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.