Friday, 10 February 2012

Blockbuster Exhibitions: Bad for Art

At last its finally over. The latest blockbuster exhibition (containing the grand total of six paintings) at the National Gallery, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, has ended. It is with us no more, deceased, kaput, and I, for one, am glad. I am sure that my feelings over this event are not shared by the curators, the critics and many of those who went to see it (are they really 'art lovers' or 'scene' lovers?), people with a vested interest in these things, but I don't care (or, I care negatively) because I felt the disruption to the National Gallery as a whole was too much. I spent a week in London in early January, went to the NG on a Wednesday and was lucky to get my small bag into the cloakroom, what with there being a large queue of dusty and shifty people snaking from outside the Sainsbury's wing entrance to the ticket desk. OK, this is fine, I thought, I'll soon be upstairs enjoying the delights of the Renaissance rooms. Except that not all of the rooms were open and not for the reason of maintaining the collection but because there weren't enough room monitors available to secure every room. The staff who monitor the rooms have been in dispute with the gallery management because their numbers are to be cut leaving each monitor to keep watch over two rooms at a time. They naturally point out the problems this would cause, endangering the collection: they don't have eyes in the back of their heads, after all. Not being able to see the Florence and Netherlandish rooms was upsetting for me so I asked a monitor in another room about this. I was told that the Leonardo exhibition had taken resources away from the main collection. Thankfully I was staying until the Saturday and was able to go back to the NG late on the Friday when the gallery stays open later and has enough staff on hand so all the rooms were open. I could feast my eyes on Piero Della Francesca's Baptism of Christ and Hans Memling's The Donne Triptych. When an exhibition, by a master, I'll admit – but who I don't appreciate, I'm a Michelangelo fan – containing a pitiful amount of paintings, disrupts the overall running of the whole gallery, then something is not right.

The last blockbuster exhibition I went to at the National Gallery was the Velázquez event back in 2007/8, it was great, it was a show with many, many paintings and well worth it. But the space that they were shown in is just not right. The NG show these exhibitions in their basement galleries, they are small, dark and increasingly cramped rooms, and when with a crowd the viewing of paintings becomes ridiculous (for what its worth, what I did in that situation was to move to the later rooms in the exhibition and work backwards, that way I saw much of the art without having to shove aside some old person!). The National Gallery is not up to showing blockbuster exhibitions, that's obvious, but are any places suitable or are such events just bad for art?

Tate Modern is based in an old industrial power generating building, it has large, bright rooms within which to showcase the modernist art of the early 20th Century, a great place for blockbuster exhibitions, surely? As it happens, no. Its perfectly suited to showing its themed gallery artworks based around Flux, Energy, and Poetry and Dreams, but any blockbuster exhibition, like the Gauguin one they did in early 2011, is mobbed out with the hoards making the viewing almost impossible. It was the same with this winter's Gerhard Richter exhibition, though to a lesser extent; just too many people (like me, yes) crowding the place. We all know about the difficulties people had at the Gauguin exhibition, so with that in mind I proclaim that blockbuster exhibitions are not for art lovers but for the 'cool people', those out to show themselves as though they were the exhibition. Art is cool now and Damien Hirst is to blame, its because of him that everyone is interested in the old masters, because of him (and her, though I like her, she is, at least, authentic) that people want to be seen to be seeing traditional oil paintings. Again. End these blockbuster exhibitions, they're bad for art.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Democracy by default

I was pondering this: Surely having a local M.P (in other words, a democratic representative) ‘representing you’ happens by default whether or not I vote or voted for him/her in particular? So we have democracy by default regardless……Hmm.....

Saturday, 4 February 2012

What must our democracy look like to other people?

What must our democracy look like to other people? You know, the others who hold no responsibility for our democracy but yet are affected by our democracy, through wars and the parasitical invasion of their own land, and the emotional, financial and military support of despotic rulers for the control of the resources that belong to the people under such despotic rule - or for that most abused notion: 'security'.

Strength, Power and the Mind

We know today’s analogy: Obsession with the body results in a small mind (and other things!). Based on this assumption it explains the phenomenon of “stupid sports people”. It is also a bastardisation of the original ideal at the origin of Western civilisation: healthy body and mind: the ancient Greeks believed passionately about this and many of their first philosophers were fit and active in body as well as in mind. But this process didn’t arrive at once, the faculties of the mind and body have to be nurtured and developed, body first, as that supports the brain, then, with sufficient physical development, the mind. Many of the ancient philosophers lived to old age, which, considering the times they were in and the equivalent state of technology they had, was a great testament to their 'healthy body and mind' lifestyles. Of course, the philosophy we know of theirs today was mostly recorded in their older years, and this is due to the natural progression of life, not by premeditation on their behalf.
Of course, not all sports people are stupid, that would be ridiculous, but is it the case that all politicians at the higher echelons of power are stupid? Let’s face it, the real reason for a state’s success or failure depends on the amount of power it has through its ‘physical’ attributes: this ability to ‘take things’ (or give things) is economic too. So it seems that the closer you get to this kind of power the more stupid you become – in a way similar to how difficult it is to think clearly while recovering from a vigorous bout of exercise, (well that's my experience), today’s ‘leaders’ are increasingly showing this mental exhaustion as power approaches. I’m sure it’s always been the case in political (and business) circles - it was just easier to hide the delusion of competence back then.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Internet Eyes All Over The Place: We're watching you

Fed up with all those CCTV devices around the place doing no good? Well the idea of this website is to make use of these unmanned rectangular boxes, useless at preventing crime, by streaming them live over the internet for bored and time-abundant narks to spy on shop fronts and businesses for crime. People have to register with the website hosting this 'service' and can earn back some cash for earning points for honest reporting of a crime. Oh dear, I can see many problems with this scheme, but two of them stem from a bored enui:

1. Wasting time: dishonest reporting and ignoring actual incidents, yeah you gain no points and will soon be barred from the service (if that's the right word) but never underestimate the deviousness of the bored and indirect mind.
2. Cheating to earn points, and money: this would depend on location and the number of 'alerts' you are allowed but multiplied by x amount of people it could be an amusing problem, but, could it be possible to get some accomplices to go round to whatever your watching, masked-up and spray graffiti, they run away never to be seen again, except on some 'comedy' TV, and you 'honestly' report it and gain points and get to compete in a shoot-out for best nark and win money. Yea, I think so, and it would make TV fodder, to.

Finally though I'm left with the dystopian picture of a disenfranchised people autonomously clicking ALERT all day every day, alone in their box-like cells while all around them society disintegrates. Oh well, what's the saying? "We're all in this together"!

Monday, 17 May 2010

My Visions of Irma Vep

The other night I watched Irma Vep by French auteur Olivier Assayas starring Maggie Cheung. It is a film about the making of a film. Jean-Pierre Léaud plays a director having a nervous breakdown while remaking a silent French classic Les Vampires, he wants Maggie Cheung to play Irma Vep (Vampire) and she stars in this film as herself.

This is the second time I have seen this film, having first watched it on original release in 1996, and I was interested to note it being described as a satire on 'intellectual' French film-making. I cannot recall that I knew that it was a satire when I originally saw it, but then I was a very serious film goer, I had given up mainstream films and was deeply into World Cinema and art-house films. It could be said that I was the intellectual navel-gazing snob that the interviewer in this film claims French cinema tried to attract.

When I got the opportunity to see this film again (on Sky Arts - surprisingly they show films as they are meant to be seen: without adverts) I was interested to see how I appreciated it now as to when I first saw it. Firstly I can see that it is a study of film-making, as I did originally, with most scenes set in the making of the film. Secondly I can see the satire in it that I missed the first time: the critique of the film-making process in France. But, thirdly, the way it is shot, which is very good, I now understand was the element of the film that prevented me from seeing it as a satire first time around: the fluid movements, the narrative structure which is like an essay on film-making, but in the end it is a film taking itself seriously about a film satirising films taking themselves seriously. Seriously! No wonder my young self couldn't see the satire.

Finally though is Maggie Cheung: my vision of her remains faithful to her original incarnation back in 1996: beautiful, graceful and sublime. It is her presence in the film that questions who or what is really being satirised? She is a vision for the old and discredited auteur Rene Vidal, he sees her in a martial arts movie and wants her for his film on that basis alone: no need to audition, there is no script, he sees in her a natural Irma Vep.

He was right, Cheung is perfectly cast as a cat burglar in a cat suit, no need for words, movements and the pure image suffice. But he breaks down and is replaced by a new director who seems only to care that Irma Vep is played by a Chinese star and not a French star, the affront of it! Ultimately, for me, it is cynicism that is being satirised, the cynical who mock intelligent aspirations, and their cousins the stick-in-the-muds who only respect tradition and reject the visionaries.

Friday, 29 January 2010

The Country by Martin Crimp at The Lauriston Studio

Aah.....the pastoral, it conjures up peaceful scenes of harmony, nature all green and pleasant while you daydream away your life in a meadow. Is this image real? Not if you are Martin Crimp, the play-write from Kent who specialises in plays of social decay and moral compromise. And judging by this production by The Lauriston Studio at the Altrincham Garrick Playhouse this is indeed the case: the country isn't a panacea for the faults of character. This is to the play's credit I think.

A young couple with their children move to the country. Richard, a doctor, has taken in an unconscious girl from the roadside, we join the action in the night after Richard has deposited the 'comatose' woman into the spare bed. His wife, Corinne, is not pleased, and so begins a devilish game of verbal 'paper, scissors, stone' where not one of the three characters wins. Richard, played by John McElhatton, seems to have a murky past, his wife, Corinne, while forgiving, is still suspicious about him and his motives, and is extremely concerned as to why, even as a doctor, he has taken in this girl. Immediately we get a hint of the whole picture: an unfaithful past to do with sex and drugs, yet without knowing concretely. Are they escaping from something? When Rebecca, the unconscious girl, is introduced into the story this question becomes three-fold: is he escaping her, is she following him - or is he following her?

The way of the play is claustrophobic, always only two protagonists on stage at any one time: What is going on? On the one hand it seems obvious what is happening: we have 'city folk' moving to the country, maybe thinking that it will improve their lives - but what is left unsaid is the exact relationship Richard has with Rebecca, this is slowly teased out but always obliquely. Theatre goers are sophisticated folks after all. What becomes clear is that a change of scenery doesn't mean a change of character - one cannot escape one's character by running away, it follows you everywhere. People's wish of 'freedom' has this effect of make believe about it.

The director, Mark Butt, tells us in the program notes that we won't get any easy answers from this play, and he is right in one sense, but that doesn't mean that understanding is impossible: yes there are loose ends plot wise and in the character's destinies, but the play is not about tying up loose ends, I believe, rather it is about a feeling, an aesthetic, almost. We get this feeling with the set: it is the interior of a converted grain barn - it doesn't look like the country, not like the clichéd image of living in a cottage. With grey colours and a simple table, chair and old-fashioned phone combo, it conjures up alienation and reinforces the feeling that while this couple are now in the country they haven't escaped their troubles.

The performances are all solid, especially Ali Davenport's Corinne who we first see cutting out a picture from a magazine, the game of 'paper, rock, scissors' between the characters has begun. Ms. Davenport gives the most intense performance, switching between the concerned wife and mother one moment to the distrustful, suspicious (or is that solicitous?) questioner the next. John McElhatton's Richard was suitably guilty and harassed, annoyed at the bothering's of his medical partner, Bruce? Boris?, and resentful of his wife's attentions, while Rebecca, played by Sarah Roberts produced a performance that reminded me of a Mamet character, quick fire questions, repetition of statements: in fact this can be said for all of the characters.

I enjoyed this production and it is perfectly suited to the small, intimate surroundings of The Lauriston Studio.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Urbis Research Forum: Science of the City

The Urbis centre in Manchester has a research forum dedicated to the exploration of topics related to the city and urban life. It is a forum that includes talks, discussions, walks and other 'special events' on topics like urban planning, the history and culture of the city, and the influence of design practices on the city.

On Monday night I went to the third of the research forums in Urbis entitled Science of the City. In connection with the Manchester Science Festival our speakers were Prof. Trevor Cox (an Acoustic Engineer), Prof. Greg Keeffe(Professor of Sustainable Architecture) and Jon Porter (Technical Director, Countryscape). I missed the first talk by Mr. Porter on the uses of geo-mapping because the tram took longer than I had planned getting into Manchester (Metrolink, maybe that can be another topic one day!).

The next talk was given by Greg Keeffe on Synergetic City: Urban algae production as a regenerative tool for a post-industrial city. Mr. Keeffe specialises in sustainability, energy use and its impact on the design of built form and urban space. He currently holds the prestigious Downing Chair of Sustainable Architecture at the Leeds School of Architecture. This was an interesting talk that incorporated the productive use of nature in both the development of a city landscape and in its self-renewal. The point of Mr. Keeffe's vision was the development of 'redundant space' within the Mersey Estuary using the local natural conditions to create a sustainable environment that will "work synergistically to provide a carbon neutral solution, to the regeneration of the city". This will be done using algae, making use of the waste products of one synthesis in order to create a new process. He has put his 'utopian' vision better himself in his published paper:

"The paper describes the theoretical insertion of a series of glass factories, which produce glass tanks to house algae reactors, that themselves provide the energy to power the glass production. This allows for sustainable infrastructure to be self assembled in an iterative and carbon neutral manner, which once complete, provides more than enough energy to power the new city.

In Free Energy City, the city functions as an energy generator and thrives from its own product with minimal impact upon the planet it inhabits. Alga-culture is the fundamental energy source, where a matrix of algae
reactors swamp the abandoned dockyards; which have been further expanded and reclaimed from the River Mersey. Each year, the algae farm is capable of producing over 200 million gallons of bio-fuel, which in-turn
can produce enough electricity to power almost 2 million homes."

What I understood from this talk was the integration of at least three things: a renewable industry (glass factories for the production of glass tanks that house algae reactors, these will provide the energy that will power the production of glass), making use of a natural phenomenon (algae) and, thirdly using the synergy provided by the first two aspects to create a sustainable cycle of industry, power and food (cattle can be fed on the waste products of the bio-oil extraction).

What I also understood from this particular talk was the inherent structural problems within the "utopian dream": there is a sense that the plans for Liverpool that Mr. Keeffe dreams of makes the city rely too much on one particular procedure, all it would take is for one part of the cycle to break down (the collapse of the glass industry or problems with algae due to environmental problems) for the whole viability of the project to be destroyed. Never put all one's eggs in one basket.

The final talk was given by the acoustic engineer Trevor Cox where he discussed the importance of sounds and smells in the city, how they can annoy, how they can create an improved environment, but essentially how all city planning should incorporate the design skills developed in acoustic engineering: for example the way buildings are positioned in relation to the rest of the local environment can lessen the noise from adjacent streets.

One thing that came to me while listening to the speakers, especially Mr. Keeffe, was a general observation about the different attitudes between the Classical style of architecture, typified by the Doric, with its large stone columns and domineering crowding of the natural world, and the contemporary style which trys to incorporate nature in its design by the use of materials that leaves a softer impression on the landscape, yet both are monumental.


The Q & A session was trundling along when it was livened up by a questioner who took affront with the lack of historical perspective that he felt was given, by Mr. Keeffe in particular, towards the use of statistics and the 'development' of human societies, alluding to the Nazi's use of statistics to support their theories of eugenics. This is my interpretation of the questioner's point, I may be wrong, but it brought to mind a more general point that I proceeded to make: that there was something totalitarian about technology, about the way that it can restrict behaviour as well as extend it. Streets are planned which say 'this is the way', new technologies come about (usually by accident) that delineate the access to its treasures: the internet is a contemporary example that will increasingly be more and more necessary to complete everyday tasks that we do in person today (banking, access to social services, ect). Fundamentally though, I am at the conclusion that it is wise to be sceptical of the idea of 'progress': utopian dreams often end in nightmares. 

All in all the Urbis Research Forum project is very worthwhile, these are topics that need to be debated by us all if we wish to live in a tolerable environment, but I have reservations about Urbis holding these talks as the organiser of this event told me afterwards that he was annoyed about one questioner "hijacking" the event. This was untrue, but also, the event is defined as a public forum. Oh well, its typical of the management class to ignore their own rules.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Political Crimes: The Law as Accessory

Only a simpleton would believe what comes from the mouth of a British politician today (indeed from any 'official' in British public life) and it has always been so, but the denials coming from the squalid person of David Miliband really is difficult to stomach. This war criminal's musings did have one effect on me: it got me thinking that these denials are the first step in a program of legitimising crimes, an attempted fait accompli whereby laws will be created that will de-criminalise past crimes and, indeed, will make future crimes not crimes.

The denial is two-fold at least. They (is it 'we' too?) deny the actual act of torture, but they also deny that they knew of any acts of torture if torture did happen. But they did know, they even shaped policy around this known fact. And here's the link between a past crime and the new crimes of the present: Most people probably think Britain's colonial past is long gone, this isn't necessarily true as the UK still has a few overseas territories, including Diego Garcia. Not only is the story of the appropriation of these small islands in the Indian Ocean an example of shaping law to bypass a crime, but the current use of these 'dependent territories' is also an act of complicity in another's crime. This is surely beyond a 'knowing and doing nothing' stance towards a complete partnership in crime. Of course the US government under the Bush administration are much more naked in their attempt to create a legal foundation for their crimes.    

There is a lot of disingenuous behaviour over this issue of torture, murder and war crimes. Democracies, the naive say, can only be good. This is the typical response from a democratic citizen in a consumer economy, they are too bloated and consumed by credit worries that they cannot see the truth straight in front of them: democracy is no foil against tyranny, quite often it supports tyranny. Examples are the support Britain gives to Saudi Arabia, and many other middle-eastern oil producer despots (who help keep the consumer ideology going) and historically the British state supported the Pinochet dictatorship. Now, as then, our British democracy also creates political crimes as well as fostering them: the Iraq war and the subsequent tortures, abductions, murders and false imprisonments all fall foul of various UN mandates that the British state are signatures of (In particular Articles 5, 8, 9 and 30). It seems that politics is gangsterism.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Too Much Theory Not Enough Art

I was going to write about two contemporary exhibitions I had been to recently, The Social Lives of Objects and POI: Moving, Mapping, Memory from Castlefield Gallery and Cornerhouse respectively, I had made some notes and was ready to start writing, but I couldn't do any: why? I was completely uninspired and underwhelmed by the two shows I had seen. This conclusion was initially hidden from me because I was caught up in the two exhibition's theorising, walking around the shows with a mind full of the intentions of the artists, and worse, the expectations of the curators. My aesthetic values are clearly different from the artists on show because I found no beauty in these exhibitions, I found the experiences akin more to an educational seminar than an aesthetic experience, one shouldn't have to think too much in order to appreciate, never mind enjoy, a piece of art. It seems that today's art privileges theory over artistic craftsmanship.

Yes, I am criticising the 'artistic skills' of these artists: one of the exhibitions resembled a car boot sale with random objects dotted about the place as though your grandparent's house had been ransacked, indeed one of the exhibits consisted of an old Penguin book (Old Book on a Wall) with the last page reconstructed from itself - trash. The other show was too earnest, trying to make the usual liberal political points, and for the second exhibition in a row the top floor gallery was given over (partially) to a animal den. Much of contemporary art is conceptual art now, the boundaries between the two are no more, and I'm sure its because of our modern sensibilities. As times pass humanity gets heavier with explanation, it occupies us more and our culture will reflect this fact.

And yet, for me, I find that the more I explain, look into, theorise, try to understand visual art, the further I find I am from the aesthetic experience. This, of course, was the first lesson I learnt in the Philosophical Aesthetics class I took when at university. There is always this tension between the theory and the art that comes from it, but a gallery should never make you feel like you are in a classroom.