Monthly Archives: January 2017

Information how Phyllida Barlow conquered the art world at 73

The story of Phyllida Barlow’s precipitous rise to art-world fame is irresistible, and it has been told and retold so many times that it has taken on the quality of myth. It goes something like this. Once upon a time, in the middle of the last century, a little girl was born into a remarkable family. Her great-great-grandfather was Charles Darwin, her grandfather was physician to Queen Victoria, and she was related to Josiah Wedgwood. The little girl grew up in London, but one very different from the shining, skyscraper-studded capital that we know today – a city in ruins, where children played in bombed-out buildings, and where the sides of houses had been blown off to reveal staircases leading to nowhere, and incongruous patches of wallpaper were still attached to walls that were now open to the sky.

The little girl was very clever and loved to draw. She went to art school and there she discovered that, more than anything else in the world, she liked to make things with clay, or anything that was soft to the touch. When she was 18 years old, she met a young man called Fabian, who was also from a famous family, being the son of Mervyn Peake, who wrote the Gormenghast stories. They fell in love and married. And the girl, who was now a woman, was very happy, and she made art in her studio, and she and her husband had five children. She became a teacher, working in art schools for 40 years.

Over time, the exhausted and rubble-strewn country in which she had been born became rich and brash (though many people stayed very poor). And with the changes in the country, so the art world changed. It stopped being an impoverished backwater and became moneyed and fashionable. On the Thames in London, a grand museum for modern art opened. Art auctions became public spectacles. A few artists became very famous, or notorious. Even when the country’s banks faltered and almost failed, the art market only stuttered, because a new kind of person, rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, rose up everywhere from Moscow to Beijing to Doha, and many of them found it necessary to own contemporary art that signalled their intelligence and sophistication.

All of this happened without Phyllida Barlow taking much notice of it, or it of her. She still taught. She still made her art, in her studio in her shabby house in a shabby street in a shabby part of London. She brought up her five children. She was loved by her pupils, some of whom, including Rachel Whiteread, became very famous indeed. But nobody wanted to buy Barlow’s sculptures, and only a very few people wanted to look at them.

At the age of 65, she retired from teaching, and decided to work even harder at her art. Which is when something magical happened: just at that moment, a spell was cast that made people see what they had not seen before. All at once, the very clever curators and the very shrewd and canny people who ran galleries saw that Barlow was, after all, a very good artist. The proof that it was magic was that some of the people who now thought her work was very good had known her for many years.

At once, many invitations arrived: would Barlow make an exhibition here, and here? People came from far and wide to knock on the door of her house in that shabby London street. Her visitors included the owners of one of the grandest and richest galleries in the country. She was nominated for awards and travelled to many places around the world for exhibitions. Now, for the first time in her life, she could make sculptures that were bigger, and more stupendous and formidable than she had ever dreamed.

And at last she was asked to do the single most important thing that any artist could be asked to do: to represent her country at the Venice Biennale. She would be allowed to make the best and most exciting exhibition she could dream of, and all the most important people who loved art in the world would come and see it.

And here the story, as it is usually told, ends: with Barlow about to be launched on to the biggest stage in the art world, at the venerable age of 73. But fairytales have the disadvantage of being just that: fairytales. They are told to comfort, to frighten or to delight, but they rarely have much to do with the grit and grain of life as it is actually lived. You might even say, like Jennifer Higgie, the co-editor of Frieze magazine, that the topsy-turvy trajectory of Barlow’s career is “the least interesting thing about her”.

It is the audacious, gargantuan scale of Barlow’s work that makes it immediately recognisable and distinctive. Instead of complementing its architectural setting, as sculpture conventionally does, it overwhelms it. The work often seems too big for the space, crammed in like Alice after consuming the “eat me” cake. (The artist Richard Wentworth, Barlow’s old friend and near-contemporary, told me that “she is an architect’s bad dream – or perhaps wet dream”.) There is nothing prim or slick or smooth about her sculpture: it is full of a knockabout, Buston Keatonish humour. Things totter, or dangle, or seem to threaten to fall.

You can get a sense of the drama and scale of Barlow’s work from photographs, but not of how they force you to duck and stoop and inch around them, or how they make you feel. In autumn 2016, she installed a work at the Hepworth Wakefield in West Yorkshire. As you went into the gallery, you were confronted with something that recalled a sloping stage, an enormous structure that was crammed into the room. The surface of this “stage” had been built up through layers and layers of brightly painted sheets of wood. It was held up by a forest of roughly made concrete supports. You were forced to sidle around the structure, or else, as I did, you could duck down beneath the canopy and edge between the supports, where a couple of teenage visitors were sitting in the half-dark, cross-legged, deep in private conference. Once there, though, I was overwhelmed by an irrational fear that the whole thing might collapse on top of me, and swiftly moved out from under it. Daniel Baumann, the director of the Kunsthalle Zurich, where Barlow also had a show last year, said: “Her work is playful to a certain degree – but I also think it’s much nastier than people think when they first see it. It’s very manipulative. In Phyllida’s art, the viewers move like marionettes.”
Barlow’s 2015 exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh.
Barlow’s 2015 exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

Barlow discusses her work in quite different terms. She once told me about the dishonesty of certain kinds of sculpture: the fact that you can cut into a bronze and find that it is hollow and dark within, despite the promise of its gorgeous surface. Screestage, as the Wakefield work was called, was about crust and interior, she said. You experienced its insides before you properly saw its surface. For Barlow, the mood of the work was secondary.

“What she is doing is trying to persuade us not always to read an object, to understand it, but to look at it,” says Fiona Bradley, director of the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, where Barlow made a work called Set in 2015. “When we were talking about our show in the very early days, she had a red fuzzy jumper that was lying on the back of the chair. She said that the thing she was trying to do in her work was to focus on the red fuzziness, but leave the jumper part of it aside.” This is what Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, calls “the Phyllida way of seeing”. One day when I visited Barlow at her house, she looked out of the front-room window at the construction site over the road. “I can see inert lumps that are blocking the passageway; it is like something clogged,” she said. These “lumps” were, to me, two cars and skip; but Barlow saw a sculptural, abstract arrangement of forms and colours.

At the same time, Barlow’s sculpture, like the world that it echoes, is grubby and chaotic. It is made from cardboard, plywood, concrete and paint; from scrim and chicken wire and black plastic bin bags throttled with tape. Despite its materials, Barlow’s work is sculpture in just the same way as a Giacometti bronze is a sculpture, and it has a relationship with a tradition that stretches from classical Athens to Henry Moore and Eva Hesse. This collision of cheap, expedient materials (“expedient” is one of her favourite words) with a deep understanding of history is another unmistakable characteristic of Barlow’s art. There’s no bronze, no stone, no steel. It is sculpture, but it doesn’t look like sculpture. It very often, in fact, looks a mess. Because of this, and because it was often made for a specific time and place, nearly all the work she made in the five decades before 2010 was broken up and dismantled after being exhibited. No one wanted this unwieldy, unprecious stuff, and she couldn’t keep it, and so it exists only through photographs and the preparatory drawings she made. For someone who is now regarded as a significant sculptor, her collected work is sparse.

When I visited Barlow in her studio in November, she was pushing on with her work for Venice. These days she works in a 12,000 sq ft, hangar-like unit on an industrial estate in Hornsey in north London, just up the railway line from her home in Finsbury Park. When I arrived, she was squatting over a mass of wet concrete, the makings of a small sculpture. I had a sudden vision of a child in a sandpit. A small, round figure, she was dressed in paint-spattered trousers, lace-up shoes and an old anorak (which, give or take the paint stains, is pretty much what she always wears). She is warm, and talks about art with a clarity that reflects her years as a teacher. She is also disarmingly frank about the people she likes and dislikes. “She is urgent, she is very funny,” said Richard Wentworth. “She is in some ways very old-fashioned: she’ll suddenly finish a sentence with ‘that ghastly woman’, or ‘that frightful woman’ and you think, ‘Who speaks like that?’ But she’s usually right. There’s a sense of, ‘I haven’t got time to fuck about, and that’s what I think.’”

The studio was freezing, except for one heated room, where she and her five assistants (mostly young artists) took their lunch breaks, and on whose walls Barlow’s bulbous, massy sketches for various parts of the Venice work were on display. There was also a washing-up rota (“I hate that kind of thing,” she said). Three assistants rolled a shoulder-height, paint- and concrete-spattered bauble across the floor, in a manner that seemed faintly sisyphean. There were going to be 41 baubles in the Venice exhibition. In a corner was a doll’s-house-size model of the pavilion, with miniature versions of the sculptures. Its six galleries, as well as its outside spaces, were to be jammed with work; the visitor would enter through a forest of hollowed-out scrim-and-concrete columns, and proceed through rooms given crazy geometry by false walls and containing awkward, lumpen objects that recalled an anvil, an axle, a bust-up grand piano.

There had been plenty of changes of plan. Barlow had wanted the “baubles” to be dangling like mobiles, suspended on planks jutting out from various points of the pavilion’s facade. Too expensive. Instead, they would be standing up on rods like giant lollipops. There was a 16-week timetable. “Every week, the schedule goes haywire,” she said. “Issues come up from the Venice powers-that-be saying that we can’t do something. Things are sliding out of my grasp at the moment.”

In the gloom of November, the glassy May sunshine of the Venice Biennale seemed a distant prospect. Founded in 1895, in the age of the world’s fair, the event is the oldest and perhaps still the most important international art gathering, a place where artists, curators, dealers, critics and collectors congregate to look at art, to gossip, to network, to buy and sell, and to party. Like the art world in general, it has become glossier, more popular and more awash with money over the past two decades. During its four invitation-only VIP days – which are upon us now – views to the Venetian lagoon may be blocked by ranks of oligarchs’ moored yachts, while palazzos on the Grand Canal, or even whole islands, are commandeered for parties hosted by galleries or rich collectors, so that struggling artists and poorly paid curators might find themselves drinking prosecco alongside arms dealers and hedge funders.

As for the art: each “edition” of the biennale revolves around an enormous exhibition organised by an invited curator. This is accompanied by dozens of smaller shows presented by individual nations, mostly in pavilions in the city’s public gardens, the Giardini. The pavilions are small permanent structures that reflect, to a comic or poignant degree, the state of the world at the time of their building. The 1909 British pavilion, elevated above its neighbours by 15 arrogant steps, is a relic of Edwardian imperialism; the Russian pavilion of 1914 has onion domes; the German pavilion (built in 1938) carries more than a hint of Nazism; and the pale, neoclassical American pavilion, from 1930, belongs on Capitol Hill. Emma Dexter, director of visual art at the British Council, is in charge of the British exhibition. The Venice Biennale, she said, is a place not just for art, but for “cultural diplomacy and bridge-building – an extraordinary geopolitical adventure”.

The moral of Barlow’s life story is not that hard work will eventually be recognised, because the fact is that hers very nearly wasn’t. Rather, it is that having a “career” and being a good artist are not the same thing. Barlow’s years of being overlooked are “an indictment of our art world in the UK,” says Frances Morris, who told me she felt a sense of “institutional guilt” on behalf of the Tate. “She had had significant shows at significant places, regional shows. She should have been recognised.” So why wasn’t she? “Gender. The fact that she was known as a teacher.” Morris also said that the Tate and other institutions had tended to focus on collecting via London’s commercial galleries – of which there were only two or three of any real standing before the 1990s. Put simply, since Barlow’s work wasn’t for sale, it didn’t get bought.

The story of how Barlow was “discovered”, how she was suddenly seen in a new light, varies according to whom you consult, but it is possible to piece together some of the steps. Things began to stir in 2009, when she won a Paul Hamlyn award, a high-profile scheme that supports talented but cash-strapped artists. A much younger artist, the Berlin-based sculptor Nairy Baghramian, wrote about her in the December issue of the influential American magazine ArtForum. Joe Scotland and Sarah McCrory – young curators running Studio Voltaire, a respected London exhibition space – went to visit her. They decided on the spot to offer her a show for the following spring. Scotland remembers her surprise – “she thought we’d come to find out about her former students”. Appearing in a programme alongside more obviously fashionable international artists, Barlow’s work was noticed by people to whom she had been invisible for decades. Five or six big London galleries started to nose round her, Scotland said. “Some of them she’d known for 30 years.”

The powerful artistic director of London’s Serpentine Gallery, Hans Ulrich Obrist, also paid Barlow a visit. Obrist has a “methodology” for discovering talent, he told me: he consults successful artists about their teachers or overlooked colleagues, thus sidestepping the market. He said that as soon as he moved to Britain in 2006, he heard people talking about Barlow. But when he lived in Britain in the 1990s, no one had mentioned her name, and he is puzzled as to why.

One answer is that the art world has, over the past decade, been collectively in the mood to reassess the work of older women – perhaps salving its conscience for previous neglect, or perhaps (a cynic might argue) having exhausted all other forms of novelty. You can see this trend in the revival of the career of, for example, the 74-year-old American painter Judith Bernstein, or the recent change in the Turner prize rules that allows artists over 50 to be shortlisted – meaning that Lubaina Himid, at 62, is this year’s early favourite. (In general, the odds remain stacked against women. Their work sells more cheaply and is less lavishly represented in museums and exhibitions than men’s.) At any rate, Obrist put Baghramian and Barlow together for a joint show at the Serpentine Gallery in 2010. And with a show at one of Britain’s major institutions, she had arrived.

Finally, “out of the sky fell the utterly strange Hauser & Wirth”, as Richard Wentworth put it. Hauser & Wirth is a phenomenally successful commercial gallery that originated in Zurich in the 1990s and opened in London in 2003. It now has two galleries in New York, one on Savile Row in London, one in Los Angeles, one in Zurich, one in Gstaad and an art centre in Somerset, where Iwan Wirth and his wife and business partner, Manuela, own a farm. They also have a house in London and a castle in the Cairngorms. (Wentworth talked of the ebullient Iwan as if he were a character out of a Henry James novel – “he’s like one of those Americans who married into the English aristocracy – and he’s just eating Britain”.)

In 2010, the Wirths became the latest interested parties to make the journey to Finsbury Park in search of Barlow, purring through the scrappy streets in their chauffeur-driven Audi. “We couldn’t find the house, and then I couldn’t believe this was where she lived,” said Iwan Wirth. “My driver said: ‘I don’t think that that can be it.’ But we ring the bell, and then we are in this extraordinary house, which she explained she doesn’t clean ever, and this sense of children-love fills the room.” The exuberant, loving chaos of it all – her art, the house, the family, everything – “was like therapy for a Swiss soul. This is the opposite of what we were brought up with. It was love at first sight. We knew immediately that she was vintage Hauser & Wirth.”

A good gallery acts not just as an artist’s shopfront, but as bank, agent, adviser, PR and shrink. When Hauser & Wirth took Barlow on, they descended into her life like a swat team. Sara Harrison, the senior director assigned to work with her, told me that they immediately took charge of her archive of drawings, got her on to the website, began handling requests for exhibitions, talks and press, scheduled a big solo show for the gallery’s London HQ, and selected work to sell at art fairs. Wirth likes to represent “difficult” artists like Barlow, he told me – that is, difficult to sell. “Of course Phyllida’s work is much more commercially successful that it was before. But that’s easy, because before, there was none!” He hooted with laughter.

The gallery’s ability to front up money has transformed the scale at which Barlow is able to work – hence the move to the large studio and the team of assistants. Barlow will estimate the costs she will incur (labour, rent, materials), then Hauser & Wirth advances them against sales, which they split 50-50. “I am able to say I need four assistants four days a week for 16 weeks [to work on the Venice installation]. Four assistants a day cost £480 – so you can see how it racks up,” she said (to over £30,000, to be precise, for labour). “The money absolutely terrifies me. If I drop dead tomorrow, I’ll have this vast account.” Harrison laughed this off when I asked her about it. “It’s nowhere near as precarious as she thinks it is,” she said. “These are just very different sums from the kind she has dealt with – for production and sales – for most of her life.”

How much is a Barlow? I asked. “The small drawings start at £5,000, the slightly larger ones are £12,000, and the older ones more again. The starting price for sculptures is around £25,000 for something small, and a room-size installation around £250-300,000.” Not bad for an artist who, before 2010, had barely sold a work in her life.

Open the door of Barlow and Peake’s family home and you’ll find a place that has stayed largely unchanged since the 1970s. Phone numbers are scrawled in pen on the hallway paintwork, and scars pit the walls where plaster has flaked away. A set of shelves carries Darwin’s collected letters, though Barlow finds the weight of this family connection embarrassing, perhaps because of an early injunction from her mother that she should never, ever trade off her family history. Frances Morris told me that once, when she visited, she saw Barlow subtly move a mug. “When she got up I turned it round to see what was on the other side – it was Darwin.”

You can see how successions of people have been bewitched by her here, in this corner of old-time bohemia. There’s an upright piano. The kitchen is not fitted and looks slightly botched together. At the back is an old, squashy sofa and a coffee table, which when I visited was doubling up as a draining board for pans and Pyrex dishes. (Barlow is a skilled, improvisatory cook, by all accounts.)

Barlow was born in 1944 in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, where her psychiatrist father was researching brain trauma (“the consequences of being blown up as a soldier”, as she put it). Ludwig Wittgenstein, of all people, was his orderly (the philosopher worked in hospitals through the war). “He always wolfed down the rations when he came round – the tea, the tiny morsel of jam and butter,” said Barlow. The family – she has a sister and a brother, both older – moved south after the war to a then “down-at-heel” Richmond. The family settled in Maids of Honour Row, a grand terrace of double-fronted Queen Anne houses. It was an unusually well-connected childhood. Londoners of Barlow’s generation tend to have memories of the 1951 Festival of Britain; not many involve visiting with the future leader of a political party (Jo Grimond, who would lead the Liberals).

It was, she said, in many ways, a blessed childhood, “but the shadow of the war was formidable, and there were clues of that everywhere – holidays in Norfolk where you’d come across the discarded tailfin of a bomb, or a Jeep would get washed up in a big tide, or someone would cut their foot on a piece of metal, or you’d see abandoned pill boxes. There was evidence everywhere of something traumatic having happened.” She became obsessive about a memory – not a memory of her own, but of her mother’s. As a child, her mother’s brother had been playing on Aberdyfi beach in Wales, digging a hole. The sand collapsed on him. “My mother described the blue feet sticking out of the sand,” she said. He died. This borrowed memory elided with an catastrophe she herself witnessed, aged eight, when several people drowned off Blakeney beach in Norfolk. For a few bleak moments she had thought her parents among the dead.

These memories of violence, of precariousness, of threat, seem to me to pulse through her work – I think of her towers at the point of collapse, her structures that lie in shattered heaps on the ground, or her looming, barricade-like walls. Once, she told me that she sees her work as a kind of reenactment, a staging of something, perhaps even a phantom of something. But of what? I asked. “Fear, or dread, or immanence,” she replied.

She studied at Chelsea School of Art, where, at 18, she met Peake, and later at the Slade: a formal, technical, old-fashioned training. She remembers a sign on the welding-room door at Chelsea saying “No Women”. But, she said, “There were women in there: you were taught those five skills of sculpture – welding, woodwork, clay, armature building, casting and plastermaking. And I couldn’t really do any of them except clay … Everything for me goes back to clay in some way.”

After graduating, there was no real question of a “career”, no suggestion that “being an artist would be about exhibiting, or fame or anything like that”. Having a studio, she said, was what made you an artist, not having exhibitions. How you financed your studio was a separate question: you would simply make it work. She began teaching. She and Peake set up home, first in Camden then in Finsbury Park. Their first baby, Florence, who is now 43, and a performance artist, arrived in 1973. Then came Clover (a writer and designer) and Tabitha (a nurse and painter). Finally arrived the twins, Eddie and Lewis (an artist and a film-maker respectively; Eddie is now represented by White Cube gallery and regarded as a rising star).

All this time, she made work: sculptures that engulfed their spaces with paunchy black bin bags or heaps of folded fabric, or ones that resembled vast parcels garrotted with polythene and Sellotape. If no one wanted to put them in exhibitions, she put her art into the world any way she could. Her CV from the mid-1980s lists the venues for what are grandly listed as “Solo Exhibitions”. They include “Finsbury Park school playground”; “Archway Road, abandoned house” and “Old Stocking Factory, Mare Street”. In the 1990s she made a series of buffoonish, absurd works that she installed, illicitly, on the street, or in friends’ houses. One was a kind of hat for an upright piano; another a sort of bunny-eared crown for a television; another a weird four-legged ovoid that sat on an ironing board. Sometimes she would simply “throw objects into the Thames at the dead of night”. When I asked what audience there was for these works, she said: “There was no audience at all. An audience of one.”

One day, talking in her studio, Barlow compared the art world to an iceberg. Below the waterline are those who work unseen. They have a certain kind of freedom. Above the waterline are the recognised, the successful, who have another kind of freedom, the kind conferred by support and money and encouragement and invitations from museums. Good, indifferent and bad art is made either side of the waterline; and, just as an iceberg conceals most of its mass beneath the surface, most art-making happens unremarked upon and out of sight.

During her decades below the waterline, her week had a pattern. She would look after the children in the mornings, and Peake would have them in the afternoon. Then there were teaching days. That left about two afternoons a week. She would go into the studio with a sense of urgency, if not panic: she had to do something. And she would use whatever came to hand. “I made a whole series of work out of domestic rubbish, just taking the black bin bags and taping them up.” No one ever saw it. That wasn’t the point: the point was to make, and she would be her own judge. “Should the manuscript that never gets published not have been written?” she asked. “Should the work that never gets seen never have been made?”

She once told me that having children and making art was “impossible”. When I asked her to explain this evident paradox, she said: “Well, of course you have children and you are an artist. Of course. But the demands of both are just incompatible. The world of the studio requires a focus that is uncompromising. And what children should have is the same – uncompromising focus.” Having children, making sculpture – they involve, she said, a similar range of emotions, from “intense boredom to wild euphoria”. Doing both simultaneously, she said “is extremely complicated mentally. It’s like oil and water. And it’s a relief to be able to say it how it is.”
Barlow in her studio with part of her Venice installation.
Barlow in her studio with part of her Venice installation. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

The urgency, during these years, of raising children, the raw need to get something done, the feeling of being “under siege”, the impossibility of it all, still shows in her work. She uses the shortest route to get something done. She improvises, makes shortcuts, disregards time-honoured craft techniques. Of her approach to materials, she said: “They are swiped, they are spilled, they are thrown, they are splashed, they are poured – they are not excessively handled, they are handled expediently.” She “doesn’t fuss them”. Richard Wentworth calls her “a bish-bash-bosh person”. All of which might make her work sound slipshod, which it isn’t: it is forceful, explosive, unapologetic, magnificent. If you were to imagine her work apart from its physical ingredients, said Hans Ulrich Obrist, it would be formed of “boundless, unstoppable energy”. Sometimes her acts of making could (and can) tip into a kind of savagery. “There was a lot of binding and tying and dipping and crushing, and those things have remained in my work. A lot of these actions have their own violent associations. I think tying is like suffocating; it’s holding and strangling. If you applied the actions of making in another context, you’d have a string of dead bodies”.

In March, I visited Barlow while she and her team were finally installing the work in Venice. The Giardini, where the exhibitions are held, were in preparation mode, closed to the public and slightly forlorn. Building materials littered the paths. Outside the British pavilion were massed the contents of the last of the 92 crates – the giant baubles, all wrapped up in polythene sheeting. Inside, seven studio assistants (or rather six, since one had popped back to the UK to perform with his band) were at calm and fluid work.

Four hundred sheets of painted plywood were in the process of being screwed together to form immense, sloping walls that shouldered their way into the pavilion, despite seeming far too big for it. None of them was positioned without instructions given by Barlow, who was working by eye. (“Ideally, I’d like this one 2cm down from the orange one – slightly to the right, parallel with the top of the grey.”) One of the ironies of Barlow’s situation is that she has the chance to work at vast scale just at the point when her own diminishing physical capabilities mean she cannot hop up the ladders herself. It was clearly exhausting. Barlow told me that on an afternoon off, she sat on a bench and stared into space for two hours. “The idea of going to see Tintorettos was torture.”

As the shadows drew in, Adam, her studio manager, said, almost to himself: “She’ll have to stop when it gets dark.” The next morning, he was five-and-a-half metres up on a scaffold, attaching enormous painted foam wedges to one of the multicoloured walls. Barlow said of the toil: “It’s like asking someone to climb Everest on one’s behalf, just as a whim. It’s got a touch of the emperor about it … ‘Climb that mountain and bring me back a bucket of snow.’”

When Barlow first visited the Giardini, she told me, she “had the sense of being in a theme park that was either closed for winter or had gone bankrupt. How does an artist represent Britain in a ‘British pavilion’ after the year this country’s been through? The building is like a relic, a symbol of something past. That has become, in a sense, the subject of the work.”

She has called this, her latest and greatest work, Folly. With its emptied-out columns, bashed-up stacks of shapes resembling grand-piano lids, and heaps of debris seemingly left over from some mass protest, you could read it as a vision of the wreck of modern Britain. She has, she said, always made her art “as if a storm were coming”. Now, perhaps, is truly her time.

About Giacometti review

idway through this exhibition, emotion hits you like a blast of heat from a furnace. The chill of irony thaws. The intellectual and erotic games are over. There is only one thing worth making art about, Alberto Giacometti has decided, and that is our common humanity.

What a slender thread humanity must have seemed in Europe in the 1940s. The thin figures that emerged like wisps of smoke out of Giacometti’s conscience in the second part of that murderous decade seem barely to exist. They are not so much statues as mirages of people glimpsed far away, shimmering on a horizon of ash. The human form, starved, bereft, but somehow standing tall.

Tate Modern has created a truly great exhibition of an artist whose compassion and honesty matter more now than ever. Giacometti was one of the most sensually gifted sculptors of the modern age, up there with Rodin, Brancusi and Picasso as a manipulator of form. Yet in the final quarter-century of his life he set aside his ingenuity to concentrate on something more urgent: the truth. As Paul Gauguin once asked in the title of a painting, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Gauguin pondered these questions in the age of Oscar Wilde; Giacometti asked them in the shadow of the Holocaust.

It is the achievement of this exquisitely well-selected and consummately beautiful exhibition to make you see Giacometti’s art for the first time, appreciate its tactile genius and then, with fresh horror and sadness, understand the depths of tragedy out of which he speaks.

Giacometti, who was born in the Italian-speaking Swiss Alps in 1901 and was inspired to become an artist partly by looking at Renaissance masterpieces, was always an unlikely modernist. A wonderful display at the start of this exhibition shows his progression from carving realistic human heads at the beginning of his career to making profoundly true portraits at its end. Yet in between he was one the most dangerous and uncompromising artists of the surrealist movement. The surrealists thought Freud’s theory of the unconscious was a key to creativity and human liberation. It certainly released something in Giacometti. Yet his menacing pointy biomorphs and eerie dream machines reveal a bleak interior universe of unpitying sex and violence.

In the 1930s, his art had shared enthusiastically in a collective sickness. Europe in the age of Hitler was headed for hell, abandoning civilised norms, mocking dull decencies. Violence throbbed like an electric pulse through fascist politics and avant-garde art alike. There is arguably no more perfect artistic symptom of the 30s than Giacometti’s Woman With Her Throat Cut (1932). This twisted splayed bronze is sprawled across a white plinth at Tate Modern, a vicious cut all but severing its long thin neck. Its body, inspired by the insect anatomy of a praying mantis, is all spikes and concavities. Such crudely effective markers of male and female abound in Giacometti’s surrealist phase. Disagreeable Object (1931) is a massive dildo with spikes, Spoon Woman (1927) a body as a giant curvy space.

Looking Freud-like at his dreams must have terrified Giacometti, for by the end of the 30s he abandoned surrealism as if it were an addiction he needed to kick. His surrealist sculptures are absolutely brilliant, yet utterly unlovable. They clearly did not satisfy him. “The sleep of reason produces monsters,” warned Goya. Giacometti must have become sick of giving birth to monsters. Europe was making enough real ones by 1939 – who needed artistic nightmares when history was turning into a macabre death dance?
Woman of Venice by Alberto Giacometti

Suddenly only people matter. He is driven to hold on to love and friendship, to see a few familiar faces over and over again in playful but tender remakings of the human image. Silvio Standing With His Hands in His Pockets (1943) is like a little cartoon hero, moulded in plaster, perkily surviving in a blitzkrieged world. From quirky caricatures he finds an art worthy of the weight of its time. By 1947 he is casting Man Pointing, a bony monument, gesturing towards the reality we must see.

Millions were dead and art scarcely seemed justified or tolerable. Magritte, Ernst and Dalí all seemed artists of an earlier age; European art itself appeared to have faded in the continent’s ruins. Only Giacometti rose to the moment with stark, severe sculptures of people who seem to have lost everything – and yet who keep walking, pointing, speaking.

The 20th century’s anguish looks both ancient and universal through Giacometti’s understanding eyes. Right through this exhibition, from such early works as Crouching Figure (circa 1926) with its squat echo of Aztec art, to the very last monumental stick-people with their reminiscence of Etruscan sculpture, Giacometti’s passion for ancient and “primitive” art is constantly enriching and emboldening his vision. Many modern artists were fascinated by “primitive” sculpture – that intrigue is close to being the very definition of modernist art – but Giacometti stands alone in the moral depth of his engagement. His drawings of ancient Egyptian art are juxtaposed with some of his tall heroic bronzes. He gives the modern condition the grandeur of myth.

Do we deserve that compassion? Looking at Giacometti’s people melting in empty space, at the gaps and holes in them, you can’t help asking: are we still human? We probably are, so long as we keep looking at this incomparable visionary.

Their Mortal Remains review at Pink Floyd Exhibition

irtually the first thing the visitor to Their Mortal Remains sees is a quote from the late John Peel regarding Pink Floyd’s legendary anonymity: “They could have joined the audience at one of their own gigs without being recognised.” On the face of it, that should preclude Pink Floyd as a band on which to base a V&A exhibition in the blockbusting vein of 2013’s David Bowie Is, 250m albums sold or not. Then again, as the exhibition makes clear, few bands in rock history have ever been as creative in their attempts to distract attention from themselves.

In truth, a certain anonymity seems to have clung to Pink Floyd from the start, even when they were fronted by Syd Barrett, a man as photogenic and pop-star pretty as he was talented: an early cover feature on the band in Town magazine doesn’t feature them on the cover at all, opting instead for a female model with the band’s psychedelic light show projected over her face. Nevertheless, they endured a brief moment of old-fashioned pop stardom in the summer of 1967, replete with appearances on Top of the Pops and in the teen magazines (“Syd is 5 foot 11 inches tall, with black hair and green eyes – the mystery man of the group and a gypsy at heart”). By all accounts – including the testimonies from bandmates and friends featured in a heartbreaking exhibition video – it was an experience that seemed to wreak almost as much havoc on Barrett’s fragile psyche as the vast quantities of LSD he consumed, hastening his decline.

After Barrett’s irrevocable descent into mental illness, a combination of survivors’ guilt, English reticence and bloody-mindedness forged in the aftermath of their frontman’s departure – when almost everyone, including their own managers, appeared to give Pink Floyd up as a lost cause – seemed to drive the band’s retreat from the limelight. Barrett’s replacement, guitarist and vocalist David Gilmour, had all the right ingredients for rock god status except the character: for all his brilliance as a guitarist, he seemed even more reserved than his new bandmates.

Pink Floyd never appeared on one of their own album covers again after 1969’s Ummagumma, and seem to have spent almost as much time devising ways of diverting their audience’s gaze as they did making music. A groundbreaking quadrophonic sound system built at their behest got almost equal billing on their gig posters, although Their Mortal Remains reveals that the grandly titled Azimuth Co-ordinator looked suspiciously like something knocked together in someone’s shed. At one show, a roadie was obliged to appear on stage dressed as a Tar Monster, complete with a penis fashioned from a washing-up liquid bottle that squirted black fluid over the front rows. The 1972 tour on which they debuted a nascent version of The Dark Side of the Moon was promoted in the press with a photo of the band with their backs to the camera. Come and see us live, but don’t look at us: that seemed to be the message.

Their masterstroke came with The Dark Side of the Moon’s release the following year. Early 70s rock was filled with striking images, from Bowie’s lightning flash makeup to Led Zeppelin’s mystical Zoso symbols, but few had quite the same lasting impact as the refracting prism design that Pink Floyd’s longstanding visual team Hipgnosis came up with for that album’s cover. An entire room of the exhibition is devoted to it, and rightly so. In cynical modern parlance, it was a brilliantly simple piece of corporate branding; 44 years on, it remains the image that first springs to most people’s minds when the name Pink Floyd is mentioned – although Hipgnosis’s designs for their subsequent albums were scarcely less iconic: the photograph of two businessmen shaking hands, one in flames, for 1975’s Wish You Were Here; the shot of a giant inflatable pig floating above Battersea power station for 1977’s Animals, a giant neon replica of which fills another of the exhibition’s rooms.

The Dark Side of the Moon made Pink Floyd global superstars, but the bigger they got, the more Pink Floyd themselves seemed to recede. A 1974 tour programme attempts to elicit information on the band members via a questionnaire, to no avail: “Personal likes: ‘Not much.’ ‘Too personal’.” On stage, they were dwarfed first by a giant circular screen showing specially commissioned films, then by enormous inflatables and vast parachutes in the shape of sheep.
An inflatable puppet of The Teacher, one of Gerald Scarfe’s creations for The Wall.
One of Gerald Scarfe’s creations for The Wall. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

By the time of 1979’s The Wall, they were sending other musicians on stage in their place, wearing rubber life-masks based on their faces, and performing behind 40 feet of cardboard bricks onto which Gerald Scarfe cartoons were projected. Their Mortal Remains makes an intriguing attempt to link their ever-more complex stage designs with Roger Waters, drummer Nick Mason and keyboard player Richard Wright’s background as architecture students, although others at the time took what you might describe as their elaborate reticence for haughtiness and pomposity: one wall of the exhibition is devoted to their one-time labelmates the Sex Pistols, with Johnny Rotten’s I HATE PINK FLOYD T-shirt at its heart.

Waters’ acrimonious mid-80s departure from the band is tactfully skirted around, although keen students of Pink Floyd’s endless icy, passive-aggressive internal struggles might note with interest the glaring disparity in space afforded Waters’ last album with the band, The Final Cut, and their first without him, 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason. The latter gets a whole room, which seems less a reflection on its contents – curiously more dated-sounding now than the music they made in 1967 or 1973 – than on the vast, box office-busting tour it spawned, which tellingly saw Pink Floyd reprising not just their greatest hits, but their most famous visual effects. To the evident fury of Waters, who considered himself the band’s creative genius, it didn’t seem to matter to audiences whether he was there or not, as long as it sounded like Pink Floyd and an inflatable pig floated over the crowd: such is the downside of carefully cultivated anonymity.

Or perhaps it did matter. There’s something touching about the way Their Mortal Remains concludes not with The Endless River – the largely instrumental album Gilmour and Mason constructed in tribute to Richard Wright, who died in 2008 – but with footage of the quartet’s solitary reunion, at Live 8 in 2005. Their performance ends with a slightly uneasy group hug, which one band member has to be visibly coerced into joining: Pink Floyd were awkward in the spotlight until the last.

Info Shezad Dawood on his oceanic epic Leviathan

The giant squid, democracy, mental health, migration – big beasts, one and all. And each plays a role in Leviathan, a cycle of 10 films by artist Shezad Dawood that traces links from human activity to marine ecology and back again. The fates of crayfish, phytoplankton and spots on the sun are intertwined with that of the desperate souls crossing the Mediterranean in ill-suited vessels, heading for countries swinging away from liberal democracy.

Leviathan is, as its name suggests, ambitious verging on the unwieldy: Dawood jokes that he and his wife refer to the project simply as LV around the home, to stop him freaking out. As well as the films – to be shot and released over the next three years – there’s a novel, paintings, sculptures and a series of talks and symposia featuring scientists and researchers who have contributed. The first two episodes, as well as a suite of paintings on cloth and a lustrous resin sculpture, will all be shown in Venice alongside this year’s biennale.

Ironically, the project commenced with a severe attack of writer’s block. Commissioned to pen an essay on democracy for an art publication in 2013, Dawood’s writing didn’t exactly go to plan. “About two years later,” he says, “I had reams of notes that read like somebody with severe multiple personality disorder.” He finally confessed to the editor that, instead of a coherently argued piece, all he had to offer were thousands of unprintable jottings that “contradicted each other over and over again. I almost shift from Marxist to fascist from one paragraph to the next.” The editor suggested that, rather than trying to reconcile the split, Dawood approach the subject as a work of fiction – and Leviathan was spawned.

Based in east London, and with a body of work encompassing everything from painting to virtual reality, Dawood is not an artist who pursues one thought single-mindedly for long. Writing his multiple-personality novel on democracy, he started thinking “almost in parallel, about a connection between the top of the sea and the bottom”. It was 2015 and the news was full of stories of perilous migration across the Mediterranean. Dawood’s interest in environmental matters drew him to find links to changes taking place within the water itself.
“I started going out and meeting with oceanographers, political scientists, migrant rights activists and neurologists. I started asking very smart people whether there was a connection between mass migration and marine conservation. I was shocked by how much they jumped on it.”

Among drowned migrants belongings, Dawood found small plastic bags – not of drugs, but earth from their homelands

At the Institute of Marine Sciences in Venice, an engineer explained to Dawood that the route from north Africa to the Italian island of Lampedusa went right over a hump on the ocean floor that had become a kind of faultline for climate change. Waters warming on one side were creating an imbalance: “The displacement of that water creates the squalls, currents and riptides that make that crossing so dangerous, so there’s a direct relationship between climate change in the Med and how dangerous those crossings are.”

Dawood also learned that the same environmental factors were causing a parallel migration in the sea itself, with non-native species, such as the heavy-metal-munching Louisiana crayfish, taking over the territory of its European counterpart, which changed the ecosystem and had an economic impact on the fisheries. One marine biologist told Dawood that as a left-leaning progressive, his sympathies were with the human migrants – but that his working days were spent trying “to prevent alien and invasive species coming across that hump”.

At the University of Milan, he met researchers who gathered the human remains, and the belongings, of migrants who had died when their ships capsized off Lampedusa: “The idea is to build up a kind of archive to help relatives find closure.” Going through photographs of their findings, Dawood found images of small plastic bags that he assumed to contain drugs, but which turned out to be earth, brought from their homelands.
For a keen reader of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, the great 17th-century work of political philosophy, it wasn’t a big leap from democracy to creatures of the deep (Leviathan being the name of a sea monster in the Bible). But if all this sounds like an indigestibly doom-laden mash-up of Panorama and David Attenborough, think again. Described by a fellow artist as “grindhouse Derek Jarman”, Dawood’s film output bears evidence to his interest in genre and B-movies. He favours the terms “punkish” and “freaky” when describing his work.

Episode one, narrated by a character called Ben, is filled with manic onomatopoeia and Tourette’s-style tics. The story, such as one can grasp it, rattles between visits to the giant squid in its specimen tank in London’s Natural History Museum and memories of a global disaster featuring sunspots, phytoplankton blooms and mass suicide. Dawood recalls one spicy passage, about monkey-men masturbating to internet porn, causing a frisson when the piece played to prospective funders. “Monkey on monkey, multiple monkey penetration, with and without plastic penetrative aids, monkey on goat…”

The novel will be released chapter by chapter online, echoing both the political pamphleteering of Hobbes’s era, and the serialisation of Victorian novels. Dawood takes a more contemporary point of reference for the film cycle, referring to it (only half jokingly) as a “box set”. Anyone wanting to binge-watch will have to wait until 2020, though, when the cycle is slated for completion.

With shooting locations that trace the migration route from North Africa in reverse, Dawood is on the hunt for spectacular sites that bring historical resonance to the work. The lighthouse and fortifications of the Plymouth breakwater, for example, make it into episode two, exuding post-apocalyptic squalor. “It’s not that hard to find the end of the world,” says Dawood cheerfully, “if you’re looking for it.”