Tuesday, 23 February 2010

A Western, Action Hero

The following article has been published on the Action Hero Company's website, it's currently on the News page below their thoughts about their current show, which itself accompanies A Western within a trilogy. It's also Artsadmin approved. Their website is understated and pertinent, a sincere platform to a fabulous company.

'This is the scene where...'

Action Hero have the ability to transcend their environment through the invigorating and infectious nature of their performance. Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse who constitute the compact company sustain a beautiful chemistry, which enriches a performance that is essentially physical, and contains sparse words. These two solitary bodies evoke a roomful of excitable communal tension. The sense of communication attained, within both company and between audience and company, is so strong that you would be hard pushed to notice that there is in fact no dialogue. The calm and wry voice of the narrator punctuates the action laconically. This voice, sometimes Stenhouse and sometimes Paintin, introduces each scene as if recounting a film seen and dissected to the point of estrangement.

In contrast the shared physicality of the two is immediate and expressive. This proves to be integral within a disparate setting, - audience scattered around the dusty, warmly lit old church hall, all bare wood and well-worn equipment. We are up above the Forest’s other performance area that is half café half anything you please, taken up by the wide curve of a grand staircase and asked to sit wherever we fancy. (You could not have a setting that spoke more of being treasured and used, with fanciful designs painted on many walls and table surfaces.) Rather than its being an obstacle, they make recourse to the casual seating; moving round our tables and chairs, slamming doors, crashing off bicycles, tumbling down stairs, shooting, being shot at, and chaotically up turning card tables.

‘Please laugh in a malevolent manner if you are ‘a baddie’’, Stenhouse directs us, ‘That is, if you’re Mexican, Asian…’ and the list goes on until it transpires, ‘In fact, if you’re anything other than white, American, and male’, and most of the audience is chuckling wickedly in performance and in appreciation. Alongside laughter there is certainly a sense of unease. It is palpable that the audience is unsure from moment to moment whether to laugh, sympathize, whether to call out and join in, or maintain a reverent quiet, as the quality of the telling is teasingly undecided. This is theatre in its socially involved state, which Peter Brook might commend: theatre as a risky evolving thing that does not tell you how to react.

Action Hero question epic presentation and narrative. In doing so the performance touches on the nature of aspiration and scale, the smallness of the individual, the little and screamingly large bizzarities that go ignored in genre, stories about the sexes and sex. Gemma pushes a glass filled with water into the hand of a male audience member and stands intently facing him. She nods, he hesitates, she nods again insistently, and the man (partly in his role as spectator and part of the segment of theatre that is subject to the manipulation of the performers) is complicit in chucking water all over her face and front. Gemma doesn’t flinch but pauses, smiles and looks down at her wet prairie dress. The hero coyly refuses to be handed his drink, but insists through gestures and looks that the barman slides it to him, as the genre denotes.

The artful and mute movement establishes an offbeat, highly absorbing rhythm. The repeated occurrences, motif scenes, succeed in punctuating and structuring the performance by altering as the show itself builds. Ketchup is squirted on the whore’s dress the first time she dies ‘a slow and painful death’, and a second, and a third, until she’s scarlet sauce coated. What is evidently artifice is not denied by realistic props but celebrated until so explicit it is no longer artifice. Instead, the feelings of tragedy, hilarity, prejudice and eroticism, which are implied and elided in a traditional Western (including of course the perception of its own surreality and silliness,) are here smeared all over the surface like the ketchup.

Yet it is not all wry critique of an American genre. The sincere voice of the company is also present and expressing a certain wistfulness. As the Western trills out to the usual Morreconi noodles we’re told how the performers long for great stage sets, stunning effects, thousands of horses and hot sandy winds. The sensation easily achieved by these unattainable things must be worked for craftily outside of the mainstream; and what is created is a more complex accessible thing. Despite their apparent longing, Action Hero realize that what starts as restrictive necessity can be acted upon and transformed to become enabling, even desirable.

Being placed in a position of minority or difficulty turns out to be an integral theme then. Making this show most memorable is its sensation of uncertainty. Audience members are no longer safely concealed sitting in the dark. When the whore perches on a man’s knee to gaze at him and when another stranger is coerced into a fantastically gradually mimed dual their nervousness is as much a part of the thrill as Action Hero’s flawless physicality and pace. That we’re involved in their action, their danger, seems an honorary invite to adventure, and an almost wayward joy.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Cool Issue

In case you hadn't noticed, poetry's back, loud and hot. This Sunday's Observer Woman Mag was the Cool Issue declaring, 'New Year, New Cool. 2010 will be a giddy hectic whirl of newness. [because, you know, everything changes when the year does; how else would we piece together exciting cultural articles?!] You need to know what's coming up. [oh yes, you need to] So we'll tell you. [because we know everything] The shoes, the poets, the TV, the undead, the vegan, the nails.'

Wow! Poetic form finally finds its place. But that's enough mocking of fashion writing - culture's transient and that's all good. And it's dead (also a theme - vampires and zombie's are so alive right now) true that poetry perfectly compliments current trends; geek chic, big cardies and glasses, being good and being green, there's never been a better time to be verbose.

Additionally, the ease of cultural supply through blogging, social networks, apps, and downloads is making the sharing of knowledge and ideas sweeter and simpler than ever. (See the Global Poetry System.) Poetry fits rather neatly into this in its compact form. And trends always love assimilating something perceived as idiosyncratic, with hints of the archaic or retro, and anomolous. An awesome mag Popshot run by Jacob Denno couples its submissions with responsive illustrations. Lovely! Wordy lines with visual hits. Plus, submission is free and you can submit as many as you like, which for dreamy poets with time and no money on their hands is a real incentive to contribute to the new cool.


Elle mentions this ubiquity, and cites last year's Keats film Bright Star as playing a part. I'd suggest The Edge of Love which, alongside Kiera Knightly and Sienna Miller acting amazingly wan and chiffony in a very poetically rural setting, includes moving voice-overs of Dylan Thomas' writing. Being passionate and hard Thomas (and to a lesser extent Keats) serve to dispel mythical images of poets as overly introspective, nearly as wan as Knightly. We also have Russel Brand stealing philosophical and poetic ramblings into sex based stand-up; looking like Byron, being a slut (also like Byron).

I like Elle's poetic interviewee Adam O'Riordan's idea, 'It's language in its most intensified form. It's like a strong coffee, once you've had espresso, you don't want to go back to drinking instant.' The port of prose then, 70 proof or anything stimulating... don't overdose on cool, the come down's pretty prosaic.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

'Leaf' Magazine: perfect Pitch

The launch of the second LEAF was in Brighton Meeting House on Wednesday evening. LEAF is a brilliant emergent poetry publication put together by writers at Sussex University, led by the lovely Lousia Wright and Sarah Kelly. Lou was also a massive part of PODAPODA, an independent Sussex magazine, packed with political features, creative pieces, and art - a really lively and eclectic read. LEAF is a more sparse format in a small, satisfying, square design. I'm loving the squareness! Almost more bookish than mag-ish. The art is minimal and inky with room given to the type of the poems.

Reading at the launch was a pleasure. The formal part had been kept short so there were four of us reading, including Sarah, whose cut-up, stirring poem cast an interesting light on the narrative form I'd uncharacteristically constructed. Pitch is the title and concept of this issue - a gem of an idea.

...pitch... The piece, called Current, looks at pitch as a sense of direction with a spot it wants to hit; it travels and exerts itself. A person might embody this as the movement and destination of the pitch; which involves decisions, maybe makeshift, that later need to be defended, brandished, like a flimsy weapon... Find the poem pp. 26-7.

Thanks to Lou & co for a lovely wee book! Check it out.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

clever people, poetic space

So i went to the restructured Ashmolean Museum on Saturday, its first day of opening. It was a crisp winter day with bright, low sun and fiery trees. We walked through Jericho and it felt like part of a city scaled to eye-bite size, promising and personal. I remember the Ashmolean from visits stretching way back. It was always impressive and dark. I once tried to cram a gaggle of fifty teenagers in for a visit, having promised their teacher culture to the max, only to be turned away by gallery attendants; angry that so many people actually wanted to see their museum on a weekend, not to mention the fact they weren't in tweed. The kids were pleased and ran off to familiar high street signs, and I didn't blame them. The Egyptian tombs were frighteningly grand but the rest of the place was dingy and reluctant.

Since the closure and reopening it's like a different place: the building has been extended back, knocking down old structures to make way for pale, new walls. Massive sheets of glass frame glimpses of Oxford's alleys as you walk up zig-zaging stairs that overlap other walk ways and steps. Each spot you stand on presents a view of paintings, pots, and statues lit up so the old (far far off old) copper, glazes and stone looks as striking as it can ever have; and then, sidetracked, you navigate your way to the stark blue object, only to get lost and quickly distracted by the complicated pictures without perspective, or a collection of scarabs like jewels.

It's quite moving. The setting is so contemporary and deft at teasing you around the layout, and the relics pretty special reminders of ingenuity (forget iphones - give me that ivory box carved with little-finger nail sized fighting elephants, or the symmetrical repetitions of Arabic wall decoration anyday) that you're left with that 'ooh i need to make things feeling'; or a belief you would survive just by looking at these things. If you could hold hands with the architect. I heard a guy say it was like a Germaine Greer to Lauren Lavern culture revamp, stockings up and smiles...

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Contingency: orange peel, sacks, golf balls and babies.

Eva Hesse, Studiowork, The Fruitmarket Gallery.

The sculptures of Eva Hesse’s (1936 – 1970) Studiowork could constitute the displays of a bizarre museum, remnants collected from the distressing deserts of Kafka or Eggers.

On the Fruitmarket Gallery’s ground-floor glass encases the browning amber colours of spherical, palm-sized, wax curls; sculptures that evoke discarded orange peel and golf balls, or with that slight transparency – a glowing bulb. On the wall hangs a long tendril-like piece of latex. There is a nightmarish quality to these things: their undecided states possess the lack of sense and acculturation which dreams present. At the same time their resemblances to known objects tease our imagination and allude to belonging, not unlike object trouve and the erotic objects of surrealism, such as Meret Oppenheim’s Le Déjeuner en fourrure (The lunch in fur): a fur covered cup that attempts a collision of the domestic and sexual, mundane and weird. Yet Hesse’s sculptured experiments do not possess the same eager effort, not striving to embody a precise concept. They seem, and are, experimental. The ‘test pieces’ accumulated by Hesse in her studio have been curated by Hesse scholar Professor Briony Fer, and Barry Rosen, Director of The Estate of Eva Hesse as a statement of their importance beyond essential technical exploration. Each object appears as thoughtful and enchanting – the startling result of a meditation on appearance and material as interlocking – as it does bold.

The distinct character of each is so apparent that the viewer might know their tone of speech if they weren’t so quietly expressive. A black sack holds something lumpen. Other black sacks hang in triplet, each weighted internally by a heavy sphere. In the most ominous tone of the exhibition the dark masses pulling on their constraints are unnerving and sound a warning. Contrastingly, there are the comically corporeal things, like the flaccid cotton batons. Distended pears and half-blown balloons, slightly stretched, recall lungs. Hesse described her preoccupation with ‘the bodily nature of vision’ and ‘tactility’. It is true that the impression is one of looking with fingers and the abstract palpability of half-memories.

Perhaps the least potent (and exhibited in public for the first time), are the papier mâché shells we find upstairs, which have a ‘mending’ look: reminiscent of reparations made to comfort and homeliness. In their simplicity they report to their origins and a distance from excess. Back downstairs, on a slightly smaller-scale, a stuffed starfish-shaped canvas sits complacently, straightforwardly pleasing. With loopy spaghetti offshoots it really wouldn’t be out of place falling from a pram. The careful placement informs the viewer throughout. Thus the process of hanging becomes sinking and disuse, in turn suggesting use and choice, and finally, abandonment. (As the objects first described, placed carefully in cases, have the found look of curios and the cared-for aspect of the chosen.) Outside of the studio Hesse’s sculptures appear incongruous, discarded, and daring: resembling fragments of our bodies and world they also recall their maker. Hesse’s concentrated and intricate actions and gestures can be imagined from the pieces as stark evidence of their own production: the gallery cites, ‘folding, pinning, piercing, cutting, stapling, layering, threading, wrapping, moulding and casting.’ Within the gallery setting they exert their independence yet they also call out. Or so we imagine, when their physical evocativeness is enough to insist we allocate our own voices to them; maximising the rich silence you find in most exhibition spaces.

Hesse inhabited her studio constantly, a two-storey loft apartment on the Bowery, New York that was both home and workplace. As recreated within the gallery’s own layout, she carried out larger works on the upper floor, and the smaller studiowork on the lower floor. A remarkable photograph taken by her friend Mel Bochner, displays endless items covering a table made for her by companion and artist Sol LeWitt. Her friendships with other artists (also including Ruth Vollmer) leading up to and throughout the 1960s, when she was most prominent, were integral to her work. Louise Bourgeois used latex to make, ‘a series of radical small sculptures in the early sixties’, suggesting a common fascination with Hesse’s own attraction to the versatility and lightness of the material’s layering.

The artist gave some of the small table pieces to friends, raising them from the test surface also littered with exhibition reviews, gallery cards and appealing objects that acted as prompts. Resembling the containers on The Fruitmarket's ground floor, she utilised the glass cases you might encounter in a pastry shops. (Perhaps comically there is no great disparity between the light layering of glazed pastry and some of her most ephemeral pieces.) The test pieces perpetually transcended this status due to Hesse’s adaptability: exhibiting one of them (as Claes Oldenburg had in 1961) in a solo exhibition in 1968 at the Fischbach Gallery, New York. Hesse then placed the work on shelves lining the studio. In the gallery some pieces are displayed on table-like plinths, roughly alluding to their positions within the Hesse’s studio. The evolving arrangement of clusters on the worktable signals the artist’s fluid approach and awareness of transience.

The extensive range of sculptural materials and shapes forms the exhibitions’ air of curiosity. There is a manipulation of materials such as wire-mesh, sculpt-metal and cheese cloth through the drawing out of their inherent properties and the mouldings to which they lend themselves. In the pursuit of delicacy or formlessness and density Hesse pushed unconventional materials such as polyester resin, rubber tubing and fiberglass, to their limits. Not only consequently but crucially, she produced works that are both fragile and possibly subject to disintegration. The intention was that these temporally dependent materials make clear the same aspect of art: they have time as part of their substance. As Hesse plainly stated in an interview with Cindy Nemser in 1970, ‘Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last.’

Part of this contingency consists in Hesse’s treatment of light. For Hesse, as for sculptors such as Barbara Hepworth, light was not additional and dispensable within sculpture but was ‘there as part of its anatomy’. The capture and control of light was enabled by layering, which allowed for the implementation of more flimsy, translucent materials. The build-up of layering could engorge materials like wire into hefty, awkward masses, or when rendered sparsely, could reduce a piece to its most vital elements. Liquid latex was painted on in layers resembling the wash that Hesse applied to her paper sketches. The Fruitmarket names Contingent (1969) as ‘her most ephemeral, spectacular and iconic work’; ‘consisting of a series of eight banner like panels of cheesecloth, latex, polyester resin and fibreglass hung at right angles to the wall.’ To the artist every panel was distinct, ‘in itself is a complete statement’. The panel displayed here sees a length of cheesecloth painted with latex in a long stripe-like section, cut across by a fibreglass and polyester resin strip at both top and tail of the stiff hanging: inflexible and softer surfaces create a deviating array of clear coatings that reflect, capture, and recast the light.
The panel’s fibreglass and resin sheen has aged, mellowing to a range of deep amber colours. Indeed throughout the exhibition these organic shades endure as a motif. Varied (while always muted) tones of black, cream, russet and gold – of different opacities and sheens, create the look of the holy and honey-like, or autumnal and earthly. Despite the ambitious reach of the test pieces each one succeeds in uniting all its elements to form a strong sensation in the viewer. This then is their sense: the creation of a surprising and minimalist thing that is nonetheless recognizable. If adults played like children these objects could be the focus of that play, the matter they’d reach for, and pick up.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Globe: my finalist's piece in: Aesthetica Magazine's international creative works competition

There was a moment when you were suspended
On the bar at the foot of my bed, toes gripping the rail,
Aping soles,
Arms outflung.

In your hand, a massive sphere.
Tissue paper tightly wound round a wire
To diffuse the light.

In the other, the old bulb
That you handed down to me,
The long life kind
With careful filigree bends
And inner tubing, something experimental.

(You are the graced juggler, sending circus balls orbit wide
Under the sweep of the tent.)

In exchange, I gave
The other dimmer thing, slid from the box like a baby’s head.
I watched your arms extend
Your wrist screw and you, squint up.

The old bulb is still with me,
Its tiny, tinkling rattle:
I like these defunct ones,
Gone dead.

In between the linking of each pair
(The swap that makes the light, casting the lines)
When no one is here who can reach
I rest in the shade.

Friday, 30 October 2009

sluttish slobby chavy snobby

Banksy, Banksy versus Bristol Museum, Bristol Museum.

Banksy knows the kitsch of western cultural garb, the naff children’s toys, the nude aprons, the whole sluttish, slobby, chavy, snobby, acquisitioning.

Yet the change of location from a slyly sprayed street corner to the established confines of Bristol Museum, transforms the functioning of these kitsch allusions: The graffiti medium itself becomes contrived where it was once visceral. It is no longer testament to real rebellion. A mode that is, on street corners, executed in snatched moments of unusual desertion (this anomaly itself highlighting the crowding, commercial, city-dependant nature of our time) or at least the absence of a disapproving eye. In this collision haste and care it is typically a paradoxical guerrilla art (depicting in Banksy’s case that which is kept secret on a large political scale), at once skilled and integral, advanced and primitive. Within the museum however these characteristics become cause for contention. It is in this unsettling, improper context perhaps that Banksy’s work is allowed the status of art. In turn the ideology of the museum is unsettled by Banksy’s disruptive presence- not only in the physical destruction he has reaped on some long-standing exhibits, but in the notion of the place – not many artists enable a museum to be tagged an ‘improper’ context.

But let’s not get carried away, Banksy may be no great thinker. If we look at his small grey figure of an emaciated child who pulls a massive, technicolour American couple along, it is evident how he pleases the crowd and eases Western guilt. The artist is providing a pain-free opportunity for the comfortable to deride themselves: Behind the grey boy the American partners happy-snap in a rickshaw, wearing a colourful slogan t-shirt (an ‘aren’t I edgy and pop’ opposition of colour, worthy of comic-strip cinema such as Sin City) claiming ‘I Hate Mondays’. The children are scuffed and diminutive, wide-eyes staring out at the viewer, and the depiction of the woman in the Burkha dons a naked apron for our chuckles. These singular figures satirise our conceptions of the cultures we perhaps think little about in complex terms. No character is a true representation, but kitsch re-imaginings of wealth, of poverty, of fun: Sympathetic and absurd figures elicit their responses through Banksy’s scorn and simplification.

The work is impactful. Most people I saw were rushing about the museum searching out Banksy’s interventions, - make a brief smile, take a quick picture and then move along. (Not noticing that Bristol Museum’s contemporary art section houses work running from the 60s onwards that cause Banksy’s art to suddenly seem nothing but obvious for the themes hammers home have been reworked since Warhol). Yet this speed (which recalls Walter Benjamin’s description in The Painter of Modern Life of the rapidity of industrial life, and the painter’s fast sketching demanded by this pace) contradicts the critique of tokenism existent in the work.

This competitive art-tourism highlights the reason for the structure of many galleries as it currently stands, which are not just establishmentarian, but allow space for thought within their other restrictions of pace and noise. And there is nothing wrong with that; surely this is what Banksy’s work achieves on the corner of a bustling nine to five street.

Of course Banksy’s first conventional exhibit could not have been within the order of the museum, it does powerfully disrupt and joyfully play. Still, it has also come to the prominent museum context as a potent platform and thus gives the established order its credit. This is not necessarily a weakening as to not do so - to exclude that which it critiques - would be ignorant and self-defeating (like Fern Cotton disbelieving a person suggesting she isn’t the brightest spark in the plug (hypothetically)). Yet one need only imagine the meeting to start finding the claims to anarchy slightly farcical – Can we let Banksy do this? No. Can he do that? Yes, ok.

This raises the irresolvable issue of rebellious versus elite art and the inevitable recurring wave of assimilation that transforms one into the other. This inevitable drift mirrors the motion of not just aging, but society itself as a regenerating force constructed of margins and fads that become centres and trends. This obviously enables change, and life would therefore be a dull thing without the new that becomes old to make way for more new. In addition, if everything perpetually seemed new one would not need to the fresh gaze of expressive art. This is perhaps what some of Banksy’s most ardent fans miss: Sprayed or staccato daubs: It’s one and the same. Perhaps to admit its lack of revolt (because there is an extensive staging and production of marketing at work here), to take, dare I say it - Banksy with a pinch of salt as well as refined sugar, and concentrate alongside the humour on the essential intelligence and irony of each sketch or concept (for example in the brilliant Gorilla Parliament) might reveal how it functions beyond shock, how the play prolongs.

We might also ask ourselves about the cities where his art works so well- affluent, trendy places like Brighton and Bristol, where the incongruity stands and the audience is primed for any decent wacky attack on established mores. How would this hang in duller town centres? Or might someone be sent off dutifully to scrub the wall before we had time to consider?