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Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick – Somerset House

Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick (James Lavelle & John Isaacs and Paul Insect)

Fan fiction is a rather pejorative term, but it can take many forms. While Graham Norton enjoys bewildering his celebrity guests with some of his wackier finds, there are some expressions of fandom that are recognised and acceptable forms of art. For example, several classic novels have been extended or fleshed-out respectably by later writers from P.D. James’s murder mystery Death Comes to Pemberly imagining the future marital wranglings of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy with the Wickhams, to recent novels with new cases for Poirot endorsed by the Agatha Christie estate, or the new Bond novels by leading thriller writers like Jeffrey Deaver and Anthony Horowitz, as well as a highly literary attempt  to write like Fleming by Sebastian Faulks.

Over at Somerset House a different kind of fan art is taking centre stage, inspired by the movies of Stanley Kubrick, a director and creative known for his visionary and often challenging work. While many move through different genres, few develop a style that is so distinctive and identifiable whether it’s a horror film or futuristic space odyssey. And it is still a rarity for the film’s director to outrank the actors, so Kubrick is part of a small elite – arguably including Hitchcock, Spielberg and further back possibly Wilder – whose name is associated with a particular style of film-making and reflecting a body of work telling the cinema-goer exactly what tropes to expect.

With Kubrick then, you expect strangeness, a heightened sense of a world that often includes danger, violence and fear, as well as the particularly shrewd use of music and cinematography to enhance a general sense of unease. Needless to say then that some of the more successful artworks inspired by Kubrick, on display at Somerset House, tap into these notions while referring to specific films, phrases and moments as well as the whole body of work. This is, in a true sense, real fan fiction that pays homage to its originator, assuming that the viewer is a fellow fan who will recognise the reference, but takes on an imaginary life of its own at the same time.

The most extensive piece is right under your feet from the moment you arrive; created by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, a lino-version of the carpet from The Shining guides you along the main corridor of the exhibition leading to the many side rooms containing the rest of the work which is in itself reminiscent of the infamous hotel. The bold orange and brown geometric design recalls the disconcerting effect of the film for the viewer, as well as essentially making you a character walking along it yourself – although the exhibition is so busy you won’t be alone long enough to feel afraid.

Another major highlight is In Consolus – Full of Fear and Hope (2016) by James Lavelle and John Isaacs, featuring Azzi Glasser which poses two enormous, and quite frankly downright sinister, teddy bears on Pop Art-esque grocery boxes. One of them is wearing heart-shaped shades and holds a lollypop with inward turned feet like a shy little girl, while the other in a swiping pose holds a riding crop in one hand while wearing a mask with exceptionally long nose and pants. The notes tell us it represents ‘loss of innocence and abuse of power’ which was a big theme for Kubrick and this fascinatingly dark piece recalls elements of A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut.

Another sculpture is also one of the key things to see, Doug Aitken’s Twilight (2014), essentially an old American payphone from Dr Strangelove but this is bright white and illuminated from inside, set in a room entirely surrounded by mirrors. The light throbs at varying beats building to a brilliant white glow, again implying Kubrick’s heightened realism with touches of Hitchcock’s eye for style. Mat Collishaw uses some simple physics to ‘trap’ a video of a monkey inside a space helmet to explore the interaction of past and future, while Stuart Haygarth’s tower of electric fires, Pyre (2016) dominates the second room, emitting more heat than needed in the already stifling exhibition space, but makes for imposing, devilish and slightly overbearing viewing in a show that is as outlandish as it is celebratory.

For a show that appreciates a set of particular films, it’s interesting to see a number of short video installations inspired by Kubrick’s work. And while some of these are a little long for their small standing space, best among them is Toby Dye’s The Corridor (2016) which takes a number of Kubrick-inspired characters and plays out a scenario on four giant connected screens that surround the room. Each shows a different story being enacted in the same space but at times each of the characters interact, ‘falling’ momentarily into one or more of the screens next to them. It’s a fascinating piece of work and completely mesmerising to watch these soundless characters interacting, running or fighting, drawing attention to Kubrick’s own recognisable techniques. You may also spot actors Aiden Gillen and Joanna Lumley in two of the starring roles.

Another famous face to pop up is Cate Blanchett in a strange science-based tale by Julian Rosefeld set in a futuristic building. The recent passion for slow TV plays a part here as we watch various capsule-shaped lifts rise and fall, before following the heroine around a swirling staircase before entering a room covered in cone shapes and dominated by a random black mass in the centre. While referencing 2001 Space Odyssey it is also truly bizarre, not least for Blanchett managing not to blink during an inordinately long close-up recitation monologues. And there’s a great mini-film created by actor Samantha Morton on her experience of watching Kubrick as a girl.

There’s plenty of other interesting work on offer too such as Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s Requiem for 114 Radios (2016), a sound installation that plays individual voices together to form a piece from a Catholic Mass. It’s a crackly and unnerving experience but fascinating too as apparent harmony is broken up by white noise and distortion, emphasising the experience of music in Kubrick’s work. On the walls, A Clockwork Britain (2012) by Paul Insect shows a face half covered by a Union Jack scarf with the famous painted eye and hat from A Clockwork Orange and is a fascinating reference to the persistence of violence in modern society, while Jason Shuman’s single visual depiction of every frame in 2001 Space Odyssey (2016) has a serene marbled quality that belies the highly technical process of creation.

As with most exhibitions, there’s plenty of works that will make you shrug and move along. Jane and Louise Wilson’s film about the never-completed film The Aryan Papers is surprisingly tedious and unvarying given its subject, and Seamus Farrell’s collection of glassware with film titles isn’t worth pausing for, while Norbert Schoerner’s virtual reality experience had a large queue but perhaps a little underwhelming in the end.

For Kubrick fans this is probably the must-see exhibition of the summer, and like last year’s beautifully curated show about The Jam, Daydreaming with Kubrick is insightful and celebratory. There’s a huge amount of imagination on display and the diversity of exhibits – painting, video, sculpture, sound installation, immersion and 3D visualisation – make for a really eye-opening wander through the gallery. Above all, the huge love of Kubrick comes across, particularly the numerous ways in which his body of film has inspired fans to create further works of art. Fan fiction it may be but it redefines the term and is certainly not something to scorn. So whether you’ve seen every second of his work or don’t know his films that well and miss many of the references, this show allows you to appreciate the influence and impact of a visionary director.

Daydreaming with Kubrick is at Somerset House until 24 August. Entry is £12.50 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

The Jam: About the Young Idea – Somerset House

Going Underground, A Town Called Malice, Eton Rifles, That’s Entertainment and my favourite The Bitterest Pill – all songs by The Jam who are the subject of this new exhibition at Somerset House. It charts the history  and legacy of a band that formed in 1972, did the usual rounds of playing the Working Men’s Clubs and other small gigs before eventually releasing a series of much loved hits between 1977 and 1982 when they called it a day at the height of their success. London has played host to a number of music exhibitions in recent years including Kylie and David Bowie at the V&A, but none have had quite the same intimate feel as this exhibition co-curated by Paul Weller’s sister Nicky who, back in its heyday, ran The Jam fan club. What emerges therefore is a show that plays down the glamour, giving instead a sense of the real people and most importantly the music.

My own love of The Jam started at university more than twenty years after most of their songs had been released, introduced by friend who even then knew far more about music than I ever will, and while I can’t claim to have the same kind of understanding of the times in which their songs were written, they have become very much part of my London soundtrack. At least one Jam song will shuffle onto my ipod every day referencing familiar London things such as Wardour Street, Tube Stations (at midnight), the Waterloo (& City) Line, so, although the memorabilia on display may have added meaning for original fans – who certainly made up the majority of the attendees on the first weekend – it’s still a fascinating insight into the world of The Jam for those who’ve joined the party somewhat later.

After walking through a stage set with the bands guitars and drums, this very human story begins with schooldays and home-life with photos of the lads growing up as well as school reports, early artworks and newspaper articles. Far from the crystal clear digital images we’re used to seeing at exhibitions, this is full of those wonderful 70s and 80s photos that have fuzzy exposure and crinkled edges. It really adds something to this story to see the real photos that the Weller family has kept in albums and attics for decades. From the beginning it’s clear that this is a family affair and the role of John Weller (to whom the exhibition is dedicated), former boxer and cabbie, is affectionately emphasised in managing the band during their years of fame.

Into the next room and the focus is on their early gigs, many of which only cost £1 (!) so the walls are pasted with flyers and posters as they made their way up the billing. This is accompanied by some performance photographs and difficult tours of America, all of which went in to creating their distinctive sound influenced by Mod styles and early Punk. But it wasn’t just the music that became distinctive and the exhibition demonstrates how their sartorial style of 60s-esque smart black suits and white shoes evolved into more colourful looks as their success grew. Interesting too that some suppliers of their replicable look (including Shelleys shoes, Fred Perry jackets and Ben Sherman shirts) began advertising their clothes ‘as worn by’, to increase sales among fans. Happily a number of recognisable items are on display including a trunk of clothes from one of their tours.

One of the most interesting sections focuses on the band’s engagement with fans, which was of first importance to the group. Run by Paul’s mum Ann, and sister Nicky there are lots of letters on display from fans engaging with the Fan Club which have been carefully kept for more than 30 years. It’s sweet to read them, suggesting a more innocent time when all fans wanted to do was meet their idols for a cup of tea. It makes for an interesting contrast with today when in some cases celebrities only want the fame and forget the fans that put them there. Again emphasising the family connection, there are some lovely stories about Weller’s family making fans cups of tea when they turned up on their doorsteps or giving them money for accommodation instead of sleeping by the stage door. It’s these kinds of insight that add real warmth to this exhibition and explains why The Jam continues to be so beloved by their fans.

There are some interesting videos with tributes to John Weller which are worth watching offering some nice anecdotes about the history of the band as well as interviews with Paul, Nicky and Ann Weller, as well as Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler. In another side room is an old-school music wall made up of multiple screens showing the music videos as well as displaying the guitars and quotes from later musicians on why they still love The Jam. In the final section, the role of the record company comes under examination and the uneasy relationship the band had with their expectations and demands. Here there are copies of all the albums and singles in chronological order so you can appreciate the artwork over the years, as well as alternative versions from around the world including Japan and Spain. Then suddenly it’s all over and with a heavy heart you’re reading some newspaper coverage of the unexpected split and a wall high shot of the final gig.

About the Young Idea is a great tribute to the story of one of Britain’s finest bands. Curated by Tony Turk, Nicky Weller and Russell Reader, its success lies in the pure focus on the music and its effects rather than unnecessary forays into the band’s private lives and subsequent careers. A critic of the Alexander McQueen exhibition complained that there wasn’t enough biography, just the clothes, but when you create something for public consumption, the artist(s) behind it is only a part of the picture, so the decision here to tell the story of The Jam rather than the individuals is the right one, although in places a little extra context on life in the 70s and 80s Britain would be useful for younger visitors.

The only criticism is actually for Somerset House who has misjudged the entry level to these rooms and it appeared enormously overbooked. This may be a first weekend phenomenon but turning up on time and having to wait in a 25 minute queue for my timeslot is excessive and the first couple of rooms are so small that you queue around those too, until things finally open up later on. It’s annoying and some people did leave before they saw anything, so my advice is to absolutely book ahead (no tickets were available on the day) especially for a weekend, and turn up early so at least you’ll be near the front of your timeslot group. It may even out over the run but hopefully Somerset House will reduce the ticket to timeslot ratio to solve the problem.

Don’t let that put you off though, The Jam: About the Young Idea feels as fresh and exciting as the band themselves must have done in 1977. Judging by the extraordinary interest from original fans and the next generation, many of whom are still sporting that distinctive Jam style, this is the must see exhibition of the summer, and at £9.50 for adults actually very good value. You’ll definitely want to rush home and start playing the music all over again. And tomorrow when another song comes onto my ipod I’ll be able to marvel at how three young men in their early twenties created a lasting legacy.

The Jam. About the Young Idea is at Somerset House until 31 August. Tickets are £9.50 for adults, £7 for concessions, but do book in advance and be prepared for some queuing.

Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War – Somerset House

For the next four years the First World War will dominate much of the cultural and academic output of the UK as the hundredth anniversary of the conflict is commemorated. The newly revamped Imperial War Museum reopens its doors in July, whilst the BBC has years of dramas, documentaries and events planned to mark the occasion. For some time there has been a visible separation between the public impression of the war – dominated by needless slaughter and disillusioned men in horrific conditions – and the work of historians who have presented a more nuanced picture of men enduring terrible conditions, but wanting to do their duty and ‘see it through’ so that a British victory was the only possible outcome.

By 2018, therefore, it is hoped that many of the long-established myths will lessen their hold, and that the experience of the Western Front will be shared with voices of those who served not just in, and from, other parts of the Empire, but on the home front and in other services – the airforce and the navy – whose contribution to victory was hugely valuable. One key way to do this is to let the men who were there speak for themselves, which is exactly what Somerset House and the National Trust are doing with its current exhibition of Stanley Spencer’s large scale canvas paintings from the Sandham Memorial Chapel.

Painted over six years, these double-hung images fill the room and depict a mixture of scenes from Spencer’s time as a hospital orderly at a former asylum in Bristol, and on active service in Macedonia. Interestingly, rather than showing gruesome battle scenes, these paintings depict the everyday activities and routines that formed the majority of their time at war – reading maps, dressing, laundry and kit inspection. Although you would think these cosy images of domesticity would sit uneasily against such a backdrop, they are, in fact, somewhat reassuring. Although in many ways a highly mechanised conflict, it is exactly such touches of ordinary humanity that make it a fascinating period.

For example, ‘Tea in the Hospital Ward’ shows men tucking-in to bread and jam around a table while others lay on the beds behind. It looks less like a room of wounded men and more a public school dormitory. My favourite showed men dressing under gauzy mosquito nets as they prepare for their morning parade. Whatever you think of Spencer’s skill as an artist and his cartoonish shapes, you can see a clear line from this collection to the work of later artists such as Beryl Cook, and epic tales such as ‘The Vanity of Small Difference’, Grayson Perry’s brilliant quasi-religious tapestry series.

More than anything, this exhibition shows us that the First World War was not an unremitting torrent of slaughter, but moments of high activity punctuated by long periods of near -domesticated stillness. Spencer deliberately chose not to paint battle scenes, but his memorial chapel paintings tell us that there were many other elements to this conflict. By returning the voices of servicemen to the stories of the war – through diaries, letters, art, poetry, oral testimony and the countless other ways in which it was expressed – we get closer to understanding the nature of the war experience and why men continued to fight.

Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War is at Somerset House until 26 January and moves to Chichester from February to June.

2013 Cultural Review of the Year

At this time of the year schedules are filled with retrospectives, so what better time to look back and reflect on my favourite cultural activities of the last twelve months.  2013 was another great year for the arts in London, giving us huge diversity and the chance to see rare and intriguing events. There have been lows of course – the less said about Adore the better! – But hardly a weekend had gone by without at least one London outing. So, in reverse order, here are my top 10 cultural highlights of 2013:

10 – Miles Aldridge: I Only Want You to Love Me – Somerset House’s exhibition of beautiful prints by the Vogue photographer influenced by Hitchcock and film noir.

9 – Scenes from a Marriage – my first visit to St James’s theatre to see this emotional production of a crumbling marriage with great central performances from Olivia Williams and Mark Bazeley.

8 – Othello – the National Theatre at its best, transporting the action to a modern army base. Adrian Lester was on top form as Othello, but I was cheering for Rory Kinnear’s brilliantly malevolent Iago.

7 – Victoriana – the Guildhall’s quirky exhibition of Victorian inspired artwork included a hair cake and plenty of taxidermy. A great chance to see lesser known artists, enjoy a quiet gallery and squirm!

6 – L.S. Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life – my first blog post covered this great Tate Britain exhibition. Showing Lowry’s development as a painter building up to the wonderful industrial-scapes for which he’s most famous.

5 – London Film Festival – 3 of the events I saw at my first festival were great; a chance to see new work from around the world as well as influential classics. Parkland depicting the aftermath of the JFK assassination was a great thriller, whilst a superb performance from Dirk Bogarde unravelling a blackmail-plot in Victim, influenced the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

4 – Macbeth – Kenneth Branagh’s return to the stage was a triumph. Innovatively performed in a disused church in Manchester and emphasising the nature of evil, this was one of the theatrical highlights of the year.

3 – Lichtenstein – My favourite exhibition of 2013 at Tate Modern was the first retrospective in over 20 years. Seen before I started my blog, this was a fantastic showcase of Lichtenstein’s deceptively simple style – a print cannot prepare you for how affecting the paintings really are.

2 – Private Lives – so good I saw it twice, Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens were fantastic as the sparring couple in my favourite Coward play. Great chemistry, and great set at the Gielgud, this may well rival the Alan Rickman and Lindsey Duncan version as a definitive production.

1 – Richard II – no surprises here! This RSC production was undoubtedly the best thing I’ve seen this year – and probably any other year too! Having waited for most of 2013 to see it, everything about this production was amazing and David Tennant was beyond spectacular as the ill-fated King.

Retrospectives can be a bit sad, especially if you missed these things. But never fear, as 2014 already has plenty of treats lined up – Sam Mendes King Lear with Simon Russell Beale opens at the National Theatre in January – all sold out until March (and I don’t have a ticket – boo!), but more seats are released in February, and failing that there’s an NT Live showing on 1st May; Blithe Spirit with Angela Lansbury comes to the Gielgud in March – having seen her eccentric novelist in Death on the Nile, this will be a perfect role for her;  A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson is scheduled for the Young Vic in the Summer, whilst Greg Doran’s two Henry IV plays for the RSC and Barbican arrive in the autumn. In exhibitions we look forward to Constable at the V&A in September, David Bailey at the Portrait Gallery from February and Jean Paul Gaulthier at the Barbican from April. 2014 is looking pretty promising.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore – Somerset House

I have to confess, I had no idea who Isabella Blow was when I went to this exhibition but I was intrigued by the description on the website and a rare chance to see a private collection. I’ve had mixed experiences with Somerset House fashion events; the Miles Aldridge prints earlier this year were beautiful and very nicely put together, but the 2012 Valentino show was a big let-down. Lots of pretty dresses, some worn by famous people, but next to no curation, sense of chronology or information about the inspiration, purpose or history of the garments.

Thankfully, this is quite different. It begins with some sensible background on Isabella, her aristocratic upbringing and early life clearly a useful means to promote the designers, photographers and models she took under her wing when she eventually worked for Vogue, Tatler and the Sunday Times. So this is her wardrobe, a unique collection of clothes, hats and shoes interspersed with letters, photographs and video. Most famously she brought Alexander McQueen’s entire student collection, several pieces of which are displayed here, and as his clothes dominate the exhibition this was clearly an important relationship for both them.

Similarly, she helped to launch the career of milliner Philip Treacy whose spectacular hats are the most striking part of the collection. Whatever your views on the validity of fashion as an art form, Treacy’s innovative approach to hat design and sculptural form is incredible; it’s not just the use of strange materials and the creation of unexpected shapes, but through unusual placement and designs that extend beyond the head, he has changed the purpose the hat from a functional item to an artistic statement. My favourites were butterfly themed, first an eye-mask, a beautiful red and gold creation that covers one eye with tendrils curling perfectly away from the face, and another with a swarm of red butterflies around the head. You can also see the inspiration of Rolls Royce (who sponsored an early show) through some sleek and beautifully designed pieces early in the exhibition.

Somerset House has done a good job with this one, the shape of the exhibition is great, early influences, to main collection, to pieces inspired by Blow, all cleverly displayed. I also liked the photographs of models Blow had discovered, suitably presented in a separate room to maintain focus. Using different types of exhibit emphasised her varied contribution to the fashion industry. Vastly improving on the Valentino exhibition, each outfit is given its own space, and, crucially, plenty of information. And although these rooms are filled with items created by other people, you do leave with a sense of Isabella Blow’s character – dynamic, eccentric and innovative – eager to support talented people. I may not have known who she was before, but I’m glad I got the chance to find out.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore is on at Somerset House until 2 March. Full price entry is £12.50.

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