Thursday, September 09, 2004

Picture imperfect

In addition to the usual flocks of pigeons and chavs in Villa shirts, Birmingham city centre is currently playing host to 'Earth From The Air', an impressive exhibition of photos by Yann Arthus-Betrand. The pictures were taken all over the globe from the vantage point of a helicopter.

In purely aesthetic terms, they're stunning in terms of colour and framing. Particularly arresting are those pictures which reveal the incredible symmetry and patterning to be found in the natural world, but all bear eloquent testimony to the planet's beauty.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the photos are accompanied by explanatory passages which repeatedly underline the fragility of the natural environment and by gruesome statistics which bring home the full extent of man's destructive impact and the inequalities between the developed and developing worlds. Though of course necessary, this is all laid on thick, and not always to good effect (one caption, for example, claims that alcoholism is a direct consequence of poverty and unemployment - ?!). The message is clearly that we need to moderate our behaviour and reverse the most worrying trends, but I couldn't help but feel crushed by the weight of the statistics and left feeling as though, whatever we do now, the damage has been done and environmental apocalypse is inevitable.

What I found more depressing, though, were the numerous boards proclaiming that the exhibition is sponsored by Bird's Eye, for obvious reasons. Whilst ostensibly supporting artistic endeavour and endorsing the exhibition's message, they've actually seized the opportunity to advertise and brag about their own "sustainable" practices. Yes, patronage of the arts has always existed, and yes, such exhibitions wouldn't happen if it wasn't for financial investment and involvement of private organisations, but there's something deeply offensive to me in the way corporate sponsors insist on leaving their grubby fingerprints on everything.

Still, the whole event earns my much-maligned soon-to-be-adopted home some credit. In terms of the arts, this sort of large-scale, free, public exhibition beyond the confines of the conventional gallery space is precisely what city councils should be looking to promote.

Thanks to Ken for alerting me to another potentially intriguing arts event taking place next month: The Birmingham Book Festival. There will be appearances from the likes of David Lodge, Lesley Glaister, Hanif Kureishi, Roddy Doyle and Jim Crace, as well as writing workshops for prose, poetry and short fiction, though I expect the limited places on those will already have been filled.

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