Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A line's many sides

From my blog at spearswms.com.


A line is a curious thing. It links two points, or it divides two sides: you can have a line of communication or a line in the sand. In 'The Russian Linesman: Frontiers, Borders and Thresholds', the new show at the Hayward Gallery curated by Turner-winner Mark Wallinger, we see both sides, as it were.

The titular linesman is the official who helped England to its 1966 World Cup win by deciding that the ball had crossed the line. This is the least interesting thing about the show: there is far more inside that this might suggest.

Wallinger's own contribution to the show is a gigantic mirrored Tardis, which straddles the line of existence: it is clearly there, but its mirrors reflect the room (and us), so that there is no hint of anything solid, only images. As the picture makes clear, at certain times it even seems transparent, rather than reflective. It is a neat trick.

One of the key pieces, which has more than art-theoretical resonance, is Bertelli's Continuous Profile of Mussolini (1933). The dictator's profile has been shaped by carving contours all the way around a ceramic centre: whichever angle the sculpture is viewed at, there are always two faces of Mussolini. (It draws on the two-faced head of Janus, god of doors and the origin of 'January', adjacent to it.)

As well as being artistically innovative, the work is a politically subversive statement: Mussolini is watching at all times, but he has no solidity, no definition. He is and he isn't . Given that this is an official bust, one must be surprised by his tolerance (or lack of understanding).

Thomas Demand's Poll (2001) is a curious experiment too: a cardboard recreation of a photo taken during the election recount of 2000, then photographed. This is the line between the government America had and the one it lost, but also the line between several kinds of reality: the real scene, the photo of the scene, the carboard recreation of the photo of the scene, the photo of the cardboard recreation of the photo of the scene. A veritable fractal, or two mirrors casting images at each other.

There is a lot more than this, and each piece is its own complex variation on the idea of lines, which saves the show: rather than being simple demonstrations of the use and abuse of liminality, we see that there are far more than two sides to a line.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sprung Awake: Spring Awakening

There is much to like about Spring Awakening, the new rock-emo musical based on Frank Wedekind's late-nineteenth century play on at the Lyric Hammersmith: it has some very tender acting, a couple of memorable songs, some very lyrical lyrics (when audible) and a knock-out neon-bar set.

It - for me, but clearly not for the hundreds of mooning teenagers in the audience - had one serious problem: it could not make me engage emotionally. But more on this later.

The play exists on a similar plane to A Clockwork Orange and Lady Chatterley's Lover: its explicit sex among teenagers has made it a perfect candidate for black-listing. (Frankly, it should be a mark of pride and distinction rather than dishonour.) Class stud and intellectual aspirant Melchior (Aneurin Barnard, touching) accidentally impregnates innocent (but willing) Wendla (Charlotte Wakefield), while depressed nihilist Moritz (Iwan Rheon) faces his parents, his teachers and his (lack of a) future in a society where children are first oppressed, then made into cogs in the machine of life. It is, in fact, a perfect analogue for A Clockwork Orange's dispossessed teens, who instead take the path of violence.

This production does not shy away from the sex - masturbation in a nightshirt raises all sorts of questions, and there is even a teenage breast for the boys dragged there - but it makes it such a natural part of the lives of these characters that it is wholly justifiable. (The 'kids', tho' 14 in appearance, range from 16 to 25.)

It is odd to talk about what is natural in a musical, where things are inherently not natural: communal singing and dancing may be part of a rich inner life, but it is their expression which is odd. Spring Awakening overcomes this because the songs come at pitches of rage, or despair, or desire, when a recourse to words is not enough.

There are no showtunes in the manner of the Lloyd Webber, but rather a blend of metal-rock and emo instantly recognisable to anyone who has been (or known) a teenager in the past decade. (The book and lyrics are by Steven Sater, the music by Duncan Sheik.) They are not wildly individual or catchy, but their lyrics, which revel in the emotional colour of the Romantics' verse, cut to the dreamy hearts or angry minds of the characters. If they were more clearly sung, they would be a real achievement.

This production is inescapably tender, but never mawkish: when Melchior and Wendla have sex - well-staged on a floating platform - their friends sit around them on the floor below and sing of true belief in love. The early meeting of Melchior and Wendla is beautifully done (tho' it's hard to tell from this clip):

While this could be construed as Dawson's Creek with songs, it is really much more touching.

The problem I have with Spring Awakening is almost certainly more to do with me than with the play, but it is still a fair point, I think. Like with the paintings of Mark Rothko, people like to sit in front of Spring Awakening and pour out their angst and misery, project it onto the work of art. It is a very public form of sadness and it seems more for display value than for itself: it says, 'Look, I am sensitive. I have feelings.'

I am not embarrassed by public displays of emotion, but it seems that Spring Awakening requires that leap into grief to succeed fully. Without reserve, no doubt I could have soaked through a handkerchief or three as did the teenage girls flooding the stalls, but it felt a little too forced, a little too much of a prerequisite: it operated on a level of too-easy emotion. Or perhaps it was just me.

A complete shower: Three Days of Rain

Or should that be Two Hours of Pain?

Tedious doesn't even begin to cover Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain. According to the programme, the play is called Three Days of Rain FULL STOP, which is indicative of how seriously it takes itself: this play does not just have a name, it is a statement. It is meaningful. Even if it is vapid and meaningless.

The first act shows the combustions of mysterious, troubled Walker (James McAvoy, a first class ham which is off its lithium), his mild, troubled sister Nan (Lyndsey Marshal), and their manic, troubled friend Pip (Nigel Harman). They are to learn what Walker and Nan's famous architect father has left them in his will: who will gain possession of a house so described as to resemble most closely a cross between Falling Water and the Taj Mahal?

Thirty-five years earlier (although it feels later), the second act shows their parents, the famous architect Ned (McAvoy, who brings out a prize stutter and some rather affecting acting), his partner Theo (Harman, still manic) and the girl Ned steals from Theo (too late for a *spoiler* I suppose), Lina (Marshal). They have combustions over Theo's lack of talent and Ned's talent.

Harman runs away and almost his entire role in the second act is to walk back and forth across the front of the stage while it rains. He has one speech. For heaven's sake, if you have three characters, use them - don't try and establish some parallelism with the first act then toss away one corner of the triangle.

While Harman is getting soaked to the skin, McAvoy is getting down to his, prompting mass faintings among the audience, who were clearly there because they had loved Greenberg's earlier Donmar drama, Take Me Out, about gay baseball players.

There is supposed to be tension between Ned and Lina, because she is Theo's girlfriend and manic, he is an unassuming genius, some sexual chemistry even, but there is none: it's a shower, rather than a storm. (The title is a hostage to fate.)

There are no grand themes here: the personal, which can be universal or even simply powerfully-rendered, is banal. We cannot make meaningful connections between the two acts - the mental disturbances of Walker (Ned: 'I always wanted to be a flaneur, you know, a walker') may stem from his mother's problems or his father's reticence, but the second act is so flimsy that it is hard to identify them.

The title comes from a brief entry in Ned's diary, which Walker has found. It is supposed - through cunning understatement - to evoke the grand passion of the three days when he and Lina fell in love, but it - just like the play - is a damp squib.

Indian Summer blooms

From my blog at spearswms.com.


I feel a desperate need to slough off the English winter and replace it with an Indian summer (or at least a Delhi spring). Sadly, I won't be gracing the duty-free shops of Mumbai airport or practising my practical Hindi ('How do you keep your economy so buoyant?') but I will be attending a season of exhibitions and events at the British Museum.

No-one would try to claim that the BM is now only known for the Elgin Marbles and the Sutton Hoo burial: it has made strides far beyond this with blockbuster terracotta warrior and Hadrian exhibitions, and now it has moved into Babylon and thence Iran. Judging by this vaguely eastward movement, it's time to hit India in a season sponsored by HSBC.

Of equal interest to fans of Gertrude Jekyll and the history of art, Garden and Cosmos: the Royal Paintings of Jodhpur will explore a relatively unknown facet of Indian art: the landscape. These paintings are in some ways exactly what you would expect, bright and vibrant portrayals of a world away from Constable.

What lifts them above the mere landscape (take that, Constable) is the metaphysical dimensions they tackle. The paintings move into exploring planes and colour fields, more like Rothko than Rajasthan.

There will also be, thanks to the kind curators of Kew, an Indian garden installed in the Museum's forecourt. Theory and practice, you see. And if Indian trees can't ward off the rain and coax out the sun, then there's really no hope for us. Step inside instead.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Art pays

From my blog at spearswms.com.


There is a good article on Wealth Bulletin asking what banks should do with their art collections: after all, according to the article, Deutsche Bank has 53,000 pieces (valued at £75m in 2004, including the Hirst below) and UBS has 45,000 (approximately £100m) and they could no doubt stand to sell some, as well as profit from their loss.

But there are several compelling reasons to keep the art. When companies are as far in the hole as global banks are, losing so many billions that their calculators can't display enough the full figures, selling an art collection - in a falling market - is hardly likely to raise enough cash to service the second executive jet.

Less tangibly, but perhaps less credibly, an art collection says something more about a bank, something beyond 'We know the price of everything and the value of nothing' (which is clearly not even true any more since they can't even price their toxic assets).

Art is not (meant to be) a stock market, where prices fluctutate daily on rumours and warnings: it should be a good deal more enduring. Even if - as would terrifically gauche on the bank's part - the art deals with financial themes in an obvious way, the work should still be hoping to speak to the future too.

The ownership of art - and its display, of course - says that a bank cares about things beyond its own walls, feeling and thoughts more profound and more sophisticated than an abacus can say. Even if this is an illusion, it is an illusion which dignifies the bank. Selling up is selling out.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Why?: Some questions raised by 'He's Just Not That Into You'

A serious film like He's Just Not That Into You (based, as are all cinematic classics, on a self-help guide for terminally optimistic singletons) deserves serious critical consideration. Sadly, it only has me. Nevertheless, some questions raised by the film.

1. Why?
2. Why?
3. Seriously, why?
4. What has happened to Scarlett Johansson's career? She was so good in Lost in Translation and - well, so far that's it.
5. Are Scarlett's breasts really worth sitting through two hours of HJNTIY (as it would be called were this a pronounceable acronym)? They do get a lot of screen time.
6. This film is set in Baltimore, home of The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street. Is it thus plausible that there is not a single murder in two hours?
7. Why couldn't Jennifer Aniston's character have been murdered?
8. Or even Jennifer Connelly's?
9. Why don't we see Drew Barrymore in more films? She was the only one with spark in the whole palaver.
10. Why are black women (especially fat ones) and gay guys inherently funny? As one of the latter (but not the former), I would suggest we can be rather witty, but when the only 'laughs' in the film are assigned to these two categories, you have to wonder if we're doing more than our share of the laugh-lifting.
11. Are lines like 'You're my exception' due to become classics along the lines of 'We'll always have Paris'?
12. Are women really as stupid as the film portrays?
13. Are men really as cruel?
14. If so, why do we go on?
15. Are we supposed to approve of Scarlett acting as a home-wrecker? It seems so, but in a film where a relationship is the highest good, adultery is presumably bad.
16. Why am I spending so much time asking questions about this film?
17. Seriously, why?

Triennial triumph

From my blog at spearswms.com.


It is all, says the curator, about dialogue. Works of art in Tate Britain's fourth triennial are placed so that they can speak to one another. (Not vocally speaking, obviously, although there is one terrifying use of larynxed animatronics.)

It is also all, says the curator, about Altermodernism (read its manifesto here). Two steps beyond miserable modernism, one step beyond miserable post-modernism, joyful altermodernism sits, embracing global cultures and new media.

From the improbably-named Spartacus Chetwynd's video installation across a dozen screens to the grave photogravures of Tacita Dean, via Navin Rawanchaikul's epic Bollywood-style painting and Shezad Dawood's ecumenical DVD, all continents and forms are examined in a show which embraces the vibrant and difficult.

Nicolas Bourriaud, the aforementioned curator, has wrenched what he hopes will be the next movement in art out of the pasty hands of westerners and into those of the rest of the world. This is better in theory than practice, of course: at least half the 28 artists work in London, and several more in New York. Talent from elsewhere, while not lacking on the arts scene, has largely not made it into Tate Britain.

The best room in the show is in fact the work of one Englishwoman and one Scotsman. Tacita Dean has made photogravures of funerals and scenes of devastation, then written over them (as is her way) as if to suggest they are stills from a movie. The darkness (metaphorical and visual) of the images, their sombre tones, their stillness all touch the heart.

At the other side of the room is Charles Avery, whose art all stems from a fully-realised fictional world - not just geography but culture and society. There is a black and silver swirling map of this world, complete with imagined place names and a delicate topography. There is a sculpture of an imagined creature too, which resembles a duck whose bill is another duck; this 'Aleph Nul' (to the right) is just one of the animals which populates the world (and Avery's mind). Along with some deft drawings, you become instantly immersed in this world and begin to ask why it is any less real than the real world. After all, much of this world is as we would like to imagine it, rather than as it is.

The photos of Darren Almond are peaceful landscapes, taken with 15-minute exposures; they are just as restful on the brain as they are on the eyes. Inversely stimulating is Navin Rawanchaikul's triptych, which looks like a Bollywood billboard and is painted in joyful colours, with beautiful Hindi script snaking along in pastels and vibrant blues. The simple appearance belies its complex exploration of alienation from one's culture (Rawanchaikul works in Japan and Thailand) - this movie is one of dreams lost, rather than realised, on celluloid.

It is stretching it somewhat to claim that these are the up-and-coming heroes of modern art - Tacita Dean is a long-established figure. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting survey of the landscape, eliciting hints about the future of modern art. Post-altermodernism, anyone?

Friday, February 06, 2009

Thatched, matched, dispatched: a BBC conspiracy?

Far be it from me to stoke conspiracy theories - especially ones favoured by the excitable middle market papers - but the idea that the BBC hates Margaret Thatcher received support from possible the most likely place.

After her daughter Carol was thrown off the One Show for a racist remark, thousands complained that this was because of a BBC vendetta against the Iron Lady. Well, the conspiracy grows: on QI just now, one of the witnesses to the remark, Jo Brand, said that Thatcher's ennoblement meant she now sounded like a pubic depilator. Laughs all round.

Of course, Jo Brand is not the entire BBC and does not represent its views, and QI was filmed weeks before the Carol Thatcher controversy, but no doubt those who so enjoy foaming at the mouth will be filling letters columns citing this as proof of all sorts of conspiracies. Did someone say they saw Jo Brand behind the grassy knoll...?