Gomp/arts is on the move. As from today my blog is setting up home with a fresh format, and a new moniker: from now on its title will simply be my name. I am told that the technology on the new site is better, it corrals all my BBC work into one place - so it's easier to find (or avoid).
Archives for May 2011
Something registered in the head of the tall Chinaman with a wispy beard and inscrutable stare when I introduced myself. It was impossible to tell what exactly, but I don't think it was positive.
Maybe it was my informal greeting, which consisted of a couple of friendly pats on his generous stomach followed up with "So, where's the Harley, big boy?" Or perhaps he was disappointed I hadn't joined him for breakfast. Of course, I might have been being overly sensitive. Whatever, suffice it to say that Ai Weiwei was not effusive when we first met last autumn.
Things got better after that awkward start. He likes Marcel Duchamp and so do I. That was enough. We spent a day together filming a piece for Newsnight, during which time we talked about everything from marriage to moguls. I was looking forward to seeing him again today at the opening of his exhibition of zodiac heads at Somerset House. But of course I won't, because he has vanished, having been detained at Beijing airport by the Chinese authorities thirty-eight days ago. There has been no word from him since.
And for a man who likes to tweet, blog and take photographs pretty much constantly, that is a bad sign. It makes his show at the Lisson Gallery in London all the more poignant. His brightly coloured vases look like eager children waiting for their dad to come home. The empty chairs and marble CCTV camera on the other side of the gallery suggest they could be in for a long wait. The empty coffin is chilling.
Nobody knows what he has done wrong beyond what the Chinese have called "economic crimes". Nobody knows where he is and when he might be released. Friends, supporters and fellow artists are becoming increasingly worried. All this at a time when many of the world's leading museums and galleries are strengthening their ties with the Chinese authorities; arranging exhibitions, sharing expertise. Will they now cut those ties, or at least loosen them?
Ai Weiwei is a significant man. He demands respect through the force of his personality and intellect. Like many powerful people he talks very quietly. Why should he speak up? If you want to hear him then lean forward and listen. He makes few concessions.
His entourage (not a big one, but an entourage all the same) tends to encircle him, partly to protect, partly to be close. But when he is being interviewed they melt away into the background. Except for a young American documentary filmmaker who has been Ai Weiwei's constant companion for many months, recording his life in minute detail. She is always nearby, even when he is being interviewed, there she is, three feet away documenting everything that is said.
Which in Ai Weiwei's case is often direct and honest. He told me that the famous series of photographs he took of himself dropping an ancient Chinese vase was intended as a joke, not an artwork. And the only reason they came to be considered a work of art was out of necessity. He desperately needed to find some work for a solo exhibition and he didn't have very much knocking about at the time. So, he fished out the photographs and offered them as something of a filler. Today the photographs are one of his most celebrated creations.
He told the story with a broad smile, which is not a face he pulls that often. It wasn't a smug or cynical smile, but one of faint bemusement: the smile of a creator who accepts that others are sometimes better at judging an artist's work. Very Duchampian.
His manner changes when he talks about China and politics. He gathers himself physically, his eyes narrow, his stare becomes more intense. He speaks even more quietly. And he refers to himself in the third person, suggesting his approach to political change is replicable - perhaps even a manifesto. He told me that one Ai Weiwei can't change things but if there were 100, maybe 1000s, then the government would have to listen.
Well, today there is no Ai Weiwei, he has disappeared - all is eerily quiet.
Hugh Laurie's been getting a lot of attention. He's turned from a man with a limp who can put on a decent American accent, to a man with a guitar who can put on a decent American accent. The difference is that Hugh Laurie is pretending to be a doctor in House, whereas on his album Let Them Talk he is playing himself.
Are his efforts worthy of the wall-to-wall press coverage he has enjoyed? It has been extensive. Spread before him have been the country's most popular radio and TV shows on which to plug his product, plus articles galore and some nice gigs. This is the sort of promotional tour normally reserved for established acts with a batch of platinum-selling albums on their CV. So how come Hugh got so lucky? I mean nice chap and all that; but isn't he just another middle-aged bloke with a musical hobby?
Let's face it, the world has probably not woken up to find a new musical genius in its midst. He is good, but there are better. Some, like him, are new acts, but they will receive one percent of the media coverage afforded to the ex-Cambridge Footlight. But then Hugh is in Susan Boyle territory.
That is someone who can sing, but whose back story is even better. Susan Boyle's is well known. She was cast as the odd-ball spinster who could hold a note but was trapped within her circumstances. But then a handsome Prince with a t-shirt and high-waisted trousers came along and kissed poor Susan and turned her into a pot of gold.
If anything Hugh Laurie's story is even better. He morphed from that comic buffoon Bertie Wooster on ITV, into one of the most highly regarded (and paid) straight actors in America. A Brit who's shown the friend we most want to impress that we can mix it with in their league. What's more he's cracked America by pretending to be American (just like Dominic West, another old-Etonian actor, did in The Wire). Nice one Hugh, we never doubted you.
And just to prove it we will give you as much media coverage as you like for your side projects.
Ron Galella stood out like a tree at the North Pole. The legendary photographer was standing at the bottom of the steep steps leading up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; his silver hair luminescent against the blood red carpet that the grand old lady of Upper Eastside had running up to her entrance like a tidal bore.
It is not surprising that the man Newsweek once dubbed the "paparazzo extraordinaire" is still in the game at eighty: he doesn't give up easy. In the 1970s Jackie Kennedy-Onassis had to resort to the courts for a restraining order against him. Marlon Brando didn't. He treated Ron differently. Brando took things into his own hands when he saw the photographer taking his picture without asking first. The actor rolled one of his hands into a ball to see what would happen when he thrust it into Galella's face. The answer was one bruised knuckle for the Brando (plus a fine) and five less teeth for the paparazzi.
But on Monday evening Galella was playing by the rules. Everybody was playing by the rules. The Met's media team had told the snappers that they had the area around the bottom set of steps as their domain. Halfway up was for the film crews and then in the rarefied air of the top third came the writers. The pattern was mirrored on both sides of the carpet.
Soon after that, Anna Wintour turned up. She's a big deal for the snappers. You could hear it. Suddenly they were all yelling at her to turn this way and that. Their flash bulbs were popping and they were making a lot of noise. And Anna Wintour turned this way and that in a nice frock that looked as though it could double up as a dressing gown from a splendid hotel on the Cote d'Azur. She chose to by-pass the TV crews, which was a shame. We all wanted to know what she thought of the Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress that Sarah Burton, the current creative director of the label, designed. I think she knew that was what we wanted and that's why she didn't stop by.
But Colin Firth did. And Naomi Campbell and lots of other people. The most frequent question asked by all of us in the media was: "who is that getting out of the limo?" Not everybody was famous, but they all looked famous, which made life difficult. The woman from Fox News had a policy. If she didn't know who someone was - even if it transpired that they were a bona-fide celebrity - then they weren't going to make it into her piece. She was very straightforward like that.
She was funny too. Our side of the steps wasn't doing as well as the other side, where the crew from the big network show Entertainment Tonight was set up. All the biggest stars headed to them. But we were holding our own on the BBC pitch; we were doing okay. But our new friend from Fox News was having less luck. So she stopped shouting "Fox News" whenever a celebrity came within earshot and started shouting "BBC" instead. That was bad, but it did give twice the vocal power, so it wasn't all bad.
And then came Sarah Burton. We really wanted to talk to her. But she didn't really want to talk to us. She knew we were going to ask about the dress she had made for the Duchess of Cambridge and she didn't want to talk about it. Lots of other people were happy to and they were enthusiastic, but its designer stayed schtum.
Each famous celebrity seemed to have their own style on the red carpet. The singer Janelle Monae took a boomerang approach. When she first arrived and came up the carpet, she generously gave each section of the media what they wanted. With that done she went into the Met. Five minutes later she reappeared and did it all over again, except nobody wanted to talk to her anymore because things had moved on, but she stood about for a bit anyway. She did this a few times.
I think Renée Zellweger must have been watching the royal wedding (23 million people in the USA did). She must have been. Her red carpet style was so similar to Kate's open-top carriage technique. Whenever William saluted on their way to Buckingham Palace after the service, Kate would bow her head. Renée Zellweger did the same. She would throw a hellava pose for the photographers and they would all cheer with delight. And then she would bow her head in an extreme way and bolt up a few stairs before launching into another pose. She did this up all three flights. I suspect it was so that no photos would be useable where she had not consciously posed. It made for an odd ascent.
And all the while, leading the slick choreography of releasing celebrities one-by-one onto the red carpet, was a genial, bear-like man about sixty years old. His title was something along the lines of Head of Carpet, which he was, both metaphorically and literally. Idiosyncratically dressed in a snappy jacket and white polo shirt with a black-tie printed onto the collar, the Head of Carpet would greet the celebrities from their limos. As they prepared their walk of fame he would whisper into their ears, pointing out where the main players in the press pack were situated. Once briefed, he would release his guest into the arms of a waiting PR, who would marshal the climb. If a celebrity wished to avoid all contact with the press, another PR would arrive - somewhat plumper than the rest - and envelop the camera-shy star in her welcoming bosom and smuggle their preciousness into the exhibition.
The whole episode took three hours. Some of the older cameramen were looking beaten. In a cruel twist of technology, it was the older guys (they were all men as far as I could see) who had to hump huge and heavy cameras over the rails and towards the interviewee. The youngsters had light pieces of plastic which seemed to do the job just as well, with a lot less strain to back and brain. But the old timers would probably have spent $40,000 on their camera and the thought of throwing it away to be replaced by a £5,000 is too much to concede.
There are few concessions on the red carpet.