Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Monkey business

To BBC2 for classic drama Inherit the Wind, where a courtroom collision pits evolution against religion and showcases battles we're still fighting today.

The Kansas board of education annually does a 180 on evolution: this year it's fine to teach it, last year it wasn't. What most of the civilised world considers stubborn science, certain places are rather sceptical about.

This debate (tho' 'debate' implies both sides have logical arguments) has been going on ever since Darwin's ideas crawled out of the mud and grew legs, finding a particularly vociferous and long-lasting incarnation in America. Inherit the Wind (1960) is about one of the most infamous conflicts in this war, the 1925 'Scopes monkey trial', when a Tennessee teacher found himself in court for evangelising about evolution in class.

The meat of Inherit is the battle royal between Spencer Tracy, as the smart, slightly life-weary lawyer defending our young Darwinist and his freedom of thought, and Fredric March, as the blow-hard fundamentalist prosecutor. The two clash violently over the place of god and science in the classroom in front of a Bible Belt audience just salivating for a conviction.

Many of the speeches are taken almost verbatim from the trial, giving them both high-flown eloquence and blinding passion, and Tracy and March spare no sweat in slogging it out. They are as forceful as can be, viciously knocking verbal hell out of one another; each man strikes and is struck to the core of his beliefs.

Tracy almost has the easier ride, despite having to huff and puff and bawl and scowl: his character gets depth and self-doubt, giving him good chances to show off a standard if credible range. But March gives the real tour de force, seeing his sanity spiral beyond his control while defending what he holds dearest. The man crumbles on screen even as his self-belief seems to strengthen.

An annoying sideshow to this is Gene Kelly as the hack reporter covering the trial and ridiculing the locals and their beliefs. His over-cynical asides are wearing, adding nothing to the debate. Yes, we get that Kelly is on one extreme, March is on the other and Tracy is the decent man caught in between, but this over-designed scheme is unnecessary: the lawyers' faiths stand in perfect contrast without more illustration needed.

I was rather disappointed by the ending (the very last scene, not the trial's verdict) since it negates all the passion and arguments that came before, steering a banal middle course designed to satisfy all and satisfying neither. The film shows convincing arguments on one side, loud arguments on the other, but ultimately ends up not having any beliefs of its own.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The walls of Jericho

To the Royal Academy for Anselm Kiefer's profound and affecting courtyard installation, Jericho. Its subject is not just falling walls but falling civilisations.

(If you're salivating for a review of the RA's Citizens and Kings, fear ye not - one is on its way.)

Kiefer has constructed two ragged concrete towers, both of which appear to have been removed from bombed-out Beirut. Each is made from eight-foot square concrete boxes stacked one on another, but the boxes are really ill-fitting assemblies of rough-edged walls and floors.

Nothing joins smoothly, nothing sits well. Where a wall is too low, a book of lead sheets has been inserted to try and keep it level, but level these buildings are not. By design they teeter precipitously, leaning one way, curving the other, seeming in constant danger of collapse.

Kiefer throws back at us our idea of buildings as safe objects. Jericho’s buildings are both wounded and perilous, and if we never feel in physical danger, we still worry. The site of these towers – in the middle of a grand neoclassical courtyard – also speaks: it would not take much for the surrounding buildings, or any others considered stable, to end up like Kiefer’s towers.

By extension, the cultures which produced these buildings are also precarious constructions; after Jericho’s walls fell to Joshua, the city was destroyed.

You only have to consider that they are twin towers to realise this. The 9/11 allusion almost made my heart stop. While looking at the towers poking out into the London skyline, I saw a plane fly towards one and pass behind it, and even though I knew it was a trick of perspective, I still caught my breath as it flew near. This momentary terror reinforced Kiefer’s message thousand-fold.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Stuck at the Bar

To the Independent's letters page for some feisty debate over Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882): mirror, mirror on the wall?

The Indy, as is its wont (and as the Guardian hilariously copied - cabbages, anyone?), has been producing posters of works of art. Its latest series gave us the Manet to the left and appropriately for a painting which caused explosions on its first display, it has been furiously sparking off letters.

As Tom Lubbock, the Indy's resident artist and the author of the notes on the rear of the poster, writes, and as I have always understood it, the picture plays with perspective and emotions: the picture is not of two barmaids but of one reflected by an unusual mirror, where things change in the reflection (pose, bottles). As Lubbock writes:

"It's as if we're seeing the split in her personality - between the woman amenably playing her role and the heroine of anomie who stands before us."

However, hot off the typewriter, a letter reached the paper from Dan Belton, a member of the Stuckists, complaining about the complex explanation:

"Surely, as I have always thought, this is a painting of a central bar in a room being worked at on both sides by two barmaids. I've never heard the "mirror theory" myself but it would seem as plain as a pikestaff that it's nonsense."

Some background to this pictorial-literalist approach: the Stuckists were named after Tracey Emin told her boyfriend Billy Childish, a founding member, that he was "stuck, stuck, stuck" in his disregard for modern art. They desire a simpler approach to art: artists must paint, and paintings must reject modern art's nihilism and irony. Hence, the Bar must be two bars. There's no room for complication.

While I have a lot of sympathy for Stuckism - the YBAs can indeed get lost up their own ironies - I find a Stuckist interpretation of the Bar to be simple-minded and (as the next letter proves) plain incorrect:

"As an art history lecturer who has studied Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergere extensively, I endorse Tom Lubbock's interpretation of it as a mirror. There is an extant oil study by the artist that shows a straightforward reflection of the foreground image. Therefore, the question is not so much "is it a mirror?", but "why in the final painting did Manet choose to present us with a logically impossible reflection?"."

In this instance Stuckism seems a fundamentalist faith, denouncing anything beyond the most banal explanation (two barmaids? two bars!). We cannot apply anything more complex to this painting than our eyes. This sort of plainness implies that this work - any painting - any work of art - is shallow, undeserving of thought.

The logical conclusion of this line is to see the surface and no more. Guernica cannot possibly be an allegory of war - it's just cartoonish and a bit scary. The skull in Holbein's The Ambassadors? It's just a badly-drawn object, not a memento mori.

Stuckism should stick to painting nice paintings and not grind down anything un-superficial into dust just because paint should only be paint.

And ironically, this sort of radical interpretation, going against standard thought, is in itself an embodiment of the post-modernism the Stuckists reject.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Simpsons on trial

To the television for a brief comparison of justice in the weird world of the Simpsons and the even weirder world of George W. Bush.

I'm just watching the segment of Treehouse of Horror IV (1993) when Homer signs his soul over to the Devil (looking aptly like Ned Flanders). Homer has eaten the Faustian doughnut (not a metaphor) and his soul is now the Devil's, but a trial is requested to determine the true ownership of said soul.

The Devil complains about Americans and their persistent litigiousness, but he does give Homer due process.

Now compare Dubya's gleeful signing of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which took habeas corpus away from Guantanamo detainees and other 'enemy combatants'. This came after the Supreme Court's ruling in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld that existing military tribunals were unconstitutional.

The cartoon unwittingly anticipates and satirises the disgrace of Bush's policy: even the Devil gives people a trial.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

CSI: Crime (Ob)Scene Investigation

To Las Vegas/Miami/New York for CSI, where science is sex and the money shot invariably involves tracking over serried rows of test-tubes.

The evidence of eros:
  • The technology of CSI is entirely devoted not to catching criminals but catching the eye. Who can resist the neon petri dishes of the Miami version or the slate and blacks of New York? It's design fetishism.
  • The models/scientists float from one bench to another, their brows cutely furrowed, as plastic as porn stars. They manage to make crawling under a car's belly as glamorous as a glide down the catwalk.
  • The thumping soundtrack is hardly suggestive of the tombstone lab quiet, occasionally disturbed by some mechanical whirring, we all imagine. Click, click, whir, whir, oh baby, oh baby - it's all the same.
Murder has never looked hotter.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Rufus, Judy. Judy, Rufus.

To the Palladium in the West End for one of 2007's hottest tickets, Rufus Wainwright's recreation of Judy Garland's legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert.

The almighty challenge: to out-perform the performers' performer at the performance of her life.

The resounding verdict: a triumph.

Bold, ambitious, arrogant even, to try and claim as his own a concert regarded as one of the crowning glories of showbusiness. But successful? Beyond the wildest dreams of even this over-expectant fan.

The opener, 'When You're Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)', really set the theme: a confident stride on stage, a sure grasp of the music with 40-piece orchestral support, and a song which declares that you're in the performer's hands. This audience was putty, would have joyously done anything he asked. (Anything.)

A less assured singer would have struggled to have taken an audience from the beautiful depths of loneliness ('The Man That Got Away') to the spiteful hysteria of 'San Francisco', which mocks previous singers, but Wainwright had the audience every step of the way, projecting his vulnerable, charming, cocky, lovelorn, outrageous personality into every note.

Wainwright's voice was put through every test it could find and sailed above, treacly raw at some points, commanding and enchanting at others, always his inimitable own. Certainly the up-tempo numbers gave him more chances to show off his vocal facility. He killed with 'That's Entertainment', 'Come Rain or Come Shine', 'Putting on the Ritz' (stepping nimbly over the booby-trapped, mile-a-minute lyrics), and showed off his boyish charm at the same time, acting the songs as Judy did. He went full throttle up and down his range.

The slower songs offered less opportunity for his charm, but he embodied them to their full effect. 'Over the Rainbow', sung perched on the edge of the stage (as Judy), wrought tears for many, without over-dramatisation but with just his wonderful voice, full of the sadness of the trapped Dorothy (and Judy). 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love', dedicated to Wainwright's good friend Teddy Thompson, was plaintive and beautiful. He even offered 'Do It Again' in Judy's register, whereas everything else had been taken down to his.

A guest spot from Wainwright's singer-songwriter sister Martha was revelatory: who knew she had a rich voice perfect for 'Stormy Weather'? None of the breaking anger of her album, just pure chanteuse. Lorna Luft, Judy's other daughter, came on too and deliciously roared her way through.

Judy's versions of these songs are the reference points/unattainable targets for all who come after; her shadow swallows them up. This is why Wainwright's move is so clever: by fully embracing the Judy legend, he acknowledges and negates the implicit comparisons and frees himself for his own go at them.

This concert was not to be Judy (despite his childhood tale of alternating between dressing up as Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West) but to revive her and remind us of her brilliance. His recreation was so faithful that he even 'forgot' the lyrics where Judy did, as the 1961 recording testifies. He gave patter where she did, and he's got a fine sense of rhythm for dancing, quite the nifty mover.

There was no skimping on this attempt: the huge orchestra was led by legendary conductor Stephen Oremus, the outfits were by Viktor & Rolf, the stage was where Judy once sang. The clothes - a gold mirror-ball-esque suit and a grey suit with white school-blazerish edging - were beyond glamour.

We were given the triumph of Judy by the triumph of Rufus, tapping into showbiz legend but making it his own, storming the stage and the songs, and proving that no matter how great the challenge, a great performer will conquer.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A dark Lightship

To the bookcase for Colm Tóibín's The Blackwater Lightship, the beautifully-written novel of a family in Ireland coming to terms with their difficult relationships as a beloved son is dying of Aids.

The novel opens with a lively, music-infused party at which Helen, a successful head-teacher and mother of a happy, conventional family, plays slightly reluctant hostess to her husband's circle. The next morning, one of her brother's friends comes to tell her that Declan is in a Dublin hospital and wants to see her. Declan asks Helen to tell their mother, a successful businesswoman but a failure in a maternal role, and grandmother about him, and to arrange for him to stay with their grandmother for a few days, as a respite from the hospital and to draw comfort from childhood memories there.

Six end up at his grandmother's house, which sits by the edge of a cliff in Cush, on the south-east coast of Ireland: Helen and Declan; their mother, Lily; her mother, Dora; and Declan's friends Paul, a reserved bureaucrat, and Larry, a gregarious architect. The body of the book covers their week by the coast, as Declan grows sicker and all six of them try to resolve the tangled strings which bind them together.

Helen's party sets up a series of contradictions which run through the book. At a joyous gathering, Helen is uneasy in her own home, even with her husband and children, as she will later be with her family in Cush, while the party is a happy climax inverted: everything goes downhill afterwards, and the rest of the novel - quiet, delicate, mood-mottled - stands in sharp relief.

Helen has not felt secure since her mother left her and Declan as children with their grandmother while she went off to take care of her dying husband, their dying father. This abandonment shows in her reflexive lack of faith in her husband and in her problems with Lily, who sat by her husband until he died. Even when Helen realises how her mother suffered, there is no simple antidote to the chill Tóibín portrays: that much history will not be undone easily. The book is filled with these barely-thawable chills: Declan drew away from his mother too, as Lily had from Dora in her youth.

Tóibín gets great play out of the crumbling locale for his story. As Helen walks along the strand beneath her grandmother's house and the cliff-top by houses which are victims of the geography and abandonment, the application of the setting to the family inside it is clear. What you expect to be there forever falls away:

"She saw, as she walked towards Keatings', that some of the red galvanised iron from a shed at the side had fallen now, and raw walls with strips of the old wallpaper were open to the wind, and soon they would fall too, until only a few people would remember that there had once been a hill and a white house below it way back from the cliff."

It might not be subtle, but it is beautifully done, profoundly elegiac, and never overstated. I wouldn't be surprised if Tóibín had been sitting on the strand or on the cliff as he wrote, so vividly does he draw it. The moods of the book, ever-shifting, are set by his descriptions of the landscape, but this is so subtly done that it never reaches the pathetic fallacy.

Perhaps more can be drawn from the geography. Blackwater was the site of a major defeat of the English army by the Irish in 1598, and this sort of conflict reverberates still: Helen's safe life against the precarious, rocky relationships of her family; modern, solid Dublin against ancient, crumbling Cush.

The Blackwater Lightship is a masterwork of understated emotion and quiet complication: nothing is overwritten or imagined hyperbolically. Tóibín deals with subjects - Aids, mothers and daughters - which could quite easily lead one to grandiose prose, screaming both problems and their answers.

Instead, he handles his narrative and characters with delicacy. Lily is ripe for parody, a Tennessee Williams-esque screaming matron, but Tóibín gives her a wounded, still-raw side as well as the armour produced by life's knocks. He shows Helen in her turmoil, anger, grief, from the inside, without broad statements; his comments on her all stem from her self-awareness, making her feel so genuine.

The lightship (i.e. lighthouse) of the title is just up the coast from Cush. Lily tells how, as a child, she thought Blackwater was a man, while its nearby partner at Tuskar was a woman, their relationship the exchange of their beams. She imbued them with permanence, happiness, a role as guardians, but just as now Blackwater has stopped shining, so have all her relationships failed. The protecting comfort of Tuskar is now a loneliness too, while Blackwater is the mortality Tóibín draws throughout.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Forthcoming attractions

My favourite part of going to the movies is the trailers, so herewith some teasers for the next fortnight.

}}} I'm seeing Rufus Wainwright at the Palladium on Sunday, recreating Judy Garland's legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. Expect fireworks, shattering singing, and tears.

}}} Colm Toibin's The Blackwater Lightship is a devastating, beautifully-written story of family and friends coming together and coming to terms when a beloved son is diagnosed with Aids.

}}} And it's the first annual Oscar blog - real time comments on the dresses, the dramas, the 'daaahling, you were fabulous'es. Roll on Sunday 25th!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Would St. Valentine have approved?

To the Curzon Street Odeon for sexarific drama Shortbus, where hearts are closed but legs are always open.

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, whose first flick was the rocking, heart-breaking Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus has attracted a lot of attention for its explicit, unsimulated sex scenes. Most notable among these is the rendition of the 'Star-Spangled Banner' during a threesome (providing possibly the only kind of patriotism George W. Bush wouldn't approve of), but there are plenty more vivid scenes, including an opening autofellatio and several orgies.

To put these in context (and put out any fires of outrage), Shortbus takes its name from a New York sex-club where the innocent pursuit of pleasure is paramount. All of the lead characters, all afflicted by emotional problems manifesting themselves as sexual difficulties, find themselves at Shortbus, where sex is removed from any kind of moral judgement or puritanism. Sex is [almost] just sex, although it has layers of meaning through the main characters' eyes.

James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (P.J. DeBoy) are long-term boyfriends whose relationship has reached a block; the staleness is implied in their similar names - they've become each other. To solve the problem, they decide a third wheel wouldn't be so disastrous, and at Shortbus they fix on Ceth (Jay Brannan).

Meanwhile, sex therapist Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) finally reveals her sexual problem to husband Rob (Raphael Barker): she has never had an orgasm. Her visits to Shortbus are in search of the elusive O, to eliminate her violent outbursts of self-frustration and save her marriage.

Immediately you can see that Shortbus' sex has a dramatic context and purpose; all the sex here is vital as an exploration of the characters' plagued psyches. The sex needs to be explicit and not simulated because it adds layers of truth to the situation. It's one thing to act raw and exposed - it's quite another to be raw and exposed on camera.

The sex in Shortbus is not pornography. There is no dodgy synthesiser music, no 'Oh my, I didn't call for three plumbers!', nothing exploitative. It is not titillating but rather extremely psychologically revealing and emotionally nuanced. In the same way as people in other films show their emotions by fighting or painting or shouting, here it is done through sex.

The amazing thing about Shortbus is that the sex does not dominate. Mitchell and his actors create such a strong emotional world that the sex takes its part as an aspect of it, not a rival to it. This is certainly in part due to the devised nature of the piece: it is based on the experiences of the actors, meaning they can bring authentic feelings to it. Also helpful is another crossover between life and film: Dawson and DeBoy are partners beyond the camera, and the complex nature of their relationship is vividly brought out.

Dawson is absolutely heart-breaking as James. His sadness has no depths, his desperation just to feel is crushing. DeBoy has to stand by while his lover drowns under his emotional troubles. Dawson makes us feel in our bones how he must feel and his intense sex scenes serve as a counterpoint. In a similar way, Lee as Sofia cannot help her frustration and anger: they are etched into her face; even her fucking is angry.

The production aspects of the film deserve comment too. The scene zooms from one part of New York to another via what looks likes a cardboard-box version of the city but is in fact a beautiful computer creation, providing glorious segues. Shortbus the club is beautifully put together, not a den of iniquity but a place of comfort and fun, and the climactic scene there (I won't ruin it for you) is magical.

New York might appear as a latter-day Sodom to those not inclined to accept even the most pointful sex in a movie. As one character, said to be a former mayor of NYC, puts it in the film, "People come to New York to get laid ... People also come to New York to be forgiven." This film is as much about human emotion as it as about human passion. No-one in Shortbus is undamaged and the film ends up both as a lament for the post-Aids, post-9/11 loss of innocence and as a celebration of human vitality and the restorative power of love.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Hannibal, briefly

To the television, for Jonathan Demme's brains-for-breakfast, liver-for-lunch thriller, Silence of the Lambs.

I'm not a gore-meister, so I was hesitant about consuming two hours of cannibalism: could I handle the face-chewing (and not in the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes sense)? Luckily Silence's crimes are principally those of a psycho-killer, not a cannibal. Almost a relief, really.

This translates into a plot of definite moral ambiguity: the FBI, represented by agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), is using cannibal Hannibal Lecter, played by noted non-brain eater Anthony Hopkins, to track down the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill, who seems to be making a skin-suit (yep, just as it sounds) out of young women.

The real strength of Silence is the psychological aspect of the horror: we get repeated glimpses into Hannibal's twisted mind, rendering him comprehensible and hence even more repulsive. As Starling is told, if you let Lecter get into your brain, he'll never leave; this is a fair description of Hopkins' performance, which really does echo around the brain.

There is in fact a distinct lack of gore. As the several other Hannibal movies have shown, you can go way overboard with the violence and the brain-eating and the Nazi cannibals. In Demme's restraint is the unsettling success of the film.

One aspect, though, that I found particularly unworthy, offensive even: Buffalo Bill (and this is to reveal nothing) is a transsexual, but for no good reason. The motivation advanced is cheap and could have been represented in any number of different ways, or left out completely. Imagine if Buffalo Bill had been a Jew, or a Muslim, or an African-American, without good reason: it would easily be called racism. This is homophobia and mars what is otherwise a top-flight movie, a deserving Best Picture winner.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Here comes Company

To the Old Fire Station Theatre in Oxford for a revival of Company, the Stephen Sondheim musical where marriage is the name of the game and singledom is a busted flush.

Sondheim has a happy history in Oxford: I've seen excellent productions of Into the Woods, Assassins and West Side Story; the challenge of these larger, more complex shows has regularly been met. Company is a different beast: it has no linear plot - it is a series of vignettes of married life; its songs are not dynamos for the story but sharp analyses; and it requires no complicated staging (murderous giant anyone?).

The non-plot plot revolves around Bobby (Lucas O'Connor, who has a terrific voice and an engagingly devilish yet vulnerable manner), single among his whirl of close married friends. He just can't commit, instead skating through girlfriends and being set up by the marrieds, who preach the gospel of connubial bliss. Their own marital issues are explored by discrete scenes and songs; suffice it, it is easier to promote marriage when you don't have to consider your own.

This cynical attitude is suggested right at the start with the first song, 'Company' - Bobby can't avoid being badgered by his friends suggesting days out and evenings in, all in an obsessive desire for his presence ('Phone rings,/ Door chimes,/ In comes/ Company!'), implying the pleasure of Bobby's company and the insufficient company of their own marriages. The director, Sebastian Cameron, says in his note that 'the audience is never once told what to think', however the lack of idealised marriages is in itself a statement of belief.

The songs tend towards the sceptical in fact, even if the dramatic movement is towards acceptance of marriage and the need to let others in. 'Sorry-Grateful' ('You're always sorry,/ You're always grateful,/ You hold her, thinking:/ "I'm not alone."/ You're still alone') is unequivocally equivocal. But by the end, despite the dysfunctions around him, Bobby has seen that we all need other people to feel human ('Being Alive').

Is this a discrepancy in thought, with Bobby being shown one thing yet doing another? No, because he has realised that there is nothing wrong with these dysfunctions as long as they are your own. He has learnt that being the third wheel may be fun but that's all it is - your own pain and joy, your real experiences, are what marriage is about. Even if marriage is not idealised here, partnership wins through as a basic sign of humanity.

Everything is much more intimate in Company, hence the cast has to be strong in all its players - weak links are obvious when each is given solo time. The ensemble was very strong here, all being competent triple threats and making the larger numbers - especially 'Side By Side By Side', which goes on for quite a while - sophisticated and not at all disjointed. If there is a problem with the ensemble, it is that in musical numbers when they are not dancing they rather trample across the stage like bewildered cattle; this could probably have been solved with a stronger directorial hand.

There are some wonderful performances in individual scenes, particularly from Casey Rath as Amy, a reluctant imminent bride who has to deliver lyrics at spitfire speed as she figures out how to dump her fiancé before the altar, and Grace Overbeke as Joanne, the much-married harridan who is given the triumphant if incongruous 'Ladies Who Lunch', a bitter reflection on women who have (even illusory) purpose.

But Lucas O'Connor is the triumph of the evening. While perhaps not as macho as you might expect Bobby to be, O'Connor is a Mephistopheles of marriage, spinning his friends' wheels with a wicked grin. You can see Bobby's thoughts and pains being played on his face, and his voice is most expressive. He does beautifully bored dancing when he is conscripted into his friends' joy in 'Side By Side By Side', keeping up the pace while conveying his frustration. I for one would be glad to see O'Connor in another show.

Among the prodigious output of student shows in Oxford - at least three new productions every week - there are diamonds and there are disasters; happy to report, Company glittered.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Abu Disney

In this article, the New York Times' architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff discusses astonishing plans to trick out Abu Dhabi with several new museums, galleries and pavilions by the world's greatest architects. It's like a design fetishist's wet dream. You can just hear the satisfied sighs as Frank Gehry puts up another Guggenheim.

It sounds like a wonderful scheme. Who wouldn't want Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid to build outposts for the Guggenheim, the Louvre and Yale Uni? It will be gathering the brightest and best of the world in one place, which will quickly be flooded by affluent culturistas. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this - I for one would like to be able to pop out of the British Museum and into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then into the Hermitage.

However, there are three rather important objections to this idea. The first is that museums and galleries are always reluctant to lend their A-list items. It's hard to imagine that the Louvre will Fed-Ex the Mona Lisa to the Middle East or that Yale will bundle up some of its finest African masks. The most valuable and delicate items will stay right where they are, especially since they are some of the biggest draws to the existing museum. The only way the Louvre's prized Winged Victory of Samothrace is getting to Abu Dhabi is if it flies there itself.

Then there is the argument that what we'd be getting is not so much a global cultural centre as an artistic theme park, leading to a mush instead of a museum. The individual significances of both the museums and their collections are lost if they're all lumped together; you end up with a pick 'n' mix of treasures where all the items become devalued because there are so many of them. You might equally apply this to other mega-museums, and while there is something to be said for ease of access, the homogenisation of art tourism (which, make no mistake, this is) is hardly desirable.

Perhaps the biggest objection to this scheme is not the quality of the work or the hypermarket-like choice but the way the plan has been conceived. While Mr. Ouroussoff thinks that it would "plant the seeds for a fertile new cultural model in the Middle East", it seems to me rather that it would replay the traditional model of Western colonialism.

In the main, the architects are western superstars. They build all over the world, but they are based in the west; even the Iraqi Zaha Hadid has her office in London. The designs are Arab-influenced yet there seem not to be any Arab architects for the large museums - after all, would a talented but unknown architect from the Middle East draw as many tourists as Gehry?

The contents are coming from western museums too, with seemingly no involvement from the rest of the world. The galleries will undoubtedly include many items from the east and Africa and Australia but they have all been collected (stolen?) by the west. It is as if Abu Dhabi is saying that the only people worth dealing with are those in the west.

A "new cultural model" wouldn't involve importing the best of the west to build houses for the best of the west's treasures, which - ironically - have largely been harvested from everywhere but the west. We are seeing a familiar colonialism whereby the west patronises the east with its wealth and its culture. This is no successor to Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad, as Mr. Ouroussoff desires - they were cities where western culture came and cross-pollinated with other cultures. This is any western capital relocated to a desert, entirely aloof from its surroundings.

The aim of the scheme is to attract rich western tourists to the Emirates with consumer-friendly collections and big name-builders. Visitors will be able to look the centre in the eye and see themselves reflected. If Abu Dhabi wants to play this as a major cultural centre, that's fine, but it comes across far more as the EuroDisney of art.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

An occupied land in Africa

To the Honduras Street Gallery off Old Street for an exhibition of Saharawi art. It's entirely forgiveable if you have no clue what this is, though you'd have to be quite etymologically-challenged not to have a decent guess.

I'll put you out of your misery - and into someone else's - and tell you what it is, via a quick geo-political tutorial. Stick with me - you'll be grateful. To your right, ladies and gentleman, is a map of north-west Africa, with the country of Western Sahara (hence Saharawi, the native inhabitants) highlit.

Morocco (to the north) took over Western Sahara in 1975 and since then has oppressed the people, dividing the entire country with a wall (the Berm) which is as long as the distance between London and Moscow and is visible from space. Imagine Palestine without the publicity.

The Saharawi, who are trapped to the east of the Berm, either live in their native land and are beset by thousands of landmines or they are stuck in refugee camps in Algeria (a mere 200,000 of them).

The problem of landmines (the perversion of homeland into hostile land) is so serious that art about the Saharawi cannot avoid confronting it. It does, though, mean that some of the pieces on display here risk being bald political statements with an aesthetic aspect, rather than art for its own sake. Simon Thorpe's portraits of Saharawi men and women almost fall into this trap: the subjects - who have all lost limbs to mines - are there to express the terror of life in Western Sahara. It's not a subtle point he is making.

However, the photos are redeemed by their undeliberate deception and their beauty. When you first look at them, you pick out the desert landscapes of graceful blues and yellows and the bright robes of the subjects, not the disability, making it more shocking when you do see it. The contrast is very telling, suitable for such an important point.

If these are rather posed, the candid photos taken by several refugees in the Algerian camps are generally anything but. The pictures of a reunion of families divided by the Berm were so genuine, shot from among the crush of people at the very moment of reconnection. These make the same point as Thorpe's photos but with much greater poignancy because of their spontaneity and lack of pose.

The show was organised by Sand Blast, which raises awareness of the Western Saharan cause through Saharawi art. This is the first part of its assault on the popular consciousness via the medium of art, with a three-day festival planned for the autumn. If it can continue to bring these voices to our attention - and if we can see them not just as victims of politics but as artists in their own right - we should be grateful.

To see examples of Saharawi work, click on the Sand Blast link above and go to Gallery.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Too much 'and', not enough 'Porgy' or 'Bess'

To the Savoy Theatre for Trevor Nunn's de-opera-ised version of Porgy and Bess. It's just like the Gershwins' original, only cut by two hours, with better dancing and lowered by two octaves.

This was never going to be an easy proposition and Nunn went about the changes in the right way. To make it accessible and just plain digestible, the opera had to go, so moving the registers down to human level made perfect sense. I always found these wonderful blues songs - Summertime, I Got Plenty O' Nuttin, It Ain't Necessarily So - being sung by classically-trained singers more than odd, verging on inappropriate. Now they are richly, not archly, given.

The dancing also fits in well. It's not your Bob-Fosse-let's-move-like-we-have-no-bones-at-double-speed style, but rather the sort of movement that you think happy people would do. It was all very natural, again quite unoperatic.

These were the vital, successful changes. Far less successful was the pruning of the book, which left Porgy (played stolidly by the understudy) and Bess (Nicola Hughes, glowing and with a beautiful voice) almost as secondary characters. The entire development of their relationship was removed, so you have to make quite some leap to believe the stray hussy Porgy takes in is suddenly his lady love.

It didn't help at all that there was no chemistry; I'm perfectly willing to accept there may be between Clarke Peters (the proper Porgy) and Hughes, but the understudy projected the passion of a catfish.

As my friend pointed out, there was also a problem with over-miking. This was most evident when it was most ruinous: Bess is singing Porgy, I's Your Woman Now and Porgy is singing with her. Due to the over-miking, they seemed to be in a competition for who could sing loudest and consequently both were lost. This was the chance for Bess to shine.

The ensemble was fantastic, having much opportunity to shine. Perhaps too much opportunity, in fact, since we spent so much time in their company that the main story was neglected. Nevertheless, it was a joy to watch them.

On another evening, I might have been convinced that this was the electrifying night most critics have said. This night, however, I was far from convinced and feel slightly hard done-by: Hughes was so magnificent in her suffering and her love, with a terrific voice, that I would have liked to have seen much more of her and less of the ensemble.