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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Philip Lancaster's War Passion draws on beautiful material – but lacks feeling

With a lot of commemorative art to compete with, the premiere of Lancaster's new piece could have used, well, more passion.

In a letter home from the front, dated May 1917, Wilfred Owen wrote, “Christ is literally in no-man’s-land.” He was referring to the prevalence of Catholic iconography in rural France and commenting that even the statues he saw everywhere were not immune to war wounds. In the opening of his poem “At a Calvary Near the Ancre”, he took this imagery and wrote of a roadside statue of the crucified Christ: “In this war He too lost a limb . . .” Decades later, the poem became one of nine set to music by Benjamin Britten for his War Requiem, cementing the connection between the suffering Christ and the losses of the First World War.

It is this parallel that Philip Lancaster has sought to explore in War Passion, his new work for chamber choir, ensemble and soloists which premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester on 24 July. Lancaster, like Britten, has used the poetry of the First World War, interspersed with other, often religious texts. His selections range across a number of poets who died in or survived the war, including Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Julian Grenfell, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves.

The choice of texts is intriguing, as several of the poets from whose work he borrows were openly atheist or anti-Church at the time of the war. For instance, the last entry in Edward Thomas’s war diary, written shortly before he was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917, was: “I never quite understood what was meant by God.” You wonder what he and others of similar mind might have made of the inclusion of their work in a Passion.

The piece is intended, on one level, as a narration of Christ’s Passion according to the Gospel of Mark, and also as a commentary on the parallels between the sacrifice of Jesus and that of the soldiers. The opening contains some of the best music in the work:
a merging, intertwining dialogue between two cellos that sets a sombre, eerie mood.

A lot of the effect of this section was lost in performance, however, once the full orchestra and chorus got going. The sound of the former was so overpowering that the words of Grenfell’s “Into Battle” (the first poem of the sequence to be used) were mostly inaudible. This remained true throughout the 67 minutes of the piece as the narrator and other characters, as well as the chorus, were all but drowned out by the ensemble, a situation that was not helped by the blurry acoustics of Cirencester Parish Church. For a piece that relies so heavily on the interaction of different texts, this was a problem.

An exception to this was the soprano aria fashioned from Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Tower of Skulls” for the Golgotha section of the Passion, in which the soloist Anna Gillingham made full use of her higher notes to bring a piercing, unearthly quality to the “gleaming horror” of the poet’s vision of “layers of piled-up skulls”. The chorale-like chorus setting of parts of “The Death Bed” by Sassoon also came across well. In general, the music was unremarkable – self-consciously contemporary and percussive with lots of dissonance and rhythmic shifts, but lacking the harmonic underpinning or depth of feeling that would make it particularly memorable.

The various First World War centenaries that are being celebrated at the moment have provided us with an awful lot of war-related cultural output – from exhibitions to plays and everything in between. To stand out in this crowd, a new offering has to give us a fresh perspective on what are commonly known events and images. The parallel of the suffering of Christ with that of the soldiers on the Western Front is well worn almost to the point of cliché, as evidenced by Wilfred Owen’s use of it. Even the war memorial outside the church where the War Passion was premiered is topped with a carving of the crucifixion.

Alongside Lancaster’s Passion, the St ­Cecilia Singers gave us Herbert Howells’s Requiem. Howells wrote this relatively short, unaccompanied work in the 1930s, partly in response to the death of his nine-year-old son, Michael, from polio, but it wasn’t performed until the early 1980s, just before the composer died.

This was an atmospheric performance, though it was slightly marred by the perennial problems of amateur choirs: falling pitch, poor diction and quavery tenors. But the two hushed settings of the Latin text “Requiem aeternam dona eis” were admirably focused, and more evocative than ­everything else on the programme.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue