Monthly Archives: November 2007

Tate à Tate: visits to Tates Modern and Britain. November 2007.

Tate Modern first, for the installation in the large Turbine Hall.  A space within a space: Shibboleth is a long, snaking crack in the concrete floor: the artist, Doris Salcedo, creating an absence rather than a presence.  It is an interesting piece (though not half as interesting as the accompanying leaflet describes – “…her work strikes to the very foundations of the museum”: no, I think not – perhaps just a few inches down).

It is fun – the part of the installation is watching other people’s reactions (as surely as they were watching mine).  The crack – variously several inches across to only a hair’s breadth – goes the length of the Turbine Hall; it splits and twists, and at times real, apparently accidental, cracks go off at right angles.

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I had read in the paper how the artist was disappointed that so much of the media reaction had been to ask how she had done it, rather than focusing on the intrinsic nature of the work itself.  She was being naïve: the one thing one really wants to know is how was this done.  (It is probably easy to guess; indeed, I’ll bet that if I googled that question, I’d find the answer – though I feel the question is maybe more interesting than the answer!  My money is that they lifted various concrete blocks from the floor, reworked them – rather beautifully, and, with a careful symmetry across the crack and a wonderful, careless asymmetry the length of the crack, made the space between, and then relaid the floor.)  It was carefully designed; despite being a hole in the ground, there was a lot of surface detail, the side of the crack being carefully and lovingly honed, held together with chicken wire.

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There was a particularly childlike joy in walking along the crack, one foot on each side; at its widest, this wasn’t easy.  There were several toddlers hurting across the floor towards he space, gleefully ignoring the signs all over the Turbine Hall imploring us to watch our step.  It was almost as if the floor had been torn apart in an earthquake whilst the rest of the building was unharmed; I kept waiting for an arm to appear from the space, or Buffy and Willow to come running down the incline.

But ultimately I do not believe it was a great piece of art: as with a lot of conceptual, the idea is fascinating and entertaining and enjoyable, but once past that – well, if I need to read the leaflet to understand what it is meant to be about, I don’t feel the art can have been very good at communicating to me; and so it must have failed.

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The next day, I went to the other Tate in London – Tate Britain, where there is a retrospective of the Turner Prize, with work going back to 1984.  I have been to many of the Turner Prize shows, so must have seen much of the work on display here before, although there was a lot I have no recollection of seeing before.

There is an awful lot to see: twenty one years of work by six or so artists a year.  (The 2007 Turner Prize nominees are on show in Tate Liverpool; and one year, 1990, the prize was suspended – the takeaway blurb, summarising the winners and the press reaction to each prize (courtesy of The Guardian), doesn’t actually explain why this was).  I found it an interesting experience, but mainly because it confirmed in me that I know what I like; or more precisely, I know what I don’t like.

Seeing a lot of the work was like seeing old friends again: that sudden recognition of the familiar.  This happened right through the door, when I saw painting by Howard Hodgkin, and I just smiled; and then I glimpsed a beautiful work by Anish Kapoor – three hollow hemispheres of deep blue pigment: standing by them, I felt my hand would disappear if I stretched into the space inside one of the hemispheres.  This is deeply beautiful and moving work – it pulls very strongly.

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A similar work by Anish Kapoor which I photographed in the Hirschorn Gallery in Washington.

I had had to pass Damien Hirst’s “Mother and Child Divided”, not so much a work of art as a work of abattoir.  It is a very clever idea – cutting a cow and a calf in half (hence the title), but the actuality is distinctly distasteful.  I didn’t like it in 1995, and I don’t like it now.

I did, and do, like Rachel Whiteread, who won in 1993.  She creates solid objects out of space, and was illustrated by her 1994 work “House”.  (I have just spent two hours searching through old negatives for some pictures of House; rather strange, sifting through thirty years of negatives.  I couldn’t find them, which is incredibly irritating; I know I took several, the first pictures I took on a large format camera.  Instead, here is a link to a picture of House on Flickr, taken by Dressed In Yellow.)  I really like Whiteread’s work – she uses objects as moulds – in House, it was a house about to be demolished.  The sculpture left when the object is taken away – the house was taken down around the solid space – and they have an eery quality: you know what your seeing, but it is a positive image of the space.  Very strange, and I think rather beautiful.

There was a lot of video work, and I was reminded how much I dislike video art.  Usually I just don’t get it.  There were pieces by Gillian Wearing, Douglas Gordon and others.  The Wearing piece was frankly wearing: a video of police officers standing or sitting in rows; for an hour.  I looked at it for perhaps two minutes, perhaps a little more; I certainly wasn’t going to sit there for an hour.  Nothing happened.  I didn’t think I was looking at great art.  I did wonder why the police were sitting there.  Should they have been doing something a little bit more productive?  Or perhaps they weren’t policemen and women at all.  But ultimately, I felt like saying “so what?”

There was an exception – the second exception to my dislike of video art in the week (after k r buxey at the Seduced exhibition, the only thing I found worth looking at there).  Steve McQueen’s (no, not that one) short film Deadpan I thought was simply brilliant; I sat and watched it three or four times (unlike Wearing piece, this was only four minutes long).  It was wonderful – a take on a scene from a Buster Keaton movie where a house falls down around the actor.  In Deadpan, McQueen recreates the scene, shooting it from several different angles; each time I saw it, I was impressed by the tension (when will the house fall? what will I see?): each angle different, sometimes focusing tightly on McQueen’s eyes (he flinches briefly as the wall passes him), or his feet, or the window through which his body passes (whilst motionless).  It was captivating.  I think the guy is a genius.

One of the pieces I remembered before and thought “why?!” was Martin Creed’s conceptual piece.  I can’t remember what it was called.  Basically, the gallery lights had been wired to a random timer: the lights go on, the lights go off.  (I couldn’t help remembering an episode of the Simpsons, when Homer opens and closes the fridge door, trying to catch the fridge in the dark.)  An entertaining idea, but where is the art?  I wandered into the gallery and thought they had a faulty power supply – it was only when I realised there was nothing in the gallery that I remembered Creed’s piece.  It left me in the dark.

There was an Anthony Gormley piece, Testing A World View – five casts of his body positioned around the room.  I had hoped they would have Field, one of the works for which he won the Turner – a powerful, rather scary installation of thousands of little clay statues filling out a room, staring up at you.  They did have a picture of Field, but that was all; the piece they did have left me rather cold, surprising since I would have said that Gormley was one of my favourite artists.  (Seeing The Angel of the North up close was wonderful; I must post about that.)

In the lobby, they had a Richard Long piece, painted straight onto the floor; they must have either got Long in to repaint it, or used someone else to do so (in which case, who’s the artist? Is it a copy of an original?).  I started to trace Long’s steps – to walk the length of the unbroken line – but I got hungry and stopped after a few steps, off to seek some food.

I found this a really interesting show; my views hadn’t changed much (the McQueen was the only work I hadn’t seen or only artist I didn’t know that I liked), and those artists I hadn’t liked I still didn’t like – a lot of the more conceptual stuff – the clever-clever Hirst, the obsessive Gilbert & George (which is which? who cares?).  But it was worth it to see the work by artists I love amongst the stuff I would happily pass by – and perhaps seeing works I know and love amongst the other stuff made them even more welcome.

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Lee Miller at the V&A. November 2007.

The V&A has a large retrospective of the model and photographer Lee Miller, marking the centenary of her birth and thirty years since her death.  I was familiar with her pictures – I went to a show of her work several years ago (in Amsterdam, I think), and found them captivating.

She had an interesting – and disturbing – life: she grew up being photographed by her father, and became a model; she moved to Paris where she sought out the surrealist photographer Man Ray and became his associate and lover.  With Ray she helped develop some startling images, and discovered solarisation, producing startling, burnt-out images. Continue reading

Six Sets in Search of a Theme: London Jazz Festival, November 2007

One of the many reasons for picking this particular week to spend in London was to spend time at gigs in in the London Jazz Festival.

We caught three gigs – six different performances. We started off at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for Charlie Haden, supported by Gwilym Simcock.

I have seen Haden play many times, most recently as leader of the reformed Liberation Music Orchestra; this time round, though, he was leading his Quartet West. This was jazz very much in the tradition: it had a standard cool jazz feel, from the West Coast – it could have been any of the small bands lead by Miles Davis in his post-bop period of the 1950s – without the trumpet, obviously.

It was not necessarily the best setting for such music: it felt it needed a smoky jazz club to capture the intimate nature of the sound. The band was good – saxophonist Ernie Watts leading most of the tunes, and pianist Alan Broadbent played some great solos. But it didn’t feel like it was anything new, nor anything special: it was very enjoyable, not great. The LJF programme had said that the band evoked the feeling of film noir. Not in me, it didn’t – unless they equate film noir with smoky jazz clubs, which of course they might. For me, though, that would mean a sparser, meaner sound than the quartet created.

Gwilym Silcock is the wunderkind of British jazz: he has won several awards and was BBC New Generation Artist, and he has been raved about for some while. Frankly, I am not sure that I get it. He was technically very proficient, and he created music of great complexity – the time signatures to all his tunes seemed intentionally obscure (7/13, anybody?) – but it left me cold. He had a percussionist who added nothing; the only member of the band who really shone for me was Martin France on drums, who drove the music along despite the strange time he had to keep.

A couple of days later, we were down in cellar of the Pizza Express Jazz Club – a venue so different to the QEH could hardly be imagined: this was the intimate jazz club par excellence, without the smoke (this is modern Britain – not the 1950s!). Indeed, maybe too intimate: I had intended to take some pictures, but I felt uneasy being so near the musicians – the music was literally in our faces: it didn’t feel right pointing a camera straight at the musicians; I am used to hiding behind the audience. So, no photographs…

The evening started with a duo set by trombonist Annie Whitehead and pianist Steve Lodder. This was the set of the week for me: a blistering, imaginative mix of British jazz. I have seen both musicians play many times over the last twenty years or so – Lodder with District Six and particularly with many of Andy Sheppard’s bands, and Whitehead with the Brotherhood of Breath and Spirits Rejoice, as well as various small bands. Their music really moved, building on a South African feel (tunes were dedicated to the South African émigrés Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo, as well as Whitehead’s mentor John Stevens); there was a real understanding between Lodder and Whitehead, and it was a shame they played a relatively short set.

The second set was pianist Bojan Z, playing in a trio format. I last saw Mr Z (his last name is – deep breath – Zulfikarpasic; when he started playing gigs in Paris, he couldn’t fit it on the posters, and reckoned even if he could, no one would be able to pronounce it, so he truncated his name to the memorable Z) play a solo, acoustic gig in a small hotel function room in Dundee, with at most twenty other people – even more intimate than this cellar jazz club in the heart of Soho.

This time round, he had a drummer and bass player backing him, and as well as acoustic piano, he also played a Fender Rhodes, which he ran through a couple of different effects pedals. For all the electronic gadgetry, though, I thought he was at his best on the baby grand – he didn’t need electronics, which added nothing and obscured the fluid lines he was playing. The trio worked well together, the bassist working up quite a groove, and in such a small place they weren’t overpowering.

But they didn’t play my favourite Bojan Z tune – Henri Texier’s beautiful Don’t Buy Ivory Anymore.

Our last evening at the Festival was at the Barbican – another large concert hall, though it felt rather more intimate than the QEH – for another European piano trio (the in thing!), the Tord Gustavsen Trio. The gig was opened by Italy’s Stefano Bollani and Enrico Rava playing piano and trumpet duets. Playing mostly tunes by Rava, they were well matched, their sound filling the hall. Rava’s trumpet lines were well steeped in classic jazz, and Bollani’s piano brought to mind Monk – at times treating it as a piece of percussion.

Gustavsen’s brand of minimalist quiet jazz was a different kettle of fish; contemplative, almost cod-spiritual (I think it was trying, but lacked the depth of truly spiritual music) or meditative. The auditorium was deathly quiet, and it sounded nice – coming as much from classical (think Satie or Debussy) as jazz – but it didn’t really grab me: it didn’t have the intrinsic beauty of the last time I saw them play. This may be because of a truly awful bass drum sound – when everything was so quiet and gentle, the bass drum boomed: it seemed incongruous. We didn’t stay for the encore.

So a mixed week of mostly European jazz. Entertaining, but only Lodder and Whitehead built up any real excitement.

Definitely not “Seduced”. November 2007.

We went to see the Barbican exhibition “Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now”.  Seduced is not an apt description: it left me completely cold. They must have worked really hard to make sex so boring.

It is hard to see how they did it; perhaps sticking pictures of sex in a gallery removes the attraction?  There was little here that was erotic: perhaps we have become so used to having sexual images available – on tv, in the movies, on the internet – that hanging them in a gallery removes the sex: all that was left was cold meat.  Perhaps it is because, for most people, sex is private: and sticking it on the walls of the gallery, a very public space, puts it in the wrong.

The show didn’t seem to have a purpose: it didn’t seem to know what it was trying to do.  There wasn’t sufficient interest in the mores of the times to put the older images into context; different cultures were displayed without a hook to drag one in.

Even artists whose work I like seemed to come off badly.  It was a big show, and it felt unfocused: it might have been more effective if it had been smaller, more concentrated, more thematic.

There was only one piece that seemed to move off the wall and into the real world: k r buxey’s videos.  The one I watched left everything to the imagination, pulling me into her world, powerfully.

But I expected more than just one piece in such a large show to interest me.

The Necks. Edinburgh, November 2007.

I don’t think I have been to The Lot since the Jazz Festival in July – too long, really. On Wednesday, following on from a rather interesting wine tasting of some delicious wines from Mas de Daumas Gassac, I made up for that and stumbled along to see the Necks. Described by the promoter as “not entirely avant-garde, nor minimalist, nor ambient, nor jazz”, it was a fair bet it would be a quiet night and I’d have no trouble getting in.

So I arrived late, hoping to sit propping up the bar. I was wrong. The gig started late but not late enough for me, and it was busy. Very busy. The promoter – a friend for over twenty years (we once shared a flat) – was at the door, preventing latecomers from getting in: the music was so soft, she didn’t want to disturb the mood.

Through the door, we could hear a gentle repetitive piano figure; other punters moaned, worried that there wouldn’t be a suitable break in the music until the interval. To avert rebellion, we were let in – quietly.

There were no seats; I went upstairs and leant against the wall, unable to see the band, until I noticed a couple of empty seats tucked right down at the end. I snuck down – the music was still quiet.

I had a great view of the Necks. Actually, I had a great view of their necks: from the balcony, that was all I could see.

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Slowly, gently, imperceptibly, the music built up. The repetitious nature of the music reminded me of Steve Reich or Terry Riley; it was hypnotic – like gamelan by a jazz trio. Slowly the music subtly changed, the piano leading, then the bass. It was very effective, growing like thunder rumbling in the distance.

The crescendo built over thirty or forty minutes, reached a climax, a gently faded. In the interval, I chatted to the promoter: I wondered whether they ever got bored, whether the band ever felt like rocking out.

The next set was less abstract than the first – the drummer kept a rhythm on the cymbals; and after forty five minutes, they started to rock out, loudly. I can’t quite remember how they got there (I can’t ignore the possibility that perhaps the repetition lulled me to sleep – there were many people with their eyes closed; listening intensely to the music, I’m sure). The drummer must have needed to free up his wrists.

It was really interesting music: much closer to minimalism than jazz (not a band to swing), but using the standard piano trio format.

And good that it was so busy – I had thought new music (well, newish), improvised music doesn’t have much of an audience: clearly, they were keen to come out on a cold, blustery November evening to see an Australian trio; even if there wasn’t much to see.