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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times