Instead of a Post-it

We welcome back Owen Polley of the award-winning Three Thousand Versts: he’s wondering what the Turner Prize is really for…

The British public loves to hate the Turner Prize.

For evidence, you can visit the current exhibition, at the Tate Britain in London, and read the comment wall at the end.  “They should all be committed to a lunatic asylum”, “Complete rubbish from start to finish” and, even more succinctly, “Pile of wank”, are among the reviews scrawled on post-it notes and fastened to the display.

One response reads, “This wall is the best thing in the exhibition”.

The truth is, on this occasion, the punters are right.  Like some of Samuel Beckett’s plays, or Will Gompertz, the Turner Prize seems to tempt out the inner Philistine even in those of us who value the arts highly.

I visited the Tate Britain ready and eager to have my preconceptions swept aside by some of the UK’s brightest and most talented artists.  Unfortunately, afterwards, the best I could say of the six contenders for Britain’s premier modern art prize is that one of them can draw very well.

And that assessment isn’t supposed to be particularly withering.  Paul Noble sketches densely detailed pictures of an imaginary city called Nobson Newtown.  They’re quite impressive, as these things go.

Indeed, had Noble been doodling on the back of his homework jotter, an encouraging teacher may have steered him toward a career in architecture, or urged him to take an A Level in ‘tech drawing’.  There’s an active imagination at work in his pictures, which are rather like something a talented sci-fi geek might produce – if it weren’t for all the poo.

The artist has a bit of a scatological preoccupation and … erm …. litters his fictional world with poo boats and poo people.  Oh, and if you look closely, because this is the Turner Prize, some of the inhabitants of Nobson Newtown are masturbating.  Edgy.

And that covers the most interesting artist in this year’s shortlist.  The rest are pretty dull.

There’s a Glaswegian chap who takes grainy photos on an old camera, which appear in pairs, because his exhibit is called Divided Self.  He’s also shot a long film about the ‘anti-psychiatrist’ R.D. Laing, which is probably worth a watch if it ever appears on BBC 4.

Another movie, by Elizabeth Price, uses some mildly interesting visuals to tell the tale of a fire that burned down a Woolworths in Manchester.  She’s playing around with storytelling techniques, so if you were writing a piece about her work in a scholarly journal you’d be expected to trot out words like ‘narrative’ and ‘postmodernism’.

I couldn’t help feeling that there have been pop videos which do the same thing more impressively.  And the MTV feel was exacerbated when The Woolworths Choir of 1979 bursts into a song by the Shangri Las.

The last piece was by the type of artist who makes people genuinely angry about modern art.

Spartacus Chetwynd, whom Wikipedia confirms was not christened ‘Spartacus’, has dressed a few chaps in sheets and smeared them with camouflage (top).  They lie about pretending to sleep, or get up and gyrate a bit.  The blurb says that the performance is ‘carnivalesque’, although I thought it was more like an ‘Occupy’ protest for people who find the outdoors too cold.

Still, I suppose that’s the point.  A cynic, who’d completed their ‘post-it’ review of the exhibition, suggested Chetwynd’s selection was a publicity stunt, dropped in by the judges to generate column inches for the short-list.

They’re probably not far off the mark.

Next year the Turner Prize becomes a travelling freak show, as the ceremony moves to Northern Ireland and forms the centre-piece of Londonderry’s stint as the first UK City of Culture.

And that’s just how the British public likes it.  The Turner Prize is a chance to point and laugh at some pretentious people desperately trying to prove they have talent.  Or it’s an opportunity to rage and fume at how the modern world is going to hell, because left-field artists like to outdo each other in outrageousness.

Either way, the art may not wow people, but they keep reading about the shortlist and they flock to the exhibition, even if it’s only to pour out their derision on a post-it note.

Dabbler Review: The Way Back

There are plenty of English language films about the Holocaust, but very few about the Soviet Gulag.  It might be the obvious angle, but it’s difficult to consider Peter Weir’s new film, The Way Back, in any other light.  The wastes of Siberia now have their very own Hollywood blockbuster.

The movie is an old-fashioned epic, both in look and scale.  It was ’inspired’ by, rather than based upon, a story which the director believes to be true.  A book called The Long Walk, published in 1956, purports to describe a Polish prisoner’s epic 4,000 mile trek from a camp near Irkutsk, through the Gobi Desert and the Himalaya, culminating in India.

The text was comprehensively demolished by the BBC in 2006, after it revealed that the Pole was in fact simply released by the Soviet authorities.  The book most likely comprised either pure invention or an amalgamation of prisoners’ tall tales.   The idea that a group of detainees actually did escape from the Gulag and walk to India is completely unproven.

The premise of The Way Back was therefore already in doubt, even before it was made.  The film depicts four prisoners surviving an overland odyssey to India, after they make a break from their camp in Siberia.

They travel through a landscape over which the camera sweeps majestically.  It makes for some arresting visuals, but it isn‘t Siberia.  The Russian wilderness was recreated in Bulgaria.  Dunes in Morocco stood in for the Gobi desert.

If the film has problems, though, they don’t lie with the inauthentic settings or with the cast.  The performances are good.  Jim Sturgess plays Janusz, effectively the group’s leader, quite convincingly.  He has been imprisoned on the strength of testimony from his wife, whom he is determined to forgive in person.   Colin Farrell also depicts a career criminal or ’blatnoi’ rather well.

The difficulty is that the prisoners, once they leave the Gulag, proceed almost painlessly to India.  Certainly there are hairy moments, hunger and thirst, even a death or two along the way, but their tribulations and behaviour don’t really ring true.

These are desperate men – fresh from a brutal and dehumanising environment.  That much we know from the film’s excellent opening scenes, which take place within the camp itself.

The thing is, once they escape, they behave remarkably civilly.  They even take under their wing a fugitive teenage girl called Irina (played by flavour of the month – Saoirse Ronan).

After a little debate, she’s soon tagging along with the group, well-liked and completely unmolested.  Even Farrell‘s character, who in the camp stabs and robs at will, is perfectly respectful.  Indeed ’Valka’ becomes ever more the likeable rogue, and ever less a violent thug, as the film progresses.

In the end he refuses to cross the border into Mongolia, such is his love for Mother Russia.  Meanwhile his colleagues are burying each other with due deference, piggy-backing the laggards, acting as surrogate fathers for Saoirise and generally being thoroughly decent chaps.

It all adds up to a rather sanitised take on ‘gruelling‘.  The walking scenes lack the fine detail which makes the depiction of the prison convincing.  Understandable enough when you consider that the walk probably didn’t take place, while there are plenty of first hand accounts of the camps upon which to draw.

The first Hollywood blockbuster about the Gulag is for the most part a romantic epic, rather than a gritty slice of realism, but don‘t let that put you off.  It’s still entertaining.  Just don’t go expecting the definitive film on survival in the Siberian wilderness.

6 Clicks…For the Endless Voyage: Owen Polley

In our occasional feature we invite guests to select the six cultural links that might sustain them if, by some mischance, they were forced to spend eternity in a succession of airport departure lounges with only an iPad or similar device for company.
Today’s voyager is Owen Polley, who blogs as Chekov at Three Thousand Versts of Loneliness and writes for a number of newspapers and magazines.

With any combination of snow, ice, malfunctioning baggage carousels and ash clouds liable to call a halt to the modern miracle of air travel, the interminable journey isn‘t such a leap of the imagination.  The following would ease my pain, so long as they were accompanied by gallons of strong black coffee.


1. Duke Special.  Some soothing music is a must.  ’The Duke’ is a furiously inventive performer, who defies categorisation.  He ranges from torch lit songs, full of guilt and regret, through stomping music hall Victoriana.  The key thing is that with an iPod full of Duke Special, it’s simply not possible to get bored.

This free sampler album, Everyone Wants a Little Something is a good overview of his career so far.  It features a typically idiosyncratic cover of Drink to Me Only, performed with frequent collaborator Neil Hannon, from The Divine Comedy. Wanda, Darling of the Jockey Club brings things right up to date with one of the stand out tracks from the Duke’s latest three disk release.

What more could you want for nothing?


2. Cooped up in an airport, what could be more liberating than the wide open spaces of Siberia?  Albeit that this virtual journey from Moscow to Vladivostok is viewed through the window of a train, courtesy of Google Maps.

Escape the departure lounge, the bad sandwiches and recycled air for the age-old romance of the Trans-Siberian, boundless steppe, the Ural mountains and the shores of Baikal.

Pulling out of Yaroslavsky Station, it will take a full twenty days before you catch sight of the Pacific Ocean.  Time well spent, deciphering Tolstoy or Gogol in Russian.


3. My third choice is either relief or torture.  If I weren’t at the bottom of another Costa Coffee, trying to access free broadband, I could be in Belfast’s Linen Hall Library.  The institution is a triumph of enlightenment values and a monument to the city‘s late 18th century liberal awakening.

Belfast’s merchant class set it up with the aim of ’enlarging knowledge’ and to this day it remains a quiet refuge in the city centre.  The Linen Hall collects every book published in Northern Ireland and its Political Collection is invaluable for researchers and the curious alike.

In the airport I browse the catalogue of the last subscribing library in Ireland, explore its resources and fervently wish that I could pay a visit.


4. I’m a fanatical about football and my particular passion is the Northern Ireland international team.  I’ve followed the side to the remotest corners of Europe, often through circuitous routes, spending an unhealthy amount of time in airports.

There is therefore no question that I can bear my endless voyage without access to Our Wee Country, the Northern Ireland fan site.  It has been a critical contributor to the Irish Football Association’s Football For All campaign, which successfully promoted an inclusive, family atmosphere on the terraces.

‘OWC’ is also the most vibrant forum for supporters of the team.  I could follow Northern Ireland’s topsy-turvy progress in the world rankings, get updated on the burning issues of the day and sound off about Nigel Worthington, the unloved manager who succeeded Lawrie Sanchez.


5. A little light reading.

If a blogger can also be a Luddite, then I answer to that description.  I don’t ‘do’ books on the internet.  I read blogposts, newspaper articles, at a stretch some longer form journalism.  So I’ll not be damaging my eyesight in order to read novels on my laptop.

As an alternative, I considered selecting The Poetry Archive for my six clicks, but it’s been done before. In a doomed quest to be original I’ll pick Daniel Kalder’s website.

The travel writer pioneered the ’anti-tourism’ genre with Lost Cosmonaut, which charted his journey through a series of obscure post-Soviet Russian republics.  He followed that up with ’Strange Telescopes’, examining bizarre sub-cultures, religions and sects in Russia.

His journalism is just as consistently edgy and entertaining as the books.  As stultifying years went by, I’d hope that it might find its way more swiftly to his website, but there’s plenty to be getting on with for now.


6. I can’t compile my essential links without including at least one blog.  Given the trying circumstances, I can think of no blogger with I’d rather while away the hours, than the delightfully eccentric Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland.  The self-styled peer charts the minutiae of life in Belfast, slap up lunches, trips to Tesco and motoring between National Trust properties in his two-seater sports’ car.

He also writes wonderfully informative posts about wildlife, the history of landed estates, heraldry and the royal family.  A diary of daily pleasures and a portal to the past.  The perfect distraction for a dystopian present.