Saturday, May 16, 2009

London Calling, Part 2

Storefronts may be abandoned, to let signs may be more prevalent, restaurants may be offering set meals at discounted prices, and the British pound is certainly in the toilet (benefitting us colonials for once). But London's cultural industries still seem to be going strong, and this past week has been a bonanza of gallery- and museum-hopping and theatre- and dance-going.

We started at the newly renovated and recently reopened Whitechapel Gallery, in the east end. Now with seven major exhibition spaces spread over three floors, a 100-seat auditorium, a superb new restaurant with lots of vegetarian options in the former library (which has been moved upstairs), and a very finely stocked bookshop (where I picked up two titles on aesthetics and politics--by Nicolas Bourriaud and Paul Rancière, respectively--that I am in need of for a directed reading course on performance and the social this summer), the gallery should become a preferred destination for artophiles.

The main show currently on view at the Whitechapel is a major retrospective of the German installation artist Isa Genzken called Open, Sesame! Having been trained primarily as a sculptor, Genzken creates immersive environments that mix painting, photography, cast and found objects, and assemblage into architectural comments (see photo below) on consumer culture, built spaces, industrial immanence, and souvenir memories. It was my first encounter with her work, and I was deeply impressed by both her intellect and her wit.

I was also quite taken with a series of three short films by the Austrian avant-garde feminist filmmaker Ursula Mayer--also on an architectural theme. Each film takes as its organizing conceit a gendered encounter with different modernist spaces, two of which are located in the London area and which, as it turns out, Richard and I have visited. In Interiors (2006), two patrician-looking blonde women--one young, one older--wander about the great Willow Road house in Hampstead designed by the Hungarian-born architect Erno Goldfinger in the late 1930s for he and his wife, Ursula, in part to showcase their stunning art collection. The women ascend and descend the main spiral staircase of the house and wander about its various rooms. But they never meet. Nor do they speak. Instead, they interact with various bits of furniture and artistic objects in each room, especially a well-known sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, which in its shape and rotation seems to be Mayer's dual metonym or syntagma for female life cycles and the occupation/creation of feminine space. Certainly the film, in its formal austerity and compositional beauty, is the polar opposite of Woody Allen doing Ingmar Bergman. 

The second film by Mayer, The Crystal Gaze (2007), takes place in one opulently mirrored and wood-paneled room in the art deco Eltham Palace, originally given to Edward II in 1305, and eventually remodeled in its current style by Stephen Cortauld (younger brother of Samuel, who founded the Courtauld Institute) in the 1930s. Mayer films three impossibly thin and gorgeous women, dressed in elegant 20s and 30s era period dress, moving about languidly from divan to dressing table to staircase, each carrying on a one-sided conversation about memory, desire, and artifice. I detected a definite Sapphic theme to the piece, and, indeed, one of the women, in her appearance, put me in mind of Una Troubridge (sans monocle), fabled lover of Radclyffe Hall. The way Mayer shoots this particular actress--often through angled shots reflected in mirrors (see below)--is simply stunning.

Finally, the most recent film by Mayer that forms part of this series is called Fur/Le déjeuner en fourrure (2008). It takes place inside and outside a house I did not recognize, and which is not identified in any of the promotional material. This time the three actresses in the film are playing real historical figures, in this case Picasso's muse, Dora Maar, the Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim (her famous furred tea cup--which undoubtedly gives the film its title--appears in several key shots), and the African-American singer and dancer who charmed 1920s Paris, Josephine Baker. The women talk--in English and French--about their respective influences on the avant-garde movements of the day in France, all the while walking about the house fingering various objects.

Cumulatively, the films by Mayer left me transfixed, and were a definite highlight of an already wonderful re-encounter with the renovated Whitechapel.

There were other shows, of course: one on the global reach of the Baroque movement and style at the V & A; Russian Constructivism and Roni Horn at the Tate Modern; Utagawa Kuniyoshi's 19th-century Floating World prints at the Royal Academy; a so-so show on sound at the ICA; and a very focused look at photography and Italian modernist architecture pre- and post-WW II at one of my favourite bijou museums, the Estorick Collection in Islington.

Two stand-out shows featured the German artist Gerhard Richter, former husband, it turns out, of Isa Genzken. Richter, perhaps the foremost living painter, is known for his photo-realist work in the medium. So it should come as no surprise that he is included in a show at the Photographers' Gallery, on the tucked-away Ramilies Street (just off Oxford Circus), called The Photographic Object. Richter's contribution is a series of his Overpainted Photographs, in which he applies acrylic and/or oil paint--sometimes lightly, sometimes in thick, broad strokes--to various black and white photos of cities, objects, and people. As this brief description of Richter's work here suggests, the overall concept for this group show is a concern with the borderlines between two and three dimensions, between different artistic media (including photography, painting, sculpture, film, and installation), and between representational reproducibility and its (in)visible materiality. Also a standout in this regard was the work of Wolfgang Tillmans and Catherine Yates.

Despite its hyper-realism, Richter's work is all about the inaccessibility of meaning, of ever penetrating beyond the surface of things. Hence his attraction to the photograph, which in its mechanical reproduction produces, according to Richter "the most perfect picture," at once recognizable and anonymous. From the beginning of his career in the early 1960s, Richter has applied this principle to a series of portraits he has created from found and personal photographs. The National Portrait Gallery has gathered a selection of these works into a stunning solo show called Gerhard Richter: Portraits. The paintings, some of friends and family, others of famous people in the news (including Jackie Kennedy at the time of JFK's assassination), are about the relations between individuals, and our own perceptual interpretations of those relations. As if to emphasize, again, the inevitable failure or partiality of such interpretations, the paintings are often blurred (see below), as if the photos upon which they were based were themselves out of focus. Or else the subjects are depicted from an odd angle, even from behind (as in Richter's portraits of Genzken). Gazes are averted repeatedly, further emphasizing the inaccessibility of the private worlds the subjects occupy.

In terms of live performance, there emerged something of a Russian theme. First up was Burnt by the Sun at the National Theatre’s Lyttleton stage (see the promotional image below). Adapted by playwright Peter Flannery from the 1994 Oscar-winning film by Nikita Mikhalkov, the play is set in the Russian countryside during the summer of 1936, just at the start of Stalin’s brutal purges. General Kotov (Ciarán Hinds), a legendary hero of the Bolshevik Revolution, has gathered with his wife Maroussia (Michelle Dockery), their daughter Nadia, and Maroussia’s extended White Russian family at the dacha that had been in their hands for generations, and that they now rent back from the state owing to the intercession of Kotov. The wistful reminiscences of the elder family members of their pre-Revolutionary life—filled with music and literature and fine food and lots of joyous frolic—brings to mind Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. But it is the appearance of an old flame of Maroussia, Mitia (an engaging Rory Kinnear), as well as the two guns that go off in the second act (as per Anton’s famous dictum), that signals that Burnt by the Sun is mainly concerned with the imminent and seemingly inevitable changes to the Russian feudal way of life that Chekhov so brilliantly telegraphed for his audiences.

For Mitia, who fought in the White Russian army during the Revolution, has since been recruited (by Kotov, no less, who gave him an impossible choice and who may have had an ulterior motive in claiming Maroussia for himself) to the secret police. And he has returned home because his old nemesis, Kotov—still a decorated and upstanding member of the Communist army—has somehow run afoul of his beloved Comrade Stalin, and now faces a devastating personal choice of his own: confess to crimes against the state that he did not commit and almost surely face a firing squad; or die with his pride and integrity in tact, but risk the lives of his wife and child as well.

A large ensemble play with superb performances all around (especially from the three leads), taut direction from Howard Davies, and a wonderful revolving set by Vicki Mortimer, the show was just the right mix of sexual tension and political intrigue. And, despite its historical subject matter, it read like a timely comment on the current state of affairs in Russia under the ever-watchful eye and iron fist of Vladimir Putin.

Next, we attended a performance of the Young Vic/Sadler’s Wells co-production of Pictures from an Exhibition, a dance-theatre collaboration between director Daniel Kramer, poet James Fenton, and choreographer Franke Requarat. The piece was an eye-popping and surreal biographical interpretation of the life of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), who composed his 10-part piano suite of the same name in 1874 as an elegy for his friend, the architect Victor Hartmann, who had died suddenly of a brain aneurysm the previous year. Mussorgsky himself would soon be dead from alcoholism, and the production takes as its dramaturgical point of departure the hallucinatory demons that might have visited Modest during his vodka- and grief-induced compositional delirium. There are dancing serpents, bears, and chickens (see below), a recurring egg motif (which I never quite figured out, but which seemed to be tied to both life and death, not to mention creative inspiration—and desperation), a somewhat over-protective mother, and the ever-present ghost of Victor, whom it’s suggested poor, tormented Modest was in love with.

The production was visually stunning, the acting and dancing purposeful and energetic, and the live music by pianist Carl Joseph especially captivating. But one got the sense in places that the creative team was trying just a bit too hard to shock, and not all of the images or set pieces quite worked.

Finally, the Rambert Dance Company was presenting a new program at Sadler’s Wells, for which we managed to secure some last-minute tickets. Rambert is one of the oldest and most respected contemporary dance companies in Britain, founded by the redoubtable Marie Rambert (1888-1982), who worked with Serge Diaghilev, Vaslav Nijinsky, and the Ballets Russes on The Rite of Spring. Thus the Russian connection.

Rambert was premiering two new pieces, the first called Hush, and choreographed by Christopher Bruce to music by Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin. A contemporary story ballet centred around a family of harlequins/circus performers (mother and father, two sons, and two daughters), the piece was a moving exploration of the ties that bind and, at times, constrain. Youthful rivalries and strivings for individual expression (all of the children are given dynamic solos) are played out against the backdrop of the parents’ own longings and desires (for each other, for themselves, and also for the various members of their brood), who are given a lush and romantic duet while the children sleep. All six dancers where uniformly excellent, and the musicality of Bruce’s choreography was exceptional.

The second premiere was Israeli choreographer Itzik Galili’s A Linha Curva, a raucous blend of salsa, copeira, martial arts, and contemporary dance for a massive cast of 36 dancers (the company had to recruit extra members from among its student ranks) that also features a live percussion band on stage. A feast for the eyes and ears, and among the sexiest and most joyous expressions of dance that I have seen in a long time, it brought the house down.

The third piece in this mixed program was also a large ensemble display of fast-paced movement (punctuated by a tender, mostly horizontal and floor-based pas de deux in the middle) called Scribblings, choreographed by Doug Varone and set to music by contemporary composer John Adam (performed live by Rambert’s resident musical partners, London Musici).

All in all, a wealth of art and culture to chase away the worst recessionary blues. I’m typing this in Heathrow airport. Now it’s off to Berlin, where much history—and, of course, Brecht—awaits.


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