Friday, 29 October 2010

Window dressing

It feels as if window dressing may be something of a lost art. With fewer major department stores in our cities than in years gone by, there are fewer grand sweeps of windows in which designers can display a range of goods from within the store. In London, I know of only Harrods, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols that still manage to surprise and impress with stunning window displays. Some of their efforts look so expensive that I imagine the aim is to attract attention to the store, rather than to the specific goods and merchandise. I saw these windows at Harvey Nichols a few weeks ago and they certainly caught the attention of passers-by. I can’t find out who was responsible for the design, and the Harvey Nicks press office was unhelpful, so we just have to appreciate the anonymous talent that put together these brilliant displays: the first, is all spanners and nuts, the second is HB pencils, and the third is books. Excellent.

Double-click on each photo to see it large size.

BBC News had a story earlier this year that retailers might be required to turn out the lights on such displays, to save energy.

I have just come across some additional photographs here and here

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Building Worker

I have no idea how many statues there are in London; hundreds I’m sure, perhaps thousands. A quick Google to find the answer and I discover that there are also hundreds of websites about London statues and works of art; too many for me to wade through to answer my own question. It is quickly clear that the vast majority are of males, white, with a background in the military, parliament, and the aristocracy. Most of them we pass without a glance.

This one caught my eye recently, just north of the Tower. It is a male, but reflects a trade, not an individual. It is called The Building Worker, and the inscription reads:

For the thousands of building workers who have lost their lives at work, we commemorate you. For the thousands of building workers who are today building and rebuilding towns and cities across the United Kingdom, we celebrate you.

The statue was commissioned by UCATT - Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, Britain's trade union for construction workers, which has 120000 members. It was designed by Alan Wilson, and unveiled by Ken Livingstone, mayor of London, and Alan Ritchie, UCATT General Secretary,in October 2005. I particularly like it because of the detailing Wilson has achieved (it's a carpenter), with claw hammer hanging from his belt, other tools in the pouch, level over his shoulder, and of course a hard hat and reflective jacket.

Monday, 18 October 2010


The closure of the Ai Weiwei installation attracted lots of press coverage over the weekend, the Independent’s being reasonably balanced. There was also a leading article on the subject.

Today the Guardian prints four letters about the seeds, the dust, and related safety problems – one of them from me. (the Dickinson letter).

Many people will have travelled considerable distances to see Ai Weiwei’s installation. Like them, I’m frustrated that we can’t now experience this piece as the artist had intended. There will be considerable embarrassment at the Tate management about this cock-up (for that is what it is). Nevertheless, I still admire them for being willing to have a go at these difficult things, and I hope they hold their collective nerve and continue to be audacious in their commissions.

Why modern art is a matter of experience.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Art Theft - UPDATE

An update on my post below: Rumoured last night, the Press Association has now confirmed that access to the exhibition is to be restricted to ‘look only’.

A vast carpet of more than 100 million porcelain "seeds" in the Tate Modern in London has been declared out of bounds to art lovers only two days after it opened because it poses a health threat.

Visitors to the gallery were initially allowed to walk on the imitation sunflower seeds, which cover 1,000 square metres of its Turbine Hall, but that has now changed.

A Tate spokeswoman said: "Although porcelain is very robust, the enthusiastic interaction of visitors has resulted in a greater than expected level of dust in the Turbine Hall. Tate has been advised that this dust could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time. In consequence, Tate, in consultation with the artist, has decided not to allow visitors to walk across the sculpture."

The Standard reports: Tate Modern has been forced to close the giant Turbine Hall sunflower seeds commission to public access because the surge of interest has created dangerous levels of dust.

The Telegraph has a short video here.

And the Guardian has a nice collection of ten stills of the installation being enjoyed by the public earlier this week, before it was made out of bounds.

It is a shame it hasn't quite worked as the artist and the Tate had wished. I can't see 2 million people, looking at it from the high level bridge, being particularly enthralled. I believe the Tate has shown great willingness to experiment and take risks with the Turbine Hall commissions - we have to allow them to occasionally fail.

Enormous credit is due to Unilever, their sponsors for this enterprise for the past 10 years.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Stealing Art

I am surprised at the admission by Guardian journalist Charlotte Higgins that she stole a porcelain sunflower seed from the new installation at Tate Modern. Her piece appeared in the paper yesterday under the heading. Is it OK to steal a Turbine Hall seed?

The seeds, about the size of a Smartie or M&M, are the work of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, perhaps best know in the UK for his contribution to the design of the beautiful ‘bird’s nest’ Olympic stadium in Beijing. He has been commissioned to create the new installation in the giant space of the old Turbine Hall, which will be in place for six months.

Ms Higgins seems to justify herself by saying that because there 100 million of these hand-finished objects on the floor of the Turbine Hall, the Tate can afford to lose one to every one of the 2 million expected visitors. But where would she draw the line? What if those visitors want to take a couple of dozen each?

Antony Gormley’s piece Field for the British Isles is composed of 40,000 tiny terracotta figures; would she steal one of those? Or perhaps take one of Carl Andre’s 120 bricks?

I went down to the Tate today to see the exhibition – but only from a distance. It was ‘closed for maintenance’. Two hours later, and it was still closed. A helpful member of staff confirmed, off the record, that they were trying to decide how to deal with the potential theft - handfuls had been taken at the press launch on Monday - as well as the dust rising as people tramped through the seeds.

Meanwhile, I’m surprised that the Guardian’s Chief Arts Writer should not only confirm her own theft, but seem to encourage her readers to do the same.

A lone worker rakes the seeds

I shall make another attempt to see it when the ‘maintenance’ problems have been resolved.

The critics seem to like it.

Telegraph: he’s come up with a masterpiece.

Guardian: I love this work. It is a world in a hundred million objects….Sunflower Seeds is contingent, oddly moving and beautiful.

The Independent. This, in the end, is rather a melancholy piece....But it’s also about our responsibilities to one another, and the energy we share, and so it contains a seed of hope. Make that 100 million seeds of hope.


*definition: quasi-autonomous nongovernmental organization. A semipublic administrative body outside the civil service but with financial support from and senior appointments made by the government.

Today the coalition government announced their long awaited cuts – known until this week as the ‘Bonfire of the Quangos’. The full list is available on the Cabinet Office website.

Tucked away on page 18, under the responsibility of the Foreign Office, I notice the intention to abolish the Government Hospitality Advisory Committee on the Purchase of Wines. Well that must be a blow to all those lucky enough to have benefited from it. Does this mean the government will stop buying wine? Or, is it simply that they will no longer have a committee to advise and will now use Oddbins online? Let’s hope there is time for one last committee meeting, so those officials involved can drown their sorrow in some style.

I see from an answer in the House of Commons two months ago that the government has spent £966,702 on wine, beer and spirits over the last decade. Impressive.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010


Toby came home for a few days: Ella was elighted to meet him for the first time.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Urgent Witnesses Required

Jared Kelly is a screenwriter. The story he tells here is not dramatic fiction, it is real-life. It is also alarming.

On Tuesday March 9th, at around 5.30pm, I was cycling west along Oxford Street, London, near Dean Street, when a taxi suddenly swerved across the front of me to pick up a fare and we collided. Following a brief verbal exchange, the taxi driver grabbed the scarf around my neck and strangled me until I was unconscious. When I regained consciousness the police were on the scene.

What seemed an open and shut case in my favour has gone horribly wrong in light of the appalling fact that the subsequent investigation failed to retrieve CCTV footage and also failed to secure the details of a witness who saw the entire incident. This witness was giving me first aid when I regained consciousness and assured me he had seen everything. The policeman on the scene assured me, twice, that he had taken the details of that witness. Two months later, when I was charged, I queried that same police officer about that witness and he denied his existence. According to him the witness is a "Figment of my imagination. You have made him up."

Read the rest of the story here.

To try to correct this growing injustice, Mr Kelly created this blog and used Twitter to get out his appeal for witnesses. One who read this was a reporter at London’s Evening Standard who wrote it up and the paper published it. Witnesses came forward with strong stories and clear evidence.

Now read on here:

So, to some extent it is a happy ending for Jared Kelly, although many people will be concerned about the mis-handling of this case by the police and the CPS.

As well as all those good people who re-tweeted the original appeal, credit is especially due to reporter Ross Lydall at the Evening Standard for these two pieces:

Cyclist charged with assault

Cyclist is cleared of assault

Saturday, 2 October 2010


Sainsbury’s were unfortunate this afternoon; their shoppers even more so. It seems a ‘technical fault’ forced the company to suspend credit and debit card payments at all 872 stores across the UK. This was in the middle of trading on the busiest day of the week. I can’t imagine we’ll hear what this has cost them, but how the company handled the problem will be of interest, and reminded me of a case history I once studied.

In the late 1980’s, when I attended the Executive Programme at Bradford University’s School of Management, we were given just such a make-believe incident to test our approach to managing the sort of failure that can dog any company. In this scenario, we are each the general manager of an edge-of-town giant food superstore:

It is Saturday afternoon, the car park is full of families loading up the week’s shopping, the store is packed, the tills are ringing, and all is well in your world. Suddenly all systems fail: no credit or debit cards can be read, cash can still be taken, but no receipts printed. The cashiers don’t know what to do, the queues are growing by the minute, customer voices being raised…….what do you do?

Well of course there is no single correct answer, but our suggestions included:

Ask everybody to abandon their shopping and leave the store immediately. No trollies may be taken out of the store. After 30 minutes trudging around the store, with the kids in tow, most people would leave very angry; some may even refuse to leave.

Don’t let anybody leave until your IT folk have fixed the problem. That could be a couple of days!

Those who can must write a cheque. Does anybody carry a cheque-book nowadays?

Ask customers to pay cash on an ‘honesty box’ basis. This is possibly the only realistic option: you’ll take a big hit but at least you’ll get some income.

Let everybody who is already queuing at a till pass through for free. Good customer service this: what you lose in income you’ll make up with goodwill.

Two other important points:

You ought to stop anybody else coming into the store, and thereby exacerbating your problems. Sure, they’ll head off to your competitor, but that might be a good result for today.

Get a grip on managing the car park: it will be gridlock out there, with more people arriving and few cars leaving.

And with the use of mobiles and Twitter, which we didn’t have in the 1980”s, the word will be round the neighbourhood that you are giving away shopping for free: even more people will rush over to your beleaguered store!

I shall keep an eye out to see how Sainsbury’s actually coped.


Colourful caulis at Broadway Market