Sunday, 1 June 2014

My week with Giant Ants, Static Cycles and Flaming Lips

Yes, Katie Melua, there may well be nine million bicycles in Beijing but at least a few more have left China and arrived in spectacular formation near Edgware Road. Or have they?

The stainless steel groupings that are the highlight of Ai Weiwei's exhibition at the Lisson Gallery may look like a big stack of bikes but they're minus the essential pedals, saddles, tyres, handlebars brakes, chains and fat bottomed girls that make the rocking world go round.

What's left are interlocking frames and spindled wheels crying out to be spun by the observer but frozen in the sort of high-rise parking bay that's destined to sit outside every London tube station as the trend for suicidal commuting gathers pace.

The wall-mounted version Forever 13, a reference to the brand of cycles that have been mass-manufactured in Shanghai since 1940, recalls those Chinese circus performers who form death-defying shapes above a single, cycling load bearer. They look like a huge Christmas tree decoration formed by criss-crossing Evel Knievels on pushbikes.

Elsewhere Weiwei playfully magpies Duchamps with readymade comfy armchairs, toiletries, darkly comic gas masks, handcuffs, coat hangers and taxi window-winders but with a twist: they're not simply found, signed and displayed, they're cast in jade or marble or hand-crafted out of glass and wood.

Best fact: the Chinese authorities insist on removing window-winders from taxis to prevent protestors from distributing leaflets from the windows at times of unrest. And Weiwei needs another pair of handcuffs like a fish needs a bicycle.

The creepy giant ants of Rafael Gomezbarros's Casa Tomado are the highlight of the Pangaea exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery. The ants are fixed to the wall but look as though they've scattered to hide in a corner as you've walked through the door. Very pleased that the ones who seem live in our bin are considerably smaller.

Downstairs Richard Wilson's fabulous 20:50 is truly awesome. The reflections in the serenely still sump oil of the room's columns, ceiling, windows and lights creates a strangely calming optical illusion of depth and angles. The lightly industrial smell makes you want to watch and linger longer than you'd thought you would. There's also a frisson of danger - imagine dropping your iPhone in that. Or falling in. You'd emerge like a seagull from an ocean spill.

On to Smith Square, London HQ of the European Parliament, for a seminar demystifying the results of last week's elections and the surge of the far right and far left. Prof Simon Hix of the LSE highlighted the surprising similarity in voting patterns between the UK and France; in young, multi-cultural London and Paris the anti-Europeans of UKIP and Front National failed to make much of an impression but in the rest of both countries they mopped up almost identical percentages of 25 and 27 respectively.

Prof Vernon Bogdanor, David Cameron's former teacher, said it all pointed to hung parliament in next year's General Election with the likely collapse of the Lib Dems from the onslaught of the typical UKIP voter: white skin, blue collar, grey hair. He described them as the left-behind, losers to the exam-passing classes surging ahead with globalisation.

Another LSE prof, Sara Hobolt, who controversially highlighted herself as the token woman panellist, pointed to a surge of younger voters turning to the far right in France and the far left in Greece - a protest at unemployment levels and rising immigration and the failure of the centre left to offer any credible alternatives.

Another factor in UKIP's success was Nigel Farage's gift for speaking in anecdotes rather than about political concepts and philosophies. Like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, he connects with voters by talking their language: being the only apparent English person sat on the bus, for example.

My favourite fact of the night, though, was delivered by Vernon: the number of Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem voters who think that the MMR vaccine is dangerous is 0%. The number for UKIP? 13%. Work to be done for the establishment parties.

Wandering around the Kenneth Clark, Looking For Civilisation exhibition at Tate Britain felt a bit like popping into an imaginary wealthy relative's mansion and staring in awe at his eclectic collection of astonishing art. A Henry Moore statue in the study, a Cezanne painting in the parlour and a Utamaro print in the kitchen.

My favourites, though, were the Graham Sutherland paintings, some commissioned directly by the great man of wartime art. Sutherland's crucifixion depictions are the centrepiece at our nearby Catholic church, St Aidan of Lindisfarne in East Acton, so there's a special connection. He captures the horror and the terror in a modern, epic scale. Better than an off-the-shelf sculpture any day.

The other highlight of the week was the greatest gig of all time - The Flaming Lips at Brixton Academy. Do you realise that everyone you know, some day, will die? Carpe that diem.