BBC BLOGS - The Reporters: Razia Iqbal

Archives for February 2009

The people's plinth

Razia Iqbal | 15:46 UK time, Thursday, 26 February 2009

Here's a thought. An artist comes up with an idea, but it doesn't involve making anything. It is just that pure thing, an idea. What he needs is publicity, if the concept is to work. And faith in the general public that they will engage seriously with his idea.

That is the challenge of sculptor Antony Gormley. It's his task to fill the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square for one hundred days. And his idea is to invite people from all over the UK to apply for a one hour slot to do whatever they want on the plinth, as long as it's not illegal.

He has 2,400 hours to fill, because the plinth will have someone on it 24 hours a day, seven days a week.gormley_getty226.jpg

The selections will be made randomly, although allocated hours will be given to areas according to their population in an effort to make this a national work.

It is a hugely ambitious idea which focusses on Gormley's long-standing interest in the body as a metaphor. He hopes that in the context of Trafalgar Square, with it military, valedictory and male monuments, he will be facilitating a living monument, which will allow us to reflect on the individual in contemporary society.

Gormley told me he will apply for an hour on the plinth. When I asked him what he would do, he said he might sing, he might take some clay and clingfilm up there and make a sculpture - he didn't really know.

It pleased me that he didn't know - the art will be in the unknown, and as he said, it will take great courage to get up there in the first place. Doing nothing but that may be a profound experience.

The work has got big money behind it, which will pay for the four cameras on the plinth, recording everyone's hour. People's experiences will be logged and archived and kept for anthropological purposes.

All this presumes that individuals will be transformed by the experience, and those watching will be too. I suspect that a fair few will be applying because they want their Andy Warhol moment of fame.

Public art has come a long way from plonking a Henry Moore on a grass verge, but along the way, side issues have surely become absurd. In the case of the plinth, hours have been devoted to health and safety, which must be soul-destroying for an artist interested in ideas. A net will be constructed around the plinth which will be manned 24 hours a day.

It is potentially a thrilling idea, and could elicit some profound results, or could be relegated to the visual arts equivalent of The X Factor meets David Blane.

What do you think about Antony Gormley's plan to hand over the fourth plinth to the people?

Picasso's return

Razia Iqbal | 09:51 UK time, Thursday, 26 February 2009

The last time there was a significant exhibition of Picasso's work at a major UK gallery, something akin to Picassomania ensued.

Nearly fifty years ago, at what was then Tate Britain, orderly queues of people snaked their way around London's Millbank. Almost 500,000 people went to look at work by the most significant artist of the 20th century, breaking records for a single exhibition.picasso_pa226.jpg

The only exhibition that has come close in recent years is Monet at the Royal Academy in 1999 which saw 300,000 people walk through its Salon rooms. The first all-night showings were held to cater for demand.

In 1960, it would have been unthinkable for a Picasso exhibition to have taken place in the hallowed space reserved for the Old Masters. The Spanish artist was, after all, an arch-Modernist and iconoclast.

But there he is at the National Gallery, with 60 of his seminal works on show. But instead of pitting him head-to-head with his predecessors, he is on his own in the basement of the Sainsbury Wing. And the exhibition is hung thematically rather than chronologically, which slightly misses the point of tracking his development as a painter.

Will any of this matter to people who have never seen a Picasso painting but would like to find out more? I sometimes think criticism from art historians in the papers and galleries puts people off going to exhibitions and making up their own minds, as they did in such impressive numbers half a century ago.

Why Hollywood needs breakthrough films

Razia Iqbal | 09:16 UK time, Tuesday, 24 February 2009

slumblog.jpgIt was 1982 when Chariots of Fire scriptwriter Colin Welland held his Oscar up and said "the British are coming" but they have ebbed and flowed in Hollywood long before and ever since, and there seems to be general embarrassment that he said it in the first place.

The success of Slumdog Millionaire marks a particular benchmark for British films, because it is the first film, fully financed in the UK, to win best picture since Laurence Olivier won four Oscars for Hamlet, which he starred in and directed.

Hollywood, though, has long been charmed by British talent, and this year's movies show the versatility and freshness of that talent. Slumdog aside, I am thinking about In Bruges, The Reader and Man on Wire to name a few.

I have long thought there is no such thing as a British film industry, because the industry is now almost fully international and it is very hard to define what makes a film British. While the subject matter of Slumdog is a rags-to-riches tale in contemporary Mumbai, and the original source material is a novel written by an Indian author (Vikas Swarup) and the co-director, rarely mentioned, is Loveleen Tandan, it could be argued that the creative force behind the film is British - from Film4's Tessa Ross, who bought the rights after reading three chapters of the book, to screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and director Danny Boyle.

Film4 is in serious financial trouble; I would love to be a fly on the wall of the board meeting in which any attempt is made to close the film arm of Channel 4 down after its massive victory in Hollywood. Film4 has been pivotal to Danny Boyle's entire career, from Shallow Grave to Trainspotting.

And for all those who think it is only about glamour and red carpets, think again: Hollywood studios want sure fire returns on their investments and so roll out the usual suspects in terms of stars, writers and stories. Public funding allows British talent to take chances and when the chances amount to a film like Slumdog Millionaire (made for £8m and now enjoying takings of £100m globally) then there might be a tendency to emulate Hollywood and see the film as a template and attempt to replicate. That way lies madness and the antithesis of real creativity, surely.

A football analogy comes to mind: it's great having a successful team, but what about the grass roots and remembering to invest in new talent, to ensure the next generation comes through? That's why training and supporting writers is so important and I'd put money on Danny Boyle being the first to endorse that sentiment.

Bring on the Brits

Razia Iqbal | 15:44 UK time, Wednesday, 18 February 2009

We are of course in the awards season, and today is the turn of the Brits. You can read about the nominations and profiles elsewhere on our website, however, I do wonder about the disconnect between the hoopla surrounding this bloated ceremony and a blindness over an industry in crisis.

brits2.jpgThis is a party that needs to be crashed. And by someone, somewhere, who will present the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) with a credible economic model for the music industry's future in the digital age.

There might be 50-odd legal download sites available around the world, but the continuing losses caused in large part by the popularity of illegal filesharing hasn't been addressed head on. To hear Ged Doherty, the chairman of the Brits, saying the British music industry was weathering the storm of the economic downturn better than other countries is extraordinary, considering that the music industry was in recession long before the rest of us. The last remaining British label, EMI is hardly out of the red, despite the success of Coldplay, and is there anyone who cares about the singles chart anymore?

Here's another statistic to hit you with: last year, sales of UK downloads matched those of the single at its peak in the 1970s. The focus may have shifted back to A&R (artists and repertoire), and signing and breaking new bands is still the key, but consider the revolution that is in ether. Since the beginning of online music culture, file sharing, Napster, marketing on MySpace etc, to the current, exciting and endless online library Spotify, how we consume culture has changed utterly.

Artists too, have learned to think that they can do it all by themselves, and of course, many have. You only have to look at Fleet Foxes - they financed their album by borrowing money on a credit card and have two Brits nominations. But the mainstream is still necessary: a band on the verge of mega fame still need to be nurtured, supported and that takes money. So, where are those lovers of popular music and economics/business experts all rolled into one who want there to be a future worth applauding?

More than just Shakespeare

Razia Iqbal | 16:27 UK time, Friday, 13 February 2009

anthony_sher_226bbc.jpgSir Antony Sher, who this week will appear on stage as Prospero in an African production of the Tempest in Stratford-upon-Avon (with the brilliant South African actor, John Kani as Caliban), has spoken out about the future of theatre.

He says that young people coming out of drama school don't want to go into theatre, but hope instead for fame and fortune in television or cinema. If this is not countered, he asks if this might not spell the end of theatre.

There may well be some truth in this, given our culture's general obsession with fame and celebrity. And there is also something in the belief that there is a reluctance among young people to embrace Shakespeare in the way that Sher's generation of actors actively wanted to work through Shakespeare's plays.

But I wonder if he has reason to be quite so despondent. I know young people who love being on the stage for its own sake: for the experience of it; the camaraderie; the working in a co-operative way, just for the sheer fun of it.

I went to see an amateur production recently of the Just So stories, put on by the Hinchley Manor Operatic Society. The entire cast was made up of young people and the production was joyful and full of energy. OK, it was musical theatre, and not Shakespeare, but it is hard to kick the habit of loving being on stage and being involved with a group of people who love the same thing.

As for Shakespeare, David Tennant playing Hamlet did inspire the young people I met at Stratford, some as young as 12 and 13, who had never been to see a Shakespeare play before.

So while that may make some young people give Shakespeare the time of day once more, the key, which Sir Antony touches on this in his BBC interview, is what students coming out of drama school do.

It is possible to look at great Shakespearean actors inspiring the next generation; you only have to look at the baton being passed from the likes of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft and Judi Dench to Simon Russell Beale, Mark Rylance, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julie Stevenson and Fiona Shaw. And they in turn will be inspiring those in drama school now.

I see many examples of young people being keen on theatre. Indeed, it could be argued, and drama students up and down the country would say that the very act of going to drama school is not a quick step to fame and celebrity. Theatre for young people has to be about much more than just Shakespeare doesn't it?

Arts and the economy - uncomfortable bedfellows?

Razia Iqbal | 12:45 UK time, Thursday, 12 February 2009

President Obama's multi-million dollar recovery plan may be far removed from the world of arts and letters - but politicians with an interest in culture might benefit from examining one lasting legacy of Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal, so often quoted as the inspiration for job creation programmes.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of FDR's New Deal initiatives, subsidised writers, musicians, painters and writers. It was a far-reaching and far-sighted programme, out of which emerged a generation of American artists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and writers such as Saul Bellow, John Cheever and Ralph Ellison.

"Why do people think artists are special?" Andy Warhol once asked, "it's just another job". And, during a recession, it is harder to plead the case for painters, authors, musicians and photographers.

But consider some statistics from the WPA. The Federal Art Project set up classes which were attended by 60,000 people a week and produced nearly a quarter of a million works of art. The Federal Music Project provided more than 4,000 concerts a month, with an average monthly attendance of three million people. The writers' project collated oral histories and, in the field of education, thousands of libraries were set up.

Jobs were created, but there was also a sense of culture being woven into the fabric of peoples lives, as opposed to a luxury, not to be thought about in hard times.

The arts in the UK have had a great decade, and though cultural institutions will be feeling the pinch in a debt-burdened economy, ministers must be aware that the so-called "creative industries" account for seven per cent of the national economy.

It may be low on the agendas of those in government, but perhaps it shouldn't be - given the potential rewards.

It is commonplace to see government embracing the arts because they have a practical function: Job creation, education or social improvement. However, they might want to consider Philip Larkin's point that there are many people, who, when faced with something uplifting, will "surprise a hunger in himself to be more serious".

Angel of the South

Razia Iqbal | 17:31 UK time, Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Mark Wallinger's 50 metre high statue of a white stallion is bound to divide opinion - contemporary art always does - but once it is built and people get used to it, I wonder how long before the balance sways towards those who are cheering?

The £2m sculpture, which will be erected in Kent, will become the nation's biggest public work of art, and will be visible from the A2 and from Eurostar trains travelling to and from London.

There was opposition to Antony Gormley's Angel of the North when it was first mooted, and now it is hard to imagine that landscape without it. Will the so-called Angel of the South be equally embraced?

Wallinger has based his idea on a particular George Stubbs portrait and it will be white because of Kent's famous hillside chalk portraits. There are aesthetics and history at work here. But I think it is the oddity of the horse that will compel, the sudden sight of a work of beauty can hardly fail to make an impression.

What do you think about Wallinger's white horse?

Stroppy stars

Razia Iqbal | 16:01 UK time, Friday, 6 February 2009

Everyone is weighing in about Christian Bale's rant on a film set. There is the camp who berate him, saying it's really not on to throw a hissy fit at work, or in the case of the doyenne of decorum, Dame Judi Dench, who is merely surprised because she has never seen bad behaviour on a set (bless). Then there are those who are actively saying it was reasonable, including famous film directors Darren Aronofsky and Michael Winner.

bale.jpgBale uttered almost 40 expletives in the space of four minutes. What was intriguing was the accent in which the outburst was delivered. Was Bale staying in character for his rant? And did you know there is a book, yes, a whole book, about such things. Enter Winston Fletcher, author of Tantrums and Talent, who thinks that what matters is only whether a creative type is punching above his or her weight! Hard to gauge where Bale sits in the pantheon of stroppy stars.

And of course, not only is the rant an instant hit on the internet, the tirade has been re-mixed as a dance track which is also an internet hit. Celebrity culture consumes itself daily, and indigestion reigns, or does it?

For all the pontificating about the rights and wrongs of losing your rag, which has taken place from the tabloids and broadsheets to the Today programme on Radio 4, what events like this reveal is a huge generational divide. While the older generation see it as an incident which creates a pause for debate on standards of behaviour, the younger generation just revel in the event, and are entertained by it.

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