ARTYFACTS: August 2013

Saturday, August 31, 2013

What's missing in Lowry? (Tate Modern)

You’ve got to love a man who holds the record for the most honours declined. Every single honour in the whole crooked system he rejected. My kind of man. It says a lot about Lowry, not a man of excess or self-aggrandisement, merely an obsessive painter. Beyond that Lowry is unfathomable. To walk round this exhibition is to be confounded by pictures that say a lot more than they at first present.
Absent interiors
There’s a wonderful little film clip half way round, of Lowry painting a dog. He does this at speed, just a few deft strokes with the tip of his brush, with absolute certainty and confidence. Says a lot that clip. Lowry’s world is not real life, it’s the stylised representation of a life that no longer exists - that of big smoky factories, chimney stacks belching black smoke, thousands flooding through the factory gates on foot, people out in the streets. Whatever the subject, school, football match, cricket match, market – there’s a mill in background and rows of houses. The mills need labour, labour needs houses and houses mean towns and cities. There’s no interiors, only life lived in the streets. Nor are there any paintings of the insides of factories and mills where the work took place. Industrial work is the deep driver behind almost all of these paintings, yet it is completely absent. There’s one picture of an excavation but this is outdoors building work, not the drudgery of the mill.
Absent vehicles
I grew up in an industrial landscape, of slag heaps, rows of red brick houses (the raws) and the tail end of factories, mines, steelworks. I remember smoke pouring out of chimneys and streets with so few cars that you could play football in them. However, one of the puzzling things about these pictures is the complete absence of cars and motorised vehicles. Like work and interiors, they are a deliberate absence. And when they are there, as the very occasional van or horse drawn cart, it’s for a reason. The Fever Van, for example, that harbinger of death, which took mainly young children away, usually to death from Tuberculosis.
Absent colours
His use of a limited palette, as shown in the show's poster, and an unusual preponderance of white, that rarest of colours in an industrial town, make the paintings seem ethereal. The extremely limited palette, essentially five colours, white, black, red, blue and yellow, focus you on form. It’s a stripped down world devoid of any sense of sunlight, warmth or fun. This is the harsh reality of the industrial landscape. However, it does bring the ‘landscape’ aspect of his paintings to life. As landscapes, they have beauty, as industrial, urban scenes they don’t.
Absent faces
You know a Lowry immediately you see one. Well, that’s what I thought but there’s a few paintings in this show that you’d struggle to identify as Lowrys. But the defining feature, apart from palette, is the figures. Largely faceless figures, dashed off the tip of the brush, often more than the scene would warrant in real life. They stand for something beyond just people, as they’re such a strong force in his paintings. For me it’s the absence of form that speaks the loudest. I don’t buy the interpretation that they are ‘delightful’ in their variety, real people beyond the stick-like representation. Unlike most painters, who rarely came from the industrial working class, he lived and worked among them, and saw what industrialisation had done, to what had been a largely poor and rural workforce. They were commoditised into crowds. Workers for machines. It is only here, outside of the factory, house and school that they are actually people, going somewhere, doing something, speaking to others, playing, watching sport but they’re show, not really as individuals but as part of a crowd. There’s no portraits, even interesting faces. And when there is, such as he Cripples, an awful painting - it’s hideous.

This is a sombre show, all about what’s lost in the human spirit when work strips people of their dignity, personality, individuality and time. Poverty is not fun, nor often beautiful – it’s raw and hard. That’s what it is and that’s how he paints it.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Elysium – hell on earth, heaven above

End of the 21st century and we’ve creted hell on earth and heaven on a satellite in space (Elysium). Smart idea that chimes with current unequal times, and fears of over-population and immigration, of a future where the rich leave an overpopulated earth with no healthcare to create an Eden in space, although it looks suspiciously like an American middle-calls Eden , with perfect lawns, swimming pools and, curiously, tennis courts. It’s a clever view of a dystopian future that makes it accessible politically – Marxism in space.
Blomfeld saves the day by having some nice touches, the South African mercenaries and Spider, the ganglord hacker. I also liked Jodie Foster’s menace - in an oligarchy, you still have to watch out for other oligarchs. Matt Damon also does the business, although it’s becoming tiresome to see having a British accent and speaking French associated with being evil.
Other smart features are the robots, surveillance and drones. Inevitably, however, it turns into a gunfest. This is a shame, as the best sci-fi, Blade Runner and Aliens, used to be sparing with this guff. Hollywood struggles to make a movie without guns these days – it’s so damn infantile and predictable. District 9 was fresh because it broke the rules; this movie plays by the rules. It needed to be messier, with more surprises.
This is a cut above most sci-fi movies, and most recent Hollywood movies for that matter. It’s no classic but it’s not far off. This Director, Neill Blomkamp, has a talent, which if unfettered by Hollywood pressure, could turn up a real classic one day

Friday, August 09, 2013

Little Sparta

Set in a small wooded crack in the hills near Biggar, Ian Hamilton Findlay's temple precinct is built, as many in Greece were, around a natural spring, which cascades clear water down through a series of lakes and rivulets, around which art objects are carefully placed. They make you walk the half mile to the site as it prepares you for the sanctity of the site. There’s no denying the beauty of the place, especially the top-end lake but it troubled me a little. Then again, most things trouble me - a little.

Some of the works surprise, such as the golden head of Apollo. It springs into view, cleverly set into the ground in a little grove.

The cluster of gold roof slates was my favourite 'spot' - a deft,  relevant touch that works brilliantly in the grey Scottish light.
Then there's the grenades on the gate-posts and little bridges.

But the Latin inscriptions that litter the site become predictable. Setting words and phrases into stone and into the landscape is fine but if it’s Little Sparta, why Latin and not Greek? I like the Hyperborean Apollo feel to the place but the neo-classical words on stone are too easy and often banal.

Popped into Biggar’s only open Cafe for something to eat at around 4pm, “sorry, Kitchen’s closed – coffee and drinks only”. Some things never change.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Nirbhaya (Edinburgh International Fringe)

A ripost (inspired the wrong word) by the Delhi rape in December 2012, five women give their rea, personal stories of child abuse, rape, rape within marriage, chuild abduction and being burnt by kerosene. Almost unbearably sad, most of the audience were tearful. Just as shocking as the sexual incidents were their testimonies about what it is like to experience daily groping and harassment in Delhi, on buses, in the street. Dystopian Delhi seems like some circle of hell.This is a fine piece of political theatre, a welcome change from most happy-clappy Fringe performances. However, there are two problems with the piece.
First, it’s all testimony, powerful as that is – there’s no further causal insight. It’s all WHAT and no WHY. I was desperate to know WHY a city had become a place where women had become objects of sexual amusement. But here I had to fill in the blanks myself – overcrowding, poverty, dysfunctional police force, lax laws, caste, religion, dowry, forced marriage? This is often a problem in theatre as it does not often deal well with detail and a plurality of causes.

Second, the last (fifth) testimony was a harrowing account of a gang rape in Chicago. I can see that they wanted to universalise or internationalise the issue but in doing so they diluted the essence of the story – its Delhi context 'the rape capital of India'. 

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Kafka: Report to the Academy (Edinburgh Fringe)

A naked man enters the room then transforms himself into an ape to deliver one of my favourite Kafka short stories. It’s written in the first person so works as a monologue and we, as audience, become the Academy. Adrin Neatrour gives is just fantastic with his ape calls, grunts, circling the stage, as he learns to become a man by aping others. Trapped in Africa, he’s caged but learns to smoke, drink, communicate and eventually delivers this ‘lecture’ to the Academy. It's the reverse of metamorphosis, where man becomes insect.
Kafka almost always escapes critical capture but in this is about our epistemological predicament. It’s about identity, memory, learning, forgetting. For me it’s about the process of crippling freedom through ‘schooling’ The child is captured, caged, learns to mimic, learns from teachers, theory, practice, lessons, but in fact loses the freedom he had as an animal-like child. What we think of as freedom of mind is simply the mimicking of others. He learns to ‘perform’ and becomes this ‘performance’. He simply reports. Wonderful piece of theatre, no frills, no artifice – just one man giving it his all. I was pleased to see that Adrin though the "idea was a wonderful send up of the terrible lectures I had to endure (at Sussex University)."