Category Archives: Art criticism

@MIfestival #TreeofCodes 05 July 2015 14:30

At the delightfully avant garde opening sequences of Manchester International Festival’s Tree of Codes I felt a little cheated.

In 2012 I had run around Arthur’s Seat in a lightsuit – and not once, since a practice session was necessary to the choreography (Speed of Light, Edinburgh Festival). I then emailed the innovators behind that performance hoping to borrow a suit to map one of the expressive dimensions of natural sign language poetry performance (Signart). Sadly my request fell on stony ground.

It was at least heartening to see such suits well deployed by the Paris Opera Ballet and Company Wayne McGregor.

The next sequence, involving angled mirrors, had me wishing all my deaf and sign sensitive friends were in the stalls alongside me (and no, that number does not include Mr. Tumble, unless his purpose is to offer umbrellas at the farthest reaches of the foyer).

And then sorcery gave way to beauty – the chromatography and chroma-graphics; Jamie xx’s formational soundscapes; refractions of reflection upon reflection; layered dimensionality….

Yet the real 3D human bodies remained somehow trapped – if not in dimension, then in plane – and, indeed, in only the lower reaches of the vertical (as if footnote or subtitle).

Despite the virtuosity and funk of dancers and choreographer Wayne McGregor, towards the culmination of the revolving circular windows one longed for some lift – perhaps by such choreographic stage management as vertically revolving panes lifting individual dancers to an exit amongst the higher boughs.

Or for some underscoring of depth. This latter, in particular, could have liberated the embodied text by occasioning the dancer to emerge from those unreachable parallel dimensions, through the coupéd scenery and out toward or even into the auditorium in which we featured. Foer’s book made such manoeuvres possible for the word.

Small frustrations not withstanding, I was not disappointed to have made the pilgrimage for such a gem, and left dreaming of chats with Olafur Eliasson.

photo-9        Highly recommended.


Painting in the spirit of Catherine?

Being in a museum after-hours invokes a childish thrill- it’s naughty, daring, clandestine. So the opportunity to sit in the Grand Gallery of the National Museum of Scotland after-hours and be entertained by an auditory-visual spectacular featuring the percussion of  Evelyn Glennie, with Philip Sheppard and Canty, and the art of Maria Rud, was irresistible.

The audience awaits in the Grand Gallery..

I wondered who would be the star of the AniMotion show. Evelyn Glennie is undoubtedly an accomplished percussionist; she certainly knows how to bang her own drum. In the programme notes she boldly claimed to have taken “the lead musical role in the opening of the London 2012 Olympic Ceremony” and indeed to be “the first person in musical history to successfully create and sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist.” One wonders whether, in Ms Glennie’s world, the beginning of ‘musical history’ serendipitously coincided with the launch of her very own career.

I am perhaps being a little harsh, but my hackles were raised by her claim to have been “on a mission to overcome barriers and stigma”. I once met Ms Glennie at an occasion in London, where she was far from the most celebrated of guests. I was with a deaf friend and colleague who is a native BSL user. As we moved into the conversational circle containing Ms Glennie, she physically launched herself across the space proclaiming “You don’t need to do that. I don’t Sign”, whereupon I was obliged to inform her that I was not signing for her benefit. Instead of apologising to my friend or blushing at her error, she merely tossed that lifeless mane of hers and sniffed, with ne’er a nod to my friend. So I have witnessed Ms. Glennie acting to overcome barriers and stigma.

But I digress. The evening was not about politics, but le spectacle. It was organised by the ever-capable Clare Allan to augment the Museum’s current exhibition Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress. The exhibition is truly stunning: Nana was sorely tempted to break out her inner Pink Panther and make off with a horde of goodies on that gorgeous sleigh. *sigh*. But beautiful objets aside, I learned that Catherine’s banqueting hall was at one time fitted with chalkboard placemats. Guests wrote their order on their placemat and- get this- the placemat then spun down through the table on a winding mechanism to the kitchen below, whereupon said dish would be placed on the mat and reappear as if by magic in front of the diner. I mean, come on! This lady knew how to rock. In her menopausal years she managed to kill off her 20-something ‘favourite’ du jour, who suffered from a weak heart. (She kept a special wing of one of her palaces in which to install her succession of ‘favourites’). On the wall at the entrance to her party palace (oh yes) she had displayed a list of house rules, which bound guests to be playful and to join in. Breaking these rules was punishable by forfeit- such as drinking a glass of water (as opposed to Champagne, one assumes) or reciting a particularly tedious poem of Catherine’s choosing whilst everyone else partied on, laughing at your expense. With each breach of the code of conduct, more water and more verses were added to the forfeit. It was with this glamorously playful spirit in mind that I took my seat among the excited throng.

And so it began.  As the voices of Canty- “Scotland’s only Medieval music group” looking rather well for their great age – took flight, the great vaulted glass ceiling reflected the black sky beyond and the sparkling lights beneath and the diminutive Maria Rud began to daub oil colours on to the surface of her light box. Seen in projection, the tangle of her hair and the silhouetted movement of her hand and arm embodied and enhanced the performative. I pondered whether the singers’ process was equally transparent in their performance and why I rarely thought of it in those terms. As colours and shapes appeared, merged and disappeared into white, I found myself comparing Rud’s activity to that of a sign language interpreter. Both work at speed, creating a visual product from an auditory stimulus. And she was working quickly and efficiently enough to make the grade as a fully qualified ‘terp’. But something was not quite right…

Rud at work

I once returned from a long maternity leave and in literally the first hours of my first day back was filmed interpreting -without preparation – a presentation on French culture. I was then filmed reflecting on my experience, during which I acknowledged that I had identified a single underlying theme (comparing English to French) and whenever I began to be overwhelmed by the unfamiliar I had reached for and re-iterated this theme. It wasn’t my best day’s work, but that was the point since it was being recorded as a learning tool (Three Interpretations: Sign Languages International).

Back in the Museum, after only the second piece of music, I began to feel that Maria Rud was using exactly the same coping strategy. No sooner did the audience began to discern unintentional Cubist figures, Van Goghian skyscapes and fabulous Monetian garden scenes in the richly coloured abstracts emerging before us, than they were brushed, wiped and sponged into yet another hooded figure with arms or scimitar upraised, yet another Christ, tree, bird, house or fish. Whenever a percussive burst heralded a change in tempo, a red sun could be relied on to appear.  It brought to mind the MC One Tzu, who recently told me the Edinburgh-based Sketch the Rhyme (where MCs are expected to compose on the spot in response to the output of a visual artist) was quite a difficult exercise since “everyone always draws faces”. Back in the Museum, my inner Nana was about to imperiously call for a glass of water when the interval arrived.

Aha! Something different!

I spent much of my twenty minutes, wine glass in hand, gazing upon a finely carved 18th Century Chinese ivory lantern, longing to see it lit and wondering what intricate filigreed shadows it might cast. How would this evening be , I mused, if the likes of Tim Noble and Sue Webster had been allowed to let rip in the space, doing some live construction of shadow art. Now wouldn’t thatbe something….

Oh to light the lantern

As the second act unfolded much like the first, we again appreciated the indubitably confident, skilful and occasionally rhythmic dynamism of Rud’s work but my eye was drawn to the Museum’s beautiful Chronophage. Whenever I peeped over, its giant insect was eating time at a different pace- now speeding, now slowing, now pausing, now seeming to reverse and again or not. Its movements wove in and out of the music around it. And that’s when I understood the second problem with the evening: Tempo. Rud clearly felt an urgency to produce, such that whenever a sound was ringing out, she felt obliged to respond. What I longed for was what I see when a good sign language interpreter is working well, transforming sound into really visual sign language (not a visual version of a spoken language, like SSE); for what I could see in the Chronophage as it sometimes aligned, sometimes counterpointed, sometimes wilfully ignored the insistence of musical rhythm.

The Chronophage dances

I wanted Maria occasionally to step back from her canvas, to pause, to duck, to weave around the musical stimulus rather than be simply directed by it. If this was an act of translation-in-process, I wanted to feel the relative spaces between the two forms. I didn’t want Rud simply to paint to a tune; I wanted her to allow the paint to dance to it, from it, with it, against it.

It might have been that everyone else in the audience felt the same, it might have been a response to having been instructed on the etiquette of applause at the start of the evening, or it might simply have been that this was an Edinburgh audience, but I didn’t feel a swell of joy rising from those gathered. Catherine might have felt this was not the most swinging party her palace had ever held – although it was engaging and thought provoking for a’ that.

So – a couple of renditions of pretty long poems for Dame Glennie, perhaps a small glass of water for Maria, but a large crate of champagne for the Museum, which stole the show.

And for the real party-goers don’t miss the upcoming Museum Late. Nana regrets most sincerely that she is unable to attend, and for that she is already reciting her verse….


Sun, sea, sand and sex: Nana and Tracey in Margate

I spent the English late summer bank holiday in Margate; a place that Tracey Emin, so the catalogue to her latest show at Turner Contemporary tells me, has described as “a most romantic, sexy, fucking weird place”. She’s not wrong. But then Tracey is really very good at describing.

As I wandered, I wondered just how much Margate describes Tracey. On the front at Cliftonville, white cliffs drop to paved seaside walkways littered with clumps of natural chalk. A free and ready supply of drawing materials that the locals clearly exploit, judging by the uniformly white-on-concrete graffiti that stares out to sea, like so much modern day cave painting repelling, informing or perhaps enticing potential invaders.

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Of course you don’t use chalk only to draw. One piece of graffiti proclaimed anonymously to the world “I love you, Melissa ***scott”, whilst just a little further round the cliffs the darker, more bruised  “Melissa, I never wrote the kid bit” made Emin’s neon gift to the town ‘I Never Stopped Loving You’ echo with fond distance. Here you could see real lives folding and unfolding before your very eyes, daily writ large on the communal chalkboard. Add the painstaking craft and marvel of the Shell Grotto’s carefully managed-for-profit mystique and you’ve pretty much charted the local girl’s artistic career.

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If this is Tracey’s external childhood environment, step inside the RIBA award-winning sympathetically-reflective yet monumental seafront gallery and you’ll come face to face with Tracey’s adult internal environment. On the way in to the exhibition rooms (sponsored by Farrow and Ball, don’tyaknow) a helpful lady tried to sell me the £2 audioguide, advising “Some of the art in there is very difficult, you see”. She was right, but I figured the audio would be hard to hear above the scream of Tracey’s scratchy blue gouache sketches of her naked female form.

In the catalogue Jeanette Winterson writes “This is not the female body as art object drawn by men for millennia; it is a woman drawing on herself as a woman.” Like womanhood, this is not for the fainthearted. Emin shows herself/us in a continual dialectic with the biology of her/our sex. She speaks to us through it. She is seen staring at her body in wonderment, but most often clutching, scratching, clawing and pawing at and into her cunt (no other word appropriate here) like a rooting animal, as if desperately seeking herself, her losses, and the answer to life and mortality. She doesn’t spare her blushes or ours. We don’t really need the bold inscription ‘RELAX’ in ‘Blue Figure: Relax’ to conjure the cold metallic pinch of the speculum.

And that brings me to Tracey’s writing. She’s working on a longer piece at the moment (‘The Vanishing Lake’), and it seemed to me that her graffiti is beginning to overtake her images, sometimes appearing like a half-descended final curtain (‘I Love You’, ‘I Didn’t Say’, ‘I Know You Are Beautiful’). For my money, the written canvases are less interesting. Her writing doubtless has an everywoman appeal -it is resonant and documents our age (‘I Said No’) – but it is not outstanding. Her drawing- rarely pretty but always curious and ultimately beautiful – is. It bears comparison with the revealing Rodin and JMW Turner sketches that are included here. Not as beautiful, certainly, but far more narratively rich.

What are beautiful are the embroideries – the developments of her textile work. Stitched large on visibly tacked together calico squares, it’s as if the memory of a thousand generations of women’s work softens the line, soothing the image into something altogether more ethereal (‘Floating Blue’, ‘Dark Recline’). And, breaking from the blue to a palette of soft earth, ‘Thankyou’ is the most evocative paean to that glorious post-orgasmic, post-coitally satisfied tranquillity I have ever seen.

The exhibition also shows her current thoughts in sculpture (mostly working on the kinaesthetic self-portrait in cast bronze), monoprinting (playing with comparing her own mark-making to Picasso’s- and yes, she can switch from Schiele to Picasso with apparent ease) and more of that neon graffiti. Excepting the latter, the work has the feel of progression.  When Germaine Greer reviewed ‘Love is What You Want’ at the Hayward for Radio 4, she calculated that Tracey was now menopausal. This, she said, is “a tough time in a woman’s life”- “the reckoning”- and counselled that Emin’s anger was coming back, now from “a deeper place- the well of female frustration.”  On the evidence of  ‘She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea’ I reckon Germaine’s right.

If you’re a woman, it’s a must see. Like Winterson, I don’t know what you’ll make of it if you’re male. I guess it depends on whether you’re man enough to come to terms with what the feminine really entails. You’ve got until 23rd September….you’ve already missed your chance to stick a proper Margate Kiss-Me-Quick hat on Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’. Shame.

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