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Review | Lee Bul: Crashing at the Hayward Gallery

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Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery, 2018 © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Mark Bower

Lee Bul does not make art that is designed to comfort you.

Her latest collection at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank is a culmination of thirty years work. To step through each room is to follow Bul’s journey as she has explored the pursuit of perfection—and its potential pitfalls—through the last forty years.

Crashing is designed to transport the public into ‘another place, another time’ and succeeds in this instantly. As you step into the first room of the Hayward, soft light is cast from within the corner. Civias Solis II projects reflected and fragmented patterns of light across the pale gallery walls. You are submerged into a dreamlike state wherein Bul has peeled back the shallow surface of our world and revealed what lies beneath, and what could be yet to come.

In this surreal echo of our world, you are immediately brought face to face with Bul’s reflection of the self.

Amorphous shapes hang from the ceiling and sit directly in front of the entrance doors. At first, they are barely recognisable as people, but then you see the arms, and legs, trying to drag themselves free from inside the pieces, which are from the aptly named series: Monster. Despite the grotesque shaping, these soft sculptures are tantric, and their fleshy palette suggests—as Bul intended—that there is a ‘vulnerability’ to being human.

If Monster is Bul’s representation of the natural self, Cyborgs (1998) reflects how people try to build an image of themselves. Reminiscent of ancient Greco-Roman statues and yet also of anime from the early nineties, feminine forms are suspended from the ceiling. Though they are all headless, they watch you and stand guard in their cartoonish, extra-terrestrial armour.

One of Bul’s inspirations is sci-fi, and in this is evident in this room and throughout the exhibition. In the late 20th century and especially after the Cold War, bright utopian ideas of the future captivated the world, which was desperate to forget the horrific past. Despite these glimmering, chrome covered dreams, Bul was sceptical of these notions of the future, and creates art which reflects that.

Though some of Bul’s paintings, sketches and videos of her performance art are displayed on the walls and available to listen and watch, it is through the medium of sculpture that I think Bul creates the biggest impact. Despite the different mediums and subjects, each work is still identifiable as hers. To walk into room three of the Hayward is the greeted by two geode-like structures—they are separate pieces, but both are heavily influenced by the politics of South Korea, during the late 20th century when Bul was growing up.

Black beads spill across the floor, before pooling in a highly reflective puddle. They appear to be flowing out of a block of ‘ice’, which gives the piece it’s quite literal title: Thaw (Takaki Masao). There is a photograph buried beneath the ice from which the beads seep out: it is a portrait of Park Chung-Hee, the former president of South Korea, who was supported by the US but created a very repressive regime. He was eventually assassinated in 1979, and the oozing black from this crystalline sculpture is evocative of blood.

The other piece which welcomes you to room three is Bunker (M. Bahktin).  A cave like structure that is interactive. When inside, visitors to the gallery put on headphones and are encouraged to make a noise—clapping, tapping your foot, clicking— through the headphones we hear the noises we make distorted and amplified. If you were to shut your eyes, it could be easy to trick yourself into thinking that you were in a vast space.

When you are in inside Bunker Bul warps the world around you, and subsequently momentarily alters how we see ourselves. When standing within the bunker, I was very conscious of the noise my clapping and clicking would make, disturbing the other guests. In this sense, the sculpture is aptly named—Mikhail Bahtkin was a literary critic and philosopher who claimed that our identity is directly correlated by our relationship with the world around us.

The exhibition continues upstairs, and as you reach the final two rooms there is a slight change in atmosphere. Downstairs, there are at least five to seven exhibits filling every space. Upstairs, the rooms are sparse.

Stepping into room four, I was immediately anxious— Bul is known for incorporating the gallery space into her exhibitions, and this is one such example. The entire floor was foiled with silver, and while I was stood in the gallery, I felt the strange sensation that I wasn’t supposed to be there.

The gallery attendant smiled at me, and yet, I felt like I was doing something naughty.

At any moment, I was expecting someone to catch me. To tell me to leave.

It is interesting then, that the title of the focal sculpture in the penultimate room is Willing to be Vulnerable.

For this piece, Bul has created a large foil zeppelin. The argent exterior and exposed seams are recognisable as being from Bul’s retro sci-fi field of inspiration. Zeppelins were once a symbol of great scientific progress and were the first ships to be used for commercial flight. The title, Willing to be Vulnerable, references the Hindenburg disaster, where thirty-six people died when an airship caught fire whilst trying to land in New Jersey.  

Willing to be Vulnerable is perhaps the piece which most clearly conveys Lee Bul’s exploration of the dangers of perfection.

Following the foil-covered floor, you are lead towards Via Negativa II. It is through the names of her pieces that you see the influence of philosophy behind her work. The largely introspective pieces—which literally forces the viewer to reflect on themselves and the gallery around them—draws its name from the theory that it is impossible to describe God in finite terminology; the human mind is too limited to say what God is, we can only truly describe what he isn’t.

This is the climax of the exhibition.

After exploring the ideas of utopia, one of Bul’s final piece forces the viewer to look back upon themselves.  A mirror labyrinth which is unsettling to walk through—after all, it constantly feels as though someone is watching you. There is no certainty as you follow the path, as Bul angles the mirrors to feel claustrophobic and bounce their own reflections from each other to give the impression of pathways where there are none.

But when you finally make your way through the maze, a room lies in wait within the centre. The seemingly endless rows of lightbulbs feel as though are a giant standing in between the golden stars of an infinite space—and a comforting warmth radiates through the enclosed space. Unlike the rest of the installations, this is a piece which instils hope.

Lee Bul’s artwork is a reaction to the world around her—especially that of life within South Korea and the experiences she’s faced a woman. As a formal end to the Korean civil war is in sight, and women’s rights are thrown into the spotlight, I am eager to see what Bul creates next.

Lee Bul: Crashing is running at the Hayward Gallery is running 30th May – 19th August 2018.

By Phoebe Hedges.

Review | Fatherland at the Lyric Hammersmith

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The cast of Fatherland at the Lyric Hammersmith, taken by Tristram Kenton

The coats stand out in the exhilarating performance piece Fatherland now on at the Lyric, Hammersmith after its premiere in the Manchester International Festival in 2017. The armour of manhood in the 21st century. Men in black, beige and tan coats.  Leather jackets. Tracksuit tops.  Parkas.  Faceless firemen in what might as well be hazmat suits in a nightmare of X- Files proportions. Marching, swaying, writhing, climbing, dropping from the sky. Using ladders and doorways to fly.  Gathered in a workers’ or maybe hobos’ circle around the glow of a bonfire and marching through the streets like a massed football army but with flags that appear to be made of delicate silk. The sole flash of colour is the red of a Man U top standing out for its brightness in the gloom as much as for its ancient sponsor’s logo.

And only men’s voices are heard – from baleful to operatic.  At one stage the 13 men on stage are joined by massed voices from the aisles and circle. The men (like the audience thankfully) are diverse in ethnicities and accents. Fatherland finds myriad stunning ways to express verbatim testimony collected from small-town England and echoed through songs and chants against Karl Hyde’s brooding soundtrack which booms or whispers. Telling stories of harrowing sadness about fathers lost or never known. These are the stories of “real” men where real means from Kidderminster, Stockport and Bewdley and emphatically still there. Men who haven’t left to join the metropolitan elites which the creators Hyde, Scott Graham and Simon Stephens aren’t afraid to allow themselves to be mockingly identified with. And the men in Fatherland don’t want to leave their home towns: one character is sure that the place you grew up in makes you who you are.

The question reverberating through the show is “what is the earliest memory of your father?” In his memoir And When Did you Last See Your Father? Blake Morrison describes unflinchingly the black, white and greys of his relationship with his dad, the contradictions of the respected professional and family man who nonetheless seems addicted to small petty triumphs and finding ways to cheat the system.  And not only his father’s status as a figurehead is ambiguous: looking back through the family tree he finds a “heritage of neglect” and the example of “the Absent Father, who had his story too, grief and nervous breakdown”. In the media to be a contemporary father is almost automatically flawed – notable usually  for being both needed and not there –  and the paternal relationships of the men in Fatherland  portray all those complexities and then some.

Fatherland is not just about fathers – it’s very much about being a son too and the pain of one not being able to connect with the other. Women and girls are mentioned of course – what is stark and powerful is the love of fathers for the daughters they protect or raise single-handedly. But the stage is a space for men’s stories and movement, the raggedy bravado of their cockiness a front for aching tales of not being loved. As one character says: we all hurt.

My favourite depictions: Graham (Neil McCaul), whose affable Dad Zero unpacks his childhood scars; Mel’s (Michael Begley) hymn of a climb into horror which defies any attempt to pigeonhole his chirpy Black County persona; Daniel (David Judge), brittle, fragile and still standing through his own battles with mental health; and the scarcely buried violence of Alan (Joseph Alessi) whose stare, stance or even slight pause convey years of “being a bit handy”.

But Fatherland isn’t just a journey through the bad bits of being a man – it finds ways to lift you into admiration and eventually joy including with a stunning flash mob chorus on the night I attended in the bar post-show. I smiled a lot not least because of the gratingly incongruous but perfectly fitting reference to the children’s movie Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and the tongue-tied and repressed father in that story who needs a machine to make his love audible.

The poet John Hegley explores his relationship with his father in several pieces in the collection The Sound of Paint Drying. One poem October ’71 describes how Hegley Senior presented his son with his old artist’s brushes. Hegley Junior asks his dad why he gave up painting and finds the answer is:  He gave up for me to go on. Fatherland’s stunning visions will leave men asking themselves what legacy they will be remembered for. Go see it.

Fatherland is at the Lyric Hammersmith until June 23rd, 2018

By Alexis Keir

 

Review | Multiverse by Andrew Wynn Owen

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The Multiverse ( or theermvsuitle as it says on the cover)  is the first poetry collection by Andrew Wynn Owen, a fellow of All Souls College. It is published by Caranet and praised by the poets of likes of Simon Armitage. Each poem exuberates life as Owen crafts each and every word with the authority of a laureate. If there is another universe where he has not written this book, then it is a darker place indeed.

Owen’s collection is expansive and varied with sixty poems exploring themes such as science, philosophy and human nature. He tests our perceptions on reality, and ourselves too, both elegantly and rhythmically. His piece Mirrors and Windows is just one example of a piece which does this in Multiverse:  

‘A window, though
Shows more than any mirror.
Pervasive happening opens space
And lets free landscape flow.’

Multiverse is more than just a collection of writing. Like a song or a dance, his poetry resonates and inspires the inner creative. His words seem to take on a form and start to waltz with the reader – dipping and twirling them to each step of the iambic pentameter.

This is a book to savour as, with most great poetry, you cannot rush over the lines. If you do, you will miss out on the chemistry. There will be some phrases that, when you read them, will give you a sensation of a first skin – that pulse of electricity. For me, it was a line in The Door:

‘I’d never loved the room. It is the door
That I adore.’

Owens zips between various styles throughout his book from pieces resembling Shakespearean sonnets such as The Scientist (using an abab structure and rhyming couplets) to Stonehenge which feels almost like an epic. Yet even with their historic roots, his poems feel fresh and contemporary. Where Shakespeare would focus on love and marriage, Owens explores scientific discovery and alternate realities. Like epics, Owens also sings of legends and folklore, but in relation to modern society, ‘beyond the power plants, main roads’ and ‘churning cars.’

Owen has the skill to take something and subvert it, scrutinise it under his creative eye and turn it into something else. Take April Shower for example. In this piece, he simply writes about rain. It may not be much to us British but Owen changes this and turns it into something fantastical, stunning:

‘But now let fall
In plosive drops,
Startling the land and pulling out the stops.
Torrential fuel. A shapeless rush
Of see-through resin beads.’

Yet, although breathtaking, some of his poetry is not the most accessible. It darts around like a hummingbird you so desperately want to get a glimpse of. You can chase it around, and try to predict its moves, but you will tire yourself out. Or, at least, modern audiences and those who don’t like poetry will. But to enjoy poetry, as these people fail to realise, you have to get lost in it. Explore the words. Reread lines. Question what you are reading and soak it all in.

Of course, if it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing and I doubt there’s much I can say to convince you. But, keep in mind, there is a universe out there where you are reading Multiverse and loving it.

Multiverse is released today (May 31st). 

By Emily Priest

Contributor’s Picks – June/July 2018

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Introducing Contributor’s Picks! Recommendations for the very best in arts, culture and literature from the writers for The London Magazine June/July 2018 issue. Read their writing in our latest issue, available now

Nicholas Summerfield (Essay: On the Road)
Thinks – David Lodge

This is a light-hearted comedy and, at the same time, a consideration of human consciousness itself.  An overlooked gem.

 

Maggie Butt (Poetry: Cycling the Appian Way)
Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

 

The most extraordinary, original, memorable piece of fiction I’ve read for many years. I have a serious case of writer-envy.

 

Andrew Lambirth (Review: Public & Commercial: Degas and Patterns of Exhibiting)
Cedric Morris: Artist Plantsman – Garden Museum – Until July 22nd

Timely reappraisal of the painter and gardener who ran a private art school in Suffolk and taught Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling, among many others. He’s clearly a forerunner of the School of London, and his beautiful flower paintings look as fresh and beguiling today as when they were painted 80 or 90 years ago.

 

Sharon Black (Poetry: Lucky Penny)
Paterson (2016)

 

A meditative, poetic journey through the streets of New Jersey via a bus driver and William Carlos Williams – I loved this film for its quiet quirkiness and its tentative stepping-into the centre of things.

 

Roisin Tierney (Poetry – Fiesta and Mock Orange)
The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in WWII – Svetlana Alexivich

I was really taken by The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, in which the author interviews Soviet women -captains, tank drivers, snipers, pilots, nurses and doctors – who fought in the second world war.  It is a pitiless read, yet unputdownable and very illuminating. 

 

William Bedford (Fiction: Flying Lessons)
Vivre Sa Vie/My Life to Live 

 

A New Wave masterpiece, as powerful and true today as when I first saw it in 1963.

 

Emily Priest (Essay: Akihabara)
How to Be a Woman – Caitlin Moran 

In the age of #MeToo this book is more relevant than ever. With a sharp wit and laugh-out-loud anecdotes, Moran makes feminist ideology accessible and relatable and makes every female reader cry with laughter. It’s the book I needed whilst growing up!

 

Jeffrey Meyers (Essay: Conrad’s Judgement: Stevenson
vs. Stevie Crane)
Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva – Rosemary Sullivan 

A fascinating account of a disastrous inheritance.

 

Michael Spinks (Poetry: The Question & Silver Birches)
Vilette – Charlotte Bronte and The Royal Wedding (19th May 2018)

A book that haunts me with its beauty and daring, its contrived secrecy and its surgically open-hearted confession, Charlotte Bronte’s last novel, Villette, surely stands on the stocks as possibly the greatest novel written in English. She plays with our sensibilities just as she plays with her own beating heart, and what a dreadful, courageous ending.

 

My second recommendation is The Royal Wedding. People drawn to the intellectual are not supposed to enjoy spectacles like the royal wedding, but the theatre created was both intimate and spectacular. The drama was centred on Harry and Megan but the cast was huge and odd and the charged narrative changed with every minute, and one had glimpses of all sorts of relationships and unexpected contacts. Reading faces and movements was fascinating. And Bishop Michael delighted with bubbling enthusiasm for the occasion, for the two central characters, and for the great source of love, God himself, also present. ‘How important is love?’ he asked. ‘Two people fall in love, and we all turn up.’

 

Peter Robinson (Fiction: A Seaside Funeral)
Girlfriends, Ghosts, And Other Stories – Robert Walser 

 

 

After a visit to Bern in April, I have returned to reading Robert Walsen, and have been enjoying this collection translated by Tom Whalen, Nicole Köngeter and Annette Wiesner.

 

Ian Stone (Essay: The Commune of the City)
Edward the Elder and the Making of England – Harriet Harvey Wood 

 

 

Harriet Harvey Wood’s biography is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the monarchy and the period – and legacy – of Alfred the Great. The author writes with erudition and engagement. A thoroughly rewarding read.

 

Peter Slater (My London)
Us – Zaffar Kunail

Image taken from LondonReviewBookshop

 

I am looking forward to this debut volume out in July. It includes ‘Fielder’, an uncannily evocative poem, which captures the profound significance found in what might have been a small, unremarkable moment.

 

Ella Windsor (Essay: Mexican Treasure)
Testimony – Robbie Robertson 

The compelling story of the front man of The Band, told from his own poignant perspective.

 

Read our contributor’s writing in our June/July 2018 issue: order now!

Review | Absolute Hell – Pissed In Purgatory

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Kate Fleetwood taken by Johan Persson (2018). Featured on NationalTheatre.

Rodney Ackland’s play ‘Absolute Hell’ (at the National Theatre until 16 June) is like spying on a drunken party through a club door. The first hour is intoxicating, in a salacious sort of way, but then it all starts to feel a bit maudlin and you just want them to drink up so you can go home.

The play takes place in ‘La Vie en Rose’, a seedy Soho drinking den (modelled on the Colony rooms) full of confused, desperate characters seeking sex and oblivion. It is set in the summer of 1945, in a war weary London that is under the shadow of Auschwitz and on the brink of a Labour Government. Although the clientele are determined to hide from the outside world, the gold veneer of the club begins to peel away, revealing the dull undercoat of post war life.

When it was first produced in 1952, as the ‘Pink Room’, the homosexuality was played down but the sordid, decadent world it depicted was still too much for the respectable theatre audiences of the time. It soon ended Ackland’s career. It was only until 1988 when it was re-discovered, first at the Orange Tree in Richmond, and then again at the National with Judi Dench who also starred in the 1991 BBC film of the play.

It runs on for over 3 hours and, although it has a cast of nearly thirty members, there are only 2 real characters – Christine, the lonely, emotionally fragile club owner (a charismatic and sensual Kate Fleetwood) and Hugh a gay, failing-writer (brilliantly played by Charles Edwards) who is constantly on the cadge. Esh Alladi is excellent in the minor role of camp dogsbody Cyril Clatworthy. Sinead Matthews wrings out some emotion as hedonist Elizabeth. The rest of the ensemble (black GIs, gay critics, film producers, tormented artists, black marketers and a prostitute name Fifi who endlessly circles the streets of nearby Piccadilly) only serve to emphasise the real subject of the play – the desperate desire to escape a bombed out London through the neck of a bottle.

There are moments of real humour in the play (some of it dated) and the action is skilfully choreographed however, the last two scenes of the play are rushed, unsatisfactory and could be cut. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins does his best to make the play relevant but, the truth is, nothing much happens and watching others getting drunk is rather boring. By the end the jokes have turned stale and the characters’ search for sex has gone flaccid. The club literally starts to fall apart around them, the party is over and the hangover has already started to set in.

The final word of the play is hell.

Absolute Hell is running until 16th June at the National Theatre/ Lyttelton theatre.

By David Ford

Review | The Inheritance at The Young Vic

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Photo by Simon Annand

The Inheritance stands at almost seven hours long: Matthew Lopez’s two-part, self-aware epic on the legacy of gay men past-and present. Treating everything from the devastation of a post-AIDs generation and the LGBT reaction to the Trump-era, The Inheritance paints a vivid image what it means to be homosexual and living in modern day New York.

Openly narrated, a cast of beautiful men collaboratively recount a tapestry of stories, circling around the pair who sit at the epicentre of the performance – Toby and Eric. The Inheritance is a testament to the power of storytelling; the men squabble over details, however ultimately their paths are set for them – inherited from and dictated by the events that have passed before them. It is at times both heart-wrenching and hilarious, with themes as universal as love, or as specific as Trump, being handled in a way that is quite simply innovative.

Lopez is unafraid of pausing the plot to make way for intense debate on LGBT culture, privilege and poverty; he deftly avoids lecturing the audience, and instead weaves fair, impassioned and considered points into the dialogue between characters. The audience (speaking particularly as a white, straight woman) does not feel isolated but rather included in these debates, forbidden from a feeling of disinterest and implicated in the grappling of these issues.

The cast sit around a deceptively bare, table-like stage which rises and falls throughout. Devoid of all but a few props, it is the intricate dialogue and narration that paints the settings, transporting the audience better than any elaborate set might. Lopez’s writing is undeniably beautiful and uninhibited, coming alive against such a simple backdrop.

The actor’s handling of the text is also exceptional, with many a stand-out performance. Kyle Soller brings alive a potential ‘safe’ character with his conveyance of Eric’s inherent decency, which contrasts perfectly with the tragedy of Toby’s complete self-absorption and route to destruction, portrayed by Andrew Burnap. A few actors handle multiple characters, however it is Samuel H Levine flipping between the confidence of Adam and the uncertain self-consciousness of Leo, even during the same scene, which is spell-binding. Similarly, Paul Hilton’s portrayal of both Walter and Morgan Forster is stellar. Walter’s quiet humanity paired with the representation of Morgan as a caring but measured British man in a tweed jacket truly epitomises just how far the LGBT community has come in recent years. This is a cast dominated by men, and whilst Vanessa Redgrave’s appearance in the latter parts of the play is moving, it is incomparable to the ambitious speeches and constant presence of the other cast members.

A play of this length is certainly an undertaking, and this features as the gag of many a joke throughout. I had a little more processing time than most, seeing the two parts with a week in between. Whilst the end of part one is not left on a cliff-hanger as such, I was still desperate to see the second even a week later. The soap-opera like nature of the multiple storylines left me wanting for more, even having seen part two.

The Inheritance is fundamentally significant and utterly enjoyable; the perfect combination of comedy and genuine issues tied together perfectly with a stunning script. Whilst this marathon of a play may feel like a commitment, it is one you will not regret.

The Inheritance is now booking for its West End transfer at the Noel Coward Theatre, 21st September 2018 – 5th January 2019 

By Emma Quick

Review | Three Women at The Trafalgar Studios

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3 Women (2018) banner taken from LondonTheatreDirect

Katy Brand’s Three Women at the Trafalgar Studios offers a representation of the title across respective and somewhat stereotypical generations. 

Suzanne, a crystal-loving 40-year old played by Debbie Chazen, is facing trauma stemming from her childhood, which surfaces throughout the evening. Chazen perfectly executes a bitter rivalry between her and mother Eleanor, played by Anita Dobson, and reveals just the right amount of emotional upheaval from her loss of love. 

Maisie Richardson-Sellers adds an interesting and sometimes offbeat character to the mix. Laurie is portrayed as the peace-keeper whose beliefs surrounding post-genderism dictate a large amount of her lines. Richardson-Sellers performance feels forced at times, possibly due to the constant stream of information that her character is instructed to feed to her peers. Although sporadically comical, it is just that, and appeared as though she was reading from a chapter of a non-fiction, Millenial analysis. 

But it’s Dobson who takes centre stage, not only providing the much-needed comic relief with her witty one-liners and blasé view of her family’s approach to life, but also with her emotional collapse towards the end of the show. This display of impassioned contrition proved Dobson’s worthiness of her extensive acting career and left me satisfied at the believability of the show. 

Brand has written a confounding piece which appears to be mostly based on a societal view of generations today. Although it faces some difficulties in plot and characterisation, it is worth seeing for Dobson’s performance alone.

Three Women is running until the 9th June at the Trafalgar Studios.

By Lucy Morris

Review | Carcanet New Poetries VII: Book Launch at the London Review Bookshop

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Gayle Lazda / London Review Bookshop

The London Review Bookshop, Bloomsbury, 7pm. Wine glasses clatter as they are placed on the floor, animated conversation fills the air, friends are greeted, coats shrugged off. Michael Schmidt, the founder and managing director of Carcanet, steps before the audience to introduce the four poets who will be reading tonight as part of the launch of New Poetries VII, an anthology that brings together what Michael, in the Introduction to the book, calls ‘a chine, a prickle, a surfeit, a blessing – a group – of new poets’. He is delighted to be in the London Review Bookshop, one of his ‘favourite’ bookshops in the city, and to be introducing the seventh New Poetries, a series that is also one of his ‘favourites’. Many Carcanet poets, he notes, began their writing careers in the anthology, and have gone on to ‘star on our list’, including Sinéad Morrissey, Kei Miller, and Vahni Capildeo. These poets, Michael affirms, ‘help me forward’.

The poets performing tonight – Mary Jean Chan, Helen Charman, Lisa Kelly, and Toby Litt – read in the order that they appear in the book. Michael introduces Mary Jean first, recounting how he was struck by three sonnets that the poet sent in to PN Review. Alluding to Mary Jean’s Hong Kong background, and mentioning his own Mexican American origins, he notes that Carcanet is ‘very much an Anglophone, rather than an English, operation’, and that it is ‘wonderful to find poets from outside of England’. Mary Jean begins by reading the sonnets, describing them as ‘a slightly subversive take on the classical Confucius text’ about how you should honour your parents. Her voice is silky, clear, as she speaks. Next, she reads a bilingual poem. ‘I thought it would be interesting to try to rhyme my mother tongue with English – I speak Cantonese at home’, she explains. ‘speaking in tongues’ is a striking poem, weaving together repetitions of ‘mother says’ and ‘poet says’, as well as the two languages:

mother says: separation of voice
poet says: behave, moonbeam
mother says: the way you ask the moon to behave is transgressive, not Chinese
poet says: my voice is a splinter

‘It’s wonderful to hear poems read that one’s read to oneself several times, and the way the poet inflects them’, Michael observes, after Mary Jean’s reading. Helen Charman is the next poet to read, and Michael notes that when he first read her poems, he ‘couldn’t put them down’. Helen launches straight into a reading of ‘Horse whispering’, rocking slightly with the rhythm of the poem as she reads, hovering over the words she wishes to emphasise. Her head is tilted up to the microphone, and she smiles occasionally at the audience. ‘Agony in the Garden’ is a poem that requires some context, Helen says, and she reads from her explanation at the front of her section of the anthology. The poem centres on John Ruskin and a statement he made in 1854, during the annulment proceedings of his marriage to Effie Gray: ‘It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion.’ Part of the latter phrase appears in the poem, which Helen reads playfully, with full attention from the audience. ‘Tampon Panic Attack’ is my favourite poem of the ones she performs. Flicking through teenage magazines, Helen notes, tongue-in-cheek, left her with ‘a crippling fear of tampons’, which the poem transforms:

. . . Waking up in bloodied underwear once felt
like shame but now is gorgeous, a victory: red sheets are
like flirting.

‘One thing you’ll have noticed is how humorous the poems are’, says Michael, at the close of Helen’s reading. He then introduces Toby Litt, noting that it was Toby’s sequence Life Cycle that really ‘got to’ him. Michael is also pleased to welcome ‘a novelist who’s come over, as it were’, referencing the ten novels that Toby has published. Toby himself, taking the stage, questions, ‘Come over, or come out?’, explaining that he started as a poet, but initially wasn’t sure if his poetry would be published. He begins his reading with ‘Politics / 9.11.16, p.m.’, written on the eve of Trump’s election. ‘I tried to be hyper eloquent, but I also tried to be extremely angry and political’, Toby says of the poem. His voice is level as he reads, and he stands comfortably, feet in a relaxed ballet-esque position. The poems in Life Cycle ‘had a long pre-history before they hit the page’, and were written for two friends who had lost a baby. ‘Not just milk’ features a build-up of repetitions that sound very different in the air to their appearance on the page, where the words seem to tiptoe across the white space:

                  There used to be a woman in this body
                                    not just milk

                  There used to be a woman in this body
                                    not just milk
                                                      and carrying


                  There used to be a woman in this body
                                    not just milk
                                                      and carrying
                                                                        and saying hush

Toby finishes with ‘an even tireder lullaby’ entitled ‘Hushaby Twinkle’, before Michael introduces Lisa Kelly. Like Mary Jean, Lisa ‘seems to exist between languages’, Michael notes, noting that she once described herself as ‘half-Danish, half-Deaf’. He is drawn to the gaps in her poems, ‘where language has been missed’, and was ‘astonished’ to find himself reading her poems aloud. Lisa begins her reading with ‘Anonymous’, a poem based on a 1993 New Yorker cartoon featuring two dogs at a computer screen, and recites the poem with gusto. The line ‘Once bitten, twice bitcoin’ provokes laughter from the audience, and another poem, on Ikea furniture, is equally witty. ‘A Map Towards Fluency’ is the stand-out poem of the reading, however, and Lisa puts down her book to perform the poem, which requires signing some of the letters of the alphabet using British Sign Language: 

I map a——————————————————————to my left thumb
Alex maps a————————————————————to his right thumb
e——————————————————————————to my left forefinger
poor Alex, the teacher can’t map sinistral——————to dextral

The reading ends with thanks to the London Review Bookshop, a clinking of wine glasses, and the steady rise of conversation in the air.

By Suzannah V. Evans

David Hockney at Tate Britain

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Visiting a gallery in London during the February half term is a rookie error. In a bid to occupy restless children, and driven inside by the drizzle, the families of London descend on its cultural delights. Most are free, accessible by tube, and educational; those who dare to enter will be faced with overexcited kids shouting over distressed parents, flailing toddlers on a bid to escape, and those on the cusp of adolescence, cursing their bad luck for having to admit any affiliation with their parents outside of the house. You might expect the entrance fee for the Tate Britain’s David Hockney exhibition to turn people away. And yet the promise of an exhibition taking a retrospective gander through the life’s works of a cultural icon is enough to draw in the motley crew of the city’s half-termers. Even more surprisingly, they are all captivated. Amongst the trodden toes, banged elbows and pervasive stink of damp raincoats, there is a sense of awe shared by the multiplicitous generations and nationalities flooding the galleries.

The exhibition traces almost sixty years of Hockney’s work in loosely chronological thematic sections. His signature images of 1960’s Los Angeles appear, characterised by swimming pools and homoeroticism as well as rawer line drawings and sketches, experiments of form and medium, and Hockney’s modern forays into the world of technology. Chris Stephens’s careful curation makes this more than a walk through history, arranging the large, twelve-room collection with invention and flair. Each room has its own flavour, keeping even the Hockney aficionados on their toes. The first room – ‘Play within a Play’ – throws us into metatheatre, the art mimicking our examination of it, so that are forced to examine ourselves in the process. In the title painting, Hockney’s friend John Kasmin presses his self against a glass sheet, hands pushing desperately against the barrier between art and spectator. It is a concept that recurs throughout Hockney’s lifetime; ‘Blue Stools’ does not just stage paintings within a painting, but a whole gallery within a gallery. The gallery-goers are a collage of digital photographs superimposed on a painted background, the figures repeating themselves nonchalantly in a dream space that eerily mirrors the room in which the painting hangs.

Inevitably, such an expansive view of one man’s life’s works is full of variety, offering dark, scrawling pieces etched in graffiti and cryptic messages in stark dichotomy to the angular patterns and vibrant colours of his observational paintings. The exhibition excels, however, in giving us a glimpse into the artist’s way of seeing. The second half focuses on experiences of space and place, the same hyperreality of deep pigments and bold lines lent to both Hollywood Hills and Yorkshire countryside alike. The paintings brim over with effervescent joy, vignettes of still life and landscapes alike transformed into loud effusions of rich, warm colour.

A room is dedicated to The Four Seasons, where nine cameras pan down a rural Yorkshire lane. Standing in the middle of the room, you can turn to face any wall and feel the essence of one of the four seasons. The effect is completely enchanting, as testified by the collective awed intake of air when groups enter the room. The collage of nine slightly different perspectives lends the videos something beyond three dimensions; the flitting views give a sense of complete immersion. It’s disconcerting and jarring, but upliftingly beautiful. Hockney’s sense that a singular point of view is not enough to really see is stressed by his photography, layering collaged Polaroid in a patchwork that diffracts our line of sight, producing an image with less clarity and more complexity. Hockney saw traditional photography as ‘looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops.’ His forays into photography and video, like his sumptuous landscapes, allow us to see the extraordinary lurking within each ordinary scene. It is a wonderful glimpse into the world of Hockney’s genius.


By Charanpreet Khaira 

David Hockney
Tate Britain
Until 29 May 2017
£7.95 – £26.00

Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry

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Freud is dangerous territory for poets. He did more than just make his mark on the literature of the twentieth century: he cross-hatched it. Psychoanalysis might have been discredited as a way of understanding the mind, but it still permeates the world of words. Freud’s hold on literature is so extensive that even the phrase describing the author’s fear of repeating what has come before them – ‘the anxiety of influence’ – invokes the Oedipus complex. Freud is so last century, because the last century is saturated with him. Few poets today dare to get near him, unless he’s packaged in allusion and irony. Not so, Emily Berry. Freud’s words – ‘the loss of a mother must be something very strange…’ – form the epigraph of her anthology so that his influence bleeds into each and every of the poems that make up ‘Stranger, Baby.’

She charges at Freud head-on in an affront that sidesteps the risk of cliché, instead abounding in individuality. Freud’s words slip into 35 poems that meditate on grief, lack, and despair – a meditation that, as we hear again and again, can never be answered. ‘Stranger/ Baby’ is unlike other anthologies: it does not attempt to universalise or synthesise loss, but obsessively recapitulates it, runs at it from different directions, all the while knowing that it cannot be tamed. If the collection does not ask questions – or, at least, does not expect answers – it simply screams instead. The poems are beset with the background of a female voice – a voice that we end up suspecting to be autobiographical – that ‘screams and screams without any self-control.’ In the play-poem ‘Tragedy for One Voice’, the screaming becomes the stage directions that form a perennial white noise behind the entire anthology.

Berry’s images are stark and polarised, the forces of fire and water competing throughout the collection. The speaker repeatedly fashions her image as water, the sea, or the curl of a wave, as is made explicit in ‘Tidal Wave Speaks’. The motif breathes life into the oft-repeated poetic exploration of the ineffability of emotions. In Berry’s poetry, it is clear that words fail to heal – the collection attempts to use self-expression as a kind of ‘talking cure’, but the speaker is left realising that this as impossible as an attempt to take hold of the ocean. Time and again, she makes a statement, only to remake and restate: ‘That is what I did./ Laid it all out like tidal wave./ Thought you could in fact/ lay out a tidal wave.’ What emerges is her sense that the process of confronting and turning into poetry her feelings is the experience of coming face to face with an unconstrained force of innumerable power.

Berry’s attempt to turn negative energy into positive through poetry is stated with the grim humour of the title, ‘Now all my poems are about death I feel as though I’m really living.’ The speaker mocks her own attempt to ‘lay it all out’ through poetry – to observe her own grief by putting it into words – by presenting a gauche image in parallel, of photographing herself in the cemetery. Predictably, she finds that the attempt rids her action of authenticity – ‘I pose and yet I cannot pose’ – just as an articulation of grief fails to capture its true face: ‘I wrote this down, regretted it.’ An angry undertone emerges, equating healing with self-effacement; ‘Once’ presents ‘embracing’ grief as welcoming ‘my own/ diminishment’. A desire to be healed emanates from the collection, but it is paired with the realisation that such healing relies on eroding the self. Therapy is spoken about bitterly as a faceless attempt to polish one’s feelings.

Berry’s speaker conveys the gulf between poetic intention and creation. Poetry is stripped of its mystery as the process of creation is described with almost staged self-awareness. What is left is sometimes seen as hollow – the line ‘This is the rain, the October rain’ is unpicked instantaneously by its speaker with ‘I wrote that when it was still October/ It must have been raining.’ There are points where Berry herself shies away from the immediacy and starkness of her topic, asking ‘Can you distort my voice when I say this?’ – ‘So people don’t know it’s me.’ At times the realisation that poetry is not big enough to contain the sea of the speaker’s grief is bleak; at others, the resulting chaos is shown to be what invests the poems with such power. As the Tidal Wave itself says ‘Tidal Wave don’t sing… Tidal Wave crash.’

Indeed, this is powerful poetry. But it is also clever, modern, and playful. Berry refuses to withhold any of her poetic artillery; she experiments with form boldly, an experiment that might fail in the hands of a weaker writer. The poems modulate between different rhythms and styles, delighting in the elasticity of poetry. Some mischievously challenge the criticism of ‘prose-like’ poetry, others are laconic in their staccato lines; one converts the speaker’s conflicting feelings into dichotomous voices in a play. Sometimes, as in ‘Song’, Berry looks to other poets for answers. Here she responds to Luna Miguel, referring to Miguel’s tattoo of a mermaid representing her mother to inhabit tentatively her own mother’s psyche, paradoxically giving herself up to death and believing that it will save her. ‘Aura’ is a poem that revels in its own form, a visible chasm between the speaker and her mother that is bridged, movingly, in one line.

The destructive power of absence is quick, fierce, and brutal in these poems. Sitting in her mother’s cemetery, the speaker asks questions of her mother, breaking her own rule that only the ‘idealistic’ expect answers of their questions. She is forced to answer herself, and that lack becomes palpable when ‘Your silence reaches out from inside me and meets itself on the outside.’ The blank space left by the speaker’s mother creeps inside of her, linking the visible, external lack of a mother with the resulting emptiness inside in a destructive circle that ironically mimics the closed circle of mother and child. Berry’s second anthology, ‘Stranger, baby’ generates a high voltage; its energy feels dangerous for both writer and reader, and no one who reads it will deny the sparks that fly off it.

By Charanpreet Khaira 


Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry, Faber, £10.99

The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York’s Theatre

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Cherry Jones returns to the role of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, directed by John Tiffany. This London revival of American theatre’s classic memory play may be the timely antidote we need.

Like a softening dust, olive-ashen light floats among fading Victorian-style lampshades, a writing desk, a frumpy crimson settee, the trove of animal statuettes centre-front. Looming in the background is a fire escape that ramrods to the rafters, its stage level serving as the entrance to this ‘hive-like’ tenement apartment in 1930s St Louis. John Tiffany’s revival of The Glass Menagerie begins with the expected direct address: a mature Tom (played by Michael Esper), now in control of his life and career, looks back at his past, piece by piece. ‘The play is memory,’ Tom says. Actually, it is a ghost story in which Tiffany uses sound, the swapping of hysteria for more lightness, and a touch of choreography to give shape to the ghostliness of Tennessee Williams’ ‘picture of my own heart,’ his first chapter of author-family autobiographies. The production, which premiered in New York in 2013, and then featured in last year’s Edinburgh Festival, is aided by composer Nico Muhly’s twinkling but minimalist backdrop that avoids any whiff of frothy whimsy.

Of tenacious mother hens in English letters, we find ourselves warming to Cherry Jones’ role as Amanda—more bustling Mrs Weasley than hustling Mrs Bennett—likely coming as a shock to viewers who grew up with the éminence grise of Katharine Hepburn’s embodiment, which roiled on daytime television. Jones’ exultation on stage suggests that she is the only actress capable of a Southern accent who didn’t originally aspire to play Blanche, Williams’ withering Southern belle in A Streetcar Named Desire. Jones lays an opulent Dixie brogue on thick. Her Amanda is a hardy prevailer, a nostalgist whose free-flowing dips into the past are not escape mechanisms strictly, but sustenance to carry her through the years of pain and social degradation created by bad choices made in first youth. In many ways, she does the dirty on Williams, stubbornly maintaining grace and love over the toxic interference that is necessary for us to want to run away from her, like Tom.

Kate O’Flynn once again harnesses her distinctive nasal squeak in order to intone Laura’s constant refrain: placating her mother’s stultifying concerns. ‘Mother, when you’re disappointed, you get that awful suffering look on your face, like the picture of Jesus’s mother in the museum,’ comes straight from O’Flynn’s nose, the last syllable of each phrase expanding like scales ringing on a xylophone and accentuating her character’s perpetual nervousness. While she is the play’s faint but central pulse who necessarily does not act, but is acted upon, O’Flynn’s Laura inherits some of the steely glint in her mother’s iron sunshine. The resignation that she unfurls after the Gentleman Caller, Jim (played with puppy-like exuberance by Brian J. Smith) kisses her, and then admits that he is already affianced, is a saddening jolt—like a cold shower of rain on a sunny day. ‘You—won’t—call again?’ she matter-of-factly states more than questions, letting the bomb hang in the air and then dropping it. Esper is better as a son than as narrator, especially when he is performing a kind of elevated honesty that mocks itself: ‘Well you’re right, Mother. I’m going to opium dens. Yes, mother. Opium dens. Dens of vice and criminal’s hangouts, mother, I am a hired assassin!’ Teasing his mother’s near-farcical enquiries into his twilight outings is all boyish shtick and put-on, a comic relief that increases our fondness for both characters but overshadows the story’s essential tension. In this way, Tom’s final abandonment seems less believable.

The choreographed gestures could come off as a gimmicky trick—Laura first emerges through a slit in the back of the sofa, for example, and, at the end, she dives back through. While Tiffany’s direction has been criticised for its departures from text-driven concerns, these moments are exquisite flourishes of reverie, especially the fleeting celestial duets between mother and daughter. If the production has a fault, it lies within Jones’ obvious pleasure in the role, left unchecked—if not emboldened—by the perceptible encouragement of the audience’s luxuriating smiles. The first act belongs entirely to her.

Today, much of the world expects awakening daily to the setting of the sun on a progressive era of American history, the country’s political reality steeped so heavily in its own neo-Victorian brand of backward-looking inspiration. Those hankering for warmer prelapsarian times will find temporary release in the luminescence that revives Williams’s first hit, which premiered in 1944—the middle of another period of deeply scarred American optimism. During the production’s two and a half hours, in a rare instance of cosmic collusion, a cell phone didn’t go off once.

By Megan Bradshaw


The Glass Menagerie

The Duke of York’s Theatre

Until 29 April 2017

Adventures in Moominland at Southbank Centre

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“What do you know of the Moomins: the books, the television series, or maybe you just recognize the characters?”

That was one of the first questions asked at the Adventures in Moominland tour, an immersive exhibition currently on at the Southbank Centre; the span of all the different mediums mentioned perfectly encompassing the much loved Moomin’s longevity across generations and cultures. Originating as a series of picture books written and illustrated by Finnish author, Tove Jansson, the Moomin stories follow Moomintroll, a white-as-cloud hippopotamus-like creature, as he lives out his adventures with his family and friends in Moominvalley. Translated in over forty-four languages, readers both young and old have adored these characters for decades, ever since they were first published in 1945 as Jansson’s refuge from the cruel reality of the Second World War.

Part of a larger series called “Nordic Matters” at the Southbank Centre, the Moomin exhibition brings together a collection of Tove Jansson’s sketches, stories and memorabilia from her own life in a completely vitalizing setting. Low ceilings in most of the rooms create an almost child-like playworld, where anyone above the age of ten will likely have to crouch down, not least in order to see the wonderfully petite original drawings rarely showcased to the public before. For the duration of your time in Moominland, all that constitutes being an adult diminishes, starting with the most obvious of characteristics that make you a ‘grown-up’ (as the word suggests), stretching to the playful pantomimes that the escort will engage you in.

In fact, the entire physical set-up of the exhibit is a manifestation of all the different elements that are so central to the animated world. Chilled temperatures mirror the lands of Finland that inspired the author. Dimmed lighting in the space dedicated to the Groke encapsulates Jansson’s period of depression that the character reflected. Adventures in Moominland, rather than being a static tour from room to room, becomes a completely visceral experience, because these are not just drawings on a page, and this is not just a legacy behind glass casing. Tove Jansson drew from a bank of memories, people, feelings and encounters, posing the question: why should the artistry of the Moominworld – with its rich characters and riveting tales – somehow be segregated from its creator, as if it were something inorganic? The exhibition sets itself up to do just the opposite from the very start, beginning with the origin of Moomintroll, who was contrived from a scary tale told to Tove Jansson by her uncle to keep her from raiding the kitchen at night.

Rather than take us chronologically, the exposition continuously intertwines Moomintroll and Jansson’s life and times, both narratively and physically. One area might be Snufkin’s tent recreated, while in the next, the author’s studio in Stockholm. Though each room within the exhibit is immaculate in its ability to transport you to another world, the crux of Adventures in Moominland resides in the astounding attention to detail. Not counting the atmospheric lighting and sound that bring the space to life, so much of what makes this tour exciting for the young and old alike are the novelties that surprise. It’s enthralling to discover Easter eggs, like Kant and Schopenhauer’s manifestos, sprinkled about Moomin’s home – a call-out to Tove Jansson’s intellectual preoccupation with many of these great thinkers, often tackling them in references found within the comic strips. It is precisely in this kind of minutiae that so much of one’s nuanced (and newfound) appreciation for her work arises. The wonders of growing up lay in the fact that the world around us, though no longer simple, is even more fascinating in its complexity.

And Tove Jansson had a way of conveying that. Her narratives often focus on topics of love, tolerance, freedom and existence, hidden behind the guise of a children’s book. But a particularly overarching idea throughout was the author’s compulsion with always finding solace and beauty in the minute. That no matter how bad times may seem (and Jansson was, in fact, writing in the worst of times), there’s always good to be found. One of the stories, for example, shows Moomintroll horribly cross with Moominpappa after not understanding why he does and thinks the things he does. You later find out this was very much Jansson grappling with her own father’s Nazi sympathies, a sentiment common in almost half the Finns at the time, given that Hitler had been viewed as a liberating alternative to the oppressive Russians the country had had strained relations with for decades. In the end, Moomintroll can’t help but still love Moominpappa. Nor could the Finnish penwoman hold her affection for her parent at bay. To love is complex, rooted in the littlest of things, and whether by accident or by design, the exhibit is very much in line with that. And that’s important. Because in an all too familiar scenario we see echoes of today, whereby a population of people can be divided at the seams over a common issue, stories like those of the Moomins are not just a delightful and leisurely pastime for us to engage in, but a very dire reminder of our shared humanity. “One can’t be too dangerous, if they like to eat pancakes. Especially with jam on it,” Moomintroll tells us.

Madeleine L’Engle once said that if a book is too difficult for grownups, write it for children. But Moomintroll and Adventures in Moominland isn’t just for kids, or just for adults – it’s for anyone with a beating heart and a love to share. Paradoxically, a love that, like the devil, is found in the details.

By Kristian Radev


Adventures in Moominland
Southbank Centre
16 December – 23 April
£13.50 – £16.50

The Met Office Advises Caution by Rebecca Watts

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As its title suggests, Rebecca Watts’s new collection seeks to reinvent nature poetry for the 21st Century: a tradition most closely associated with figures like Wordsworth (who re-appears within these pages) as well as an earlier era, and a vastly different ecosystem, of English poetry. While the landscape certainly figures prominently in this volume both as muse and method – even the shortest poems, like ‘Aldeburgh Beach’, are structured in shape and sound to approximate waves on the coast – there is far more here that warrants our recognition as one of the significant debuts of the year.

It’s rare to come across a first collection by a young poet that returns so eclectically to the past, taking as inspiration such historical footnotes as Samuel Johnson’s notorious debt to his milkman (‘Milk’), William Gilpin’s ruminations on the ‘picaresque’ (‘On the Proposed Bridge Over Ditton Meadow’), or the ‘German Tinder Box, c.1800’ which sat on the Wordsworths’ mantelpiece in Dove Cottage. It also ranges geographically from Antarctica’s vast stretches to the warm lawn of Jesus College via the Polar Museum in Cambridge, a city Watts presently calls home. These meticulously researched places and details are not excavated for their own sake; in so many of her poems, Watts thrives on relating the particular to the personal. Musing on a wall map of the British Isles, for example, she notes how:

—————————–Its colouring
is arbitrary and without consequence,

except this morning – when, waking too early,
I see that we are both from yellow places
and that while mine spreads out hazily
like an egg frying in a pan

yours is strung up on tenterhooks,
policed by a high-voltage fence…

Watts’s atlas is creased by experience, self-consciously subjective, and thus deeply inviting.

Other poems, reminiscent of Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife (Picador, 1999) or Helen Mort’s more recent No Maps Could Show Them (Chatto & Windus, 2016), subtly – and convincingly – re-centre fusty ‘great man’-centred versions of history from a woman’s perspective. In ‘Emmeline’s Ascent’, the ‘unsupported / territory’ of a penny-farthing’s precarious, commanding height becomes a powerful image of Pankhurst’s campaign, while in ‘Dove Cottage’ it is Wordsworth’s wife, Mary Hutchinson, whose ‘pen scratches the paper’, not his. In a similar vein, poems like ‘Flesh and Bone’ (which gives voice to ‘two freaks displayed in the Hunterian museum’), or ‘Emperor Penguin’ (which speaks for the stuffed specimen in The Polar Museum), force us to reconsider the discriminatory and often cruel reasons behind the ways we remember history – and do so stylishly and successfully.

Perhaps as a result of their ambition, and the deliberate simplicity of Watts’s diction, some of her more adventurous poems come across as unintentionally reductionist on first reading. ‘It is not the force of nature / that holds the country in perpetual winter’, she writes at the start of ‘Letter from China’; later in the same poem, couplets like ‘Ask the elderly / they know what life costs […] they saw themselves wading / into old age’ do little work and create the sense that she is unwilling to engage her subject (an entire nation) beyond these broad brushstrokes. On closer inspection, however, the nuances reveal themselves; Watts’s generalizations can be read as an ironically rough assessment of China’s one-child policy: ‘now we live in a lopsided sum…’ In another piece, ‘Ickworth’, Watts turns a self-conscious gaze on her – and our – inability to condense the scale and breadth of what happens into words. The eponymous house is written off as ‘panoramic, / neat, historical, / unpeopled’, not the true province of those who try to ‘manage’ its grounds but of the bee quietly ‘applying and re-/applying its perfect body / to the mauve universe’. Nature and history play against each other in Watts’s counterpoint.

Such tensions prove most fruitful in the striking longer pieces of this collection (Watts’s poems rarely cross a page). If the briefer inclusions come across as quick, though expert, sketches, it is the sustained explorations of ‘natural history’ and its contradictions that best flesh out the many dimensions of Watts’s chosen idiom. Two personal favourites are worth mentioning. It’s hard to describe ‘Pigeons’ as a love poem, a historical poem, or a nature poem, yet it’s all of these and more: the poet’s voice ties several recollections together against the backdrop of Darwin’s legacy, and her brilliant conclusion (‘But things were different back then. / You have no need of a theory of everything.’) works on all of the poem’s levels. Another genre-defying number is ‘Confession’, which leaps between forms and voices, ostensibly charting the poet’s relationship with spiders (‘To my guardian over the shower I sing / scales and renderings of English folk ballads.’) but really placing a hesitant finger on what it means to be ‘so very self-consciously / human’.

The Met Office Advises Caution is, without doubt, a deft take on nature poetry, but we would be remiss to read it simply as that. Watts has not only begun reworking the tradition for the present era, but has also started to fill it with a life and range that helps us make new sense of the past – by paying attention to what is ‘moving in / plain sight, though we / hadn’t noticed before’.

By Theophilus Kwek


watts-rebecca-the-met-office-advises-caution-cover-final

 

The Met Office Advises Caution, Rebecca Watts, Carcanet, 2016, £9.99

Picasso Sculptures at Musée National Picasso-Paris

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Picasso Sculpture opened to great acclaim last September at New York’s Museum of Modern Art before moving to the Musée National Picasso-Paris and is now to be seen at BOZAR in Brussels. The exhibition as it appears in Europe is not, however, a straight transfer of the MOMA show but concentrated on Picasso’s use of multiples, series and variations in his artistic work. Use of reproductive methods can be confusing but this is not in any way an exhibition of reproductions of diminishing interest or authenticity. It demonstrated how Picasso used reproductive processes to bring out different resonances and paths from a single design.

Reviewed across Europe the British press commented little on it. Despite his major influence on twentieth century art comprehensive exhibitions of Picasso’s sculpture have been few. Even during his lifetime while pieces were exhibited, it was infinitely less so than were his paintings. There were also fewer publications dealing with his sculpture. Some spread the word, like André Breton’s Picasso dans son element in the 1933 inaugural issue of Minotaure. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s book, The Sculptures of Picasso, finally published in 1949, was the first significant study of Picasso’s sculpture. Both these publications were aided by Brassaï’s haptic photographs that with dramatic camera angles and lighting emphasised the sculpture’s tangible qualities. It was not until the huge 1966 Homage à Pablo Picasso exhibition, in celebration of Picasso’s eighty fifth birthday, that he let much of the work he had kept hidden behind his studio doors be exhibited for the first time and the public at large were duly awed by its fecundity and invention. Since then major exhibitions of Picasso’s sculptures have occurred only once in a generation and his sculptures remain little known. As Picasso kept most of it himself, both the plasters and bronze casts, comprehensive exhibitions of it cannot be drawn solely from the four museums in France and Spain devoted to his work. Much of the work still remains with his heirs, the Picasso family, and they have made generous loans to the exhibition, adding to the exhibitions significance.

Picasso underwent a very thorough classical training as a painter but had no training at all as a sculptor. His approach to his sculpture was notably non-traditional and full of improvisation and the Musée Picasso’s exhibition starts with just such a piece of improvisation. Two not quite identical pieces face each other, two versions of La femme enceinte, from 1950. One is made in plaster incorporating ceramic pots forming the woman’s breasts and swelling belly; the other is a cast in bronze. It must be noted that throughout his life for Picasso it was his plaster sculptures that where the originals. They were not intermediary stages on the way to becoming bronzes. Thus these would be two separate works for Picasso. The change in La femme enceinte’s materials also changes their resonance. The plaster and hollow ceramic version conveys ideas of fragility and the concept of woman as vessel privately carrying the child within; cast in more robust bronze the vessel qualities and fragility are lost, but tradition, enduring, stable and timelessness is evoked linking it to monumental public sculpture.

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Pablo Picasso La Femme enceinte Vallauris, 1950-15 mars 1959 Bronze, Musée national Picasso-Paris 15-624257/MP338 Photo © RMN-Grand Palais/ Mathieu Rabeau © Succession Picasso 2016

Sculpture was an integral part of Picasso’s practice throughout his life, although it remained a sporadic activity done in distinct periods with years often passing between these periods. Each burst of activity brought a different approach and themes he addressed in one medium are found across his whole oeuvre.

Having opened with the 1950 La femme enceinte, the exhibition then follows a chronological path and the viewer is confronted with multiple pieces, many of them the same. They are casts from clay sculptures Picasso sold the art dealer, Ambrose Vollard, in September 1910 that Vollard, not Picasso, cast in bronze for commercial and traditional aesthetic purposes. While it is not clear how many casts Vollard had made exhibited here are three bronzes of Picasso’s 1905 Le Fou, two of the 1906 Head of a Woman (Fernande) and four bronzes and two plasters of Picasso’s 1909 cubist Head of a Woman (Fernande). The earlier 1906 Head of a Woman (Fernande) with its rough unfinished hair and an unevenly modelled face, one eye left just sketched in, looks back to Rodin’s obsession with the non finito, while Picasso’s 1909 Head of a Woman (Fernande) look forwards to cubism, the past and the future. Seeing so many multiples draws the eye to compare forms, finishes and patinations, of which I wish there had been more discussion.

picasso4

Pablo Picasso Tête de femme (Fernande) Paris, automne 1909 Plâtre de fonderie, 47 x 35,9 x 34,9 cm © Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas LO1712 Photographer : Tom Jenkins © Succession Picasso 2016

A ‘Primitivist’ room devoted to wooden sculptures, carved with rudimentary tools from 1906 to 1908 shows Picasso edging towards cubism in an exploration of Iberian and early Romanesque Catalan sculpture and African tribal masks with totemic faceted qualities. His exploration of the multiple truly begins with his Verre d’absinthe from 1914, a piece the dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, had cast in bronze. Rarely seen together as here all six casts of the Verre are displayed in the same case allowing direct comparison, in New York they were separated in separate cases. While the casts are similar in form and all topped with a real absinthe spoon and bronze lump of sugar. Picasso painted each cast differently with spots, solid colours and sand for texture varying them. His ability to play ambiguously with forms is seen in the jaunty angle of the absinthe spoon on the glass’s rim that recalls a flâneur’s straw boater, or the slouch of a drinker of absinthe? The same room contains tiny, hand sized, cubist bas reliefs that show the theme of opacity and transparency explored in the Verre that relate to Picasso and Braque’s cubist obsession with the piercing of solid form.

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Pablo Picasso Le Verre d’absinthe Paris, printemps 1914 Bronze peint à l’huile, cuillère à absinthe en métal blanc, 21,6 x 16,4 x 8,5 cm The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Louise Rheinardt Smith, 1956 Photo © Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence © Succession Picasso 2016

The late 1920s and early 1930s saw Picasso again dealing with pieced or transparent forms creating a series of small maquettes in response to a rare commission for a monument to mark the grave of his friend, the poet and critic, Guilliame Apollinaire, who had died in 1918. Using rods and wires he created three-dimensional drawings in space, sculptures made from nothingness that echo the void his friend’s death had left and refer to Apollinaire’s The poète assassin in which Picasso’s alter ego, the Bird of Benin, had made a ‘profound statue made out of nothing, like poetry and glory’.

Not possessing the quality of mass usually associated with fine art sculpture, but made from a void by construction and forging techniques linked them to the minor genre of the decorative arts not to traditional, commemorative sculpture. They were just too radicle. The committee turned each maquette down and none would leave the artist’s possession. Yet Picasso’s engagement with the them continued and later in his life he commissioned enlargements of these maquettes from Joseph Marius Triola, through whom he made bent metal sculpture in the 1960s.

When working in metal Picasso was always heavily reliant on the technical expertise of others and for the Apollinaire maquettes he was aided by the Catalan metalsmith, Julio González. This period of sculptural activity, late 1920s and early 1930s, saw Picasso involved more personally in the making of many of his metal sculpture and the work on Apollinaire’s monument culminated, for Picasso at least, with his full sized La femme au jardin created out of scraps of iron found in González’s workshop. Picasso got González to copy this iron sculpture in welded and forged bronze and both pieces are in the current exhibition. They stand confronting each other with their philodendron branches and windblown hair on the museum’s first floor landing, one painted white, one patinated black. The collaboration with González resulted in the creation of other pieces, the Tête de femme and Tête d’homme among them. Like La femme au jardin they were made from workshop scraps, but Tête de femme incorporates a domestic object, a colander that forms the back of the woman’s head.

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La femme au jardin. Picasso at the Galerie Georges Petit, Paris 1932. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais/ Mathieu Rabeau © Succession Picasso 2016

Undeterred by the failure of the Apollinaire commission Picasso continued working on sculpture during the 1930s at his country house, Boisgeloup, there he produced a series of tall narrow angular wooden figures, carved in fir that recall the stockier pieces he carved in 1906 leading up to cubism. None withstanding his untraditional approach to the making of his sculpture Picasso now had examples of these pieces cast in bronze thus treating them in a traditional way. They are among the first Picasso himself, rather than a dealer, had cast in bronze. He would use bronze to unify and evoke tradition in the most untraditional of materials.

There follows a series of plaster biomorphic human forms. Similar contorted figures appear in his paintings done the same year. They culminate in the great plaster heads of his mistress Marie-Thérèse in which he gradually distorted her physiognomy into surreal creations that express unconscious desires, yet classical art emerges in a series of plaster bas reliefs of Marie-Thérèse that recall classical Roman coins and more playful ancient Gallo-roman coins, popular with the surrealists at the time.

Earlier we had seen Picasso use found objects, the absinthe spoon and colander, now working in plaster allowed him to ‘borrow’ textures, taking casts from corrugated cardboard, cloth or leaves, amalgamating them into mythic sprites like La femme au feuillage, of 1934, in her classical chiton. All of these processes were transgressive but they would be translated into bronze as Picasso had a large number of his 1930s plaster sculptures cast in bronze during World War II. Ostensibly this was done for their security, plaster being delicate and likely to break, by that time using the traditional bronze casting process could be termed a subversive act.

His work with objet trouvé continued both during and after the war and employed with great skill and humour simultaneously having them cast into bronze. This time, as Picasso himself would say, it was to give ‘the most diverse objects such unity that it’s sometimes difficult to identify the constituent parts.’ Yet that double vision is the key to their magic. One sees the old basket, the outsized shoe and the corrugated card in his 1950 Petite Fille sautant à la corde, but they also read as the girl’s body, feet and hair. La guenon et son petit of 1951 famously incorporates his son Claude’s toy cars to form the ape’s head, a ceramic pot for the belly and a car spring for the tail; some say the sculpture is of the artist himself holding his baby son, Claude, or there is the 1958 Tête made from a wooden box, nails, buttons for eyes and plaster. This latter piece again incorporates a void; the inside of the box with which he evokes the volume of the head itself. The box’s thin walls look forwards to Picasso’s bent metal sculptures. All of these pieces are displayed next to their bronze casts, tradition and innovation, sameness and difference side by side.

Picasso’s bent metal sculpture begun in two-dimensions in paper then enlarged into sheet metal with the help of Tobias Jellinek in the 1950s, Lionel Prejger and Triola in the 1960s, the work again approaches the issues of mass and solidity by using media associated with their opposites. Their subtle folds cast shadows indicating the volume and weight of traditional sculptural qualities. Often asking his collaborators to make two or more examples of the same pieces, he would take come further painting them colourfully, like Femme au chapeau of 1961-1963 that sits beside an unpainted version, form and colour beside each other. This colourful work chimes with to his painting, his ceramics and painted wooden sculptures in turn linking them to medieval polychromy. Other pieces were enlarged to monumental size in Bétogravure concrete by Carl Nesjar fulfilling a long time interest of Picasso’s that of monumental sculpture, yet as always approaching traditional attribute of fine art sculpture in transgressive ways.

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Pablo Picasso Femme au chapeau Cannes, 1961 Tôle découpée, pliée, peinte en 1963 126 x 73 x 41 cm Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection BEYELER.1961 Photo : Peter Schibli, Basel © Succession Picasso 2016

The exhibition carried the sculpture’s inventiveness lightly. Themes were explored in different ways over years. Their playfulness made it is easy to overlook or dismiss their subversive message. Still tradition was always there, Daphne still run from Apollo in his La femme au jardin. This was an exhibition that does what exhibitions should do: make you look and think.

By Clare Finn


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Pablo Picasso Nature morte : buste, coupe et palette Boisgeloup, 1932 Huile sur toile, © RMN-Grand Palais/ Jean-Gilles Berizzi © Succession Picasso 2016 4 096 x 5 444 px (~63 MB) 34,6 x 46 cm (300 dpi)

Picasso Sculptures
BOZAR, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels
October 26 – March 5 2017

 

 

 

 

Björk Digital at Somerset House

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Photo by REWIND VR

Over her three-decade long career, Icelandic artist Björk has always blurred limits; genre limits between experimental and pop music, verbal limits between language and scat singing, formal limits between music and visual art.

‘Björk Digital’ is an embodiment of this blurring, for the exhibition is an unclassifiable show that is in equal parts tech demo, cutting-edge visual album and performance art. The exhibition is built on tracks from her latest record Vulnicura (One Little Indian, 2015), a self-professed ‘complete heartbreak album’ after the artist’s separation from her long-time partner. The first five of the six rooms that comprise the exhibition are different types of virtual reality presentations, each set to one of the tracks from Vulnicura.

First there is ‘Black Lake’, set in a dark room with projections on opposite walls and surround sound. Björk stumbles around a volcanic landscape as blue lava bleeds from the rocks around her. Her powerful interpretive dancing has her beating her chest until she dies and is reborn in lush green hills. The changing quality of sound is fascinating, and has viewers walking around the space trying to hear every note of the haunting track.

In the next three rooms viewers sit on stools with virtual reality headsets on, moving from the gorgeously sad beach of ‘Stonemilker’ to the nightmarish ‘Mouth Mantra’, filmed from the inside of Björk’s mouth as she sings the most terrifying track from Vulnicura. While the ideas are perfect, unfortunately they are ahead of the technology; the images are low-resolution and the immersion is broken by visible pixels.

This is not a problem in the penultimate room, that is also the most  technically demanding. ‘Notget VR’, instead of using wireless headsets with smartphones in them, wired headsets hang from the ceiling, and viewers are invited to walk around the space. An initially life-size glowing outline of the artist grows and grows, endlessly pacing forwards as she spits out her words to angry strings. Not cowering away from her goddess-like apparition is difficult; the immersion is total.

While Vulnicura is a narrative album, the songs are here presented out of order. This has a jarring effect; while ‘Stonemilker’ is a heartbreaking attempt at keeping a failing relationship together, it comes after ‘Black Lake’, a song from the pits of post-breakup hell that has a clear turning point towards positivity in its closing minutes. The presentations must be thus interpreted as separate pieces, which means that some of the album’s momentum is lost.

Another problematic element is the placement of the rooms themselves. Paradoxically, what is supposed to be the most immersive form currently available consistently breaks the immersion that the artist works so hard to achieve. Aside from the unavoidable awkwardness of having to place heavy equipment on your head, and having to endure an explanation on how to adjust the focus and volume for each piece, the rooms are also separated by corridors and are on different floors, which causes drastic changes in lighting levels. This layout seems to be a result of the exhibition being spread out over Somerset House’s New Wing, and it would certainly benefit from a smaller, more contained space.

After the virtual reality rooms, visitors are led to the ‘Cinema Room’, in which over twenty of Björk’s music videos play on a large screen, with crystal-clear sound quality. While the videos are consistently thought-provoking and well presented, they highlight again the technical limitations in some of the virtual reality rooms.

What this room does reveal is that virtual reality seems to be the technology that Björk has been waiting for. Her videos have always placed emphasis on movement and immersion. ‘Big Time Sensuality’ (1993) directed by Stephane Sednaoui, for example, has Björk performing on the bed of a truck driving through the streets of Manhattan. It is difficult to think of a scene more suited to being filmed in virtual reality.

While Björk is the focal point of each piece (no other person features in any of the virtual reality videos, and very few others in the cinema room screenings) it is important to remember that ‘Björk Digital’ is a quintessentially collaborative project. From the directors of the videos, to the talented session musicians and multiple producers of Vulnicura, to the virtual reality boffins who make Björk’s wonderfully bonkers ideas possible, these are people working on art that is not technically perfect, but original and necessary.

‘I wish to synchronise our feelings’ sings Björk on ‘Stonemilker’. This goal becomes easy when the artist is standing in front of you, life-size, staring into your eyes, bearing out her soul just inches from your face. Briefly, you can forget the heavy contraption strapped to your head, and that the image has visible pixels. ‘Björk Digital’ uses virtual reality well, and does more than enough to be moving and establish a true connection between artist and viewer, despite its technical limitations. It is yet another success led by an artist who is always looking forward.

By Ludo Cinelli


Photo by Nick Knight
Photo by Nick Knight

Björk Digital
Somerset House
1 September – 23 October
£15/£12

The Threepenny Opera

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If you put on a production of Romeo and Juliet in Verona, how much does anyone care that the action is ostensibly set in the streets around them? My guess is that we understand when a setting is a stand in for ‘far far away’, and are happy to displace it in our heads to another similarly foreign location for the duration of the show. This question is at the front of the mind when watching Rufus Norris’s new National Theatre production of The Threepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Victorian London-set fable. This is no more a play about London than The Barber of Seville is about Seville, but putting it on the National stage means you can’t avoid certain reflections on the city itself.

For Brecht himself in 1928, Victorian London was the very image of the bourgeois capitalist city, and thus a good place to set a myth about its myriad failings. To their credit Norris and translator Simon Stephens have chosen to lean into the grounding the locality provides, so that references to Rotherhithe and Canning Town don’t come across as the meanderings of a slightly lost German working off a dated guidebook.

Part of the effectiveness of the London-setting comes in the earthiness of Stephens’s script. The slightly distant quality of Brecht’s words when translated over-literally is replaced with filth, and fury, and a kind of almost Falstaffian ribaldry suiting the East End down to the gutter. Stephens is a playwright who, when it’s called for, can put contemporary spoken English to full obscene effect, and he relishes it here: we are left in no doubt which part of Macheath’s anatomy is doing his thinking for him. Nor are we left in any doubt as to what kind of comradeship he and the chief of police enjoyed in their army days (the production follows the current trend of removing the ‘sub’ from any homoerotic subtext in the original play; while this can be a little on the nose, it is probably worth it as long as men kissing is still even a slightly surprising sight on the stage).

In many ways, however, this is a relatively purist Brecht production: Vicki Mortimer’s extraordinary set is constructed in front our eyes, managing to appear both elaborate and eye-wateringly precarious at the same time as counterweights fly across the stage and large pieces of moving scaffolding come within an inch of seemingly decapitating cast members. This is theatre not so much with its heart on its sleeve as with all its other internal organs worn for all to see. Indeed, the slapstick element, with cops running after robbers in physical sequences that play like the demented dark mirror of Benny Hill, is one of the production’s great trump cards. If the language is good at giving us the scummy undercurrent of London life, then the pictures on stage give us its equivalent: Hogarth by way of Keaton.

Production image courtesy of The National Theatre
Production images courtesy of The National Theatre

Fun as it is to see Brecht performed in a way we might imagine the Berliner Ensemble might have wanted it, all unpretentious bare bones and moving parts, I am not sure if the politics of the show come through clearly enough. For one thing, Rory Kinnear’s Macheath, while every bit as shark-like as his entrance number suggests, is never quite seductive enough either in antiheroic charm or in singing voice to really sell us on the corruption of aspirational capitalism. And while Rosalie Craig’s Polly is by far the standout performance, her extraordinary renditions of ‘Pirate Jenny’ and the ‘Barbara Song’ give such terrifying, vengeful bite to the gender politics of the piece that the class politics fades into the background. As with much Brecht performed today, when no longer agitprop the messages can become diffuse, and even contradictory.

Looking for contemporary resonance in the show might be a fools’ errand, but with a kind of left-wing politics with which Brecht might have been at least passingly familiar in the ascendant it is a fun game to play. Yet the exhilarating tensions of the Weimar Germany it derives from – when the world seemed in flux and the only question seemed which flavour of street politics, left or right, would triumph – are far removed from the comfortable academic lives of the left’s champions today. My chief thought watching the procession of pimps and whores and cut-throats was not only that Momentum members had never met them, but wouldn’t want to. The moral portrait Brecht paints is one of humans running around London driven by animal instincts, rats in the capitalist rat race. ‘It was for the tax advantages!’ pleads Mack to a jilted lover to explain away his sudden marriage to another woman, sounding like someone taken in by a David Cameron-era Tory party soundbite.

But if this Victorian society is hardly a Big Society, it is not a society ripe for a Corbyn revolution either. The ‘Ballad of the Easy Life’ with which Kinnear serenades us upon our return from the interval mocks ascetics and intellectuals of the bearded Islington sort. He just wants his comfortable life, and will happily walk over such people to get there. Brecht of course is parodying the cut-throats of the free market, but it is significant that Macheath is an aspirational lower-middle-class businessman. At the very least Brecht would have wanted any decent revolutionary party to understand them before changing the system. But in Norris’s production politics at street level is a carnivalesque tangle of gender struggle and disability rights, the false loyalty of a twenty-foot St George’s flag and the sudden treachery of a sex worker. There are too many people out for their own gain for the grand common purpose of a Corbyn-Labour London.

The desired class-consciousness of Brecht’s street-level theatre is not going to be the straightforward outcome on the audience of the National Theatre, I think. But this is still an excellent and timely production, and one that, given the hero’s falling foul of the offshore accounts he has attempted to keep his money safe in, should remind us to keep track of just where money is going and who stands to benefit in this (still) most capitalist of capitals.

By Fred Maynard



3po_artwork_landscape_layered_tt_2578x1128_digital_ho9The Threepenny Opera, 
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann, in a new adaptation by Simon Stephens, The National Theatre, playing until 1 October.

For more information and tickets visit The National Theatre website here

The Red and Yellow Nothing by Jay Bernard

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It is difficult to put a finger on the immediate aftermath of reading The Red and Yellow Nothing: there is puzzlement, rage, and wonder, but ultimately the sense that Jay Bernard has created a rare and beautiful thing. Part contemporary verse drama, part mythic retelling, the pamphlet – containing one long poem, broken into sections with stage directions – is framed as a ‘prequel to the tale of Sir Morien, son of Agloval’, narrating the backstory of the young Moor’s arrival in Camelot.

Its premise is cleverly, and comically, formulaic. Morien and his horse, Young’un, gallop onto the scene in search of his father, a knight of the Round Table. They kill a poet, lose a tournament, encounter a mysterious woman, find Morien’s mother in a strange village, and endure other fantastical trials before crossing a wasteland to Camelot. The true quest, however, is not Morien’s but ours. Employing metrical ballads and concrete poems with equal vigour, Bernard takes us on a visual and allusive journey to test the imagination, thus putting the poet’s resources of sight and sound to full use.

 While two conscientious footnotes point us to direct quotes from William Dunbar and Kendrick Lamar, it does not take long to see that the entire text is crinkled with allusions. Bernard’s use of Sir Morien’s story alone is a case in point: the tale has tangled roots with various Arthurian tales, including Parzival, and she draws fully on the immigrant resonances of Morien’s name (which in Medieval Welsh means ‘sea-born’) as well as his ethnicity. The fact that ‘Morien’ also derives from the Old Welsh ‘Morgen’, which is the spelling Geoffrey of Monmouth uses for Arthur’s gentle healer (or ambitious nemesis) Morgan le Fay, further lends her project its deliberately ambiguous – and subversive – character.

But this is not merely another Arthurian remix. Bernard casts a wry eye over the past, playing with our modern expectations; from start to finish we recognize supporting actors that look and sound, uncannily, just like we expect them to. Morien and Young’un enter (‘page left’) introduced by a bard – rhyming of ‘the distant land where books begin / where maids and men and hermits siiiiiing’ – whose over-the-top, modern lyrics fall into the quatrains of a minstrel’s song. Before they exit, they encounter St Maurice, the third-century black martyr and leader of the Theban Legion, and he is dressed (of course) ‘like a burned manuscript: gold halo, gold / on the collar of his breastplate’. The half-seen, half-remembered quality of each description brings the narrative’s intertextuality to life, and in one of Bernard’s own lines, ‘it is hard to hold the two halves of the past and future apart.’

Poems that aim to do this much with the past often buckle under their own weight. It takes a poet of Bernard’s skill and sensitivity to keep the lyrical movement of the sequence alive, and the joy of this pamphlet is in its language. From Morien’s exuberant taunting (‘Wanna fight? / I’ll fight you…I’ll have a disco inside you.’) to the echoey dream-world he shares with his father in a haunting twin cinema (‘black was the light / black was the field / and the rain was / falling backwards’), reading The Red and Yellow Nothing brings continuous surprise. Bernard is careful not to let her inventions slip into wordplay for its own sake. Many excerpts deliver hard-hitting critiques of colour and femininity; in one scene, after a wild man has won ‘a kiss from a black lady’ in a tournament, and the assembled scrum of courtiers express their relief that ‘beneath her skin the black was white in fact’, Bernard writes –

How white, is another thing. If the colour
Was the smell, then the maid was grey. Tallow,
Fish-oil and potash; saddle seat; monthly blood
In dusty streaks along the base and up the crease.

Brilliantly, this is what never happened as it happened, and not as we expect.

Ultimately, Bernard succeeds in bringing the travelling pair to life, and fleshing out her mysterious knight in the fullest sense. As they arrive at part x of the poem, Morien (now without Young’un’s reassuring presence) undergoes ‘something we won’t call a transition, exactly’, and we get a precious glimpse of the possibilities that are larger than both life and legend. In the slow, almost prenatal dusk where ‘shadow and form change place’, a new Morien is born: ‘s/he has ceased to be a thing, / but a rule – a how or why, / a reason, / a what things are / governed by’. Morien’s plea – and perhaps Bernard’s – is to put aside all we think we know about past and present, about the thingness of things, and learn the value, freedom, and colour of nothing itself. There’s something to be said about that.

By Theophilus Kwek


The Red and Yellow Nothing, Jay Bernard, London: Ink, Sweat, and Tears Press, 2016

 

 

The Sleepwalkers by Will Stone

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Europe is a wasteland in Will Stone’s third collection The Sleepwalkers. The poet portrays the continent as ‘What’s left of burned out stars’ in these short poems that read well individually and better as a whole. Whether the setting is London’s Chinatown, a medieval monastic complex in provincial France, or a firebombed Dresden, the tone is bleak and melancholic. Respite cannot be found in religion (‘Each face wants to turn heavenwards/but each mourner looks across or down’), academia (‘At the lectern another rustled up/waxwork begins his speech’) or even art (‘The artist has left a dark cloth/draped over the unfinished canvas).

The symptoms of such debasement are myriad; the urban is murky and dark like in early Eliot or Baudelaire (who lends two epigraphs), environmental disasters menace civilisation (‘storm waves are below the last house/tireless, itching for the cornerstone’), and the dystopia of contemporary technology haunts the text with ‘surveillance under surveillance’, ‘the old town disappearing/globalised, googled, glazed,’ as ‘screens flicker on a billion eyes.’

Fundamentally it is a blindness to the lessons of history that dooms the European Sleepwalkers, ‘we who weave miraculously through/the smoking straw piles of the past’. Stone thus sets the most relentless of his poems during the Second World War, often in concentration camps; he frames the self-destruction of today with the darkest time in Europe’s past. For this sequence (the second of three sections), concise endnotes make historical context accessible, but the raw power of Stone’s images (‘roars and flames/taut chains and glistening ropes, yelling/of passing men, terror, sweat and stampede’) requires no explanation.

It is in his images that Stone shows his greatest poetic skill; he moves masterfully between the pastoral and the urban, the ancient and the modern, the religious and the profane. The effectiveness of the images remains constant throughout, and it is this effortless versatility that prevents the grim reality of the poetry’s subject matter from desensitising the reader to its darkness over the course of the collection.

Stone introduces his second section with an epigraph by Castellion: ‘Posterity will not be able to understand that we had to fall back into the same darkness after having known the light…’ and in fact Europe is regressing in The Sleepwalkers. The nostalgia of the final poem ‘Departure of the Loved Ones’ epitomises this fall. Here, the speaker’s ‘blessed’ parents leave to board a flight, testifying the disappearance of the innocent, paradoxical ‘new born elderly children’ into modern darkness: ‘I watch them recede in a chaos/of technology and systems, of guards/and glass and people who do not know.’

Although the poet relishes in romantic descriptions of death, destruction and decay, he betrays genuine despair for the loss of innocence. Whether in a lament for the lonely,  univisited graves of Second World War airmen, or in a harrowing memorial to a child who died after just seventeen days of life, it is the figures who do not deserve their fate that seek to wake The Sleepwalkers. Looking up at the heights from whence the European civilisation has fallen only deepens the plunge to the emotional lows of the poems. ‘For Europe, our beautiful bone yard/the last ship of culture rich centuries/has passed on.’ While Will Stone cannot deny ‘The certainty of another century of darkness’, the century that he yearns for is a brighter one altogether, and this tension makes The Sleepwalkers a compelling collection.

By Ludo Cinelli


The SleepwalkersThe Sleepwalkers, Will Stone, Shearsman Books, 2016, £8.95

Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck

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Paul Cezanne, Three Bathers, 1879-1882. Reproduction courtesy of The National Gallery

The idea behind ‘Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck’ is an exciting one, if a little difficult to communicate in a title. The exhibition explores the relationship between artists and the paintings which they owned: how they came to possess them, why they wanted them and the influence they had on their own art.

I wandered into the gallery from Trafalgar Square, so the subject wasn’t clear to me until I entered the first room in the S Wing and found that it had been laid out in a way that resembled an architect’s sketch of someone’s front room, with a portrait hanging over a shape that gestured at being a mantelpiece.

The front room was Lucian Freud’s and the portrait was Italian Woman by Corot, which Freud had gifted to the National Gallery in 2014 and which was the inspiration for the exhibition. Certainly, the portrait is worth building an exhibition around. In Corot’s hand this romantic, often saccharine genre becomes a stunning exercise in colour and shade. You can see how it appealed to Freud too, both in the ambivalence of the sitter’s expression and the physicality of her skin.

Freud’s room is rather sparse. We get a little illustration of his real room, which was also rather sparse. There is an ‘erotic’ Cézanne, a few other fleshy items and a stunning little Degas bust of a ballet dancer with her head pressed to one shoulder.

The exhibition then moves back in time through a number of masters until we get to Van Dyck. The curators have made sure that we are in the artists hands as much as theirs, which is inevitably a good thing. Matisse’s room is dominated by Degas’ vast, pulsating red La Coiffure, one of the galleries own pieces. Other highlights include two portraits by Picasso, one very funny, one grey and alienating, as well as more Cézanne. Everybody liked Cézanne. Matisse had long, personal connection with Cézanne’s Three Bathers – he used to wake up early in the morning to watch the light hit it.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Italian Woman, c. 1870
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Italian Woman, c. 1870. Reproduction courtesy of The National Gallery

The painters here acquired their works for a wide variety of reasons: artistic, personal, financial. At its best the exhibition is a fascinating insight into the artists’ lives and characters. Degas was such an obsessive collector that he gets two rooms worth of paintings. He bought more than he could afford. He swapped his own works to get his hands on other peoples. He gave the careers of struggling friends a little push by buying their paintings. He is very hard not to like. As for himself, he liked Ingres and his exacting neoclassicism, although there is plenty of Delacroix here too.

Degas also had brilliant taste in landscapes, despite not being known for them himself. Alfred Sisley’s The Flood, Banks of the Siene, with its simple French farmhouse wobbling in the distinctly unthreatening floodwaters is wonderfully wet. There is also a dreamy, violet valley by Theodor Rousseau, which Degas bought on mistaking it for a Corot: a happy accident, it turned out.

The curators were right to let the paintings speak for themselves. All the same, I did want to hear more from the artists. Had they made notes on their favourite pieces? Did they make records, lists? Even a purchase order or two would have been interesting. All we get is a photograph of the catalogue used when Degas’ collection was sold off posthumously.

More might have been said, too, about the way in which the artists displayed the works. Several of the rooms gestured towards recreating how the paintings would have been hung. I found myself wanting a room completely made up. Larger pictures of the rooms would have been nice in any case.

Exhibitions have to work with what the gallery holds but it remains a fact that these masters were all European men. The fact that they were men felt particularly urgently in need of addressing, given that one thing that almost all of these artists liked to collect was pictures of women, often in various stages of undress.

The question of the representation of women in art is hardly a new one and it is a shame it was not engaged with here in some way: the context of collection is especially illuminating. Corot’s Italian woman stares silently out from the posters and promotional material.

The reverse chronology means that the exhibition will be top-heavy for anyone who is not a dedicated fan of Reynolds and Lawrence, which I suspect is most people. Still, there is enough in the first few rooms to justify the entrance fee. The question of money lingers over the whole thing. The more modern artists appeared to have less of it, which I suspect is important.

Personally I was disappointed that the National Gallery is now charging £1 for exhibition postcards. 

By Jeremy Wikeley


‘Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck’, National Gallery, 23 June – 4 September

Two Collections from Copper Canyon Press

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When Richard Siken’s first collection, Crush, was awarded the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 2004, it won Louise Glück’s praise for its ‘cumulative, driving, apocalyptic power’ and was quickly shortlisted for a series of prizes, winning the Thom Gunn Award in 2006. In the intervening decade, few American poets came close to an equally well-received debut – until Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds sold out within a week of its release this April by Copper Canyon Press, which also brought out Siken’s second volume War of the Foxes. Published less than a year apart, the two collections offer ample ground for comparison and admiration.

Siken’s opening poem, ‘The Way The Light Reflects’, sketches the collection’s contours. From the first lines, it interrogates the connection between vision and reflection, reality and representation: ‘The paint doesn’t move the way the light reflects, / so what’s there to be faithful to?’ As poet and painter, Siken’s answer honours the art, with a wistful eye to what it cannot capture:

                                                                                                            I am faithful
                        to you, darling. I say it to the paint. The bird floats
                        in the unfinished sky with nothing to hold it.

The rest of the poem, like the rest of the book, hangs in the fertile space between the outstretched hand and the canvas. ‘Some people don’t understand’, he writes, ‘They see the man but not the light, / they see the field but not the varnish’. What matters most, he seems to say, is precisely the moment life hovers on the boundary, becomes art. As he writes in another poem: ‘Something has happened in the paint tonight and / it is worth keeping’ (‘Dots Everywhere’).

What is it, then, that happens in the paint? Poems like ‘Detail Of The Fire’ and ‘Landscape With Several Small Fires’ explore the rich palette of our colour associations: ‘Willpower, gunpowder, concussive / thunder. Pink, orange, red, orange dreaming red’. Other poems give life to their subjects, addressing them directly: ‘O little birds, you flap around and / make a mess of the milk-blue sky’ (‘Landscape With Fruit Rot and Millipede’). In his writing as in his painting, Siken tries to see beneath the safe topography of things; ‘painting the inside of anything is / dangerous’ – and magical. Friends, lovers, and family pass under the painter’s scrutiny, where he tussles with them and his own impressions of them: ‘I troubled the shadows and silvered his edges. / What can you know about a person?’ (‘Portrait Of Fryderyk In Shifting Light’). Siken himself, we discover, does not escape this cross-examination. ‘History is painted by the winners’, he admits, and he is implicated in the act of depiction. This tension comes through most clearly in the heart-rending ‘Landscape With A Blur Of Conquerors’, where Siken finds that he cannot keep himself out of the frame: ‘I shovel the colour into our faces, I shovel our / faces into our faces. They look like me’.

It would be a mistake, however, to think about War of the Foxes purely as an extended treatise on aesthetics. The thread of Siken’s argument is deft and persistent – like a fox – and his language, woven with a landscape’s beauty, is itself a powerful, vivid celebration of all the things he claims he cannot describe about the world and about himself:

                        I am the wind and the wind is invisible, all the leaves
                        tremble but I am invisible, bloom without flower, knot
                        without rope, song without throat in wingless flight, dark
                        boat in the dark night, pure velocity. 

Here, he finds common ground with Vuong, whose poems, though less self-consciously descriptive, are attentive to an astonishing visual universe, held together by the gravity of experience: ‘Snow shredded / with gunfire. Red sky. / Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls. / A helicopter lifting the living just / out of reach. / The city so white it is ready for ink’ (‘Aubade With Burning City’). Where Vuong adopts or alludes to the painter’s medium (in poems like ‘Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko, 1952’), he shifts quickly between events, creating a more cinematic texture than Siken, but shares the latter’s knack for locating speaker and subject within the scene – ‘I stood waiting in the room / made of broken mockingbirds. Their wings throbbing / into four blurred walls. & you were there. / You were the window.’

If ‘The Way The Light Reflects’ provides a key to understanding Siken’s collection, Vuong’s epigraph – ‘The landscape crossed out with a pen / reappears here’ (a line from Bei Dao) – helps to unlock his. Because while Siken tries to uncover what’s really there, Vuong seeks a language for what isn’t. Many of his poems investigate vanished people or places with startling clarity,  things he has ‘lost…with [his] eyes / wide open’ (‘Threshold’). What makes this remembering powerful and raw is the characteristic plainness with which he reports past losses (‘My mother said I could be anything / I wanted – but I chose to live’), paired immediately with jarring detail from the present:

                        On the stoop of an old brownstone,
                        a cigarette flares, then fades.
                        I walk to it: a razor
                        sharpened with silence. 

In this way, Vuong allows himself to trace the edges of each ‘exit wound’ with painstaking, grounded care, venturing into abstraction only as a natural leap from the material: ‘If not / the car, the dream. If not the boy, his clothes. If not alive, / put down the phone. Because the year is a distance / we’ve travelled in circles’ (‘Homewrecker’). Although these are deeply personal losses, Vuong’s pitch-perfect approach, through the legacy of war and forced displacement, shows us why we can’t afford to let him remember them alone.

Together, Siken’s second collection and Vuong’s first demonstrate how these two poets have, more than others in their generation of young American voices, pushed the boundaries of a new, visual register, finding fresh ways to bring image and imagination together in language. They have developed a medium with enough room to critique their own, subjective viewpoints while holding their readers close. In a time where words are often used to spread fear and falsehood, we have reason to study their best qualities – care, self-awareness, daring honesty. After all, as Vuong puts it in his penultimate poem, ‘Here’s today’ – and here is ‘the room with everyone in it’.

By Theophilus Kwek 


night sky with exit woundswar of the foxes

Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong, Copper Canyon Press, 2016, $16

War of the Foxes, Richard Siken, Copper Canyon Press, 2015, $17

 

Faith Healer at Donmar Warehouse

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Photo by Johan Persson

Lyndsey Turner’s revival of Brian Friel’s 1979 play uses the wisdom of age to give this oft dubbed “modern masterpiece” a dark depth, comedy, and truth in flux.

Es Devlin’s stage design for Faith Healer is one of the most thrilling focal points in London theatre so far this year. It is, essentially, a water feature. Framing the stage with startling opacity is a chamber of synthetic rain that turns any semblance of the traditional Irish cottage play on its head. The three characters, Frank, the faith healer, Grace, his partner, and Teddy, Frank’s manager, speak solely in monologue, never communicating with one another. In this way, their three different viewpoints of the same events are severed by scene change, signalled by the dimming of lights and a downpour. The visual pun suggests an ominous fogging and suppression in the face of remembrance. How can we tell the fiction from the truth? Is Grace Frank’s mistress (as he claims) or his wife (as she and Teddy insist)? Was it Frank, Grace, or Teddy who insisted that Fred Astaire’s “The Way You Look Tonight” be played during Frank’s healing sessions, inharmoniously so? (A less romantic aside, it must be said that the first row complained of damp seats. Just beyond, in the second row, this reviewer, her face pleasantly dewy, was taken back to her first visit to Niagara Falls.)

In Stephen Dillane, Gina McKee, and Ron Cook, this production has storytellers who know how to hold our gaze unconditionally. The sharp, searching eye contact with which all three flash unrelentingly onto the audience, from the standing seats in the rafters all the way down to the press’ circle, is akin to the “regard familier” which Walter Benjamin read in Charles Baudelaire. Translated vaguely from the French as the “familiar look” or “overly knowing,” this is the gaze that acts upon another person, but misses the intimacy of facing another being. Here, visual appropriation becomes poetic internalisation: each speaker’s purview, reconstructed through the spectacle of audience engagement, is an attempt to rewrite a shared backstory into his or her own aesthetic experience. “They speak conversationally, as though entirely unmediated by any convention and they are clearly addressing you,” states the Irish playwright Conor McPherson in the preface to the production’s catalogue. “And I’d contend that this subtle, profound, innovation melted the barriers of subjectivity in the theatre, reshaping how we experience plays and, inevitably, how the next generation of Irish playwrights wrote plays.”  

Photo by Johan Persson
Photo by Johan Persson

The three friends, lovers, business partners, are united in their craving for the ache of affirmation. Dillane’s strategy as Frank takes on a quiet, elevated honesty that mocks itself, riddled with lyrical parenthetical asides and scabrous wit. In Gina McKee, barefoot and in a bedsit, there is Grace in her final gracelessness. But of the three, it is Ron Cook as Teddy who exhilarates. His full-blown Cockney bravura mode is one part rollicking romp, another part depersonalised, cold calculation of a manger, both running at odds with his underlying passion for Grace and his pedestalisation of Frank. “Friends is friends, and work is work, and never the twain shall meet,” he offered us (free of charge), resting his doubtful brow on the peanut gallery.

The trio of skilled performances notwithstanding, one leaves the Donmar Warehouse lacking emotional oomph (and gently misted by natural English summer rain). The ambience of the production as a whole is hazily sterile. If Frank acts as the force tugging and pulling the three of them back (his monologues open and close the play), then his proselytiser’s yarn is missing any of its necessary, irresistible pull. Still, Faith Healer as a realist drama is potentially revolutionary. It is an argument for the history of intimacy other than the one given—even if truths, lies, and the non-places of reverie are born into a world where their imminent failure is constituent of the play’s design. A year after Friel’s death, at age 86, we are reminded of what makes Faith Healer a major work of art: rarely have love and narcissism been so abundantly aligned.

By Megan René Bradshaw


Photo by Johan Persson
Photo by Johan Persson

Faith Healer by Brian Friel 
Donmar Warehouse
23 June – 20 August
2016

George Shaw – My Back to Nature

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The Living and The Dead, George Shaw, 2015-2016 © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London

In the perpetual twilight of the woodland world, trees loom like sinister monoliths out of the gloom. Leaf-mould partially obscures a discarded garment, or a glimpse of creamy flesh. But this isn’t the leafy bower of a Dionysian revel, the sylvan setting of some nymphic adventure or even the stag-haunted gloaming of a woodland tomb. The Poussins, Titians and Constables that have surrounded George Shaw during his residency at the National Gallery are, however, all implicitly present in My Back to Nature, which exhibits the fruit of his labours over the last two years.

The young George Shaw reportedly described the contents of the National Gallery as comprising in their totality of ‘naked women and pictures of Jesus’, and this tendency to bring out the profane rather than the sacred aspects of the collection endures in his mature work. The nymphs of Shaw’s woodland realm might reside on page 3, the Madonna-blue draperies be discarded tarpaulin and the ‘School of Love’ be a stained old mattress, but the line of inheritance from the enchanted glades of the Old Masters is direct and strong. Like Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, or the deep forest from a Grimm fairy tale, Shaw’s scrubby suburban woodlands are marginal sites of liberation, where the ordinary rules and restrictions of society do not hold sway and the unobserved human can answer the call of their more basic instincts. Bottles, cans and crumpled pornography; this is the detritus of the Bacchanal, updated for modern day Britain.

The School of Love George Shaw 2015-2016 © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London
The School of Love, George Shaw, 2015-2016 © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London

And it is, indeed, the detritus – the things that are left behind – that are key to Shaw’s woodland series. A pervasive sense of la petite mort haunts the paintings: the revel is over, innocence and novelty having been destroyed in the process. There is the perpetually unsettling sense of coming upon a scene where a taboo has been broken, where something secret and sordid and never meant for your eyes has taken place. Under the dim lights and high ceilings of the National Gallery, you are once again a child stumbling across a discarded Sun newspaper in that forgotten scrap of shrubbery between the housing estate and the main road. One of the few paintings which appears to depict the scene in medias res, ‘The Living and The Dead’ is perhaps the most startling as a result of this contrast. A blue tarp, apparently randomly caught and draped on tree branches, is also unmistakably the stalking form of the reaper, come to claim the remnants of human life, as is his custom.

There’s a strange, reverse alchemical process at work in Shaw’s paintings whereby the precious element of ‘high art’ absorbed from the vaulted chambers of the surrounding galleries has been transfigured into something cruder, earthier, but nonetheless enchanting. The familiar, sprawling mess of the urban green belt is transformed into the liminal space of the rite of passage; the scene of the first drink, joint or sexual encounter, of untold horrors or pleasures. The banal trash of human existence is made strange, totemic. An abandoned campfire is a Neolithic monument, a splash of red paint on a tree trunk, the site of ritual sacrifice, a dark tunnel between two saplings fronted by a ring of crumpled girlie mags is a gateway to hell. These images are alienating, disturbing, distressing even.

Möcht’ ich zurücke wieder wanken, George Shaw, 2015-2016 © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London
Möcht’ ich zurücke wieder wanken, George Shaw, 2015-2016 © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London

‘You don’t find yourself in nature, you lose yourself in nature’, says Shaw in the short documentary that can be viewed alongside the collection. It is, perhaps, a fitting comment on the nature of modern British landscape that an encounter with a more primitive human identity is located not in the heart of rural England, or remote forest or valley, but in what Stephen Moss recently referred to as the ‘accidental countryside’, the unloved and unlovely ‘edgelands’ between rural and urban zones. The intensive processes of land management which shapes Britain’s agricultural landscapes and even – though more traditionally thought of as ‘wild’ – our National Parks and AONBs, do not hold sway over the scruffy, forgotten wildernesses that are so often a feature of urban sprawl. These unmediated landscapes thus arguably allow for a more spontaneous meeting and merging of human and non-human, for social identities to be successfully challenged and elided.

A more puzzling counterpoint to Shaw’s sequence of woodland paintings are the self-portrait sketches ranged along one wall near the entrance to the exhibition, which portray the artist in the various tormented poses of the 14 Stations of the Cross. Perhaps a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of his juvenile assessment of the Gallery’s contents, here we see a continuity in the artist’s project of remaking the works that have surrounded him throughout his residency in his own irreverent image. All the same, these studies are less compelling than their sylvan neighbours.

From The Sadness of the Middle-Aged Life Model, George Shaw 2015 © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London
From The Sadness of the Middle-Aged Life Model, George Shaw, 2015 © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London

Half homage, half lampoon, ‘My Back to Nature’ is never one thing. Shaw seems caught between self-effacing awe and an inability to resist poking fun at the concept of ‘high art’. The very materials he works with – Humbrol enamel paints, more usually employed by the Air-Fix enthusiast or table-top gamer, applied to cheap MDF board – show a cheeky disregard for traditional techniques. A sequence of wonderfully thoughtful and nuanced tree portraits which bear the contradictorily flippant title ‘You’ve Changed’, most brilliantly exemplifies Shaw’s ability to show us the strangeness in a traditional subject matter, giving each tree a distinct and affecting personality; an almost-human aspect that is uncanny and unsettling. Critically, Shaw’s paintings of the urban-natural wilderness facilitate an apprehension of something within ourselves, holding up a dark mirror which reflects our anti-social selves. In his capacity as an artist who uses the natural world to expose something about the human condition, however, Shaw is in excellent company, and this collection both complements and comments on the artistic traditions of the pastoral and the sublime. In an article in which she coined the term ‘edgelands’, the environmentalist Marion Shoard asked who would be the writers and artists who would do for these urban-rural hinterlands what the Romantic poets had done for mountains. George Shaw may well be the answer to this question.

By Rachel Chanter

 


Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris

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What is ‘home’? A person? A place? A feeling of belonging?

These are the questions that run through Barney Norris’s debut novel like a finely spun thread, drawing the disparate lives of his five protagonists together as they experience everything that defines a life: love, loss, disappointment, rejection, grief, illness, fortitude and forgiveness.

From the first prologue-style chapter—a phantasmagoric rendering of the origins of Salisbury, when five rivers flowed through the flatlands, their confluence carrying the undercurrent of an eternal “song” of human life that reaches its crescendo in the apex of the city’s Cathedral—through to its neat and conclusive denouement, the novel is a well-wrought piece of literary fiction that exemplifies and transcends some of the genre’s hallmarks.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain is the characterization of its five narrators, whose stories, the metaphorical ‘rivers’, slot together and cross-narrate one another. In a refreshing move, the five narrators are not ‘special’ people. With low-key jobs and simple ambitions they are, in short, not the sorts of people that modern readers have been taught to crave. No high-flying lawyers or multitasking, City-dwelling, fashionably ‘creative’ types here; just five ordinary people whose collision on one particular evening in Salisbury town centre—a literal collision in the form of a car accident—represents the convergence of their life stories.

There’s Rita, the ageing hippie flower seller who bears her heart on her sleeve and a bag of marijuana in her back pocket. There’s the elderly gentleman who, having just suffered one tragedy, must now endure another; there’s the lonely military wife whose stunted career causes her a yearning and pain more severe than her absent husband can comprehend; then there’s Liam, the lost soul former city-dweller who retreats back to the safe confines of Salisbury to escape the unrelenting grind of London.

Yet by far the most compelling and well-written of Norris’s protagonists is Sam, the fifteen-year-old teenager whose eschewal of ‘normal’ teenage pursuits—“I never cared about the Internet or knew how to download anything. I went for walks instead”—and embrace of Fauré’s Requiem and quiet moments drinking tea with his father marks him out as a character whose personal tragedy is that much more profound and heartrending.

That the novel takes its epigraph from George Eliot’s Victorian classic Middlemarch—a quotation in which Eliot’s omniscient narrator champions the extension of pathos for “the element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency”—is entirely fitting, as Norris’s ability to touch and move using the most mundane of people and events is quite astounding.

Inevitably, the book is somewhat depressing. There are moments where the narrative churns and rolls like a giant raincloud, the imminent arrival of yet another downpour for one character or another seeming almost unbearable, but this is what Norris does well. He creates suspense, a sense of horror of the reality that we see all too often in real life but do not really like to read about in books. In many ways, his novel is the prosaic embodiment of a universal truth acknowledged long ago by T. S. Eliot in Burnt Norton: “human kind cannot bear very much reality”.

Yet there’s no turning away from this narrative, and bear it we must. Yet, reading the novel soon is a pleasure rather than a chore; Norris writes with such unwavering realism and lucidity that his words are truly compelling. This is the real power of the novel. Like George Eliot, the staunch defender of ‘the faithful representing of commonplace things’, Norris does not flinch from all that is real. People die, are ill, lonely, homesick, lovelorn, depressed, but amidst the scenes of crushing sadness and pained regret, of quiet pathos and unspoken sorrow, there are so many spots of joy to be found.

At points, the density of the novel can be hard work. Reading the prologue is like winding up a music box: a certain level of effort is required to plough through the metaphorical description of the primitive earth song that runs through the coursing river-veins of Salisbury, but as the narrative gains pace, its deep, rich tone and texture soon play out like a fine, carefully constructed piece of music.

Poetic in places, experimental in others—there are interview format chapters and Sam’s narration is interspersed with little ‘once-upon-a-time’ style vignettes—the narrative is fluid and rhythmic. The linguistic variation as the novel jumps from the melodic prose of the opening ‘river’ tableau to the jagged, rough-edged dialect of Rita is a particularly jarring moment which showcases Norris’s talent for adapting to different ‘voices’, a talent that is unsurprising given his successful career as a playwright and theatre director. In particular, Sam’s falling in love with Sophie, a fellow attendee at the after-school choir club, is a poignantly voiced memorial to the bittersweet intensity and transience of teenage love.

The novel’s avoidance of sensationalism is one of its strengths, too. Rather than focusing on externalities like the car accident, the narrative is more of an exploration of the cogitations of the human mind. The quiet dignity and resilience of its characters as they ponder the big, yet unspoken questions—what constructs an identity? What constitutes ‘home’? How do simple life events seem pivotal in retrospect?—offer far-reaching, silent lessons that make even the most cynical of readers pause for thought. George Eliot may have argued that the ability “to be deeply moved by what is not unusual…has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind,” but, fast-forward a century and a half and Norris’s novel proves that human emotion—nourished by texts like his own—has, thankfully, evolved.

By Louise Kane


Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris, Doubleday, 2016

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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The outer layer of your skin, the epidermis, replaces itself every 35 days. Become a vegetarian, better yet a vegan, and soon enough your body will be formed almost completely from plant matter. This beguiling conceit lies at the heart of Han Kang’s extraordinary novel The Vegetarian, where a seemingly trivial change in the life of a young woman results in a terrifying transformation.

Split into three parts, Kang’s narrative dances tantalisingly around her central character, the too-often silent Yeong-hye. We see her through every perspective but her own, first through the eyes of her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister. As a character she appears the twisted product of the multitude of watchful eyes, the switching preoccupations, and the opinions of those around her. She herself remains mysteriously elusive, her own thoughts only ever revealed in sparing flashes interspersed throughout the narrative.

The first of these begins with a dream, a subconscious cry, the trigger that will initiate the many changes in her life to come. It is a grotesque scene, one that reemerges again and again in the book, bestowing Yeong-hye with Lady-Macbeth-like ‘bloody hands’ and ‘bloody mouth’. The vivid nightmare sees ‘those eyes, rising up from the pit of my stomach’, leaving her assaulted body in the midst of a deep and terrifying transformation as the fear of change inevitably turns itself inward: ‘Why are my edges all sharpening? What am I going to gouge?’

Food has always held a central place in how we connect and communicate with those around us, to sit around a table and ‘break bread’ is one of the oldest and most traditional acts we have. What Kang artfully shows is how the rejection of such conventions and traditions can create unpredictable and often fatal ramifications. The act of rejecting meat soon becomes one of rejecting flesh in any form, the sex life of the couple disintegrates as their bodies become different entities. When Yeong-hye rejects her husband’s advances he asks why: ‘The meat smell,’ she replies, ‘Your body smells of meat.’ Fed on different food, the two lose understanding of each other – if there was even any to begin with. This develops with a strange ferocity in the following chapter in which we see Yeong-hye openly welcome the advances of other suitors based purely on the floral paintings that adorn their bodies. She becomes not merely opposed to meat, she becomes enamoured by its opposite, ensnared by the botanical potential plants offer her, the relative seclusion and safety from a world of flesh beyond her control. The flora and fauna she clings to begin to grow in significance, becoming not just fuel for her body, but fuel for her mind, and just as her new obsession changes her body, it changes her mind as well.

Our vegetarian becomes ‘deflated from within’; her husband’s narrative is overwhelmed by his own inability to accept his wife as she challenges the conventional cage he has built for her. One of the most overused words in his segment of narrative is ‘normal’. He celebrates what he views as his wife’s ordinariness, the mundane and unthreatening shell that he had perceived her to be – any consideration for her in any manner that does not relate to his immediate needs is cast aside. She is a cook first, an object for sex second, a companion? Hardly. Yet when this definition of her ‘normalness’ is threatened, so too is the life that her husband leads. It is only when he begins to finally acknowledge that he has no power over his wife that he admits to himself: ‘I really didn’t have a clue when it came to this woman’. The simple act of choosing what to eat, casts all Yeong-hye’s relationships into disarray – no one can fathom why or how she would make such a decision without a logical explanation, because of a dream. Rather than enquiring into the cause they dismiss it.

In her isolation Yeong-hye becomes ‘utterly unknowable’ – it is not so much that she is vegetarian but that she is unlike those that surround her. She remains immobile, a fixed point careering towards a seemingly inevitable end as her family collides around her in their attempts to connect. What is most disturbing in Kang’s narrative is the manner in which the changing female body is shown as a central concern for the family at large. When her relatives hear of her vegetarianism they respond with astonishment and apologies to her husband. It’s made clear from the start that what Yeong-hye choses to do with her own body preoccupies all members of her family, and that whatever choices she may make her body remains governed by those around her – something that comes to a climax at the end of the first section when her father attempts to force-feed her meat in suffragette fashion, and she retaliates with an equally violent act.

In the following narrative the perspective is immediately and refreshingly reversed, in stark contrast to the selfish and abrasive tone of her husband, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law sees the events of the past section with fresh eyes, and his response is deeply empathetic. When he witnesses her hurt herself he hears ‘a sound like something snapping inside his own body’, and he preserves his shirt stained by her blood as an eerie souvenir. This bloody offering begins an obsession with Yeong-hye’s changing body.

Yet, just like her husband, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law becomes captivated by the idea of her rather than the woman herself. In this instance rather than her ‘normalness’ he is drawn to her transformation. Unlike her husband who recoils from change, this man is inspired by it, made curious by what he sees as a creature so like and yet unlike his own wife. This obsession soon gravitates around a blue mongolian mark, ‘petal-like’ on the small of Yeong-hye’s back. The point becomes fetisized, yet once uncovered it is revealed as ‘more vegetal than sexual … perhaps a mark of photosynthesis’. The mark, like many other points, signals a deeper and more surreal evaluation of a changing state. When finally faced with her naked body, rather than being aroused, the brother-in-law instead discovers ‘a feeling that simulated something deep in his very core, passing through him like a continuous electric shock’. Like the mark itself, Yeong-hye’s transformation begins to lose its seductive appeal. Her body becomes alien rather than alluring, weakened, its human core threatened.

As the tale progresses it becomes clear that Yeong-hye’s rejection of meat is less about gaining control than it is about releasing it. Rather than appearing to take a hold of her life with the new rules she has drawn up for herself, Yeong-hye becomes a woman plagued by demons, but demons that she never truly articulates and ones that no one ever enquires about. Soon food is entirely dismissed, as is sleep. Instead of becoming more seductive when freed from the constrictions of her oppressive husband, as she loses weight and her marriage, she vegetates, day by day her own body growing more like the plants she consumes. Ironically throughout her book her actions only enhance the human characteristics of those around her. She inspires every emotion, from grief and anger to lust and joy. Her own rejection of humanity inspires constant expressions of it in those around her.

Yet the motive behind the transformation is never fully explained, the elusive ‘dream’ that plagues Yeong-hye, the one that sits in her chest, and forces her into hospital again and again, continues unexplored. Anorexia nervosa combined with schizophrenia is the doctor’s tentative diagnosis but the delusion runs much deeper than this, and what is most arresting about Kang’s prose is that she never gives the game away; we’re never sure whose side to take. Teetering between explanations both ‘ordinary’ and ‘extra-ordinary’, she leaves no room for certainty, constantly teasing the reader, and the ambiguity that remains both torments and delights.

This masterpiece of Korean fiction is finally made available to English readers in Deborah Smith’s achingly elegant prose, the first of Han Kang’s novels to be translated. Thankfully I am certain it will not be the last.

Deborah Smith has gone on to translate Kang’s novel Human Acts for Portobello Books (2016). The Vegetarian is shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize 2016.

By Thea Hawlin

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