Raine and Snow

•December 14, 2010 • Leave a Comment

And this our life exempt from public haunt

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,        

Sermons in stones and good in everything.

- from, William Shakespeare, As You Like It

In response both to this post  titled The Enemy of Contemplation (about overcrowded “blockbuster” exhibitions) and to the onset of the British winter, I’d like to make a case for snow as the Aid to Contemplation.

In the title poem of his first collection in a decade, How Snow Falls (published last week, with the season’s first snow), Craig Raine refers to “this snow, this transfiguration”. The poem begins like this: “Like the unshaven prickle / of a sharpened razor, / this new coldness in the air”; but, as it continues, it is newness – or “transfiguration” – not coldness that comes to the fore.

Few things have the ability to make us see differently – sometimes, snow is one of them. Earthy fields, under thick snow, take on a different character. New-born yet eternal, they don’t fully belong to modern life. The scene in Monet’s 1875 “Snow Scene at Argenteuil” doesn’t look much different from those around rural Britain right now, its telling details snowed-out.

Monet, Snow Scene at Argenteuil, 1875

Monet, 'Snow Scene at Argenteuil' (1875)

On a recent visit to Edinburgh, I was struck by the quietness of the place. City sounds were muted by drifts of snow – which, in some place, had levelled-out the pavement and road. Unusable cars lined the main streets, some tyre-deep in snow; pedestrians slipped about, clinging to railings and each other. And, each morning, the whiteness was startling.

Art deals in modulation, narrative, transfiguration. It is newness that makes us consider what we had, and have. What you can’t get in Tate Modern on a busy Sunday afternoon, you might find up a snow-capped peak… So, “Blow, blow, thou winter wind.”

  

This post was originally published at ft.com/arts-extra, for which I work as an editor.

‘How Snow Falls’ by Craig Raine, Atlantic Books £14.99.

 How Snow Falls

Like the unshaven prickle 

of a sharpened razor,

this new coldness in the air, 

the pang

of something intangible. 

Filling our eyes,

the sinusitis of perfume 

without the perfume.

And then love’s vertigo, 

love’s exactitude,

this snow, this transfiguration

we never quite get over.

The Future of Books

•August 26, 2010 • Leave a Comment

“Thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn.”

So said Shakespeare in The Winter’s Tale – and James Shapiro in a London Review of Books panel discussion on The Future of Books.

“A book” is both an object and a medium, and as the way we read changes, that distinction becomes more apparent. Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where this discussion took place last week, opens his programme blurb “It is my privilege to welcome you to the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2010″ and closes “On behalf of the team I am proud to welcome you to the world’s greatest festival of ideas.” Notice the shift from actual to abstract; “Book” becomes “ideas” –  just as the “book” in “e-book” is the text, not the object.

So are physical books “things dying”? Amazon‘s recent announcement that its e-book sales have outstripped hardback sales suggests so. Yet, as another panelist, LRB publisher Nicholas Spice, was keen to point out, the LRB‘s circulation is up on last year, as are profits at Penguin.

The stats are, as ever, contradictory. What’s harder to contest is that more and more people are turning from print to electronic media for news, information and – as Google begin their mission to digitise the world’s books – for literature. If more people read, say, the Guardian online than in newspaper form, then, in a sense, the field has been levelled.  Guardian.co.uk has blogs: so do mums, ex-pats and foodies, each with their own niche (cf. my posts on “citizen journalism” and online communities). That’s why people talk about the internet being “democratic”.

But this worries Andrew O’Hagan, novelist and critic also on the panel. The process some call “democratisation” – and O’Hagan calls “amateurisation” – is lowering editorial standards, he argues. It works like this: the literary criticism of non-professionals is less well written and researched than that of professionals; readers get used to it and lower their expectations; professional critics are priced out of their jobs. Perhaps more worrying is O’Hagan’s argument that we readers aren’t just putting up with bad writing, but, by relying on sites like Wikipedia for information, “losing our interest in the provenance of fact.”

Other panelists, too, had evidence of “amateurisation” at work. Shapiro, author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and Professor of English at Columbia University, used to teach a book reviewing course that has since been scrapped due to lack of demand. Nowadays, he said, most graduates of the course email him asking for references for their law school applications – not for writing tips. (See the article Death of the Book Review for more.)

***

So, people are less willing to pay for journalism than they used to be, turning instead to the internet for the free version. But are do they feel the same about books? Is a digital book preferable to a smelly old paperback?

I’m inclined to think e-books won’t replace the physical ones for at least a couple of generations. And that publishers will survive the slow shift from old to new, as long as people are willing to pay for the new. (Those who will suffer are independent bookshops and public libraries.)

I imagine I will see the book newborn and repackaged many times in my life. But I am certain I will never see its death – for a book is not what sits on a bookshelf, but a distillation of life.

Olafur Eliasson: Innen Stadt Außen

•August 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The first room of Olafur Eiasson’s solo exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, contains two works: “Reality Compass” (2010), a delicate kinetic sculpture suspended from the ceiling, and “Berliner Bürgersteig” (2010), is a series of thick, rough slabs of granite once part of a Berlin pavement.

When I entered the room a small blonde boy was stamping up and down the slabs, gleefully flouting all the rules of gallery behaviour he’d been taught. But he was not, in fact, doing anything wrong. Eliasson’s work encourages us to engage with it – and sometimes that means stamping on it.

I didn’t realise “Reality Compass” was turning slowly until I stopped and watched it for a while: as long as I was moving faster than it, its movement was imperceptible. It was asking me to slow down. To take my time here.

So it was slowly and carefully that I trod the “Berliner Bürgersteig” (below) and entered the second room. It felt strange, like a performance. Art in a gallery often seems conscious of its being in a gallery (kind of like T.S. Eliot’s flowers that have “the look of flowers that are looked at”) but Eliasson’s work, I think, goes further by relying upon us not just to observe it but to realise its potential. It is this collaboration between visitor and object that makes it “art”.

The reflective surface visible through the doorways above is “Mercury window” (2010), a large bumpy mirror in which the world appears bitty and unstable. Eliasson uses the word “window” ironically – as a reference, I think, to the Renaissance notion of a picture as a window into a space of the same proportions as the real world. “Mercury window” is neither a window nor a mirror – at least not a mirror like Anish Kapoor’s mirrors, perfectly smooth, coolly clever. My reflection fragmented and jumped about when I stood before “Mercury window”; its effect was more troubling than that of Kapoor’s.

Mirrors, reflections and illusions feature prominently in this exhibition – which is unsurprising given Eliasson’s concern with the relationship between art and its consumers. The exhibition’s centrepiece is “Mikroskop” (2010), a large chamber made of mirrors supported by scaffolding the outside. It was dark outside the chamber and almost blindingly light inside. It was also hard to make out the edges of the mirrors, where reflected became reflection. The mirror-walls shook as people passed through, and my reflection wobbled like water. This is how it feels in a fish tank, I thought.

Next I came to “The curious museum” (2010), a window through which visitors appeared to be watching people in the next door building who were, in turn, watching them. The scene was strangely calm.

Then I spotted a familiar face among the next door faces: my own. Ah-ha! There was no next door, only a huge well-positioned mirror – and we were looking at ourselves.

***

Eliasson’s interest in visitor-artwork interaction doesn’t stop at mirrors: there is shadow-play, too. One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition was “Your uncertain shadow” (2010), which spans three rooms, each empty except for a light/projector.

People walked across the rooms casting multiple shadows, swinging their arms and legs, dancing or standing still making bird’s wings with their hands. Their shadows expanded and contracted beautifully as they moved towards or away from the projectors. We took turns to watch each other’s silent performances; it felt irreverent and silly but also like something we should respect. No one left before we had each had our turn in the light.

***

After three rooms filled only with shadows came the larger “Model room” (2003), its vast table loaded with paper sculptures, plastic geometric structures, towers and helix-forms. Amid these were small screens showing short films, some elliptical and collage-like, others documenting the making of the surrounding sculptures. There were neon lamps on the table and so many shadows it was hard to trace their origin. Low globe-shaped lamps and mobiles hung close together from the ceiling, like the model of some alternative solar system.

It felt like entering the workshop – or even the mind – of some eccentric inventor. Adults stood like children marvelling at the ordered chaos before them; children dashed about excitedly, reporting back with new sightings. There seemed an infinite amount to be discovered if – as in the first room – we stopped and looked closely.

In the next room was the film that gave this diverse exhibition its name, “Innen Stadt Außen”, or “Inner City Out”. A white van drives through wintry Berlin with a large mirror fixed to its side, covering all but the driver’s cabin. It reflects bare trees, traffic, cold concrete and people wrapped up against the chill. The frame is often split between what is in front of the camera and what is reflected in the mirror, making it hard to tell what’s “real”. After a few minutes I began to notice that the reflection was slightly more wobbly. (You can watch the video here.)

 

This exhibition seemed to be about our relationship with an environment: about how we perceive it, behave in it and place ourselves within it – be it a gallery room or a city. I realise this is a very subjective interpretation (I know little about Eliasson’s influences or career). It is a conclusion reached, at least partly, by way of my preoccupations at the time. I visited the exhibition on the last of my seven days in Berlin; by then I had a “feel” for the city, having shunned tourist sites in favour of bicycling around different neighbourhoods. But I also felt very much an outsider.

When I go to a new place I often find myself considering the idea of “rootedness”. Is it necessary to “put down roots”? I think so. I never belonged in India, as much as I wanted to, because I couldn’t speak the language and that put so much out of reach. There is a lot I’d like to see and learn, but first I must learn to stay in one place. I have spent the past year moving between different houses in London, between spare rooms and sub-let rooms, and now I’d like to inhabit one awhile. A room of one’s own… I think Virginia Woolf was onto something.

Olafur Eliasson, “The weather project” (2003), Tate modern, London

Francis Alys and futility as art

•July 31, 2010 • Leave a Comment

At Prussia Cove

•May 31, 2010 • Leave a Comment

 It’s nice when something you’re looking forward to comes sooner than you expected. I thought I’d have to wait until September to see Prussia Cove again (see previous post), but then I received an invitation to Johanna and Julian’s Whitsun Wedding.

It was a sunlit Saturday, like in the poem, when we pulled up outside the house, four of us in an old Mercedes. It had been a hot and clammy morning in London, but the sea made London seem unimaginably far away. It looked wild and inviting.

***

Johanna and Julian are both German and live in Berlin, but they met at an IMS session at Prussia Cove. He is a cellist, she a poet. They had invited German and English friends to stay in the house and surrounding cottages, and the wedding service took place in a mixture of both languages.

I’ve been to a lot of weddings in my 23 years (I used to work at them in the holidays) and this was far the nicest. All three days were hot and clear and the mood was mellow. Those of us who had volunteered at chamber music weeks held at Prussia Cove were back in the kitchen feeding the wedding guests – but it didn’t feel much like work, chopping vegetables in the sun then going swimming in the sea “for a break”. One of the best things about it was there were no strangers: there was no-one there who didn’t want to be there. 

Here are some pictures of food and eating…

 

 

This is one of the Indian food stalls we set up on the rocks the evening before the wedding. (Angus the eccentric and wonderful chef, is currently making a documentary about the street food of Calcutta. Note the leaf-plates!)

***

But, for me, the best part of the wedding was not the delicious food, the wild flowers in tin cans nor Julian’s playing the first Bach Cello Suite during the service. The best part was the first dance. The tables were pushed to the sides, the Cornish folk band struck up and the Johanna and Julian took to the floor. They danced without inhibition, stomping to the beat and turning each other fast. They were concentrating hard – concentrating on each other’s bodies and the music, not on any practiced steps. When Caspar, the best man, saw me watching them he leant over. “The first time I saw those two dance,” he said, “I knew they’d get married.”

***

As I wrote before, something about being in Prussia Cove makes me recall lines from literature. Seeing the bride and groom dance like that made me think of Mr Emerson, in E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View, when he tells the heroine, Lucy Honeychurch,

“When I think what life is, and how seldom love is answered by love – Marry him; it is one of the moments for which the world was made.”

The Good-Morrow

•April 30, 2010 • 1 Comment

I spent the middle week of this month in a house on the edge of a cliff. I decided to take a week off work to volunteer at the International Musicians Seminar (IMS) at Prussia Cove, near Penzance, Cornwall. And how much a week can do!

 ***

IMS hosts two annual sessions in this great stone house overlooking the sea. In April, talented young musicians take master classes with maestri – Andras Schiff and Steven Isserlis among them – in one of two 10-day programmes. Some of the students come as soloists, others in quartets or trios. In September, the exceptional students are invited back to play chamber music with the maestri and older professionals; some of them then tour Britain, finishing up at the Wigmore Hall in London.

Music is taken seriously at Prussia Cove. IMS was set up in 1972 by the  Hungarian violinist Sándor Végh, who saw that this  beautiful, remote place could serve as both a retreat and an inspiration for musicians. The atmosphere, particularly in April, is intense: I soon learnt that most of the students had been playing their chosen instruments since the age of four and had grown up listening to the maestri playing, be it on the radio from Melbourne or in concert halls in New York.

***

As a “helper”, I found Prussia Cove a place of intensity and great freedom. I felt focussed – writing, reading, even thinking more than usual – yet unpressurized. Perhaps being surrounded by music-making stimulated my own version of creativity.  Every room became a practice room, and I liked to walk slowly down the long, cool corridors of the house hearing different pieces of music drift through each door. It gave me the strange sensation that  I was hearing my various (and often contradictory) thoughts.

*** 

The masterclasses are “open” classes – somwhere between rehearsals and recitals. Students come to listen to the maestri imparting wise words; helpers wander in with novels and mugs of coffee after shifts in the kitchen ; and IMS supporters pay a little to come and discover the “next big thing”.

I had never heard music of that standard played in such informal settings, and it was a revelation. In one particular cello lesson I sat in on, the maestro stopped the student’s playing at various points to ask her, for example, what the “colour” of the last phrase had been and where the tensions lay. They discussed which emotions should inhabit which bits of the score, and how all this could be achieved with different lengths of bow, kinds of pressure, types vibrato etc. It was  a fascinating mix of technical and psychological.

To  musicians it will seem obvious, but I learnt at Prussia Cove that playing a piece of music is like reading a script. That it is about an imagined relationship between composer and musician, and playwright and actor –  a meeting of intention and interpretation.

 ***

Between helping in the kitchen, listening to classes and walking the clifftops with new friends, I set about preparing a lesson on John Donne (I do one-on-one A-Level tutoring in the evenings). I have always believed that my reading of a poem changes depending on where I am or who reads it to me. This was especially true of that week and Donne’s “The Good-Morrow”: the more I read it the more it seemed to me to be about Prussia Cove.

“The Good-Morrow”

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I

Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?

But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?

Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?

’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.

If ever any beauty I did see,

Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.

 

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,

Which watch not one another out of fear;

For love, all love of other sights controls,

And makes one little room an everywhere.

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

  

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;

Where can we find two better hemispheres,

Without sharp north, without declining west?

Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;

If our two loves be one, or, thou and I

Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

 

Prussia Cove might be Donne’s “little room” – one that was both “an everywhere” and different from anywhere else. When I was there, I had no mobile reception and no contact with anyone outside that small natural harbour; for one week, it was as though nothing else existed.  Perhaps that made Prussia Cove unreal; yet there everything seemed somehow more real and more meaningful – and normal life “but a dream” of it.

When I got back to London, I opened an email from my father about Prussia Cove. “That place, the sea, the wind, the birds, the music, the cheesepie,” he wrote, “what a heavenly mix an match. The word ‘fulfill’ might have been coined in that half walled garden.”

I think he puts it perfectly.

More on political art

•March 26, 2010 • Leave a Comment

blogged recently about the effectiveness of political art – thoughts that were stirred by the Richard Hamilton exhibition currently at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

Here are some more musings…

The problem with “protest art” is that its power often lessens not only as news reels roll on but as artistic tastes change. Hamilton has been called the “father of Pop Art”: he was doing it in the early 1950s ten years before Warhol started doing it in America. This is one of his best-known Pop Art works:

Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (1956)

But Pop Art has saturated urban life – or my perception of it, at least – for so many years now that it is near powerless. I felt a little bit irritated but mainly bored going round the Tate Modern’s Pop Life exhibition last autumn: I’ve simply had enough of it.

I was surprised, then, to find Hamilton’s 1960-70s Swingeing London series, now on show in the Serpentine Gallery, so arresting still. The paintings depict Mick Jagger and Hamilton’s art dealer Robert Fraser handcuffed together in the back of a police car after a drugs raid, and he made them from a photograph of the pair taken by a journalist on the scene.

The “repeated image” has since been done to death (just think of those Warhol spin-offs).  But somehow in Swingeing London it works.

Swingeing London 67 (1968)

[working drawing; ink and gouache on photo]

Swingeing London 67 (1968-9)

[screenprint on canvas, acrylic and collage]

Swingeing London III (1972)

[screenprint and collage]

A strong sweet smell of incense (a) (1972)

[screenprint]

Though Hamilton says things like “the picture created itself”, he does a lot with the graphic he inherits. In Swingeing London bits of basic information were missing: Jagger’s hand held up to shield his face had been whitened out in the original, hastily-snapped photograph, so when making the painting Hamilton had to go back to his sketchbook and draw a friend’s hand, from life.

This slow abstraction of an image – which occurs when its versions are seen in succession – points to the slippery unreliability of a story told through the media. (One could, I imagine, achieve a fast abstraction – a speeded-up, flick-book mutation – by running the length of the Serpentine’s West gallery, head turned 90-degrees towards the row of Swingeing Londons on the wall. But that would not be considered good gallery behaviour.)

***

Hamilton’s friend, the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp said that a work of art will change very rapidly. It will begin to look different (the fading of pigment, or weathering of a sculpture) and to be consumed and interpreted differently.

Interestingly, the works in Modern Moral Matters that make comment on this process are the ones that retain most power. By addressing very the transmission and reception of a message (textual and graphic), these works transcend the narrow, best-before realm of much political art.

I doubt that Hamilton’s bland portrait of Tony Blair, Shock and Awe, made 2007-08, will stir the imaginations of viewers in 50 years time in the same way as his 1988-90 series of depictions of an anonymous Orangeman might.

The latter are simply more interesting to look at.

Shock and Awe (2007-8)

[Hewlett-Packard inkjet print on HP Premium canvas]

***

The Apprentice Boy (1988)

[Dye transfer]

The subject (1988-90)

[oil on canvas]

The Orangeman (1990)

[Offset lithograph in 5 colours, with hand-applied Humbrol enamel]

 
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