No head Turner?

Turner Prize 2008

"If you’re working as an artist nowadays the worst place to be in terms of critics is Britain… You go elsewhere, you go to America, you go to Europe, then you get a fair reception. People look at your work and actually try to understand it," the artist Mark Leckey told Channel 4’s Nicholas Glass on Monday, immediately after winning the Turner Prize.

Nevertheless, this year there was little of the ‘Is this Art?’ style criticism usually associated with the Prize in the arts press, although The Daily Telegraph did wheel out Sister Wendy.

Rather, the critical consensus was largely one of indifference: "It didn't start any fires” and “bland”, were common criticisms of the four nominees, seen to be rehashing stale ideas (see Cathy Wilkes's jumble of ‘ready-mades’), rather than offending the nation. Further, the art world seems to seek actively not to be understood; Leckey himself described his desire for a "cultish practice", in a "cosseted" art world.

In her show, nominee Goshka Macuga took on the role of curator, re-arranging photographs from the Tate archives; Mark Leckey presented a video of one of his lectures, in which he is both curator and critic. This new autonomy of artistic practice can be baffling to the outsider. The impenetrable jargon of the Tate curators only went to enhance this sense of an exclusive, closed-off art world.

Having now won the Prize, Leckey may want to broaden his horizons. The 1999 Turner Prize winner, Steve McQueen, carried off three awards at the British Independent Film Awards (Bifas) for his film Hunger. Best Film went to Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s film about a Mumbai street child.

Golden Revolution

1 January, 1959: the puppet dictator Fulgencio Batista flees Cuba for the Dominican Republic; after six years of struggle, and four hiding out in the Sierra Maestra, the island belongs to the Cuban Revolutionaries... The photography agency Magnum have decided to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this event with a "Permanent Revolution Season". Wednesday saw the opening of an exhibition documenting the agency’s long engagement with Cuba, from Rene Burri’s iconic image of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, to the portrayal of life today in Castro’s Cuba. They will also be a screening both installments of Steven Soderbergh’s two-part film about Che Guevara on 1 January at Curzon Soho, Curzon Richmond and the Renoir Cinema. (The official release date is 2 January, Che: Guerrilla comes out on 20th February).

Both "Che" films will be shown in Havana this weekend, as part of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema. Benicio del Toro, who plays Che in the film, will be there, as will Rodrigo Santoro, the Brasilian actor who plays Raul Castro. He may even meet the man himself, and it would be interesting to see how the Castro brothers receive an American film about the figure they turned into the poster boy of the Revolution. The President of the Film Festival, Alfredo Guevara, spoke positively of US President-elect Barack Obama in his inaugural speech on Tuesday. Two weeks after the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, Obama will assume the Presidency: might we see a change to the deadlock of US-Cuban relations?

Bombs over Bollywood

Mumbai is not just the financial centre of India, it also hosts the nexus of film, music, celebrity, gossip and fashion that goes by the name of Bollywood. The terrorist attacks have had their effect there, too. Cancelled film releases, ruined parties, closed cinemas and postponed weddings have gone alongside the more serious consequences of the bombings and shootings.

The actor Amitabh Bachchan, revered demi-God of Hindi film, wrote extensively on his "Big B Blog" in response to the attacks, revealing that he now slept with a loaded revolver under his pillow.

His thoughts were faithfully reproduced in the papers and on fan sites. The Mumbai Mirror, however, condemned those Bollywood celebrities who sought to use the attacks as an opportunity for exposure as "vultures". This blow to the Indian film industry comes at a crucial time of extensive Hollywood investment in Bollywood.

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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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