Saturday, December 29, 2007

Love and lust

In a juxtaposition so perfect it seems that the cinematic gods might have been smiling down amid the fog and freeze, I caught Closer and Breakfast at Tiffany's on consecutive days last week. While shockingly different in tone and approach, they are nevertheless both love stories.

Breakfast is a sweet story about Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard trying to escape their lives as genteel prostitutes (ignore the facile, much-repeated line about this being hard to detect - it's quite clear); in their worlds, they look for stability and love, which are not necessarily found in the same place.

Closer, on the other hand, is a hard-hearted bastard of a film (based on Patrick Marber's play), whose characters spend most of their time intuiting who their partner has screwed and then blowing up; given that the choices in the love-square are Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman, it's paradoxically hard to envision either fidelity or infidelity as attractive options.

The films appear to take opposite means of approach - Closer with a viciousness best found in divorce courts, Breakfast with a sweetness all the more surprisingly given that it stems from Truman Capote's pen. But they are both metropolitan scenes, just in completely alien worlds. Had Marber's foursome been bed-hopping in early sixties New York, where people still wore suits to parties whose samba soundtrack wasn't ironic, no doubt they would have eloquently expressed their indignation and had a good cry. Mutatis mutandis, in glittering, harsh twenty-first century London, Hepburn and Peppard would have been calling each other fucked-up assholes.

This is all to say that both films are in fact similar at heart (or whatever passes for a heart in Closer). Each couple finds apparent stability, only for the heart (Closer: loins) to tear them away. Hepburn's Holly Golightly achingly drifts from plutocrat to plutocrat in the hope of escaping her prosaic rural past and rescuing her abandoned brother, sent to Korea to fight, but happily her heart leads her to Peppard, who in turn is kept afloat by une grande maitresse.

If Breakfast ends up with the right pair, Closer so often swaps combinations and guilt that it is hard to know if they all deserve each other or not. It is a cycle of revenge as bitter as hemlock, and just as poisonous. This coldness left me feeling slightly empty and unsure: it is easy to immerse yourself in the passions and problems of Breakfast, since the characters are desperately human, but Closer makes its cast so repulsive it is impossible to empathise or even care. It may be intriguing to find out where the human carousel stops, but it was not involving. Is Marber showing the emptiness of modern love and modern life?

Despite their very different worlds, Breakfast and Closer are certainly bed-fellows, albeit two who appear most mismatched. I would not, however, recommend consuming these as a double-bill: so much candy and so much acid are not a happy combination.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Books in brief

Herewith, some short reviews of books I have read lately.

>>> Exit Ghost, by Philip Roth
I stand second to none in my love of Roth's work - he is truly America's greatest living novelist (as I have mentioned elsewhere). Simultaneously, Roth makes his books intimate tales of not-so-ordinary lives and great analyses of history and man's place in it. Both aspects are written with emotional fire yet humane understanding. The success of his recent run of books in these aspects - the magisterial Everyman, his American trilogy - makes Exit Ghost the more disappointing.

It is not a bad book by any stretch. It continues (and concludes?) the story of Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator of several previous Roth novels: now impotent and incontinent thanks to a prostatectomy, he has spent a decade as a rural recluse, but returns to New York for a medical procedure. While there, he up-ends his life by swapping apartments with a young literary couple, firmly embedded in the time (2004 election) and the city.

He Lear-like falls prey to his passions and the aggressors of senescence - disease, memory loss, desire without act - but without any real passion felt behind the words. Roth's style does not evoke Zuckerman's feelings, but instead seems chilly and distant, as if to insulate himself from Zuckerman's decline. It doesn't help that Zuckerman fantasises about conversations in the form of play dialogue, distancing himself and thus us from the true roiling emotions.

>>> The Story of Art, by E.H. Gombrich
There is no more famous introduction to art through the ages than Gombrich's much-reprinted book, now in a wonderful pocket version, with translucent pages and full colour illustrations. Gombrich, who professed himself astonished at the limitless editions his book has gone through, wrote it for late-teenagers or undergraduates. This does mean he takes a rather - if we were being kind - grandfatherly tone in narration. It is a bit like being taken through your first alphabet.

I can see why he wanted it to be didactic, since it is covering the most important bases of art theory and art history, and I'm certainly not claiming I haven't learnt a lot from it - it starts with pre-historic art and winds its way through centuries and continents. It just gets a little wearing, being led by the hand through gardens of earthly delight.

Having complained, I must certainly still commend The Story of Art, since it overturns so many thoughtless prejudices. For example, my foolish understanding of ancient depictions of the human form had been that artists were not as skilful at representing it as they are today; what Gombrich points out is that they could do so if they wanted to, but their depictions depend on their purpose - a horrific central American sculpture of the god of death naturally demands a horrific face.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Oh Olivo

In a world where everything (and everyone) is getting larger (and lardier), it pays to look at things in miniature - to consider the small details of the big picture. Olivo Barbieri, an Italian photographer, has seized on this idea of details: by using a tilt-shift lens (explanation imminent), he makes real-life photos look like captures of matchstick worlds.

(The Coliseum, Rome)













What a tilt-shift lens does, according to this helpful NYT article, is allow the camera to focus on a very specific plane of the scene, giving this a very high level of detail and clarity; from this point outwards, the images grows increasingly blurred. The result of this intensity of focus is the apperance of being minuscule.

(Paris hotel and casino, Las Vegas)













Barbieri says that he is interested less in the clarity but in the blur, reflecting our ambiguous, uncertain world. This is valid, of course, but perhaps facile and certainly not a capacious idea. To my mind, the value of his pictures is precisely the focus on details, making us re-examine our ideas of what things look like. If we could build a city in miniature, perhaps we would have a better idea of its overall look, proportions, character, style - not just the eyeline skyline. In the absence of London-to-scale, Barbieri helps us on our way.

Metropolis Magazine has a nice set of photos and a brief article on Barbieri.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Forthcoming attractions

I'm currently en vacances, so posts will probably not resume until this weekend, but when I get back, such delights await:

>>> Closer and Breakfast at Tiffany's: love stories as far apart as Freud and Starbucks.

>>> The Queen: duty before self? Self before duty? Corgis before consort?

>>> The Painting of Modern Life.

And no doubt much, much more.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Bacchae, back again

Dramas never change – only the cast. Take illegal donations, now starring Brown, not Blair. Or take (more artistically) Euripides’ great tragedy, the Bacchae, which has just received the break-dancing treatment courtesy of Renegade Theatre, mere months after Alan Cumming brought his seductive, demonic Dionysus to town.

The play tells of the god Dionysus’ return to Thebes to punish his relatives who deny his divinity. He brings with him his Bacchants, women engaged in his orgiastic rites where decency and clothes are cast off in favour of wine and religious ecstasy. Dionysus ultimately sets his Bacchants onto his cousin and chief mocker Pentheus, king of Thebes, who is torn apart by – among others – his maddened mother.

The Renegade production, on last weekend in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, removed the words but added acrobatic, vital forms of dancing and movement, which neatly represented the Bacchic possession but also sketched the story. The Cumming production, at the Lyric Hammersmith, induced maenadic fervour in the audience with its power-chorus of rock and gospel songs, transporting us out of the theatre, surely as Euripides intended.

But it is the subjects of the play which make it eternally relevant and insightful, just as with Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Euripides creates a series of contrasts: between the buttoned-up city with its tyrannical ruler and the open country with its licentious god and orgies, between man, god and beast, between fear and faith. What we see enacted on stage is the tension between living our lives by social norms, which restrict us and forbid us from indulging in pleasures we might enjoy, and giving into our true nature, which can prove unconquerable and inhumane.

These themes speak to our lives today, as they have for centuries. People have always tried to move beyond what society decrees, whether positively in opposing apartheid in South Africa or negatively in trying to marry farm animals. (It’s not a life choice, it’s just odd.) Euripides shows the sort of insight into the human psyche that would remain buried until Freud enticed people onto his couch: we are in a constant battle between our transgressive desires and what we think we ought to do.

Euripides has another revival on at the moment, with Katie Mitchell’s Women of Troy. While I am really looking forward to that, it is very specifically of this moment, dealing with the fall-out of war; the Bacchae, with its questions of unchanging human nature, stands outside time.

Friday, December 07, 2007

There's something about Marilyn

A strong contender for the best exhibition of the year, Pop Art Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery is a thrilling investigation of the revolutionary principles behind Pop Art and a display of some of the last century's most enthralling works.

More than the Pop Art response to commercialism, as typified by the Eduardo Paolozzi collages of actors and modern technology set in sterile suburbia (left), I was really interested in what seemed to be Pop Art operating at a fundamental level of art, questioning its basic ideas.

Whereas portraiture had always been about representation - even the tarted-up representation of the patron - Pop Art undermined this: is a portrait still a portrait if its subject is hidden? or fictional? or coloured like highlighter pens exploded over the canvas? (You can see to whom this leads.) Pop Art challenged the primacy of the image.

Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg (with one of his trademark combines) depicted people atraditionally, Johns using a facial cast under an abstract collage, Rauschenberg drawing Johns by objects and symbols. These are radical, perhaps unacceptably radical for popular art, which is why the much more aesthetically pleasing Andy Warhol, Patrick Caulfield and Roy Lichtenstein are more famous and popular. Larry Rivers' 'Mr Art' (1962) is a halfway house, smacking of Bacon, with a half-erased head.

One room contains three gems. Warhol's 'Self-portrait' (1964), Lichtenstein's 'In the Car' (1963) and Caulfield's 'Portrait of Juan Gris' (1963) are all archetypes of different approaches to this re-examination. Warhol removes definition and personal participation (it's a screenprint), while Lichtenstein adds absurd definition: because his subjects are taken from a comic, he paints all the dots of the printing, revealing their fictionality. Caulfield takes a similar route to Warhol, but emphasises the unreality with his zig-zag lines. The very concept of the image is being reinforced, since - post-Kandinsky - it could have been abandoned altogether, but simultaneously undermined.

Warhol was the genius of Pop Art, and not just for his perceptive remarks about fame, but for combining both aesthetic brilliance and a true understanding of what the modern era meant for art and its givens. (More on this in my review of The Painting of Modern Life.) This is evoked in his use of screenprinting, mechanising the production of the image, changing our perception of its value without destroying it.

Forced us to look and to turn away, in truth. The final room of the show is dedicated to various Pop Art Marilyns, since she was the perfect, tragic sign of the modern dissociation of image and reality. In the dimmed setting, coming on ten of Warhol's Marilyns on one wall is a revelatory, crushing experience. The colours are more brilliant and vibrant than can ever be reproduced, so I'm not going to insult them by putting them up here. The turquouises, pinks, yellows, greys - the whole rainbow, really - are shocking and pleasing.

They strike you with an aesthetic overload first, and then their artistic and cultural importance rushed up. These are some of the most reproduced, imitated and influential images ever made (thanks to mass media), so to be in their presence is like standing in front of Princess Diana or Madonna - you cannot quite believe they are real. And they are the summation of Warhol's work in the image - the face but not the face. You can't look because they are so overaweing.

What the NPG has done is explore an undervalued theme in modern art - expanding, not reinforcing what its audience knows - and do it with some fabulous paintings. The stars of Pop Art shine in their genius, Warhol above all, Warhol who forced us to look at the image again.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Egypt for dummies

There is a reasonable chance that I'll never visit Egypt or China, so seeing the Tutankhamun and terracotta warriors exhibitions is a worthwhile experience. Sadly, I would probably have learnt more about Egypt from B&Q than from Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs at the O2.

The experience is a very shallow introduction to Egypt, which would be unobjectionable except that £20 is rather steep and the hype rather excessive, given that the British Museum does similar with its permanent collection, without cost or fuss. It's blockbuster, where the busted blocks were at the boy-king's tomb entrance.

Some of the objects are undoubtedly beautiful and in stunning condition; the dry heat of a sealed tomb is perfect for preservation, so you have the vivid turquoise of millennia-old faience (pottery whose glaze contains tin) as brilliant now as then. This goes for paint as well: a wooden model of a boat still has its red, blue, green and black geometrical design, the sort of thing lost from Greek sculptures and buildings because of their exposure. It's hard to believe there has been no restoration.

"Modern" principles of design are in evidence, with a chair made for Tut with a bowed seat, curving neatly for a superior posterior. A modern preference for life-like representations of subjects is also noteworthy, given the centuries of ideal types which preceded and followed.

The lack of explanation of stylistic (dis)continuity is typical of the featherweight approach to some of the big questions which remain unaddressed. If Tut's father demanded a unique style of elongated features for his statues, why did this persist even when his audacious religious reforms were swept away? Why are we so uncertain about genealogy, resulting in 'possibly's and 'maybe's everywhere? What was Tut's legacy? There is nothing remotely socio-political here to provide intellectual background, and if this is my only chance to see these objects, I'd like to understand them better.

Enough has been said elsewhere about the lack of Tutankhamun's actual mask (too fragile) and corpse (too dead) in the show; obviously it would be interesting (and ghoulish) to see them, but at least there's sufficient respect for the preservation of antiquities not to ship them around the world.

From the narration of Omar Sharif to the mysterious ambient music which pursues you throughout the show, it's all a bit too numinous for me, as if Peter Ackroyd had been let loose in the Valley of the Kings (tho' without his considerable brainpower). These objects and this history are wondrous and fascinating without the Disneyfying 'experience'.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Forthcoming attractions

Sorry for being so remiss in posting of late, but I've been gathering plenty of material to post about.

>>> Tutankhamun at the O2, or Egypt for Dummies.

>>> Pop Art Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, or There's Something About Marilyn.

>>> Caged at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, or Greek tragedy by break-dancing.

>>> The Painting of Modern Life at the Hayward Gallery, or painting is dead! long live painting!

All coming soon, to a website near you.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Seduction without the smiles

From the Guardian ArtsBlog.

--

Last time I checked, sex was supposed to be an enjoyable experience. The sounds of laughter (hopefully the non-humiliating kind) have even been known to emanate from bedrooms, or kitchens, or parks ... and it follows that thinking about sex and watching sex should also be enjoyable. To paraphrase Woody Allen: Is sex funny? Only if it's done right.

Why then was the crowd at the Barbican's Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now so beard-scratchingly serious and unsmiling? Did no one there have any happy memories which the erotic art recalled? Just for laughing and joking my friend and I felt positively indecent, which is odd for a show that features hermaphrodite sculptures and blow-job movies.

The exhibition itself is fascinating, and covers everything from Roman marble sculptures of satyrs and nymphs on the point of having sex to Nan Goldin's outstanding, intimate Heartbeat, 245 slides of scenes from couples' relationships set to a Bjork-sung mass. Some of the most famous evocations of sex from the western tradition are present, including Robert Mapplethorpe's whip-in-ass self-portrait and ancient Greek kylikes with homoerotic scenes, but the net is also cast much wider, from Japanese shunga to individualised Kama Sutra illustrations.

The collection as a whole reveals many facets of human sexuality and desire, but I sincerely hope that the curators did not assemble it with such a dry reception in mind. The reverence for Art which has been inculcated in us through blockbusters at the great galleries has reduced viewers to a single thought: it is Art, so it must be serious. If we do not act seriously, we don't get it, and the guy next to me will frown.

This is a horrific attitude to provoke. I severely doubt that Rembrandt's monk-in-the-grass sketch was meant to be taken as seriously as his major works; it was just a dirty doodle to pass the time and get the blood flowing. The same goes for Aubrey Beardsley's drawings for a production of Lysistrata - a comic play gets comically large phalloi - and early nude photographs; amusement and titillation were surely high on the agenda.

This is not to say that you should laugh at every piece on display, but if laughter or a slight racing of the heart is your natural reaction, don't hide it under a faux-serious brow just because everyone else is doing the same. Sex is fun - the Barbican's crowd was not.

Cocktails and campaigns

From ASmallWorld (with an ironic eye).

--

Charity has never been more glamorous than at the Elton John Aids Foundation-Grey Goose ‘Character and Cocktails’ event on Wednesday in London’s Covent Garden. If the cause was noble, the atmosphere was notable for the chic attendees and the flow of unique alcoholic concoctions.

David Furnish, partner of musical titan Sir Elton John, was host of the event, which centered around the auction of five cocktail bars designed by him, Elizabeth Hurley & ASWer Patrick Cox, Dinos Chapman, Burberry head Christopher Bailey and Sam Taylor-Wood. Each came with its own new cocktail, created by the world’s top mixologists; these were the libations poured at the altar of charity.

Furnish’s bar was an aquatic fantasia-meets-Las Vegas, featuring a mermaid under the counter and pole dancers (who happily had legs, not scales). Mermaids have always been an obsession, he says, ever since he spent hours watching reruns of Stingray as a child, although he confesses to being an enthusiastic pole dancer himself, too.

Chapman’s was a souped-up ice cream van, with white furry interiors, although its Cream-and-Lemon cocktail disappointed those expecting a scoop of vanilla in a cone. Elizabeth Hurley and Patrick Cox produced a diamond of a bar, with its glassy panels refracting a rainbow of light across the room; to my taste buds, its Crystal Eyes cocktail was the best of the night.

The Elton John AIDS Foundation has so far raised US $150m (approximately €101.5m) and David Furnish has visited some of its projects around the world, from America to India. “It breaks my heart because [AIDS] is preventable and the message gets distorted by political agendas,” he says, criticising the war in Iraq for diverting a trillion dollars from a real battle.

The location – an elegant bare-brick suite of rooms around a double-height atrium – was packed with ladies in their finest, blackest, shortest cocktail gowns and gentlemen eschewing the business-day tie for open-necked suavity. And everywhere you turned was a bar dispensing the Grey Goose-based cocktails.

The hot guest-list included David Walliams (of Little Britain fame), eternal goth Kelly Osborne and London socialites Olympia Scarry, Camilla Al Fayed and Jodie Harsh. Everywhere Elizabeth Hurley moved, cameras flashed, especially as the bars went up for sale and the designers crowded around the auctioneer, borrowed from Sotheby’s. The total raised from the sale of the bars was nearly £150,000 (approximately €209,000), proving that charity and cocktails are formidable partners.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Poliakoff and Poliakon

First published on the Guardian's ArtsBlog.

--

There is a problem with Stephen Poliakoff, and it is the same problem that Auden identified with Housman: he found his style and never changed, and so could never be a major artist. Poliakoff is one of Britain's most accomplished television dramatists, but unfortunately it is always the same accomplishment.

A formula for a Poliakoff drama can be deduced: upper-class milieu plus innocent youngster, times by dark secret, all over quiet photography. This worked well for Joe's Palace, on last Sunday night, and it can equally be applied to Saturday's A Real Summer and - this is a prediction - tonight's Capturing Mary.

These three dramas share some of the same characters and the same elegant London townhouse and are immediately recognisable as Poliakoff's work. As the innocent - in Joe's Palace, a wordless teenager taking care of the house; in A Real Summer, a plucky journalist - delves into a beautiful world, we can be certain that under high society lie murky depths. As a philosophy of life, it's hardly earth-shaking; as drama, it's not so interesting that we need to see it played out again and again at a variety of country houses.

This doesn't mean I don't love watching Poliakoff. Unlike Kathryn Flett, Gareth McLean and AA Gill, I do. The acting is never less than top-hole (as one of his country-house occupants might say), with his regular Michael Gambon always knowing exactly which notes - dry wit, quiet grief, gruff affection, panicked enthusiasm - to hit. Ruth Wilson, who plays the journo-ingénue of Summer and Capturing Mary, looks like a talent to watch, with her expressive face and subtle emotional tones.

You can also quietly be suffused in the atmosphere he evokes. It invariably, if skilfully, involves the peace of small emotions, everyday routines, basic human kindnesses, where nothing needs to be said but is clearly read from the photography and the actors. His silences are meaningful.

He can still do drama too. The climax of Joe's Palace was tense, as the secret became known to Gambon but not to us and as we waited to see how Gambon would react. Gideon's Daughter - with Bill Nighy as a slightly more sardonic Gambon at the dawn of the New Labour era - and Perfect Strangers - with Gambon as another secret-seeking patriarch - have all of these tonal shifts.

Poliakoff makes us see the tragedy and the humanity in the everyday, the small heartbreaks, without Grand Guignol or wild twists and turns. He makes us aware of the weight of history bearing down on everyone, one of Philip Roth's preoccupations but without Roth's genius. I could quite happily sit through Poliakoff after Poliakoff - but don't ask me to tell you where one ends and the next begins.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Dead entertaining

From the Guardian's ArtsBlog.

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Dead is the new alive, apparently. The font of former celebrities has run dry - we have gone through everyone who has ever been famous and are now having to rifle through the graveyards to see if there's anyone interesting there. (I can recommend Père Lachaise.)

This bout of necromania was brought to a head the other night with the juxtaposition of Gunther von Hagens's Autopsy: Emergency Room on Channel 4 and Virgin Radio's Dead of the Night, a post-midnight segment on the Geoff Show.

Dead of the Night is easily the more bizarre. The producer narrates the life of a late celebrity - Josephine Baker, the tragedian Aeschylus - over some rather dodgy chirpy violin music and then the lines are thrown open for listeners to phone in and guess how the person died. Rather forlorn-sounding men (almost always men) call up and halteringly venture causes of death: "Was it syphilis?" is usually the first suggestion. Congestive heart failure and lung disease are popular too. (Baker was pneumonia; as for Aeschylus, an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head, in case you care.)

The worrying thing is that no one - either callers or staff - thinks that this is at all bizarre. You can imagine a caller being told of a relative's death and going: "Hold on - don't tell me - was it syphilis?" The nonchalance makes it seem as if this is an expected extension of panel games and reality shows.

Gunter von Hagens is similarly making infotainment out of the infernal. His show featured a corpse being bisected with a giant saw, like a piece of meat at the deli counter. Hagens does not come close to normalising corpses or demystifying what goes on because he makes such a show of it; it is less post mortem, more post-Silent Witness.

There is apparently educational value, but the bisection and the naked model (there for a Heimlich manoeuvre demo, inter alia) are gratuitous. These showbiz flourishes, the audience, the ringmaster-doctor are rather nasty touches on what might otherwise have been an edifying display.

The Virgin show is very different from the Channel 4 show - you can imagine odd causes of death turning up on University Challenge or similar, and it's really just terminal historical curiosity. Autopsy: Emergency Room is the sort of sensationalism only achievable once every furrow of living celebrity has been ploughed and we feel the need to be shocked further.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The plague of frogs and other songs

This review was published in today's Independent.

--

PLAGUE SONGS
BARBICAN HALL
SUNDAY 28TH OCTOBER
VARIOUS ARTISTS
****

If the only plague song you knew was ‘Ring around the Rosies’, you would have had a surprising evening. This concert was a performance of the ten musically diverse songs, each based on one of the biblical plagues from Exodus, composed for a concept album, plus some new songs on modern plagues. Contributors included Rufus Wainwright, Imogen Heap and Scott Walker, and the first two performed, among many others, in a fascinating, mostly-successful gig.

‘Blood’ by MC Spooka Tobz and Jackapella (a plague on the house that named them) was perhaps the first time rappers have ever been heard inside the Barbican’s pebbledashed labyrinth and I’m not sure there will be a return invitation. The audience applauded heartily but bemusedly. Kenny Anderson, of King Creosote, then did ‘Relate the Tale’, a frog’s-eye perspective on the amphibian downpour. His voice is aching but not whiny, and the song is sensitive and full of longing. Backed by the Sense of Sound Choir, valiant throughout the evening, he was uplifting.

It continued to be an evening of hits and square misses. June Tabor’s a capella version of Laurie Anderson’s ‘The Fifth Plague’ sounded dry and threatening, a grim prophecy from a slightly robotic prophet. The real discovery was Sandy Dillon, a throaty powerhouse who sat at her organ and led a grand satanic polka for ‘Boils’. The energy she created, transporting the ten-piece backing band into a Bacchic frenzy and captivating the audience, enlivened one of the fouler plagues.

Imogen Heap and Rufus Wainwright were climactic highlights of the first act; the former’s ‘Glittering Clouds’ is a transcendent piece of electro-emo, ethereal and fast-paced and desperately lonely. Wainwright stole the show, true to form, introducing himself (as if the screams and whoops had not sufficed) and wishing on us all a suitably depressing evening. His song, ‘Katonah’ (death of the firstborn, the final plague), is a country lament written – he revealed – for his young cousin, who died as he was composing, and it brought some introspection after the revels.

The second act was similarly mixed, with some artists returning – more devil-dances from Sandy Dillon – and some new. Patrick Wolf, shirtless and skinny to the point of disappearing, leapt about the stage to his electronic execration of the plague of apathy, which was apathetically conventional. Damon Albarn concluded with a rousing hymn, which involved an additional choir of schoolchildren.

Very few of the songs in the first act – which was by the far better half – engaged much with the idea of the plague in the modern world. Most songs were personal (or animal) reactions to the plagues, which may seem to be a missed opportunity, since we don’t lack for plagues (biological and metaphorical) today, but these were in fact more successful, focusing us in rather than overstretching.

The performances were largely terrific, enthusing and moving the audience in turn, and the musicians were little short of astonishing, playing everything from drums to laptops. Particular credit goes to the musical director, David Coulter, who played a variety of instruments, most of which seemed to have come from the tools section of B&Q.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dude! Dudamel!

The most fantastic young conductor (I say young - he, at 26, is the elder here) has been blazing a global trail in the past few years, scorching his way up from Venezuela's sistema of musical education (a one child, one instrument policy) to the concert halls of Lucerne and London. His name is Gustavo Dudamel and he is at once enlivening and sensitive, leading his orchestra - the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra - on like Diana in the dance.

The NYT has just done a long profile of Dudamel, which inspired me to search out some of his work online, so - for your listening and viewing pleasure - here are the three parts of Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, as performed by the SBYO at this year's Proms. (Tip: cue up all the performances so you can switch straight from one to the next).





Thursday, October 25, 2007

Frieze on ASmallWorld

Modern art’s most glamorous patrons combed the 150 galleries of London's Frieze Art Fair in search of the next Damien Hirst and Chapman Brothers last weekend. And of course, when they weren’t looking at the art, they were attending the countless events held to coincide with the fair.


From a small affair five years ago, Frieze has turned into ‘the start of the season’ for the art world, according to Amanda Schneider of the Jablonka Galerie, whose highlight was a stunningly erotic David LaChapelle photomural. Set in London’s beautiful Regent’s Park in a custom-built marquee of over 20,000 square meters, the galleries came from nearly 30 countries, representing over a thousand artists.

Galleries, which had been at Frieze last year, reported a definite upturn in attendance and business this time around. The Gagosian Gallery, one of modern art’s powerhouses, sold out its edition of Tracey Emin’s neon sculpture 'I could have really loved you' in a few hours. Indeed, everywhere you went, countless tiny orange dots indicated that work had been snapped up.



Photographer and ASW member Hugo Tillman, whose work was shown by Nohra Haime at the Bridge Art Fair, got to the major Frieze event this year – the party that followed Saturday’s Phillips de Pury & Co auction. “It was the place to see and be seen,” said Tillman. “Everybody was there but the mood was very serious due to the lack of alcohol for the first half of the party.” In the art world, this is a serious complaint.

The celeb art fans were certainly out in force for the first two days of the fair. Dennis Hopper was seen pacing the aisles and regular Friezer, Claudia Schiffer, prowled the booths. One of the Olsen twins put in an appearance while Kate Moss and Hugh Grant were also spotted at the fair.

When you were worn out from all the art – and with 150 galleries, it did get exhausting – Frieze laid on the most luxurious facilities for VIPs and patrons. Mark Hix, legendary chef of The Ivy and Le Caprice in London, brought his kitchen to the fair, while the VIP lounge was luxury defined, with its glamorous denizens – ASWers certainly among them – and fabulous furnishings.


Some galleries reported that they did most of their business in the first couple of days of the fair. Others noted that there were far fewer Americans present compared to previous years because of the weak dollar. Still, judging by the number of people present from across the world, Frieze is firmly on the art world’s calendar.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ophelia, Iphelia pain

Sorry for the shoddy pun but I was trying a little William Wycherley out on my prose (see The Country Wife review below). Better without, I think.

Tate Britain's winter exhibition is far more comprehensive than it needs to be: John Everett Millais (1828-96) is not a sufficiently inspired or inspiring artist to warrant over 120 paintings and drawings through seven rooms. Worse still, the exhibition does not build to a climax where we see Millais' artistic genius manifested in late career masterpieces after honing his skill over many years; disappointingly, his greatest works are his earliest, a not uncommon occurrence (ask Orson Welles).

Almost his earliest work on show was perhaps my favourite, Bust of a Greek Warrior (from the Antique) (1838-9), an impressively precise study in chalk. Millais was clearly an extraordinary draughtsman with great technical skill, which happily does not here lead to a soulless but neat rendering - on the contrary, the warrior's sternness is neatly evoked. The shock is that Millais was 10 when he drew this, showing the preternatural talent that would see him to the Royal Academy of Arts schools at 11.

Millais was a founding Pre-Raphaelite, rejecting Mannerism and its artifice in favour of detailed naturalism in brilliant colours. This is perhaps one of the reasons why his earlier pictures find most popular and critical acclaim - they are wonderfully vivid, with jewel colours and swathes of intricate scenes from nature. The most famous (and, I believe, the most popular poster in the Tate's shop) is Ophelia (1851-2), which has the poor girl half-submerged in a lake.

What the awful representation to the left doesn't show you is the success and the failure of the painting. To his credit, Millais had developed a technique for making his pigments retain their brightness, so Ophelia almost seems alive, glowing despite her watery bed. The problem is that she seems to have been imported from a different painting. Millais - here and in other paintings like Mariana (1851) - ends up with several layers (to the eye, at least), where the foreground character and the background never gel. I could never escape the feeling that the model and the rest were painted separately; this sounds foolish but better artists make you believe that they weren't, that they have captured one complete scene. With Millais, you can always see everything being painted arounded the centre.

This expresses itself in Isabella (1848-9) too, which is almost a triumph of failure of perspective. The painting does not show that this is a table of people interacting with one another and visually receding but looks like each person has been cut and pasted onto the background in the same position. Millais never wholly convinces that his painting are, well, whole.

If only Millais had stuck to his drawing: we would have more pictures like The Disentombment of Queen Matilda (1849), a small gem of macabre humour, where he populates a crowded scene with darkly comic activities. This humour is virtually completely absent from the rest of his work, most of which brim with a desire to be taken seriously or a cloying sentimentality. (I have to brush my teeth just thinking about The Blind Girl (1854-6), with its double rainbow and - uch, it's too awful to go on.)

After his Pre-Raphaelite phase wound down in the mid-185os, there are still six large rooms to go. Six! We've already had his most interesting works - now there is just room after room of paintings largely dull in content and in execution. There are portraits painted for patrons stuffed with angelic children and respectable adults. There are only occasional reminders of his real talent, such as his pen-and-ink illustrations for the Moxon Tennyson (1855-6). Millais could have made a draughtsman of unsurpassable skill and wit, but instead he turned to paintings with a vaguely numinous atmosphere which do not stand up to scrutiny.

The scale of the exhibition is just as oppressive as some of the pictures. It is not a new theme for me, complaining about exhibitions which aim to conquer through quantity, not quality, and this is another perfect example. Yes, it is a curatorial feat, and yes, it provides an unrivalled opportunity for the serious Millais-head, but it is an ordeal for everyone else - we are supposed to maintain interest and excitement for over a hundred pictures when this is nigh on impossible, even when you love the artist. A smaller, more representative selection would have worked in Millais' favour - as it is, the pile-up of lesser works constantly threatens to crumble.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Country Wife should stay in the country

I very rarely walk out of anything. I once ran out of Paradise Lost, but it was am-dram and my laughter was probably disturbing the actors, what with all the echoes in the apse and all. This failure to rush to judgment was corrected this week with a rush to the exit during The Country Wife, William Wycherley's almost entirely laugh-free comedy at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.

You really have to hope that the pun was an invention of the Restoration (hardly going to be Cromwellian, really) since this 1675 play dependes so heavily on it. Not a line goes by but there's some saucy pun, a frequency surely only justified by punning being an innovation. Sadly, this is not the case and puns which must have seemed dated by James II are positively fossilised by now.

The other aspect of this bludgeoning - this is humour as a blunt object, not a thin blade - is that Wycherley thinks that wit is saying the opposite of what you mean. How cunning it is to have a character say one thing and mean another! The audience was underwhelmed by this strategy; I was practically in a comedy coma.

The plot is itself not wholly unpromising. There must be some mileage in having a lothario pretend to be a eunuch, although when played with the sort of desperate sexual abandon and innuendo of Toby Stephens as Horner it loses all point. Who would trust his wife to a man with a perpetual verbal hard-on? He is so sleazy that you could hear Hugh Hefner saying he'd gone too far.

There is a strong misogynist element to the treatment of Pinchwife's new bride, whom Horner is trying to seduce - Pinchwife constantly threatens his wife with violence, then locks her up, always manhandling her. While we are meant to find David Haig's hammy rage hilarious, this strand is much darker than director Jonathan Kent appears to believe. Any subversion inherent in the text is lost, or if none is intended, it is an interpretative opportunity lost.

Wycherley's text seems beyond redemption for today's world. Every other sentence, one of the witty rakes who are our heroes will remark that he is "off to the play", for that is where the true wits can be found and where the true brilliance of the intellect of the age can be found. This was surely true under the Restoration, recovering from the Puritans, but it makes such grand claims for the theatre that they are doomed to fail today - it simply isn't the centre of the intellectual world any more. There is no theatre which can live up to Wycherley's text, and no stage which deserves it either.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Shelfish pleasures

I’ve got wood – and I can’t wait to tell everyone. I talk, of course, about the antique oak bookcase of monstrous size which is the newest occupant of my bedroom. Why, what did you think I meant?

There are so many pleasures to be derived from a bookcase, yet they are certainly overlooked most of the time in favour of their contents. Far too often, in fact, bookcases can be afterthoughts, mere planks pinned together to support the far more carefully chosen books they bear; I suspect that sometimes bookcases may even be more interesting than their books.

And now I am the possessor of a proper piece of furniture, a 1920s oak bookcase with a dark stain, taller than most of the population and at least twice as wide as an All Black prop forward. Even as it sat waiting to be filled, it was already generating pleasure, the kind that comes from appreciating any well-made item.

As I started to unpack my boxes of books and install them, I got much too distracted flicking through them. There is a positive nostalgia which comes from all the memories associated with each volume, like the gargantuan Classical dictionaries I bought before going up to university or my first edition Dorothy Parkers located pawing through antiquarian after antiquarian. This dallying delight is inherent in the purchase of a bookcase.

Once I had got them all on and sorted them into semi-respectable order, it was time to sit back and look at the finished article, which sent shivers of aesthetic pleasure around my nervous system. Just to see the shelves laden with all different hues of dust-jackets, abutting one another like a very blocky and beautiful abstract painting, is joyous. There is room for all media too – my Vanity Fairs are piled up a couple of shelves beneath the DVDs.

It’s a reflection of all that I have accumulated over the years (not too many in my case, but it’s a start), which in turn reflects my personality and my interests. A bookcase is like a body, the physical container for your self – my bookcase, c’est moi.

A tree died to make my bookcase and I feel sure it would willingly have sacrificed itself if it knew the pleasure I would get out of it.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Philosophy on 4

KNTV is perhaps the most bizarre thing I have ever seen on television, and that’s saying something for someone who used to watch Eurotrash. It is a cross between the computer cartoons of Max Headroom, the great ideas of Radio 4’s In Our Time and the totalitarian setting of 1984, and is easily brilliant.

The premise is that two animated teenagers in the Communist state of Slabovia (“When the Iron Curtain fell, Slabovia was under it”) live in a warehouse and explain the theories of great thinkers to the audience. Subjects include Darwin, Einstein and Marx, pretty hefty names with pretty hefty ideas usually tackled in late-night documentaries, not mid-morning cartoons. Even the name suggests a great philosopher.

The one I caught was on Freud, but instead of fixating (as Freud might say) on all the sex, it actually gave lucid explanations of his background, his theories and his afterlife. They covered his predecessor and major influence on the talking cure Josef Breuer, explaining what the case of Anna O’s hysteria meant for psychoanalysis. There was discussion about Freud’s personal neuroses and obsessions, and there was even a neat diagram to explain his concept of id-ego-superego.

But just in case this seems either unbearably dense or unendurably dry, it is leavened with a sprinkling of cheesy yet hilarious jokes, illustrative videos and sly English voice-overs from the suspiciously-named Burgess McPhilbin (how many ten-year olds off school sick get that joke?). The videos are particularly weird – they look like rejects from the Estonian version of You’ve Been Framed, c.1997 (according to the clips’ timestamps) – but nicely serve to illustrate the origin of phobias or OCD behaviour.

Every so often a fearsome general’s voice will sound out over a loud-speaker, telling the boys – named Kierky and Nietzsche, by the way, to bang home the theme – they must conform or else. It’s a nasty jolt that creates a much more rounded world within the show.

This type of programme is what Channel 4 specialises in – odd educational programmes and documentaries in the mid-morning hinterland between reruns of American sitcoms and Krishnan Guru-Murphy on the 12 o’clock news. Tune in any morning during term-time (holiday stand-by ER is off air) and you can find five-minute tours around the National Gallery or Tate Modern and shows about young adults which actually talk to young adults.

Channel 4 knows who its audience at this time is – school pupils who haven’t gone in, hung-over university students, the post-university unemployed – and it suits it perfectly. The programming is not patronising but is amazingly edifying without the Open University’s beardiness or BBC2’s infantilising. KNTV is the perfect example: as a lucid primer on great ideas, it certainly beats the nine o’clock lecture (whether from a tutor in a hall or Melvyn Bragg on R4).

Carry on, Channel 4 – the education you’re give the nation goes some small way to making up for the intellectual void that is Big Brother and its cronies.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Terracotta tease

There is no denying that the First Emperor exhibition at the British Museum is a rare gift - many of us will never go to China (I think I'm first in the line marked 'Loud-mouthed dissident')
- but it is not an experience commensurate with its uniqueness.

The terracotta diplomacy practised by China in loaning 20 figures from the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi to London is both generous, in that this many figures have never left China at once before, and underwhelming, for there are 7,980 which are not here. This is not churlish, because I'm not expecting them to send over a fleet of 747s with the rest on, but the scale of the Emperor's project, which is a large part of its magnificence, is wholly lost. This is revealed most tellingly when you walk up to the central pit where the warriors are lit like cars in a showroom and a photo alongside them shows them in situ, rank after rank after rank, stretching back beyond vision.

The figures are certainly remarkable, the first incidence of a production line in history. The fact trumpeted about them is that each is personalised, with a moustache here and a pot belly there, and with 8,000 to be given their own faces, it is certainly an achievement. They are imposing too, standing tall for today, let alone for our smaller ancestors. However, they never entirely come to life, for individuality is not the same thing as animation. You could say that impassivity is the point, but why personalise if only to stand still? There is not sufficient artistic skill in a machine to imbue them with spirit.

There is some compensation for the sparseness of the figures and their unprepossessing gazes in the background the BM provides, which shows the achievement of Qin Shihuangdi in uniting the warring kingdoms of third century BC China. Essentially just a greater warlord rather than an enlightened unifier, Qin managed to standardise much within his new great country, including the abolition (unhappily, I think) of dagger-shaped money for your standard round coins, although with a rather natty square hole in the middle to represent earth in the universe.

Some wonderful examples of armour are present, including a still-glinting dagger which could give a nasty nick if you even so much as contemplated nicking it. It is a model of economical design, made from one piece of steel, tapering down to its fine point.

Even the very conception of the terracotta army gives me pause. As we stood under the Reading Room's rotunda, on the scaffold erected over the desks (which cannot be moved, as they are listed), it occurred to me that the British Museum was the gift of monarchs to their people, a fulfilment of the promise of the Age of Enlightenment. The terracotta army, however, took 300,000 slaves dozens of years to create, all to be stored away in a warlord's tomb, however magnificent with its rivers of mercury and recreated palace. The selfishness of the project would never have benefited the people, unlike contemporary Rome's public buildings, paid for privately.

When we are asked to admire our twenty warriors, we are asked to thank a warlord for his self-concern in wanting protection from his enemies after his death. We are asked to praise a man who took this project to his grave. But worst of all, we are asked to ignore the abuse that created them - and the abuse that lives on in the Chinese government which is trying to blind us with them.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Art attack

This weekend’s attack on Monet’s wonderful Le Pont D’Argenteuil is a terrible act against a masterful work, with its glorious shimmering sea, and it is also a sharp angle into the question of why people attack art.

For now we know little about this attack. As of Sunday night, the BBC reported that four or five youths came through a back door into the train station-turned-art gallery, then fled after doing the damage. Happily, the French culture minister has said it is reparable, but this is only a positive upside to a miserable situation.

This is just the latest in a long history of attacks on art, where the attackers are driven just as much by politics or religion as aesthetic dislike. Early Christians effaced (literally destroyed the faces of) the pagan Romans’ sculptures and monuments; you can still see this all around the Forum, especially on the Arch of Titus. A comparable incident of religious mania was the Taliban’s 2001 blowing up of the Buddhas of Bamyan.

Religion stirred destruction during the Reformation when churches the length and breadth of Britain were stripped of their stained glass, their plated objects, their altarpieces and icons, to be replaced with more pious plainness. If we consider art in the wider sense, then history’s book-burnings should also be included – from the Satanic Verses’ incineration backwards. Beside book-burnings, Nazism had its way with Cubist and Surrealist art, as well as that by Jewish artists.

These were macro examples, sanctioned by a wider religion or a nation’s politics; there are also plenty of individual cases where someone has had a dislike of the piece or felt slighted by its artist or even has just been drunk and angry, as may have been the case this weekend.
Pierre Ponincelli has made a career out of attacking Duchamp’s Fountain, most recently with a hammer at the Pompidou Centre in 2006, apparently considering it a victim of artistic “abuse”. At least this time he did not use it for its original purpose, as he had in his 1993 attack.

The Royal Academy’s 1997 Sensation exhibition, which propelled several Young British Artists to fame (or notoriety), attracted its own attack: Marcus Harvey’s Myra, which was a portrait of the child-killer made up of children’s handprints, fell victim to ink and eggs. Harvey could hardly have expected a passive acceptance of the piece but the reviled subject and the provocative medium were evidently too much.

In the same way that there may be a temptation to attack – verbally or physically – those we feel are provoking or attacking us, there is a temptation to attack art which outrages us. Since art is a manifestation of particular feelings and ideas, art is too often used as a proxy, the quickest way to show your disagreement with or contempt for what it represents.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Old Smoothie and other types

From the Guardian ArtsBlog.

--

George Clooney's range of expressions is limited thus: 1) suave amusement; 2) suave distress; 3) suave amusement. Watching him try to pull his features into a rictus of despair in Michael Clayton this weekend I realised that there's no shame in sticking within your range. This is why typecasting is such a success.

Clooney was supposed to be a broken man plagued by his conscience after he realised he was a lawyer for the dark side (like all lawyers, actually). He looked like a GQ model plagued by stomach acid. His face, chiselled out of granite, never came close to expressing the grief he was alleged to be feeling.

When he tries to do suave, though - well, he makes Cary Grant look like Vincent Price. By this measure, the highlight of his career will either be the Oceans trilogy, where his Sinatra-esque charms slick all over the screen, or his Martini ad campaign. He is so good at this one mode that there's no reason for him to move outside it.

This applies to other actors too. Julie Andrews will forever be Maria, even beyond the day she takes her guitar to that Viennese mansion in the sky, so the temptation to escape that must be profound. This must be behind the breast-baring of SOB, which attempted to give her dramatic depth but just made her slightly dirty - Sister Maria Emmanuelle.

Robert de Niro is another good example. As the menacing gangster who always revels in the torture of others, he excels; no one comes close to his sadistic mastery and harsh delivery. But in Analyze This? And Analyze That? Meet the Parents? Meet the Fockers? You get my point.

Vin Diesel - we are perhaps stretching the definition of 'actor' here - every so often gives up his perfectly successful career as a blasting action hero to do turkeys like The Pacifier. Something must have possessed him to think that his ripped abs and stony face would succeed where so many good men have failed.

Typecasting has a bad press - it's a shameful word - but there is certainly something to be said for playing to your strengths: consider all Jude Law's pained metrosexuals and Keira Knightley's many gamine waifs. Moving outside your comfort zone can go terribly wrong - watch Nicole Kidman in Stepford Wives and I'll rest my case.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Unfinished symphonies

From the Guardian ArtsBlog.


Unfinished art is still art

A row is brewing in the artistic community - not, this time, about funding or the obscenity of Mapplethorpe, but about something much more fundamental: when does art become art? This sounds like a stupid question, but in a post-Duchamp world, where a urinal is as worthy of a place in a gallery as a painting, and when the Fine Art Society is presenting the incomplete works of seven contemporary artists in a new show, it does not have an entirely obvious answer.

When the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass Moca) commissioned Christoph Büchel, a Swiss artist, to create one of his famous labyrinths in their giant gallery, they had no idea it would end up incomplete and in litigation. Buchel is no bricks-and-mortar man - his labyrinths (through which you must crawl as well as walk) are composed of objects as diverse as cottages, shipping containers and burnt 737 airplanes. They are meant to add up to material commentaries on the present and recent past.

Whatever the reasons for the incompleteness (he says, they say), the installation now stands at Mass Moca covered in sheets. A judge has decided the work can be shown, despite the artist's objections. The New York Times recently condemned Mass Moca's desire, suggesting that art is only art when its creator says so. This is not, however, necessarily true.

A visit to any gallery will throw up plenty of examples of unfinished art. Last year's Velázquez exhibition at the National Gallery featured several pictures that the painter had not completed; they had great lacunae or only one level of paint. There is also a roaring interest in sketches, which are by definition not the finished work; the queues at the Victoria and Albert museum for the Da Vinci exhibition bore this out.

And it is not just in the visual arts. You can buy a facsimile of Eliot's original Waste Land, before Pound got his hands on it, and anthologies of poets regularly include juvenilia or other works the poet did not put in their published collections. Add to this Hollywood's history of releasing films without the directors' approval (Orson Welles was a repeated victim here) and we find ourselves in muddy water.

If 20th-century art has taught us anything, it is that intention is not everything. Just because the creator declares something is not art does not mean it is not art. Whether it has the same value as something approved by the artist is different - but it may well still be art.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Bacchae to the future

Productions of Greek tragedy all too often turn out, well, tragically. Whether it's a chorus dancing like The Bangles c. 'Walk like an Egyptian' or a translation salvaged from the pile marked 'Victoriana - do not use', the pitfalls are plenty. The National Theatre of Scotland's Bacchae not only overcame these obstacles but triumphed.

With Alan Cumming as Dionysus, the god of theatre, wine and ecstatic release, this was always going to be special; no man can do louche cabaret-act, glamorous rockstar and psychopath at the same time so well. Happily, Cumming brings all these aspects to bear in Dionysus, who returns to his birthplace, Thebes, to avenge the slights on his divinity made by his relatives (especially prince Pentheus).

The women of Thebes, who first rejected Dionysus, have been driven mad by him and sent out to the mountains to dance and drink Dionysiacally. The celebrants include Pentheus' mother and aunts, chief despisers of Dionysus' mother, their sister Semele, who was killed when Zeus revealed himself to her. Pentheus, as a tight-buttoned infant autocrat, refuses to countenance either Dionysus' existence or the women's orgiastic rites. The returning god does not take this kindly, and Euripides' gruesome climax is well-known.

Even beyond the magnetic Cumming, whose initial buttock-bearing upside-down descent onto the stage indicates that everything will be turned about, this production is utterly transfixing and brilliantly thoughtful in its interpretation of what the play and the genre as a whole mean to modern theatre.

Tragic choruses are invariably hard to pull off. No-one now buys the idea of a group of spectators marooned on the stage, there for communication but not action, commentating in a more general sense of the play's themes. Do you have them dance Greekly for their odes? Are they standing about the rest of the time?

What director John Tiffany has done is go the whole hog: if we're having a chorus, we're having an all-dancing, all-cartwheeling team of soul singers in Valentino-esque scarlet ballgowns. They are given lively music in a vareity of genres, and their opening ode is a Jesus Christ Superstar-like rock anthem, led by their own personal Jesus. To a woman they have stunning voices.

This is immensely successful in the context of the play. Since The Bacchae is about divine possession, being taken out of yourself, nothing is more suitable than the old musical standby of unselfconscious singing and dancing. Not only are the Bacchants possessed by their own music but the audience is too; you stare at them, completely involved in the sound and movement, before being shaken out of your trance when the ode ends. This, to me, is the most perfect representation and creation of the Bacchic spirit one can get in a theatre without absinthe and hookers.

At the other end of the dramatic scale, the straight scenes between Dionysus & Pentheus and Cadmus & Agaue (Pentheus' grandfather and mother) are very well-acted. Tony Curran, as the overly-restrained prince, gives suitably subtle indications of homosexuality to suggest that when Dionysus flips his mind, he is really only uncovering his true self. This adds more layers to Pentheus' assumption of women's clothes, ostensibly to go spy on the Bacchants. The latter pair's final, grief-stricken scenes create so much emotion that you forget that Paola Dionisotti (aptly, as Agaue) has only for the first time come on stage.

Unsuccessful perhaps is the somewhat muddled theological identification of the play. Having Dionysus sing with and be worshipped by the Chorus implies they are aware of his divinity, whereas the text suggests that they are not; otherwise, how can we explain their worry on his behalf? No-one fears for a god's safety.

But this is a small subtraction from what is otherwise a masterpiece of the staging of Greek tragedy: it manages to make all the conventions of Classical theatre comprehensible to modern audiences while completely getting the central issue of the play, all wrapped in a dynamic and intelligent production. The Bacchae's lesson may be that we should not get too carried away (or indeed not carried away enough), but it was hard not be by this show.

For an interview with Alan Cumming and Tony Curran, see this video:

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Waugh. Huh. What is he good for?

Evelyn Waugh confuses me. His reputation for being a hilarious comic novelist – up there with Kingsley Amis and P.G. Wodehouse – is wonderfully deserved, but this humour sits alongside perhaps the cruellest thing I have read.

A Handful of Dust is the most wretched and sterile of Waugh’s books, telling of the breakdown of Tony and Brenda Last’s marriage when Brenda starts an affair with John Beaver. Tony Last is a weak quasi-hero who cannot act for himself, falling victim to society-wide gossip about Brenda’s flaunted romance, while all their friends bitchily observe.

But although this does have comic potential – unfaithful husbands and wives have been comedy gold since Menander – Waugh took a very different road. His own wife was having an affair as he was writing A Handful of Dust, so he made her the cuckolding Brenda, which is – admittedly – not a new trick. But as if this were not humiliation enough, he then made her as the least maternal mother since Medea.

Brenda’s son with Tony is called John – as is her lover – and when young John is killed in a riding accident and Brenda is simply told that ‘John’ has died, she worries that it is her lover, not her son. Waugh, driven to hurt his wife in the most public and permanent way possible, took revenge on his wife by painting her as a woman so selfish and uncaring that she thinks not of her child but of her lover.

This sits uneasily against Waugh’s comic triumphs. I’ve been reading Decline and Fall, his first novel, and have managed to attract many disapproving coughs on the tube for laughing too loudly, too often. Waugh can skewer society perfectly, and he does it much more effectively with humour as here than with the bitterness of A Handful of Dust.

From the names – the innocent-sounding hero-victim Paul Pennyfeather, the aristocratic Lord Tangent and Lady Circumference – to the beauty of the situations he devises, Waugh does not put a foot wrong. His technique is impeccable: when a master shoots a boy in the foot at a school sports day, it is dealt with in hilarious asides, every so often impinging on the narrative and setting you laughing again. The African scrapes of Scoop and the bed-hopping, party-stopping behaviour of Vile Bodies are just as brilliant.

No-one can fully leave their private life behind them as they work, but it just happens that Waugh’s work was the perfect medium for playing out his private life in. It was a very human act, then, of Waugh to use his writing for revenge – but it was also a very cruel one

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Beck's Fusions snoisuF s'kceB

Apologies for the titular trick, but it does reflect the recent Beck's Fusions installation in Trafalgar Square. Every year, Beck's sponsors an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (on the Mall, just off the Square) and this year music videos got turned around.

This was no ordinary video installation, tho' - the ICA has too much clout for it to be thus. Instead, they erected a giant silver pod in Trafalgar Square, with a video screen running all the way round the inside. The pod was big enough for about 50 people to numb their asses on the floor, but the 360 screen made artistic and audience sense. On the Sunday evening of this three-day wonder, the Chemical Brothers turned it inside out (aptly), into a stage for a free gig.

The brief was for ten artists each to take a song and (re)make its video; their choices ranged from the popular end of pop (the Chilis' 'Under the Bridge') to the drab end of rap (Jay-Z's 'Kingdom Come'). Befitting this remodelling project, several remixes and covers were involved, including Cornershop's Punjabi 'Norwegian Wood', Ciccone Youth's 'Into the Groove(y)' (after Queen Madonna) and Beck's fabulously submerged version of 'Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime'.

Oliver Laric's 'Under the Bridge' is one of the best videos, innovative and thoughtful about the modern world. If you YouTube the song, you'll find hundreds of user covers; what Laric has done is slice one note from each video and put it on screen, so the whole song is represented by a sequence of brief video clips, which are laid out like cards. (You can see a clip here).

The song holds up until the chorus, where it gets a little fuzzy, but Laric has already made his point brilliantly. Recreating a song from technology-enabled covers really gets to the heart of Web 2.0, where user-generation is key. We are no longer living in a world where art is sacred and untouchable but rather one where anyone with a digicam can create their own version, and by layering all these shots across the screen, we get an idea of digital democracy.

Entirely unsuccessful was Nick Jordan's laughter-free 'Norwegian Wood', which thought it was being clever by contrasting Cornershop's version with an actual Norwegian woods and a Norwegian couple presumably there to stand for the song's couple. If it was trying for irony - India and Norway! - it failed, but if it was trying to give Norwegian stereotypes a good run-through, well, it was fine.

Erik van Lieshout also based his idea on the content of the song, 'Kingdom Come'. In an almost unbearably "caring" video, he took his camera around Israel and the Palestinian borders. See - where the kingdom's supposed to come! The unforgivable sin was dullness - you should at least be able to extract beauty from the landscape.

I'm not familiar with Cat Power, but I enjoyed 'Who Knows Where the Times Goes' with its new video by Jane and Louise Wilson. They took a camera around the Kazakh desert and an abandoned shipyard in NE England, both of which - tho' ostensibly with nothing in common - were unutterably lonely, fitting the song perfectly. I found this one very moving for its evocation of loss, universalising the song rather than tying it down.

Another good use of technology was Graham Dolphin's 'Expressway to Yr Groove(y)' (despite the name). Dolphin made a mirrorball of images of Madonna, spinning and turning, from all the stages of her career. One small square would pop up on the screen then whiz across it, doubled and redoubled and redoubled again, until the whole wall was filled with these mosaics. The manifold faces of celebrity were quite neatly evoked.

Those videos based on the literal content of the song never managed to grow beyond the song, like any anodyne pop video. The real art was in using the song as a jumping-off point; that's why Laric and the Wilsons were so successful - they made ideas and emotions into their videos.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The evolution of Amy

In my customary backwards style (sac sur la tete, as I'm too polite to say), I've just come to Amy Winehouse's first album, Frank, long after hearing the second. It's a good thing too: Frank is not a major success but - with perfect hindsight - contains the roots of Back to Black's brilliance.

It's hard to pick out what is most distinguishing about Winehouse: her voice? her lyrics? her hair? The last is easily disposed of, circa Frank - her corkscrew curls have not yet been introduced to the electricity socket - but it's a tie between the others.

Her voice is what hits you first. As if Billie Holiday had been reincarnated in a north London taxi-driver's daughter, it is jazzy in excelsis. She can do the squeaks and be-bops of jazz, but she also gets the bluesy notes, and she has an almost-lisping, faux-naively-seductive rounding of her letters, like Marilyn Monroe or Betty Boop but from Harlem. (In fact, Betty Boop is currently her closest representative in reality, which is worrying.)

If you look back from Back to Black, she is not yet using her full range on songs like 'You Sent Me Flying'. There is too much in the heights without exploring the depths, the lower, smoother quality of 'Rehab' and 'Back to Black'. She did well to leave Minnie Riperton behind. The best example of her smoothness and vulnerability, her fine tone and rich voice was at the recent Mercury Music Awards:



The lyrics are the other stand-out. Happily these are still bitchy, witty and from the heart. Winehouse has the gift of rendering awkward situations from a recognisable 20-something life (recovering love-tokens from an ex on 'Take the Box', dealing with a weak boyfriend on 'Stronger Than Me') in extraordinarily vivid, apt, intimate terms:

I couldn't resist him
His eyes were like yours
His hair was exactly the shade of brown
He's just not as tall, but I couldn't tell
It was dark and I was lying down ('I Heard Love is Blind')

Or the lyrics shunned by a certain gin company:

You say why did you do it with him today?
And sniff me out like I was Tanqueray ('You Know I'm No Good')

Winehouse - who writes both music and lyrics - has gift for these well-turned phrases which stick in the memory; her words steer away from moons and Junes and baby/lady/crazy rhymes into the contemporary and unusual.

Unfortunately, the music is Frank's weakest point. Too often it is Generic Jazzy Backing Track No. 2, which in fact stands out for its blandness. On most of Frank, I was reminded of Mary J. Blige's My Life album because of this difference between the originality of lyrics and voice and the unrelated music; at least on My Life the samples were interesting. Having Mark Ronson on board as producer of Back to Black has solved this dilemma: his Motown orchestrations are the perfect complement for Winehouse's voice and a nice counterpoint to her pointed lyrics.

From Frank to Back to Black what's wrong has been fixed and what's superb is still superb. Back to Black is much more musical than Frank, but Winehouse's spark and spirit are just as present.

Stand-outs: on Frank, 'Fuck-Me Pumps', 'Stronger Than Me'; on Back to Black, 'Rehab', 'Back to Black', 'Love Is a Losing Game'.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Font of fascination

A film about a font. You've got to be kidding?

Well, no. Helvetica is a documentary with more laughs than most recent Hollywood comedies and has more to say about the twentieth century than any number of millennium-eve specials. We get the history of the past 50 years - since Helvetica's invention - refracted through a particular, ubiquitous style of letters.

And Helvetica is ubiquitous: it has been adopted by retailers, companies and government agencies all over the western world, adorning every square inch of our eyeline, from streetsigns to clothes hangers, train doors to trash carts. If we paid a little more attention, we'd see a lot more Helvetica.

This film is not, however, just a long-form eye-spy. Helvetica was invented in Switzerland - adapted from a nineteenth century sans serif font - in 1957 as a reaction to the dominant and wicked ideologies of recent decades. It was as plain and pleasing as a font could get: no funny little curlicues, no over-elongation or Gothic heaviness - just simple letters, elegant and clear. It was supposed to be neutral and objective (which is, ironically, an ideology).

Its surprise success stemmed from its clarity, overturning advertising's previous dogmas of complex, cartoonish fonts and pictorials. Instead, it installed simplicity - and thus 'honesty' - as key principles of ads. Soon it became the only font one should use, but this of course brought a backlash, both artistic and philosophical. It was too closely associated with corporate America and thus - in the mind of at least one talking head - the Vietnam War. It acquired its own ideological baggage and set in train 'grunge' fonts, which were anything but plain and objective.

The pendulum swung from a pacificist aim of objectivity to an embrace of difference and variety, as is paralleled in the cultural revolutions of the 60s and 70s, leaving Helvetica behind until the pendulum returned in recent years. Just as we are now in the age of Web 2.0, the age of user-design (MySpace being the most obvious example), so Helvetica can carry the consumer's ideology, rather than anyone else's.

Director Gary Hustwit has a strong thesis to string his film around and he fills in the details with a (for the world of fonts) dazzling array of talking heads. Seeing Hermann Zapf (as in Zapf Dingbats) was genius - who imagined there was actually a Mr. Zapf? There were Helvetica old-guards, who remembered its roll-out, and Helvetica guerrillas, who would do anything but use it. Several of the heads were so passionately for or against Helvetica that you got a neat glimpse into how a designer's mind worked.

My main reservation is a criticism regularly levelled at the west: cultural imperialism. The film presumes that what it says is globally applicable - it's a history of our times - but it is really only a history of countries that use the Roman alphabet, which can't even count half the world. Understandably the use of fonts in other alphabets is its own subject, but a little more awareness of the limited battles Helvetica has fought would be salutary.

What initially seems like a barren field, of interest only to fontophiles, is in fact a fascinating way of viewing the past half-century, and with strong visuals and lively interviewees. Hustwit has made fonts fascinating.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Hercule Poirovich

We're used to the idea that the most famous works of Russian literature come from the 19th-century "Golden Age" and the Soviet era. That's why I was so delighted to discover Boris Akunin, a 21st-century literary light from Georgia. His Erast Fandorin mysteries are more Agatha Christie than Andrei Platonov, but that's no bad thing.

These stories are set in 19th-century imperial Russia, with their dashing hero a cross between Flashman and Crime and Punishment's detective Petrovich. I have just read the fourth instalment, The Death of Achilles, which starts with the diplomat Fandorin's return from exile in Japan and the death of the great general Sobolev.

Matters become complicated as the world of high politics and the criminal underworld revolve and increasingly mesh. Fandorin has breath-taking adventures thanks to his martial arts abilities, while he draws ever closer to solving the crime and untangling the mystery behind the general's death with his impeccably logical mind. The plot becomes quite involved but also involving, packed with the shady machinations of both politicians and criminals.

Fandorin is alternately entrancing and exasperating. It is easy to admire his skill with the ladies, and he certainly knows his way around a carriage-chase, but equally his insistent, ever-logical drive for the truth makes him a little robotic (anachronistically). There is nothing noir about him, unlike, say, Ian Rankin's Rebus, so he is never raised into a credible character. He is also a master of disguise, so he is a multitude of characters without ever being one himself.

Akunin (whose real name is Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili and is an eminent figure in modern Russian letters) clearly enjoys playing with his reader. The book is packed with references to the life of Achilles and such literary games - which do in fact emphasise and deepen the characters and story - are Akunin's stock-in-trade. These puns and allusions are there for the close reader, but are much clearer in the original Russian.

Not content with a swashbuckling diplomat, Akunin is also writing one series of mysteries based around the nun Sister Pelagia and another around Fandorin's grandson, a British historian. He is Alexander McCall Smith-like in his prolific ability to write, and with the first four Fandorin novels already in English and 11 more due, there is much to look forward to.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Cash out

I realise I said I'd write about Johnny Cash at Christmas, but you know how these things go - Christmas, New Year, work work work, summer away from the computer. Still, nine months isn't too bad.

Cash's late career resurgence was thanks to musical mastermind Rick Rubin, who rediscovered the icon in eclipse. Dozens of years after heroin and Folsom prison, the man in black had retired into country-western obscurity when Rubin felt like undertaking a resurrection. The result was the phenomenal merican series of recordings, five albums (so far) of mixed material - Cash's own songs and a wide variety from other sources.

The series really started to have an impact on the musical consciousness with American III: Solitary Man. Here Cash darts between his own back catalogue (Field of Diamonds, Before My Time) and others' hits, where surprise is just part of the pleasure; you might have expected Neil Diamond's 'Solitary Man', but U2's 'One' or Nick Cave's 'Mercy Seat'? Instead of staying in Nashville, there is nowhere Cash and Rubin won't go, with elemental results.

The same is true for American IV: The Man Comes Around, whose choice of songs if anything is richer and more varied still. Juxtapose Nine Inch Nails' 'Hurt' with 'Sam Hall', Depeche Mode's 'Personal Jesus' with World War II stand-by 'We'll Meet Again'. All this is via The Beatles' 'In My Life' (possibly the most moving record I know) and Roberta Flack's 'First Time Ever I Saw Your Face'.

Every song is freshly interpreted, stripped down, rough hewn. There is no glossy production to take away the edge on Cash's voice - that would defeat the object. What Rubin gives us is an old hand in his declining years whose voice bears all the marks of his life. The gravel and grit of his tone make both the songs and the singing poignant.

Often the songs are about death, dying, farewells and a bientots, which seems not just realistic but necessary. This does not make the albums gloomy, for there are plenty of up-beat strummers, but it gives a cap to Cash's lengthy career, showing a wise retrospection rather than a grab at youth (Paul Anka, anyone?). Hearing Cash yell 'damn your eyes!' in 'Sam Hall' or be defiant in 'I Won't Back Down' shows that there's life left yet.

One of the benefits of hearing others' songs in Cash's dessicated twang is that he brings out new layers in them. Neil Diamond was practically still in diapers when he sang 'Solitary Man' - he was a young man with a life of love ahead of him; Cash, on the other hand, lost his wife June during the American sessions. The same goes for 'In My Life', which I have always felt too upbeat in its original version - it never seemed truly cheerful.

Sometimes the songs are given panoramic production: 'Mercy Seat' has thundering pianos competing with one another and 'The Man Comes Around' is Apocalyptic in every sense. But more often than not, you just hear Cash, his guitar and his hurt.