‘Shame’ – A Review

It perhaps says more about my day last Friday than the film itself, but when, after hours of attempting to draw a model in life class, I saw the opening sequence of Michael Fassbender walking round his minimalist NYC apartment with no clothes on, my overwhelming reaction was ‘oh, b$ll&cks, not another naked man.’

It was however a phenomenon I had to get used to, as there is a lot of naked flesh in Shame, Steve McQueen’s study of a man’s obsessive pursuit of sexual gratification which inevitably evaporates the moment the act is done.

Some critics have described it as a portrait of sex addiction, but that seems a bit too simple.  It’s more the constant search for something that will satiate an insistent appetite, but which, once achieved leaves the person feeling worse than ever, and escalating the desire for more and more; creating a cycle of constant disappointment.

I didn’t enjoy watching the film.  There were bits of it that made me want to scream with boredom, and of there had been a fast forward button I would have made liberal use of it, especially during an excruciatingly awful rendition of New York, New York by Carey Mulligan, and I heaved a sigh of relief when it was finally over, but, having said all of that, it did provoke a long discussion with the friend with whom I saw it.

I had no sympathy with any of the characters; E did.  I thought the lack of sympathetic response was part of the intention of the director, because there was no real insight given into their interior lives, it was all about appearance and surface to me, a distancing that made me ever aware of the artifice of it, that I was in a cinema, that this was acting, that it was all about looking and observing.  E agreed with only some of that.

I thought the line ‘we’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place’ was a sign that the director had been bullied into giving some superficial ‘explanation’ for the damaged siblings’ behaviour, and would have more respect for him if he’d resisted and left it out.  E disagreed, and appreciated the mood and comment the line encapsulated.

I became impatient with the slow languorous shots, which could have been several ‘art’ films, in which nothing happens, spliced together; on or two would have been fine, but so many was too much.  E liked the mesmerising nature of the continuous sequence of Fassbender running through night time New York; I spent all the time working out where he was running.

It’s definitely one about which to make up your own mind.

Government Art Collection – Travelling Light at The Whitechapel Gallery

During my visit to Whitechapel last week, as well as the Zarina Bhimji retrospective, I also spent time at an exhibition of a number of pieces from the UK Government Art Collection selected by Simon Schama.  It’s part of a running series of such selections made by various guest curators.

The series brings into highlight the huge collection of art owned by the UK State, which is used to decorate government buildings in both the UK and abroad.  Imagine this piece at Number 10, or that one in the British embassy in Paris or Moscow.

The loose theme of Schama’s selection is that of travel, both of subjects in the act of travel, or an artist’s response to foreign or alien places.  It’s a theme very loosely applied, but the collection on display did give a tiny window into the wide range of style, age and subject of the works in the collection.

A number of the works left me cold, but others were intriguing and I spent a long time studying Grayson Perry’s Map of an Englishman, a witty etching of an imaginary brain, filled with words and phrases used to describe emotion and state of mind from Delirium to Bad Day; and Tacita Dean’s Palast I-IV, a series of photographs of reflections in the windows of  the former GDR’s Palast der Republik.

But true to form, it’s the stories behind the pictures which frequently pique my interest more.  Where have these pictures been hung?  Who chose them to be part of the representation of Britain as shown to the world?  How have the tastes for this changed over the years?  Which Ministers choose the achingly modern and which want to display depth of history?Have any of the pieces been so out of fashion that they’ve languished in a basement before a triumphant renaissance?

My curiosity was only partially satisfied.  The place from which each piece had been removed most recently for the exhibition was identified, but not its full history, with the exception of one painting.  The history of Byzantine Lady by Vanessa Bell was laid out in full.  It had last been on display in HM Ambassador’s Residence in Berlin, and prior to that in government offices, but had suffered a significant period in storage and under restoration in its life, indicating a period when it was rather unloved.

I wish there had been more such histories, but it was fascinating none the less, and I’ll be returning in March for the next in the series.

More Trial and Error

It was life drawing in art class this week, the aspect of this learning process that I find the most challenging.

In addition, the focus was the use of different drawing materials, so my first task was to source the materials: charcoal, which I had already, conté and graphite which I had to track down.  This search exposed the profound nature of my general ignorance of such things.  I won’t bore you with the details, but I visited three art supplies shops and managed to acquire approximations of what was required, as to the uninitiated  this is a very mysterious world.

The teacher’s philosophy is to make us get on and have a go without giving any instruction or demonstration as to how we should use anything.  The learning comes from having to see how things work, trying and failing, from getting my fingers blacker than they’ve ever been before (and a consequently smudged forehead and nose), and from trying to respond to the specific comments from the teacher as the session develops.

I think it would be fair to say that I struggled all day, drawing quick poses with my left hand (I’m right handed), intermediate poses with only the side of the material, putting on and then taking off with an eraser to create an image, and then finally making a meal of the final tableau in the afternoon.

My modest progress might be measured by the fact that I did manage to change the angle of the torso while I was well into the drawing,  when without the teacher’s insistence I was broadly on the point of giving up; and I like the reflection in the mirror, even though it took me ages.

So perseverance seems to be the key (as always)……sigh.

Hope – A Photo

This building was tumbled down and covered with wooden boards carrying these hopeful little homilies.  I walked past it every day on my way into Speightstown when I was in Barbados last year.

I don’t know any more about it, but it raised lots of questions.  Why take the trouble to pain the door when everything else on the building is rotting and mouldy?  Why affix the wooden boards?  Who had the key to the padlock?  What was going in inside to need a new electricity meter?

Is it a metaphor in wood and plaster?  Someone had some hope, at one time or another.

‘Backbeat’ at The Duke of York’s Theatre

Fashioned around the telling of a footnote to the early story of The Beatles, Backbeat  contains more story than most of the rival ‘jukebox musicals’ currently on in the West End, but not enough story to feel like a fully realised play.

Set mainly in that mythical time before the Beatles were the Beatles, but were a covers band playing in a dive in the red light district in Hamburg, the story focuses on the relationship between John Lennon and his art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe, who despite not being able to play the bass properly was co-opted into the band largely on the basis of his ‘coolness’.

In Hamburg, Sutcliffe begins a relationship with Astrid Kirchher and has to choose between the band and his career as a painter on the one hand and his friendship with Lennon and his love affair with Astrid on the other.  Interesting themes then, about what it is to live as an artist, the decisions that have to be made, the people who want to be associated with such a person because of their ‘aura’ and the vicarious sharing of that glow; so it was a bit frustrating to have them dealt with so superficially.

Instead the show presents small scenes about the pain, comedy and anarchy of young lads taking their first steps into the wider world, with interludes of loudly amplified hits from the late 50s and very early 60s like Please Mr Postman.  The look of it is super cool, echoing the atmospheric black and white photos Kirchher took of the Group, and the styling of them that she allegedly suggested, but, culminating as it does with Sutcliffe’s very early death, there’s a downbeat quality to the show.

There is an energy and a charm about the music, but it’s not really the main purpose of the piece, and for me it was a bit anachronistic and too plentiful.  Whatever the original band sounded like in its Hamburg dive, it didn’t benefit from a loud West End theatre sound system; and for me, the now apparently compulsory playing of as many songs after the curtain call as during the show, is growing a bit thin.  I’d like to watch the show, applaud the performers and then go home; the twenty minute ‘encore’ is definitely de trop.

The best summary I can give is to paraphrase the conversation I had with my friend as we were leaving the theatre.  It was quite sweet, thank goodness it had more story to it than so many other similar shows, Lennon was an unpleasant character, and its a pity there weren’t more Beatles songs.

Zarina Bhimji at the Whitechapel Art Gallery

This week I have remedied a large gap in my cultural experience of London by visiting the Whitechapel Gallery for the first time.  It wasn’t my first attempt; that was stymied by the fact that the Gallery isn’t open on a Monday; the very day I had earmarked for the excursion to what, for me, feels like an awkward part of London to get to.

There was no real purpose to the visit other than to discover the Gallery, meet up with a friend and have a cup of coffee.  (I may not have properly noted the opening hours, but I had checked there was a decent looking caff).  So it was an unexpected pleasure to discover a number of engaging exhibitions.

The Zarina Bhimji exhibition is a major retrospective, comprising two films Out of the Blue and Yellow Patch as well as photographs of what might be stills from the films.  I found the films beguiling: close, slow examination of abandoned and crumbling places in India and Uganda, accompanied by the sounds of sometimes the wind, or the chatter of people who might once have been there, or of the cries of children playing a long time ago.

They were films and images about absence and abandonment; there are very few shots of people, and only the occasional dog or marching army of ants or spiders at the centre of great webs inhabit buildings whose windows are gone and where the walls are disappearing under black mould.  All of these places were built, in some splendour, by man, were used, but are now abandoned.  If they’d not been constructed, the landscape would not have looked as deserted as it does because of our understanding that the people have been and gone.

Two series of images have stayed with me, the slow gliding over every surface in the abandoned buildings of Entebbe airport, the cracked tiles, a pair of plastic shoes stuck in a window grill, power lines dangling from ceilings and chickens pecking on rough ground in a backyard; and the equally slow examination of a sad and neglected white statue of Queen Victoria, starting at the foot resting on a plumped up little footstool, across the drapes and lacy frills of her dress up to the smashed face, as the camera finally pans out to show her dumped in the corner of a dusty yard somewhere in India.

I liked the photograph of court papers stacked in an untidy pile, tied with string and identified with pink post-it notes as relating to Indian traffic offences in the 1980s.  This, like many of the works, is about the accretion of stuff, and the layers of things we leave behind.

Coming to the show in complete ignorance, I left thinking about what the act of departure creates.

The Year of the Dragon

I sometimes forget to appreciate London, its multiplicity of tones and flavours and the random happenstance which can surprise and entertain.

On Monday I was walking from Piccadilly Circus to Covent Garden, from one meeting to another, and decided to go via Gerrard Street to see how it had been decorated for Chinese New Year.

The sound of approaching drums and cymbals drew me back to Wardour Street, where two dragons were processing around China Town, drawing a crowd at every pause, where before there had merely been people strolling along  the street.

A couple of my friends have recently been speaking about ‘mindfulness’ and the need for it.  I’m not sure I really understand what it means, but meeting dragons in the street by chance, reminded me that it’s always better to walk around with my eyes properly open, and not simply rush from A to B.

Happy New Year!

‘The Two Worlds of Charlie F’ – Bravo 22 Company

I'm not the only one recording Robert Lindsay going in the front door of the theatre....

Sunday afternoon is when unusual one-off things happen in the theatre in London.  The venues are normally dark for their weekly break, so it’s then that they are available for something else to happen within their walls, on the stage, the scenery unlit and pushed to the side as an anachronism, when celebrations or explorations of another kind can happen.

Last Sunday I participated in one such event at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, one of only two performances of a new play by a new company: ‘The Two Worlds of Charlie F’ by Bravo 22 Company.

Bravo 22 has been formed, under the auspices of a collaboration between the Haymarket’s Masterclass programme and the Royal British Legion, by a group of wounded, injured and sick armed services personnel.  The play they performed was written by Owen Sheers from stories told by members of the Company, and takes its shape from their experiences of joining the Forces, their service, their injuries and the aftermath, and on into rehabilitation.

Part of the purpose of Bravo 22 is to give the injured people the chance to work in a professional theatrical environment, to learn from experts in the field of drama, both on stage and behind the scenes; another part is to give those people the opportunity to share their experiences with others who have suffered and endure the same things, and to present a play, a collaborative work of art to a paying audience in one of the largest, grandest theatres in London.

I can’t really comment on the first couple of elements, other than to repeat what I’ve seen the participants say, which is that they have found it a hugely rewarding experience.

What I am qualified to report is that is was an extraordinary afternoon to be in the audience on Sunday.

Professional actors can portray real events or repeat the words of real people in a way that can make a deep impression, that can make us cry or laugh, that can engage our emotions and make us think, but we all know that there is an element of artifice, a bargain in which we, the audience members, suspend our disbelief and roll along with the performance.  How much more visceral is the experience when you know that the person performing, speaking the words and recounting the turmoil or the comedy has lived through the reality.

And the reality of it is there before our eyes, that of the damaged bodies, and the physical consequences of what has really happened to these people fighting in a war in a place that is very far away.

There were many remarkable things about the play and its performance: the choreographed exercise, a sort of prone dance, not shying away from the elemental physical impact of the injuries on a body, and the explanation of what happens to a human body when it is subject to the blast from an IED, drawn in red ink on one of the actor’s bodies, down to the fact that the force of the explosion will cause his weapon to smash up into his face, and that for all the advances in war technology, the fundamental aim is the same as it’s always been: to destroy human flesh.

The emotional injuries were as starkly drawn, the difficulties of responding properly to or communicating other than in silence with, the people who love you and whom you love after so very much has changed about yourself; and the impossibility of responding to the often asinine uninvited comments from strangers.

As well as the service personnel, the Company includes a handful of professional actors, but it was not always obvious who was which, as especially Lance Corporal Cassidy Little, playing Charlie F, gave a truly assured performance.

I left the theatre wrung out with the emotion of it, and fervently hoping that I will never be one of those strangers asking idiotic questions.

Home Tourist – The British Museum

The Galleries in the British Museum open at 10 am most days, but the Great Court, the wide, white open space underneath the geometric glass roof, opens at 9.  I only know this because I arrived early on the day my drawing class spent in the Museum.

Before 9:30 it was an extraordinary space, I walked all the way around, from the main entrance to the back where one person was already manning the partially open coffee stall, and then back again.  My footsteps echoed around me, and although I was not alone, the place  was calm and quiet.  Armed with my coffee (not particularly to be recommended, coming as it did from a big urn in the midst of a city otherwise bristling with places where proper espresso is available) I returned to the entrance area and sat down on the end of a thirty foot bench ready to study the glass roof, enjoying the peace.

This was a short lived experience.  A crocodile of forty small boys in maroon blazers were soon corralled along the length of the bench, starting at the far end, but approaching within a couple of yards of me.  The noise of two score nine year olds rose and rebounded against all the hard surfaces.  A few moments later, to my genuine astonishment, three middle aged Italian ladies approached to sit down, staring me out, to move my coffee cup and to shuffle further along to the very end of the bench.

Astonishment, because there are a great many benches available in the Great Court, and everyone was now sitting squashed up on just one of them.  I eyed the entirely empty bench on the other side of the entrance for a few moments, hesitating in what I suspect is a peculiar British way, feeling unpleasantly crowded in upon, but feeling it might be rude to  move away, even though the people crowding me were total strangers.  The hesitation was brief, though, and I moved and had another thirty foot bench all to myself until the time to rendezvous with my classmates.  (Maybe it was rude?)

By 10am the place was humming with people,  school trips in colour coded blazers, large groups of Japanese people, couples meeting, pointing and heading off into the four corners of the Museum, but there was enough space for everyone, and somehow, the more the noise grew the less noisy it felt.

My class spent the day drawing in the Museum, in the Asian Gallery first, then the Mexican, and finally amidst the African artefacts.  Spending any extended period of time on one spot in a Museum allowed me to observe how cursorily most visitors glance at the things on display, but it was also noticeable that simply because I had chosen to sit in front of a particular object gave it more apparent interest to the other visitors.  They wanted to see what I was looking at, even though there were more celebrated pieces nearby, and one of the reasons I’d chosen the particular sculpture was because it was placed out of the way and looked a bit neglected.

Many people took photos of it, stood behind me to examine it, and presumably took a peek at my sketching efforts; if they expressed an opinion on my attempts, I was spared it as it was in a language I didn’t understand.  Even more people physically brushed past me, something I found very surprising; I was not positioned in a thoroughfare, and there is a whole Museum for everyone to explore.

The boldest starers were a group of British children who surrounded us in the small Mexican Gallery, each carrying a susurrating plastic lunch bag, herded by constantly ‘shushing’ adults.  It was a toss up for them which was more exciting, looking at us sketching, or touching the stone reliefs on the wall to trigger the alarms.  Rather than being discouraged by the klaxon, they appeared to think it was but one aspect of an interactive display.

The experience has made me look at the Museum with fresh eyes.

Trying to Fail Better

Inspired by my friend Gillian’s ‘Daily Fail’ posts, here is one of my sketches from the day spent in the British Museum with my drawing class this week.

They’re attempts to depecit early 20th Century pots from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the African Gallery.  I’m not sure I’ve quite done justice to the ‘attitude’ of the poses, but given an entirely free choice of what to draw in the whole gallery these little characters demanded attention.

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