Thursday, November 22, 2007

Seduction without the smiles

From the Guardian ArtsBlog.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.