Tuesday, 12 May 2015


Not necessarily better or worse, but different.  They bring, among other qualities, colour, compassion and children to the arid world of contemporary art.
It has been a fact little commented on that there were so many women artists represented at the Venice Biennale 2015. Perhaps that's accidental or perhaps it's just that 30 years after Guerilla Girls first started their campaign to expose the rampant sexism in the art world, it is finally time for them to get their say as a matter of course.
In the national pavilions in the Giardini, some of the very best work on display is by women artists, whether it be Sarah Lucas's custard coloured rethinking of the British Pavilion or the way that the 78-year-old Joan Jonas turns the US Pavilion into an entrancing fantasy of her own thoughts, with a multi-media installation that binds films of children dressing up, with old American legends, drawings of bees and fish with driftwood and mirrors into an entirely satisfying whole.  It speaks of memory and ghosts and music and madness and made the bustle of the Biennale a suddenly meditative place to be.
Meanwhile, in the French quarter, Celeste Boursier-Mougenot offered another different perspective on nature with uprooted trees that followed you round, like a magic forest, or Birnham Wood come to the Rialto; Fiona Hall turned the Australian pavilion into wonderland of ticking clocks, driftwood as moulded as sculpture, masks and nests, making witty and unexpected collisions speak loudly of the past poking its fingers into the present. Hito Steyeri provided a haunting, energetic digital installation with great dancing for the German entry.
For Japan, Chihauru Shiota hung red string from the ceiling, with keys from around the world dangling like jewels.  The effect was both dazzling and strangely evocative, like a miasma of lost answers tantalisingly out of reach.  For Switzerland, Pamela Rosenkranz filled a pool with viscous, pink liquid, and coloured the walls complementary green, creating an image that might have been fashioned in a pharmaceutical laboratory not a gallery.  For Chile, another veteran, Paz Errazuriz turned a grave but gentle eye on transvestites in prison and abandoned mentally ill inhabitants of an institution, with tender and moving effect.
And it wasn't just in the nationally sponsored pieces that female artists gleamed.  They irradiated the main exhibition, curated by the Nigerian Okwui Enwezor too. I loved Marlene Dumas's ghostly skulls, like a frieze around a wall and Taryn Simon's pressed flowers sitting delicately atop heavy tomes of economic forum reports.  Mini retrospectives showed off the power of Ellen Gallagher and Lorna Simpson;  Sonia Bryce provided a bright, provocative video about the relationship between men and women in Exquisite Cacophony; Adrian Piper won the Golden Lion for a highly conceptual piece which asked visitors to sign statements saying things like "I will always do what I say I am going to do" or "I will always be too expensive to buy."
All these voices are sharply contrasted, but they stood out against the heaviness of so much of the Biennale's thinking this year, the iron weaponry, the bludgeoning message that workers of the world must unite to shake off their chains.  The women, by sheer force of numbers, spoke strongly to me and made themselves heard; they were radical and thought provoking without ever attempting to beat me into submission.  I loved the experience of encountering them.


Enwezor's entire Biennale offering was a critique of the capitalist values that the art world too often represents, setting readings of Marx's Das Kapital at the heart of a deeply serious and deeply political display. This caused odd collisions: the collectors confronted by a critique of their collecting, the curators faced with the sheer grind of hard labour; the artist biting the sponsor's hand that feeds him.  But it also made you deeply aware of art that really had a message - where it said something that mattered in a way nothing else could achieve.
I thought Armando Lulaj in the Albanian pavilion spoke very loudly of the confusions and chaos of Communist dictatorship and the importance of a different vision of state and soverignity.  His work felt meant and important, reaching far beyond contemporary art cliche.
In My East is Your West, commisioned by the Gujral Foundation, the work of Pakistan's Rashid Rana was exhibited alongside a display by the Indian artist Shilpa Gupta. Rana hit upon a very direct way of making a deeply felt point.  As part of a five room installation, people in a market in Lahore were linked by live stream to the people walking through the Palazzo Benzon in Venice. You could talk and wave over an internet link - and the directness of that communication felt as fresh, inspiring and important as anything else in Venice.  The critics were, by and large, slightly underwhelmed, but the simplicity of the concept seemed to me to be its strength. (See below)


The Venice Biennale is a madness, but it has two abiding strengths.  It brings a vast amount of art from all over the world to one place and allows you to see it.  Because the art is chosen in so many different ways by so many different people, it is remarkably various and free from the defining constraints of either curators or the market.
As a result, it emphasises how much in art is purely a matter of personal taste.  There is no ultimate judgement, no final standard.  I found Sarah Lucas's show energising and witty; many of my colleagues found it shallow.  I adored Steve McQueen's Ashes, but it has barely rated a blip on most people's radar.  I found
John Akromfrah's video Vertigo Sea, rather over-lush and over-easy in its startling effects.  Many critics think highly of it.
The power of all art is that it should make you think, challenge your notions, make you see the world differently - either by its beauty, its intelligence, its significance or all three.   Venice reaffirms that it is possible for 100 people to look at the same thing and see it differently which is, in its way, incredibly comforting.  It's an affirmation of the richness of things, a thumbs up for complexity.

Monday, 9 February 2015

The Associates at Sadler's Wells - a hit and two misses

Peter Chu and Anne Plamondon in A Picture of You Falling. Photograph by Michael Slobodian

One difficulty for dance is finding a way of letting choreographers try out ideas in front of an audience without exposing them to dispiriting criticism.  Resolution! at The Place exists to do exactly that.  You pays your money, takes your choice, and you know that in turning up to the annual experiment-fest you are risking your eyes and your evening.  You might see something wonderful or something less good, but it is fun simply to be there in hope.
At Sadler's Wells or the Royal Opera House, however, if you buy a ticket for the main house your expectations are higher. And the problem with The Associates, a triple bill at Sadler's, was that the work on display was more experimental and less finished than I expected. But one wondrous exception made the entire evening worthwhile.
Let's dispense with the misses first.  
Kate Prince's Smile, a solo created as a showcase for Tommy Franzen, felt like a misstep in both their careers.  She has enjoyed great success with ZooNation Dance Company with works such as Into the Hoods and - more recently - Some Like It Hip Hop and The Mad Hatter's Tea Party.  He is simply a wonder, a seemingly boneless hip hop dancer, with grace, presence and style.
But this tribute to Charlie Chaplin - and the sad life of the clown - was over-extended, sentimental and cliched, saved only by Franzen's skills as a performer.  It simply didn't delve deep enough to make any impact.
Hofesh Shechter's the barbarians in love -how I wish he'd readopt capitals - also skated along the surface of things, though in a more intense way.  It combined the choreographer's traditional love of smoke effects and a ferocious, pounding score with a new interest in baroque music (Couperin) and classical ballet (presumably because he is making a work for the Royal Ballet.)
The piece seems to suggest a contrast between the order of the past and the wildness of the present, hinting at a need for discipline and control, an impression emphasised by a spoken soundtrack that suggests Shechter is struggling to find inspiration and has cheated on his wife.  It is all a bit puzzling and not very effective, particularly since the dancers are tested by classical shapes that seem outside their experience. At the close, when they stand staring at the audience in degrees of nakedness like ancient statues, I felt irritated rather than intrigued.
But the night was redeemed by an extraordinary contribution from the Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, the most recent associate to be appointed to the Sadler's Wells roster.  A Picture of You Falling - part of a larger work called The Second Person - tells, in expressionistic and confident strokes, the story of a relationship from beginning to fraught end.  With an evocative sound track by Owen Belton and text by Pite herself, the movements and occurrences we see on stage are also described in words, read with just the right haunted weight by Kate Strong.
What I love about Pite is her precision. Every step, each reaction, is thoughtful and exact. The dancers - Peter Chu and Anne Plamondon - seem to inhabit their actions so completely that every muscle, each turn of the head, or flex of the back, speaks volumes.  You read the movement like a book - and the text sounds like music.  
At one moment, Chu falls repeatedly to the floor, showing in articulated stages the words we hear: "This is a picture of you falling. Knees, hip, hands, elbows, head. This is how you collapse."  His hands shoot out, in sad squares.
Under moving spotlights, on a darkened stage, the piece feels like a play by Samuel Beckett or a Japanese haiku.  It shows that less is more, letting ideas resonate into the space it had created. It felt timeless and truthful.  I could have watched it over and over again.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Why The Hard Problem is a conundrum

Olivia Vinall as Hilary in The Hard Problem. Image by Johan Persson

Tom Stoppard's new play premiered at The National Theatre last week.  It was in every sense a big occasion: this is Stoppard's first new play for nine years and the last to be directed by Nicholas Hytner during his triumphant 12-year term as the theatre's artistic director.
Anticipation ran ridiculously high.  Then the play started.  
In a typically Stoppardian move we enter on what might be a love scene between a teacher and his pupil; only it isn't romance they are discussing. Or at least only incidentally. Instead they are locked in argument about the nature of consciousness - the hard problem of the title. Is it purely a physical mechanism, something produced by the hot wiring of the brain, or does it spring from something and somewhere different?
The entire play continues to explore this question.  Hilary (Olivia Vinall), its appealing protagonist, is a psychologist who wants to believe there is more to life than the mechanistic workings of biology and chemistry,  Unfashionably, she prays to God, hoping for miracles - a course of action prompted by her sense of guilt and sorrow about something that happened 13 years before.  It is her longing that propels the play - and you feel it is Stoppard's desire too, a reluctance to assent to science as the only source of answers.
Even more than most Stoppard, the play is full of long speeches of explication. It covers an extraordinary amount of ground: not just the question of consciousness, but philosophical arguments about the nature of altruism, the workings of the financial markets, and the likelihood of coincidence.
 Despite Hytner's elegant direction, Bob Crowley's clever set which suggests the electronic pulses of brain activity, and some good performances - notably from Vinall and Lucy Robinson - while I was watching it, I felt engrossed, but slightly disappointed. It seemed to fail to spring into full and engaging life. 
Yet on the bus home, I found I was thinking about it, slotting its pieces into my mind. In these days that have followed, it has stayed with me, making me ponder the questions it raised.
 I realised how its action is actually a laboratory model of its argument - how the uncharacteristic altruism of the billionaire financier Jerry Kroll (brilliant Anthony Calf, shouting into a mobile in many languages) is not a failure of plotting but an example of the unpredictability of human behaviour; how Hilary's actions are an embodiment of the love which her cynical tutor reduces to the need of the species to maximise gene survival. .
This sense of the richness of the piece, its thought-provoking subtlety doesn't alter my experience of watching it. But it does make me value it more.
At his best, Stoppard can both entertain and challenge, simultaneously making his audience feel smart and reducing them to laughter.  
The Hard Problem never does that.  Sometimes, indeed, it makes you feel rather stupid as you struggle to follow its arguments.
For that reason, I don't think it can be counted as the playwright at his very best. Yet it is vital and stimulating, resonant in a way that many more obviously enjoyable plays are not.  Having seen it, my world view and interest has been changed.  That in itself is a definition of terrific theatre.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

OSCARS 2015: why Inherent Vice should be nominated as Best Picture

Every year, I try to watch every single film that is nominated for the Oscars.  And every year, I fail. But this year, I am going to fail for a new reason: because I simply want to watch Inherent Vice over and over again. 
Paul Thomas Anderson's meandering masterpiece is nominated in two categories: the director's own script based on Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel is up for best adapted screenplay, and the vintage Seventies costumes, so rumpled you can feel them, win Mark Bridges a nod in the costume design category.  
However Inherent Vice is not nominated in the Best Picture category (even though two potential slots remain) and Anderson fails to get a best director mention. How can that be?
In a year when the whirling imagination of Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Birdman and the labour of love that is Richard Linklater's Boyhood are up for the big prizes, it is hard to moan about the Academy playing it safe.
Yet the absence of Inherent Vice leaves a travesty shaped void. This is a film that is so energetically, vividly original that it fills your mind and imagination, crowding out other paler, more inspid creations.
It takes a novel that people have always suggested was un-filmable and fashions it into a shape where the words still tumble richly out of people's mouths, full of imagery and meanings not quite fathomed. It takes the conventions of the detective genre - most noticeably of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, which was also set in California in the dog days of hippie dreaming - and leaves just enough of them intact to give you a plot that floats and wanders like the pot-fuddled thoughts of its stoner hero Doc (Joaquin Phoenix, above).
Doc staggers dazed through the landscape of Los Angeles, in search of missing men and even more elusive truth.  He carries with him a sense of sadness, but also of discovery; we see the changing city, its people and plots, through his wondering eyes.  
We see them through Anderson's too.  Here is a director who understands that film isn't ever simply about images unspooling on celluloid: more than any other filmaker working today, he makes you feel the texture of his stories.  It is not just the costumes you feel you can touch; his entire created world seems multi-dimensional, full of colour, light and sound.
In this way Anderson seems to penetrate to the mysterious heart of things. He doesn't explain it. Just shows it. Tips his hat to its beating presence. 
Perhaps that refusal to tie life up in neat bows explains his absence from the Oscar race, where viewers and voters like things presented in neat, tidy packages. But it makes his cinema, his films, a place where you want to stay and ponder.  It makes him, I think, the most significant filmmaker we have.  We should cherish him.