Can art change the world?

The Southbank Centre’s “Festival of the World” says yes.

There were all sorts of flags flying from the paramount of the Southbank this weekend. Jubilee bunting along the waterfront promenade, specially commissioned Festival Flags that blend the banners of myriad countries together in one “world community” standard; even a choreographed dance of red and yellow semaphores to send a message to the maritime-savvy royal flotilla: Happy Diamond Jubilee Queen Elizabeth, We Heart You.  

But more than just the usual fanfare regalia, from 1 June the Southbank Centre has flying another, more symbolic kind of flag. Let’s call it the Flag for Art. And it won’t be just polite, gallery-bound art. Think bold declarations and noisy celebrations: music, sculpture, cabaret, food, installations, blossoming gardens and over 4,000 artists, poets, writers, and performers from 195 countries coming together to stage three month's worth of performances. It’s The Festival of the World, an out-and-out global flavoured fete.

“Can Art Change the World?” is the gallant tagline of the festival. Idealistic as it may sound, if any institution is positioned to prove it right, it would be the Southbank. As Europe’s largest arts centre and a staple London attraction, the festival is well placed to receive, and engage, millions of visitors this summer. Last year’s Festival of Britain had 11 million bypasses. Nearly 3 million paused to actively participate. 

As the Southbank's artistic director Jude Kelly put it at the launch, the Southbank Centre is an “iconic” space of “continual transformation”.

“Our festival champions the idea that art holds the key to unlocking the collective imagination,” she beamed.

Kelly also points towards the institution's longstanding core ideals of engaging society through art. “One of the most important things we have inherited is the idealism founded by the [first] Festival of Britain.” First staged 1951, the festival marked the inception of the Southbank Centre; a “tonic for the nation” that brought frivolity back to a post-war England, reinvigorating sentiments of optimism and progress through art. In this century London is an infinitely more diverse place, though perhaps no less in need of a rejuvenating kick. Will Festival of the World do the trick?

With the 4,000-plus artists due to add their voice to the festival’s programme, the roster of events is simultaneously overwhelming and exhilarating. An interactive outdoor landscape chock-a-block with installations makes up the heart of the festival. The projects are numerate and a touch disparate. There’s sculptural columns built by Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa - from florid green household baskets, large scale figures made of reconstituted woods scraps scaling the Hayward Gallery - a sound installation broadcasting poems from around the world read in their native language, a fifteen foot Baobab tree built from “global” fabrics, a luminous landscape of plastic milk bottles and much more. But assortment is well held together by the connective tissue of cultural celebration, internationalism and creativity innovation.

Several large-scale events are slated to headline the festival. Poetry Parnassus (26 June – 1 July) is a “world record breaking” gathering of poets from across the globe, while Africa Utopia (3 – 28 July) sees an extraordinary breadth of African music, dance, literature and debates take centre stage. The Hayward Galley will be transformed into Wide Open School, a visual arts summer school “devised and fuelled by the imaginations of leading artist from around the world”. The London Wonderground features top calibre comedy and cabaret in the sprawling Spiegeltent, one of only two dozen-odd mirrored circus tabernacles left over from the 1920s vaudevillian heyday. 

Perhaps the sturdiest pillar in the Southbank’s agenda to “champion the idea that art…can be a powerful agent for social change” is their continual highlighting of international project that shape lives through art. Dotted throughout the site are information placards drawing attention to programs such as Shelanu - a Birmingham based craft enterprise assisting refugee women - or AfroReggae, a dance-based social mobility scheme in Rio di Janiero. The Royal Festival Hall is also home to the Festival of the World Museum, a series of interactive environments honouring an ethos of “art as change”. One commemorates arts education visionaries such as Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, another captures the transformative power of music, a third allows visitors to apply to become “citizens of the world” (blue passport with your own photo included).

If there’s one thing that binds the projects in this festival together, it’s their collective multiculturalism.  “This summer, as London welcomes the world,” Jude Kelly says. “Festival of the World asks a timely and crucial question: How can we understand each other’s cultures better and help make the world a better place?”

The festival’s feel is rightfully democratic; its installations accessible to all and encouraging interaction. It’s sure to be a soiree of mass appeal – adults, children, gallery gurus and art rookies alike won’t feel out of place. So hit the newly opened roof garden atop the Queen Elizabeth Hall, sip a gin fizz, and take a moment to contemplate all that art can accomplish. Can it change the world? “Well possibly,” Jude Kelley admits. “We have to give it a go.”

Festival of the World is on at the Southbank Centre, SE1: 1 June – 9 September.

(Festival of the World Illustration: created by Antoine Corbineau. Linda Nylind/Southbank Centre)

 

(Under the Baobab: created by Pirate Technics. Photo: Linda Nylind/Southbank Centre)

 

(Everything is beautiful when you don't look down: created by Robots>>>>. Linda Nylind/Southbank Centre)

 

(Wastescape: created by Gayle Chong Kwan. Linda Nylind/Southbank Centre)

"Perspectives", a canopy of oversized children's blocks that reveals hidden messages, is one of many installations at Festival of the World (Photo: Linda Nylind/Southbank Centre)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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