I have only just stepped off the plane from Bangkok. Day 1 back in Blighty and I find myself sitting in a Thai restaurant on the edge of Hyde Park. After a couple of weeks out East sampling the best of my (Thai) family’s recommendations (and a lifetime of a Thai mother’s home cooking), needless to say I am bound to be a harsh critic.

Nipa, set in London’s Royal Lancaster Hotel, is the sister of the original Nipa, in the prestigious Landmark Hotel, Bangkok. Since 1995, Nongyao Toopchoi has been the head chef here, leading a 6-strong brigade of Thai women, bringing the “authentic” tastes of their homeland to the West. That’s the pitch – let’s put it to the test.

Hotel eateries, in general, fall into two camps. The first includes restaurants in establishments such as The Dorchester, The Ritz, Claridges and The Lanesborough – spectacular in design and dining, but characterised by hard-to-pronounce menus and harder-to-stomach tabs. The second are the nameless few (not out of compassion, I assure you, but by their sheer banality) in which it would be better to stick to the pork scratchings at the bar.

Nipa, thankfully, is neither of these. Though the location won’t allow you to forget you’re in London – the first floor windows overlook Hyde Park’s Italian gardens – the serenity of the So Sam Sai fiddle and the traditional wood furniture put thoughts of the adjacent tube station behind. Juxtaposing the commuter frowns, the waiter beams as if fresh from the land of smiles himself.

Starting with the Nipa platter, I was beyond amazed to find Kao Krieb Pak Moh among the spring rolls, satay and fish cakes. Kao Krieb Pak Moh, an appetiser of minced chicken, mixed with crushed peanuts and herbs wrapped in a pillowy rice flour crepe, is about as authentic as you can get. Now I have never, ever, EVER seen this dish anywhere except the streets of Thailand. Traditionally served with lettuce, whole chillies and a light dipping sauce, the offering had me very excited indeed. The menu at Nipa overall stays impressively true to the Thai palate, refusing to pander to British sensibilities.

My main of deep-fried soft-shell crab (Yum Ma Muang Poo Nim), one of the Chef’s Recommendations and another street-stall favourite rarely sighted on our own shores, accompanied by the traditional Som Tam salad (shredded green papaya, cabbage, crushed chillies and peanuts, battered tomato, lime and dried shrimp), was another delicious surprise. The Pad Thai escaped common downfalls – too much tamarind paste (too sweet), too much Nam Pla (too salty) – and instead remained light and fresh. Nipa flies the most authentic ingredients from Thailand (Thai aubergines, green papaya and softshell crab are just a few) – perhaps contrary to eco-warriors’ pleas, but definitely accounting for the authentic flavours.

Nongyao’s childhood, spent helping her mother on their food stall in Bangkok, is reflected in her menu. The Coconut Icecream, served in its shell, would trick you into the sense of being a tourist in Antigua by its appearance, were the taste not so reminiscent of that sold in small plastic cups on the Thai streets. Tab Tim Krob – another cause for amazement – is in Thailand a dessert eaten by excited young children swarming round street sellers pushing carts around on bicycles. The jewel-like, water chestnuts, coated in ruby-hued glutinous tapioca flour and served in a sweet, coconut syrup, made me feel young and carefree. The last time I tasted it I was with my 5-year-old cousin outside the gates of her school. All the kids eat it out there. And all the parents. And grandparents. Everyday. I guess it would be the Thai equivalent of bananas in custard, or apple crumble – equally comforting and nostalgic, though perhaps a little more refreshing and lot less lardy. This, if you have ever wondered, is the reason Thais remain so svelte – neither indulgence nor even depressive binging need be unhealthy when you’ve got such great alternatives. Gosh, don’t I sound just like Gizzi Erskine – really, there’s far more to Thai cuisine than its health benefits, and Nipa showcases this well. I’m still thinking about the Kao Krieb Pak Moh and intend to get it again on my next visit – which I hope won’t be too long a wait.

Nipa, Royal Lancaster Hotel, 12 Lancaster Terrace, London. W2 2TY.

020 7551 6039


Photography’s arrival originally meant that the privilege of having your portrait painting was no longer reserved for the commissioning nobility. It was all about reporting simple fact. But the rapid popularisation of photography to capture life had two significant implications. The first relates to the art of painting, which, beaten in speed and price by the photograph, turned to conceptual abstraction and symbolists, in movements spearheaded by the likes of Monet and Seurat, and then Picasso and Braque. The second relates to photography itself, as we see in the Tate Modern’s major summer show this year, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. What the camera could do which painting could not was capture a moment instantly, and discreetly – the photographer was driven, then, to explore this difference, and expand it. This makes for some intriguing voyeurism. Featuring snapshots from all walks of life, from the iconic to the anonymous, the exhibition reveals how there really can be no way of escaping the watching eye – or at least the camera in front of it.

One thing to note is that the show is, well, pretty huge. Sprawling through 14 rooms, it needs a good morning or afternoon to fully absorb. Adding to this is the fact that the pictures are in general small, often tiny. It’s not exactly a one-painting-per-wall situation – it’s a visual archive.

Often the unavoidable case with large exhibitions, the pigeon-holing of images into rooms, with names like “The Unseen Photographer,” “Voyeurism and Desire” and “Celebrity and the Public Gaze” seemed a little forced. But it did serve to draw attention to the question of the purpose of the image. The issue of the show is largely whether what is really photojournalism, or the handiwork of paparazzi, can be seen as art. In its fundamental intentions to adorn front pages perhaps not. The images of Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Burton taken by Felice Quinto, hailed as the world’s first paparazzo, were hardly “intentional art,” just as those of Princess Diana on holiday with Dodi Al Fayed prior to their deaths were not. But as a comment on today’s society – its unshakable concern with celebrity, spectatorship, surveillance and voyeurism (why else would there be a need for Heat, Hello or OK?) – is the purely documentary transformed into art? A photo may not have been born as art, but it may be transcribed as art – which probably says a lot more about us, now, than them, then. It’s rare to find a contemporary artist these days who is not making a statement, however subtle or restrained – that is what the market calls for.

Some of the comments made through Tate Modern’s show are shocking – lurid scenes captured by Mitch Epstein and Yoshiyuki come to the forefront, alongside Merry Alpern’s Dirty Windows series and Jordan Crandall’s unnerving film art.  The guilty pleasure of celeb-watching, demonstrated in images of stars from Marilyn Monroe in that famous white dress to a tearful Paris Hilton on her way to court, is extended to include a strange intrigue into gritty reportage. A man about to leap from a building, the same man mid-fall, the view of an execution chamber from the family viewing room, a woman being simultaneously groped by four men, a teenaged boy snorting drugs from a dirty bathroom….it’s all there, shot, framed and put on display for the viewing public until October. You may need a few trips to take it all in.

Having said that, there were some real gems that stood out. Among the Henri Cartier Bressons, Helmut Newtons, Man Rays, Lee Millers, Walker Evanses and Robert Franks (the exhibition does seem to cover everything it should cover) are new and fresh images by contemporary photographers printing on larger scales and using imaginative methods. In the first room, Walker Evans’s Subway Passengers, taken of unsuspecting subjects on the New York underground in the 1930s, are juxtaposed with Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads, photographed in the same city 70 years later, and yet blown up into adversely vast proportions. Here comes an interesting fact: when one of diCorcia’s unwitting subjects took legal action against the photographer, a landmark ruling came down, asserting the precedence of the artist’s right to self-expression over the subject’s right to their own image. In essence, the image was literally ‘captured’ – trapped and no longer belonging to its original owner. As did the widespread support of the I’m a Photographer not a Terrorist! campaign and the gathering in Trafalgar Square, this ruling was yet another sign of public re-evaluation of photography, now widely considered a legitimate art form.

Another contemporary piece, Oliver Lutz’s installation piece The Lynching of Leo Frank, was one of exhibition highlights, implicating the viewer not simply as spectator, but as part of the scene. Positioned within the frame, we are forced to imagine ourselves as part of the throng witnessing the 1915 hanging of Leo Frank, a Jewish man accused of murder but now regarded innocent. The work reminded me of another young artist, Reynir Hutber, whose Catlin Art Prize winning piece, Stay Behind the Line (a piece of video/performance art using looped video footage) allows the viewer to engage with a curled up figure in the room, when in fact the installation space is empty. Similarly in Lutz’s piece at Exposed, the encounter (determined by the audience’s interaction) prompts the question of responsibility – what part do we really play as the spectator?

In my eyes, this was one of two stars in the show. The other was the Minox Model B from 1958, a miniature camera in a size comparable to the niftiest designs today. This was something to wonder at, as were the old Leicas and Kodaks, glistening authoritatively in their weighty metal casing. Other artefacts from the 40s and 50s included mens shoes hiding cameras in their heels and miniature cameras designed to fit inside walking sticks and shirt pockets. Very James Bond. If James Bond were a photographer.

I could go on and on for hours – so you really should go see it. There will be things that excite, intrigue and offend, that cross lines of privacy and propriety. The images will provoke you and prompt you to think – which is what, after all, if we are to call photography a contemporary art, it should do.

Somewhere between asleep and awake, in the moments where story time ends and dreams crystallise…..that is where you will find the worlds of Anni Leppälä and Susanna Majuri. Apparently everything Nordic is in Vogue these days- de rigeur, a la mode – but these images defy trends.

Both women, recent graduates from the prestigious Helsinki School of Art and Design, have been causing a stir with their thoughtful and provoking photographic narratives. Leppälä has just been voted Artist of the Year in Finland; Majuri was winner of the Gras Savoye Award at Les Recontres d’Arles in 2005. Both are currently on display at Purdy Hicks Gallery at Bankside, and I really do think you should all go and see the exhibition. I don’t often get this carried away.

As much as I try to find some suitably abrupt truism to fit the images, it’s Majuri who puts it best: “I want to narrate feelings like in novels.” Not meaning to bracket the two artists together- their processes and theologies are quite different –this is one thought where they agree.

By capturing the moment, and by interrogating it, Anni Leppälä’s work exposes what is lost by the photograph: moments, those precise objects meaning to be preserved. Stilling time, she explores the relationship between the past and the present, often using children as her subject to convey what are both temporal instances and potential geneses of stories. In Reading (2010), the girl’s red hair covering her face as she reads allows the viewer to question – what is she reading, what is her expression, and what is she thinking? The same goes in Light (2009) and Yearly Growth (2009).

When I look at Susanna Majuri’s work, it’s a little less playful, a little more muted. Something unnerving hits deeper than the impression its characters give out through the pre-Raphaelite poses, the pseudo-Victorian dress and the Classical settings. Yes, on the face of it, I see the drenched florals of a girl’s dress in Vesiputous (Waterfall) (2009) as a reminder of J.W. Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott and even more so John Everett Millias’ Ophelia. But what strikes within is somewhere in-between that feeling you get in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (click here if you haven’t read it, though you really shouldn’t ruin the ending for yourself) and the one surrounding Cathy’s final moments of madness in Wuthering Heights. Little Father Time and Wuthering (“Withering”) Heights seem aptly named in this context. Even figures embracing together under the pools seem dissolved in utter isolation. The painterly light Majuri sheds on her subjects is at once tranquilising and disturbing, her figures ethereal yet completely suffocated.

Side-by-side, there is a juxtaposition between the works of the two artists which can be understood in reading their statements for the Helsinki School:

Majuri: “I throw myself into a fictive reality in the shootings. My heart beats wildly when I can feel the presence of surprises.”

Leppälä: “…when you try to conserve or protect a moment by stopping it, by photographing it, you inevitably lose it at the same time.”

And yet the final lines of each sing a similar hymn:

Majuri: “The language is a map and draws around us, unknown and familiar. I believe in a single image. It breaths strong.”

Leppälä: “How to stop a feeling, a memory? By binding it to visible objects, facades of material things, attaching it to a room’s walls, the surface of photographs. Like translucent skin with unforeseen memories beneath.” Here you can see what they both find so exciting in the stillness: the possibility of a narrative, which speaks directly to the viewer.

Finding a link in their faceless subjects – Leppälä’s children shrouding their faces with thick red hair, hands, ears of wheat; Majuri’s figures stilled beneath rushing waters – both interrogate the moment. What is found is both loss and promise.

At 6:30pm (approximately), a male nude walks through the crowd. Champagne sippers replenish their glasses once more and gather as the artist approaches the stage.

Other Criteria, on Charing Cross Road, was the scene last night for the launch of Fiona Banner’s new book, Performance Nude– and the accompanying ‘performance.’

For half an hour, the model stands in one corner of the platform as the artist applies her candid observations to the surface. But the marks on the dividing plane do not make up your ordinary sort of life drawing. The marks are letters, the figures are words, the sentences, flowing, all culminate in a narrative that is (at times) almost poetic:

“Floor slightly scuffed, feet turned out, toes red…” she begins, as instinct dictates the narrative chain.

As the story progresses, and as she bends lower, eventually kneeling with her neck curved down, it becomes a humorous take on the conventional depiction of figurative gestures:

“…bollocks rest dark in shadow, scribble of pubes, and cock, quiet at the tip, blinking a shadow onto his hairy thigh….”

That said (and novelty aside), it’s hard to watch without that niggling thought rearing its ugly head: is this really art? Without the artist’s oeuvre constantly in the forefront it’s hard to see the display’s artistic merit. Anyone to come without knowledge of Banner’s previous achievements would leave very confused indeed. Her past projects have included sculpture, drawing, performance and film, and since the early ’90s her focus has not strayed far from the tension between private, internal worlds and public spheres. Language- Banner’s “word-scapes”- has remained through this the chosen device. The written word poses problems, but also presents possibilities.

The experience of the show was, on the whole, underwhelming. Perhaps this was because I was caught in a corner at the front- a great view of the artist at work, but with the nude completely blocked by the board. Then again, perhaps this was beneficial in terms of the work’s intentions- I was witness only to the artist’s translation. Was this the real performance?

Performance Nude may not inspire, but Fiona Banner’s Duveens commission at the Tate Britain, to be unveiled on the 28th June, hopefully will. Between you and me, a little birdie has sung high praises of the future installation…

….but that’s another spectacle (and another blog) that you’ll just have to hold out for.

Ode to Spring

Alright, so there is no Ode. I am just feeling more poetic in anticipation of the long-awaited Sun. With the Spring in my (no longer booted) step, I have rediscovered an appreciation for the fun, funny, and downright silly. Art and design at its most light-hearted (“light-arted,” you could call it). Here a few from the last few days:

Jessica Atkinson’s ‘Lonely Glasses’ have not yet been swept up by highstreet stockists, but they ought to be. By Summer-time, you mark my words, everyone will be donning a pair.

Little People is a tiny street art blog.

“Little people, left in London to fend for themselves.”

How cruel, and yet how wonderful!

My favourite is the little man sailing in the milk puddle-

I would like to put him in my pocket:

Urban Screen’s 555 Kubik at the Hamburger Kunsthalle takes on the title, “How would it be, if a house was dreaming?” Dissolving the strict architecture, the story is re-narrated through the aesthetics of graphics and movement. The building beats and breaths, musing on itself and drawing you into its self-perception. Check. It. Out.



If you are really after a poem, here is one of my favourites, by one of my favourites. Frank O’Hara brought a refreshing spontaneity to poetry to a culture bogged down by the staid Modernism of T.S. Eliot, E.E. Cummings and Ezra Pound. O’Hara made moving verse out of the conversational or delirious at once.

A True Account Of Talking To The Sun At Fire Island

by Frank O’Hara

Waiting for Ackermann

Coming in from the cold into a White Cube opening night had my head in a whirl already. Then there were the paintings. Some of them looked like they were spinning- but was that just the brain-freeze?

No. There were wheels. On the floor and on the wall. Spinning in all their neon glory. Franz Ackerman- a regular feature in trendy art fairs and a Saatchi favourite- is an artist more admired (and often grudgingly so) than actually enjoyed. You see, like an alternative rock band touring the unis, it would be ‘uncool’ not to like it. Even if it does give you a bit of a headache.

Ackerman’s latest show, Wait, at White Cube in Mason’s Yard, welcomed me (or not) with a geometric precision countered uncomfortably by off-kilter, clashing bolds. It was dizzying to say the least. I was either drunk or hungover. Or both all at once.

In the ground floor space, met by a large painting, Citizen, I was stared down by a goggle-faced pilot. He seemed to be the disembodied guard of the entire floor. He made me feel unstable- under observation and yet not knowing what to observe myself. This is a feeling that sets the tone for the whole show, which offers you, at every turn, shifting focal points, all competing for your attention. As I found out afterwards, the space itself had been painted to complement both the paintings and the moving installations. The whole experience is, then, immersive and completely- intentionally- overwhelming.

Upstairs, surrounded by these goliath canvases, you find yourself caught in one of those modern-art-moments where figures and objects elude you. You are subconsciously searching for- and really hoping for– a tangible subject.

In this state was I drawn to the video: a scythe-bearing skeleton is being turned in front of me on a block, before the scene shifts to that of a train moving behind a metal grill fence interlaced with padlocks. Hypnotising, but only for a moment.

Because yet again, of course, I am called back to my peripheral vision, where a round, flat platform lies in the centre of the room, painted in neon and piled high with pieces of timber. And it’s spinning. Covered in shapes that seem at the same time both mechanically interlocked and organic, Ackerman’s divisions prove both formal and thematic. As Ackerman alludes to architecture and engineering, and from the urban to the wild, the brains behind the seeming madness become a little clearer. A space is created in which his themes of globalisation, travel, and the crossing of borders becomes manifest. Within this, the internal dialogue of each painting address the rift between the glamour and scarring associated with global cosmopolitanism.

Downstairs, there is the same eerie mix of flat, bold, geometric shape and shaky depth. But I had a little more room to breathe. The canvases were not so packed as to prevent me from seeing them. I could almost appreciate the photography and collage interwoven among the (neon- of course) paint.

In the lower ground floor lobby, there is one painting, Crossing 1, which stands separate. Here, in a quiet corner, you can experience the work alone. You might even get lost in it. If the rest of the exhibition could be like this I am certain I would have enjoyed it more. If you could remove the masses for one moment, please, Mr Security Man, that would be much appreciated.

Why the exhibition is called Wait I’m still trying to figure out. Had I stayed longer, would this visual abundance- or overload- have crystallised into some simple clarity? As I consider this, even now as I try to give you some kind of rounded conclusion, I find it even harder. In one sense, it would be easy to box Ackermann’s work into the ‘altermodern.’ Yes, it is concerned with travel, globalisation, and the crossing of boundaries – so in that way (if only to make it easy for us to categorise it) it typifies altermodernity. In another, however, I feel that Ackerman’s work does not just bear the theme of travel as a hallmark. It really forces itself upon you. When you stand in front of a piece, dizzied by the push and pull of the colour and geometry, you are drawn here and there, drawn in and repelled all at once. The only solid ground you can be sure of exists in the uncertainty: there is no solid ground.

Order from chaos?

…or just chaos?

It’s the NY-Lon touch…

When I was last in New York, I came across a woman sitting on a chair in the middle of the road, winding a huge ball of yarn around her head. This was art- of course! On the same street (on just an ordinary weekday), I saw half a bicycle supposedly sinking into the pavement, and a children’s playground inhabited by stuffed gorilla suits and spiderman outfits. I think there was a Santa Claus on the swing.

All in a day’s work for an artist down in Billyburg, I guess. But it’s not the sort of thing that always translates well. Imagine that same woman on the streets of London. She’d probably get moved for health and safety reasons. Or for getting in the way of oncoming traffic.

In any case, what people really want to see is life. The trans-Atlantic symbiosis is not about being clever. It’s not even necessarily about art, or fashion. It is, sometimes (often), about competition. But mostly it’s about two divided siblings wanting to reconnect. The thing is, when you’re standing and staring at an installation or show in the street, it’s rare that you can really break through the dividing screen between life and art. Londoners have been enchanted by New Yorkers for decades, and vice versa. I think it’s pure curiosity.

Manhattan in the ’60s was the original hotbed of collaboration- think New York School of Painters, New York Poets, the Beat generation and then, of course, Warhol’s Factory. Since then, the concept of collaboration has massively expanded. Interaction doesn’t need, necessarily, to be contained in a finite space. It can span an ocean. I think the reason we’re so intrigued by Warhol’s Factory is that it marked an era when people realised that barriers of artistic genre and form could be completely dissolved. Music, art, fashion and culture came together in one uncompromised, uncontrolled fusion- and there is no going back from the shift. It shook so far as to reach even our own stiff upper lips. It’s a good thing we’ve got the images to help us remember.

The late Nat Finkelstein, one of the most respected photojournalists of modern times, played a huge part in this. His work provides a pervasive visual narrative for these years, which were creatively formative not just for New York but for the entire Western world. Finkelstein’s photos are on display at Idea Generation Gallery in Shoreditch at the moment- but not for long. It’s the way of the modern metropolitan not to hang around.

The opening of the exhibition was an amazing night, a true case of worlds colliding, and in the best possible way. Finkelstein’s widow, Elizabeth, was flown all the way from the Big Apple to the Big Smoke by Metrotwin, but found herself quite at home among Nat’s old posse and his iconic photographs.

This stunning retrospective brings together Finkelstein’s diverse portfolio: from Factory scenes to civil rights and anti-war protests of mid-60s America, from intimate portraiture to a continuing exploration of the subcultures of 80s and 90s New York. The scenes- the Factory, protests and subcultures- interlaced by the recognisable glamour of Edie Sedgwick, Duchamp, Dylan and Warhol, capture the spirit of the age. Finkelstein doesn’t himself ever feature in front of the camera – he was too busy recording the life he saw. What you see is the world perceived through his eyes. And so this show is really one not to be missed.

“When all is said and done, when everything is gone, the photograph is what’s going to remain.

The photographer is the producer of history.” Nat Finkelstein

Nat Finkelstein: From One Extreme to the Other, is open until the 14th February.