Wednesday, 20 August 2014

512 Hours - Marina Abramović at The Serpentine

There is a sense that the title of Marina Abramović's performance piece, 512 Hours, might be in expectation of the queue. The artist has the cult-like reputation in fine art, largely through her work at MoMA in 2010, The Artist Is Present. Well, the artist was certainly present at The Serpentine yesterday morning. I wasn't expecting to be greeted personally at the door but then I had expected a queue and, having turned up half an hour before opening, I was fortieth (or so) in line, and consequently part of the first group to enter the gallery. The queue is worth mentioning. As one critic has already pointed out, this is where the work actually begins, with its English self-discipline and mutual respect of a self-imposed order - its courteous community.

I have next to no experience of performance art. I know about the Fluxus movement only by reputation and through a visit to the Serpentine two years ago when I came to see Yoko Ono's To The Light. This was an exhibition of largely new work but it did bring me into contact with Yoko Ono's ideas and previous work: at the time the audience participation had a curious but earnest appeal and the artist herself had none of her fame-by-association with a pop star, let alone the aggregation of her own artistic celebrity. I'm interested in this as, upon entering the space (watch, phone, keys etc.left in a locker and wearing ear-defenders to cut down extraneous noise) I was surprised to see a small group of black-clad assistants standing in the middle of the main room. I was prepared for the dozen or so assistants prior to the entrance, explaining the way the exhibition would work (no talking, leave when you like but re-queue to get back in) but I rather thought we would be on our own in the space.

Well, after 10 minutes or so, the assistants began to walk from the central dais to lead visitors to different areas and extremely basic activities. I was taken by the hand to the second (of three) in which I was invited to lie on a camp bed and close my eyes - just as well, as I found myself looking at that part of the ceiling on which Yoko Ono's 'Yes!' had been installed at that previous exhibition. I stayed tucked in before getting up, of my own volition, and returning 15 mins later. Others had been taken to the central dais to stand, eyes closed. The third room had visitors walking, alone or with guides, at extremely slow pace.

The atmosphere was meditative, pleasantly so. There was very little smiling, that is to say very little acknowledgement of exchanges taking place. There was something vaguely ecclesiastical about the situation. Few challenged being led to 'participate' - we were all participating. I was uncomfortable standing with my eyes closed and gave up early on the two occasions I was led to a spot in the main room. There was, for me, no sense of self-consciousness however. My only brush with this sense was when one smiley visitor looked as if she were trying to get my attention. It was easier to be a participant in the action.

I was keen to see if Abramović herself would appear; whether the arrival of the sage would change the dynamic of the environment. About an hour after we had first come in I first noticed her moving about, whispering to assistants, taking visitors by the hand and moving gesturing for them to assume positions on beds and daises as the others had done. There appeared to be little change in the concentration of the visitors. Everyone continued in a quiet, compliant, reverend manner. I left after an hour hour and a half.

What was the experience? Prosaically, I welcomed the opportunity to have a bit of peace and quiet - even to lie down, having got up a little earlier than usual and hurried across town to be in good time. Part of the quiet was due to the focus of the situation. One was aware of other visitors but never noticed them (with the exception of the one or two for whom standing apart was apparent, even in that all-important queue). One individual stood with palms raised as if in prayer, facing a corner in one of the side rooms, for the entire span of my attendance. My own attitude was one of being open to the experience that was coming to me rather than trying to impose ideas, to offer experiential ignition. The absence of agenda or rubrick was interesting in this respect.

I left the gallery when I felt that I had nothing left to experience. I was under the impression that the action would continue in exactly the same way, in circular motion, allowing the dribbling influx of new visitors to have a similar opportunity to share the same. That I left when the posible content of my experience seemed to have been exhausted (or fulfilled) as judged by me, rather than the predetermination of a curator (sage?!) seems one of the main points of the exercise.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Tete a Tete Opera Festival 2014

New year, new shoes as the unwritten novel has it. The Tete a Tete Opera Festival of 2014 has moved across town to King's Cross to the theatres in one end of the new Central Saint Martin's building and then on to King's Place, just the other side of the road. King's Place is a known quantity now, an asymmetric, stratified atrium that's well-suited for the informal communality spilling out after the set-piece shows. As it turned out, CMS is an excellent composite venue too: a pair (did I miss a third?!) of very different but superb, state of the art theatres, a wide open foyer (without the Riverside Studio's bottleneck) and a space outside sheltered under an overhang. All this is tucked around the back of the converted Granary Complex which affords some relative quiet for al fresco performing. Finally - and not to be sniffed at - the excellent bar serves drinks at studenty prices. The ferocious air conditioning in the Platform Theatre aside, it can be seen as an upgrade.

This year, for the first time, I was performing (Sarah Dacey's Stupid Cupid, given to an increasingly packed foyer over two afternoons). The same weekend I went to see Errolyn Wallen's Anon, a piece workshopped in WNO and performed here by a fine all female cast and three-piece band. The piece is a series of episodes, reflecting the process in which the material was worked up talking to young women in Birmingham schools. A recurring, reflective chorus - 'What would you do?' - is a super bit of writing and, for me, one of the high points of the Festival. Later we went over to the Studio Theatre to hear Possession!, whose principal attraction was in a capable string trio, two of whom played viols.

The next weekend, I arrived early to join a panel discussion on marketing. Such events inevitably cast a wide net. One goes in with a magpie mentality, trying to find information and ideas that will work well in your own case. There were not only good suggestions but also a room full of solidarity for trying to sell an artform - let alone individual shows - that somewhat embattled at the moment. Nonetheless, one still had to work to sift the relevance from a panel who run institutions (the OAE, King's Place and ETO) who have departments dedicated to doing what (usually) a single individual is trying to juggle when trying to produce work on the scale seen during this Festival. For example, it was suggested that one bring together an audience focus group, though it transpires that the cost of such research can be equivalent to mounting an entire Festival Opera production.

Either way, it got us all thinking about expectations and assumptions and talking to one another on the way to the weekend's opera. I saw Errolyn Wallen's Cakehead, a fringe amuse-bouche all but upstaged by a brilliant inflating costume that turned a soloist into a slice of Battenberg, and then Opera Kitsune's Spirit Harbour, a Noh-inspired fable performed with great competence and clear direction in the Platform Theatre.

From here we went on to see Tonseisha, Saltpeter's ongoing development on the writing and figure of beat poet Richard Brautigan. I had been involved in an early stage of workshopping the piece
18 months ago and wanted to see what had taken hold or moved on. The piece remains a portmanteau of strongly drawn disciplines. The slippery (beat?) abstraction of the simple romance narrative was seriously impressive. The musicians successfully found the roses in the midst of Kim Ashton's bramblebush score and the whole company embraced Gary Merry's direction, fizzing from one idea to the next with absolute conviction. Laughter tumbles into bewilderment into very real sentiment, and back again, briskly. The subcutaneous, double-bluff passion of the poem we all found on our seats
It's so nice
to wake up in the morning
all alone
and not have to tell someone
you love them
when you don't love them
any more.
was properly reflected in the performance.

The third weekend of the Festival featured a portmanteau of short pieces. Size Zero Opera's feminist diptych Women Box featured a piece coached by the former boxer Cathy Brown in order to invest the production with some authenticity. Brown spoke to us prior to the performance. The talk lasted seven minutes and took no questions. It was short and, er, punchy and - likely by accident - representative of the theatre to come.

The operatic pair constituting Women Box, Training is the Opposite and Women Conduct were bookended with Murizio Kagel's first and second string quartets, which worked as a pair of scenes with prologue and epilogue. Kagel's 'Theatre of the absurd' aesthetic of getting the performers to act out intentions and impulses moved consistently between the quartets and Women Conduct, in which a woman conductor wrestles with the different arguments and insecurities that continue to pothole the road to podium equality.

Most interesting though was the boxing-based work. Laura Bowler's boxer goes through the motions of a training session. There is very little singing but all the concerted effort that is familiar to a singer. It is as if one is watching the mechanism of a coloratura cabaletta on the outside; the singing equivalent of examining the Lloyd's Building. All the outwardness of conventional performance was turned in, complete with incoherently muttered recitative. The production seemed a little over-egged in the space (worthily aiming for intensity) but all the gestures and ideas shared the same focus. Above all I found no pressing feminist message being delivered despite the title, the sex of the performer and the pre-performance talk - the brevity and tangentiality of which was consistent with the piece itself. I see this theatrical unity as a strength, even if it's by default.

When I came out I also saw part of Caroline Wilkins' adaptation Victory over the Sun, which immediately struck me as carefully prepared and well-observed (for all its anarchy!) - and made me want to go and see the current Malevich exhibition (Malevich designed the 1913 original) at Tate Modern all the more!

The next day I saw Caitlin Rowley's (Hansel and) Gretel vignette Breadcrumbs, a foyer piece which fought a losing - if lyrical - battle with the reverberent atrium and audiences of two previous shows converging on the bar. Then, finally, to Edward Lambert's The Catfish Conundrum, a Reichian-vernacular recounting of an incident at the Hayward Gallery in 1971 where artists and politicians fought a free speech battle over a catfish condemned for art's sake. The music was sure, if slippery. The performances were all the more impressive for managing it. We all laughed a fair bit. Cheap projected images and amplified strings were more of a hindrance than a help.

It's been another super Festival with plenty to talk about. Discussing the might-have-beens is just as important as celebrating the outright successes in this arena and there has been a healthy mix of both.