Monday, 29 June 2009

From Waterloo Bridge

The South Bank is like the seafront of London, especially around the London Eye, where the air is rich with the sounds of international languages and the smells of fresh doughnuts and burgers. Shut my eyes and I could be back on Hastings pier - until Big Ben chimes.

At a distance, from Waterloo Bridge, the view is more contemplative. The Thames arcs past the Houses of Parliament, a great slice of nature meandering through the stone and concrete, its tides rising and falling sharply over the day. A sliver of sandy beach on the southern side survives from the time of the Festival of Britain in the 1950s. We passed it the other day and there was a full-on beach party going on there. The river is busy, particularly at this time of year, with tourist trips, but barges as well. Nothing like the massive tankers I saw on the Rhine the other week, though, which seemed to stretch from one bridge to the next.

What is striking about the view is just how modern most of the buildings are. The Shell Centre tower, Royal Festival Hall, the Festival Pier, the Golden Jubilee pedestrian bridges, the London Eye, Millbank tower, Portcullis House, next to Big Ben: much of it has arrived within the last 20 years. Most of the parliament building is only 19th-century, so not so old. But it's unmistakably London.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Swiss perspective

Art Basel closed this weekend. It's the largest art fair in the world - nearly 300 galleries, 2,500 artists, 61,000 collectors, dealers, artists, curators and general browsers - and a market where there are still buyers. All the big art world figures are there, fresh from the opening of the Venice Biennale the week before, along with celebrity figures such as Roman Abramovich, Brad Pitt and Naomi Campbell. Sales are surprisingly buoyant, but is it a sign of the end of the recession, or the bounce of a dead cat?

I was staying in the medieval part of town; it's all narrow roads, steep hills, market places and tram lines. As well as working, I had time to visit some of the relatively new museums in the city. The Fondation Beyeler in the north, designed by Renzo Piano, is busy with visitors from the fair, which is a short tram ride away through suburbs and green, cow-filled fields. There's a huge Giacometti show, and an exhibition showing modern works with incredible sculptures from Oceania and Africa, which stole the show for me.

To the south, similarly handy on the tram, is Schaulager, which blew me away as a building, and which is worth a visit in itself, regardless of the great exhibition "Holbein to Tillmans". The building, by Herzog & de Meuron, looks like it shouldn't work at all - it's as if you have to walk through a deserted mud hut to get into the forecourt - but it does. What's the point of a gallery that threatens to overpower the works it is displaying? From inside it seems as if it continues upwards for ever, and the glimpses of the underwhelming industrial zone the building is set in pour in through the windows in a beautiful way. Spaces widen and narrow. Yet it isn't overpowering, and I see works by Holbein, in particular, and David Claerbout's Section of a Happy Moment as if for the first time.

Returning from the Beyeler, the tram passes the German railway station (Germany, France and Switzerland all share boundaries in the city). It was the scene of a moment of family history, where Naomi's paternal grandmother finally managed to escape Nazi Germany in November 1938, being smuggled from the Germany part of the station to the Swiss, to be ultimately reunited with her family exiled in London, where they flourished. Basel is an ideal place to consider the importance of the European Union, the unity of the countries that converge on it, and the outrage of Britain returning two extreme right British National Party members to the European Parliament in the recent elections.