Farewell Angus Fairhurst

The premature death of the artist plus the rest of the news from the arts world

“Ridiculously charming, a radical gardener…and an intensely intelligent artist.” This was how curator Sadie Coles described the British artist Angus Fairhurst, following his suicide last week. The 41-year old was found dead in woodland near Argyll on 29 March. Fairhurst, whose career was launched in 1988 by Damien Hirst's iconic ‘Freeze’ show, was a key member of the Young British Artists. Working in sculpture, photography, film and video installation his work featured in all the major contemporary art shows of the last twenty years. A collaborator and close friend of Hirst and Sarah Lucas, whom he met when studying at Goldsmiths, he exhibited with them most recently in the 2004 show In-a-Gadda-da-Vida. However Fairhurst never quite reached Hirst and Lucas’s level of stardom and was generally perceived as a gentler, more self-effacing

Sadie Coles HQ is currently hosting John Currin’s new exhibition, which opened on Wednesday. Currin, a leading figurative painter known for his exaggerated depictions of the female body, has attracted attention due to his current muse: pornography. His exhibition at Sadie Coles showcases a selection of new oil paintings, some of which are so patiently detailed that they make John Cameron Mitchells’ 2006 film Shortbus (a contribution to the Art-porn genre) look coy. Currin, a New Yorker, whose classical style is also influenced by the Old Masters has made a number of intriguing comments about the works, including a remark about the images being provoked by his hatred for ‘Islamic fascism’. He has also suggested that the images are in no way erotic “when you don't show things, you build up a kind of voltage. So what happens if you totally open it up? Is the painting going to have any kind of energy at all? In a way, these are very unsexual paintings." A commercial success Currin has courted his fair share of criticism, including from The New Republic’s writer Jed Perl, who in 2007 described the painters output as ‘art pollution’. An early review from Sian Pattenden however suggests that Currin's exhibition will be well received in the nation of prudes The show runs until May 10th.

Following her suggestions last month that The Proms are not multi-cultural enough, Margaret Hodge has once again launched herself into the media spotlight. During a meeting for the governments creative leadership programme she declared that within the ‘creative industries’ not enough women are employed in high ranking positions. This may be – The Independent provides a short list of top Arts Leaders which shows only 20% to be women. However Hodge’s impassioned plea to "break down the… barriers to wider representation" has been met by some with lip-curling distaste. Writing for The Observer Laura Cumming argued convincingly against Hodge’s ‘ministerial ignorance’. She points out that, in fact, a significant number of arts institutions are run by women. These include the South Bank, the RSC, the Royal Academy, the Serpentine Gallery and Modern Art Oxford. Cummings evidence is reassuring, but her rant against Hodge should not obscure the fact that the politician’s efforts, however clumsy, were hardly born out of negative motives. Given that it is only eighty years since women were granted the vote to hear a female MP calling- perhaps even unnecessarily- for more female leaders is no bad thing.

Other arts news this week: Banksy launched his latest book, ‘Home Sweet Home,’ featuring photos of his graffiti artwork from his home town, Bristol. Written by Steve Wright, the book is the enigmatic artist's first unofficial biography. The singer Morrissey also made headlines when he won an apology from The Word magazine following David Quantick’s report which dealt with the Mancunian’s (seemingly misinterpreted) views on immigration, as expressed in an interview with the NME. However his libel case against the latter is ongoing.

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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia