Thursday, 31 March 2011

Modern Opera Satirised

I put my frustrations about the absurdity of opera into a sketch for my Channel 4 series The Armando Iannucci Shows [Autumn 2001]. In it, I attend a performance at Covent Garden of Ibiza Uncovered: the Opera, in which we mounted a full-scale modern production, with trained opera singers rather too old for the parts singing in their bathing trunks about shagging and going to Manumission to see Paul Oakenfold on the decks. The exceedingly good opera director Richard Jones saw it and later told me that it reminded him of some of his own productions. (from The Times Archive)

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Art & History, by Germans, in France

The recent release of Werner Herzog's Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is the latest in a short but high-calibre roster of German artists working in France over the past ten years. At the forefront is the film director Michael Haneke. Code Unknown presented a matrix of interlaced stories concerning contemporary Parisians; the subsequent Hidden linked social volatility to France's political history. Eighteen months ago saw the release of Sophie Fiennes Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, a documentary about the work of German Artist Anselm Kiefer and in particular his open-air 'studio' in Barjac. Finally, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams investigates the delicate Chauvet Cave with its 32,000 year-old Upper Paleolithic era paintings (including the red hand-print, above).

Clearly these high-calibre artists have found the space and material for their art in France. Haneke's work concerns the pessimism and fissures in contemporary social ties. Necessarily the period piece The White Ribbon concerned Germans and Germany but as a more objective investigation of the stain of history the two Parisian films provided a more suitable frame.

Equally, Anselm Kiefer's work is invariably bound up with the social history of Germany (his breakthrough work,  Besetzungen or Occupation, involved photographing himself performing the Nazi salute in front of sites that had been co-opted by the Third Reich) and continues to draw on history or myth. The relocation to Barjac allows the broader commentary on global industrialisation to breathe free of national stigma. It's also created with the distant intention of allowing natural reclamation of the site (pictured, right).

Thinking of Fiennes' Kiefer documentary looking forward to the decline of civilisation and then a real monument looking back on it in Herzog's Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, I was reminded of the remarkable Channel 4 documentary Life After People. This (in the UK, single-feature) documentary constructed a hypothetical future in which human existence had suddenly and entirely evaporated. Unlike the wistful, suggestive - or, at least - ruminative work of Kiefer and Herzog this programme was more a visual statement of what our understanding of natural processes would mean for the earth in our absence. Interestingly, this made as much of an impact on me as the inevitably artistic conceits with which Kiefer and Herzog present their ideas.

Clearly, pursuit of such objectivity to stiffen the integrity of their art probably accounts, in some part, for these German artists crossing a border in order to realise their goal.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Afghanistan, British Museum

This compact but rich exhibition at the British Museum has an inevitable political thrust. Not only is the exhibition of cultural and material treasures from that country an exercise in heightening awareness of a region in which we are at war. The exhibitions is, in fact, largely comprised of artefacts discovered in the lull between post-war conflicts and then hidden during the resurgence of violence. The very fact of the exhibition is some sort of achievement in itself.

What is most remarkable about the content of the exhibition is that the pieces might well have come from archaeological sites from one of up to four different countries. It is clear that Afghanistan was a major trading route for civilisations from the Mediterranean right across and up to China. Greek pottery and glass in one case sits next to ivory and Indian furniture sculpture in the next.

The final section of the exhibition is full of bittersweet gold, a broad selection of jewellery found in the graves of a group of wealthy commercial travellers. This includes the crown that features on the front of the brochure (above), a seemingly complicated piece which is actually designed to fold away for convenient stowage on the road.

In fact, overall one is aware that the pieces are extremely small. Whether this is because smaller wares were the stock-in-trade of the travelling merchants or simply those necessarily preferred by the cultural guardians trying to preserve the heritage of Afghanistan from looting is hair-splitting. Clearly the wealth of Afghanistan is that which passes along its routes, not that which stands, exposed, beside them.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Anselm Kiefer at White Cube

A major piece by Anselm Kiefer, Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (The Waves of Sea and Love) has recently gone on show at Hoxton Sqaure's White Cube gallery. Like so much of Kiefer's work, this is a collection of pieces concerned with history - the pieces are inspired by a Greek legend - and by being a continuous part of that history - they are made in such a way as to draw attention to their ability to degrade and corrode.

The first room has rather a lot going on in three separate areas. Firstly, the far wall has a sculpture hung on a screen, looking at the same time dredged from the sea bed and with cartoonish appendages to show it consumed with flames. Secondly the side walls have 24 large photographs of waves breaking on the beach, the prints manipulated by electrolysis. Each has a large gynaecological instrument placed on it, usually at the point where the spume is breaking. Finally there are a number or vitrines holding large books with further shoreline pints with Euclidean geometrics scribbled over them.

Kiefer's focus on this occasion is the legend of Hero and Leander (via Marlowe and Grillparzer), concerning a man who nightly swam the Hellespont to be with his lover. The images of the sea speak for themselves, as do the age-indicating sepia effects of the printing process.

On top of these Kiefer has placed fetters of modernity, the industry of a martial vessel and the scientific facelessness of surgical instruments. The vessel is useless and mocked in a Python-esque overlay of collage. The instruments are oversized reproductions, like monuments. In the vitrines the ideas chalked over images of the waves are a fatuous attempt to control, contain or simply rationalise the edge of the sea.

Where a lover's bloody-mindedness blinded him to the dangers of the sea, the industrial paraphernalia arranged awkwadly over each photograph is hubristic. Yet Kiefer's attitude to these collages is more ambivalent than one might think. His attitude is not satirical (with the possible exception of the boat sculpture, involving, as it does, a ship of war) but is more compassionate, more of a series of momento mori.

Further to this there is a second part to the work in the upstairs gallery. It is significant that one has to go further into the gallery to see this, as the photographs show a man (Kiefer himself) who has moved on from the beach to swim in the sea. The livid, rust-red prints, subject to the same printing processes do not show him in haste to an unseen point or to return to shore. Rather, in the foreground of the body of water, he seems to be enjoying the experience of having a swim.

I like this idea of trying to show the relationship with the environment, a historically contextualiused impression of treating the sea with a healthy respect or ignoring its awesome power to their peril. With bittersweet serendipity, it's also a very current exhibition, as a nuclear power station staggers from a sneeze of nature off the coast of Japan. To me the treatment of the pieces in such a way that their intrinsic, material potential to decay is highlighted is an unnecessary step. My imagination understands this potential without having the tiresome, sleeve-pulling insistence suggesting that it's likely to be proved if I stick around long enough. On a straightforwardly aesthetic level, I'm not a fan of images or, particularly, sculptural installations under glass. Still, the exhibition provides plenty of grist for thought, to mix metaphors (which I also think it does).

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Kommilitonen! at the Royal Academy of Music

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' new opera Kommilitonen! is about the heroic, principled actions of twentieth century students. It's written as an ensemble vehicle for the student corps of the Royal Academy of Music, but, of course, serendipity keeps tabs on these things. It looks as if it could have been written to the current political agenda: a significant domestic student protest within the last four months and, as I write, the spectre of a thuggish government flexing its muscles against its own citizens give the enterprise perspective and currency.

Kommilitonen! covers the nobility of the American civil rights struggle, the hazardous heroism of anti-Nazi agitprop and the self-parodying hysteria of Mao's cultural revolution. These are ripe subjects for operatic exploitation, full of complicated, compromised moral relationships, iniquity, violence and sorrow. On the face of it Kommilitonen! should be a super vehicle for the sort of ensemble opera that benefits those studying on the opera course.

The real James Meredith at the University of Mississippi
As a showcase then it is an excellent piece of lyric theatre. The Meredith plot differs from the Nazi and Mao strands in being, essentially a monologue narration. As there is precious little genuine dialogue elsewhere in the opera, the relationship that baritone Marcus Farnsworth establishes with the audience is key to engaging with the work. It's a nicely sung, assuredly acted characterisation, clearly built on the conversational rapprochement of song recital that is the notable feature of his biography. In a sensible and appropriate postscript to the cast list, the production team acknowledge that the essence of Meredith's situation is that he was black (Farnsworth and, on alternative cast nights, Adam Marsden, are white), but claim that professional parity as well as the illusory essence of the theatre have priority, especially in a situation where none of the students is naturally of this ethnic make-up. I might also add that the narrating function of Meredith across the entire opera puts him at a remove from the realist demands of the drama anyway. It worked for me.

If there are comparable principal protagonists in the other plots, one is the soprano Aoife Miskelly (Nazi-resistant Sophie Scholl), who has a similarly confident, lieder-clear style to Farnsworth. Sophie is the prima inter pares of a quintet of students playing a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with a Munich populus sleepwalking into National Socialism. All five act with a convincing, endearing heightened sense of life - the agitation of adrenalin and self-claimed Freiheit.

The Mao portions of the opera are colourfully satirical, not least through some ingenious stage puppeteering. The staging is chorus-heavy, with much choreography, and includes an onstage band. Speaking for this Little Red Book wielding crowd is the zealot-perky Zhou of Ruth Jenkins, projecting voice and character right to the back of the theatre. She finds herself engaged in an exercise of non-communication with the a pair of children, orphaned by the brutalising of their academic parents. Li, the daughter (Belinda Williams) is bitterly compliant but Wu, the son, contests the new social order in the privacy of his heart, waiting for the inevitable decline of the mindlessly parroted social contract. Katie Bray characterises Wu with the quality of her sound, generous, plangent, compassionate. It is, for me, the most gripping account of a maligned individual of the evening.

Binding and offsetting this principal group are a pool of smaller roles, from which Jonathan McGovern's chameleon baritone stood out - or rather he didn't, decorously sublimating himself into his functional roles, including the voice of the Chinese father-puppet. The chorus were well-drilled not only in the score but also in a complicated sequence of ballets and blocking. If there was any heterogeny in this corporate staging it was entirely to do with the prioritising of the music (with a notably ringing tenor line), not to mention the necessary complications of a busy production on a modest stage. In addition to the on-stage band there are a number of other on-stage instrumentalists who are required to play in role, and within the score but from memory, notably the affecting Erhu of Amy Yuan.

There's little of the piece itself to criticise. Maxwell Davies is true to his word, writing stylistically but without pastiche. David Poutney manages the density of running three stories across one another well - despite the congestion of detail and ideas I never found myself losing focus. Under the sure-footed direction of Jane Glover the complexities of the score breeze past with a precision that allows the company to really show itself in its best light. Not only a worthwhile project but, uncommonly for new music, one with a great potential for a future.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

John Stezaker at The Whitechapel Gallery

Well, better late than never. This retrospective closes tomorrow and was worth getting to see on its final evening. John Stezaker has been superimposing, juxtaposing, cutting up and cutting out found images for about forty years. The results are often surreal, sometimes challenging and always witty.

If the exhibition had been sold on a single style of image it was the superimposition of landscape postcards on the more powdered contours of artist headshots. Technically the fun is in Stezaker's matching key features of the landscape to the shapes you might have expected to see on the face (the identity of the head is unimportant). There's also the visual perfume of having a colour landscape on a black and white face.

What I really responded to - and this goes for other series throughout the exhibition - was the twist this brings to our perception of depth. There must be some term for it. You look at a face. You can then mentally compare that image with  images taken from direct experience of faces and the 3D space they occupy. The process is the same for a picture of a landscape, although the scale is radically different.

So as we look at Stezaker's faces, quite apart from the incongruity of (for example) bridge arches where eyes should be, we find ourselves trying to process the same shapes in two wildly different sets of dimensions.

This dimension-trompe pops up throughout Stezaker's work. Perhaps the clearest illustration is in the Escher-like  pairings of columns where the eye travelling down finds itself travelling up. It's partly the invention of Stezaker and partly his attention to what's available in the found image. I love the reflected image of a woman looking at a man playing the piano - the right way up she looks at him, but in the inverted reflection she seems to be looking out of the image rather than into it. No manipulation, just a re-focusing of the image's potential.

These challenges to the visual conventions of the viewer are typical of the school to which so much of Stezaker's work belongs, surrealism. The Mask series is clearly of the lineage of Magritte with his incongruous content overlays and unexpected silhouettes. It's also typical of pieces by Dali creating figures and faces from the conflagration of everyday objects. Like Dali, Stezaker's fortuitous overlays hint at psychological intent as well - my favourite of the postcard series, Negotiable Space, actually uses a photograph taken inside a therapist's room. There are pictures with privations, a black silhouette left in the foreground or a square cut out of a focal line (like a spot the ball competition) in the Tabula Rasa series. These may be psychologically provoking but they are not as instantly interesting as the collages.

Beside these there are further dimensional conundrums in the facial pairings of the Marriage collages, one half of one face the other half of another. The two halves split along the foremost line of the face play with the sense of three dimensions on the flat plane of the paper. My first thought was of the cubist portraits of Picasso and Braque, although I think there's less technical intent in this series than there is a sense of fun or, at best, fascination. This anthropomorphism reaches its zenith in the strange pairing of nudes that make up Fall VIII, an alien composite that would appeal to the Chapman brothers.

It's not an infallible collection - I couldn't see the appeal of the landscape detail series Stolen Sky, nor the semi-narrative Enter... Exit arrangments. I did have a lot of fun trying to adjust my imagination's perspective in front of a couple represented as a canyon though. Well worth the last-minute effort.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Big Actor, Bit Part

What's the difference between a cameo, a small role and a bit part?

Cameos take in non-actors playing roles, like Richard Branson in Casino Royale, Stan Lee in various Marvel adaptations (and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock in almost every film he made). These clips also suggest another typical component of a cameo - that the featured individual is caught in frame briefly and, most likely, without speaking. When cameos do feature an actor they tend to be a single appearance in a film and often lampoon the roles in which that actor tends to be cast. Tom Cruise's Len Grossman in Tropic Thunder is thought of as a cameo as he plays very much against type. Famously, Beatrice Straight won an Oscar for a single, five minute appearance as a jilted wife in Network. For all their brevity though, these appearances are not independent, solipsistic appearances but integral to the plot. They're not cameos. They're small roles.

But neither are they bit parts. Today I saw The Adjustment Bureau (review here), an inoffensive but vanilla-plain sci-fi romance. At two key moments of the film, the principal character finds himself in a bar. At both these moments, the woman behind the bar is played by a recognisable face - a well-thought-of actor, but by no means a big star. It's not a cameo. It's not a small but integral part. It's just a big actor in a bit part. And, as such, it feels significantly out of place.

Jennifer Ehle (the actor in question) has a considerable, first class acting career behind her. Though she is a television superstar in this country, having played Elisabeth Bennet opposite Colin Firth's Mr Darcy in the immortal BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995), she has also popped up briefly in well-known films such as Michael Clayton, obscure films like István Szabó's Sunshine (1999) and even in a typically small but pungent corner of the recent smash hit The King's Speech (as Geoffrey Rush/Lionel Logue's wife Myrtle).

So, when such an actor takes on a bit part such as 'bartender' there's a risk that the role may become more important in the eye of the audience than it actually turns out to be. The bartender that Jennifer Ehle plays in The Adjustment Bureau has no bearing on the plot. But it got me thinking of other immediately noticeable actors whose very casting might threaten the balance of a scene or indeed an entire film:

1. David Bamber. He's popped up alongside Ehle as the oleaginous Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice and also as the theatre director in The King's Speech. His indelible Anglicism means that one can also see through the prosthetic nose he uses to become Hitler in Tom Cruise's Valkyrie. The role that I found difficult to digest though was that of the embassy clerk who refuses to give Franka Potente a visa at the beginning of The Bourne Identity.

2. Maura Tierney. The most important recurring female character in ER after Juliana Margulies, Tierney acted in Christopher Nolan's moral allegory Insomnia. Like Ehle and Bamber, she appears behind a counter to begin with but soon the bedside manner of her previous incarnation takes over:

3. William Fichtner. An antihero to the point of villanous in films such as The Perfect Storm or Black Hawk Down, he just seems too dark a choice as the Bank Manager who appears for all of three minutes at the beginning of The Dark Knight (another Nolan - there are definitely some patterns emerging here).

4. Jason Statham. Statham is well-established as a successful one trick pony, a matinee hardman. It's no surprise to see him pop up for a moment at the beginning of Michael Mann's Collateral to give Tim Cruise's Vincent a Pandora's Box of pre-paid death. But even in 2004, Statham was well-known and one could reasonably ask 'what bearing will Statham have later in this film?'. We never see him again.

5.Brennan Brown. When Orange cinema ad executive 'Mr. Dresden' pops up in State Of Play, one just cannot take it seriously. The irony is that the long-running ad campaign is based on cameos by big-name Hollywood stars.

Having said all this, I thought back on The Adjustment Bureau. At the denoument a character suggests that there is a principal overdeterminator, a God figure - referred to in the film as 'The Chairman' - and that one may have met this person on their day to day business. It's at moments like these I find myself looking back at the two shots, no more than 50 frames-worth, wondering whether Jennifer Ehle is Matt Damon's God.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Monica Vitti

Why do we ask so many questions? Two people shouldn’t know each other too well if they want to fall in love. L’eclisse (1962)
love Monica Vitti, love Michelangelo Antonioni. This super-minimalist gif from the amazing

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Libraries on BBC's Inside Out

Last night's Inside Out had a piece concerning the threatened cuts to London libraries. It looks straightforward enough but I barely know where to begin. The piece is almost old school propaganda. In the context of the editing of the film, councils are the big bad wolves looking to blow in the libraries, whilst the BBC are complicit in selling the government as the good guys, not only blameless in the demise of the library but also ready to step in and take on councils that are about to shut them down.

Of course Vaizey is keen on 'social entrepreneurship' which is the personal and collective basis of the Big Society movement. This is a case of people donating their books, computers, DVDs, CDs and crucially, their time and expertise for free. The altruism and social benefit of an open library are not to be sneered at. But this is not the point. Provision of the infrastructure, media and services should not be a 'social entrepreneur's' bright idea. They should be an obligation of a governing body, which, yes, does mean the council, but that should be promoted and protected by the government. And Catherine Bennett memorably - and accurately - described the process of substituting council service professionals for willing volunteers as 'organised scabbing', surely something the government should keep its nose out of.

There was one ray of light during the programme which was to highlight the work of Tower Hamlet's Ideas Stores, which thrives through community consultation. Clearly, councils and the libraries themselves need to be continually vigilant to make sure that they are providing the type and level of service that the public expect. But when publicly funded broadcasts cast aspersions and apportion blame like Soviet-period declarations it becomes increasingly difficult to work out exactly what that might be.