27 things to do before I turn 28

Following my fairly unsuccessful list of 26 things to do before I turn 27, I thought it would be only right and proper to make a new list of things to do in my 27th year. However, having learned my lessons from last year, I craftily decided to be slightly less ambitious with my plans this time. Who knows, I might even manage to actually achieve a few more of the following, rather more achievable goals for 2010...

Here are some of the things I'd like to do this year:

1. Knit a jumper
2. Keep a list of all the new books I read
3. Plant red geraniums in a window box
4. Go to the ballet
5. Swim at a London lido
6. Have an elegant afternoon tea
7. Start writing a new novel
8. See some live comedy
9. Go to London Zoo
10. Take a dance class
11. Learn to crotchet
12. Collaborate
13. Get a bicycle
14. Eat a lobster
15. Go to Rye in East Sussex
16. Make handmade Christmas presents
18. Read more non-fiction
19. Buy some art
20. Read the only book I still haven't read from the Lone Pine series by Malcolm Saville (Strangers at Witchend)
21. Go on holiday
22. Bake a pie
23. Get published in print
24. Eat sushi
25. Swim in the sea
26. Create a handmade book
27. Go on the Eurostar

[Image via Tumblr here]

chris ofili: tate britain

[Chris Ofili: Afrodizzia (2nd version) 1996 via Tate]

Chris Ofili is perhaps best known as an artist associated with controversy. In 1998, he was awarded the Turner Prize for a series of works that challenged the conventions of paintings through encrusting canvases with elephant dung; whilst his painting of a black Madonna prompted outrange when it was first shown at the Brooklyn Museum a year later. But today, with a midcareer retrospective recently opening at Tate Britain, Ofili no longer seems quite so radical. The challenges he mounted to the stereotypes of black culture; his provocative references to pornography, gangsta rap and blaxploitation; and even his characteristic use of blobs of dung to embellish his canvases no longer look like highly controversial, or even particularly distinctive moves. Nevertheless, there is still a huge amount of enjoyment to be derived from this glorious journey through Ofili’s career from the early 1990s to the present day.

Bursting with sparkly exuberance, Ofili’s early works are a real treat, incorporating glitter, beads, sequins, map-pins and magazine cutouts in swirling rainbow patterns. These bejeweled canvases range from the mystical and mysterious to the noisy and frenetic: some demonstrate a buoyant sense of humour in their lively interrogation of racial stereotypes; whilst others, like the affecting No Woman No Cry – Ofili’s response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence – are poignantly beautiful and emotive.

Yet in the tension between form and content that exists in these works, it is the form that tends to grab the attention. Perhaps most immediately arresting is Ofili’s use of colour, the canvases awash with emerald green, heady crimson, vibrant yellow, tropical turquoise, hot pink and deepest midnight blue. Gaudy but gorgeous, these works seem first and foremost an optimistic celebration of the sensual and erotic pleasures of art: in Afro Love and Unity a couple embrace beneath an exploding star; whilst in the companion piece, Afro Sunset they appear entwined together amongst an exotic jungle canopy, in attitudes reminiscent of a Klimt painting. Not all of the works in this exhibition are so flamboyant: yet the quieter, small-scale watercolour and pencil representations of sultry female figures, faces, elegant birds and exotic flowers, which for me were an unexpected highlight of this exhibition, are also invested with a similar sense of vitality. Indeed, even the installation The Upper Room, which forms the centerpiece of this show - a hushed, half-lit chapel-like space, reached through an echoing corridor, in which 13 magnificent panels depicting a golden monkey-god in the jewel tones of stained-glass windows are ranged like the solemn figures of the Last Supper – seems less a comment on religion and its iconography, and more of a purely sensual experience.

Indeed, only in the final pair of rooms, does this exhibition become more ambiguous. Here, the mood shifts away from joyful opulence: this selection of the artist's more recent works moves away from rich texture and embellishment, instead offering us a series of flat canvases. In the first of these rooms, the paintings are entirely blue –a sombre, pared-down palette of twilight, indigo and ultramarine, broken only by the shapes of half-glimpsed shadowy figures. Meanwhile, in the second room, Ofili dispenses with the na├»ve style of his earlier works altogether in favour of a more highly stylized approach, as unearthly figures appear and disappear amongst hard-edged blocks of starkly crude colour: a venomously purple female nude accepts an orange glass from the hand of an unseen man; a dark gothic figure appears to be either vomiting or inhaling a stream of acid-yellow banana shapes. Yet although they may raise more questions, these are distinctly uncomfortable paintings, devoid of the joyful exuberance of Ofili’s earlier works – and unfortunately, without this sense of vibrant aesthetic pleasure, they simply just aren’t as much fun.

Chris Ofili will be showing at Tate Britain until 16 May 2010.

[Both images: Chris Ofili, The Upper Room 1999-2002 via Tate]

check my shelf

Check My Shelf is a fun idea: a brand-new blog devoted solely to bookshelves. Intriguing for all those who like me, believe that there's nothing that says more about a person than their book collection. Submit pictures of your shelves or have a peep at other people's here.

[All images via Check My Shelf]

the birthday list

About this time last year, I wrote a list of 26 things I wanted to do before I turned 27. You can read the full list (which included everything from knitting a jumper to going to New York) here.

Unfortunately item #19 on my list (write a dissertation) proved to take up rather more of my time that I had naively anticipated, and so in the end, I never quite got round to doing many of the more ambitious things on my list. However, I did manage to tick off a grand total of 7 (!) things from my list, as follows...

#3 Sit around a midsummer bonfire

#25 Drink champagne
I’ll admit it’s largely been sparkling wine rather than actual champagne this year. But surely it’s the principle that's important.

#26 Take a break
OK, it wasn’t quite as restful as I envisaged, what with a dissertation to write and job applications and interviews to deal with, but my two months by the sea in Dunbar did give me chance for many lie-ins and aimless meanderings through woods and along beaches.

#10 Go wild swimming
I was determined to swim in the sea at least once in Scotland this summer. I've never swum in the North Sea before, and can honestly say that it was possibly my coldest and most painful (yet strangely exhilirating) swimming experience ever.

#7 Practice the piano

#17 Find a lovely place to live
I always wanted to live in a flat in an old Georgian house on a quiet, leafy London street... and now I actually do! OK, so I didn't imagine it would have a mildewed bathroom ceiling but you can't have everything. This spring I'm planning to buy red geraniums for a window box - the perfect finishing touch to an unexpectedly lovely place to live.

… and finally…

#19 Write a dissertation
At last it’s finished. That’s all I’m saying on the subject

[Image by kristina♥kiessig via tumblr]

the birthday present

I woke up yesterday, on the morning of my 27th birthday, feeling a little flat. Here I was, with a normal day at work ahead of me, all alone with no one to watch me open my cards, or make me a special birthday breakfast, or give me an exciting birthday present. Not very celebratory.

Then I switched on the radio, and the first thing I heard was Matthew Price’s harrowing report from a temporary hospital in Haiti on the Today programme. A young American doctor was fighting back the tears as she told of a mother who had already lost three children in the earthquake, and would lose her fourth and last child that day if vital medical supplies didn’t arrive.

As I sat listening, it seemed unbelievable that here I was, drinking my tea and opening my birthday cards, thinking about things like what I was going to wear and where my friends and I would go for drinks that night, when somewhere at that very moment, thousands of people were suffering and dying. All at once, even thinking about something as trivial as birthday presents seemed like the most decadent thing in the world.

And so: I had a lovely birthday. I had a good day at work, a great evening out with my friends, lots of cards and messages and indeed some beautiful birthday presents, but I’m not going to say anything about that right now.

Instead what I’m going to say is simply that this year, the birthday present that really mattered wasn’t one that I received but one that I gave, by visiting the Bloggers for Haiti page and donating online.

I’m not quite sure I can put this quite eloquently as my blogging colleagues at My Shitty 20s and Travels With My Baby, but if we all give even a little, we can make a difference. If you would like to make a donation, go here and follow the easy instructions. It might just be the most important present you give anyone this year.

art on the underground

I'm celebrating the joy of finally having the internet at home* with a quick post about something else that frequently makes my day better: Art on the Underground.

The London Underground has been commissioning and displaying works by artists for over a century, from Man Ray and Edward McKnight Kauffer right up to Yoshimoto Nara, Mark Titchner and David Shrigley; however, since 2000, Art on the Underground has been working to extend this tradition, working with artists on a contemporary art programme that takes in everything from station-sized installations to community projects to artwork for the Tube map (the current map cover was designed by Richard Long), with the aim of improving the daily journeys of millions of London commuters.

Some of my favourites amongst the recent artworks they have commissioned include Underground Heroes - a project bringing together artist David Blandy and young people and staff from Fairbridge in London's Kennington Centre. Inspired by Blandy's interest in Japanese movies, manga and gaming, as well as the notion of the alter-ego, this project enabled each young person involved to create their own comic book superhero persona for a series of portrait photographs at the entrance to Charing Cross station, as seen in the images above. The young people also came up with a series of heroic adventures, transformed into a trail of comic strips at Embankment station by illustrator Inko.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Deller has created a work of art for Tube drivers: a booklet of quotes entitled What is the city but the people? was given to operational staff on the Piccadilly line in February 2009. Staff were encouraged to use the quotes in their daily communication with customers, with the idea of building a more positive atmosphere during the rush hour and enlivening millions of journeys with an element of unexpected humour. Deller said: "I often wish announcements were more personal and reflected the realities and absurdities of living and working in a big city. I think the travelling public enjoys some humour and unexpected insight during their journey." The quotations have also been transformed into posters: one of my favourites, which I used to see daily at Kings Cross station, is Gandhi's observation "There is more to life than simply increasing its speed".

As artist-in-residence at Southwark Underground station, Peter McDonald brings vibrant colour to the urban environment. Paintings on billboards transform the public space into an everyday art gallery, whilst staff and customers are offered badges to wear that represent the daily life and work of the station.

Finally, writer Sarah Butler has recently been commissioned to undertake a six-month residency on the Central Line, engaging and collaborating with London Underground staff to create new writing. Staff in Central Line stations from West Ruislip to Epping worked closely with Sarah, telling stories, introducing colleagues and sharing memories. The result is Central Line Stories: a glimpse into the intriguing unseen aspects of a journey on the Central Line which I certainly enjoyed - perhaps especially because of its connections to my recent piece, A Northern Line, in Flax's Mostly Truthful anthology.

Whatever you make of the individual works themselves, there's no doubt that these interventions certainly brighten and break the monotony of the oh-so tedious daily commute. Keep your eyes open for new artworks across the London Underground or find out more about what's coming soon the Art on the Underground website here.

*The internet at last works but the unfortunately the wireless does not, so I can only go online if I lie down on the living room floor... convenient!

[Photograph by Aaron Bikari used under a Creative Commons License; Artworks by David Blandy and Peter McDonald via Art on the Underground]

andrew bracey: animalation

After a mad day of dashing round Manchester, fighting my way through snow and ice, to get my Masters dissertation bound and submitted before Christmas, I briefly took refuge in Manchester Art Gallery. There, I happened upon an unexpected treat: Animalation, an exhibition of new animation work by artist Andrew Bracey.

Animalation is inspired by flip-book animation techniques, as well as animals both real and imaginary. As in so much of Bracey's work, there's a pleasingly playful and intriguing feel to this exhibition: bridging the gap between painting, installation, animation and video, you can't passively view this work, but must actively explore it, becoming a participant in a game of gallery hide-and-seek. Peeping into hidden corners, you discover unexpected surprises: a scribbled dolphin comes to life on a post-it note apparently left at random on a gallery wall; a “fluorescent disco creepy-crawly” appears and disappears upon an abandoned piece of paper; a rainbow snake slithers across the gallery floor. These doodles bursting into unexpected life also seem to speak of the creative process itself, which here is represented as exuberant, irrepressible, and characterised by a childlike playfulness: a vibrant and enchanting antidote to the often wearying solemnity of so much current contemporary art.

Hover from Manchester Art Gallery on Vimeo.

Animalation is at Manchester Art Gallery until 28 February: Bracey will also be leading a number of events, including an artist talk and an animation-focused art weekend. Taking the idea of active participation a step further, you can even find instructions on how make your own “animalation” on the Manchester Art Gallery website.

Find out more about Bracey and his work on his website here.

[Image and video: 'Hover' by Andrew Bracey via Manchester Art Gallery]

Top 5 Exhibitions of the Year 2009

My 'top 5' highlights from a year packed with great exhibitions and art events in both London and Manchester:

5. Subversive Spaces - Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

An ambitious exploration of the legacy of the Surrealist project, placing works by artists such as Dali, Magritte and Ernst alongside those by contemporary artists exploring (and disturbing) similar territories - the private, domestic spaces of the home, and the public, social spaces of the city.

4. The Museum of Everything - London

A quirky, higgledy-piggledy assemblage of outsider artworks, offering a refreshing change from the slick presentation of the conventional 'white cube' gallery space.

3. Walking in My Mind - Hayward Gallery, London
Tiptoe through a surreal wonderland of dream-like spaces... a delightful and unique exhibition exploring the power of the artistic imagination.

2. Talking to Strangers: Sophie Calle - Whitechapel Gallery, London

One of the most intelligent exhibitions I've seen for a while: compelling, personal and with a knowing sense of humour.

1. Procession: Jeremy Deller - Manchester International Festival, Manchester

A parade with a difference, drawing in communities from all over Greater Manchester, from Rose Queens to Stockport boy racers, for a celebration of what Deller terms 'northern social surrealism'. 'Part self-portrait and part-alternative reality', this was a truly one-off Mancunian extravangza.