Eyewitness Tate

Another view of the protests at last night's Turner Prize ceremony, where Susan Philipz took the awa

Laurie Penny has already reported on the protests by art students at last night's Turner Prize ceremony. Here, arts writer Lucian Robinson gives his account of events.

Having passed the boarded up windows of an otherwise pristine Millbank before arriving at Tate Britain and wondered whether any glass would still be left on the pavement from November's student marches, protest seemed to be already a thing of the past as I approached the gallery. But as I did so it became clear that something out of the ordinary was going on at Tate Britain for the 2010 Turner Prize, Britain's leading award for modern art.

Guests were directed by Tate staff from the Millbank entrance for Tate Britain, to the less prominent Atterbury Street side entrance. This was somewhat surprising, particularly as the invitation had specifically stated that we should enter the gallery via the Millbank portico.

As they neared the Atterbury street entrance they were greeted by a dozen protesters, wearing badges proclaiming "Arts Against Cuts", who handed them orange flyers that said, "The Turner Prize needs art schools" and "Education should be free for all, not a product for purchase."

After this, those invited to the ceremony were ushered through to the main building and directed to the Duveen galleries on the top floor of the Tate. The art establishment was there in force; Alan Yentob, Anthony Gormley, and Grayson Perry were all present. But what really caught people's attention was the noise booming from behind a temporarily erected barrier, some 15 meters away, in the Duveen galleries, on the other side of which police and roughly 200 protesters were clearly visible. Their main chant was "free education for all".

At 7:30pm, the time for the announcement of the winner came. A short introductory talk was given by Channel 4's Krishna Guru-Murphy and then Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of Tate Modern, took to the podium. The sound, however, from the protest was deafening and he could hardly be heard by the invited audience.

Serota, acknowledged the protest (which, frankly, would have been hard to ignore) and spoke briefly about the need to preserve public funding for the arts, proclaiming that "Art should continue to be accessible to all no matter where you live or indeed whatever your wealth", yet somehow the surrounding landscape of bellinis, pristine reserved tables, uniformed waiting staff and absurdly perfect canapés, seemed to jar with this attempt to build a bridge of solidarity with the protesting students. This, and the fact that they couldn't hear him anyway.

Serota subsequently welcomed Miuccia Prada, the owner of the eponymous Italian fashion house, onto the podium, who then announced the winner of the prize (though, truthfully, this was once again barely audibly against the din of protest) to be Susan Philipsz, the Glasgow-born, Berlin-based sound artist whose recent weekend song cycle of madrigals in the City of London attracted much critical interest.

Philipsz then gave an explicit statement of support for the protesters, commenting in an interview for Channel 4 that: "I don't think we should cut grants, everyone has a right to an education ... and of course I support what they (the protesters) are fighting for."

Immediately after Philipsz gave her acceptance speech in the Duveen galleries, outside Tate Britain one of the other short-listed nominees for the Prize, Anjalika Sagar, half of the art duo, The Otolith Group, read a pre-prepared statement of support for the protests to about thirty to forty students gathered together outside the gallery:

We'd like to state our admiration and our support for the brave, bold and brilliant students and school children from the universities and state schools, privates schools and academies of this country; from Glasgow, Brighton, Leeds, Coventry, Sheffield, Cardiff, who are fighting back against the cuts to our education system. The students and school children of this country are an inspiration to us, in terms of ... how we think about what we do as artists. This is the winter of our discontent, and we will see you on the streets on Thursday.

One of the protesters, a fine art student at Chelsea College of Art and Design, Patrick Nicholson, 22, estimated that there were some "200 to 250 people" inside Tate Britain protesting. He described how lecturers, from Goldsmiths College, Chelsea and the Slade School of Fine Art gave talks on how to "decapitalise the art system" to a group of students who had "assembled at 5pm".

Another protester and student occupier of the Slade School of Fine Art, Margarita Anthanasiou, also aged 22, discussed the aims of the movement: "We want to raise awareness of the fact that there is going to be a 100 per cent cut for the arts and humanities, and to protest against this complete disregard for that part of education. We feel that essentially the government is stating that it (the arts) is unimportant for society, its secondary and therefore needs to be cut, which is mistaken. "

When asked whether the protests of the group "Arts Against Cuts" and the Slade occupation would continue until Thursday's parliamentary vote, Anthanasiou, without pause, replied: "We plan to continue occupying and protesting until the bitter end."

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder