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Artistic absurdity

If you think the NHS is barmy - what about this: artist Wayne Hill filled a two litre clear plastic bottle with melted ice to highlight the effects of global warming

OpinionWhen people try to convince us that art is a fancy doodle, it's time for an argument

If you think the NHS is barmy - what about this: artist Wayne Hill filled a two litre clear plastic bottle with melted ice to highlight the effects of global warming.

The exhibit was put on display at the 'Ways with Words' festival at Dartington Hall, in Devon.

The work used water taken from the threatened west Antarctic ice sheet, which is currently melting at the rate of 250 cubic kilometres a year.

With me so far? Here's the wacky bit. The artwork, called 'Weapon of Mass Destruction' and valued at £42,500, went missing. It was apparently drunk by a thirsty workman! A disconsolate Wayne Hill said: Although it looked like an ordinary bottle of water, it was on a plinth, labelled and described in the programme of the whole festival. It was very, very clear what it was - a work of art.

Work of art? Gimme strength! How can it be worth forty-two grand? Even if you'd flown first class, stayed in a five-star hotel and bought a crystal decanter you couldn't spend that much collecting the water.

What about this: 35 years ago the celebrated abstract artist Blinky Palermo (yes Blinky, born in 1943, Leipzig, Germany and died 1977, Kurumba, Maladiven - if you don't believe me, look at http://www.diacenter.org/exhibs_b/palermo/), painted four thin, coloured lines in the entrance hall at Edinburgh College of Art.

At the time, the Scottish arts establishment regarded the lines as 'anti-art' and painted over them with a thick coat of emulsion. Yet, this swift bit of redecorating was denounced recently as a scandal and one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism of the last century.

Apparently the lost work is regarded as a masterpiece with a theoretical value of £300,000. How much? That's enough to buy seven bottles of Wayne Hill's water!

This gets worse. Apparently, removing the paint without destroying the original is cost-prohibitive, so the lines will be recreated on top of the originals. I can't bear it. Am I going barmy, or are they?

Ready for another priceless piece of news from the world of art? Tate Britain misunderstood a piece of art (in fact an arrangement of books) and took it out of a show to avoid religious offence.

The gallery cancelled plans to display John Latham's 'God Is Great', concerned in particular that it could upset Muslims following the events of July 7.

The artist was pretty hacked off as he made it 10 years ago! It was designed to illustrate that all religious teaching comes from the same source, whatever name you give to it. The Tate lost the plot.

You couldn't make any of this up. I don't think the world of art has any idea what a work of art is. I know what a work of art is. I have come across a work of art that would knock a Botticelli into a cocked hat.

I have come across a creative creation that makes the Hay Wain look like a horse and cart and the Fighting Temeraire a ship yard. This is a masterpiece.

Late last year, there was a bit of bad news for the industry. Apparently, there has been a drop in the pharma balance of trade. As you will know, pharma always seizes on the healthy trade balance it creates as justification for tax breaks, sweatheart deals and a cuddle from a grateful government.

The real picture
It never seems to mention currency swings, relatively low-waged, highly-skilled work forces and easy access to university-based research facilities. So, the news that there was a 14 per cent drop in the trade balance over the first six months of 2005, compared with the same period of 2004, came as a bit of a blow. Well, a bolt out of the blue actually. No one expected it.

For my band of anorak-wearing readers, the figures are: £1,693m to £1,449m, occasioned by a drop in exports over the Jan-June period (£5,967m to £5,839m) and a rise in imports (£4,274m to £4,390m).

Enter the artists - none other than the ABPI press department.

A blank canvas was about to be turned into a treasure... First they primed the canvas: ... the dip is small they said. Then, reaching for the cadmium and Prussian blue, with ranging sweeps of a pallete knife they sketched a darkening sky: ... it is (only) over six months.

Next, the rugged highland, the umber and the burnt sienna mixed with the Pain's black to draw in the treacherous terrain. They cautioned: ... it sounds a warning signal. Then, turning the pallete to the verdant and crimsons, a canyon with red rock strata and desert below. Flowering cactus and a hint of withering vegetation completed the picture: ... manufacturers are no longer finding the (UK) as globally competitive as in the past, they warned.

Finally the ormolu frame: ... we are engaging with the government on how best to retain the British pharmaceutical manufacturing base.

A magnum opus! Creativity at its best. In another world, it might be seen as vulgar opportunism and sordid exploitation. In this world, we can only admire it as a work of the art of spin.

Oh, please. One half's figures and they are rushing to the government with dark hints that they might depart these shores. Oh, how can they be retained?, we cry! What shall we do to stop the industry packing its portmanteau, its easel and its box of paints? Oh, angst and worry. Oh, the stress and the trauma!

Oh, do me a favour. This is in the Blinky class. Surely Charles Saatchi has it framed ready to display it along with the Tracy Emin bed and Damien Hurst's dead sheep.

Tate Modern must be thinking where to hang this masterpiece of ingenuity, an exhibit crafted out of zilch. Let's hope a busy workman doesn't confuse it for scrap paper and wipe his, erm, brushes on it.

The Author
Roy Lilley is a healthcare author and broadcaster

2nd September 2008

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