Monday, 30 May 2011

Antigone, Southwark Playhouse

The bare arches space of the Southwark Playhouse has been left with little upholstery for this modern-dress production of Antigone. Most familiar amongst contemporary symbols are the four large 'concrete' slabs which form the walls either side of a central opening - the concrete units used in the construction of the Israeli perimeter wall (right).

Amazingly, I had a struggle to link up what was being done and said on stage with this contemporary re-framing. Presumably the drama - in which the king Kreon mismanages the balancing of populist religious rites with civil strong-arming - is supposed to mirror some sort of Palestinian internal division. The outcome, the inevitable mass deaths, speaks of the failure of intransigent pride and the pathos of failing to embrace the offer of concession and consensus. This is all applicable, broadly, but I only made the connections myself outside the theatre space.

Inside Timberlake Wertenbaker's translation is delivered with technical rigour but there's not that much for the actors to bite into. I really enjoyed the overboiling argument between Jamie Glover's Kreon and his son Haimon (Kane Sharpe), musically escalated and violent. Inevitably, the appearance of Edward Petherbridge as the seer Tiresias brought all the portence that is needed to swing the bias of the drama, although I felt for all Petherbridge spoke with mesmerising finesse, his theatrics were overcooked. Eleanor Wyld plays Antigone with undeniable force of character. I didn't quite believe her vulnerability in the same way that I bought into Deborah Grant's Euridyke or even Daisy Ashford's Ismene.

Strong impressions begin to evaporate at this point. I couldn't get on with the uninspired chorus arrangement of unison line delivery nor the soulless, populist-style singing. The pre-recorded music was gilding the lily of trying to perform music live on and off set. Finally, the greatest disappointment was in the lack of conviction. Earlier sequences involving a domestic media crew are a one-off, a good idea made to look half-hearted . Small moments of choreography (chorus members removing themselves from the living tomb with a twirl) are remarkable not for their charm but for their incongruity. The final tableau is simply not well-directed at the ensemble level.

The lighting and costume design is fine and, as I've suggested the speaking of the text is crisp and coherent. Elsewhere though this isn't the most focused of productions.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Miro at Tate Modern

This is a front-loaded exhibition. The best work culminates in the Constellation pictures of gallery 7 (of 12). From this point on Miro's visionary pieces, including the two rooms of triptychs have crossed over into an esoteric aesthetic and cannot be reached. The burnt and punctured canvases of the penultimate room are the collateral issue of a blinkered artistic intellect - the firework canvases of the end of Miro's life, co-inciding with the end of Franco's Spain press against the canvas as if Miro had perform-painted them from the other, noumenal side.

The change is rapid though, and up to and including the Constellation canvases there is twinkling if not dazzling art beckoning us. It's as if he has a foot already on one of his escape ladders, a recurring figure that is, pragmatically, futile yet optimistic. Personally I struggled with many of the Constellations failing to see the layers either at once or separately, yet I appreciated that they were there. They are delicately rendered, everything hinging on the confident, unambiguous drawn line. I saw some Klee in them (whom I also fail to appreciate on a direct aesthetic level) and some composite, allegorical Picasso, like the Three Dancers (1925).

On my second visit - there's a lot to take in in this exhibition and I needed two - the Barcelona series of political lithographs present themselves as a high point at any stage of Miro's career. The monochrome allows the line and invention to breathe more readily than the two-plane painting of the Constellations. The invention is endless and sharply witty, entertaining and subversive even before the political subtext is known.

Beside these, my favourite pieces in the exhibition is the surreal series known as the animal landscapes. The animals of the title are set on a simple landscape often looking out to the sky, in the same direction that the ubiquitous escape ladder reaches towards. The Dog Barking at the Moon and the Landscape with Rooster also have a fixed subject for their attention, though its profile is low, a wisp of cloud or some figure, llike a tear in the firmament. The characters are familiar from the famous Farm (1921-2) of a previous room but with exploded characteristics, as if in caricature.

The works are clearly pieces rendered by a master of technique with an equally sharp eye for style. Yet even amongst the large collected lithographs, created at that turning point for Miro, 1940-44 there is the restraint echoed in the man himself (by all accounts impeccably mannered and presented). I longed for more expression, so that I might feel as much as I admired.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Geroge Shaw, South London Gallery

The Sly And Unseen Day is George Shaw's touring show ahead of the Baltic Turner Prize exhibition, for which he is shortlisted. It's a concentrated exhibition, a collection of eighteen paintings rendered in Humbrol enamel, the paint used by model enthusiasts to paint their miniatures. The paintings themselves are not miniatures but invariably of a medium size (Ash Wednesday at 91cm x 121cm is typical). They are all landscapes centred around the West Midlands Tile Hill estate where Shaw grew up and are empty of figures, deserted but not automatically desolate.

The most striking thing about these pictures is the effect of light - light hitting the surface of the paintings, the light of the scene caught in the painting and the effect of the paint in trying to get that that across. The gloss of the paint doesn't make viewing the pictures hard work. I was reminded of Gary Hume's gloss works although the finish is different for the more familiar Hume who uses blocks of colour where Shaw's brush technique seems more traditional. The low (surprisingly low) lighting of the South London Gallery meant that there was little interference with reflected light, though I found myself squinting quite a bit.

It's the quality of the light that Shaw manages to generate within the pictures that's most remarkable. Almost all of them have the quality of dusk lit up by a distant, bright evening sun - or a sun lighting up a landscape that's still under the cloud of a recent heavy shower. Indeed, Scenes from The Passion: The Library and the Back of the Triple Triangle Club (2000) does show a corner of the estate wet with rain, doubling the palette of dark textures. This effect of the light lends the pictures a subtle, cinematic intensity as if images caught in memory. It would be interesting to know whether or not Shaw paints on location, from one of the many the photographs he has taken of the site or whether the pictures are indeed from memory.

One of the more dramatic is The Time Machine (2010) featuring a Gilbert Scott telephone box whose existence in the scene is not quite so incongruous as the strong red of its body colour. This is perhaps the one thing that Shaw has in common with Edward Hopper, another chronicler of the empty scene, who invested his landscapes with meaning through the palette rather than composition (though Hopper is wistful where Shaw is dramatic, or even portentous).

Even at the other end of the scale, in a picture such as Ash Wednesday, 8.30am (2004-5) whose bright morning light throws the foreground into virtual silhouette, the light is still disturbing. The supernova yellow of sunrise is surreal and absorbs the attentive brushwork meted out to the tree to the right.

Despite their hyper realism and familiar domesticity, the paintings are not especially narrative. Rather their veiled luminescence is the principal point of reflection, drawing the viewer in consider - or rather, reconsider - the prosaic scene. I think the paintings are, technically, exceptional. I found myself tantalised but not sold on the quality of the paint and colouring though, as if the idea has yet to find its final maturity. I do recommend paying the exhibition a visit however. It runs in Camberwell until 3 July.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Tracey Emin Retrospective #2 - The Show

The first thing you see when you come into Tracey Emin's retrospective at the Hayward is Knowing My Enemy (2002), a collapsed pier and shed which, high up, dominates the space almost as if hidden in plain view, like the proverbial elephant. It's representative of much of the show in two ways. Firstly, in being part appropriated fixture of Emin's past, part construction (complete with affecting patchwork curtains). Secondly, in the pursuit of solitude - not solitude as escape but space in which to ruminate, strip away violence, duplicity and pain and discover or generate some sort of happiness. She says of the piece
I've often tried to make a place where... I would be happy.
This is the purpose of Tracey Emin's work, which is fairly indistinguishable from the purpose of Tracey Emin.

The process of seeking out this happiness is as much a part of the construction of the space. The gallery is full of experience objectified - some might say commodified - almost made into blocks. It's very interesting that in this retrospective of her work, the work on show is a retrospective of her life even further back. One can immediately see the logic of her having opened a shop (the commodity bit) in 1993, only for that to be followed by her opening a museum (the retrospective bit) in 1995. The very walls of the exhibition become like the inside of the artist's head, with poetic signposts to the way in which she thinks and artefacts of her experience.

In fact, the entire gallery is rather like an inflated version of the famous piece Everybody I've Ever Slept With 1963-1995, also known simply as 'The Tent'. That work (not here, having been destroyed in a fire in 2004) demanded prostration and voyeurism on behalf of the viewer, i.e. getting down on one's knees and virtually crawling inside to interact with the text sewn into the lining of the tent. Those willing to take the step of subjugating themselves and indulging in the ostensible voyeurism of engaging with the work would be rewarded in finding not simply a salacious list of sexual conquests, but a roster of all those with whom she'd shared a bed, including platonic or simply pragmatic bedfellows. The art is in the transaction, buying the commodity of her intimacy.

Naturally then there are a number of pieces that reflect moments of intimacy. The Blankets (1993 - ), the armchair from her grandmother There's a lot of money in chairs (1994) and an embroidered chest full of underwear All the loving (1997) are the most homely, although this also spills over into pieces that reflect the intimate trauma of the early 1990s abortions - used tampons, collections of children's clothing, the simple symbolism of a chest of drawers called Little Coffins (2002). Both positive memories and sadness then, albeit both with their own seasoned twist in the other direction: the outwardly attractive blankets are embroidered with tales of relationship angst; the tragic fact of children's clothing doesn't negate the tenderness which it evokes.

Beside this though are the videos and monoprints, as well as the neon sign-aphorisms. These are a record of a tougher, adolescent past. Again they equivocate - Emin took the decision to both quit school and indulge in sex at a young age herself but she doesn't excuse those who made the experience rougher than it might have been. This part of the exhibition is more entertaining but touches less deeply than her domestic installations.

So far so retro. This ground floor galleries take the viewer up to about 2002, by which time Emin's profile had already peaked (following the RA Sensation exhibition of 1997 and the 1999 Turner Prize furore of My Bed - the most talked about piece in the competition, though she didn't win).

The upper floor has more recent work. Stripped of the artlessness of a life consigned to a vitrine, this is a most interesting part of the exhibition. The paintings and drawings are revealed as consistent pieces, the work of a capable if not supremely talented draughtsman. I visited an exhibition of drawings (1910-1917) by Egon Schiele shortly before viewing Love Is What You Want, an artist whose draughtsmanship is admired by Emin. Whilst the direct comparison is slightly ridiculous - Schiele, on the basis of that modest exhibition is a virtuoso and probably a genius - the vision of the line and its clawing at some sort of truth is consistent between the two artists. Most interesting is a DVD projection of a dozen or so drawings, Those who suffer love (2009) which animates drawings of a prostrate woman in the throes of ecstasy. The paintings are less successful - the Poe-inspired Black cat (2008) as tepid a monument as Hirst's Bacon/skull pictures for last year's Wallace Collection.

There is more embroidery as well. Unlike the fuzzy boldness of the quilts, these are more etiolated pieces, done in various shades of white on sheets. Sharing the larger room of the gallery are pieces of monumental sculpture - a Cornelia Parkerish exploded woodpile, neons and, outside, a triptych pertaining to the nuclear family. All of this is unremarkable, pieces without the backbone of necessity which has driven the lower floor.

Which is why I was caught out by the very final space, the second outside sculpture terrace. On first glance it looks empty. A bit of searching reveals three small pieces, cast in bronze which might easily be mistaken for an infant's paraphernalia forgotten or mislaid. This piece, Baby Things (2008), still has the power of pathos that's the DNA of Emin's best work.

This exhibition is a conundrum. It represents something of the unfathomable contradiction of modern art, which goes in search of answers ingenuously, fearlessly but with an almost anti-aesthetic sensibility. This has been an accusation levelled at Emin, as at other yBas, since the movement stomped to prominence in the 1990s. As a cultural exhibit of the confessional complex, the need for self-expression(ism) as an existential device as well as catharsis it is a priceless monument to what the Noughties produced on a populist scale in its wake. I would rather spend my time in front of Schiele's masterpieces from the height of the Vienna Secession avant garde than the invariably hapless surface of Emin's work, but it can't be dismissed out of hand.

What was I expecting?

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Cherry Orchard, National Theatre

Watching this The Cherry Orchard reminded me of Michael Haneke's tortured masterpiece The White Ribbon, in as much as there are a collection of self-assured but ultimately parochial individuals caught at the early surge of a tidal wave of social change. Of course Haneke's fairy tale is a blacker affair, accusing, cold. The attraction of The Cherry Orchard is that for all the chill wind of change - the Act 2 beggar incident is played with a sharp sense of confrontation - the author counter balances the revolution on the horizon with grand pathos, channeled through the eyes of individuals. It's closer to Lampedusa/Visconti's The Leopard in its warmth, the pathos contained within the (screen)play by the latter, inevitable fact of social progress, but pathos none the less powerful for that.

Howard Davies' meticulously designed production heightens the amplitude between the fun and the falls. The stymied love between Claudie Blakley's Varya and Conleth Hill's Lopakhin is undeniably poignant but I found it equivocal compared to the violent maltreatment of Emily Taaffe's housemaid Dunyasha by Gerald Kyd's foul Yasha (the sad marginalising of Yepihodov got underplayed as a result). Zoƫ Wanamaker and James Laurenson play the benighted brother and sister Ranyevskaya and her brother Gaev nicely, breathing an air of fun that has now thinned. On reflection the technical affectation that I found rather present in the first half is part of this, but Tim McMullan plays it better than the rest as Simyonov-Pischik. Above all I found the lighting design of the production quite excellent, as evocative of the comparatively subsequently dark age of communism in its strong, pale, seasonal palette. This is one extreme of the production I wouldn't change -others may benefit from a couple of weeks in the run to modulate their highs and lows.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Tracey Emin Retrospective #1 - Expectations

Ahead of Tracey Emin's retrospective at the Hayward opening on Wednesday, I'm reading a Thames & Hudson collection of essays on the artist, The Art Of Tracey Emin. It's fairly old - published 2002 - so it has some solid summary and analysis of what this arch yBa was all about in her heyday but no information of her work over the decade since. I myself haven't really heard much about Emin's work on a day to day basis during this period. Principally there have been a number of a works with text. Yet one automatically refers back to autobiographical works, usually involving her chequered sexual history which seem to belong to the previous century.

In the book I'm working through, Mandy Merck poses the question 'Could her installation [My Bed, 1998] be said in some way to characterize the decade?' That's a highly complex question with a long answer, although it has two themes to it that are worth considering. The first is the matter of personal openness or exposure, intimacy and privacy. The second is the nature of the sexual relationship of (young, as in yBa) women to world and to themselves.

Emin's controversial installation is not just an unmade bed but a bed littered and stained with the detritus of bodily functions and sexual congress. It's a single-installation narrative of a woman in the 1990s at once indecorous and self-empowering. The two themes are unavoidable. In an act of pre-emptive exposure, it invites voyeurism. In inviting voyeurism it inverts (if not negates) the power balance of voyeurism.

What's worth bearing in mind is that though this manipulation of private/public and (sexual) control is inverted and toyed with by the artist it doesn't vanish. The act equivocates but doesn't nullify. The textile works of the same period do the same. The quilts, items that suggest home comforts, embroidered with tales of sexual submission, or the famous tent Everybody I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 an inviting, snug tent with the eponymous names stitched into the interior are records of the past, not their committal. More than this they are, as artworks, recreations of them.

This confrontation and play with these themes put me in mind of another contemporaneous artist with whom little parallel seems to have been drawn to Emin's work. PJ Harvey came to prominence at the beginning of the 1990s with her pared-down, expressionist rock which deals with her own perspective on her (hetero-)sexuality and the manner of its consumption not only by men but also the public, specifically in the album art work and media photoshoots which accompanied the music's release.

Again the results do not invalidate the experience but highlight its complexities. Take for example the seamless mania of Rid Of Me (1992):
I'll make you lick my injuries/I'm gonna twist your head off, see
Till you say don't you wish you never never met her?...
I beg you my darling/Don't leave me, I'm hurting
Lick my legs and I'm on fire/Lick my legs and I'm desire
The psychological and physical bondage of the relationship is prefaced by a desire for genuine retribution, but the music, though seamless, doesn't side with either emotion: belligerent with the former and plaintive, even abject in the latter. Meet Ze Monsta (1995) is an even more straightforward (and so, confusing) song in which she recreates the experience of being sexually overwhelmed. In this bare, almost violent song, Polly seems to be the aggressor, despite being penetrated (or 'conquered', to use an immediately redundant epithet) during the song. Even at a playful level she retains control, blowing a whistle, like a referee, the final arbiter, at the beginning and end of the song/bout. This line of explicit sexual narrative, from the past recreated in the present of song comes to an end with Kamikaze (2001), the burning exhaust-tail of the expressionist comet of such songs up to that point.

Both artists, Emin and PJ Harvey are telling stories. The narratives are from their past but the experience is made rather real in the present: not only is the artwork or the song a record of the event, but the intrinsic, expressionist nature of the work gives a remarkably visceral experience of the event itself, albeit from the controlled perspective of the artist. The post-feminism and capitalist promotion of the 1980s gave women the impetus to meet the gender-cultural pendulum swing on its way back to men. The re-commodification of the female sex wasn't something to be stopped by women but to be addressed and manipulated, notably by these two parochial artists.

In 2011 there is a very different cultural landscape. Emin's sexual self-exposure has been taken up, reproduced and diluted in a decade of reality television and web-based self-promotion. Her own material - her vulnerable self - has been exhausted. What can we expect from the exhibition that looks back over this period?

It might be as well to look at PJ Harvey's trajectory. Following the Mercury Award-winning (i.e. institutionally-absorbed) but auto-disappointing Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, she reverted to previous models (Uh Huh Her, 2004) before diving off into albums of more ruminative-narrative songs both internal (White Chalk, 2007) and external (Let England Shake, 2011). With the winning of the Turner Prize in 1998, Emin was also absorbed into a seam of the mainstream. We can imagine that the early years of the Noughties might have seen her revert to the ideas prior to 1998, and in some measure we got that, with an autobiography, Strangeland, published in 2005 - more auto-expressionism but in a more conventional format. The neon aphorisms (rather than slogans) suggest a relocation of narrative away from the conflict of her past and of a more ruminative perspective.

What concerns me is that both women have seen the potential of their creations diminish with the exhaustion of the basic content which it has been wrought to express. Tracey Emin's craft is so indistinct from its content that its difficult to see how she will have moved on. Which, of course, makes the prospect of this exhibition all the more fascinating.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Ai Weiwei in London

The Lisson Gallery and Somerset House are staging exhibitions of Ai Weiwei's work just as the Tate Modern Turbine Hall Sunflower Seeds are finally harvested: yet all were arranged before the artist's dubious incarceration by the Chinese government. What does this mean? Absolutely nothing, as it happens. The artist's work speaks for itself without any explicit reference to the politics of modern China. If that country's decision to incarcerate the artist (and, briefly, his lawyer) were not bad enough, the fact that the artist's work is really rather good makes their decision look all the more perverse.

It's fun, you see. Up at the Lisson Gallery, the pieces - they are almost all objects, sculptures - are witty and colourful. The most obvious is the collection of Han Dynasty earthenware dipped in modern acrylics, complete with the dynamic drip effect of the briskly executed painting. There are also a number of everyday objects made from marble - a pair of chairs, a stack of front doors. There's also a coffin in a peculiar, crooked shape. Like the doors, chairs and the remarkable ball-like polygon-panelled sculptures these are all beautifully made, expertly finished. Such attention to detail is necessary for the art to work (like Anish Kapoor's sculpture): the monumental Moon Chest seems like an uninteresting row of crates until, viewed form the end, a series of crescents appear through careful placement of asymmetric holes.

At first glance then - play, craftsmanship, colour (the Huali and Iron wood sculptures, are a riot of different tan shades, even within each piece and the veins of the marble sculptures are more pungent than the grain of the wood that might otherwise have marked them). But Ai Weiwei's work is bound to China and its past. And yes, it has a social commentary.

Anthony Gormley's Field (this version Tate Liverpool, 2004)
So, the Coloured Vases, pushing out from a corner of the gallery, demanding attention, placed at foot level without dais or cordon are original 1800-year old Chinese artefacts, just with (literally) a new coat of paint. I immediately thought of Anthony Gormley's Field, an informal installation of terracotta figures, staring up from the gallery which they have overtaken in their thousands. Physically the exhibit is inert but the individual figures demand attention, some sort of connection if not dialogue. Reflexively, the dynamism of the piece reminds me of that aforementioned sunflower exhibition at Tate Modern, where the hand-made field of seeds demands closer reflection, despite the initial impact of uniformity or homogeneity. Coloured Vases makes a new demand, to those looking for the cheap attraction of a Chinese commodity: stop; consider the value of the object and its origin. This is no rebuke. Rather it is an invitation, positive, open, constructive but the very opposite of the commodity-irony of, say, Jeff Koons. It looks outwards.

Weiwei also looks inwards though. The domestic furniture-in-marble series has a third, rather more sorrowful piece, with a Surveillance Camera also made in marble. Whether this is a petrified anachronism or an inescapable component of Chinese culture uncovered in the act of reductive sculpture is a lesser question compared to the glazed solidity of the object. Like the peculiar Coffin, made with wood recovered from a Qing Dynasty (17th century) temple - complete with benches with which one can sit up close against it, there is the opportunity for the viewer to approach that which might otherwise have been, culturally, out of reach. However, though proximity is offered a new reverence takes its place. These are still objects to be treated with respect - but because they are artworks, on display, rather than artefacts of government.

It was with this in mind that I went across to Somerset House to view the semi-site-specific piece in this series, The Circle Of Animals/Zodiac Heads. 'Semi-site-specific'? Well, the heads are an interpretative reproduction of the sculptures that were once to be found at the fountain of the Yuanming Yuan Imperial Palace in Beijing. Yuanming Yuan was a contemporary structure with Somerset House and the forecourt of the British building has a fountain built into it, around which the sculptures are placed. I was unmoved by the pieces - whose eyes are glazed over, with the exception of the belligerent dragon and leopard, and whose mouths are open in the manner that they would have been as functioning components of the original fountain - but at least Weiwei is consistent. Consistent in the reproduction or re-working of ideas or materials that are distinctly Chinese in a manner (in this case, the site) that demands the connection to be made.

As for Ai Weiwei, has he dirtied his hands? Certainly, his hands are stained with the dust of 3rd century Chinese earthenware and 17th century Chinese temple timber, and the clay, marble and indeed steel with which he has created work that refers directly to the strong cultural heritage of his home country. None of this is any more alien to him than his own irrefutably Chinese DNA. As one of the flyposters wrapped around the Lisson Gallery quotes him as saying, long after the words are silenced the facts live on. In these exhibitions Weiwei has presented London with the fact of the Chinese artefact and the Chinese artisan, his inheritance and his profession. There is no subversion here, no polemic or gracelessness. Ai Weiwei's disappearance is a troubling situation, as, irrespective of the questionable charge with which it has been effected, the art itself is of intrinsic value both here and in China. There is more information to be found at http://freeaiweiwei.org/