutes.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of them. I liked the one of the frog. The one of the plum tree (“spans nearly sixteen feet across four sliding panels”) sounded like it would be quite impressive if you saw it in real life. On my computer it’s 5cm across.

Not that I would’ve had a more profound experience if I’d seen the original. Here are some things I have thought while standing in front of the world’s great artworks:

“So that’s the Mona Lisa. She’s got one of those flat faces like people have in old paintings. I thought it would be a bit more lifelike, more eyes-followey. I wonder what would happen if I ran at it with a marker pen. Is it someone else’s turn to stand in front of it? Shall I move? Or does that look like I’m not appreciating it properly?”

“Is Judas meant to look guiltier than the rest of them? They all look guilty! If that was a poker game I’d pick my money up and get out fast. What are they having for this supper? I can’t make it out. Is it bread rolls? It looks like bread rolls. I’d have thought bread rolls were a more recent thing. I’m hungry. I wonder if they do sandwiches.”

“Small cock. I wonder if you could do that on a 3D printer? Those veins on his arms really look like veins, I must say. I suppose while I’m here I should go round the back and look at the bum. Yes. There it is. Now what? You’re supposed to admire sculpture from all angles, otherwise people think you’re a philistine. But maybe it’s creepy to stare for ages at a nude one. I’ll go round the front again. No that’s worse.”

Is this happening in everyone’s heads? It can’t be. I can’t believe that 100% of the people who stand in art galleries looking at art are thinking: “Well, here I am, looking at art.” They must be having some sort of other, unselfconscious experience.

It’s not that I can’t find art beautiful. I just don’t know what to do, standing there in the gallery. I don’t know what to think about. Once I’ve seen it I’ve seen it; that takes about two seconds. I am interested and then immediately bored, immediately.

I think other people must have an inner calm, a serenity, which makes it possible for them to stand there without thinking about how they’re standing there. Me, it’s like I can hear a giant comedy clock ticking. It’s awful.

But I want art galleries to exist. It would be even more awful if there weren’t any. And they will close if people think they can get the same experience online. So I have to hope Stephen Ellcock’s great project is a failure: that his virtual gallery won’t do for art what Uber is doing to cabs.

I need people who love looking at art to keep going to art galleries, because otherwise I’ll have to go myself.

How to Reinvent Yourself

We all evolve. Change is an absolute. Life is about mental, physical and spiritual growth. The more introspection, the faster there is growth. Sometimes we need to accelerate our growth and this may require reinvention.

Reinvention usually comes from immediate need. You may have the need to overcome great hardship, to prove yourself to yourself or others, or you may need to live a better life. Marriage, divorce, separation, addiction, cancer, near death, new job, failing business, and bankruptcy can all facilitate swift change in one’s mindset.

We all evolve. Change is an absolute. Life is about mental, physical and spiritual growth

Multiple times in a lifetime, most humans need reinvention. The transition from infancy to early childhood is a great time to showcase your character. Reinvention. The only child that suddenly has a baby brother and needs more attention comes to mind. Reinvention. Teenagers are desperately seeking change to find their adult identity. Reinvention. Turning 30 will get most of us to start taking life more seriously. Reinvention. Millions seek change when they turn 40 or 50. This mid-life crisis can be the embryo of a new red corvette, sleek yacht, complete makeover or even a new significant other. Reinvention. Approaching the backside of life can be scary. Hustling to check off your bucket list can be disturbing for your long-time loved ones. However, sometimes we just need to reinvent ourselves.

Miley Cyrus needed change. Her Hannah Montana character with Disney was a huge hit. It was an American television series that originally aired on the Disney Channel from March 24, 2006 until January 16, 2011. It aired 98 episodes across four seasons and launched the young actress into the minds of millions of fans.

As Miley matured, the persona of Hannah Montana and the responsibility to millions of fans and their parents became overwhelming. Miley was not Hannah. Miley needed swift change to showcase her adulthood, her sexuality and her new way of thinking and acting. So she shocked the public with her VMA Award Show performance that blasted through social media as her Hannah Montana persona was publically eliminated forever. Her sexually charged dance moves swept her directly into the adult marketplace, catapulted her on to magazines covers, Saturday Night Live television, the Jimmy Fallon Show, and launched a #1 selling album. Reinvention came overnight like a FedEx package.

The list of reinvention in the entertainment industry is a long one. Hip Hop artist Snoop Dogg legally changed his name to Snoop Lion and reinvented himself as a Bob Marley clone with his latest reggae-sounding album appropriately titled, Reincarnated.

Even though Ben Affleck won a best original screenplay Oscar with pal Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting, he wasn’t always taken seriously in showbiz thanks to his personal life and some dubious film choices. However, the now husband and father began taking on respected projects such as The Town and Argo, which earned Affleck his second Oscar.

Mark Wahlberg had many legal troubles as a teen growing up in Boston. He became Marky Mark with the Funky Bunch in 1991 releasing his hit album, Good Vibrations. He reinvented from a troubled past and Marky Mark of the Funky Bunch into a serious actor, appearing in films such asBoogie Nights and The Fighter. Now with the blockbuster-hit movie Ted, he has showcased his comedic side with one of his best starring roles. He’s even the executive producer of Entourageand How to Make It Happen in America.

Former Mouseketeer Justin Timberlake went from one-fifth of the boy band *N Sync to a solo force of nature with success in music, business ventures and acting.

Arnold Schwarzenegger went from being a professional bodybuilder and starring in movies such as The Terminator and Predator to serving two terms as the governor of California. Reinvention is at the top of his list now after a failed marriage, fathering a child with his housekeeper, and no longer being a physical force of nature.

Reinvention is a way to take charge of your life. If you are going down a pathway that is wrong for you, make a change. Here are 10 ways to reinvent yourself.

1. See the new you. Envision the new you. See in your mind how you want your friends, family and work associates as they react to the new you.

2. Sell you on the New YOU. Change your inner dialogue. Talk to yourself in the most positive manner. Never put yourself down. Always encourage. Write a brief 60-second commercial on the awesomeness of you. Open this monologue with a power statement and be sure and showcase all of your strengths. Now in private, deliver this speech to the universe with passion and confidence. Repetition will facilitate a quicker change. The greatest sales job is selling you on you.

3. Be patient. Do not be in a rush to make drastic change. And even if you do, be patient in the desired results. Positive change in how others respond may take more time than you think.

4. Change your Seeables. Spruce up your closets, bathroom, bedroom, garage, car and personal wardrobe. Everything that you see and other people see on a daily basis needs an upgrade.

5. Deal from strength. Every champion that I have coached to a world title built their success on what they do best. Leading with your strengths will give you the confidence to facilitate swift change. Find your niche strengths. Assess what you do well and compare this to your competition. What comes naturally? What is easy for you? These are your special gifts that you’ve inherited or honed. Now develop them further. Understand what people compliment the most about you. These may be a strength you haven’t realized.

6. Find your purpose. This may take more time than you like. If you will relax and just ask this question, “What is my purpose in life?” for 7-10 days every night before you go to sleep, the answer will appear. Trust me.

Reinvention is a way to take charge of your life

7. Take down the rearview mirror. The best in the world only go into the past for analysis, evaluation and swift learning. And with a solid plan of where they want to go, they stay focused in the moment. Keep your eye on the horizon.

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.

Inside the home of Sue Dunkley

My house was built in 1834,” Sue Dunkley told the Islington Express in 2003, “It speaks to me and inspires me all the time. You can be anonymous here. Eight exhibitions have come out of this house since I’ve been here. And all the time only four people have knocked to ask what I’m doing.”

The day I knock at 437 Liverpool Road, Islington, the artist’s daughter, Jane, answers the door and leads me into the front room where her mother worked for 40 years. There are paintings and pastels covering every wall, others stacked under plastic sheets, notebooks, art reference books and magazines piled on tables and a paint-encrusted high stool, which she used as a makeshift mixing palette. It is every inch a working artist’s room, cluttered with materials and alive with works-in-progress.

Except they are no longer works-in-progess – all of them will remain unfinished, a testament to Dunkley’s relentless creativity but also evidence of the onset of dementia. She is currently in a care home, having been diagnosed with the condition seven years ago.

Sue Dunkley at home in 1974. Photograph: Courtesy Sue Dunkley and Jane Bodie

“As far as I can ascertain, my mother stopped working 10 years ago and that was the moment her memory started to disintegrate,” says Jane, a playwright who now lives in Australia, but has returned to clear out and impose some order on the vast Georgian house in preparation for a retrospective of her mother’s work.

“When the work stopped, the house started to become chaotic. I’ve found notes and letters to doctors, so I think she was aware of what was happening to her. It’s been painful. I’ve collapsed crying on the floor a few times. I have had to clear the house, because I cannot let it go. But to pay for her care, we need to raise money.”

Even in the throes of a frantic clear out, the sprawling house evokes a bohemian life lived to the full. “My mother was a voracious talker and lover of language, as the writing in her sketchbooks attest,” says Jane. “She was obsessed with Seamus Heaney, who bought one of her paintings, and there is a book by him inscribed to her upstairs. The house was a gathering place for like-minded souls as well as a place of intense solitary creativity. She somehow balanced the two extremes.”

Woman in Mirror (1968). Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

Born in 1942, Sue Dunkley came of age as an artist in the 1960s and, for a time, looked set to become as feted as the stylishly beautiful Pauline Boty, the lone female of Britain’s pop art scene. In 1966, Nova magazine, the arbiter of all things cool, profiled her in an article titled Woman in a Hurry: “She talks a great deal, very fast … She is clearly very gifted: the not-quite-abstract bodies swirling up though the bright talkative colours were very like their creator, wholly in character.”

Later, she had a successful one-woman show at the Thumb gallery on D’Arblay Street in Soho, which the Guardian described as “images of women and interiors” created from a sense of “disquiet”. She told the reviewer: “I knew as a young artist the roles I would have to enact would cause conflict. Women, artist. Mother, artist. I need to wrestle with the devil sometimes, and am aware that often the charge needed to realise an image is in conflict with other aspects of my life.”

Her daughter recalls that conflict first-hand. “Sometimes we were a bit overlooked as children because her work came first,” says Jane. “It’s what artists do. I remember I came home early from school one day because I wasn’t very well and I stuck a note under her door. I knew not to bother her. I thought that was the norm.”

The periods of intense creativity were broken by spells of entertaining in the basement kitchen. “She used to call herself a garrulous hermit,” says Jane, laughing. “She had big gatherings, lots of smoking and drinking and talking into the night. My brother and I would often find young men in the kitchen drinking wine and Nina Simone blaring out. She was wild and free.”

Regular visitors to the house included the artist Howard Hodgkin, who once painted Sue, and Roger Waters and his wife, Jude, who lived just around the corner in the early 70s. “My dad was a musician – he once toured with Dire Straits – and a builder. He did up Roger’s house and they became friends just before Dark Side of the Moon came out.”

North Korean refugee drawings

Manbok Kim remembers the house she fled 66 years ago as if it were yesterday. “We had a large orchard,” she recalled. “There were so many apples on the trees.”

Manbok Kim’s drawing of her home in North Korea.

Now 87, Kim is one of 500 North Korean refugees who have contributed a drawing of the home they were forced to flee during the Korean War, as part of a public artwork by the South Korean artist Ik-Joong Kang.

The floating installation, part of the Totally Thames festival that opens on Thursday, is a seven-metre-high illuminated cube constructed from hundreds of 70 x 70cm drawings, which were transferred from palm-sized sketches on Korean rice paper.

All the participants fled the North during the Korean war, which ended in 1953 in an armistice, not a peace agreement. The two countries have technically remained at war ever since, and many of the North Koreans who fled have been permanently separated from their loved ones since, forced to build a new life after the border was effectively sealed.

In the decades since, North Korea has become increasingly secretive and isolated. In a report released last year, the UN accused the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, of crimes against humanity. The report concluded that the country’s leadership was committing systematic and appalling rights abuses against its own citizens on a scale unparalleled in the modern world.

The sculpture will float beside the Millennium Bridge for a month. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid

To find participants for the project, Kang visited South Korea’s numerous naengmyeon restaurants, which serve a popular northern speciality of buckwheat noodles with ice.

With a team of volunteers, the artist collected stories and drawings from the refugees he met. “It was an amazing emotional experience,” Kang said. “At first, they were very shy. They told me: ‘No I cannot, I cannot even draw.’ Then they paused and thought about their hometowns, and their families and friends … and they were overwhelmed with emotion.”

Among the 300 volunteers gathering drawings was the South Korean unification minister, Hong Yong-pyo, who was also deeply moved by the process. “When I saw him [Hong] crying, I thought, ‘He really cares’. Maybe he will make it happen … There is hope for unification,” Kang said.

There are an estimated 200,000 North Korean refugees living in South Korea. Many of them have spent most of their lives in the South and have never been able to revisit their hometowns, an important part of Korean cultu

“Paying a visit to an ancestor’s grave is [a] very important ritual, especially on the day of Chuseok [the Korean version of thanksgiving], or other festive days,” Kang said. “This year’s Chuseok is 15 September and tens of millions of Koreans will be jammed on the highways to go back to their hometowns. It’s a real mass migration. Chuseok is one of the happiest days to some people and the saddest day to others from the North.”

Art for reunification

Kang was born in 1960 in South Korea. “During the 1970s, signs and slogans of ‘bangong’ [anti-communism] were everywhere: on every street, government buildings and schools,” he said. “We were taught [that] communism was evil.”

In 1984, the artist moved to New York. On his daily commute into the city, he painted on three-inch canvases that he carried in his pocket. By the time he was invited to represent South Korea at the 47th Venice Biennale in 1997, he had created more than 200,000 works.

Kang represented South Korea at the 47th Venice Biennale in 1997. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid

In the years that followed, Kang decided to create public works envisioning the reunification of Korea. “My idea was very simple: let’s make a bridge over the Imjin river,” he said, referring to a waterway that flows from north to south, crossing the demilitarised zone, and the site of a major battle during the Korean war.

Unusually for a South Korean artist, Kang has visited the North twice, in 2000 and 2002, to work on a project called 100,000 Dreams. The artist said he was deeply affected by his visits. “I went to North Korea and the entire population is taught to hate us. Who’s going to break this chain of hatred?”

His next project will be installed at the Odusan Unification Observatory in Paju, in the demilitarised zone, a five-floor observation platform from which North Korea can be seen with the naked eye. Opening in November, the work is a permanent display of 15,000 drawings by refugees. In 2017, Kang will be the subject of a retrospective exhibition in Seoul.

Kang believes the unification of Korea is possible, but many of the ageing refugees fear that their dreams of seeing home again may only be realised in rice paper drawings.

But Hyunsik Kim, 82, remains hopeful. “If I go back to my hometown, I want to build a new home where my old house was and live there. Even if it’s just for a day or a month.”

Modernist marvel of art

In the late 1930s, a family called the Vaclaviks left the Czech town of Zlín, travelled to Africa, then moved to a house in Essex. At the time, they had no idea how distinctive their new place was, or would become. They were just happy to live there. Golf-mad Alois Vaclavik was particularly taken with the garden, where he would practise his putting, while his wife Jarmila made Czech cakes in the kitchen.

Alois Vaclavik was an employee of the Czech shoe giant Bata and the house was part of the estate – actually more of a town – that the company built in East Tilbury in the 1930s. His cuboid-shaped home and the other houses around it still feel both self-contained and spacious, cosy and civilising – a bridge between the toil of the worker and the intellectual idealism of the age in which they were built.

‘I had a group of 20 architects visit’ … May Rippingale in front of her house on the Bata estate in East Tilbury. Photograph: Martin Godwin/For the Guardian

May Rippingale, one of the Vaclaviks’ children, is sitting in the shaded part of the garden where she used to play as a young girl. She bought the family home in the 1980s when the estate was put up for sale. “A couple of years ago,” she says, “I had a group of 20 architects visit. They went round the house and told me what was wrong with it! That the bannister was dangerous for children and the balcony wouldn’t be allowed.”

Shoe production via conveyor belt at the Bata factory.

As an entrepreneur, Tomáš Baťa mimicked Henry Ford’s conveyor-belt system in his shoe factories, but his footwear Fordism was allied with a utopian vision of community living. Though Baťa died in a plane crash in Switzerland just months after buying the land in Essex, he had left explicit instructions as to how the project should unfold.

Construction began in 1932. As well as the chequerboard of workers’ houses, there was a Bata supermarket, a Bata shoe shop and a Bata farm that supplied bacon, eggs and milk for guests’ breakfasts at the Bata hotel. There were tennis and netball courts, a swimming pool and full-size football pitches provided for workers’ leisure (West Ham trained here and played an annual charity match against Bata’s team, which Bata once won, according to local lore). Scooters and motorbikes lined up outside the espresso bar, which opened in 1963 complete with a coffee machine and jukebox.

These days, the purpose-built cinema is used as a village hall, while the hotel ballroom, where Tom Jones once played, has been transformed into the post office, its original parquet floor now wearing down to the bitumen. East Tilbury library, tucked away round the back of the old hotel on the edge of the largely intact estate, doubles as the Bata Heritage Centre.

Bata’s very happening mid-60s espresso bar.

A team of volunteers – former Bata workers or retirees whose parents once worked there – will be giving tours of East Tilbury during the forthcoming Essex architecture weekend. Part of Focal Point Gallery in Southend’s ongoing Radical Essex project, this series of architectural tours and talks aims to shine a light on the little-celebrated story of Essex modernism, from Romford in Greater London, to Frinton on its northeastern coast, to Crittall Windows’ model village in Silver End. Rippingale is opening up her house during the weekend.

East Tilbury, like all Bata towns, followed the blueprint of the industrial garden city of Zlín, a fully realised 45,000-strong worker town complete with a 16-storey-high HQ by the time the second world war started. It was designed by a pupil of Le Corbusier, František Lydie Gahura, and by Vladimír Karfík, who had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright. “Under this rational mechanism,” said Le Corbusier on a visit to Zlín, “I perceived a much more valued and effective factor – the human heart.” The same sentiment echoes around accounts of East Tilbury in its heyday.

Mick Pinion grew up on the Bata estate. His father already worked at the factory when he became an apprentice engineer straight out of school in 1966. “You were dropped in at the deep end – you had to learn on the job,” says Pinion. “If you had a Bata apprenticeship, you could get a job anywhere.” The Essex factory employed 3,000 people at its peak in the 1960s and 70s. Czech management moved there, as well as immigrants from all over the world. Some elements of the Bata way might seem intrusive by today’s standards. “People knew if their garden was overgrown they would be pulled into the office and asked politely to sort it out,” says former employee Graham Sutcliffe. “It made them respect the town a bit more.”

Find the sweet art

unduhan-3For me, it’s marshmallows. The moment I catch the scent of powdered sugar I remember lying with my head in my grandmother’s lap as a child. For Benjamin Loyauté, it’s apple-flavoured sticks from Rouen that exert the Proustian pull, transporting him back to his Normandy childhood and squabbles with his twin sister over the sugary treats.

Sweets may be universal, but the nostalgia they hold is intense and intimate, which is why – says Loyauté – they are the perfect vehicle for his long-term project to highlight the “immaterial heritage” of Syria. With a man-bun and a curator’s love of critical theory, the Brussels based artist and designer makes an unexpected confectioner. Yet when we meet in the foyer of his London hotel, on the table in front of us are little packets of pink candies created to his exacting specifications.

At first glance they could be the cheap sweets sold by Syrian street vendors, except that each is shaped to resemble an “eye idol” – those ancient Syrian figurines whose use and meaning archaeologists are still debating. Loyauté describes his sweets as “transmitter objects” – everyday things with “a real value and symbolic value linked to emotion, history, heritage”. In other words, as it says on one of his text paintings: “candy keeps the past alive.”

“One woman said she never ate these candies because they are sold on dusty trolleys – they are not for rich people,” he explains. “It was only when they started disappearing from the streets thanks to the war, that she realised: ‘I miss them’.”

I can’t wait any longer and break off our chat to open the simple plastic packet and pop one in my mouth. The soft texture yields an intense burst of sugar and rose. For an artwork, they are pretty delicious. And at this month’s London DesignBiennale, visitors will get their own chance to scoff. Loyauté’s exhibit includes “a practical sculpture”, otherwise known as a vending machine. For £5, it will dispense a packet of the sweets and design buffs will be invited “to do their bit”.

The money put into the machine will directly transfer to the Mosaic initiative, a small London-based charity which distributes aid, both within Syria and to educational projects for Syrian refugees elsewhere. If Loyauté has his way, it will be only the first step in a Willy Wonka-ish ambition to bring people together through sweets.

Despite Baťa’s original vision, his Essex outpost only reached a third of its planned size after Bata was nationalised by the communists in the wake of the second world war. Decline set in during the late 1970s and, by the new millennium, there were only 200 employees left in East Tilbury. Bata closed the factory in 2005, moving most of its manufacturing to Malaysia.

Rippingale and her siblings resisted following their parents into the footwear business. She became a secretary and moved to London, only later buying the family home. Once teeming with workers who clocked in to music piped out of speakers at the company gates each morning, the listed factory buildings are now owned by a storage company, and the estate is looking a little rundown.

Despite this, East Tilbury has generated a steady and growing interest among architects. The Bauhaus foundation has paid a visit, says Pinion, and the last piece of Bata Trust land was sold recently to a developer, Cogent Land, which has built a portion of new housing faithful to the original modernist designs. The whole Bata estate is a conservation area and there is talk of the houses being listed in line with the factory buildings.

Radical Essex’s talk of the county as “the cradle of modernism” is an attempt to to get a grip on its sprawl. As Nikolaus Pevsner wrote in his 1954 book The Buildings of England: “The county is too big and varied to be taken in as one.” Characterised by rivers, creeks, marshland and an abundance of overpopulated A-roads, rather than by any particular architectural style, the Essex look has flitted with the political wind: from weatherboarded houses to Barratt estates, early 20th century “plotland” bungalows to mid-century new towns later sold off under Thatcher’s right to buy.