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At Somerset House, Ai Weiwei's Zodiac heads are beautiful. If only the same could be said for the ve

Stroll into the courtyard of London's Somerset House over the next few weeks and you'll come face-to-face with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals.

The giant bronze heads, which represent the signs of the Chinese zodiac - rabbit, goat, rat, tiger and so on - are arranged in a semi-circle on six- foot poles.The symmetry is pleasing, and there's ample space to walk around each head in deep contemplation (if you want to).

It is a shame, then, that the same cannot be said for the exhibition currently on display inside the venue. Held in London for the first time this year, the Sony World Photography Awards features the winners and runners-up in categories as varied as documentary, sport, portraiture, landscape and fashion, showcasing the theme 'From Chaos into Order'.

And nowhere is chaos more obvious than in the exhibition's confused and cluttered curation. The sheer volume of work requires a vast exhibition space, split over three levels and six rooms.

With no clear route through the exhibits, the visitor's focus is distracted from the photographs and the experience becomes disorienting and, frankly, downright irritating.

Those unfamiliar with the photographers are given little context. Few of the pictures are labelled adequately, with many lacking basic details such as where and when they were taken.

Instead, tablet computers (Sony, of course) display a selection of images by the same photographer and a brief narrative. On the day of my visit, some of these did not appear to be working, and those that were had crowds of people jostling to read their tiny screens.

In another misjudgement, some of the exhibition's most high-profile images - those which had been used on promotional materials - are displayed on television screens (Sony, again). Here, a disproportionate amount of time is given to the photographer's name, while the pictures themselves appear all too briefly.

Also lacking is a sense of cohesion within the exhibits displayed in each individual room: jaunty photos of moustache-shaped pubic hair sit alongside images of victims of sexual assault.

The effect is not simply jarring (as no doubt the curator intended) but it simply doesn't work as a concept. Rather than being though-provoking, the impact of the more serious set of pictures is lost.

It's just all a bit contrived and detracts from the outstanding photographs. The winner of the Open Photographer of the Year Award, Chan Kwok Hung's picture 'Buffalo Race' is perhaps the standout image. Taken in Western Sumatra, it depicts an annual event where local farmers race their livestock, biting their tails to make them run faster.

There are other photos just as stunning, and the sad thing is that youn could easily leave the exhibition without realising who the winners of these awards are, nor have a sense of the hard work and dedication that capturing their photographs entailed.

It's a muddled display. And some of the blame must lie with the heavy sponsorship by Sony. Their name was an intrusive presence - on the tablet computers, TV screens and in an entire room dedicated to advertising the use of Sony cameras.

Corporate benefactors are undoubtedly becoming more common in the arts and this is not necessarily a bad thing. But the balance between the needs of the sponsor and the creative requirements of the exhibition needs to be finely tuned. And sadly, here, this has failed.

The Sony World Photography Awards 2011 are at Somerset House until 22 May.

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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