Monthly Archives: April 2014

Theatrical Frame of Reference

As I’ve indicated before, I see many more films than plays. The difficulties in obtaining theatre tickets have been well rehearsed, as have the prices. One consequence is that I feel less confident in delivering my usual pompous pronouncements after theatrical visits. My experiences of plays are infrequent and fragmented, compared with the fairly constant flow of films. If there’s an equivalent of Sight and Sound for the stage, I don’t buy it.

Last night, we went to see A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic. My companion obtained the tickets, after we were frustrated in our attempts to see Happy Days, at the same venue. It’s not a play I’ve seen before and, other than the usual Front Row item that I can’t avoid in my podcast conveyor, I deliberately didn’t expose myself to any reviews or publicity.

We were sitting right next to the stage, so we could see the veins and the hairs on the arms.

I’ll leave proper reviews to people more well qualified. What I will say is that, in spite of uniformly strong performances, I felt something wasn’t quite right. It didn’t seem good enough to say that, so I tried to think more carefully. It’s clear Miller was aiming for the effect of classical Greek tragedy, complete with the lawyer as Chorus. However, I felt that somehow it hadn’t earned the significance for which it yearned. The actors didn’t have enough raw material to convey the effects I think Miller wanted.

My companion disagreed, suggesting various perspectives from Miller’s personal biography and that it was from the McCarthyite era. Reading reviews after a journey home enlivened by the first effects of the latest strike on the Tube, including comments from the director, it was clear that the production was quite unusual in abstracting away from the precise stage directions and the brownstone sets Miller would have imagined. Maybe I’ll have to hold my opinion in provisional abeyance until I’ve seen another version. I didn’t have any such qualms about Inner Voices at the Barbican, though that may have been in part because of the surtitles and the exuberant film/Q&A with Toni Servillo earlier that day. Union, at the Lyceum in Edinburgh, though, was unambiguously bad, not helped by an intrusive production.

In time, no doubt, I’ll build up to a level of confident blitheness.

I believe it is possible to obtain tickets for A View from the Bridge on the day, if you’re very keen, and I would certainly recommend it. Always best to make up your own mind…



Video, Audition and Project

Logistical impediments meant that I couldn’t go to see Martin Creed at the Hayward after work, so it was the ICA instead, where I could take advantage of the late gallery opening before an A Nos Amours screening. I had to ask where the ‘Theatre’ was, because it was a space I hadn’t been in at the ICA before, at least not in this decade. The Hito Steyerl show is yet more video. I had limited time before the film, leading me to choose the relatively short How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File first. The repeated motifs here were various incarnations of ‘targets’ used by the US Air Force to calibrate their photographic equipment, ranging from a placard/testcard-sized handheld item to various incarnations in the Californian desert, one of which has been discarded, owing to the obsolescence of analogue imaging, the intriguing arrangement of graded lines and numbers replaced by three large pixels. The various lessons in invisibility were narrated by a slowed-down version of the Weakest Link man. Some rogue pixels strike up mischief, while the Temptations appear towards the end, transposed, excised and re-rendered.

The large screen, complete with proper seating, was showing Liquidity Inc., which includes tales of austerity via German child and adult masked weather presenters – “What is water” – referring to trade winds and “orgone cannons”. (I have a soft-spot for any Wilhelm Reich mentions). The lack of funds appears to affect the making of the video itself, as a stream of e-mails and messages relate the inability to render a raft in 3D –

“even the kid in Moscow is broke”.

Meanwhile, the water itself begins to talk about Jacob Wood and his journey from Vietnam towards Silicon Valley success and then wrestling. I had to leave before the end, and before I’d seen the other three videos, sad to say. It’s on until April 27th.

The main reason for my visit was to see Les Années 80, eighth in the A Nos Amours season of Chantal Akerman productions. I’d been to see the first instalment, and none since (for no good reason), and didn’t know much about this one. In fact, it was a rather extraordinary dissection of the creative process, including most of the bits that would normally be left out. It’s split into two parts, the Audition and the Project itself. Never before have I seen feet activity being assessed, as footage of steps and intimations of dancing are shown, limited to the shin. The structure is deceptively clever, because you see various small sequences and scenes rehearsed many times, by different performers, in different ways, on video. In the Project section, the medium moves to 35mm film and it’s startling when what you’ve seen broken down, with minute direction to the actors/performers, is realised in a proper choreographed performance. The concentration of the actors is very endearing, such as during a musical piece set in a hairdressers, when one of the people washing hair loses track of her hose while singing and drenches the face of her customer, during his own singing. There was lots of laughter in the cinema and I think this was as much from delight as amusement.

“That really caught me off guard”

I heard someone say in the foyer afterwards. My favourite bit of Akerman’s direction was when one of the actors was waiting for a customer in her shop and she was asked to

“present her best commercial smile”,

which she did.

Given that the organisers are promising to show her entire oeuvre, I’m looking forward to seeing the “proper” musical that emerged three years later.

Starting home along the Mall, I peeked into the Mall Galleries, which appeared to be hosting the “Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year” event, denoted by dinner jackets,tables with lots of wine glasses on them and an imposing entry desk. Some kind of radical contrast with Akerman, there…


Bank Holiday Thursday

With reasoning that’s not entirely clear to me, my employer didn’t require anyone’s services on either of the days preceding and following Easter. This meant I could catch with some of the things on my List. On Thursday I went first to Matt’s Gallery, which is pretty convenient for me, just a walk through the park/along Regent’s canal from Mile End station. I don’t remember having to be buzzed in last time, never being quite sure what to say in such situations:

Hello – I’m not here to steam in and ransack – I am here to savour your cultural artefacts

feels just that little bit prolix. It was the last few days of Benedict Drew’s Heads May Roll. In the first room there was a ten minute video, with the soundtrack available via headphones on the wall. This was an odd experience, because menacing synth arpeggios were bleeding through from the adjoining passage. Very effective use was made of sound/image synchronisation and the floating text was appropriately witty. The way to the next room was through a space with a walkway surrounded by what looked like aluminium foil, with pulsating multi-coloured LEDs and two stacks of assorted speakers, the source of the oscillations. The final room held several combined audio/video/sculptural installations, including what appeared to be footage of Chris Hatfield the singing astronaut playing with some water floating around his eye, in zero gravity, clever use of small projectors (again synchronised with the soundtrack), small monitors and Arduino-like circuit boards. One of the quirks of these looped videos is that you can take a completely different interpretation depending upon when your viewing starts. The helmet was distended, with green fluid oozing out of it, I thought. Later on, it became clear that the fluid was dripping down on the helmet from above.

I think the show was intended to unsettle and it did so rather well. One of the gallery staff kindly offered to mail me the details of the three musique-concrète-style playlists Drew had created, which were playing in the lobby. A thoughtful touch. At first she tried to print it out, but this was unsuccessful. Apparently it was the second printer failure of the day. Eheu. [link to Flickr set]

Following my careful plan, next was to be the Stations of the Cross at the Marylebone Parish Church, but when I arrived there, no art could be seen. People were arriving to perform normal Church activities, and later on, to take photos. For once, I’m pretty sure I’d arrived at the right place, at the right time. Ah well. Instead, I had lunch on the benches in the gardens behind the church, watching the office workers savouring their crafty fags, and a businessman putting on his pink tie – for an interview?

With that excursion defunct, I went to Castle Fine Art, which seemed conveniently close, at least according to my preferred navigation program. Of course, this was the wrong Castle Fine Art, and there was no sign of Picasso. Hmmph. I’d seen earlier in the day that it was in Mayfair, a recognition which was sadly missing when it needed to re-emerge. My saviour here was that the gallery was open until 7pm, so I made it to Berkeley Square, for the Important Works on Paper exhibition. (Whereas Matt’s Gallery has a secured door, this gallery has a security guard on the door). It was particularly interesting to see Picasso’s poster and publicity designs the day after Matisse and I had a good chat with one of the staff about this. He said that I was the second person that day who’d made the same comment. He was very forthcoming with background information, and we discussed the relationship between the two. He agreed that they spurred each other on while noting that Matisse thought that he and Picasso were

North Pole and South Pole.

It was a pleasant change to have such a relaxed discussion, in what can be an austere environment. I confessed my earlier navigational error and he was polite enough not to laugh too much… As ever with Picasso, I had to admire his prodigious vitality, contrasting as it does with Matisse’s dynamic playfulness. The big difference in the experience was that there were only a couple of other people at Castle Fine Art, while even on a “private view” day, there were plenty about at Tate Modern.



One of the means on which I rely to keep up the culture quota is the set of various membership schemes available at London institutions, a subject I plan to investigate properly in future. Meanwhile, I was entitled to go to a members’ only day at Tate Modern last week to see the Matisse Cut-Outs, offering slightly less crowded conditions than normal.

The first room wasn’t promising at all. The paper version of an existing painting appeared to be just an amateurish dab and I wondered whether the remaining 13 rooms would be disappointing, too. However, this was very deceptive. The third room provides a direct comparison between printed work and the cut-out originals, from the ‘Jazz’ book, formed of Matisse’s illustrations and notes. The cut-outs are so much more expressive than the book prints, the colours are more vibrant and the texture of the overlapping segments of paper adds to your connection with Matisse’s original intention. In the Oceania room you can sense his playfulness, with the interchange of birds and fish between the two murals.

In the fifth room there is a recreation of the decoration of Matisse’s Vence studio, taking up an entire wall, which is quite stunning. There is a key on the side wall, which I read after my initial look. Coming back, I heard two people discussing one of the wall cut-outs, thinking that it looked like an hourglass. On the key it’s listed as a propeller, so I told them this.

Maybe that’s the female perspective,

one of them said.

One thing you see again and again in this show is that when Matisse created a design for a book or a poster, the final realisation of the design was always missing something – either details from the original, or less intense colouring, or a general simplification – which is why the show is so good, giving you the chance to compare that you wouldn’t normally have.

There’s a film in which you can see Matisse working on designs for chasubles with his assistants, and the finished items are in room seven, plus some rather startling stained glass designs. It was at this point that I noticed how many people were walking around smiling and laughing. This show seems to make people very happy. That said, I did see some children marching through, whose attention clearly lay elsewhere… The blurb claimed that Zulma was the cleverer artwork but I preferred the Creole Dancer, in the eighth room, though on second viewing I did notice the remarkable colours of the vase in the corner of Zulma. I overheard someone say that the

blue and red are amazing

while I liked the Chinese fish and the 1,001 Nights, too.

In Large Decoration with Masks it’s possible to see the order in which Matisse constructed the cut-outs, even at such a large scale, by looking at the layers of paper. Similarly you can see all the pinholes up close on the Acanthuses, indicating all the experimentation and re-positioning that went on. The Sheaf, in the same room (13) has extraordinary colours, while in the final room the stained glass window, the design for which we’ve seen earlier, shines beautifully, a rare instance in which the finished product is better than the design. Someone did completely disagree with this, I noticed:

It’s just not very well done. You’ve lost the central path.

Offering a contrary view, one younger viewer said:

I just like stained glass.

Someone else discussed with his wife how to take up commercial opportunities:

Which way are the publications? I don’t think it matters.

Unusually, I’ve seen something right at the start of its run, should you wish to attend and calibrate my findings. I’ll certainly be going again. Maybe I’ll have bought the “app” by then, though I certainly won’t be clogging up everyone else’s view. Hmmph.

Polaroid would be better

When choosing my new glasses, including the slightly shifty “free” second pair, I allowed myself to be “upsold” the reactive glasses. There was a nagging thought that this wasn’t quite the correct choice, related to an incoherent semi-memory of a friend’s advice. My solution to the problem I previously had with rimless glasses has been to wear them all the time, meaning that I’m much less likely to sit on them. The side-benefit here is that I can see what’s going on in the world at all times.

One of the first events at which I benefitted from this new clarity was the preview of Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel at the BFI. It’s just as successful as Moonrise Kingdom, which itself marked an improvement after the waywardness of the Darjeeling Limited. The Hackney WICKed Takeover at the V&A was a strange event. It was so busy I had to queue to get in, which was a particular affront given how close my office is. The private cinema within a wardrobe was too busy, sadly, and in general, as my companion observed, there was something awry in the reality of the Hackneyites’ transposition to South Ken. The next day I thought I was going to the last day of A History of Redbridge in Maps at the Redbridge Museum in the library at Ilford. (My sense of efficiency was disappointed to note on arrival that it had been extended until June…this does of course mean it’s still available to view, which is unusual for one of my retrospective listings) The interesting revelation here was that there were plans for an airport in Redbridge after the end of the second world war, but they were ignored in favour of what was, at the time, a small airport in West London. You could also see how rapid was the housing and population growth enabled and stimulated by railway development. [link to Flickr set]

That afternoon I caught the last day of the Isaac Julien show at Victoria Miro. The main attraction was the premiere of Playtime upstairs. Other people had noticed it was the last day, and they were only being admitted upstairs in batches. There were people sprawled around the room on the floor. The arrangement of the seven video screens meant that there wasn’t a single focal point or definitively preferred viewpoint, though there was a clustering of spectators along one of the walls. As new people arrived, they had to pick their way through the crowd daintily, picking which would be their main screen of interest. When the other screens went blank and only one had something happening, it was odd to see everyone’s heads turn in that direction (this effect rotated across the seven). Certainly I haven’t been part of such a large commune of art brinkspeople before [link to Flickr set] – it was only just possible for me to see the whole thing before the gallery closed at 6pm. I liked the little in-joke of the James Franco character, in his monologue about the art market, referring to the growth of various sectors,

Even video art.

Isaac Julien

That evening I saw Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street at the South Woodford Odeon. The main disappointment here was that I had higher expectations of dwarf throwing (based on advance reports) than the film was able to deliver.

On Sunday 2nd March I saw Jeremy Deller’s touring English Magic show at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. As usual with Deller, I liked the acerbic blurbs. There was someone making prints of an owl in flight, the image taken from the video that showed, amongst other things, a fine bit of bouncy Stonehenge mayhem with the soundtrack being a steel band cover of Voodoo Ray, the original being part of my musical birthright as a Mancunian, in the late eighties. (The following Thursday we went to a late night opening at the same gallery, the specific attractions including a film premiere related to English folk rituals and a performance by the Melodian steel band from the video:

Quite lovely to experience their A Guy Called Gerald cover live. He was behind us in the queue for coffee and there was a diffidence-based face off.) English Magic is now showing in Bristol and then it moves to Margate. [link to Flickr set]

I made a quick stop at the Barbican to see the We Create “weekender”, which included a large blue orb emanating sounds, plus a live projection of people’s silhouettes being manipulated and live remixing of a set of performances on individual instruments onto a video wall. [link to Flickr set]

L’Eclisse, which was on the Monday at the BFI as part of their Passport to Cinema season, provided a rather different view of money-market excess. Antonioni sly as ever, showing the end of an affair at the beginning, and the remorseless continuation of the surroundings in which the second affair failed to prosper, at the end. Also, I must note that most financial operatives don’t look like Alain Delon in his prime, nor do their paramours resemble Monica Vitti. The endearingly bad-tempered introduction to the film included the assertion that the best art is

Poetry, beyond the reach of the intellect

and that

Stories are only of interest for what they lead to.

While everyone stayed for L’Eclisse, five people walked out of The Last Man, a Lebanese vampire film I saw on the Saturday, including a couple who were twenty minutes late arriving anyway. Most odd.

Georgians Revealed at the British Library included more examples of children chafing against the arbitrary restrictions imposed on them in public.

No, that’s a gentleman’s buckle

said one parent in answer to a child’s suggestion of an item’s identification, while another said:

It’s an exhibition, you’re not supposed to play.

Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies concluded one example with the following:

Everyone will find her bush, small as it is, well worth the expense of entering.

Right at the end there was a clever room, on the floor of which was projected a large scale map of Georgian London, with displays around the walls focusing on individual numbered areas, which you could then walk to.

That weekend concluded with the third in the series of British Screen Classics at the Tricycle, hosted by Jim Carter. I couldn’t avoid the feeling that he was referring to us when he mentioned seeing a “few familiar faces”, who’d been at the previous events. Brassed Off is quite an unsettling film in some ways, and all the better for it.

It turns out that proper sunglasses would be much better than these ever-changing pretend ones. Hmmph.