Between Birth and Death lies Brexit and very little else it seems… until you enter the world of Art

In these final weeks before the Brexit deadline, I should probably be saying a few words. I’m prone to giving little speeches after all. But I just can’t bring myself to join in the clatter of opinions and emotions. Indeed, when we cross the March 29th threshold, I will be far away in another country, and slightly hoping to get stuck there. Anyway, there are more important things in life than bloody Brexit as my recent visit to the Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life Death Rebirth exhibition proved. 

On a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning, I arrived at the still closed doors of the Royal Academy determined to be first in and to have my long-standing hero, Michelangelo, to myself with all the quiet intimacy his tiny, yet exquisite drawings require. So I entered the first darkened room wholly unprepared to come face to face with a floor-to-ceiling-high woman squatting with splayed legs in the final throes of childbirth. Next to her, equally huge, a ghostly figure swirled like white ink dropped in black water. And beyond that, the hollow-cheeked face of an old woman sucked her final breaths through a respirator. 

Bill Viola Nante’s Triptych (1992)

While very moving, Bill Viola’s video installation Nante’s Triptych is, in some ways, a fairly obvious depiction of humanity. Between the life-filled rotundity of the baby’s face and the sunken cavities that collapse the old woman’s into little more than a skin-covered scull, lies what we call ‘Life’. Birth and Death become mere moments, portals into and out of the human experience. 

But standing in front of these huge videos I saw something else too. It was like I was staring at a visual rendition of one of the underlying plots of the book I’m writing. For, as I took my first breaths in a nursing home in Kent, my German grandfather was heaving his last in the family home in Schleswig Holstein. Our lives overlapped for a mere six days and yet, behind the changing backdrops to my physical existence, he too continued to exist. As I tripped and tromped my way through the various milestones of my life, he was there; an absent presence, like the shadowy figure of a backstage assistant, moving behind the scenes, invisible to the audience but essential for the illusion of the stage ‘reality’. “The dead are invisible, they are not absent,” St Augustine had said. And looking at that central panel, Viola seems to be saying that too; we all occupy the same space, between Birth, Death and Rebirth.

Michelangelo The lamentation over the Dead Christ (1540)

Overtaking other early visitors immersed in subsequent room-sized Viola installations, I eventually reached a row of Michelangelo’s drawings and shrank my full attention into each one in turn. And there I saw what I value most in the world. There, vibrating through the tiny pencil strokes evoking Mary’s extreme tenderness towards her child, the weightlessness of Christ’s resurrection and the dynamic muscularity of writhing male figures, was the most sublime evidence of the soul. That invisible part of us that transcends birth, life, death… even Brexit. In this country the word ‘soul’ is often spurned for its religious connotations. As a result, even the concept of soul is all but ignored or avoided by modern politics, the school curriculum, medicine and science… but not by Art. In Germany, the word for soul is Seele. It effortlessly encompasses all that is intangible about us – mental, psychological, emotional, spiritual, psychic – so it is more liberally embraced and supported in many spheres of life. This is what I fear we have been losing sight of in pre-Brexit Britain; that essence of what we love and value about a Michelangelo or any other truly great piece of art.

Michelangelo Three labours of Hercules (1530-33)

Whatever happens on March 29th – ok, here we go, here’s my penny’s worth on the subject of Brexit – I see Britain as a nation in grave danger of losing touch with its soul. The fool’s gold of ‘economic growth’, ‘financial independence’, ‘control’, ‘national identity’ and ‘greatness’ with which we are endlessly pounded will merely dump us on a new shore battered, divided and disorientated. Some people and businesses, above all in the City, will thrive, but many more won’t because those aren’t the things that make a nation as a whole happy, fair or humane. Look at the 45% rise in knife crime of recent years… it’s not just down to the cuts in policing. Neither is an increase to policing the main solution. No, this country has been short-sighted and plain wrong to cut out and close down so many of the small things that nurture and nourish peoples’ souls; youth centres, productive activities in prisons, learning assistance, the arts… Those are the things that make a real difference to many peoples’ lives. That’s why I am choosing to duck beneath the turbulent political waves rocking our country and beyond, to fill myself with art and cultivate spaces where the quieter qualities of soul and all that we as humans share in common, can thrive. Because without those, Britain will become infinitely poorer whichever way Brexit goes.

Message to pupils of a Catholic school I recently talked at.

This article by Ben Okri on transcendence in art is one of the best I’ve ever read: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/bill-viola-michelangelo-ben-okri-birth-transcendence

Bearing witness to war… thanks to Marie Colvin and Don McCullin

Marie Colvin: “Despite all the videos you see [from governments] and all the sanitised language… the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers, children.”*

Don McCullin“War is partly madness, mostly insanity and the rest of it is schizophrenia.”

UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson: “Brexit has brought us to a great moment in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass…” and be willing to take military action and able to deploy “hard power”.**

While the ‘War’ Secretary flexes our national muscles, anti-war rhetoric is headlining in cinemas and art galleries. And I for one welcome it with open arms because it is coming from people who have experienced war first hand.

Seven years ago, on 22nd February 2012, Marie Colvin, one of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time, was killed while covering the Siege of Homs in Syria. The recently released film A Private War is a powerful homage to her and the relentless bravery she displayed at the frontlines of the world’s most dangerous conflicts in order “to bear witness” to the human suffering. Easily recognisable by her trademark black eyepatch, American-born Colvin worked for The Sunday Times for more than 25 years. By the time she died aged 56, she had probably seen more war than most soldiers.

Paul Conroy and Marie Colvin on her final assignment
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For 27.1. – a Holocaust Memorial Day tribute to my audience last week

Nothing on the booking form or accompanying correspondence gave any clue as to who my audience would be on Thursday morning last week. I just turned up at Kenwood House on the edge of Hampstead Heath ready to give my German memorial talk to the monthly Arts Society. As we stood in the frosty sunshine waiting for the house to open, the Chair mentioned almost in passing, “This is North London, so most of our members are Jewish.

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Wish for 2017: Keeping alive Winston Churchill’s unfaltering faith “that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man.”

A last minute blog before the curtains fall on 2016. As a year, will it get a rapturous applause and an encore I wonder? No, I don’t think it will. Not from the point of view of one of my main blog themes – prisons – at least. A re-wind to the beginning and a second chance…? Well that would be wonderful.

This time last year I was excited. I think all those who work in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) were. We were facing unprecedented possibilities of genuine reform within the sector. As Justice Secretary, Michael Gove had done his homework thoroughly, rather ironically consulting and listening to the experts more than most of his predecessors had done. He commissioned Dame Sally Coates to create the Education ReviewUnlocking Potential to which even individuals like me were given an opportunity to contribute. My ambition to make the case for the arts at government level was looking set to be realized.

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INSIDE – an exhibition where art replaces prisoners and visitors can feel how tiny a cell is

“Outside the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly-muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always midnight in one’s heart.” Oscar Wilde, de Profundis, 1897

IMG_9031.jpgReading Prison

People were moving around the building as if it were an ancient site, a relic of times long past. Tentatively they stepped into the tiny cells, their barred windows raised to a height designed to deprive. Metal bunks, the squeak of their springs still echoing in the silence of long nights past; a painted table, names etched into the surface, reminders of identities transformed into numbers; and toilets tucked behind waist-high partitions separating toothbrushes and washing-up from another’s piss and shit.

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Loss… just that. A little exploration of losing.

Since my father’s death exactly a year ago I have experienced an extraordinary storm of additional albeit unrelated losses in almost every area of my life. His death became like a bullet ricocheting around the architecture of my world felling furnishings and humans alike. I now look around me and see a distinctly changed landscape, a series of voids in the shapes of people, things, plans; a mini war zone of collapsed structures through which I find myself wandering dazed and dusty, functioning but exhausted.

What is Loss? The Oxford Dictionary definition says it is “the fact or process of losing something or someone”. As far as definitions go that really doesn’t say much. It makes loss sound so harmless, kind of accidental, the result of a moment of absent-mindedness or brief neglect. It imparts nothing of the potentially huge and devastating impact loss can have, nor of the vast range of subjective responses to it. It doesn’t suggest loss’s innate and prominent role in Life and Death, in war and crime, in love and faith – all existential foundation stones of our human world.

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