ARTYFACTS: August 2008

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Verbatim theatre – where the dialogue is taken straight from the testimonies of real people. I like this concept as you can be sure that there’s no embellishment. There can be clever editing and manipulation but it gains force by being largely unmediated. TV and the contemporary thirst for reality on TV has pushed theatre in this direction. Blackwatch is a verbatim masterpiece.

I’ve been to Deepcut, and many other military establishments, and there can be no doubt that military training is stuck in a dangerous rut. The idea that one has to strip away personality through bullying, brutalization and beasting, in order to rebuild a disciplined soldier has had its day. It’s a frontline, infantry, warrior technique that is totally unsuited to a modern military that needs smart, skilled young people. Far too many young trainees die before they even leave the training camp. That’s more than a tragedy – it’s murder.

It is expected that soldiers die in combat. We hear far less about the dozens of soldiers who die in accidents. Of the 4139 US soldiers who died in combat, 833 died from accidents. Soldiers also die in training, as it’s dangerous with weapons and vehicles flying around. This year a soldier was killed and nine injured in a pre-Iraq exercise. What is unacceptable are deaths which are a direct result of the brutalising and bullying culture.

Gavin Williams died this year of hyperthermia, after being sadistically ‘beasted’ by NCOs, after a officer demanded that he be punished, so lessons have clearly not been learnt. The army has a cadre of NCOs who act as a brutalizing force and barrier between the higher ranks and ordinary soldiers. This leaves the higher ranks free to deny all wrong doing. Four young people died at Deepcut in a regime that accepted slapping, punching, throwing objects at people and running over overweight trainees on bikes. A independent coroner believes they were murdered, but even if they had committed suicide, isn’t that enough to cause serious concern?

One would hope that plays like this would have some effect, but they won’t. The audiences that watch them don’t allow their kids to go anywhere near the military and if they do, it’s straight to officer training. However, it’s good to see theatre do a little more that recycle.

Ballet del Rhua

Did this on a whim, and it was OK. Fifteen Brazilian dancers will always kick up some sand but when 14 are men it strips away the sexuality of the Samba. At times the choreography was overworked but it chugged along and brightened up an afternoon of relentless Scottish rain.

The Art of Italy (The Renaissance)

After Tract Emin and Vanity Fair, it felt a little odd entering a traditional gallery to see old master art, but within seconds you remember why time is such a great selective force. The Leonardo and Michelangelo drawings are what they are – masterful. With nothing more than chalk, they produce images that one would want to see every day, if one could. The portraits have all the pomp and poses of the Vanity Fair portraits, but more honesty and depth.

Vanity Fair – Photographs

Who says that we live in an age of celebrity culture? It’s always been around, ad in the not so distant past, was far more widespread than it is now. Eve the supposed highbrow Vanity Fair shows the celebration of celebrity at its most vulgar. They dress up, pose and pout like any modern celebrities. The only exception is George Bernard Shaw, who strikes a knowing and subversive look at the camera. The big tableaus are horrific, photo-shopped into existence. At the end of the day I wouldn’t have many of these on my walls at home. The Norma Jean Roy and Gloria Swason images are exceptions, as they’re unorthodox compositions. These are all too rare when vanity is at stake.

Impressionism and (Scotland!)

An opportunity to see over 100 masterpieces by many of the greatest names in Western art: Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, Whistler, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, and the ______ (FILL IN THE BLANKS WITH THEIR SCOTTISH CONTEMPORARIES). Never heard of the Glasgow Boys? Can you name at of the Scottish Colourists?

The point of this exhibition may not be that intended by its curator. It presents a clear case for Scotland’s third rate status in the history of the visual arts. If you’re a regular visitor to UK galleries you will have see many of these images. As for the Scottish artists, Gurthrie’s tea parties and tennis matches are second rate. There’s one painting of a dull Scottish town so bright and colourful that it looks as though it’s been laughingly transplanted to Provence, and that’s the problem. Scottish Impressionism, in the end, produced little more than pastiches, derivative and far from the French ideal. You can’t just drum up great art from the past just because you fancy a ‘Scottish’ theme this year.

Tracy Emin's detritus

I walked in with an open mind and walked out with it firmly closed. Let’s start in the foyer, where the same image that appears on the posters, of Emin’s naked bottom half in black pants, states from the start, that she’s a promising narcissist or exhibitionist. Once inside the tedium of endless polaroids, letters and the general detritus is wearying. Only the sturdiest student of skank could spend a lot of time here.

I was also surprised at her very middle class upbringing. She couldn’t hide the images of her parent’s hotel, the e-type Jaguar and so on. This is really a posh kid slumming it. Nothing intrinsically wrong in that, but it’s presented as some sort of heroic (some like to use the word vulnerable – I don’t) take on life. This is an attempt at art as biography but, as a life, it’s not that interesting. The bed just deadened my spirit, the children’s shoes in a box were trite, and the blankets with their sloppy schoolgirl slogans, made my eyelids limp with boredom.

Fringe ticket fiasco, farce or tragedy?

My annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Fringe and Festival got off to a disastrous start when I went to book a few things at the box office. I joined the queue only to discover that it was the pre-paid ticket queue. I wasn’t alone, as there were no signs saying so. On joining the right queue I was approached by a nice young man who asked me what venues I was buying tickets for, ‘Several, I replied’ then he gave me (ominously) a white raffle ticket. When I complained to him about the opaqueness of the system, he explained that he was hired no more than 30 minutes ago and knew nothing. I then witnessed someone being hired from the queue!

Finally, I got to the white raffle ticket desk, only to hear that my first choice was cancelled and that for my next choice I needed a green raffle ticket. So I joined another queue, along with several other confused customers. It was here that I could witness, at clse hand, the whole fiasco. The staff were clearly untrained and were using an unfamiliar system for the first time with paying customers. Printing problems were grinding stations to a halt ad there was no one with enough expertise to solve the problems. One man was complaining loudly, most were simply shaking their heads at the sheer incompetence of it all. I left with tickets for just one show. But it wasn’t over yet. I was told that the Fringe Box Office had been give hardly any tickets for La Clique and that I should go up to the George Square Speigeltent Box Office. This I did – it’s about a mile or so away, only to discover that it wasn’t open until 5pm. This was theatre in itself – a tragedy!

I suspect that Edinburgh is at the start of a slow decline. It’s fragmented into worthless wealthy students on holiday rather than taking their performances seriously, a rather predictable Comedy Festival and it has become very difficult to find surprise hits. The best theatre is probably at the Traverse, but that’s there year round anyway. There’s the major music Festivals embracing other art forms, Brighton, Manchester and other cheaper, and better run, competitors snapping at their heels.