Monthly Archives: January 2015

Post Pop: East Meets West – Saatchi Gallery

The Saatchi Gallery really is one of the most relaxed art venues in London. It’s free, eclectic, random, inspiring and most of all liberating to visit. When it comes to displaying art, I want to have my cake and eat it; if I’m paying I want to see a sensibly curated collection of works that make a clear and substantiated argument about the artist or period the exhibition is claiming to reflect. As I walk around I want to see each piece justify its place and the sections build on one another so that I leave not just having seen some beautiful things, but actually knowing more about them. My major grip with so many paid exhibitions is that this almost never turns out to be the case.

The other approach is quite the opposite and one which the Saatchi Gallery excels at; thematically group pieces together and leave me to make what I will of them. The only signs I want to see tell me the name of the piece, its artist and maybe what it’s made of. In literature, whole schools of thought are dedicated to examining the concept of the reader and how your own background, experiences and influences affect the meaning you take from say a novel – meanings the original author may not have purposefully put there. There is a separate engagement between the reader and the page. The same is true of art; what the artist was expressing may not be what I then see. So, the Saatchi Gallery leaves you and the item together, with almost no artist in the way, and your interpretation is the focus.

This latest exhibition taps into a recent trend for Pop Art exhibitions – we’ve had Lichtenstein at the Tate and Pop Art Design at the Barbican. Here the Saatchi Gallery gives it a new twist by showing how Pop Art was interpreted and reflected by eastern artists, especially from Russia, Taiwan and China, mixing this with work from the UK and America. It’s arranged in  themes, across gallery rooms on three floors and displays pieces from all these countries side by side, regardless of year in what feels (appropriately for Pop Art) like a giant warehouse. I love this approach, if something catches you eye, stop and engage with it, if not pass by to something else; spend 30 minutes in there or 3 hours it’s that relaxed.

First up is ‘Habitat’ taking Pop Art’s focus on the mass-produced everyday item including Ai Weiwie’s marble armchair which looks both comfy and forbidding at the same time, as do Rachel Whiteread’s back-to-front shelf of burned books. Here the concentration is more on a crumbling consumer culture; everything is shabby, broken or not even complete – like a rusty hoover whose mechanical parts seem to have been expelled in front of it, or a deliberately unfinished dining room installation which is a mass of wooden boards, painters’ tools and boxes.  What is this telling us, well that’s up to you, but perhaps encouraging us to consider both the hidden parts and the process of constructing a consumerist society.

Then you move into ‘Advertising and Consumerism’ to see some video games from Taiwan and fake advertising posters for a white Circle, Square and Triangle sold as the latest piece of art for the office or home. In ‘Religion and Ideology’ the room is dominated by a number of bowing figures in black robes. They mechanically pray to the artwork in front of them, and each moving at different times is almost alarmingly real. Behind them is the bubbling Last Supper – a model immersed in a fizzy liquid (potentially urine like its neighbour!!) and photographed – which is imagined in black and white across 5 large prints, impressive and strangely appealing. The ideology section also plays with the image of dictators like Stalin who crops up a few times, most notably as a giant red sculpture holding hands with Mickey Mouse and Jesus.

The remaining sections are ‘Celebrity and Mass Media’, ‘Art History’ and ‘Sex and the Body’ – the latter not really suitable for children, although it does contain a piece made of bottles some of which are partially filled, so from above looks like a splayed figure; it was innovative and I really liked it. Remember to go to the top floor as there’s some pretty interesting stuff including images of cooked meats and bread on a table and plate, sounds random but the way they are arranged and photographed is really interesting. Also up there is Oleg Kulik’s tennis player in mid-serve suspended in a glass case which has been on some of the advertising which is fascinating in a Damien Hirst kind of way.

This venue has lots of different levels and galleries, so it’s easy to miss something; one spectacle to look out for (or not if you’re of a queasy disposition) is the room of United Nations flags. They have been arranged in ‘corridors’ that you walk around as well as being draped from the ceiling and main walls to enclose you. The caveat – each one is constructed from human hair which is disgusting and as clear a statement on the personal link to Pop Art as you’ll see in this exhibition.

Post Pop: East Meets West is an abundance of work loosely arranged some of which you’ll like, some not. The great thing about the Saatchi Gallery is that’s the point, you’ll come out feeling you’ve seen some interesting things, learnt a bit, been engaged, repulsed and fascinated. The best bit is it’s all on your own terms, just you and the art with nothing in between. Clear you mind and enjoy.

Post Pop: East Meets West is at the Saatchi Gallery until 3 March. Entrance is free. Follow this blog on Twitter: @cultualcap1

The Ruling Class – Trafalgar Studios

So I spent my Saturday night watching James McAvoy unicycling in nothing but a pair of y-fronts and some Cuban heels that Patrick Swayze would have loved. Wait… before you call the Daily Mail to report this scandal, it was all in the name of theatre. He also wore a monk’s habit, ripped off his shirt and tied himself to a cross before having a Jack the Ripper fantasy… I’m not making this any better am I? There were a few hundred other people there, it wasn’t just me! Before the gossip columnists come knocking I should probably explain that this all happened in his new play The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios where McAvoy plays Jack, the mad heir to the Lordship of Gurney.

Jack has spent years in an asylum suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, believing that he is God incarnate. When his father dies in less than salubrious circumstances without changing his will, Jack inherits the title and returns to the ancestral home, much to the annoyance of his Uncle Charles who wishes him permanently committed. Wary of a public scandal, the family conspire to marry Jack off to his uncle’s young mistress, Grace, in order to produce an heir, while giving Dr Herder free reign to try and restore Jack’s sanity. But sanity comes at a price and soon Jack’s harmless delusions take a darker turn with chilling consequences for the family whose stiff-upper-lips are put to the test.

As the title suggests this is all about class and particularly how playwright Peter Barnes feels the upper classes are out of touch with real life, living in a clubbable world of appearance, old-school ties and self-protection. The programme contains an essay on our fascination with class divide; whether that’s based on breeding, money, education or some other divisive tool. Society’s need to categorise and thereby denigrate others is a persistent one and the examples Andrew Anthony calls upon include TV reality shows and recent examples of politicians condescending to people they think are inferior such as taxi drivers or the police.  Consequently, there is nothing likeable about the Gurneys here, they manipulate and conspire, have affairs and look down on their community, all of which make Jack’s early ease and freedom all the more appealing to the audience.

McAvoy is brilliant in a role that gives him a chance to display his range – and Jack is the only part that is really any more than a caricature. The first act takes us from Jack’s arrival as the God of Love in his Daz-white suit to his “cure”, and McAvoy plays him with a lightness and serene calm that is charming to watch. We also get to see an usual side to the actor – his comic timing which is so rarely used in his screen work; there’s a great moment when Uncle Charles in frustration shouts out “My God” and Jack pops his head around the door and innocently says “Yes” – hilarious. There are also quite a few utterly surreal song and dance routines which McAvoy handles with assurance.

The second half is a complete change of tone, considerably blacker than what has come before. Here Jack is trying to supress his moments of gibberish and act the part of the country squire, giving McAvoy a chance to display his abilities once again, beginning with quietly supressed frenzy and allowing it to grow and distort as the story unfolds. The great success of this performance is in making these two halves of Jack’s insanity seem part of the same man and convey a sense of outward authority that wins over his family and the community. Most of all, McAvoy looks like he’s having a great time and earned a rapturous standing ovation from the audience, which may have been for the unicycling alone!

The rest of the cast play their roles well even though the script gives them far less to do; Kathryn Drysdale’s cockney Grace Shelley was a little over the top even for this production in the first act, but was much better in the second. It was only the second night of the run so there’s still a long way to go yet. Serena Evans is great as Uncle Charles’s beleaguered wife Claire who is frustrated by her boring life and husband and is drawn to Jack’s freedom. The biggest laughs were reserved for Anthony O’Donnell however as long-serving Communist butler Tucker, who inherits £20,000 from his late master but stays to protect Jack.  There’s quite an interesting parallel drawn between these two characters, both suddenly inherit money but neither cope – Jack because he is mad and Tucker because he drinks – but they are temporarily drawn together by their new-found status. Tucker also represents the perspective of the working-classes, dismissing the idiocy of his ‘betters’ and supporting their demise. It is most obviously through Tucker that we see the consequences of Jack toxicity, and O’Donnell is fantastic throughout.

Soutra Gilmour’s production design is very fitting, largely country shades of brown and green which makes Jack’s white suit all the more eye-popping, before he adopts more muted colours in Act Two. Transporting characters to the garden is cleverly done with sunflowers growing up through the set and unfolding, before neatly retracting the same way. And the House of Lords scene, complete with cobwebbed half-skeletons representing the Peers of the Realm was also a neat satire.

Overall then, this is a great production of a very strange play. It’s a caveat worth noting if you like your drama straight and linear; the individual characters don’t have much depth and there are some very bizarre delusion sequences which may not appeal to everyone. You should also note the rather thin seating in Studio One, a shame for a purpose built modern theatre, so you’re likely to be very cosy with your neighbouring strangers. But don’t let that put you off; this is a great revival full of hilarious moments and a really great central performance from James McAvoy. So, the first of the big five performances of 2015 has set the bar high and we’ll see in the coming months whether Mark Strong, Ralph Fiennes, Damien Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch can rise to the challenge, and if any of them is brave enough to face an audience in just their pants!

The Ruling Class is at The Trafalgar Studios until 11 April. Tickets start at £29.50, although £15 tickets for Mondays are released on 2nd of every month.

Follow this blog on Twitter: @cultualcap1

Film Review: Testament of Youth

Female perspectives on the First World War are relatively few and of these Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth is the most famous. Published in 1929 among a spate of disillusioned memoirs from former veterans, Brittain’s story is one of love, pitiable loss and an insight into a total war which also affected the millions of people left behind. One of the interesting criticisms from former Servicemen after the Armistice, is that the statues and memorials erected all over the country pandered primarily to a particular female grief – the wives, the mothers and daughters who have no grave to mourn over – and they felt little connection to a respectable form of public commemoration that felt so far from the war they had experienced.

Nonetheless Brittain’s memoir remains a gateway into the female experience and has been filmed on a number of occasions, but nowhere better than in this beautiful and emotional-affecting film by Juliette Towhidi, directed by James Kent. This is British film-making at its best, in some sense harking back to the glory days of Merchant Ivory productions and in the opening scenes particularly to A Room With A View. We see Vera in the midst of a tantrum because her father has brought her a piano –what a monster – and it is left to her brother Edward to calm her down. There is a lovely affection between them that is reminiscent of Lucy and Freddy in Forster’s tale, and their relationship, which feels very genuine, becomes one of the important pillars of the film as war begins.

Into this situation comes Roland Leighton and over the course of several days he and Vera begin to fall for one another. But it isn’t hurried and a fair amount of time is spent building up their connection, showing the dates where they humorously try to evade the maiden aunt chaperon and they’re unable to do more than hold hands for a moment. It is this restraint that is so lovely and, as war begins to encroach (shown only via newspaper columns and billboards), it gives more power to the Brief Encounter like train station departure when Roland leaves for war. You also get a sense of how young they are particularly as Edward, Roland and their friend Victor muck about in the fields near the Brittain home, a scene repeated as a memory a few times later in the film when war has forced them to grow-up very quickly.

Some reviewers have complained that the war scenes needed more visions of combat to give emotional heft to the film but I disagree. This is Vera’s memoir and it is about her war, so the focus on what she does is paramount and extremely well executed here. The images of the war we see link to descriptions in letters from Edward and Roland, and are actually all the more powerful for appearing amid domestic life and her early duties as a nurse. In one scene we hear a letter from Edward’s friend Geoffrey describing a peaceful moment at the front, where the sun reflected in the muddy pools of No Man’s Land leads Geoffrey to believe there is something bigger than the war, which gives him comfort. The scene is visualised for us and is a stunning image, like a Paul Nash painting, the ruined trees and craters given a golden tint that seems not only peaceful but hopeful.

Although seen through Vera’s eyes one of the big successes of this film is the male characters never seem deluded about war or in any way unwilling to fight it. It is rare for a film about this conflict to show men in this more nuanced way, making them seem like rational, intelligent people who made a choice that for all the horror they will stand by. This building of character and time spent at the beginning of the film to create proper investment in the various relationships makes the losses more potent when they come. Vera hears of Roland’s death on the very day she is dressed for their wedding, it’s painfully sad and Alicia Vikander is at her best as the bewildered Brittain alone on the beach starring into the sea – the decision not to include any crass ‘mood-music’ is a brilliant one and all you hear are the waves. The scene too when his family receive a parcel only to find the War Office has sent home his kit, covered in mud, is absolutely devastating and a real insight into the suffering at home.

In the last section of the film Vera goes to the Western Front to tend the wounded and it is here that the consequences of war are starkly seen, but I’ll leave you to find out what happens to everyone else she knows. At one point during a battle the camera pulls away from the ground leaving Vera standing among endless rows of harmed men on stretchers that gently nods to the white crosses of the cemeteries of France and Belgium. Testament of Youth is a great First World War film, full of excellent performances from the likes of Dominic West, as Vera’s father overcome by events, Colin Morgan as the forlorn Victor, and surprisingly Game of Thrones’s Kit Harington as Roland, displaying considerably more backbone and character than the wet John Snow (or Snore). But it is Vikander who dominates as a female voice on the experience and suffering of war. As the Armistice is declared and the British public crowd the streets in celebration, Vera makes her way through the crowd unable to share their joy and more aware than most of what it cost. A great film and a timely reminder.

Testament of Youth was shown at the London Film Festival and is due for general release on 16 January 2015.

Women, Fashion, Power – Design Museum

I thought I’d start the year with a controversial topic. Aligning the way women dress with their need for or ability to obtain power is a contentious one, although this exhibition at the Design Museum argues that it is just one tool successful women have used ‘to define and enhance their position in the world.’ Arguably it is something that women have done for thousands of years and a photo-call of queens, socialites and leading female politicians at the start of this show indicates how this has been done. From adopting masculine cuts or shapes into their own dress, using colours or accents with particular political associations or incorporating the accepted iconography of the day, women have long used fashion to publically reinforce whatever image they wish to convey.

In theory then, this should be an interesting and thought-provoking exhibition, and I was expecting to learn how leading individuals have used fashion in their era to enhance their own authority or prestige in the eyes of others. In that initial wall of photos we see the Queen, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Margaret Thatcher, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc and Queen Victoria among others – so a lot of interesting subjects to dissect and understand how they have used fashion. But this is not quite the approach the Design Museum takes, and instead we get a roughly chronological walk through the history of clothing and media in the twentieth-century. Frankly is not all that exciting, pedestrian at best and somehow fails to tell us anything much about power and women’s fashion.

It begins well with a small section on the Suffragettes and the colours they used in sashes and other clothing to indicate their allegiance, and in a timely piece of marketing it includes costumes worn by actresses including Carey Mulligan in the new film. There are also a number of horrendous corsets on display, indicating a change in women’s fortunes when the strictures of such garments were finally cast aside – although you’ll probably just be stunned by the tiny waist size which I certainly couldn’t have fitted into even before all the Christmas eating.

Then we move into the main exhibition space designed by architect Zaha Hadid into several branches which you loop round. It’s all very white; white walls, white display cases and white floors which somehow make it seem terribly old-fashioned. It probably looked lovely at the launch party with coloured lights and canapés but by day it’s bland and a million miles from the more dynamic presentation recently used for Gaultier at the Barbican, Isabella Blow at Somerset House and even the V&A’s permanent fashion collection is a little better.

Then come the decade by decade clichés along with a few misnomers; 1920s it is Chanel, no surprises there, and yes she revolutionised fashion but how? What obstacles did she face, how long did it take and how were other influential women affected by her work? Don’t just put a couple of Chanel suits in a glass box and present her influence as inevitable fact. Then we see some beach pyjamas (powerful why?), some 40s actresses in backless dresses which presumably demonstrate their power to wear backless dresses, and some control pants from M&S. Is it just me or is this beginning to lose focus?

The rest of the decades are no better represented and again the idea of power and pop culture significance are a bit confused; the 60s has Twiggy and mini-skirts, the 80s a picture of Joan Collins and no outfits and making sure we tick all the cliché boxes, the 90s a picture of the Spice Girls, no examples of clothing. Other than shouting about girl power twenty years ago, what did wearing skimpy leopard-print dresses and kissing Prince Charles actually lead to? Arguably the music industry is even more sexualised now – what kind of power is that? It’s fine to make the argument that these were female fashion landmarks but you have to actually state your case, not put up a load of random pictures and expect the viewer to join the dots. Had this section focused say on Victoria Beckham they could have been on to a winner; whatever you think of her, using fashion to transform herself from girl band member to industry-respected designer is exactly the kind of story this exhibition should have been telling.

Like all good essays, an exhibition with a clear argument should begin by defining its terms; at no point was it clear what the curators meant by power; quite often this was just compressed with freedom – not quite the same thing. The mini skirt and contraceptive pill certainly gave women freedom but I wanted this exhibition to explain to me exactly how it gave them power and what kind of power – do they mean political or economic power in positions of responsibility, or power of choice over their own bodies and decisions? And who benefited from it, because it certainly wasn’t everyone. They may both use clothes, but do models and actresses really have power in the same way as Hilary Clinton and the Queen? And what about the rest of us, how do ordinary woman, without access to designer dresses and free hairdos use fashion in our daily lives? Isn’t there an even more interesting story to tell about the spread of fashion-consciousness across the population in this period, regardless of age?

There is one section that works really well and that’s a gallery of outfits from some current female CEOs and industry professional. Here there’s some information about the outfit, with quotes from the wearer on how they use clothing in their role. This is great and exactly what the rest of the exhibition should have been like. It has some lovely pieces but by choosing a narrative rather than analytical approach, in its current form, it’s not clear this exhibition has anything new to say on the subject of fashion and power.

Women, Fashion, Power is at the Design Museum until 26 April; tickets are £12.40 with concessions available.

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