Sponsored to death

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.

ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
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Tsipras' resignation has left Syriza in dire straits

Splinter group Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal Syriza struck with its creditors.

The resignation of Alexis Tsipras on 20 August was the start of a new chapter in the havoc affecting all sections of Greek political life. “We haven’t yet lived our best days,” the 41-year-old prime minister said as he stood down, though there is little cause for optimism.

Tsipras’s capitulation to the indebted state’s lenders by signing up to more austerity measures has split his party and demoralised further a people resigned to their fate.

Polls show that no party commands an absolute majority at present. It seems as though we are heading for years of grand coalitions made up of uneasy partnerships that can only hope to manage austerity, with little room for social reform. The main parties from across the political spectrum have lost legitimacy and the anti-austerity campaign is more marginal than ever. Many fear the rise of extremists, such as members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Thankfully, that is unlikely to happen: the party’s leadership is facing a number of grave accusations, including forming a criminal organisation, and its general secretary, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, is going out of his way to appear more moderate than ever.

It is to the left of Syriza that most activity is taking place. The former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis has defected to co-found a new party, Popular Unity (an ironic name in the circumstances), joined by MPs from the radical Left Platform and, according to the latest information, Zoi Konstantopoulou – the current speaker of the Hellenic
Parliament, who had considered starting her own party but lacked time and support in the run-up to the general election, scheduled for 20 September.

Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal struck with its creditors, to end austerity (even if that means leaving the euro) and to rebuild the country. It is likely that the party will work with the far-left coalition Antarsya, which campaigned hard to guarantee the Oxi referendum victory in July and increasingly looks like Syriza in 2009, when it won 4.6 per cent of the vote in the Greek legislative election under Tsipras.

Yet it is dispiriting that few on the left seem to understand that more splits, new parties and weak, opportunistic alliances will contribute to the weakening of parliamentary democracy. It is perhaps a sign that the idea of a left-wing government may become toxic for a generation after the six months that took the economy to the edge and failed to produce meaningful change.

Despite this fragmentation on the left, the largest right-wing opposition party, New Democracy, has been unable to force a surge in the polls. Its new leader, Vangelis Meimarakis, enjoys the respect of both the parliament and the public but has few committed supporters. The apolitical alliance To Potami (“the river”) appears to have stalled on 6-8 per cent, while the once-dominant Pasok is unlikely to enter parliament without forming a coalition on the centre left, postponing its predicted collapse for a few more years.

The winner amid all of this is apathy. Many believe that a large number of Greeks won’t vote in the September election – the fifth in six years (or the sixth, if you include the referendum in July). The situation in Greece should serve as an example of what could happen to democracies across Europe that lack political unity: parties with clear ideological positions end up serving as managers of diktats from Brussels, while more extreme forces become the de facto opposition. In this harsh climate, many citizens will either abandon their politicians or, in a bleaker scenario, reject the democratic system that elected them. 

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism