Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Jeff Koons at The Serpentine

I went to the Serpentine Gallery today to fuel my unqualified contempt for Jeff Koons. Rather irritatingly, I found his exhibition strangely substantial, if rather self-congratulatory. Koon's Popeye series involves cartoons (including Popeye himself) overlaid with sexualised images in pictures (porn, underwear) and extraordinary sculptures, inflatable swimming aids and toys cast in aluminium and arranged with banal ready-mades (bins, chairs).

And there are chains. Less chains as fetters, more chains to accentuate the contradiction of a metal sculpture that's rendered and painted to look as if it were filled with nothing but air. When I visited there was the extraordinary sight of two small girls holding helium filled balloons standing in front of an 'inflatable' monkey-chain sculpture suspended from the roof, static through its mass. The tension was enough of an experience without looking for narratives or meaning.

Naturally, one of the traditions of visiting the Serpentine's Summer exhibition is to take in the temporary Pavilion that stands outside. This year's (pictured above) is a polished metal gazebo by Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa. And it's rather good in my opinion.

Friday, 17 July 2009

BBC Proms 2009

The Proms start today. I'm interested in about five of them. If the season continues in the manner in which it has started, I worry.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne

An overwhelming and, amazingly, coherent production of this opulent semi-opera sprawl. The Fairy Opera is A Midsummer Night's Dream with illuminating musical interludes - masques - interpolated. These are sung by a small cast alien to the play and the chorus is joined by a dance troupe (making this the second GFO production with a significant dance investment, alongside Guilio Cesare). The singing is good. Carolyn Sampson's often reflective character stands out where the more narrative voices of Lucy Crowe, Ed Lyon and Andrew Foster-Williams seem entirely in control of the staging blancmange going on around them.

Blancmange? How about sherry trifle prepared in a paddling pool. Even by Glyndebourne's standards, this production of The Fairy Queen is opulent. Each change of scene ushers in what seems to be a completely new set. The most striking sequence of the evening lasts little longer than two minutes in which the entire cast come on stage in full rabbit costume to fornicate and then run off again. Interestingly, one could argue that a money-no-object approach to producing this piece is period practice, given that such a tableau-work would have been created with exactly this treatment in mind. It's an overwhelming experience in many ways and some take care of the 'not all'.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Per Kirkeby at Tate Modern

No, I hadn't heard of him either. Basically, Per Kirkeby is a Danish abstract painter who has also experimented with sculpture and collage and who has published a number of tracts and books on various (usually arty) subjects. With the exception of a disappointing, youthful flirtation with Fluxus he sounds fairly cool.

And, on closer inspection, he is quite cool. The earlier rooms flag up his bucolic interest in huts, one of the few figurative images that make it onto his canvases (well, boards, actually - canvas came later). One can also feel a Scandanavian interest in a fresh, outdoor - dare one say it - icy palette to go with this, inamongst the his recycled confrtonations with pop art (opaque, glossy primary colours, collage). The experimental watercolours are all part of this groping for self-expression.

It's difficult to see exactly where we're getting Kirkeby sui generis rather than a talented stylist absorbing and reworking all manner of interests. The key room, in terms of transition, is the fourth*, where we are informed that Fram (1983) is a key work... well this is certainly representative of the technique characterising the room but it still exhibits a certain inhibition, a rigid self-consciousness.

I felt that the authoratitive self-expression came in room 6. To get through this one has to move past a series of 'blackboard' works and their sculptural equivalents, bronzes painted with a black matt finish. These are idiosyncratically rendered - there is a sense of the artist's maturity of technique - if not a uniqueness of content. Yet, in room 6, we are finally confronted with four grand canvases, expansive, arms-thrown-open affairs in which his work with colour, form and technique seems to come into focus. Paint on unstretched canvas continues to be more or less the medium of choice up until the end of the exhibition, which concludes with some super paintings, including the mighty The Siege of Constantinople (at the head of this post).

I'm going to go off on a tangent which concerns the Tate's new policy of note handing out exhibition notes in hard copy as a means of reducing their carbon footprint. This is, broadly speaking, a good idea. After all, the notes are printed on the walls of each room. It is a little inconvenient to not be able to have them to hand when one is blogging a potted review of a visit but at least they'll be online...


... no - they're not available online, which means I have to guess (*) when it comes to talking about certain rooms in retrospect (and yes, I do often take notes on visiting an exhibition, but I usually make those notes on the exhibition literature that was previous handed out). Now that really is a terrible oversight.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Gormley on The Fourth Plinth

For the next few months there'll be a new person standing on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square every hour. It's Anthony Gormley's idea, it's a good one and it looks like this.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Amour de Loin - Saariaho at ENO

Well, I broadly agree with Ruper Christansen in The Telegraph:
If what you want from opera is the equivalent of a warm bath filled with scented bubbles...
as well as Andrew Clements in The Guardian:
... the evening remains desperately uninvolving.
With slightly more detail I'm best allied with Edward Seckerson in The Indie. He's prepared to recommend the show to the Classic FMers in the same way that Christiansen does - "If two hours in a floatation tank is your idea of heaven, then this is for you." - but does the piece the service of trying to actually get a grip on it too.

He has two interesting points. Firstly, one that eluded me, was that
"love from afar"... has some resonance with the internet generation... in endorsing the idea that distance (or anonymity) really does lend enchantment, promoting safety in fantasy.
This is the romance at the heart of the opera's appeal, exacerbated by the principals' inability to actually connect with one another, as each character is played in triplicate, dancers shadowing the singer. This act in itself has interesting potential and is terribly confused over the span of the opera. It just hadn't quite been sufficiently thought through.

The second is that of the nebulous spiritual - in fact, religious - gravitational pull of the text. With a pair of lovers drifting together on the basis of hearsay there is a lot of store put by fatalism, the idea of destiny. Rather weakly, Amin Maalouf's text all too easily slips into their assumption of some sort of divine scriptwriter who has decreed their union. This half-baked idea is taken up in Clémence's abject rant as the piece closes.

It's a great shame. There's an opera just waiting to burst forth from the third character, a sort of go-between for the lovers who is also a pilgrim; this character is never some sort of Olympian seer, removed from the (chaste) passion by piety but rather the all too human messenger-to-be-shot. I'm really sorry to say that this potential seems to emerge because of the weakness of the writing/staging than as the intention of the composers, something that is also apparent in Clémence's final peroration. It's just (buzz) words for Saariaho to wind sound around rather than something to pique the interest of the audience. It is not insignificant that during the curtain call the one production member so caught up in congratulating the (deserving) performers to the detriment of the patient audience was Maalouf.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Karl Malden

Very sorry to hear of the death of Karl Malden. I thought he was great in On The Waterfront and, most recently, I saw his turn in I Confess, which grounded that film. But I'm rather overcome to discover that latterly he played Bartlet's former parish priest, visiting the President during the first series of The West Wing to provide counsel when Bartlet has struggled with a death row decision. It's one of the best set pieces in the entire TV series, with arguably the greatest episode-closing line, delivered by Malden:
He sent you a priest, a rabbi and a quaker, Mr President, not to mention his son Jesus Christ. What do you want from him?.. Jed... would you like me to hear your confession?