Don't believe the hype

A new barter scheme tries to short-circuit the distortion of aesthetic value

What would you do for the following? A melting tehnicholor landscape. A telephone earpiece with tiny squawking birds waiting to ravage the caller's ear. A romantic message about the memories we carry in our souls spelt out in solar panel powered lightbulbs. Three box-lit lit close-ups of an anus perhaps?
  
This is the concept behind Art Barter, an exhibition that is the lovechild of two young curators Lauren Jones and Alix Junta, and which asks what value we put on art. Fifty emerging and established artists have offered their work up to the public in return for . . . well, anything except money.

"In a world where the actual piece of work and its message or beauty often falls second to the hype or price that is attached, we hope to encourage people to value the work themselves, not for the name or price tag attached" says Jones.

For the next three days these fifty -- among them big guns such as Tracey Emin, Mat Collinshaw, Gary Hume and Gavin Turk -- will grace the walls of The Rag Factory, Hume and Emin's old studio off Brick Lane. Their identities are kept anonymous, in order that personal taste is allowed to dictate the value of the work -- at least that's the idea.

But some are a giveaway. Simon Tyszko, who has built a full size replica of a Dakota wing in his apartment in Fulham offers the whole lot, wing and apartment complete with a 98-year lease.  What he is expecting in exchange? "A hamlet in the South of France".
 
One corner of the exhibition is reserved for punters scribbling on "barter forms" with tiny pencils. They are offering anything from home-cooked curries and trumpet lessons to adult-sized giraffe suits or "the fur of 25 minks". 

Artists are not obliged to accept and it remains to be seen whether these noble intentions can have any effect on an industry where notions of value and worth have become so skewed. At best, the popularity and support that Art Barter has achieved could indicate a re-emerging bohemian sensibility among some of Britain's most eminent artists; at worst, it is at least an entertaining experiment for all involved.

Show Hide image

Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era