Tag Archives: architecture

Meades Aphex Sandwich Pt. 1

Only the purified impetus of Meades can resurrect this otherwise moribund site.

It turns out that last-minute train ticketing optimisation decisions have their own repercussions. (More later).

With the afternoon off, I arrived in East Croydon, a staging post for Chichester. Having secured Private Eye and the New Yorker in the W H Smith, I was dully lingering by the newspapers, accidentally in front of the ‘i’ pile.

“There’s too much news”, a man informed me. “That one” – indicating ‘i’ – “just has the best bits. Try it.”

Pleasing though it was to receive this advice, I confess I did not take it. Instead I bought my ticket to Chichester, thinking well Oyster, zones, travelcard, yes it will all be fine. The machine appeared to be offering the same ticket for two different prices, so I thought I’d play a trick on it and choose the cheaper one. Take that, Invisible Hand.

Strange aspects of journeys in this region to my urban mind include trains that undergo mitosis, and lots of level crossings, which indicate bad planning.

The man at the Pallant House ticket office was very jolly, this extending to the loan of a special token, because I was such a metropolitan elitist that I lacked even a single coin for the lockers. It seems to be a place where people are keener than normal to discuss why they are there, and the gallery itself. Someone said that the modern extension to the original building had been very controversial in its time, largely treasured though it now is. The man in question lamented that the

“limited art syllabus in schools leads to a conservatism towards modern architecture”

that is very unfortunate. Later, in the central permanent collection gallery, a woman was prompted by the sight of a Peter Blake to complain that he had “airbrushed Jann Howarth out of history” and claimed all the credit for himself.

Sidney Nolan wasn’t particularly known to me. The best pieces were some of the Ned Kelly-related ones,  

a couple of small ones painted on glass, and landscapes:

It was noteworthy that he seemingly felt the need to move to the UK to achieve greater prominence, which I doubt would be the case now. Later on I heard that some people had come specially for him, whereas Pasmore was the priority for me.

To me Pasmore is associated with his designs for Peterlee, and footage I remember of his engaging with the residents who were complaining about them. The show emphasises the series of stylistic changes from figuration to abstraction in his career, described by one critic as the most important in post-war British art, which are indeed quite startling, particularly if you go back to the beginning. In the first room, two women were discussing the patronage of Kenneth Clark that Pasmore enjoyed, and one of them was trying to remember the name of his infamous son. I was able to supply the name of Alan Clark, and she laughed at the way she had whispered her own description of the man whose name she couldn’t remember as a “womaniser”. There is something very satisfying about witnessing the playing out of these changing obsessions, the landscapes becoming more rarefied, the colour blocks, the spirals, the reliefs. Each stage in his evolution has at least one outstanding exemplar. A happy surprise to learn that he created a mural for the Renold building, an icon of childhood train journeys and later University-related visits. Very cleverly, the gallery has scheduled a small show of British Constructivist art from the Catherine Petitgas collection, to coincide with the Pasmore, including some scintillating pieces.

On top of these, there was a lovely single-room display of woodcut prints, including my favourites Albrecht Dürer,

and Hiroshige:

plus Rebecca Salter and Vanessa Bell, both of whose work I’ve seen recently.

Very much worth the long and puzzling journey. As for the return, was needed to be timed for an event at RIBA, it was initially plagued by “signalling problems”, which led to train cancellations. While I waited on the station forecourt, several groups of what looked like wedding guests were gathering, including some lecking men who took turns to make expeditions into the station, returning for approbation and fist-related celebrations. While it was a bonanza for the man with his kiosk on the platform, the staff were dealing well with puzzled out-of-towners like me. Each time the train indicators changed (which was every few minutes), showing a “correction” notice, a strange sound was emitted, and the persisted in holding out hope for trains that hadn’t actually been cancelled, but whose appearance was very unlikely. Owing to my curious decision earlier, I had to buy an extra ticket to cover the escape from East Croydon to the warm embrace of Victoria. I think this was quite an obscure ticket, judging by the length of time it took the On Board Staff man to find it on his device.

With all the extra delays, I missed the first half of the On The Brandwagon screening at the Here Lies Jonathan Meades – Regeneration event. In the programme he dissects the Bilbao Effect, and its attempted implementation in places like Manchester, during the early New Labour period, lamenting the groupthink and the missing ambition. Hatherley asked Meades what he thought might be remembered well from the period. He replied that:

“It’s hard to tell what will endure, and when it does it’s never down to building quality”.

Meades lamented that the work of Rodney Gordon, Owen Luder and Claude Parent had nearly all disappeared, while an uncodified hierarchy of preservation meant that it was much harder to get rid of a dreadful church than a beautiful warehouse. The overall effect of urban regeneration in the ten years after 1997 was to produce “Modernism without meaning” and buildings that became “instantly unfashionable”. Part of the reason for this lay in the strangely plagiaristic approach of many architects, who ape each other in just the way that (for example) writers don’t. He referred to Adrian Tempany, who has written in his book about football, that there was a sense of shame about British cities in the Eighties, as compared with other European cities, with their San Siros and Nou Camps.

Audience members asked about London in the Sixties and Meades said that he enjoyed the messiness he found when he first visited then, and that

“Swinging London was completely atypical”

while more generally “tidiness kills cities”. This led on to the problems in regional cities, which used to be proud of their distinctiveness, whereas now they are subject to a relentless homogenisation.

In the programme he had a great time with litanies of newspeak

“Cultural springboard into the regional sector”

that he said he largely made up, though Hatherley claimed that he’d actually encountered

“Housing market renewal partnership”.

Further on language, he decried the vapidity of Executive language, which is

“(the) Language of the sycophant and the flunkey, used in hope of promotion”

and compared that unfavourably with Jonathan Green who celebrates the “slang poetry of the gutter”.

Asked again whether any of the regeneration projects could be considered successful, he thought that Bristol maybe performed better than the rest, owing to its peculiar topography, and that it effected regeneration without social clearance. On the latter point the “Class clearances” in cities were cited, and the terrible “decanting of the poor”. These social divisions “follow building patterns”, leading to social atomization and an almost total lack of “mixity”. A government with any spine should compulsorily purchase the thousands of unused buildings in cities like London.

Someone asked about a skit on the Village People’s YMCA, reworked as “INLA”, and the fact that on a programme scheduled in September 2001 this was fatuously censored by the BBC. A woman from Bilbao said that she wasn’t sure whether she supported him or hated him, because she claimed that contrary to his thesis, there had been genuine improvements since the arrival of the Guggenheim. He thought that those improvements would have happened anyway, and that the idea of the eponymous effect was a “faith without foundation”, the same as “dripdown, which we know doesn’t work”.

During these questions I was slightly mesmerised by my view of the on-stage monitors and the flashing red digits indicating that they were running over time, according to the schedule. The second screening of the evening was “Get High: the perilous attractions of vertigo” from 1994, a programme that he said

“addresses no weighty matters at all”.

He noted that he only suffers from it in buildings, not in nature, and that his hopes of the condition being cured by making the programme were not fulfilled.

Considering fairgrounds in the programme, he referred to the workers as “tattooed clerics of pain”. An inflatable Meades suffered on his behalf. Cablecars were described as unusual in being “both structures and modes of transport”. The mania for lifts in office buildings provided “workplace intoxication” and the “introduction of irreason” into the day. Footage of Canary Wharf was gilded by the theme from Where Eagles Dare, rather pleasingly.

An evening that more than justified the angst of trying to rush back from Chichester.

We shall return to the concept of “irreason” in part 2, which will also cover Field Day, Aphex Twin and more Meades.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meades on Nairn on Europe and Yorkshire

Following a well-timed opportunistic look at the BFI site, I picked up the last ticket to the showing of two Ian Nairn programmes followed by a Q&A with Jonathan Meades and Owen Hatherley, chaired by Douglas Murphy. Nairn has of course featured in several of the Tuesday Late events at RIBA, including showings of his tour of Bradford (when some modern planning mis-decision “made him burn”) and a talk about him. Arriving in the foyer of NFT3, I did wonder why people were lingering and later I realised it must have been because they were waiting for more of the essential introductory notes to be printed. As it was, I took my seat without the notes, feeling very neglected and denuded. There was an audible groan of disappointment when it was announced that owing to illness Meades would only be appearing via Skype, though at least Owen Hatherley had been added in person.

The first film, with its lively seventies theme tune, contrasted Padua with Oxford. He began by decrying the centralisation of opportunities and resources in Oxford University, with the latter being enclosed and insular. He felt that this enclosure of the mind replicated itself as students graduated in the stultifying centralising impulses of Whitehall. Nairn was almost his own critic at many points, naming the Italian city Padua, while noting that the Italian is Padova, but conceding that the Anglicisation is acceptable. He felt that one big difference was that in Padua the students were merely another set of residents, sprinkled amongst everyone else, even though there were many more of them than in Oxford. There should be maybe 2 or 3 Oxford colleges in the city itself, with the rest of them scattered throughout the country, matching the dispersion of resources in Germany.

The second film was about two Northern “Football Towns”, Huddersfield and Halifax, heralded by an even jauntier brassy theme tune. The intro by Meades claimed that he became the first ever tourist to Halifax as a result of seeing the programme when it was first broadcast. Each segment began with a view of the football ground from the hills, and Nairn imagined the experience of visiting fans arriving from the respective train stations. The Huddersfield station was described as a “palace”, which had been saved by the local Corporation from the plans of British Rail to demolish it (the demise of the Euston Arch was mentioned, of course). One small alleyway could be reminiscent of Edinburgh Old Town, but in general he decried what he described as “the big yawn” of Huddersfield, in the form of the long road from the station. Far too straight, with too much uniformity in the buildings, and uninspiring street furniture in the pedestrianised area. There was a lot to be admired in the “inner” Huddersfield, while the “outer” Huddersfield languished, and it was probably “too late to save”.

Each of the towns had a large historical edifice and he contrasted how these had been treated. In the case of Huddersfield, the Cloth Hall had been largely demolished, with part of it reconstructed in isolation in a park. Halifax had a much less impressive station, though he liked the fact that it allowed the views of the hills to dominate. Halifax’s edifice, full of demolition detritus and burning wood at the time of Nairn’s visit, was the Piece Hall. At the time, the plan was for the central courtyard to become a car park, a plan which appears to have been revised. He was very pleased with the Victorian covered market in Halifax (“one of the finest in England”), more so than with the Modernist market in Huddersfield, of which he did still approve (“marvellously human”). The debate he started continues.

One of his favourite buildings in Halifax was a church partially destroyed by fire. He wanted it to be preserved in that state, as a modern ruin (a position he repeated later with a leaning cooling tower), but didn’t think it would be. There was an interstitial caption in the programme at this point, indicating that in fact it was preserved. He liked the “attempt” of the Halifax Building Society headquarters, even if he didn’t think it was wholly successful, inasmuch as it was Halifax “expressing itself”.  An instance of “strength rather than brutality”.

Returning to the initial football theme, he gave a goal by goal analysis, with the victory going to Halifax, 5-2. A controversial result, for some. The programme did remind me of a similar short film made by B. S. Johnson that I’d seen at the Manchester Literature Festival several years ago.

 

At this point, Meades appeared on the screen, looming at us in front of his bookcase ramparts, with the Marseille dusk streaming in from the left, and Hatherley appeared in person, with Murphy as the host. Unstructured as it was, the conversation was delightful, dipping in and out of Nairn himself, but ranging across his and Meades’ concerns, architecture and the media treatment thereof. It was hard to say whether it was architects or television commissioners who came out of the discussion worse.

They lamented “accessibility” in programmes, wondering “accessible to who?” and they decried the claims that we’re now in a post-literate society, pointing to the proliferation of blogs and small publishing presses. Meades was asked about differences between his recent documentaries, and those he made in the nineties. The lightweight equipment available now was a great boon, meaning that his recent Ben Building (which I’ve yet to watch, to my shame – I’m saving it up), was essentially made by three people. This was fortunate, though, given the radically smaller budgets, and the radically smaller time available to him. He had 10 days to make the 90 minutes of Ben Building , whereas he used to enjoy 12 days for the 30 minutes of his older programmes. Making documentaries now was like driving 1 Smart car, while it used to be more like a convoy. There were problems in the past, when elements of the convoy got lost on the way… Related to this, Meades felt that nowadays the bigger the programme budget is, the worse the results (he did give specific citations here, but I’ll avoid the potential libel).

All three of them decried the predictability and timorousness of modern television, as opposed to earlier times when there was something unusually intelligent (such as Nairn) that you weren’t expecting. “Chance and accident” have disappeared, depriving us of the pleasure of “things we weren’t looking for”. They pointed to a strain of interesting programming on landscape and townscape and what it was like to make them. Meades referred to “the safety blanket behind you of the building”, buildings which acted as springboards into discussions of politics and fashion. Authors and works he cited included Craig Raine,  Alec Clifton-Taylor’s “The pattern of English building” and “Six English towns”, and of course Ray Gosling.

Architects themselves endured several broadsides. “Architecture afflicts us and affects us, consoling or menacing”, Meades said, and in programmes about architecture, architects are the problem.

“Don’t ask the pig about charcuterie.”

Architects talking about their work are “conventionalised in the extreme”, nor can they write. An interview with the Smithsons was referred to, with Alison Smithson resembling Kevin Rowland in her haughty disdain for the people who would occupy the buildings she was designing. Meades expressed hope for people such as Hatherley himself, Tom Wilkinson and Oliver Wainwright, and encouraged them to write more, and even to make documentaries. He said that it was healthy to receive a dose of humility, “like an enema”, when comparing the audiences for his programmes now with what he used to achieve in twenty years ago.

“Know how you’re regarded by how you’re treated”.

Hatherley contrasted the treatment of architecture on television with series such as the music Britannia documentaries, which treat the audience as more intelligent.

They circled back to Nairn, as such an unlikely TV presenter, another example being Keith Floyd, whom Meades knew. Floyd used to badger him into drinking early in the morning and when Meades refused, Floyd would search the hotel for a companion, because he needed someone to drink with, otherwise it was too painful. They lamented the slow decline of Nairn owing to drink, and that the fact that he effectively drank himself to death on beer was particularly horrible, and in fact largely visible in the programmes he made towards the end of the seventies. Nairn always had a “massive melancholy”, as seen in the Finding Follies series. Nevertheless, he and other eccentrics like him slipped through onto the medium because it was the period before channel controllers became omnipotent. David Rudkin (whose wonderful Penda’s Fen I saw as part of the Alan Clarke retrospective at the BFI) and Peter Nichols were cited, as was an anecdote from Tom Stoppard who, asked why he never appeared on TV anymore, replied that he “was never asked”. Someone in the audience wondered whether it was significant that all of these people mentioned came from the regions, not London, and the panel agreed with this. Meades remembered a Lynn Barber interview with Keith Floyd, in which she said that there was “something provincial about him”.

Nairn preferred places to people, and Meades agreed with him to the extent that he thought it was problematic to introduce real people into these programmes, because it leads towards naturalism, which he dislikes. He decried architectural photography as nearly always being a lie, which is idealised and removes context, and excoriated “witless newsreaders on subjects outside their ken”. The final lament was that programme makers constantly forgot that television is an auditory as well as a visual medium.

This is rather chaotic account but I hope it conveys a feel of what was a marvellously enjoyable discussion that felt like a secret treat, and doesn’t traduce what the participants actually said too egregiously.

Cities of Modernity

Owing to recent employment-related changes, the RIBA building on Portland Place is now only an invigorating 13-minute walk from work. Their Tuesday Lates are pretty good events (I still need to write about the most recent one), whereas last night was a one-off related to the current Mackintosh exhibition. On the way there I planned to buy a meal-replacing naughty flapjack, but the main counter in the shop was unmanned. At the rear of the shop, there was someone who would cheerfully fiddle with your phone, for money, not that this was a service I required. Hmmph. Nak’d bar it was then, for pre-talk sustenance.

The title of the evening was “Modernity: European Art and Architecture 1880-1914”, making it a real-life compressed equivalent of the series Alistair Sooke presented, at least the Vienna edition. The RIBA building itself is always an Art Deco treat. What I haven’t managed is to see the current exhibition yet – there’s still a month remaining. At the entrance to the lecture theatre we were given surprise gifts, which didn’t include a companion to the free Tunnock’s Caramel wafer of a few weeks ago, sadly.

The first speaker, Alan Powers, covered Glasgow. He explicitly didn’t have too much to say about Charles Rennie Mackintosh, covering instead people I didn’t know about such as John James Burnet and James Salmon, showing photos of their buildings. One painting he displayed depicted a “Whistlerian view” (Whistler was mentioned again during the panel) while another showed the “thrumming” of Glaswegian industry. The Glaswegian architects were clearly aware of contemporary work in Chicago, he claimed, and he noted that one of the prime motivations in the city was to rival Edinburgh, contests with London and other cities being of secondary importance. Some of the buildings he described had been demolished, but the striking Templeton Carpet Factory by William Leiper remains, and I’ll definitely try to find it the next time I’m up there.

Next came Vienna, its advocate being Daniel Snowman. He concentrated on Viennese culture, though he did point the importance of the demolition of the city walls and their replacement by the Ringstrasse, with buildings of wildly varying styles appearing along its route. He referred to the risk of “ghastly Schrammel musicians entertaining you” and then stressed the importance of the Secession movement. Writers such as Hofmannstahl and Schnitzler were among many working in Vienna, which he described as a “self-regarding and incestuous world”, riven with “very trendy suicides”, all to be destroyed by Gavrilo Princip.

Barcelona was described by Greg Votalato. His first photo showed the development of the Eixample area, with the internal courtyards of the buildings and the practicality of the chamfered corners, so designed as to allow the large trams to turn around corners. He sought to link commerce and culture in the city, noting parallels between the vertical crypts of the Montjuic cemetery and the modern ubiquity of shipping containers in the port. Gaudi was described, of course, but he stressed that many of his famous buildings were the result of collaborations with people whose importance tended to be ignored. Finally he posited a thread between the architecture of that period and the later International Style.

The final advocate was Stephen Smith, talking about Paris. I’d particularly enjoyed his BBC Four series about Art Nouveau and he covered some of the same ground here. (I still want to visit a chapel or building he mentioned in this series, somewhere in Surrey (?), but stupidly I didn’t make a note at the time – the Watts Chapel?). Ever keen teasingly to leap between High and Low culture, he said that while the evening wasn’t a competition, nevertheless his team of “galacticos” would triumph – Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Seurat, Degas etc. The eleventh player was Gertrude Stein, as much for her stimulating effect on other artists as her own writing (in the panel discussion later, Greg Votalato emphasised her importance, even if her books weren’t particularly readable). He extolled Cezanne’s “matchless pippins” and went on to talk about Art Nouveau, with the repeating images of dragonflies and metamorphosis. Mackintosh himself moved to France, as support of her thesis, and he wondered whether Nicola Sturgeon would campaign to retrieve his ashes for the Nation. Castel Beranger felt like something “built by swarms of bees driven mad by Royal jelly”, perhaps as a result of the curators’ over-eager buffing. As in the programme, he lamented the demolition of most of the extravagant Metro entrances, which were described in Modern Architecture magazine as a combination of “rational planning, to non-rational intent”.

All the speakers formed a panel on stage, considering questions such as which contemporary cities might be included in a modern list, and whether the indeed the nature of culture still supported such physical foci of endeavour. London was defended as somewhere that could have been included in the original list, and in an updated one, with the warning that artists are being priced out. Diaghilev’s ballet was cited as a potent “carrier of culture”, during the discussion about the extent to which the turn of the century artists/architects were aware of developments around the world, while EasyJet and Airbnb are “key enablers of cultural production” today. Alan Powers stressed the need to differentiate between “modernity” and “modernism”, and he mentioned E. W Godwin, who was a new figure to me. The final audience participant said that Glasgow could be included as a city with great cultural importance today, which led one panellist to feel sad about the changes in UK art education, which is now largely restricted to the wealthy.

The speakers were entertaining and clearly knowledgeable, and I now have a small list of new things to see and people to investigate, which is a good test of an evening expedition.

Post-penultimate post

Still catching up on the fag end of 2014, we find ourselves admiring the coordination of two Chinese ladies on the Central Line, who were wearing exactly the same grey boots with fur trims. We’re on our way to Osborne Samuel for the last day of The Photographers 2014. It seems to be in the spirit of The Illustrators, that I saw around Christmas 2012, a very different time. Apparently, there had been difficulties with the permissions for some Cartier-Bresson works, but they’ll have a show by him in 2015 anyway. Other people were partly appraising based on price and whether the photos fitted in with what they had in mind for *a particular space*:

“That’s how I want our house to look.”

It’s perhaps simpler to admire what was on show at Osborne Samuel, with the patina of history and canonisation, (e.g. Girls in Windows New York, 1960) than the much more recent works at Beetles + Huxley itself, though there was lots to appreciate there, too. My favourites were Alex Maclean’s aerial views and Michael Najjar’s Netropolis. Every time I go there I’m re-irritated by my being too late in attending the Martin Parr show about the people in the BBC2 programme of people showing off their homes to pick up a copy of the catalogue, in the 1990s. Modern Times – that’s it, which has just been resurrected. There’s a link with all the photos here.

Something of a change of pace at the Royal Academy for Giovanni Battista Moroni, which I was seeing with unusual prescience, a whole month before it closed. A daughter was walking around explaining the context of some of the paintings to her mother and at one point, with some relish, she described that one had been commissioned by a “society of flagellants”. The first thing that I noticed was the way that he seamlessly integrated the content of religious visions with portraits and landscapes – just garden variety saints or martyrs lolling about. As I think has been well recorded, he captured the foibles and weaknesses of those he was painting, the rough edges of their characters, beyond any neat image they might have wished to project. One young woman looked back at us most censoriously, while an older woman appeared to be a real sternchops. He also departed from the usual strict formality of the occasion, including the depiction of the magistrate, who looked like he’d just popped around for a portrait. Some of the use of colour stood out, including a painting of a woman in a red dress that I’d seen before in the show about colour at the National Gallery, the odd pink of St Catherine’s shawl which shimmered as you moved around, and the yellow-orange loincloth in his crucifixion. One of the blurbs referred to

“Apotropaic powers”,

not a concept I knew before. Sometimes I need to be lulled into appreciating these Old Master Types, but not with Moroni.

That evening was The Grandmaster at Curzon Soho, which had the moments of visual beauty you’d expect from Wong Kar Wai, but was rather incoherent. Apparently the edit that’s distributed in the West is much inferior to the original one. What he’s produced since 2046 has been disappointing, generally.

After a hiatus of a few days, known for its festivity, I went back to see the remainder of Constructing Worlds at the Barbican. The first visit had been a free members’ private view, when I’d invited along a friend, and we’d listened to Owen Hatherley, one of the Owens I always confuse, the other being Owen Jones. That time I mostly looked downstairs, whereas this time, without the need to rush, I followed the approved scheme, which was to start upstairs then make your way around and down.

Berenice Abbott’s Night View seemed very familiar and I wondered whether it had been in The Photographers. Someone around me referred to the “total absence of curves”. One photo by Walker Evans also reminded me of another US Depression-era item in The Photographers. People do get around. Julius Shulman’s capturing of the Case Study House Program caused a flicker in my mind about satires on that programme that I’d seen at Tate Liverpool, possibly during the Triennial, spiced with a hint of Jacky Treehorn’s house in the Big Lebowski. His collection includes that view of Los Angeles spreading out down below that’s part of all our visual inheritance, even if we’ve never been there. Lucien Hervé’s views of Le Corbusier’s buildings in Chandigarh were especially good.

At this point I realised I had a very different impression of the exhibition than during the private view event. It felt a lot more substantial, and less gimmicky. Definitely worth the second visit that my Barbican membership afforded.

Extolling car parks seems like a beyond-cliché position to adopt, but Ed Ruscha’s aerial photo of the parking around the Dodgers’ stadium transformed it into an ornate flower or alien creature, while conveying the ridiculous amount of space needed for the cars, compared with the actual working space of the baseball field.

Bernd and Hilla Becher were also famously concerned with superficially mundane structures. I’d seen a show of theirs at Sprüth Magers a few months earlier, accompanied by the chants of a demonstration in the street outside. In this case there was a collection of their photos of water towers, with an incredible diversity of form, situation and location. One was even in someone’s back garden.

Recognise administrative beeps and noises of different venues eg walkie-talkie noises of staff
I liked the fervid pragmatism of the Bellevue church in Alberta, as captured by Stephen Shore, with the sign:

“Drive safely – drive with God”

Moving downstairs, one of the most impressive sets was from Nadav Kander, capturing the bleak transience of architectural change in China, such as the burnt-out monument to peace and prosperity. A short time before coming to this exhibition I’d read an article in the New Yorker (a few months out of date, as usual) about the men who recycle rubbish in Cairo, and Bas Princen had a picture of that very area. Guy Tillim was one of the photographers whose work I remembered from the curtailed first visit and it was just as powerful this time, bringing to mind the shattered optimism of the play A Season in the Congo, that I’d been fortunate to see at the Young Vic, and the Afro-Futurism that featured in one of the Deutsche Borse prize shows at the Photographers’ Gallery.

While the more arch photos downstairs left me sternly unmoved, overall I do think this was one of the best shows of the year. There’s a selection of photos taken from it on the Guardian, as well as two proper reviews, from professional people who write such things properly.

At this rate, I’m not sure when I will have caught up with the dense end of last year.

Waltzing with the Vikings

A week before the last day, I went to see the Vikings at the British Museum, expecting to be a little whelmed. There were queues all along the street, which was dispiriting, until I overheard the advice to go around and come in via the North entrance, where there was no queue at all. I realised that like a dolt I’d forgotten my new membership card, meaning that I had to obtain a flimsy paper temporary replacement.

The show itself was fantastically crowded. If I’d taken a conventional shuffling snake approach, it would have taken ages to complete, so I peered at the objects from a few people back, taking advantage of the repeated blurbs on some of the display cases, higher up, the better to be seen. The various coins and artefacts were interesting, though rather dowdy and literal (even when dealing with Norse Gods) in comparison with the recent Aztec show at the same venue.

The part everyone has heard about is the longship in the second half, but this felt like a bit of a swizz, because the vast majority of the hull was metal recreation, with wood mainly at the bottom. There was a man seeking to impress his female companion with his Viking knowledge and tales of his bus journey to the circular fort in Denmark at Terreborg. It’s good that the British Museum now has more space to make its collection available. However, they really should consider letting people in more slowly.

Thence to the Wellington Arch for an exhibition Carscapes: How The Motor Car Reshaped England. As usual they had good items in the display cases, including a parking game based on a magnetic car driven by a large dipstick that seemed very similar to one I had as a child.

Carscapes: How The Motor Car Reshaped England

You could see a resemblance in tone between the Shell promotional poster (“Have a nice time in the countryside thanks to our petrol”) reminiscent of Tube promotional posters from the same period (1920s-1930s). The pride that existed in motoring paraphernalia architecture – car parks, garages, filling stations – contrasted strongly with the dreary utilitarianism we see today. A tablet was showing a live feed of Abbey Road, with tourists waiting for a long enough gap in the traffic to recreate the Beatles album cover.

Flickr album for Carscapes

Just a few Piccadilly Line stops to the Victoria & Albert Museum, dangerously near my workplace, for Empire Builders 1750-1950, which was (mostly) a single, long, thin room off the main architecture gallery. What was surprising (to me) here was the number of imposing Gothic revival buildings – train stations, court houses, post offices, along with the attempted mixtures of the Neo-Gothic with local styles, notably in India.

Empire Builders: 1750 - 1950

 

Flickr album for Empire Builders

On the way from there to the Southbank, I saw several people clutching programmes for Romeo and juliet and I wondered where they’d seen it. At the Albert Hall? I was there for James Lavelle’s Meltdown and there was a small exhibition “Urban Archaeology” in the Royal Festival Hall foyer about his label Mo’Wax. Do such people employ personal archivists? In this sort of show they all seem to have their tickets from 20 years ago and obscure letters. A man took a photo of a single record sleeve, so I came back with my camera to do the same for an U.N.K.L.E. release I used to have, which has two wonderful Plaid remixes.

Waltz with Bashir with live soundtrack by Max Richter from the Philharmonic Orchestra was the main thing I’d come to see. A man on the row in front of me was fingering the cling film cover of his Underground journals for a long time, before finally unwrapping them, with some reverence. I found the film very unusual and rather extraordinary, the animation adding to the poignant effect. Notable was the very fractured timeline of the various stories, as the protagonist nears his own memories. The presence of the orchestra made the effect even stronger, particularly with the solo piano at the end.

Afterwards there was a brief Q&A with Max Richter the composer and the director Ari Folman. The latter said he found it overwhelming, not having seen it for four years, that he’d made a massive mistake not inviting his 91-year-old mother. Apparently it took him 4 days to write the script, while Max Richter composed the score in 2 weeks. Folman’s intention was (unusually) to have the score ready in advance so that the animators could listen to it while they worked, instead of adding it at the end. When asked why he’d chosen Richter, he cited a quote from Pete Doherty that just when you don’t think you can go any lower, you listen to him and then you succeed. The moderator asked about the brief section of documentary footage from the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps at the end and Folman said that this was a matter of ideology for him, pursued against strong resistance from the rest of the production team. There was some contemporary music, as listened to by civilians back in Tel Aviv, and the younger people on the crew chose that because they said Folman’s tastes had stopped evolving in 1976, while the extracts of Schubert were chosen by Richter, who said he “had a madness for him”.

Walking to Waterloo afterwards I heard someone say

“It’s quite an onslaught”

while someone else was

“Decimated”

and another thought it was

“Too much”

One wrong-headed dullard said that

“Having the orchestra there didn’t add anything”

Tsk.

More than 20 notes and you run out of air

Sometimes the Saturday morning pfaffing takes far too long and extends beyond the reach of From Our Own Correspondent, even into notional Moneybox territory, not that anyone other than sickeningly-moneyed boomers ever listens to that. On Friday I took advantage of the late opening at Tate Modern to see the Saloua Raouda Choucair show, and the last few rooms of the Paul Klee, which I had to rush through at the recent Members’ evening, not having allowed enough time. Walking back to St. Paul’s to head back to my affluent inner suburb, I saw lots of fencing and banks of seating, which I realised must have been for the Lord Mayor’s Show on Saturday. Hmmph – they got in the way.

Today Ian told me that I could enter St. Paul’s without charge as a result of the ‘show’, which fitted in quite well with my wish to see the RIBA Forgotten Spaces show at Somerset House. However, I dallied so long that I was worried I wouldn’t get in. When I arrived, I saw lots of people streaming away from the cathedral and a few groups heading towards the entrance then disconsolately away. Thinking that somehow this prohibition didn’t apply to me, I walked up to the entrance, only to have this confirmed by a guard. Tsk.

At least it wasn’t far to walk to Somerset House, and I even remembered the way from an excursion to Yorkshire Bank late last year. The ice rink is now in force and I didn’t think that many people would be interested in the RIBA display. In fact, there were quite a few. It begins in a narrow passageway, with four Lightwells showing entries to the competition. Further on a seat with umbrella had been provided. The main set of entries was in the Deadhouse. Each one has two large cards, one explaining the overall plan on top, then one below with specific details for what the project would provide. Some of them have sculptures in adjoining alcoves, including bicycles, trees and a model of the Post Office Tower. For some reason the Silvertown Flyover attracted several entries – just too attractive a spot to urban improvers? One parent I heard told his son it was

Intellectual stimulation

to which he replied

Intellectual stimulation? My legs hurt and I want to go home

A much younger child announced with some pride that he could turn one of the screws on the mini-scaffold.

I had planned to go next to a free part of the Rest Is Noise weekend at the South Bank, so I headed there, slightly puzzled that there were lots of people heading into Somerset House from the Embankment. There were even more outside and my progress up the steps to Waterloo Bridge was very slow. The bridge itself was closed to traffic and full of people, reminding me of nothing so much as walking away from a football match. Then I remembered that there was to have been a fireworks display along the Thames at 5pm, perhaps explaining some of the strange noises I’d heard while in the Deadhouse. I found the sign for the Rest Is Noise events, down in the (…) Spirit Level. I found where I thought the performance should be, but the door was closed and it looked like a video was being projected, which didn’t seem right. However, that was the correct space and I did enter later, halfway through.

Conlon Nancarrow was one of many musicians I heard about only because of the sadly extinct Mixing It on Radio 3 in the early nineties, filling up many SA90s. Because of this, even the music is rather austere and unapproachable, I don’t miss a chance. In the ‘White Room’ they’d effectively recreated Nancarrow’s studio with projections and a display of his scores, with the player piano at the other end. One of the seated people had her eyes closed for large parts, which seemed incredible to me, because it’s extraordinary to be able to watch the operation of the piano, observe the patterns of holes on the sheet before they’re read then see their manifestation on the keys. Once it had finished (the pieces are restricted to around 10 minutes by the length of the piano rolls), Dominic Murcott was surrounded by people asking questions (which also permitted close-up gawping at the instrument). I agreed with him that recordings of this music just aren’t the same, because they miss the noise of the pump and the risk that the machine will break. One person said he’d heard  Nancarrow on John Peel, which I don’t remember, but would like to be true. While the player piano was intended to be able to reproduce the full dynamic range of a pianist, Nancarrow used it in a rather extreme way, exploiting the fact that the instrument could surpass human capabilities. He’s doing this again several times on Sunday and I’m very tempted to go again, to hear his introduction and a piece in its entirety. (He was kind enough to give me a very quick summary, including why he was included as part of the ‘superpower’ segment of the festival). Plus there are small shots of free Tequila available.

After some research, I decided to forego Gravity at Curzon Mayfair in favour of Nosferatu the Vampyre at the BFI, which is showing for quite a while but this was on the large screen at NFT1. Late as I was, I was able to buy a good seat right in the middle. Stunningly good, as ever from Herzog, and I was pleased to see the kindly man from Kaspar Hauser as Van Helsing. A very different (and effective) performance from Kinski, and a rather young Adjani was very good, too. As you’d expect, the ending is more bleak than redemptive.

Shoreditchification

Unwisely, I decided to see the Bill Viola show Frustrated Actions and Futile Gestures at Blain|Southern on Saturday. Positive: it wasn’t the very last day. Negative: I already had several social appointments for later in the day. Still, the idea of waiting around at home until 4pm seemed wanton, so I headed into town. Video art can be quite problematic in galleries, I’ve found, especially with longer pieces, when you don’t know at which point you joined. In the past I’ve noted with approval the extra documentation the Whitechapel provided, including specific show times. Against that, perhaps it’s an interesting wrinkle that people can experience something rather differently based on the timing of their gallery visit.

The first room held five different videos. Three were of different people walking along a stretch of the Mojave desert riven with heat haze and, in one case, a sand storm. There were gradual transitions as two of the groups walked towards and then away from each other and the camera. A fourth consisted of two screens, one showing a man waiting in a chair and the adjoining one showing his “soul”, rehearsing a range of vivid emotions, contrasting with the (mostly) impassive “body”. By far my favourite was the fifth piece in the room, with nine screens each showing loops of repetitive and often Sisyphean tasks, such as a boat in which one person baled water in while the other baled it out and a man emptying then refilling a wheelbarrow. I thought it was hilarious and the way it was presented made the viewing process more interesting, as sounds from the different screens interfered with each other and the viewer was able to play games with them.

The other standout piece was The Dreamers, downstairs. There were seven screens spread around the room, which also had an enveloping soundtrack of glooping and roiling water noises. Some people went up close to particular screens, while I preferred to stand in the middle and move my gaze around, wondering whether they were actually underwater. Bubbles appeared periodically from people’s noses and wandered upwards towards us and there would on occasion be a greater disturbance in the water that would gradually spread across the screen. This reminded me of one of the Thomson and Craighead pieces I’d seen the previous Saturday, in which people were holding their breath underwater, until the moment of release.

After another social engagement on Sunday, I travelled, impeded by Edgware Road weirdness and an impulsive journey of one stop in the wrong direction, to Westbourne Park and specifically the Trellick Tower, referred to in so many architectural documentaries and articles I’ve seen. What I’d come to see was The Ballad of Skinny Lattes and Vintage Clothing. Walking along the canal, there were kids hiding from each other while others skateboarded and played around. There was no sign relating to the event that I could see and the only salient indication of something happening was what looked like a clothes shop with people at the window:

Skinny Vintage

Skinny Vintage shop window

An Italian couple went inside just in front of me. They were architects and wanted to explore the tower. The man at reception man told them they needed permission from the council to look around, so they left rather disconsolately. After I showed him my printed out ticket, he directed me to the lower ground floor. This little journey reminded me of my own time living in a tower block (there must be something universally frumpy about them). Outside I saw the same gathering of people by the “shop”. Hamfistedly I proffered my ticket again and to my relief that was the “event”.

People were milling around in the shop, which had a bar and a vintage stall, some others sitting on armchairs who had an air of involvement, while some were filling out application forms for shares in Skinny Vintage, and examining their receipts.

A few minutes later, there was a short satirical video about artist-led regeneration, with clever B.U.S.T. and B.O.O.M. backronyms. The artists referred to as having taken up residence in the regenerated area were replaced

with people who looked and behaved exactly the same, leaving them free to move on to new venues.

We were then led through into a larger area. A man in a suit with a cardboard box on his head:

Out guide waits by Wall Street on the plinth

was waiting and when all had arrived he rotated the small model on the plinth and the show proper started. Sounds emerged, then we followed him around the dingy space, which was in fact a disused car park, so there were bays set off to the sides, some of which had been customised. He would stop and deliver part of his story, then perform what sounded like a Hebrew chant, with sound snippets in between. There were references to the Futurists and noise as music. Best pun of the evening was when he produced a photo of himself as a child in a costume designed by his mother – a jockey covered in records:

That’s right – a disc jockey

This was after he’d shown us this bay:

Record Shopping trolley

The guide made references to the prevalence of anti-semitism in discussions of Big Finance and told some increasingly poor jokes,

More of which can be found at http://www.racistjokes.info

In one area, the first people to follow him sat at a table, were given drinks and asked to fill out forms. This reminded me, in a much more gentle form, of one of the stages in It Felt like A Kiss:

This is where the money is

Prior to that we’d been ushered through a windy area plastered with hysterical money-related newspaper excerpts, which again reminded me of the Curtis/Punchdrunk piece.

After his speech, the guide picked up the wand resting on the cushion, and used it to both mix and trigger sound recordings and musical elements from the laptop.

We were led into this bay, where we were given a currency note:

Skinny Vintage Fiver

The guide and some of his assistants held out their money and ate it.  As you can see, I chomped the corner of mine, too well enculturated to eat the whole thing.

The rest of the show included a fireside book reading, replete with velvet dinner jacket and analogue tape material, a reggae song about Vintage Lattes and the like performed in the vinyl bay, which now had flashing police lights, and finally a sixties-style show song about Shoreditchification and Modern Gentrification.

I really enjoyed this unlikely walk around the entrails of a famous tower block. There was a tension between the actor’s words and his super-earnest delivery, which was very effective. A great performance from him and the whole thing worked rather well.

There’s more about the group behind it (the Neo Futurist Collective) here and here. I’ll definitely keep an eye on them and try to catch their future work. Also involved is Fruit For The Apocalypse.

While I was there, I couldn’t resist taking a predictable photo of the tower itself:

Trellick Tower