Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Turbine hall installation, Tate Modern

It has been raining for years now, not a day, not an hour without rain. The continual rain has had a strange effect on urban sculptures. They have started to grow like tropical plants, and become even more monumental. To stop this growth it has been decided to store them inside, among the hundreds of bunk beds which, night and day, receive refugees from the rain.
So reads a large inscription ahead of Dominique Gonzalez-Foster's turbine hall installation TH.2058 (which takes up the second, non-raked end of the building). The installation is the pod for any number of dystopian narratives, told in the text quoted above, in science fiction paperbacks placed on the aforementioned bunk beds

and in the snippets of films shown on a screen at the end of the hall.

I didn't get any sense of a dystopian world from my visit there. Whilst the uniformity of the bunk beds is consonantly stark, the re-appropriation of other artists' work is simply a fad. Indeed, even the title sounds like Geroge Lucas' own dystopian masterpiece THX1138 - which, it turns out, is one of the films being shown. As for the sculptures - well, the appeal of their living once again as plants is a comforting notion to me. The idea that this furniture gets treated in the same way as a refugee jars (this is a personal reaction).
Dominique Gonzalez-Foster's work - TH.2058 - is the ninth work in The Unilever Series. Like its predecessors it is innovative, bold and challenging.
reads the guide text. No: like it's predecessors it is large, filling the space, and that's it.

La Boheme at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

La Boheme - and this John Copley production of it - benefits from youthful casting. The lightly-worn cares, impecuniousness and impetuousness of the first two acts are borne out in a busy staging. Last night's cast worked hard. Christopher Maltman's Marcello is a substantial presence; in an ensemble piece where everyone is always on Marcello is always at the front of both music and staging. Wookyung Kim rolled out a beautiful, consistent lyric sound as Rodolfo.

Alexia Voulgaridou's Mimi was most affecting. Despite the great tumescent blooms of love-music that both must ride and carry in the first act, Mimi's is a part of considerable delicacy. Voulgaridou's greatest achievement was in summoning a fine pianissimo at crucial moments. Her expiration in Act 4 drew an attention that no other set piece achieved to that point.

As is often the way, the greatest performance was from the orchestra who managed a more superior flexibility, tone and ensemble than their colleagues at the Coliseum had managed at the weekend. But then I'd imagine that there are probably some in the pit who have been playing this piece with one another since Copley first introduced this delightful staging when most of the cast were still children.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Cav & Pag at English National Opera

That's Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci to you and me. Which is my first gripe. Cavalleria rusticana doesn't mean anything in English - it's Italian and translates as Rustic Chivalry ('Country Manners' in the Chandos Opera in English series!). Pagliacci is a proper name so doesn't need translating but the character gets it anyway, becoming 'Mr Paxo' for reasons of both concept and scansion. We'll revisit this inconsistency-in-English business at the end.

Confrontation, contradiction and downright perversity - you can take it to the bank when two of the more familiar repertory operas get staged by Richard Jones. A director who likes to tip opera on its head to really get at it's heart, he's a bit like the playground bully who holds the small boy by his ankles until the dinner money falls out of his pockets - only to pick up the cash and give it back to him: 'See, look how much you had all along!'.

The Cav labours under some strange stage direction that has the chorus alternately embracing (it's Easter) and ignoring one another. There's no rhyme or reason for that but I did like the minor updating, setting the opera in a rough village hall in the 1930s. The romanticism of rural Italy is effectively supplanted by the kitchen-sink drama at its heart and the stage-in-the-stage lends itself to a trademark-Jonesian on-off stage inversion at the denoument. Powerful stuff.

Pag is a more energetic affair, largely as it has been saturated with ideas. There are four scene changes (not including superfluous dummy curtain call from the previous opera and the Prologue) all working an exploded-perspective view of 'the theatre'. It's not consistent enough to really roll the drama out - it's a bit choppy - but it is engrossing and subversive. You catch yourself laughing at the wrong moments and on the night I went a staged walkout by a chorus-parent concerned at Mr Paxo's lapse into obscenity was mirrored by someone stalking out of the Coliseum stalls in a huff.

In order to relocate or accommodate this opera in the 1970s variety circuit the text not only gets translated but transformed to fit the concept: 'Mr Paxo' is a case in point, a witty, inspired substitution for the eponymous principal character but bearing absolutely no resemblance to the clown of the original title or the ambiguous Harlequin lineage of the character. I think this approach is valid. The opera isn't about a clown per se. As I say, Jones is prepared to do rather alarming things in order to get at something fundamental.

Great ideas, competently dispatched - musically a little thin perhaps, across the board. Singing in English doesn't help this most intrinsically Italian of all opera but in addition to the worn arguments over accessibility and poetry - the literal vs the lyric - Jones has driven in this alternative wedge, the demands of the drama. As in all meta-operatic disputes it's the most important and the easiest to overlook. I missed a fair bit of what I might reasonably have expected from THE operatic repertory double bill on Saturday night - what I got was a fresh, thoughtful dramatic experience.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Gehry and Richter at the Serpentine Gallery

Yesterday I wandered over to see Frank Gehry's pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery exhibition.

It's quietly spectacular. There were lots of people simply sitting in its shade, reading the paper or chatting. Whilst there's plenty to wonder at it doesn't draw attention to itself aimlessly. Rather it turns out to be quite functional - and, with some plywood bits behind either side to house a kiosk and a lift - slightly village fete!

This is in gross contrast to the rubbish on display in the gallery proper. Gerhard Richter's 4900 Colours: Version II...
comprises 196 square panels of 25 coloured squares that can be reconfigured in a number of variations, from one large-scale piece to multiple, smaller paintings. Richter has developed a new version especially for the Serpentine Gallery exhibition... formed of 49 paintings of 100 squares.
This is a shame. I've always felt rather affected by Schwimmerinnen (1965). This exhibition is trite at best. A work of 4 panels, a sort of microcosm of 4900 Colours is on sale at the entrance to the exhibition at £12,000. delicious should feel plagiarised.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The Turner Prize: "Discuss"

This year we are being treated to (in order): collages of other artists' materials; stream-of-consciousness sculpture with found objects; portentous china-smashing on film; and, well, sort of an amalgam of all of these.

Viewing he work of artists shortlisted for the award is not the same as viewing anything else in the building (or so I told myself anyway as I found myself traipsing around in the shadow of Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak). The Turner Prize is not awarded to those with a particular gift for rendering an idea in an aesthetically satisfactory way. Rather, it rewards the artist trying to investigate or communicate new avenues of thought in the clearest manner.

I am not a Turner Prize contender. That much is evident by the less than clear previous paragraph. What is 'aesthetic satisfaction' if not 'clarity of communication'?! I'll try again: what struck me as I walked around this year's exhibition was that the ideas that are being communicated are not visual but literary. The ideas and their representation are distinct entities - they're not intrinsic (as they are in abstract or figurative sculpture or painting).

Consequently one of the most important parts of the exhibition is the final room in which the artists get to talk about their working basis - manifesto, subject, even motivation.

Armed with a bit of knowledge I could go back to Cathy Wilkes' ostensibly ridiculous mess of found paraphernalia (nurses uniforms, mannequins, bricks, jam jars, horse shoes). This work isn't about the objects. It's an attempt to bridge the gap between the precise nature of her experience and our experience of her explanation of the same. I like this idea. I think talking about our mutual alienation by virtue of our natural existential autonomy is an interesting, even slightly romantic subject.

However it can't make for good art. The whole point of modernism in art is about creating a new aesthetic vocabulary and syntax to approach old matters afresh and give adequate voice to the new. A piece like Claire Wilkes' readymade installation does not provide new language. Instead it is a valid invitation to engage in discussion of the topic, irrespective of whether the piece has any intrinsic attachment to that topic. It is entirely possible to confront and engage with Cathy Wilkes' Turner Prize entry without going into the exhibition as it is a philosophical, or literary piece.

I've picked up on Cathy Wilkes' entry as her interest is one that I share, philosophically. Yet this meta-art issue extends throughout the rest of the shortlisted works. Goshka Macuga's write-up on the Tate micro-site tells us that she
merges the roles of collector, curator and artist
This is the same role adopted by the curator-analyst Mark Leckey whose art is to pore over the work of others.

Runa Islam is the artist whose work has (comparably) its own merit. Yet again her focus is on the editing process in film itself - not in producing a film which can mystify, enthrall and elate by virtue of artful editing.

The Turner Prize is entirely valid, taken on the basis that it offers an opportunity to discuss ideas. Is it a good year? Yes, I think it might be. Is it a good show? Well, this issue revolves around whether the art on show has any intrinsic merit - it hasn't really (Goshka Macuga's does but that's not her point). As ever, an exhibition for the artful rather than the art-lover.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Worshipping the Golden Calf

If Damian Hirst's diamond encrusted skull made me feel a little uneasy - art and commodity almost perfectly superimposed - then his Golden Calf, made with real gold plate and sold as part of his record, middleman-negating Sotheby's auction made me shrug. I'd got used to the idea of the biggest-selling contemporary artist dealing with a preposterously wealthy top end in this premium, trade-marked product. It all seems rather removed from a crumbling credit recession-creep reality but then it's another world that doesn't really impact on me.

Then today I read two stories, side by side. First, the idea of there being a rush on gold. Second, and less innocuous, the creation of a new work by another YBA, Mark Quinn for a new British Museum exhibition: Siren, a sculpture of Kate Moss in gold.

Described by the museum as an "Aphrodite of our times", it sits in the Museum's Nereid Gallery, alongside its statues of famous Greek beauties.
Now, I dare say that Kate Moss may be not only a famed beauty but also justly so. Marc Quinn is a reasonable sculptor with some sharp ideas - there is also no reason why he shouldn't be able to sculpt in gold, if that's part of his concept and someone is prepared to furnish him with the precious metal...

Yet I can't help thinking that a having such a grossly ostentatious show of wealth is a misjudgment by The British Museum. After all, this is the week in which the chat about global recession has becoming a painful and frightening reality. The art of Hirst, Quinn et al is bound less comprehensively by the aesthetics of their work and increasingly in the ideas represented by its content, materials and context. Consequently the gold is as much on show, confrontationally so, as the sculpture (Quinn has even done this piece before, in white-painted bronze). I cannot find any information about the source of the commission and final destination of the work online at the moment. If this £1.5M piece has actually been commissioned for the nation by the British Museum it constitutes, arguably, a lack of good sense from the institution.

Martin Creed's Birmingham Ikon Lift

Ideas, yes. Musical composition, no thanks.