ARTYFACTS: November 2008

Friday, November 28, 2008

Duke of York's Picturehouse

Best Brighton Business Award for 'Best Customer Service'!

Must be some mistake. Service is second to none for incompetence, queues, lukewarm coffee and slow staff. Even the credit card machines are slow.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Hofesh Schechter

The audience was packed with youngsters tonight for the hottest choreographer and dance group around – Hofesh Schechter. Just before it started there was an air of excitement and they were right to be in an expectant mood. They got a good old Brighton welcome, as audiences down here love contenporary dance.

The live music; two percussionists, a double base, cello and viola, boomed away and bounced the whole piece forward. Always on the edge of chaos they group, fragment and regroup.

The first piece, Uprising, with seven dancers, has echoes of hip hop and other things you’ve seen, but it is truly original. After cocking a snoop at classical, they play, fight, love, hate. The dancers drift in and out of soft lights so that the environment is slightly fuzzy.

In the second piece, the misicians are lit high on the right hand side of the stage. In your rooms has a dozen dancers and boy is this a full on power piece. The band were in full swing and the whole thing just swept us along at full tilt. The dancers gave it their all and it was truly moving to see so many young people in the audience whooping with delight. We were all truly thrilled, even stunned.

The woman sitting next to me turned out to be my ex-neighbour and her daughter was one of the female dancers. Winifred was born in Brighton and has come a long way, as this lot are hot. I told her it was OK to be proud, and she was.

Hofesh Schechter will be in residence in Brighton and we’re glad to have them. The new CEO of the Dome and Festival, Andrew Comben, is making his mark already and I’m also feeling proud, as I helped recruit him.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Byzantium - Royal Academy

Sometimes study and the examination of historical artifacts has the opposite effect from that you expected. So it was with this show. I visited Istanbul recently and loved walking around the 1,500 year old city walls and entering St Sophia, the greatest church on earth for 1000 years, it's vast cisterns and position as gateway between east and west, north and south. The architectural remains are stunning as are the Ottoman mosques that bejewel the city today, inspired by St Sophia.

However, Byzantium (a term only used from the 16th century on) seems like a world that seems dulled by its obsessions with Emperors and Christ. The art here is nowhere near as impressive as that of say, the comparable period in China or India, or even of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, that went before (they did of course see themselves as Romans, but in a debased and Christian form).

The first room, dealing with Constantine, has a standard, even unremarkable Roman mosaic, a primitively painted tomb, part of a sarcophagus, a bronze head and some other bits and pieces. Nothing here is either original or remarkable.

Room two, Justinian again presents ivory, silver and gold, but nothing of outstanding beauty. the craftsmanship is admirable, but craft it remains. The most impressive aspect of the room are the backlit images of 19th century engravings of St Sophia.

Icons are said to be the crowning artistic achievement of the Byzantine empire but the fixed and literally wooden nature of the imagery, with their rounded eyes and limited subject matter becomes repetitive to the modern eye. Indeed the Ptolemaic mummy cases from Egypt, from which icon painting is supposed to have evolved is, on the whole, a superior art form, full of personality and life. Icons are images of death. Life denying, not life affirming. I was really looking forward to the icons from St Catherine's monastery in Sinai, but again the works, apart from one, are relatively dull and at times formulaic.

Byzantium is of profound historic interest as a the continuation of the Roman Empire and a bulwark against Islamic expansion into Europe. But in terms of art it is a long 1,200 years of jewel encrusted, repetitive and iconic banality. With Byzantium, mathematics and science effectively stopped in the west, but flourished in China and India. With Byzantium, art fossilised into a formulaic pattern, whereas it blossomed in the east.

Much of its intellectual effort was taken up with administration and even the faking of Christian history (Helena's visit to the Holy Land, reliquaries and so on). This is the detritus from a decadent and lazy culture of adoration to Christ and King. Luckily it did result in the creation of outposts, where Greek works did survive, ultimately translated and passed onto the West by the Arabs.

Voltaire was right, 'A worthless repertory of declamations and miracles'.