Saturday, 31 October 2009

Steve Reich at the RFH

... or to be totally accurate, Steve Reich by video link in the Clore Dancehall. This is a public space underneath the Royal Festival (Concert) Hall. The concert above was projected onto a big screen and piped in via a stereo surround loudspeaker arrangement.

It looked a lot like this.
(the accuracy of the musicians wasn't reflected in the spelling of the Powerpoint text). The sheer stamina, let alone technical ability of the musicians to reproduce Reich's music is not to be underestimated.

In the first half we heard Reich himself (& David Cossin) perform clapping music, which was the most disconcerting to watch, given that there was a signal delay that put the performance out of synch. Mark Stewart then performed Electric Counterpoint on guitar, playing live against his own prerecording of the other 12 parts. Finally NY collective Bang On A Can played the sextet - for me the most effective piece and performance of the evening.

But really, the meat of the matter was in the second half, with a performance of Music For 18 Musicians (mostly the London Sinfonietta), an absorbing and literally mesmerising score for everything from pitched and unpitched percussion to solo voices (the British group Synergy). It's here that the supernatural concentration of the musicians bears the fruit of the work and there was not faulting it.

Following this performance there was a Q&A session with the composer co-hosted by Paul Morley. I was sorry not to stay but, peculiarly, it felt as if the concert-goers proper from the hall were invading the space into which we freeloaders had accustomed ourselves, so I slipped away.

The Oubliette


The Oubliette are an art collective, famous for squatting in disused buildings in prestigious central London areas. I haven't been to see any of their exhibitions or shows; I'm just delighted that someone is getting use out of scandalously neglected London properties, even if their legal entitlement is grey. This photo is taken from outside their current squat in Leicester Square. theoubliette.co.uk

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Tate Modern, October public exhibitions

This is the view form inside Mirolsaw Balka's How It Is, an already demi-notorious installation in the turbine hall of Tate Modern (someone has already KO-d himself on a wall inside it). Lined with non-reflective, light-absorbent black felt, the installation is meant to disorientate the visitor. I didn't have a proper chance to try it's worth - it's half term and the extra influx of children mixed with the usual tourist crowd meant that stern notices forbidding flash photography were ignored. I must go back, although it should also be said that the sheer presence of the installation in the turbine hall is claustrophobic-inducing enough.

More interestingly perhaps is an exhibition in the small gallery by the Bankside entrance, known as the Level 2 Gallery. American artist Jill Magid's installation Authority To Remove is an unlikely collaboration with the Dutch Secret Service (AIVD). This installation is a classic example of contemporary conceptual-installation art that is simply fascinating on paper although rather flat when manifest. The AIVD got in touch, with reported reluctance, as Dutch law requires that new buildings, which the AIVD had just taken on incorporate an art commission into their budget.

Magid took to her task with considerable integrity and during the course of trying to establish contacts and relationships with the personnel of AIVD worked up a dossier of notes. This she submitted when the consequent exhibition opened in Den Haag - only for it to be returned redacted (i.e. censored), including the excision of passages of her own responses to her interviews and commission. This manuscript and the book that she had prepared using the notes are in the exhibition: the former as a reference copy, the latter as a one-off, under-glass exhibit that will perish with the exhibitions close.

As I suggest, the objets de texte are not particularly stimulating, and neither are the Nauman/Emin-style neon signs. Yet the idea that these pieces are not only a reaction to the AIVD but also that the AIVD have reciprocated that reaction gives them a frisson and a loneliness that invests them with something altogether more mysterious. Magid, cleverly, has not waste this potential. There is a single photo in the gallery capturing the moment in which the dossier was returned to her on US soil, as if by a third, secret party; and visitors to the exhibition itself are relayed in real time via a camera to screens at a sister exhibition (also in the US). I find all of this to have a fair bit to say about the sacrificial and transformative nature of relationships and about that process known in psychology as transference.

So, not much to see, plenty to consider - and to feel surveilled in considering.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Hirst's No Love Lost at the Wallace Museum

The paintings themselves have had a bit of a mauling, but then Rufus Sewell was never one of Damien Hirst's principal cheerleaders. I thought I'd take advantage of a lunchtime talk to give them a once-over.

Well, it turned out to be a bit of a mess. Not the paintings perhaps, which are broody 'Prussian blue' stylist-derivatives of Velasquez, Goya and Bacon. Rather we were given a dreadfully tepid introduction to the paintings. The talk was courtesy of one of the Wallace Collection's guides, a very pleasant but anonymous lady with an underpowered speaking voice for the fifty-or-so who turned up. She was clearly working with only the most basic knowledge of the paintings gleaned from Hirst (she'd clearly heard him talk a bit about them), the catalogue and the internet. For example, she clearly felt the need to refer to *grinningly* 'post-punk rockers The Joy Division' in relation to the dark tones and moribund content (almost ubiquitous trademark skulls) despite not knowing much about them.

Well, I'm sure the majority of us neither knows nor cares about them either - for those who might, they were the seminal rock act at the dawn of the 1980s, immortalised in no less than three major feature films in the past 5 years and whose albums sport now legendary artwork from Peter Saville, which - irridescent lines on black - bears more than a passing resemblance to the paintings under discussion:

Other information was presented as a biographical framework which had little to do with the paintings and which she cheerfully told us we could Google if we liked anyway. There were some interesting asides to hear about the frames of the pictures, silver gilt for five of them, four overpainted with the indigo-blue pigment that dominates the palette over the two rooms. There are also a couple of anomalous, possibly Mexican-style frames, but no further information was forthcoming. For titles to the paintings the museum has laid on a set of bafflingly cheap-n-cheerful laminated guides with inscrutable, thumbnail size reproductions of the pictures as a guide to their title, which in turn, haven't been correctly copied from the catalogue (£25 from the bookshop. It's just a picture book.)

The talk was over in 20 minutes, despite being advertised for an hour. I felt rather hard done by. No Love Lost indeed.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Culture Show at the NFT

(Of course, that should be "The Culture Show at the BFI Southbank"). This morning I attended the recording of a London Film Festival special edition of The Culture Show in which Radio 2 DJ Simon Mayo talked with his Radio 5 partner in crit Dr Mark Kermode and, a little later on, with Michael Palin. There's also a third section of the programme which we didn't see, a special piece about film criticism made by Hugo Young, which I very much look forward to seeing when it is actually broadcast.
The recording took place in NFT1 and with very little fuss (the picture above is, from left, Kermode, Mayo and Palin). There were some re-takes but essentially it just kicked off and the practised duo were quick, funny and to the point. Some questions during the floor during a tape change included whether Mark knew what the Secret Film (a week today) is going to be. He didn't but they discussed the possibility of James Cameron's Avatar with a certain hostility. It was also interesting to know that - and a truly random fact this, dredged from the mind of a caffeinated Kermode) - the book upon which the original Wicker Man was based was written by a cover for one of the parts in the stage play of Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. Apparently he simply sat backstage at the theatre and wrote while he wasn't being used. So there you go.

Michael Palin came in talk about his second tome of memoirs, which cover the transition from TV to film, including his work writing in L.A. and the beginning of his stint of travel filmmaking. He was gregarious if a little older-looking and had a great story about how he was cast in, filmed part of and then was cut from Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail.

Mark Kermode liked The Road and The Men Who Stare At Goats well enough although he seemed reticent about Fantastic Mr Fox, claiming it is a film made by adults for adults making erroneous assumptions about what's likely to appeal to children (I think that's broadly fair). He's also particularly looking forward to Sam Taylor-Wood's Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy which closes the Festival. The programme airs on Thursday.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Frieze Art Fair, Regent's Park

It would be quite easy to describe the Frieze Art Fair as an awkward arrangement of the hoi polloi and art dealer super-savvy - all one needed to do was to look at the fleet of extremely new, official Mercedes-Benz taxis parked next to a horribly mismanaged scrum of ticket holders trying to get in at the beginning of this, the first day.

Indeed for all that post-YBA art in this country has been a fully democratised culture, the phenomenal success that it has shored up means that there's always two strata of punter at the sales end: the wacky/impecunious artiste and the dealer/impressario.

I'm neither, although I occupy the first subset by default as I'm not super-rich or particularly knowledgeable. But here's where the Frieze Art Fair becomes rather good value. That doesn't really matter. You pay your money and step into a large, unsegregated tent with everyone else. If you're really sharp-eyed, you might catch sight of members of the royal family working the floor.

We spent an hour and a half in the tent (hangar?) which was about a quarter of the time needed to truly absorb it all. Never fear, Miranda Sawyer was there with a BBC crew filming an edition of The Culture Show, so there'll be an edition to help you catch up with the bits you skim over.

We came across a great deal of dross and nonsense - there's a fair bit of imitation in any artform but when you see installation art reproduced it seems particularly flat. There were one or two sparky ideas - ktischy collages from Farhad Moshiri and modern hardware meltdown by Aristarkh Chernyshev.

In the centre of the tent there are a number of more familiar, names - dealers as well as artists - and I felt my heart beat a bit faster to see a pair of Gary Hume paintings (including Four Ponytails) and works by Anish Kapoor and Bridget Riley.

Still, it's nice to know that there's also tat available, albeit from the big names. Here's a Tracey Emin deck chair, a snip at £100.

Fantastic Mr Fox at London Film Festival

Not that they've ever mucked about with the London Film Festival, but this year the BFI went a bit mental for the opening première of Fantastic Mr Fox in London's Leicester Square. It's impossible to get a picture to do justice to the temporary red-carpeting of almost the entire square, nor to the baroque scaffolding arrangements that kept the onlookers out (and under) and those of us who had bought tickets in. It was quite an event.

Luckily this wasn't the end of the fun. Once we'd made it inside the cinema, the screen was showing coverage of the celeb-cast meet-n-greet. Choice moments included Jason Schwarzman talking feverishly about his 'best friend' Wes Anderson and Bill Murray's interviews - the first, improbably, with Peter Andre (!) and the second, with the T4 presenter Rick Edwards, subverted by Murray's distraction at his voice being broadcast across the square.

Once the circus outside had subsided the entertainment switched to a short set played on the Odeon's stage organ before the introductions: BFI director Amanda Nevill introducing the Time Editor James Harding, then the film festival's artistic director Sandra Hebron introducing Wes Anderson. He spoke nervously about doing the film in 'outer East London' before introducing a selection of the cast - Clooney ("you know everyone dies at the end, right?"), Murray ("and a big shout out to outer East London!"), Wallace Wolodarsky, Schwartzman, Jarvis Cocker and the film's score composer Alexandre Desplat, amongst others. A wonderful evening's set-up for a film deserving all the buzz.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Pixies at the O2 Academy, Brixton

The Pixies curtain callI read Betty Clarke's review of the first of three nights of the Pixies in Brixton and decided to try and catch the last. It was worth it. The reformed punchy and pleasantly psychotic Boston outfit rocked out like it was 1990, closing a set made up almost entirely of Doolittle with Gigantic and Where Is My Mind? The video/light show was wonderful. More photos on Twitpic via my Twitter feed.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Wozzeck Salonen/Philharmonia

'Like a blade running through the world' is how the contemptible Captain describes Wozzeck. This phrase that pops out of the middle of Berg's opera really stuck with me: it occurs to me that this particular blade is very sharp, making a clean incision - no sooner has the violent cut been made than it closes again, rather like the waters quietly closing over his head as he drowns in the penultimate scene.


That's the pathos at the centre of Wozzeck, bullied into hallucinatory possession under the burden of which he slays his woman and then, by accident, himself. Simon Keenlyside's immersive performance had this absolutely nailed down. His Wozzeck has little grace, void of self-esteem in his gait and posture. He's not distracted, he just lacks any self-regard. Like the music though Keenlyside can move (and sing) with great explosive energy. One imagines it must have been terrifying for Katarina Dalayman to rehearse Marie's murder over and over, given how shockingly real it seems.

Keenlyside's Wozzeck is, like the music, a curious, self-effacing hybrid of protagonist and dramatic subordinate so one ocassionally lapses into 'noticing' the more conventional dramatic characterisations. Dalayman sings a powerful, sympathetic Marie but the stand-out role of the evening was the grotesque, snide Captain of Peter Hoare, a comic, loathsome and pathetic figure whose every word and gesture Hoare was determined should be heard right at the back of the hall. David Soar's fine cameo as the Branntewein-soaked First Apprentice was of this stable. I also have to mention the final scene's appearance of a select group of children. Coming on in all black like a premonitory column of corpses they were outstanding, even more so for their brevity of appearance.

No less a character, especially in this concert staging was the Philharmonia Orchestra, expanded to meet the scoring and firing into the red to meet its virtuosic demands. The Philharmonia's strength, control, found perfume in the dust kicked up by the periodic and fierce expressionist raging - their celebrated string ensemble was particularly effective (and the section principals were particularly fine, with James Clark leading). I felt that Esa-Pekka Salonen's handling was a curious mix, with a typically tight grip on the score but, strangely, only so that he could pursue its Romanticism. We heard Mahler flooding out between the music-as-woodcut smears of sound but I didn't always hear the real modernism in the score. This wasn't the most lean, diaphanous of readings.

An interesting addition to this production was that of a video installation. Relayed on a huge screen behind the orchestra, Jean-Baptiste Barrière's visual production 'projects the opera in vivid colours, inspired by expressionist paintings' (in Barrière's own words). The expressionism he refers to here is more to do with the swirling distortions of Munch or Schoenberg perhaps rather than, as he says, the quasi-satirical angularities of Grosz or Beckmann. Consequently the kaleidoscopic palette of the video swirled throughout the opera, incorporating real-time images of the performers in a datamoshed, Schnitzler-like Traum. Most of the time this worked as a visual adjunct (although, screen-wise, I was more interested in the surtitles) although the clip-arty shattering of an image of the boy at the moment of Marie's murder was a strangely crass anomaly.

A fine Wozzeck then, perhaps crowning the piece's incipient past rather than pitching it as the overseer of 20th century modernism but then, as such, it was a fitting conclusion to the Philharmonia's City Of Dreams season.