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I’m a bit late in writing this up, but couldn’t let it go without a post (Yes, I actually like Yoko Ono).
About a week ago I took the train down to Newcastle to see the city and visit the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art to see the Yoko Ono retrospective.
I should start by saying that the Baltic is a fantastic gallery. Converted from a flour mill, there are lots of wide gallery spaces and a fantastic high ceilinged atrium on the top floor.
Before I get to talking about the exhibition, two caveats:
2) Yoko Ono’s aesthetic is a bit twee and occasionally painfully earnest. I like it. Some of the artworks seem politically naive in 60s, long haired hippy sense. But they are from the 60s, so you can take it in the spirit of the decade.
That is why my favourite works were the earlier ones. The early 60s short poetry pieces like ‘Paintings’, ‘Play it by Trust’ the giant chess set with only white pieces (1966) “Chess set for playing as long as you can remember where all your pieces are”, ‘Cut Piece’ (1965) and ‘Amaze’ (1971).
‘Cut Piece’ is a performance work filmed originally in 1965 and then again more recently where Ono sits on a stage and invites the audience to cut at her clothes with scissors. ‘Amaze’ is a clear perspex maze.
The more recent work was generally less interesting, but had some highlights. ‘Wish Tree’ is a fairly literal interpretation of the Shinto ritual where people tie strips of paper to branches to send prayers and wishes to the Kami within trees.
Here are some I saw visiting Japan a few years ago – in Tokyo:
I took note of some of the more interesting wishes:
“GANSTA [sic] 4 LIFE”
“I want a pony and a stable please”
“I wish I can get a 2nd upper in my law degree”
This one was funny:
The text reads: “I wish Patrick-wolf-boy would fall in love with me please x.”
Like Ono’s contribution to the LOVE exhibition I saw last year, the strength of these participatory works is in finding a concept engaging enough to actually get people writing heartfelt, sarcastic and occasionally absurd comments on little tags for the general public to read. There were two other similar set ups: ‘My Mommy is Beautiful’ (blank canvases for messages of love to mothers) and ‘We are all Water’. ‘We are all Water’ is a series of glass jars filled with water and labelled with the names of historical figures (Gertrude Stein sits beside Groucho Marx and 50 cents [sic]) with a final blank jar with cards for visitors to write a name on.
A more interesting recent piece was ‘Helmet’, a development of one of her short poem works ‘A piece of sky’:
Take a piece of sky.
Know that we are
all part of each other.
‘Helmet’ is a small room full of upturned German World War II era helmets suspended from the ceiling, each full of jigsaw puzzle pieces like this:
Visitors are invited to take a piece of sky. I like ‘Helmet’ because it was visually striking, and representing war accountability with hundreds of puzzle pieces that individual people hold is neat (I did warn you all it was going to be twee* at the start).
*Apologies for the recent overuse of the word ‘twee’ – Unfortunately both a indie pop genre and an appropriate adjective here.
On Wednesday I went to see a show by indie/anti-folk band Noah and the Whale. Part of the band’s Club Silencio tour, the night included three short film screenings and a couple of songs from slightly underwhelming support act Jay Jay Pistolet.
The program included three films: a cute claymation piece Le Grand Sommeil, a farcical noir The Bloody Olive, and from the dark depths of 1980s New Zealand, award winning short The Lounge Bar (more about it here).
The main act was great. Boppy, melodic music with plenty of handclap moments. It wasn’t too loud either, a big plus. In keeping with the theme of the evening songs were performed in front of projected animations and edited archival footage. Noah and the Whale really wear their twee-pop label with pride.
Noah and the Whale
Feat. Jay Jay Pistolet and films from Future Shorts
Queen’s Hall Edinburgh
As you can see here and here, I spend a bit of time thinking about conceptual art, and particularly enjoy looking at work by female artists. When I was down in London recently I was interested to see the new turbine hall commission by French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster at the Tate modern. The Independent has a profile of Gonzalez-Foerster here.
Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s TH.2058 looks 50 years into the future, as the inhabitants of London take shelter from a never-ending rain. Filled with bunk beds scattered with books, the animal forms of gargantuan sculptures, a massive LED screen playing edited extracts from science-fiction and experimental films, and piercing lights that suggest some unseen surveillance, the Turbine Hall has taken on the attributes of an epic film set.
The piece has a futuristic noir atmosphere, with the flickering of the film and a thick green and red curtain shielding the main exhibit from the light of the entrance. The sound of dripping and persistent rain is amplified around the hall.
What I particularly liked about the instillation was that people seemed to enjoy interacting with it, standing around pondering, watching the film excerpts and climbing over the bunks. Like these children here:
That is good art.
I’ve just spent two hours transcribing a fifteen minute segment of Newsnight Review featuring an interview with John Adams and a roundtable discussion with Jeanette Winterson, Tom Service and Paul Morley. Frenzied argument is not easy to decipher at speed.
Doctor Atomic just seems to get people worked up.
Quoth the composer:
“I often say that next to abortion and gun control, there’s no better way to get people shouting at each other than opinions of opera. You know, all you have to do if you want a dose of toxicity is to go on the blogs and read what people’s opinions are of Doctor Atomic.”
I’ll be spewing no toxicity here. I enjoy Adams’ musical style and I find Doctor Atomic really moving.
The opera is set in Los Alamos, during the Trinity test of the atom bomb in 1945. It particularly focuses on the inner turmoil of Robert Oppenheimer, ‘father of the atomic bomb’. He was a very interesting man. Aside from being a talented physicist he also had a keen interest in poetry and may have once tried to kill one of his tutors at university with a poisoned apple.
From the Newsnight segment I also discovered that my arch nemesis Jeanette Winterson* cried three times in Doctor Atomic. I did not cry three times. But I was very moved by Gerald Finley’s stunning aria at the end of the first act ‘Batter my Heart’ (probably the best known piece in the opera) and the last fifteen minutes of the second act where Adams drags out the final countdown to the test explosion.
I was lucky enough to see Doctor Atomic in its first season in San Francisco in 2005. I believe that the piece has been revised since then, but I didn’t notice any substantial changes.
This was a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and aside from Gerald Finley (who according to something I read recently has played Oppenheimer in every staging of this opera to date), Meredith Arwady (Pasqualita) and Sasha Cooke (Kitty) are also continuing their roles from the Met. You can read about how John Adams hid from Ninox behind a hedge at the Met here.
*Winterson is not really my arch nemesis, I’m sure her novels are very good. But her quasi political rants about the transformative power of words are a bit earnest. I heckled one once. Very quietly.
I dropped round to the National Theatre on my way to Borough Markets and the Tate Modern on Saturday to try and grab a day ticket for a matinee. Given the choice between Mrs Affleck and the controversial England People Very Nice, I went for the later, thinking that I could compare perspectives on immigration in this contemporary play and Miller’s 1956 New York.
The National holds back about fifty seats for each performance for sale on the day. They go for ten pounds (limited to two per person). I arrived at about ten to nine and there were already about twenty five people waiting in line.
They sold out by ten. I imagine on weekdays it would be a bit less busy. I grabbed a ticket and headed off for a morning of venison burgers and chai, stopping to marvel at a great instillation piece at the Tate Modern.
The National Theatre has a great book shop. I went back a bit before the play to manhandle the McDonagh section and see if they had the verse edition of A View from the Bridge.
So there I was, minding my own dorky drama business, when I hear a very familiar voice behind me. I turn half around and find Alan Rickman striding towards the DVD section. I don’t often recognise celebrities, so I thought I should mark the occasion, and surreptitiously sent a text message to a friend back in Edinburgh. Just as I pressed send on “I’m standing next to Alan Rickman!” I noticed that Rickman was now actually standing right next to me. I dropped my phone in my pocket and hid in a copy of Meyerhold: A Life.
In the biography section Meyerhold sits right next to Miller. I got distracted by all the Miller books looking for possible clues as to where I could find copies of his working drafts.
Five minutes passed.
Suddenly the shop’s anti-theft alarm went off. Startled, I flailed my arms ridiculously (somewhat out-of-character for me as I’m not usually afraid of loud noises) and hit the person standing to my left in the stomach with The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller. I turned to apologise. Rickman again.
He said “I’m sorry” (in his deep and distinctive Alan Rickman voice) .
For those unfamiliar with yoof culture, Alan Rickman plays Snape in the Harry Potter movies. This is what he looks like:
We didn’t have wizard duel. But I reckon I could have taken him out.
England People Very Nice is a terrible play. It has been criticised as racist, and it is, but that was only the start of my problems with it. It was also overly didactic (quite an accomplishment for a play that also relied so heavily on bad racial jokes), too long, repetitive and not at all funny.
It’s a great pity, because it is unusual to have a play written for such a large multi-racial cast. And it was generally well acted, as far as the performances were able to transcend the material. I recognised some familiar faces – like her and this guy.
Richard Bean builds England People Very Nice from a basic play-within-a-play format – a group of asylum seekers writing and acting about immigration to Bethnal Green through the ages. This allows the cast to take breaks to make glaringly obvious meta-diegetic comments about the narrative.
“Is this a play about immigration or a play about love?”
“Intermarriage is the first sign of cultural integration.”
The influence of Caryl Churchill is clearly identifiable in the work, with the director character in the dentention centre flouncing about saying things like “Our characters are children and their playground is time!” But rather than the archetypal characters exploring changes in attitudes to gender and sexuality like in Churchill’s Cloud Nine, they just behave the same way in each time period they inhabit. It’s a sad vision.
I wasn’t the only person that didn’t enjoy it. I overheard two gentlemen talking as we shuffled out:
“I guess it just shows how racist we all are.”
“I don’t think so. I think that’s the last time June recommends a play to us. There should be a number we can call that issues a statement letting us know whether or not she’s still sane.”
The play operates under the assumption that if you mock every race and culture you can get away with making stupid jibes like “As Jewish as the hole in the sheet” and “For Jewish people, there’s no smoke without salmon”.
What was particularly disturbing was not the content of the play itself but noticing how and when the audience actually laughed at the poor taste jokes. I guess it’s my fault for going to see a play described as “A riotous journey through four waves of immigration from the 17th century to today.”
But then again, to quote the play:
“Only a liberal blames himself for getting mugged.”
England People Very Nice
He kneels, grasps; and with strain slowly raises the chair higher and higher, getting to his feet now. RODOLPHO and CATHERINE have stopped dancing as MARCO raises the chair over his head.
MARCO is face to face with EDDIE, a strained tension gripping his eyes and jaw, his neck stiff, the chair raised like a weapon over EDDIE’s head – and he transforms what might appear like a glare of warning to a smile of triumph, and EDDIE’s grin vanishes as he absorbs his look.
A View from the Bridge has a very interesting production history. Miller based the play on the real-life story of a longshoreman who reported the refugees he was sheltering in his own home to the immigration authority when one of them proposed to his niece.
Miller had also spent time around the Mediterranean and wanted to create an American epic drama, avoiding conventions of realist theatre. The first draft of the play was written in verse, but was revised to prose on the advice of Peter Brook. Surviving elements of Miller’s original epic structure can be seen in the use of the lawyer Alfieri as a semi-omniscient narrator.
I would love to get my hands on the original verse version. I’ve only seen Bolcom’s opera adaptation before, and his musical production preserves the tone of the play very well. But it would be great to compare the Bolcom’s libretto to the first version of the play.
The play in its current form was performed for the first time in London on the 11th of October 1956, at a Comedy theatre masquerading as a nightclub. Due to the kiss between Eddie and Rodolpho in the second act public performance of the play in England had been banned.
This was a very good production. I particularly enjoyed seeing Hayley Atwell play Catherine after seeing her in last year’s Brideshead Revisited film and the BBC’s ‘modern costume’ adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.
A View from the Bridge is playing at Duke of York’s Theatre until the 16th of May.
A View from the Bridge
Duke of York’s Theatre, London.
A bit of a catch-up for January and February is on the way. I’ve seen Arthur Miller’s The Man Who Had All the Luck (a competent production but not the most exciting play) at the Lyceum here in Edinburgh but exciting plans to see plays in London at the end of January were put on hold by the great blizzard of ’09.