Sunday, 22 December 2013


The kids I teach get progressively less lovely over the course of the week.

Each class had to have an end-of-term progress test (something they all seemed weirdly excited about). Following which, we let them do nice Christmassy things - making cards, learning an English carol; that sort of thing. And, as a treat, they got chocolates as well.

The Tuesday class are so damn nice they weren't interested in eating them at all, but had more interest in affixing them to their cards in order to make them extra-special.

The Friday class, by contrast, came down like a wolf on the fold before I'd even crossed the threshold; the plate stripped bare in microseconds in a frenzied blur of unidentifiable scrabbling limbs that reminded me of the way they used to depict fights in The Beano. Fortunately they'd taken longer over their tests than the other classes, so I was able to pack them on their way before the sugar rush had been able to properly kick in.

Christmas has felt different this year. The cycle has gone through the magic years, the grumpy years, the boozy years, and the blimey-it's-Christmas-again-how-did-that-happen years. Maybe it's teaching kids or maybe it's been the couple of Christmas concerts I took part in, but it's felt a bit special again this time.

Anyway, we're off back to the UK for a week. The journey may well be reduce me to Scrooge-like grumpiness again, but, in the meantime Buon Natale / Merry Christmas / Nadolig Llawen everyone!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Party's Over

The 55th Venice Biennale finally came to an end on Sunday 24th November.

We did our best to see every last exhibition. We didn't quite manage it. I'm not sure if it's actually possible. In fact we realised it wasn't going to be possible by the end of the first weekend as an installation at Palazzo Zenobio -only there for the first few days - broke down and never got fixed. In a way, this took some of the pressure off.

Amongst others, we also failed to see the works at the maritime museum (we never seemed to get the opening times right) and Tuvalu, hidden away over in Mestre. We felt guilty about that, as we weren't sure how many visitors they'd be getting. I hope it was worth their while.

Nevertheless, we must have seen at least 95% of everything there was to be seen. Here's a very subjective selection of what was good, and what was, well, less good.

The Bad

Noise : In the ex-magazzini di San Cassian. We tried, and failed, three times to see this. On the fourth occasion our luck ran out and they were actually open. Audio works that "respond to the architecture of the space of the installation". Yeah. I've heard dozens of audio works that "respond to the architecture of the space of the installation". They all sound exactly the same, namely,  Nyyyyyyyyyyyyyyooooooooooooinnnnnnnnng. The work below has been in progress for thirty years :-

- it was a lighbulb.

Scotland : "Will this do?". Woefully unambitious. A cash-strapped Creative Scotland would have been better off saving the money and spending it back home.

Kenya : Not bad art in itself, but only a handful of works were by genuine Kenyan artists. The vast majority were by Chinese artists with little or no link to the country. So what's the point in participating if your national pavilion is effectively just being rented out to another country?

Macedonia : A maze-like construction of silkworm cocoons and rat skins. The actual rats were removed after complaints about animal rights. Creepy, and not in a good way.

Lithuania/Cyprus : I blogged about this earlier  in the year. It was rubbish. It also won an award which demonstrates I know nothing about contemporary art.

The Good

Well, Angola won the Golden Lion, which was nice, but we didn't really think it was deserved. Elsewhere, the Portuguese floating pavilion was magical, and Russia was typically entertaining. Iraq deserves a mention for the sheer variety of work and the chance to relax in the salon-like atmosphere of Ca'Dandolo (we also like the beermats). But these are my Top 5 :-

Wales : Yes, Wales! We were rubbish back in 2011, and John Cale's work in 2009 probably wasn't all that great in retrospect; but, this year, Bedwyr William's "The Starry Messenger" was an absolute triumph. Clever, ambitious and a bit  mad. He should do it every time. And if he doesn't want to, they should make him.

Ireland : Richard Mosse, "Enclave". A multi-screen video work shot in the Eastern Congo on infrared film. Disturbing and upsetting, forty minutes spent in an atmosphere thick with potential violence and horror. A voyage into a veritable Heart of Darkness.

Daniel Pesta, "I was born in your bed". A short video work examining the plight of Roma in the Czech Republic. The simplest of ideas - two classes of Roma schoolchildren stand in rows, as if for a school photograph. As a voice from off-screen calls out their names, they each place a canvas bag over their head until this group of individuals has been replaced by an anonymous, faceless "other". A simple message, beautifully conveyed.

United Kingdom : Gilbert and George were excellent back in 2005; but, since then, Tracey Emin, Steve McQueen and Mike Nelson have all been disappointing. Jeremy Deller's "English Magic", though, actually made me proud to be British. A hen harrier takes vengeance on a murderous Hooray Henry's Land Rover. William Morris hurls Roman Abramovich's yacht out of the Venetian lagoon. A steel band plays works by Vaughan Williams and David Bowie (and if you haven't heard the works of those two great Englishmen played by steel band, you really should!). It feels rooted in the urban and pastoral landscapes of Britain and represents the best of left-wing/liberal Englishness (and yes, I mean English not British). When you think it can't get any better, there's even the chance to have a cup of tea outside, which seemed to be where the on-duty firemen were choosing to hang out. Oh, and kudos to Deller for properly acknowledging his creative team. It would have been my pick of the Biennale had it not been for...

Romania : A physical theatre work in which - for eight hours a day, every day - a group of young performers would 'act out' previous Biennale works from the past one hundred years. It was utterly, utterly fantastic. We went back time and again until we'd seen every last minute of it. We kind of got to know the performers  and decided to take them a couple of bottles of prosecco on the last day. They'd earned it.

So there we are. All finished. It's kind of nice to have our lives back again, but part of me wonders how we're going to manage without it.

It's eighteen months until the next one. In the meantime, here's a farewell picture of our Romanian chums.