Category Archives: Art

Updated – I Don’t Know Much About Art


I was watching a natural history programme the other evening; of the type where the out-of-his-comfort-zone Westerner is constantly amazed by the survival skills of the people who’ve lived in the area in question for hundreds of generations. In amongst the subtly patronising comments and sweeping vistas so essential to such a chunk of television (North Greenland in this instance), invariably we are invited to be revolted by the base nature of their eating habits. Bruce, our host, was offered the eyeball of a recently dispatched seal. Whilst it didn’t appear to be valued as a delicacy, it was apparent that one of the Inuit hunters was giving up something he considered special. Bruce didn’t hesitate, and sucked the contents of the eyeball down. And with it, he balled his eyes up, retched a little and generally made sure that his hosts knew what he thought of their little treat. I’ve had dinner guests like that, but I was asking them to appreciate my chicken curry, and they could reasonably have expected their meal to have been edible.

Serve up seal eyeballs to a restaurant critic at any NY restaurant, and (unless they are Anthony Bourdain or suffering from the most serious case of Emperor’s New Clothes) the resulting review will be unfavourable at best, a simple cartoon of spluttering Bruce at worst. You’re wondering what the fuck I’m on about, so perhaps I should cut to the chase; different people like different things, and this is the only truth about art.

Take the case of Damien Hirst. Much like my dinner guests anticipated that eating my food would not lead to prolonged visits to the bathroom, I was expecting the recent Damien Hirst No Love Lost, Blue Paintings exhibition to be challenging and witty. Unfortunately they were mediocre pastiches of Francis Bacon, as if copied for a high school art project. This was compounded by the fact that Hirst had spent a small fortune persuading the Wallace Collection to show the pieces. That these paintings are his own work, rather than the product of his workshops, is telling. The work preceding was the spectacular For The Love Of God; maybe he set the bar too high? The work after is the very similar For Heaven’s Sake which smacks of desperation. Oh, Damien, how confusing. And then, in early June, I was given a glimpse into his new project. Half of me wishes I could share (by the time this is in print you may already have seen the painful fruits of his latest work), but the other half is genuinely excited to have had an “in” before not only most of the world, but the majority of the art world. The project that he is involved in with several other names finally moves the Banksy commercial question into a challenging new direction, something the wall dauber has consistently failed to do. This critic’s mind’s-eye sees the quality graph of his recent portfolio as a heartbeat monitor – at least he isn’t flat lining. But this is all my opinion. Art is subjective, you and I can like what we want. And art critics sometimes forget that.

Robert Mapplethorpe was able to divide opinion like almost no other. In the 1980s it seemed every accessible published word was written by the shocked moral majority; the same breed that delights in taking offence at issues large and small in the 2010s, Twittering horror, emailing outrage and registering digital disgust. It’s true that the photography of Mapplethorpe was challenging, and some of the later work, especially of children, flirted with the very boundaries of decency. However, unless one actively seeks out this work alone, stumbling across the nudes is highly unlikely. Many people will have seen his touching portraits of Patti Smith and developed an understanding of his work as a whole, rather than being wilfully upset by the homoerotic images. I was in San Francisco at Fulsom Fair time, a couple of years ago. There with work for a conference on marine fuels (yes folks, some of us have lived the dream, tasted true manna), three of my colleagues decided to go to the fair; middle-class, straight white girls from London off to gawp and point and whisper at the strange gay men. I declined the invitation to go, as I don’t approve of zoos, human or otherwise. They returned ashen-faced and faux-corrupted. I asked them what they had expected, “Well, not that”, was the reply. Within three minutes, there were 3 digital cameras in front of me, accompanied by a commentary of all the disgusting and vile acts committed in public – all looked like fucking good fun, literally. My opinion was completely different to theirs, but was torn apart as invalid. As the evening wore on, more drink taken, I lost my patience. “Don’t tell me what to think,” was my petulant response, starting in motion an untenable situation that led to my eventual resignation. To be told how to respond to anything – art, life, anything – is to assume a lack of intelligence, a lack of sense. Or, worse, it is the arrogant belief that the critic’s subjective opinion is the only one worth considering.

Jeff Koons’s self-portrait photographs with his then lover, Cicciolina are far less shocking to me than his ambiguous sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles. My mother, my nephew and a legion of fans will most certainly see it through different lenses. No doubt some people see the epic seascapes painted by JMW Turner in his later years as the daubings of a near-blind, over-praised old man – I have sat for an age in front of just one painting, endlessly intrigued by this brush-stroke taking wave to cloud, questioning whether the brilliance of painting with failing sight can be regarded as the true beginning of Impressionism.

You’ll have to excuse me for a slightly UK-centric look at what must be a global occurrence, but such is my frame of reference. We have an annual art award, The Turner Prize, which never fails to get the more reactionary mainstream press hitting the “be outraged” key for the chattering classes. Over the years the media used by nominees has included elephant dung (Chris Ofili); concrete (Rachel Whiteread’s internal cast of a house); bronze (the Chapman Brothers’ Death which was painted to look like the blow up dolls and dildo that they had cast); a bed (Tracey Emin); and pottery (Grayson Perry). Not, “provocateurs” Chapman Brothers. Not, “shocking” Tracey Emin. Not, “challenging” Grayson Perry. I’ll be the one to decide how provoked, shocked or challenged I am by a piece of art.

The best critics, those that I look up to and hope to emulate (rip-off, plagiarise, imitate, fail to get near to) have forthright opinions that they present to and not foist upon readers – let’s face it, as consumers of their words readers are unlikely to need to be told what to think. Just by being attracted to an article of this nature, the reader is demonstrating a certain intelligence or at least an inquisitive mind – only a pseud needs telling what to think. One critic who often, but not always, pulls off the feat of presenting and not foisting is Jonathon Jones, in the UK’s Guardian newspaper (http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog). The joy of his writing is that anyone can comment – he defends his position, sometimes as an elegant fencer, epee-ing contributors easily. At others times, he snarls and swipes like a cornered tiger. He doesn’t always win, but he never shies away from a fight. I’d suggest searching for his May 2011 article on Mark Leckey. Not only does he defend his current opinion, he also (quite remarkably) has to defend his right to change his mind.

However, even those who like to think they live outside “the system” or recognised art establishment aren’t immune to shouting their opinions at us. Protests about the Turner Prize are not limited to the playfully ignorant press. Happily, this is done with a wit and knowingness that words alone cannot convey. Banksy had one of his finer moments when he stencilled “Mind The Crap” on the steps of the Tate before the prize-giving one year; something which might have already come back to haunt him, in the derivative, dull and ultimately pointless Exit Through The Gift Shop, may mark him down as a hypocrite as he expressed a desire to support his nomination at this year’s Oscars ceremony, or perhaps it’s one more example of his searingly post-modern criticism of art. You decide.

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Mighty Samurai Pen – An Interview With Wataru Yoshida


Wataru Yoshida was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1987. In 2007, Wataru chose to pursue an education in design at the Tama Art University, majoring in graphic design and illustration. He enjoys working intensively, and his illustration series “Body” is no exception to that rule. His design interests are not limited to illustration. Wataru’s work has been shown in other related design mediums. His portfolio includes works that have been incorporated into the posters, advertising, photography, designs for T-shirts, manufactured goods, even catalogues. One of his designs of T-shirt, for example, features an illustrated body structure that matches the physical system underneath, when worn. Wataru believes everything starts with an idea. When creating his work, his focus remains on creating images that are new and interesting.

It wasn’t going to be easy, interviewing Wataru Yoshida in Tokyo, Japan whilst I was in the final days of a short chapter in Samara, Russia. I had no teleporter, and despite repeated pleas about the necessity of a face to face interview and a Japanese language implant in my brain (they have those now, right? I mean, as I remember of the sci-fi promises from my dimming and distancing youth, that was coming before the flying car and after the food pills), the editors were having none of it. I mean, business class would have sufficed, and a translator.

I’ve been to Japan once before, and I didn’t understand the place very well; it was a three day stopover and I was confused at every turn. What will I make of Wata? Introducing ourselves over Skype messenger, it became clear that Wata’s English eclipsed my Japanese, but it was not quick enough for a fluent chat…you are about to read a re-jigged version of our Skype/email conversation.

>Hi Mr Yoshida, what should I call you, first of all?
Hi Luke, please call me Wata. Where are you?

>I’m in a cafe on Leningradskaya Street, Samara, Russia. Where are you Wata?
-Russia? Wow! I’m in Tokyo.

>How are things there? Before we start, I just wanted you to know that are thoughts are with your people after the recent disaster.
-Thankyou for being worried about the Japanese people. I am in the bathroom now, please wait for 30 minutes.

TICK TOCK TICK TOCK

>I was just looking at the smoke rising from the chimneys in the “My Laboratory” line drawings – they are the only colour. Are you trying to see the beauty in our industrialised world, or make a comment on pollution?
-No, this work was made trying to imagine my art university. Whilst there is a continual flow of work at university, it is not mass production like a factory, but highly individual. I expressed it by colorful smoke – this work is anti-mass production.

>Sorry for the delay, I was lighting a cigarette, filthy habit that’ll kill me. Are you a smoker? Or is “Lungs” an anti-smoking piece?
-Yes, I’m a smoker. This piece is an anti-theme for “me”. And, I guess this theme is very fun visually. I get out of bed, I smoke a cigarette right away each day. I love “KENT” cigarettes. I started to smoke at high-school. Japanese law prohibits smoking under 20 years old. So, I received attention sometimes. Yes, sometimes I am disgusted by it…but, I can’t stop it…haha Yes! me too. I worry about it. I struggle with my addiction daily too. You and I are comrades..haha.

>What inspired the piece? It’s one of your witty works, like the body T-Shirts.
-My work is purely about curiosity and that is the only spur. My inspiration is it. It occupies my mind.

>But you must have some inspiration? The écorché of Da Vinci, perhaps?
-I refer not only to Da Vinci but also to more anatomical artists. I have seen other references. For example, Andreas Vesalius. However, I don’t like grotesque things. And yet, I choose this theme.
I suppose I don’t see this theme as grotesque, I merely have pure fascination for the mysterious and delicate qualities of the anatomy of mammals.

>Do you appreciate the earlier work of Damien Hirst – The Impossiblity of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, for example?
-I wasn’t thinking especially about Damien Hirst when making these works, but I like his works. I have noticed my work has similar motifs when I finished it. There is a chance I was influenced but I probably failed to notice.
Again, I recommend Andreas Vesalius. I have referred to his anatomical works. His anatomical illustration is very good. At first, I didn’t know his name when I started drawing this work, but my friends said “Look at this anatomical illustration by Andreas Vesalius. He is good.” So I got to know his name. Since then, I have referred to the Atlas series. Atlas is a famous anatomical/medical book and even though this is very expensive in Japan, I bought it.
I have been greatly influenced by Oroz Istvan. He is a graphic designer from Hungary. Not only that, he is famous for his animation as well. His work includes copperplate expressions and tromp l’oeil simliar to Escher. It was his copperplate expressions that inspired me in particular. I don’t use copperplate in my work, but I use fine point pens to draw, to emulate it.

> I can imagine you drawing – a young man crouched over some paper, completely involved in his work. Maybe the only light comes from a lamp beside you, and your concentration leads to your tongue sticking out of your mouth. Am I close to the reality? What is your creative process, once inspired?
-Yes, I’m very focused when working on originals. Sometimes I keep drawing for hours on end. It’s just as you imagine. Though I don’t put my tongue out while drawing (haha). And, I take time to look at and to research some reference material. First I draw realistic works, after that I add my original ideas, gradually.

>Let’s talk about the “Brain” series.
-Specifically, it is not a series. I believe everything starts with an idea. When creating the Side Face, my focus remained on creating images that are new and interesting. This is one of the my favorite works. I drew this degisn in my early career, and it took a lot of time and energy. The reason why it is drawn in black and white is that it is easier to copy my original design without being influenced by the function of a printer, because I thought the copies would be true to the original beautiful and attractive design. Brain Light is based on the finding of ideas and hints that came to me during the production, not as you may think from cartoons – even though I liked to draw and paint MANGA as a child In particular, I liked to draw fine/sensitive paintings. So I went to art university this is a natural progression. I didn’t dream of being an illustrator in the future. Simply, it was the first time I was interested in illustration. Brain Quake is an idea that expresses the explosion and radiation in the brain. This work doesn’t particularly refer to earthquakes.

>The earthquake. What was your personal experience of the recent earthquakes and tsunami?
-First, I’m OK after the earthquake and tsunami. I’m in Tokyo and my family and all friends are safe. After the earthquake, almost all the public transportation stopped in Tokyo, which caused a little panic amongst people who tried to make it back home by bus/by car/on foot. The real damage is in Northern Japan, and I just cannot believe my eyes to see views of those areas on TV…Northern Japanese people still need someone to help.

>Do you think your work may be influenced by this in the future?
-Yes, of course. The Japanese graphic design scene will certainly change after this earthquake. Japanese advertising already changed. Many Japanese companies have self‐imposed control in advertising already. I have never seen a large earthquake & tsunami like this in my life. So, I can’t understand the future. But Japan is sure to revive. I believe it.

>We believe it too. Moving on; “Stomach” – what’s the thinking behind the organ being closed by a shell?
-This piece of work does not have any hidden theme underneath, rather my work is done mostly to seek visual appeal. My interests extend to photography, typography and etc. In fact, one of my favorite things is photography.

> It is easy to see your love of photography. “Compostion of Mammals” combines the fine delicacy of high resolution photography with the detailed curiosity of 18th century anatomists. Do you have a love of science or of history – or of both?
-Thank you so much. These are my favorite works, my graduation works at university. The description of this work is;
“A series of Photographs, to show a pure fascination for the mysterious and delicate qualities of the Anatomy of Mammals. The motive for the series of Photographs, “Composition of Mammals”, is to show the complex and interesting structure of mammals’ bodies. I came up with an idea of an exhibition, “The Composition of Mammals”, which studies the anatomy of mammals with displays of taxidermy and skulls. I tried to visually explain the context of the show by incorporating my diagram-like illustrations of bone structures and photographs that I took and edited myself. This project was my graduation work at Tama Art University.” First, the original drawing was done on paper. Then the drawn image was scanned. When necessary, additional drawing was done, then modified to be combined with the original drawing. I took photographs of the mammals at the same time. After taking photos, I modified them. Finally, I combined them. I don’t know science in detail but it interests me. Specially, the universe interests me. I love world and Japanese history too. If I could bring something back to life, it would be men of olden days, and hear about world or Japanese history. I am interested in Japanese and world history. Or I would bring back my ancestors. I will try to trace my ancestry. By the way, my ancestors are Samurai. It is true.

>The pen might yet be mightier than the sword, Wata. When are you happiest?
-I am happy when I have finished a piece of work. And when these works have made someone happy. It is the same for anyone creative. I try to please someone. And I smoke a cigarette right away each day when I get out of bed. I’m happiest at that time. And I love some coffee. Coffee and cigarettes are a perfect fit..

>Those dangerous smokes again. What is your greatest fear?
-My fear is “time”. Ti me passes quite quickly. The Beatles said “Life is very short!” I agree. I hate it.

>What is your great love, besides art?
-It is my family. And, my friends. And some exciting things that I still don’t know. I love that some people inspire me, spur me on.

>Family. What influence did your parents have on you? What was your upbringing like?
-I had a very strict upbringing, but I was a free and troublesome child that vexed my parents. I think that this upbringing converse to my free nature. But I love my parents. I had a strict upbringing, then again, my parents pampered me. I am an only child. I know now that my parents love me.

>Any final thoughts for our readers, Wata?
-Thank you for you read my bad English. I think it is hard work. I’m studying English.
The many Japanese man can’t speak English. Generally people can speak Japanese only.
and, generally Japanese people don’t go to abroad for a work. The Japanese people end’s my days in my country. I think we should go to abroad. The Japan is very small country. world is very big! I hope so. I hope to know many people.

>Wata, I’m fairly sure you’ll be understood wherever you are. Thanks.

An Afternoon With Sarah Maple


This coffee house feels safe. My day, thus far, has been compromised with danger at every turn. I’m taking tablets that have the unfortunate side-effect of turning me into an angry monster; I’ve given myself the jitters with caffeine. I’m cradling another coffee, furnished with an extra shot. My mind is all over the place. My body is trying to stay still in the window seat of this café in Crawley. The medication that is, just for the meantime, festooning my thoughts with the dark flags of rage and depression, is helping me to drop cigarettes from my hourly routine. I’m trading some short-term mental illness for long-term physical health. I am one hour early for my meeting with Sarah Maple, and I need to get a grip.

Maple rose to prominence in 2007 winning the inaugural 4 New Sensations organised by Channel 4 television in the UK and supported by London’s Saatchi Gallery. The collection that won concentrated on two themes; the portrayal of women and Islam. Separately and together. Born in 1985 to a Muslim mother and Christian father, Maple is a practicing Muslim. Her fascination with the fractious relationship between the West and Islam, and what it means to be growing up Muslim in the UK are eloquently investigated hinting at the more controversial work that followed.

She’s late. I’m early. Always, I’m early. This has nothing to do with my upbringing, and the tardiness of others rarely bothers me. I like my own company, usually. But today I am nervous. If I was superstitious maybe I’d be less wobbly – the stars are, after all, aligned for a great interview. Maple is name checked in a national newspaper on the morning in question; the singer Kate Nash cites her work as “liberating”. I’d read some press about a recent collection of postcards that had left a charcoal stain on my mind, and I’d had no idea that she was the instigator of the project aimed at raising funds for the Feminism In London event. The two line email that I received confirming our appointment was somehow warm and friendly. But superstition isn’t my thing.

I look out of the window. Queen’s Square, the centre of Crawley, is depressing. The crimes of 1970s town planning are slowly being forgiven; architecturally, the town is on parole and the new library (designed so that the envelope of the building becomes shelving) and college building (with copper external tiles, a patina now developing) are testament to the community work all repentant criminals must undertake. But from where I sit, cubes of concrete house independent retailers and chains such as the one I am patronising.

I’m calm. I’ve let the coffee go cold, I’ve read the piece by Kate Nash and I’m fixated by a charming guy sat at an outside table with his friends. His pleated black, leather jacket is accessorised with fingerless, leather gloves. Those sat with him laugh easily, and passersby stop and talk, welcomed with hugs, wide smiles and a warmth I can feel from here. There is beauty everywhere. It’s ten past two, and Sarah will be here shortly, of that I’m sure. I’m no longer intimidated by my perception of her intellect, and I keep reminding myself that I’ve got many years on her. Charming Man stands up from his table and starts to twist a handmade cigarette into shape, before giving it life with flame and extravagantly bending backwards, like a lazy limbo dancer and blowing his lungful of smoke directly vertical, the lesser-spotted tobacco whale……..I look away, and the unmistakable black shaggy hair of Maple is bouncing from the far side of the square. This is it.

She should be on television is the first thought that enters my head as she approaches, without having seen me. On the basis that she is shorter than I had imagined and about 10 pounds lighter and only an idiot doesn’t know the maxim about TV cameras. She’s resolutely arty – splattered jeans, unkempt hair held in place by broadcast quality headphones. She spots me about 10 yards from the door and her genuine smile puts me at ease. Listening back to the conversation though, it’s obvious that I’m still a little high on my cocktail, and it takes a while for the conversation to flow from her without me bouncing all over it like an excited puppy. There is a simple reason to this; Maple is engaging and makes me feel immediately that my reading of her work is the correct reading. This is not a privilege that she affords all who interpret what she has to say; more of which later. I want to witter away about this piece and that, before I finally get around to letting her speak.

We talk about her agenda for the day; what she has planned other than talking (and listening) to me. Maple hopes to drop south to the town of Brighton, just over 20 miles down the road. There she will sell A2 reprints of her work. Her bold wit lends itself well to poster, and subsequently to student walls. As Maple says, “There are lots of young uns that would like to have my work, so I thought it would be nice to give them something.” I know she has her tongue firmly in her cheek, but still my mind wanders to, “Oh for fuck’s sake, she’s only 25.”

One only has to look back over the year so far and see that this confidence is anything but misplaced – she kicked 2010 off with a public service performance, warning people of the dangers of swine ‘flu with her posters. Naturally she was the model, wearing just the crimson-painted open mouth and lingerie of a porn model and posing appropriately for her attire and not at all appropriately for her message. “It’s very interesting how pretty much everyone I approached on the street had no problem with the poster and genuinely thought it was a good idea.” In February New York called and Maple eventually spent three months there, popping back to London to take part in Amnesty International’s discussion on the impact of religious fundamentalism on LGBT and women’s rights, as part of International Women’s Week. Like so many, the volcano interrupted Maple’s plans to return to the UK in April, meaning she missed both her musician fiancé’s birthday and the projections of Recovering Misogynist on London landmarks as part of BILLBORED. Her first German solo show in Munich, “Ich Liebe Dick” occupied June & July, and most recently she has organised the postcard auction for Feminism In London.

It was the publicity for this auction that first bought Maple to my attention. How did it come about? “It was bloody hard work, very hard to get people to sponsor it, because people don’t want to be associated with feminism. People were saying ‘This isn’t our brand, we can’t support this.’ I’m sorry, but your brand isn’t equality and human rights? Ok, fine. A lot of people that I asked to get involved had a similar attitude, but in the end I got amazing people.” Flicking through The Guardian, Britain’s most left-leaning ‘serious’ newspaper, I was stunned by what I saw in the Weekend Magazine, that supplements its main offering with on Saturday mornings, in early October. It published a selection of the 36 postcards that were eventually auctioned off by comedian and artist Miriam Elia and actress Jessica Stevenson. Maple’s contribution can perhaps be best described as a Lichtenstein-esque self-portrait; a mock horror photograph scribbled with the thought-bubble “I’M A FEMINIST!” Among the other lots was a deconstruction of sexism in music by Kate Nash (Download my new single “I’ll suck your cock for 79p”) and Hayden Kay’s identical bathroom signs. However, it was the submission by David Rusbatch that shocked me. A triptych of Pre-Feminism (a Frida Kahlo self-portrait), Feminism (a library image of Germaine Greer mid-debate) and Post-Feminism (a pornographic model, apparently covered in semen, staring blankly down the lens). “I think it makes a great point, but a lot of feminists said it went too far,” says Maple, before admitting, “I was very surprised to see it in the ‘paper.”

The current concentration on feminism is born from Maple’s journey to New York early in 2010, but it underwent some of its gestation in the works exhibited at Salon in London in 2008. “Haram” (“Forbidden”) is a self portrait of Maple wearing the hijab and cradling a piglet. Or another with the artist wearing the full niqab and a small pin button declaring “I Love Orgasms.” (This is exactly the kind of thing that my editor wants me to get into – “I want controversy, I can’t have a snoozer” are my instructions.) Naturally, I’m keen to explore this provocation and Maple’s adherence to Voltaire’s perfect phrase, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This has interested me; where is the line drawn on freedom of expression? Can something be said with a physical action, and at what point does it become illegitimate? Does Maple, with all the baggage that comes with being a liberal Muslim in these easily misunderstood times, defend a violent reaction to her work? Essentially, can you defend the right of others to smash the window of a gallery supporting your work, as happened? “I suppose so. It’s really…I’m really still torn on it, because people should obviously have the right to say and do what they want…..but threatening to kill me and my family, you know. On the Amnesty panel, I was the only person who said ‘I would think again about making the work as controversial, because is it really worth risking the lives of yourself, your family and your friends?’ You’ve got to really think about it, because I have had other ideas, but that backlash has really affected the work that I’ve made. Before, people were talking about me but they weren’t really talking about the controversial stuff. But now because of the greater exposure, people know me and I have to be more careful about what I make. But as I said on the panel, “If you’ve said this yourself, can you call yourself an artist?” You’re not being true to yourself, so it’s really difficult. I just don’t want to go through that experience again; it was the worst experience of my life.” Reading this, you’ll not hear the nuance, the breaks. This is difficult for her to talk about, and I’ve the feeling she has already gone further than she ever wanted to; she alludes to keeping this level of threat secret in her blog, but that’s the beauty of a diary – I can pick over at length what she has written as a stream of consciousness. Maple wants to move on from this as part of her influence. Her intellectual concentration is now feminism. Try as I might I just can’t get her to discuss Islam at any further. This seems to be primarily because the highway I try to steer the conversation down is beset with exit ramps to feminism – and like a magician’s audience I’m distracted and she’s pulled the wheel over. At times, I feel like I’m not even driving.

I ask about her familial background, hoping for some discussion of her mother’s faith. After leaving Kenya with her family, the artist’s mother met her future husband at work. It was love and marrying out was an extremely brave and single-minded action; not for her the almost compulsory route of arranged marriage and domesticity. I find myself suggesting that this was a feminist act in itself. She’s no magician, she is a hypnotist. Maple explores the issue on her blog, and in this instance religion and gender politics are completely entwined. She acknowledges that “My Mum is just the kind of person who would not call herself a feminist but is the perfect example of what a feminist looks like.” She has a firm belief that her daughter will succeed because she “is pretty.” She also worries a about the strength of her voice, her attraction to such dangerous, ambiguous work (for all its striking “in-your-faceness”, Maple’s work can be, and is, wilfully misunderstood; hence the threats), “She’s always, like, ‘Oh, why are you making this work, why do you have to do that?’, and my reply is ‘Mum, I’m exactly like you, I am you.’ I’ve just taken after her; she is so strong, she does whatever she wants. She doesn’t realise.”

I resolve to have one last run at Islam in her work; but I can tell Maple is a bit bored of the subject, and I’ve missed a glaring point, “I feel like I’ve moved on from that subject now, anyway. It was two years ago, a lot of the work is about 4 years old, I’ve got new stuff. I don’t want to…..sometimes I feel crass; I just don’t want to hold back. My work is also a response to my time at university and when I looked at a lot of artwork, I just didn’t get anything. I felt secluded and didn’t want to be a part of it. I appreciate that people have got a point with what they’re saying, but I just don’t get it. I felt that I didn’t want to be part of it, so when I show my work I want it to relate to people, I want anyone to get it. I don’t see the point of making it for a certain class of people. I want my work to be accessible. No art is for everyone, but I hope everyone can relate to the themes in my work.” We touch on sharia law, and how it seems to be anti-religious, but Maple’s eyes wander and she looks out of the window. “He looks just like Usher.” She is talking about Charming Man, “maybe it is Usher, I want a cat called Usher.” As we’re looking outside, I ask about her relationship with her hometown. She is happy to have a large, central studio, and this is, after all, home. But there are some things that aren’t right, “Can you see the children’s Ferris wheel? It is right outside Ann Summers.”

Next door to our cafe is a branch of Ann Summers. As an Englishman, I’m faintly aware of our stereotype in the wider world, especially American comedy, as a curious mix of the perverted and repressed, held together by terrible teeth. Ann Summers is a shop that seems to have the sole purpose of exploring this paradox. Sex shops used to be a study in a back-street, black-windowed lack of soul. In the 1990s Ann Summers bought the Rampant Rabbit to the high street with window displays of leather bikinis and chains, a sex shop aimed at women and therefore more respectable. I remember the shop from a photograph on Maple’s blog; complete with the incongruous toddler’s minature fairground ride stationed directly outside it. 4 year old children getting a view of the empty bandstand to one side and then head straight for the nipple tassels and lube on the other. It’s just wrong-headed, unpleasant and indefensible. “It’s so depressing because the other day it had that Lily Allen song ‘It’s Not Fair’; you know the sexual gratification one, that was playing and there were all these dads with their kids……”

Difficult questions just waiting to be asked of parents, or even worse, a corruption, innocence-thieving desensitising. There may be a point to this feminism stuff…..

Maple is a normal person; a great artist, funny company, a feminist, but normal. She loves Glee. This comes as no surprise, has she seen the cover of GQ this month? “No, why?” I tell her that Terry Richardson has shot a spread with three of the cast. She doesn’t know what to say first. “When I was a misogynist I wrote to Terry Richardson and asked to be a model. This was about 3 or 4 years ago. He sent me an email saying he’d like to meet me. What was I thinking? I mean he is awful, I can’t believe he is still in the business. What was the shoot like?” There is a not altogether sarcastic rising of fear in her voice, a realisation that nothing is sacred, “are the girls all over each other or something?” I explain the tableau, “Oh, why is he still in the business?” She is dismissive, disappointed in society. “American Apparel (Richardson has been the architect of their highly sexualised campaigns) are having a hard time at the moment, and I wonder if it because of their sexist advertising? Have you seen their adverts? Pictures of girls looking like they’re being fucked basically and it’s an advert for socks. It’s wrong. Look for porn if you want to look at porn.” Where do you stand on porn? “Well, if we’re going to have porn, and we are, let’s make it nice. Let’s make it so women aren’t fucked up the arse and in the mouth at the same time, and treated like shit. Let’s have a nice film, where the woman gets to come, which would be nice in porn, but never happens. Feminist porn.” You’ve thought about this issue, I guess. “There’s an amazing woman called Cindy Gallop that I met in New York. She has created the website Make Love Not Porn, her idea being that if we’re going to have porn, let’s make it so that it isn’t so very misogynist. I totally agree with that, we’re not going to be able to get rid of it forever. Porn makes me upset. It was New York. I took my friend, Jo, who’s a graphic designer. She was meant to be my assistant, but I didn’t really do anything, so she didn’t need to assist. We just hung out together for 3 months. I used the time to do a lot of networking, met loads of amazing feminists. Very inspiring and made me want to get more active in feminism when I got back.”

We’ve arrived at the feminist issue, what currently drives Maple. And it’s fun. I claim to have no feminist education at one point, “Do you believe in equal rights?” Of course I do. “Then you’re a feminist.” I bring up the subject of PETA, one of the other targets she gets in her crosshairs on her blog. Is Pamela Anderson confused when she states that by using her body for the latest PETA campaign, she is embracing post-feminism? “No. By doing that she is promoting one cause whilst putting another in jeopardy. The whole bleach blonde / big tits thing is hers and that is fed into our culture so much that it says ‘this is the only way you should look’. Did you see the Jenna Jameson ‘Too Much Sex Can Be A Bad Thing’ posters? I mean, the irony…..” One commentator on her blog post about PETA takes her to task about not being vegetarian. “There is a particular guy who always comments ‘You can’t say that if you’re not vegetarian because feminism is about equality and equality is about all beings,’ which I think is fair enough and I get his point. Since then I have become a vegetarian.” Have you acknowledged that influence to him? “No,” she laughs. The company of someone with firmly held beliefs, but someone still developing them is refreshing.

I’m near the end of my second Crawley coffee (I went for decaf this time, but insisted on a double shot for some reason), and Maple is scooping the marshmallows from the bottom of her hot chocolate; tellingly she says something about it being fine to have it, as it was bought for her. She still counts her calories and her blog entry about Self-Portrait With Kate Moss hints at a degree of body dismorphia. Clearly it is nonsense, and Maple seems very comfortable in her own skin.

The grey is settling over Crawley, England’s depressing autumn closing in. Can I see the studio, where the magic happens? I joke. We set off, and head for the workspace. It’s directly above a fabric shop, and the multi-cultural credentials are on display, with fabric for everything from saris to tablecloths available. The women behind the counter are very cheery and their reaction to Maple suggests that my impression is correct; she is a joy to be around.

Walking up the stairs she explains that she is working on a large piece that is her reaction to reading “Flow – The Cultural Story of Menstruation”. It’s an honour to see work at the very early stages, and Maple explains that all the faces looking on to her will be horrified by the red stain on her groin. I explain to her that the previous evening, I had dinner with a friend. An art historian, I asked her to give me her opinion on Maple’s work, insisted that it would be our high-minded dialogue for the evening. I wanted to delve into the feminism, elucidate the work, and come to an arguable conclusion that I could put to the artist the following day. “I love the cock pictures.” So much for the forensic examination of the artist and her catalogue. In fairness, it’s hard not to (no pun intended). An ongoing series of photographic portraits, taken by her fiancé, they have perfectly simple and self-explanatory titles, “Toothbrush cock”, “Key cock”, “Umbrella cock”. In each photo, Maple has the louche stance of exactly the kind of arrogant lad she is parodying. I take a photo of her holding my “dick-taphone” as a joke. It sums up the joyful, occasionally puerile, but ultimately funny artist. For all the previous evening’s attempts intellectual deconstruction of her work, we end up laughing at cocks. That’s pretty feminist, I reckon.

I Might Not Know Much About Art


I was asked to write an editorial for http://www.whoamagonline.com – my brief was “something about art…”

I was watching a natural history programme the other evening; of the type where the out-of-his-comfort-zone Westerner is constantly amazed by the survival skills of the people who’ve lived in the area in question for hundreds of generations. In amongst the subtly patronising comments and sweeping vistas so essential to such a chunk of television (North Greenland in this instance), invariably we are invited to be revolted by the base nature of their eating habits. Bruce, our host, was offered the eyeball of a recently dispatched seal. Whilst it didn’t appear to be valued as a delicacy, it was apparent that one of the Inuit hunters was giving up something he considered special. Bruce didn’t hesitate, and sucked the contents of the eyeball down. And with it, he balled his eyes up, retched a little and generally made sure that his hosts knew what he thought of their little treat. I’ve had dinner guests like that, but I was asking them to appreciate my chicken curry, and they could reasonably have expected their meal to have been edible.

Serve up seal eyeballs to a restaurant critic at any NY restaurant, and (unless they are Anthony Bourdain or suffering from the most serious case of Emperor’s New Clothes) the resulting review will be unfavourable at best, a simple cartoon of spluttering Bruce at worst. You’re wondering what the fuck I’m on about, so perhaps I should cut to the chase; different people like different things, and this is the only truth about art.

Take the case of Damien Hirst. Much like my dinner guests anticipated that eating my food would not lead to prolonged visits to the bathroom, I was expecting the recent Damien Hirst No Love Lost, Blue Paintings exhibition to be challenging and witty. Unfortunately they were mediocre pastiches of Francis Bacon, as if copied for a high school art project. This was compounded by the fact that Hirst had spent a small fortune persuading the Wallace Collection to show the pieces. That these paintings are his own work, rather than the product of his workshops, is telling. The work preceding was the spectacular For The Love Of God; maybe he set the bar too high? The work after is the very similar For Heaven’s Sake which smacks of desperation. Oh, Damien, how confusing. But this is all my opinion. Art is subjective, and you and I can like what we want. And art critics sometimes forget that.

Robert Mapplethorpe was able to divide opinion like almost no other. In the 1980s it seemed every accessible published word was written by the shocked moral majority; the same breed that delights in taking offence at issues large and small in the 2010s, Twittering horror, emailing outrage and registering digital disgust. It’s true that the photography of Mapplethorpe was challenging, and some of the later work, especially of children, flirted with the very boundaries of decency. However, unless one actively seeks out this work alone, stumbling across the nudes is highly unlikely. Many people will have seen his touching portraits of Patti Smith and developed an understanding of his work as a whole, rather than being wilfully upset by the homoerotic images. I was in San Francisco at Fulsom Fair time, a couple of years ago. There with work for a conference on marine fuels (yes folks, some of us have lived the dream, tasted true manna), three of my colleagues decided to go to the fair; middle-class, straight white girls from London off to gawp and point and whisper at the strange gay men. I declined the invitation to go, as I don’t approve of zoos, human or otherwise. They returned ashen-faced and faux-corrupted. I asked them what they had expected, “Well, not that”, was the reply. Within three minutes, there were 3 digital cameras in front of me, accompanied by a commentary of all the disgusting and vile acts committed in public – all looked like fucking good fun, literally. My opinion was completely different to theirs, but was torn apart as invalid. As the evening wore on, more drink taken, I lost my patience. “Don’t tell me what to think,” was my petulant response, starting in motion an untenable situation that led to my eventual resignation. To be told how to respond to anything – art, life, anything – is to assume a lack of intelligence, a lack of sense. Or, worse, it is the arrogant belief that the critic’s subjective opinion is the only one worth considering.

Jeff Koons’s self-portrait photographs with his then lover, Cicciolina are far less shocking to me than his ambiguous sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles. My mother, my nephew and a legion of fans will most certainly see it through different lenses. No doubt some people see the epic seascapes painted by JMW Turner in his later years as the daubings of a near-blind, over-praised old man – I have sat for an age in front of just one painting, endlessly intrigued by this brush-stroke taking wave to cloud, questioning whether the brilliance of painting with failing sight can be regarded as the true beginning of Impressionism.

You’ll have to excuse me for a slightly UK-centric look at what must be a global occurrence, but such is my frame of reference. We have an annual art award, The Turner Prize, which never fails to get the more reactionary mainstream press hitting the “be outraged” key for the chattering classes. Over the years the media used by nominees has included elephant dung (Chris Ofili); concrete (Rachel Whiteread’s internal cast of a house); bronze (the Chapman Brothers’ Death which was painted to look like the blow up dolls and dildo that they had cast; a bed (Tracey Emin); and pottery (Grayson Perry). Not, “provocateurs” Chapman Brothers. Not, “controversial” Tracey Emin. Not, “challenging” Grayson Perry. I’ll be the one to decide how provoked, shocked or challenged I am by a piece of art.

However, even those who like to think they live outside “the system” or recognised art establishment aren’t immune to foisting their opinions on us. Protests about the Turner Prize are not limited to the playfully ignorant press. Happily, this is done with a wit and knowingness that words alone cannot convey. The much feted graffiti artist Banksy had one of his finer moment when he stencilled “Mind The Crap” on the steps of the Tate before the prize-giving one year; something which might have already come back to haunt him, may do in the future, or may mark him down as a hypocrite. You decide.

A Short Story Inspired By This Painting


On Reflection

“Honey, you gotta stop rushing me, you know I hate these things.” Buzz Word was stroking his thinning hair back across his scalp. Fifth anniversary or not, he was none too keen on the person he saw in the mirror of the bathroom.

“Buzzy, I just know how long you take, we got time, I just want everything to be perfect, I want you to be my big handsome man in a picture that lasts forever.” She was excited and nervous as she shouted through from the bedroom. She took her dress from its hanger and lay it down on the bed, with the pride and tenderness of a new mother.

Buzz stopped staring at himself. There would be time for regret later, but before the act it was completely without point. He filled the sink with steaming water from the kettle, contaminated it with some cold and plunged his hands in, pulling a wash over his whole face at once. He allowed his face to drip into his soap and submerged his badger brush. In one movement the brush left the sink, took three fast circuits of the soap and landed on his face, carelessly smattering his cheeks and chin with lather.

Sadie dropped her robe from her shoulders. In the full length mirror she examined herself. From this distance she could reflect on her trained posture, but also her detail such as the lace trim of her new panties. Despite closing in on thirty, she had a body that she was still proud of; apart from her Worry, as she had taken to calling it. Of course, having not yet been blessed meant that her stomach was quite flat, and certainly not stretched. As her eyes lifted she settled on her breasts. She sighed, picked up the second part of her new underwear set and turned away from the betraying, polished rectangle.

Meanwhile, across the hall, a man with a pit in his stomach tapped his razor clean on the porcelain. He was staring at the image of his fingers running across his now smooth face (not the eyes, Buzz, not the eyes) and then dropping (keep away from the eyes Buzz) to his neck. He felt himself lucky not to have the impossible wilds of chest hair with which his father was cursed. The poor man knew not where to end his daily scrape, whereas Buzz had just a flourish of hair crowning the top seam of his undershirt. He pulled the plug on the scummy, flecked water and idly wondered how he could do the same to his marriage.

At her dressing table, a gift from Buzz two years ago to the day, Sadie peered as close to herself as she could without blurring her second face with condensation. Carefully she painted her lips, but even with this concentration she looked at her Worry, now cradled in the cup of her brassiere. Had Buzz realised the lump before her? He was so reserved at times, so quiet. Just recently the withdrawal had been worse, and Sadie feared of telling him of the Worry. It had been the taking of her mother, but she had been 10 years older than Sadie was now. It really was a Worry, she thought, as she lay down her thin brush and dried her lips on some weak tissue. She cursed lightly when some of the paper remained on her upper lip, but it didn’t ruin her gloss once she had removed it. Besides, she had bigger worries, such as making sure Buzz was ready in time. She wanted to enjoy the short walk to the chemist’s shop in this beautiful sunshine.

His left thumb pushed the button through the hole where it was received by the opposing thumb and its neighbouring forefinger. Buzz’s eyes rested on his wedding band. Maybe he shouldn’t leave. He loved Sadie, after all. But he had to be with Jane, and they had agreed that they would leave their spouses as one, tonight, and take the drive to Canton, Ohio, so far away from here. There was work in the Dueber-Hampden factory for them both; Jane’s brother had assured them. In the months of conversations, agreements and finally planning, Buzz had never seen this day truly coming. He snapped the collar closed and looked at the eyes staring back at him through the light mist. Taking the Brilliantine from the shelf, he palmed a little between his hands, warming it before flattening it over his hair. He took his comb and with each stroke of his scalp considered how he was to tell Sadie, and when. After we have had this infernal photograph taken, he mouthed at the man about to break his sweetheart clean in two.

The good wife, lost in the motion of brushing her hair, saw the bedside clock reversed over her shoulder. Looking around, she realised she had been dwelling a little, and that they had only a few minutes to walk to Billy Howard’s store. “Buzzy, darling, are you ready?” “I am now,” he said as he walked into the bedroom, fastening his tie, smiling an unsure little crease across his square jaw. Sadie’s thoughts brightened. (What a handsome man, how lucky I am.) But darkened so soon, as often happened nowadays. (How sad I am that I have the Worry, and what it will mean.)

She put the brush down, stood up. Without a word, she took his arm and they left the apartment block, Buzz locking the door behind them. They soon arrived at the chemist’s and Billy showed them to the back room, with the warm greeting of a man entranced by his new photographic equipment, and the money it might make him. He positioned his subjects as he had been taught; this was the classic composition, apparently. Any awkwardness that Buzz and Sadie felt left as they caught one another’s eyes in the camera lens. They smiled and thought as one, “I’ll share my bad news later.”

Shunt @ The Vaults, London Bridge Station


As it is such an unusual night in a terrific location, it’s going to be as difficult to write about Shunt as it was to capture some photos on my underpowered, flashless cameraphone – where on earth (in this flat) have I left my camera? My date suggested bashing out a few vignettes, as varied and separate as the high-roofed rooms, candle-lit in the vaults below London Bridge station. This is not to say that the place has a discordant feel; one is led deep into the bowels of the building in wondrous harmony. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I got there just after 8 and straight away was struck by the queue of people. Not commuters reinvigorating Oyster cards, nor weekday day zombies seeking the panacea of coffee. “Arty” is the crowd lining up for Shunt. My trilby, to my consternation, is ubiquitous. I snaked against the tide of the achingly hip and windily arty. There was the date, gorgeous as ever and after catching up, she informed me that inside her bag was a bottle of fizzy, chilled contraband. Without the intention of taking it inside to drink, honestly, we plodded slowly to the entrance and proffered photo ID. It was required of all; this had nothing to do with our supernaturally youthful looks.

Date’s bag was checked on the way in, and whilst fairly big, we were stunned that security failed to spot the Lanson (dahling). Our original intention to drink it by the river was abandoned. In fairness, the light is very dim, as the photos illustrate, and I’m not complaining. Partly due to this darkness, it’s difficult to get a handle on the layout of The Vaults. We wandered towards the back, taking the odd detour sideways. Large rooms with a few tables, a poetry space, a cinema with airline seats and a stand alone cube stage made of pallets, all served by bars. Live contemporary violin resounded through the halls, relayed by an efficient sound setup.

By the time we’d found the back, our eyes were acclimatised to the light. And we found a door out to the road behind, a chance to smoke, and reflect on just what in the name of God was going on in there. We agreed that it was pretty enchanting.

We crushed our cigarettes into the asphalt and showed our red-stamped wrists for re-entry. We’d identified a room with a candlelit table away from the growing crowd, and in the haze I popped the cork and poured two plastic glasses of champagne. This was all very civilised, I must say. I felt like Jay Joplin channelling Terry Thomas at a Sisters of Mercy concert. Well, I can say that now, because I’m a bit of a ponce; truth is I was simply having a great time.

In fact, the great time feeling meant we finished the bottle in double-smart time. Firstly, it was good, chilled and thoroughly drinkable, but more tellingly, we just didn’t want to get thrown out. Despite the meagre light and our secluded location, we felt highly visible. The photos posted here were taken in the most brightly lit areas. As we sat at the table, the violin played out, and a parade of sorts took past us. At its head, a broad white performer, dressed as a gentleman pirate from the 18th century, was spitting ragga rhymes. He climbed another of the temporary pallet stages and his poem played out over a few minutes, the audience flowing around him.
The story complete, a strange force drew us back out to the station entrance; a Cornish pasty seemed perfectly at home with our hunger and a stroll around strip-lit London Bridge station an interesting opposition to the vaults.

Sat once more with drinks in hand, new music floated through, influenced by The Doors from the L.A. Woman era. Drawn as if by sirens to yet another stage, we watched as the guitar wielding soloist plucked and strummed songs ranging in style from beach bum love songs to tormented blues.

Whilst not as cheap as our naughty sparkles, the drinks are pretty reasonably priced, and once our VAT and Organic Lager were drained, we dropped some tequila shots back and headed once more towards the entrance, this time to take in the art of Bob Aldous. With a central motif of cave paintings of deer, Bob’s work was not immediately accessible. However, the repetition bangs like a drum, the lighting no stronger than a campfire; the occasional candle casting shadows and the rippling reflection of water maintained the charade of Neolithic times. Date is vegetarian (the pasty was tomato, basil and herb, and bloody good too), so she was not as taken with the boar skins as I was. The deer motif is picked out on the hide of one Italian boar by smoking around it, a powerful yet simple device. Whilst Bob was probably a little irritated by my commercial concerns, a hangover from a previous life as a gallery owner, I found his passion and enthusiasm engaging, and the works should be seen.

There are two small cinema areas. We took some time to watch the collage of fact and fiction space scenes in a perversely intimate yet open space. This feeling of separation infiltrated us during our visit; there are many people around, but somehow the experience is so personal.

By now we were nearing our last train home. Another quick short and we took our leave of the place, high on liquor and the excitement of the new. On reflection we agreed we should have stayed, and next time we will, lost in the condensation streaked walls and high arches of a forgotten part of London.