Review: Crisis Commission, Somerset House

Some of the leading names in the British art scene have made or donated works to the Crisis Commissi

Displayed in the East Wing galleries of Somerset House the opposition between the shows themes of isolation, property, security and space and its grandiose setting are set in grim opposition.

In the centre of the second room, Gillian Wearing’s Craig, a hyper-real 45cm bronze sculpture of a young ex-serviceman, stands trophy-like on a thin wooden plinth. The work’s scale creates a sense of isolation, it is emasculating, dislocating. Craig is lost in the vast space. The plinth’s transcription tells of Craig’s descent from soldier to homeless man, “Craig became homeless soon after returning from Afghanistan by rapidly spending all of his savings on alcohol. He was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder”. Commenting on the work, Wearing asserts, “I see all of my work as a portrait of people and the individual stories and experiences they go through”.

Again, a strong sense of narrative is evinced in Bob and Robert Smith’s Kite whose fraying flags trail across the gallery floor. An upturned bucket and rusting saw suggest a party that has long finished. “Help”, it reads, an explicit reminder of the need for intervention.

The fourth room is dominated by Nika Neelova’s Partings. Here, conventional architectural space is shattered. Concrete casts of the interior doors of Somerset House are taken out of context; they strain from ropes tied to a burnt timber frame, while fragments of broken wood litter the floor. No longer providing the entrance to a welcoming space, a refuge, a home, the doors instead present ominous barriers.

Further in, Yinka Shonibare’s crouching mannequin, Homeless Man, strains under the weight of a towering pile of suitcases. Though his dress is made up of vibrantly patterned, African textiles, his bent globe head betrays his burden. The hands that reach up to grasp his loads are disturbingly realistic. ‘Black, dark and piercingly cold,’ reads the swirling text, that spans the mannequin’s head, ‘it was a night for the well housed and fed to draw round the bright fire and thank God they were at home’. “The cases, stacked tall”, describes Shonibare, “weigh heavily. They represent all that is left from a previous life; any privileged person can become vulnerable at any time”.

This sense of vulnerability is shared amongst much of the work. Though, their interpretations are often radically different, the contributor’s representation of the subject is, for the most part, starkly effective. However, there are some pieces, such as Tracey Emin’s self portraits Deep Blue III & V that have less apparent links to the show’s theme. Indeed, in the 1999 documentary Mad Tracey From Margate, Emin commented, "It's pretty difficult for me to do drawings not about me and about someone else”. In light of what we know of the vast sums ammassed by today's big-name contemporary artists, it is hard to draw parrallels between Emin's situation and that of the figure of Craig.

All the work in the exhibition will be auctioned at Christie's on the 3rd of May. All proceeds will go to the charity Crisis. The Crisis Commission will be on display at Somerset House until 22 April.

Jonathan Yeo, The Park Bench. Photo: Mark Bourdillon ©
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Thus Bad Begins confirms Javier Marías as a master of the novel form

Marías’ masterful expression of his characters' psychological weather, combined with Margaret Jull Costa's gifted translation, makes for rewarding reading.

For those who love the novel as a form and not just as entertainment, Javier Marías is arguably the most rewarding writer working today. Marías, who has a self-professed fondness for English-language masters such as Joseph Conrad and Henry James, carries forward and vitally renews the great European tradition – a tradition that, rooted in Cervantes and digressive 18th-century writers such as Fielding and Sterne, found its high point in the work of Flaubert, Proust and Balzac, as well as the anglophone novelists from whom Marías has learned so well.

No one since James has used the sentence to such effect in exploring the workings of human psychology and this must have presented his translator, Margaret Jull Costa, with problems. It must be difficult to render Marías’s Spanish sentences, which are uniquely those of this novelist, into contemporary English without making them read like a sub-Jamesian imitation. That she succeeds is a mark of a truly gifted translator.

Following on from The Infatuations, his superb and moving 2011 novel (published in English in 2013), Marías’s new offering is, if anything, even more effective in conveying the psychological weather of those who, as his narrator here puts it:

. . . will never go beyond their own bounds, those who one knows early on will leave no trace or track and will barely be remembered once they disappear (they will be like falling snow that does not settle, like a lizard climbing up a sunny wall in summer . . . like the words, all those years ago, that a teacher painstakingly wrote on the blackboard only to erase them herself at the end of the class, or leave them to be erased by the next teacher to occupy the room) and about whom not even their nearest and dearest will have any anecdotes to recount.

Such a person (the narrator of The Infatuations, for example) may become “a silent witness, impartial and useless”, and only the “indifferent sentinel observing all our lives” – fate, perhaps, or a kind of autre monde novelist recounting the human story from some remote watchtower – is capable of seeing that these characters, who seem “to be just passing through or on temporary loan even while they’re alive . . . harbour stories that are far odder and more intriguing, clearer and more personal than the stories of the shrill exhibitionists who fill most of the globe with their racket”.

These characters are observers, sometimes devotees, of the lives of others. In his youth, Juan, who tells the bewildering and tragic story of Thus Bad Begins, was the personal assistant of the film-maker Eduardo Muriel, whose finest days are behind him but who still commands respect among those who love film for its own sake. Much of Muriel’s life has been spent, or rather wasted, on two kinds of compromise: first, the self-betrayals that everyone had to commit during the Franco dictatorship in order to pursue his or her craft; and second, the kind of financial wheeling and dealing that any film-maker has to endure to realise their vision in celluloid.

Somehow, he has come through honourably and it is clear that Juan admires him, both as a man and as an artist – which makes Muriel’s cruel treatment of the wife who adores him all the more puzzling. Why does the great artist hate the beautiful, long-suffering Beatriz Noguera and why does he show her such contempt? This is the mystery at the heart of Thus Bad Begins, a mystery that will leave Juan well out of his depth when he is charged by his hero to investigate a man called Jorge Van Vechten, about whom Muriel entertains dark, if initially rather vague, suspicions.

To disclose more of the plot here would undermine the suspense that Marías so carefully creates, although it should be stressed that this suspense is not only dramatic and psychological but also existential. Besides, there is so much else to enjoy here, from the characterisations to the grace of the prose as, sentence by elegant sentence, Marías glides with seeming inevitability first towards the main narrative’s denouement and then to an afterlife in which Juan, now an older man looking back at his former life, remains haunted by the past, even in the midst of present happiness. That past, however, is more than just a troubling memory. It is an ever-present warning that today’s happiness might be lost in a rash word or an impulsive gesture; in short, in the kind of unguarded action with which bad begins.

Having witnessed the events of the novel as Muriel’s assistant and sometime friend, Juan knows that there is no defence against that brooding, internal danger, other than a kind of wishful or superstitious thinking in which, rather than consigning what happened in the past to the past, he forces himself to “recover that vision, so that . . . reality can be restored and that forgotten yesterday can return the today, which, just for an instant, has slipped away from us”.

This is the novel’s last poignant moment. It is a reminder that, throughout, Marías has been uncovering a history of temps perdu, in a life, in a marriage and in a society shamed by the dictatorship with which it allowed itself to compromise for so long. 

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is published by Hamish Hamilton (512pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad