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Souls stranded in limbo’ … Susan Hiller’s From Here to Eternity (green) and (red) 2008

Does the artist Susan Hiller believe in ghosts, or doesn’t she? Is her fascination with the paranormal a study of mass psychology, an aesthetic pose, or a personal spiritual vocation? Is she a modernist or a medium? It’s not just ghosts with which Hiller’s art flirts. Flying saucers, telekinesis, levitation and the idea of a personal aura all fascinate this pioneer of video and conceptual art.

In her current exhibition at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London (until December 20 2008), you can see how her interest in the un-mundane has developed through the course of her career. A mood of hippy experiment, of collective mayhem and questioning, hangs like a Pink Floyd instrumental fug over her 1974 piece Dream Mapping. She still makes art in a speculative spirit, but her recent “homages” to Yves Klein and Marcel Duchamp (both made in 2007/8) raise the question of belief.

Levitations: Homage to Yves Klein is a sceptical riposte to a famous believer. Auras: Homage to Marcel Duchamp finds belief in the art of a renowned sceptic. The French 1960s painter, performer and visionary Yves Klein once had himself photographed levitating; the photo was faked and Hiller’s explanatory text reveals how. In her collection of photographs from all over the world, people levitate, often hilariously, through a variety of effects, Photoshop manipulations, tricks of angle. Perhaps one is a real shot of levitation – but you are encouraged to seriously doubt that. A very different attitude to the uncanny pervades Auras, a set of brightly coloured, at first sight abstract photographs of emanations and clouds of light in which faces, pale and ghostly, dwell. These are photographs taken with special cameras that claim to detect the aura, the supposed spiritual nimbus, a person carries with them. Hiller associates this belief with no less a dry philosopher than Marcel Duchamp.

Perhaps the best way to characterise Hiller is as a collector. The collector is both outside and inside the collection. When you amass curiosities, your relationship to them is richly ambiguous. Perhaps the mermaid in your private museum is there as an example of human credulity and fantasy. Or perhaps you believe in mermaids. Hiller’s collections of mentalities allow us to encounter ideas, images and intuitions outside the mainstream of western rationalism – or, rather, embodying its new, unofficial mainstream – that are at times genuinely unsettling. In her 1987 work Magic Lantern, you watch perception-altering interactions of colour while listening on headphones to ghostly voices purportedly recorded by leaving a tape recorder in an empty room. The voices are ridiculous and yet I found myself remembering them later, in the dark of the night, with a shudder.

In From Here to Eternity, isolated entities endlessly negotiate sealed labyrinths. Maybe it was just the shapes of the labyrinths that reminded me of the octagonal floor plan of the Rothko Chapel in Houston or maybe it was the sense of souls stranded in limbo. No way out – the image of eternity is terrifying in this eerie animated triptych. Hiller’s museum of lost souls has some very claustrophobic rooms.

Jonathan Jones
The Guardian


It is one of London’s most exclusive addresses. Michelin-starred restaurants are just a block away, the US embassy is around the corner and Hyde Park is at the end of the road. To share the same postcode ought to cost millions.

But the new residents of 18 Upper Grosvenor Street, a raggle-taggle of teenagers and artists called the Da! collective, haven’t paid a penny for their £6.25m, six-storey townhouse in Mayfair.

The black anarchist flag flapping from the first-floor balcony gives a clue what they are up to: since finding a window open on the first floor on October 10, the group has been squatting in the house, and only plan to leave when evicted. This might take some time: after almost a month, the deed owner — a company called Deltaland Resources Ltd, according to the Land Registry — doesn’t appear to have noticed that the once-opulent building has been taken over.

The 30-plus rooms of the grade II-listed residence are now scattered with sleeping bags, mattresses, rucksacks spilling over with clothes and endless half-finished art installations. One room is full of tree branches while another hosts a pink baby bath above which dangle test tubes filled with capers.

They had been watching the building for “at least six months” before they decided to try moving in , said one member, Stephanie Smith, 21. “We had put tape on the keyhole and kept looking through the letter box to see if anyone had been there.” Then, one October night, five of them decided to go in. Some wore high-visibility jackets to look like builders; Smith had a clipboard and fur coat. They propped their rented ladder up against the front of the building, and one man climbed on to the balcony.

“I went across to the window and I couldn’t believe it when it was unlocked,” said the squatter, who declined to give his name. ” It was a really exciting moment.”

Almost a month since the occupation began, no one from Deltaland Resources Ltd, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands, has been in touch. Meanwhile the locks have been changed. The Da! group has reconnected the utilities and says the bills will be paid.

Smith insists they have done nothing wrong. “Squatting is not a criminal offence, it’s a civil matter,” she said. “If the owners want to kick us out they will have to apply for an eviction notice. If anything, we are improving the building by mending leaks and things like that.”

The group has had a mixed reception from the other residents of Upper Grosvenor Street. “Our next-door neighbours have been really nice; they’ve even let us use their wireless internet,” said Smith. Another neighbour, a man called Alexander, has offered the services of a cook. But not everyone is happy. Jacques Dejardin, manager of a restaurant run by Michelin-starred chef Richard Corrigan, which was due to open last night, was horrified to discover this week it was directly opposite a squat.

” It’s rather bewildering. When you move into an address like this you don’t expect to have squatters as neighbours,” Dejardin said. He needn’t worry about the squatters popping in for dinner, though: they are firm devotees of freecycling and collect all their food from supermarket skips.

Helen Pidd

I came across a great rant about the art market the other day. It’s by Damien Hirst and it appears in the catalogue of the exhibition In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, held at Tate Britain in 2004.

Hirst’s relations with dealers, money and the Golden Calf in general have been big news this autumn, what with his sidestepping his dealers, Jay Jopling and Larry Gagosian, to auction his latest works directly at Sotheby’s. And the future of the big, beautiful art market is now of course as dubious as every other economic fact. So I can’t resist introducing Hirst as guest blogger today. His remarks made in 2004 surely reveal a lot about his real feelings about White Cube and Gagosian.

Here’s a highlight: ” … Art is about life and the art world is about money although the buyers and sellers, the movers and shakers, the money men will tell you anything to not have you realise their real motive is cash, because if you realise – that they would sell your granny to Nigerian sex slave traders for 50 pence (10 bob) and a packet of woodbines – then you’re not going to believe the other shit coming out of their mouths that’s trying to get you to buy the garish shit they’ve got hanging on the wall in their posh shops … Most of the time they are all selling shit to fools, and it’s getting worse.”

So there you have it – the last word on the art market from the man who deconstructed it and made millions into the bargain.

Jonathan Jones

Soapbox theatre … the Young Vic

“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” That’s what writer and critic Cyril Connolly reckoned in 1938. Back then of course he had yet to come across an Arts Council funding form. All these documents seem interested in is how you fit in with government social policy. Never mind the art, feel the diversity quotas.

So, is it time artists got together and elected their own parliament? That’s the issue under public debate at the Young Vic theatre tomorrow night.

Is there even anyone out there who still respects this 50-year-old funding body? Admittedly, it’s become hard to imagine art without the Arts Council. The nation’s high culture would surely collapse faster then banking system without government handouts. Where, for example, would the National Theatre find the £18m that makes up 38% of its revenue?

Amazingly, though, art did actually flourish before the Arts Council was founded in 1946. People acted, danced, painted and wrote. Some of that culture may have been clog dancing – but we shouldn’t be too judgemental. Today, however, the Arts Council looks more and more like a quaint, antiquated bureaucracy, blandly charged with “developing the knowledge, understanding and practice of the arts”. Or, to put it another way, a salaried midwife to Westminster’s cultural largesse.

The Arts Council is of course supposed to have its blushing integrity guarded by a flimsy chastity belt known as the “arms length” doctrine. Funding decisions are supposed to be “taken by experts, not ministers”. But do they really believe they are safe from government molestation? The Arts Council’s chair, for example, is obliged to take “proper account of guidance provided by the secretary of state or the department”. Which translates as, “do as you’re told”.

I have no great problem with many of the covert political objectives with which the council is encumbered – accessibility, inclusivity and so on. I just don’t think the arts are the place to pursue them. It’s about time we got away from the Stalinist idea that art is a proper vehicle for social engineering. The best and probably only way to do this is an independent parliament of artists along the lines suggested by Mark Ravenhill on this blog back in May.

Obviously, any such parliament would have problems. How would it be constituted and voted for? Would it not lead to in-crowd cliques looking after number one? And, isn’t it far too easy to imagine a parliament of artists turning into a Tower of Babel – with all the delegates talking different languages and the whole edifice collapsing under the weight of its self-importance?

But let’s have a bit of faith. Maybe it would be good for artists to be responsible for how they use money taken from people with no interest in their work. It might even better represent the interests of those the government seeks to reach with its social policy. It could also be less patrician, with decisions made by minorities not for them.

The alternative is the continued dominion of grey, unaccountable bureaucrats.

Theatre Blog

Michael Boyd. Photograph: Gary Calton

Michael Boyd, announcing the artistic direction of the Royal Shakespeare Company for the coming three years this morning, suggested that theatre was in rude health in this country – not just because of regular, decent funding from the government, not just because of the healthy filtering upwards of energy and inventiveness from the fringe into the mainstream – but also because the very nature of theatre means that it is the artform that speaks most powerfully to the Zeitgeist. “It is the artform for now, at this fragmented time,” he said. “It has to do with how we can connect with each other. In theatre you deal with that – that is why theatre is important right now.”

“It is on its way to reasserting itself as the most urgent artform now, at a time when we are so disconnected. I cannot remember a time when the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the Royal Court were so ‘on song’. The hit rate at the moment is tremendous.”

I suppose he means that as communities become more fragile, the pull of sitting in a theatre and being part of a group of people engaged in a communal experience is all the more powerful. What he said reminded me of something Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, Spoonface Steinberg) said to me in an interview the other week: “In miniature, drama is like a metaphor for how life and politics should work – you come together to create a common entity and you try to express yourself with and through other people. Whether you are a writer or an actor or a stage manager, you are trying to express the complications of life through a shared enterprise.”

Theatre, of course, is the medium of debate, of getting-to-the-bottom-of-things, of hammering things out – unlike more visceral and emotive performing arts, such as dance and classical music. It’s an intriguing idea of Boyd’s – that, above all other artforms it is theatre’s time and theatre is what we need now: not just because there are some good people making and directing plays and running theatres, but because of some deeper cultural forces. I’m not sure I entirely buy Boyd’s position – but it is one to chew on.

Charlotte Higgins

Twombly’s “literariness” is something that has consistently told against him, along with his fancy foreign ways and his “insinuating elegance”. But his art, as Serota acknowledges in the catalogue, has always been elusive and, for many people, even enthusiasts of contemporary art, unfathomable. Twombly himself has maintained an unusual reticence. In the mid-50s, he wrote a short statement for the Italian art journal L’Esperienza moderna: “To paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a crucial moment of sensation or release; and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state, but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse…”

A good number of his drawings, paintings and sculptures consist of little other than an inscription. “Twombly writes as if he were seeking out the meaning of the poetic words through the physical act of producing their graphic signs,” Richard Shiff has written. “The word as disembodied sign becomes the word as embodied mark, imbued with the spirit of a gesture and located in a particular place and time.”

Twombly’s has long been an art of indirection; a palimpsest of obfuscations and excisions, of rubbings out and submergings. Like Rauschenberg, who as a young man spent three weeks erasing a drawing he had acquired from Willem de Kooning (the result is a white sheet of paper bearing the faint, ghostly shadow of its former markings), Twombly, in Serota’s words, evokes rather than describes.

Nowhere is his genius for evocation – for suggesting the mood or feeling of a place or a moment – more apparent than in the set of 24 drawings he made in 1959 called Poems to the Sea. “The sea is white three-quarters of the time, just white – early morning,” Twombly told Sylvester. “The Mediterranean at least . . . is always just white, white, white. And then, even when the sun comes up, it becomes a lighter white.”


There was a familiar ring to last week’s media fanfare surrounding the announcement that scientists had uncovered the true purpose of Stonehenge. It was really a royal burial ground for an ancient dynasty of old Brits, said a group of researchers led by Mike Parker Pearson from Sheffield University. Radiocarbon dating of human remains found nearby suggested the place was used as a cemetery right from the start of construction work in 3,000BC, it was argued.

‘I don’t think it was common people getting buried at Stonehenge; it was clearly a special place at the time,’ added Parker Pearson.

As a result, we were greeted with a cluster of headlines of the ‘Revealed: the secret of Stonehenge’ variety which, some readers might have noticed, had a close similarity to those that greeted the news in April that a different group of scientists had found the true purpose of the great Wiltshire stone circle. It was really ‘the Lourdes of the Bronze Age’, a place where the sick and wounded sought cures from the monument’s great bluestones which had been dragged to Wiltshire from Wales specifically because of their magical healing properties.

Thus Stonehenge was really the accident and emergency ward of the south west, said the latter theory’s backer, former English Heritage archaeologist Geoffrey Wainwright. Just look at all the ancient graves filled with sick and deformed people in the area, he added.

Nor was he impressed one whit with the news that his theory had a new rival. ‘A very elegant theory,’ Wainwright sniffily remarked about Parker Pearson’s domain of the dead ideas, ‘lacking only the quality of a shred of supporting evidence.’ Parker Pearson would beg to differ, needless to say.

As we move back in time, the theories slowly pile up and we come across news that researchers had shown the stone circles had been used as a giant computer; that others had found it was really an observatory for studying stars and predicting the seasons; that a couple of individuals had demonstrated clearly that its rings had acted as a docking pad for alien spaceships; while University of British Columbia researcher Anthony Perks produced the jaw-dropping idea that the great henge had been built as a giant fertility symbol, constructed in the shape of the female sexual organ.

For my money, however, Telegraph columnist Oliver Pritchett’s suggestion that Stonehenge was really built to house Britain’s first public inquiry is clearly the best of the lot.

And that, of course, is the wonderful thing about Stonehenge: there are more theories about its meaning and purpose than there are stones inside it, a trend that goes right back to the idea, popular in the Middle Ages, that its monoliths had been assembled on Salisbury Plain by Merlin, though exactly why he bothered to do so remains a mystery.

In fact, Stonehenge took at least 1,000 years to build, starting from rings of wooden poles to its current complex status and its use clearly changed over the millenniums. Recent studies suggest it may have been ‘Christianised’ in the first millennium AD and at one point was used as a place of execution by the Anglo-Saxons to judge from the 7th-century gallows found there. This multiplicity of use increases opportunities for archaeologists to pin their pet theories to the great stone monument.

The crucial point is that every age gets the Stonehenge it deserves, as archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes once remarked. Hence in medieval times, it was built by giants, while in the 1960s, at the dawn of the computing era, researchers said you could have used it as a giant calculating machine, while in more mystical New Age times, it was clearly a spaceport for aliens. ‘In fact, you can come up with just about any idea to explain a structure like Stonehenge if you stare at it for long enough,’ says archaeologist David Miles.

Just what that the latest patch of Stonehenge theories says about the 21st century is less clear. I would argue that the World Heritage site is probably best viewed today as a monument to government prevarication and deceit. Having promised a decade ago that it would bury and realign the roads that surround and disfigure Britain’s most important ancient monument, ministers now seem to have abandoned any attempt to protect the monument and restore the site to its ancient glory, for the simple reason they are too mean-spirited and short-sighted to see its value.

Thus cars and lorries will continue to hurtle by its magical bluestones and tourists will be stuffed into its cramped little visitor centre. It’s low-rent tat – the Stonehenge we deserve, according to the government.

Robin McKie

Clockwise from left: Livrario Lello in Porto, Hatchards in London, El Ateneo in Buenos Aires

Every booklover has their favourite shop, and while it’s true that many independents have been driven out of business by online sales and supermarket bestsellers, you still don’t have to look too hard to find one that’s thriving.

The Guardian

To read the Guardian’s full list of the top ten bookstores in the world: Bookstores