ARTYFACTS: May 2011

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The passion of Joan of Arc – with Portishead and Goldfrapp musicians

Joan of Arc, the 1928 film, closed the Brighton Festival, and it was a fine and fitting ending. In a Festival that had human rights at its heart, a movie that showed a young woman being martyred at the hands of old men in power, was entirely relevant.

As we speak young women (and men) are being imprisoned, tortured and killed by ‘old men’ regimes across the globe. Just before leaving the house I saw the police in Barcelona cruelly beating young people in a sit down protest against the ‘old order’. The woman in Libya who had been gang raped. In Bahrain women have been imprisoned and tortured, Berlusconi and Strauss-Kohn have behaved like grubby, old, priapic abusers. But it’s the sexual and violent actions of old leaders clinging onto their own ill-gotten gains, that resonates. Think Burma and the remaining despots in the Middle East.

As a silent movie, the music didn’t clash with any dialogue. The film with its upward looking camera angles at the old priests, judges and army is pointing the finger of scrutiny. But it is the actress playing Joan’s, that is astounding. Mostly big close-ups, her expressions are a language in itself. Throughout the film your mind brings up parallels and contemporary issues. The live choir and musicians rose to the occasion and the finale, when Joan is burnt at the stake, was intense. Well done Brighton Festival for bringing some real politics into art.

Izzeldin Abuelaish - electrifying talk

It was electrifying. The audience was transfixed by the emotion of the event and the power of his arguments and the tragic story of how three of his daughters were blown up in front of his eyes by an Israeli tank shell. You may remember that this was broadcast by a brave journalist on Israeli TV. At times heart rending, he moved from stories about his mother and upbringing as a refugee in Gaza, to his struggle to become a Doctor, the bulldozing of his house, the loss of his wife then daughters, to a strong and well-argued appeal for the September recognition of Palestine as a state.

His moral authority obviously comes from the events he has been through but it’s subtler than that, as he decries those who ‘live to fight’ in favour of those who ‘fight to live’. To be clear he sees the Palestinian problem as a man-made disaster that needs to be rectified. He is clear about not labelling people by nationality or religion, not universalising but sticking to a moral code grounded in the simple ethics of reciprocal respect, dignity and help. To be clear, however, he thinks the Palestinians have been dehumanised by the Israelis (not all) and have lost their basic rights to be safe, secure and healthy.

But his talk really came alive when he addressed the political issues head-on. It is time, he thinks, for the west and Israel to learn from the courage of young people in the Arab Spring. Today the Rafah Crossing was opened and this is the first step in opening the way for a two state solution, based on 1967 borders, with land swaps and East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. The General Assemblyl, especially the US, in September, must ratify the Palestinian State. The map is there and if the US is ‘marketing’ justice, they have no choice.

The problem here is the Likud Party, the swing to the right in Israel and Netanyahu’s hard-line policy of settler expansion and no compromise. The key, therefore is a brave move by Obama to deny Israel US support unless they negotiate. To continue, as they are, in the Jordan valley and further settlements is the politics of hate. However, there are voices from within Israel such as former attorney general Michael Ben-Yair, ex-foreign ministry director Alon Liel, former parliamentary speaker Avraham Burg and Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman, who want the west to push for a UN resolution. Obama has a choice – the future of the region as a whole or propping up and ever more aggressive Israel. The Arab Spring could turn into an endless summer or a winter of discontent, depending on the outcome.

I have seen N Ireland solve its differences, with the help of Clinton, the Balkans have calmed down and despots are falling across the Arab World. It is surely time that this problem be solved. I bought his book I Shall not Hate to give to a young Palestinian friend of mine and shook his hand. He recognised the name as Palestinian and all he asked was that I personally back this cause. This is no sentimentalist. He’s a smart, hard-headed man, who has a clear goal and is devoting his life to seeing it through, so that his daughters did not die in vain. This is integrity and courage at its best.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Miro – man who branded a nation

Long ranging retrospectives give you a trip through an artist’s life in an hour or two. It cuts to the bone by shaving off the peaks of achievement and presenting them in some sort of chronological and/or thematic order. It also throws to one side all the prattle-prattle, gossip and personal stuff. Art history is the history of the work, not the lives of artists. That’s why Tracy Emin’s such a bore and Miro's such a genius.

I’m not an outright fan of surrealism in painting and sculpture, as I’m not sure that two dimensional work often captures the restlessness of dreams, the unconsciousness or consciousness itself. I always feel as though surrealist signs and objects are like lapel badges trying to represent complex concepts.

However, Miro strikes gold (or blue) in later life when he produces his simple blue, yellow, white, and red palette pieces. Here we have beautiful images stripped of the halfway house imagery of the early work (peasant faces, guitars etc) and the awful, amateurishness of the burnt canvases. This is a man in search of a palette. The copper and masonite works, and constellation works, are the big steps on the way to his masterpieces and by far the best rooms in this large show leading up to the big Blues in Room 10.

Where the show fails is in missing the point that Miro was an artist who actually branded a nation. The progenitor was his postage stamp image shown in Room 5. But where is his famous ‘espagna’ image in red, black and yellow? This symbol that became the symbol of modern , post-Franco Spain. The Barcelona Olympic symbol was also Miro inspired. To miss this point is to miss his major achievement. Miro became Spain and Spain Miro.

Lee Scratch Perry - reggae zombie for 3 hours

What is it about reggae and ska that makes you want to dance, even when you’re sitting down? It’s completely involuntary. Last night Romeo and Lee Scratch Perry pulsed a sound system that nearly lifted the lid off the Dome. I used to go to reggae clubs a lot when I was younger and still love this simple, old school stuff . It’s slow like a strong heartbeat and when it’s loud and vibrates through your inner organs, it sort of takes your body over, so it was great to be a reggae zombie for three hours. These two old-timers just sang, danced and joked their way through the set, while the crowd went bananas. Highpoint was Lee pointing out that tomorrow was the ‘end of the world’ day, recommending a night of reggae as the best way to go out! If there is a God and a heaven, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s called Jah and it’s a non-stop reggae and ska party.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Midsummer madness

It’s Midsummer and two mid-thirties people have mid-life crises. Sparked off by a drunken night’s sex (hilarious) the weekend explodes in an orgy of spending, drugs, bondage, chases and fun. Cora Bissett is brilliant as the luscious, blonde, vamp lawyer and Mathew Pidgeon nails the feckless drifter, although a Dostoevsky reading car-salesman/crook doesn’t ring any bells with me.

It’s a simple morality play in reverse, where dodgy characters and dodgier temptations lead the couple to reject the banality of their lives and jump into a Dionysian frenzy of a weekend that ultimately changes their lives. They both reject the habits and conventions of their lives for a little adventure.

I revelled in the language and swearing as it’s the two worlds I know best, a clash between Scottish working and middle class cultures. I knew every single street, pub and geographical reference and every single character. As I said, Medium Bob is not as developed a character as the lawyer, but that’s a quibble. Having a profession (lawyer) is as much a trap as having no profession. Both are stuck in separate grooves and just happen to come together in a bar.

A few people left because of the swearing but why on earth do these cretins go to the theatre? Is all theatre to be a reflection of their own, limited, polite worlds? Didn’t they see that the play was about THEM, middle-England’s dull, petty and average expectations? In any case, the rest of the audience loved it and the three encores were well deserved.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Kemble’s Riot - what a hoot!

What a hoot! A melodramatic snippet from The Scottish Play (actors actually mentioned real name twice – no wonder the theatre burned down) is followed by audience rabble rousing. Based on a true incident of 55 days of riots at the Covent Garden Theatre over prices, the play touches upon, greed, money, nature of theatre, role of the actor, role of the audience and mob behaviour and no doubt several other things I missed. That’s some achievement for a Fringe play in a small venue like the Old Courthouse. Then again, the venue has a disputational provenance.

Audience participation can be a bit forced and hokey but here the audience really do get to contribute. The English are a bit reticent in these situations but we all got into gear and clapped, hooted, sang and abused the actors, time and time again. Then the twist! Won’t go into detail, all I’d say is, get along to this. These guys deserve full houses and a longer run. Actually, they deserve a bigger venue. I’d love to see this in the Theatre Royal, a good, old real theatre.

Oh and great to watch it with Pete and Lisa, followed by fun conversation in the Collonade Bar afterwards. What a fine evening.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Peter Taylor – Talking to Terrorists

Big turnout for BBC journalist Pater Taylor promoting his new book ‘Talking to Terrorists’. No doubting his long experience but I’m not sure that he told us much that we didn’t know already. His portrait of Martin McGuiness was fascinating but there was no real psychological insight or revelations about terrorism or terrorists.

‘Paradise’ as a driver for Islamic suicide bombers, is torture counterproductive, state terror, virtual terrorism – there’s dozens of interesting topics to be unpacked but all we got were some anecdotal descriptions of his BBC interviews.

It was, nevertheless, an interesting evening if only for the probing questions that came from the Brighton audience. One questioned his lack of reference to religion in Northern Ireland. In fact, his claim that ‘religion’ played no part on Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’ seemed downright naive. Both Protestant and Catholic clergy played significant roles in the troubles (paisley et al), and the segregated schools lie at the root of the problem. Another brought up the interesting point of gender politics in terrorism – Peter’s reply was wishy-washy. Yet another brought up the Hamas Fatah agreement – something Peter hadn’t touched upon. Brighton audiences can be quite feisty and it would have been great to have continued with the audience participation stuff. We should be allowed to tweet questions prior to the session or the chair pick up tweets during the session.

Peter Taylor is a reporter not an analyst. That’s fine, but it doesn’t give us that deeper insight. A BBC card can get you interviews almost anywhere in the world, it takes more than reports to get to the truth. I’d much rather have had someone like Louise Richardson who has written an in-depth, scholarly book on the subject, or a terrorist – there’s plenty of ex-IRA guys around.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mesopotamian Dramaturgies – damp squib

I rarely look at the blurb on handouts or labels on artworks before looking at them. So what does one make of these two works with little or no prior knowledge? Few would have guessed that there was kufic script in the Su piece, with its Sinan symmetric inversion. Fewer still would have seen any real relevance to national borders, identities and ideas in any of these works. They could just as easily have been interpreted as modern day Romanticism, images of nature, abstract video art, even some Briget Riley reflection on form.

In fact, as the artist’s sidekick explained (he was there but puzzlingly chose not to speak) it’s about the fluidity of borders, ideas and people. That’s fine, but these precise representational goals are at odds with the vagueness of the art. I know a little bit about this area and stood on the Euphrates Dam just a few weeks ago, where the problems of water shortage, border disputes, colonialism, Kurdish identity, religious schisms and many other complex political issues were discussed in detail. Ataman uses the word ‘narrative’ a lot, but these works contain little in the way of narrative, that’s for other art forms that use language, in its widest sense. My beef is the fact that we have to second guess or read too much to ‘get’ the representational message. Once you’ve got the water & fluidity message, you’re left with little more.


The new piece, Mayhem, simply lacks the power it promises. It’s dwarfed in the huge space that is the Old Municipal Market, and when it comes to rushing water, lacks that most vital of ingredients – SOUND. It’s the size and roar of a waterfall that makes it terrifying. Inverting the waterfall also emasculates its power. You no longer feel that you could be pulled over its edge. I went back for a second time to see if I had missed something. I’m not sure that I had. This time, oddly, the roof had leaked, leaving puddles everywhere, including on the artwork itself. People’s footprints were appearing on the floor projections. The images are too small to have the desired effect i.e. the disorientation when standing between the screens or the feeling of danger with plunging water into the floor. If they had been four or more times larger, all of this may have worked, especially the floor projections. ‘Mayhem’ it is not.

As for the background narrative of Israel having nearly been in Argentina and so on – it’s just reinjecting a narrative into images that say nothing much about that issue. I heard him espouse this ‘narrative’ on Radio 4 this morning and remain unconvinced by his aims and achievements in this work. Ataman has a habit of hyperbolic inference. For example, when describing his work in relation to history, ‘all history is fiction’. In this case ‘all borders are fiction’. He’s given to this sort of statement. But this rush to relativism is an easy option in art and often fatuous. The philosophy of history, and geography, is a complex subject not easily reduced to extreme platitudes. This is representational art where the representational narratives have to be explained on handouts.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Jardin Flambeau - stunning saturnalia

The French love a good flame-fest, but they so often verge on the wrong side some second-rate street party with underwhelming performers doing things with diesel. So imagine my surprise - this was stunning. Over several hours from dusk til late we wandered through the trees to discover a saturnalia of fire. It was the sheer scale of the event that made it work, everywhere you looked there was more fire, more music.

The place was jammed with families, teenagers and oldsters like me, just relaxing and enjoying the sights and sounds of a garden transformed into a world of fire and flames; vertical tubes of charcoal glowing, chimneys puffing flames, balls of fire hanging from trees like burning suns, huge fairground shapes made of fire, talking trees and live musicians. No aggression, no problems, despite the potential for fiery mischief. I’m often disappointed with open-air events like these, but this was something that all those kids will remember for the rest of their lives. Great also to bump into people we hadn’t seen for a while. That’s what a festival does for a city.

Lead Pinter The New World Order – feel the fear

Few well heeled art lovers have experienced any rum dealings with authority or the police. They tut tut at the behaviour of rioters in London but state control and violence is the stuff of TV and the Sunday newspapers, not their lives. Having been kettled this month and had my photograph taken, without my permission, by the police, I've become a bit angry about their role.

This full on production can come as a bit of a shock to passive theatre goers. You don’t get to sit and gawk, you’re pushed, cajoled and forced into the action. Actually, it is quite refreshing to watch people who are used to telling others what to do being controlled in this fashion – they don’t like it one bit. Middle England’s middle managers are a smug lot, so well done to the cast who make them feel uncomfortable. You literally see and hear people complaining about the actors being rude!

Seriously, apart from these whiners, who clearly didn’t understand what was going on and see audience discomfort as having no place in theatre, this work sits perfectly in this festival. Andrew Comben and his team have brought politics into the cosy art world. It’s a brave move and it’s about time. The festival has too often pandered to middle England types with its cosy Radio 4agenda.

Burma and its oppressed, elected and imprisoned leader has been chosen as thespringboard, but freedom, fear and human rights are the big themes. This is Pinter territory. As Aung San Suu Kyi said ‘real freedom is really freedom from fear’ and you have to experience fear to understand this form of freedom. So get yourself along to the dank cellars of Brighton town hall with its corridors and police cells and feel the fear.