Category Archives: Art

The Making of Harry Potter tour, Warner Bros. studios, Leavesden

HarryPotterTourI’ve got to say I don’t really get the appeal of theme parks built around big Hollywood movies and I think I’ve reconciled myself to never visiting Euro Disney without excessive soul-rending but despite initial misgivings I ended up really impressed with the Harry Potter tour that’s currently running at the Warner Bros. studios at Leavesden in Hertfordshire. This is where they shot the eight films and a couple of the hangar-sized buildings have now been given over to recreations of many of the sets containing literally thousands of the props, models and costumes as well as rooms containing fascinating conceptual art,  architectural diagrams and animatronic (and often unnervingly convincing) creatures and false heads. The tour begins with a couple of short films setting the scene and some slightly toe-curling attempts to whip up enthusiasm from the guides (“Whoop if you love Harry Potter!”…err, would it be all right if I just looked vaguely bemused instead?) but this doesn’t last long and once you’ve gone past the Great Hall you’re let off the lead and allowed to wander at your own pace through the wonders on show.

It’s all pretty overwhelming, particularly when you get up close and get the chance to appreciate the sheer artistry and care that’s gone into things like paintings and tapestries and artefacts that hardly get any time to register when you see them onscreen. The potions classroom for example contains about five hundred glass jars all containing different, and carefully labelled, exotic ingredients and the vast “Magic is Might” sculpture that’s glimpsed briefly in the films after Voldemort’s forces have taken over the ministry is truly monumental: a graphic depiction of ordinary working people being crushed by superior force that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Mussolini’s Rome. I was surprised at how many of the effects in the films were achieved by physical rather than digital means – the snakes on the door to the Chamber of Secrets pictured above are articulated and can actually move! Most of the exhibits are set out museum style with explanatory texts and links to an optional audio guide but there are interactive opportunities too with a virtual wand tutor and a green screen room in which you can get a photo of yourself apparently riding a broomstick. The tour’s sensibly broken up halfway through with a refreshments pit-stop where you can sample the incredibly sweet butterbeer (a sort of cream soda I think), walk along the wobbly school bridge or get yourself photographed outside what might be the single strangest thing in the whole exhibition – a completely convincing mock-up of 4 Privet Drive, essentially nothing more than a standard suburban terraced house. Nearer the end of the tour you come to what are probably the two highlights: the beautifully shambolic and inviting shop fronts of Diagon Alley and the enormous 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts that was used for long-shots in the films.

This tour’s not cheap but it’s difficult to argue that it’s not value for money for any fan of the series or anyone half-interested in film-making. I spent three hours in there and it felt like I was only skimming the surface of what was on show. I could easily have been in there all day, and may even go back for another look sometime as one of the guides said that they were hoping to refresh the displays with new exhibits periodically.



David Bowie Is, The V & A Museum, London 21 June 2013

david bowieI managed to get to see the David Bowie Is exhibition at the V & A yesterday and by jingo was it busy…both in terms of the number of visitors lining up and and as a description of the sheer sensory overload you’re exposed to once inside. Bowie is the original multimedia pop star and has always taken as much care with the visual and performance aspects of his act as he has with the actual music, and this show has gathered together a highly impressive collection of his costumes, his sketches and his promotional material as well as films and videos from most stages of his career. It’s a lot to take in – you certainly can’t imagine a similarly themed show on the life of, say, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen being anything like as visually stimulating as this one.

For once the description “all singing, all dancing” isn’t that wide of the mark: everyone entering is given a pair of headphones and an audio device which can detect where you are in the exhibition and feed you the appropriate accompaniment, which might be music or interview extracts or the soundtrack to one of the many video screens that line the route through. This is a smart tactic to avoid too many overlapping sounds from different sections of the show, but it did take me a while to adjust to the need to stand still once an audio track has started. If you wander from a hot spot you lose the signal pretty quickly and you risk picking up a commentary from another exhibit that may not yet be visible. I’m fairly certain Bowie himself hasn’t been to this exhibition but you can imagine the writer of Space Oddity approving of the idea of rooms full of people all isolated from each other, experiencing different ambient soundtracks and feeling vaguely alienated.

I got the hang of it eventually though, and even if the audio experience was not quite seamless there was more than enough to look at to hold my interest. The first couple of rooms focus on Bowie’s formative years and repeated failure to establish himself as a star in the 1960s and there are plenty of mod and hippy era photos and posters here, as well as hilarious footage of the 17 year old David Jones being interviewed by Cliff Michelmore about his campaign to stop persecution of long-haired young men. By the time Bowie actually scored a hit in 1969 he’d already worked his way through a bewildering variety of looks and musical styles, a trend that would if anything accelerate through his glory years, and the central rooms of the exhibition are packed with outlandish glam costumes that look like they weigh a ton and would cause severe over-heating if worn on stage, as well as videos of performances both iconic and obscure, some illustrations of significant influences, explanations on the contexts and recordings of the classic albums and most excitingly of all several of Bowie’s original handwritten lyrics for songs such as Ziggy Stardust and Ashes To Ashes, complete with crossings-out and rejected ideas in the margins. There’s also a room in which one can sample extracts from Bowie’s variable-quality, but never predictable, acting career (lovely to see Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth again). As you might expect, the depth of coverage falls off dramatically once we reach the 1980s and Bowie’s inspirational run comes to a bland, blue-suits-and-arena-tours, close, but there’s enough interesting material here on his 1997 album Earthling and the brand new The Next Day for the argument to be sustained that the man with the cheekbones and the ill-matching eyes is still relevant.

The highlight of the whole show is the big room at the end in which live performances from down the years are projected onto massive, double-decker bus height, screens – it’s all somehow completely beguiling, even the footage from only a decade ago. It’s pretty unlikely that Bowie will tour again, but this is as good a substitute for the real thing that you can imagine. If there’s a fault with David Bowie Is it’s that there’s not much coverage of the vast influence the man has had over the pop and rock and dance acts that followed him – as Madonna and Lady Gaga, and even to some extent U2 and REM would admit, it’s now taken as read that media-savvy stars are expected to in some way re-invent themselves with every new album and tour, and that certainly wasn’t the case in the era of long hair, sandals and earnest confessional singer-songwriters. The exhibition runs to August and is probably already sold out, but anyone with even a passing interest in Bowie or the conceptual end of 1970s rock music should try to get see it if they haven’t already.

Postscript: When the exhibition closed in London in August a special live event was held featuring many commentators and Bowie collaborators. Our correspondent Nicola’s review of this can be found here.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

The United Kingdom has no shortage of conceptual artists specialising in attention-grabbing, confrontational or challenging works that claim to pass comment on modern society, but it’s difficult to imagine what Damien Hirst or The Chapman Brothers would have to unveil in order to match the stakes raised by the fearless Ai Weiwei, whose refusal to toe the famously repressive Chinese government’s hardline led to his mysterious, but thankfully temporary, disappearance for ten weeks last year. Ai is the subject of Alison Klayman’s excellent new documentary Never Sorry, which shows us something of the artist’s working methods (he comes up with the ideas and then gets a team of underlings to assemble them. One of them when interviewed likens himself to an assassin: “He tells me who to kill, and I kill them. It’s not my place to ask him why”) and his gradual alienation from Beijing’s art establishment, the turning point of which is his disowning of the work he did for the 2008 Olympics after both native Chinese and migrants were forced to leave sections of the city to make way for the Games’ infrastructure. Ai subsequently got under the skin of the authorities via such seemingly innocuous and well-intentioned acts as trying to definitively identify the victims of the Sichuan earthquake, information deemed by the state as classified, and daring to turn up to testify at the show trial of an activist trying to find out exactly how shoddy the government-built school buildings in the quake zone were. Ai never got to the trial, due to the police detaining him in his hotel room the night before. This incident provides a throughline for the film, as Ai seeks to get formal acknowledgement from the state for the head injury he suffered at the hands of an officer.

Ai comes over as a canny operator, fully aware of the risks he’s taking but safe in the knowledge that his prolific blogging and videoing and seemingly constant use of Twitter will ensure that his activities will be fully documented and instantly broadcast to the world. He’s a cult figure with an adoring fan-base and you sense that the powers-that-be haven’t really worked out how to handle him – certainly, almost every authority figure we see him encounter seems to treat him with respect and courtesy, his hotel assailant being a notable exception. His work has come to fully reflect his struggle, with many of his recent video pieces being blatantly provocative towards his motherland, but as he says “if you don’t push, you get nothing”. At time of writing, Ai is free and still tweeting, though the scenes in this film showing him immediately after his release issuing bland, if apologetic, “no comment”-style statements do make you worry that he may finally have been tamed. If so, it would be a tragedy – the campaign for freedom and transparency in China badly needs champions this brave, smart and articulate.

Morgan Howell and the art of the big hit single

I don’t know much about art and most of the time I’m not very sure if I know what I like, but the work of English artist Morgan Howell is sure as hell right up my lapsed-obsessive-record-collector street. Howell specialises in painstakingly accurate reproductions of 7 inch singles from the 60s and 70s, by which I don’t mean picture sleeves but the classic flimsy paper housed artefacts that required one to examine the label showing through the central circular hole in the cover if you wanted to identify them. These are three dimensional objects, not paintings, and Howell’s attention to detail is fastidious, down to the authentically distressed and creased canvas that stands in for the paper sleeves and the tiny imperfections round the edges of the labels on the foam board records – the one tiny thing that might tip you off that his artworks aren’t the real thing is their size: 27 inches square, with smaller reproductions available at 16 inches by 16. A very pleasing detail on some of the latter is the inclusion of a rendering of the shiny rounded record spindle you get on some players, which is painted to show the reflection of the room beyond.

I went to an exhibition of Howell’s work at the Williams Art Gallery in Cambridge where the walls were covered in these enormous singles and found it tremendously evocative. Apart from anything else, Howell is to be commended for his taste in subject matter: the reproductions included “Heatwave” by Martha and the Vandellas, Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, The Who’s “I Can’t Explain”, “Gangsters” by The Specials and rather excitingly for me “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” by The Clash, which I’ve previously rambled on about at some length. Buying works of art is a ridiculous bourgeois indulgence but I couldn’t resist splashing out on one of the cheaper reproductions of this one. If you love old singles and you get the chance you should definitely go and see Howell’s work. He even takes commissions!

Cave Of Forgotten Dreams: Werner Herzog drops into the abyss of time

The Chauvet cave system in the south of France was first explored in 1994 and was found to contain the earliest, and arguably most accomplished, prehistoric rock art ever discovered. This was a major find – the famous cave paintings at Lascaux are around 13,000 years old whereas some of those at Chauvet have been in existence for at least 30,000 years, making them the oldest surviving evidence of human culture by a margin of thousands of years. In addition, the caves are littered with unique geological formations and priceless remains of long-extinct animal species. The French government immediately took all the necessary steps to protect and preserve the site, which is highly vulnerable to the effects of human investigation. Even the breath of visitors is potentially dangerous as it would encourage mould to form and could disperse the fragments of charcoal from where the cave artists did their work, and treading on the soft floors could destroy evidence of animal tracks. A few narrow metal walkways have been lowered into position, but it’s still not possible to get within three metres or so from any of the artwork.

Until recently, only a handful of archaeologists, anthropologists and scientists have been allowed access to the caves. A couple of years ago, however, the French ministry of culture did grant permission for a small film crew to enter in order for a visual record of the cave system to be captured. Happily (for me at least), the film-maker granted this honour was the legendary maverick Werner Herzog, who is no stranger to operating in extreme environments and recording unique and often perilous human experience. The decision was also made to film the caves in 3D, on the face of it a bizarre choice for a documentary, particularly one made by a director as famously dismissive of the gimmickry of modern culture as this one. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is the result of the somewhat restricted shooting time and conditions that Herzog had to operate under.

Given the cramped conditions, the fact that the film crew was limited to four people and the total lack of natural light down there, the sequences of this film shot in the caves look extraordinary. The chambers are sprawling, irregularly shaped and packed with visual wonders: protruding stalagmites as smooth as porcelain, delicate rippled curtains of rock, skeletons of animals that haven’t existed for millennia. The cave art is amazingly accomplished and elegant, often reminiscent of the work of early twentieth century artists exploring the possibility of depicting motion. Animals are typically rendered via clear, uncomplicated single strokes, with detail being reserved for the heads. They seem unfeasibly accurate once you start to think about the conditions they were drawn in, but dating of the silicate that has built up on them has established that they really do pre-date all other known human art. The walls of the chambers rarely present a flat surface, but the artists have used this to their advantage by wrapping depictions around protrusions of rock, and it’s here that the decision to film in 3D really pays off: Herzog lets his cameras pan gently across the rock formations and often holds for several seconds on particular images, and the technique really does finally deliver on its promise of putting you in a virtual reality. The director narrates the film in his idiosyncratically dry, yet hypnotic, monotone and uses choral and chamber music to heighten the mood, but never in a crass fashion, and sometimes he just lets the cameras slowly move in silence.

Herzog intercuts the cave sequences with interviews with the scientists working on the site and experts in the field of prehistoric art, and while the use of 3D here becomes distracting and irrelevant these conversations do allow his deadpan sense of humour to assert itself. You get the feeling he’s sometimes chosen his interview subjects for their arresting physical appearance or behavioural tics as much as their knowledge and expertise, and relishes opportunities to play up their personal quirks – he’s delighted when he discovers that one young scientists used to work in a circus, and he’s happy to include a somewhat gratuitous clip of a master perfumer sniffing a rockface in the hope of detecting air currents from an undiscovered cavern. You wouldn’t have got this if the film had been made by the BBC or National Geographic.

We were lucky enough to go to a screening of the film at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge that was followed by a brief Q and A session with Herzog himself, and the great man was on form. He declared himself unconvinced by the value of 3D, at least not until film-makers had worked out how to edit it correctly, and talked about his sadness that the three discovers of the caves had become embroiled in a legal case concerning their claim over intellectual property rights which meant that they didn’t feel able to appear in the film. He also delivered a typically blackly funny anecdote about his archaeologist grandfather’s descent into senility which featured the classic Herzogian phrase “deep in the darkness of insanity”. A true one-off, and long may he continue.

Syd Barrett: Art and Letters

Syd Barrett: Art and Letters is a new exhibition running at the Idea Generation Gallery in Shoreditch until April 10th 2011. Barrett died in 2006, 38 years after dropping out of Pink Floyd, a group he founded and was the main songwriter for, and 32 years after giving up on music altogether after two patchy but fascinating solo albums and a handful of half-hearted career relaunches. He spent the second half of his life living reclusively in Cambridge, devoting himself to drawing and painting, disciplines he’d had formal training in before taking up music. An intensely private man, Barrett painted more for the pleasure and insight he derived from the act of creation than for the aim of producing something for posterity, and would indeed often destroy his artworks shortly after completion (although he was in the habit of taking photographs of them as a record). He would surely never have countenanced the possibility of exhibiting his work.

This exhibition offers a rare chance to see Barrett’s art from both his formative pre-Pink Floyd years and his later, post-fame, period. Also on display are many previously unseen photographs of Barrett and Pink Floyd from the late 60s and early 70s, and a collection of the young Barrett’s letters to his friends and girlfriends. The exhibition has been sensitively curated with the aid of Barrett’s family and friends, and you get the sense that it represents a reclaiming of this famously troubled man as a real human being as opposed to a cautionary tale about the potentially devastating effects of sudden fame. Barrett’s early artwork is often quite charming, if sometimes surprisingly conventional, and his imaginative doodling on the early letters betrays an active and inquiring mind, informed by a particularly English strain of whimsy. The letters themselves are touching, funny and honest, and it’s not surprising that both of his steady girlfriends from this time have retained their affection and respect for him (both were present at the private view I attended). The later work is much more experimental and expressive, with bold layers of paint often thickly applied to achieve abstract and impenetrable results, alongside a few simply rendered landscapes. There’s an undeniable frisson from seeing work that was never meant to be exhibited, or even preserved, but it doesn’t feel voyeuristic – the sense you get from reading the various testimonials in the gallery is that once a work was completed Barrett simply stopped being interested in it, in the same way that he was never remotely interested in talking about Pink Floyd once he had left the band.

This exhibition has been put together in support of a new book Barrett: The Definitive Visual Companion edited by Russell Beecher and Will Shutes, which rounds up all of Barrett’s still existing artwork. If you’re interested in Barrett and can’t make the exhibition the book is well worth seeking out.