The Two Faces of the Spinning Plates

So we come to the end of a challenging year — leaving aside reviews, I’ve published chapters on British sf short stories, Adam Roberts and YA gay fantastic fiction, all of which have been in the pipeline for ages. I’ve submitted two survey chapters and one on Star Trek, two of which seem to be MIA, one of which is awaiting galleys. Was there more? I forget. Ah, a chapter on Wyndham.

My energy level is zilch.

I gave two keynotes, one in Dublin, one in Lisbon, and papers in Woking, Canterbury and Liverpool. Again, there may have been more. A poster session on drinking in Bristol.

I’d been in Dublin in the previous October, so the return visit was rather sooner than the twenty year gap since my earlier trip. Meanwhile for the first time I visited Amsterdam (which is promising but knee events conspired), Den Bosch (nice town), Bergen (a lovely town), Paris (which is a shit hole*), Dijon (more than just mustard), Lisbon (which I saw little of) and Uxbridge.

I saw more fantastic exhibitions than I wrote about — David Jones, Caravaggio, Paul Nash, Wifredo Lam, Georgia O’Keeffe, Nickolas Astrup, Hieronymus Bosch, James Ensor, Christopher Wood, Julia Margaret Cameron, Francis Bacon, Maria Lessnig, Vincent Van Gogh, and so on.

The good news is that ideas for articles continue to form — I want to write something about Passengers, but that must wait.

Energy-wise I’m grinding to a halt though. Too many late nights. I bruised my foot in last year’s visit to Dublin, so was limping more or less up to Christmas. Then this year I had bursts of gout and pulled my right knee in Dijon. This had more or less cleared up before I went up north before Christmas but, after a recurrence of almost gout — the left knee decided to stiffen up. I gave peas a chance, as well as broad beans.

But I am stupid so I have a new year resolution to get out of bed when I wake up rather than losing too many mornings to the doze. I’ve renewed my Curzon membership, so I will see at least one film a week, and along with various forthcoming comedy gigs, I’ve booked a concert for the first time in years. There’s also two plays I want to see at the National.

2017 sees trips to Liverpool, Birmingham and Helsinki, and I’m tempted by Brussels for Ensor (and of course Magritte). I was thinking of going to Vienna for a Bosch exhibition, but there’s no mention of it in their website and I think survival should kick in. If I can get back to Bergen I will, and maybe finally do Oslo, and I’ve yet to book for Edinburgh.

  • article on A Scanner Darkly — 23 January
  • book proposal for Sekrit TTTTTTTT project – asap
  • revise bounced book manuscript – asap – this has travelled miles and miles
  • three book reviews
  • turn EX_MACHINA, War of the Worlds and The War in the Air papers into articles
  • Chapter on Star Wars — 22 February 2016 — I’ve started watching films and assembling reading, and I need to find some comic books I have somewhere, which were lost when I cleared the back bedroom
  • continue beer research

* Paris is the closest I’ve come to getting mugged — someone bumped into the back of me and the person I fell against seemed to be reaching in my pocket. Station signage is appalling, and as far as I can see Metro maps are on the inside of the barriers rather than also being outside.

Modern Art = Modern Arse?

Turner Prize 2016 (Tate Britain, 27 September-2 January 2017)

One of the benefits of having Tate Membership is that you can go to the Turner Prize show and not feel you’ve wasted money on it.

Unless George Shaw is shortlisted, when it’s worth it.

Of course, the winner has been announced, but I didn’t get my ass in gear before that to post any commentary. I’d probably been to a couple of other exhibitions first, so I might have been arted-out.


This year there were four artists nominated, beginning with Helen Marten who had also won the inaugural Hepworth Prize for Sculpture and rather sweetly divided the prize between everyone on the shortlist. [Wouldn’t it be fun if a painter like Frank Auerbach won for sculpting so much paint onto a canvas?] I guess her work is a series of ready mades, sculptures put together from found objects, a mad set of Airfix kits put together with the wrong pieces but the right instructions. I’m kind of meh with this, distinctly underwhelmed, and was ready to move onto …

Anthea Hamilton, who is channelling Antonin Artaud and his theatrical images and the Theatre of Cruelty. We have fake bricks on the wall in half of the room — Tate does Colouroll? — and the blue but cloudy London sky in the other. A large golden arse divides the room — Project for a Door (After Gaetano Pesce) — and then a series of pant shapes hanging, like washing, on chains from the roof. There’s a suit of brick coloured material. It’s funny, it’s cheeky (did you see what I did there?), it rips off René Magritte and it deserves to win.

img_0146Josephine Pryde is also fun — creating photos from kitchen worktops using chemicals and camera-less exposure. On the other walls are photos, often involving hands or slogans, or phones, a kind of anti-fashion shoot, Hands “Fur Mich”, which were clearly worth a peruse. In the centre of the room is a Class 66 diesel train scale model, The New Media Express in a Temporary Siding (Baby Wants to Ride), which indeed could be ridden in other versions of the show and here couldn’t even be sat on. I think she’s the one who should win.


Finally, Michael Dean, the token man, whose room is dominated by (United Kingdom poverty line for two adults and children: twenty thousand four hundred and thirty six pounds sterling as published on 1st September 2016), a pile of pennies equivalent to the amount the government believes a family of four can live on, minus a penny. Shades of Mr McCawber. This was the most evidently political piece, but in a classic case of more is less, the surrounding sculptures of surreal body parts and faked shipping posters just get in the way. Meh.

And the winner was — Marten, who again split the prize. As I’ve said, not my choice of winner, and not the piece I felt was the best art, but there you go.

Next year, the Prize will be in Hull. I can’t wait. And no, that isn’t snark.

More than a Load of Pollocks

Abstract Expressionism (Royal Academy of Arts, September 2016—2 January 2017)

There’s a story that in the late 1940s, the CIA funded Abstract Expressionism. It was an exercise of soft power, from the people who funnelled money into the animated Animal Farm and exploding cigars. The Soviets were busy with their Socialist Realism, whilst the Americans were channelling the chap with the lily pads with bigger brushes. The AES paint big, really big, and it takes a lot to transport all those canvases around the world. In one version the Tate wasn’t able to afford a huge exhibition and an benefactor gave the money. The story is the money came from the CIA.

If Abstract Expressionism didn’t bring down the Berlin Wall, then at least it came up with pretty cool murals.

It’s the sort of thing that can leave you cold, but if you surrender to it it’s pretty amazing.

Just like capitalism.

The cavernous spaces of the Royal Academy seem appropriate, although they’ve never quite got the walk through right. These are huge, abstract paintings, determinedly non-representation, yet in theory expressing an inner emotion. Of course, we don’t always know what that emotion is, but you can always supply your own.

The first room was a kind of overture, showing paintings from many of the big names prior to the glory days. Some of these are portraits, few of them are great, but you can see the roots in Barnett Newman’s green stripes on dark red. There’s a curious Mark Rothko, Gethsemane (1944), presumably alluding to the night of Christ’s betrayal, and sort of cruciform, but it might be an eagle with an American football. And a weird cloud flag.

Clyfford’s Still’s PH-726 (1936) has wobbly male and female bodies inscribed within a block — a two dimensional version of what Moore and Epstein were carving at about the same time. A new name to me, I confess, but one I will return to later.

And so the various stars come out — and the rooms which focused on one or two artists were stronger than those which offered dubious thematic arrangements. That being said, I don’t get on with Arshile Gorky, having bounced off his Tate Modern show a few years ago. A numbers of them look like oddly painted figures in a room — say Diary of a Seducer (1947) — and I see I’ve made the note to myself, “bad photoshop”.

Jackson Pollock, on the other hand, is truly sublime. I never quite wrote up all my notes from Liverpool, but the late, black pour, works feel like the figurative abstracted. Like Rorschach tests, you can find the sail boat if you squint right. He gives in to the chaos of the drip, somewhere between randomness, automatic painting and the unconscious at work. There’s a huge mural, designed for Peggy Guggenheim’s New York apartment, with “a prancing, bestial presence” which maybe you wouldn’t want to live with. You don’t get a lot of help from the titles — even Summertime (1948) isn’t that helpful, with its wide, short overlapping of colours and drizzles. The trajectories of flies on a summer’s evening? There’s his Blue Poles (1952), with its striking, vertical totems, daring you to distinguish figure from ground. There are other colours, of course, (black grey white) but it’s striking how often he returns to red, blue and yellow, as if he’s unravelled a Piet Mondrian.

[and there, tucked on one wall, is Lee Krasner, not quite the token woman — though it does have to be said that AE is a very blokey genre with its SIZE DOES MATTER statements in oil — who takes four years to come to terms with Pollock’s stupid death in a car crash, who only then can “wrestle” with his ghost to produce The Eye is the First Circle (1960), which inevitably has to be read as homage and imitation rather than the work of an artist in her own right. Later, we’ll come across Helen Frankenthaler, whose exhibition I missed at the Turner, with Europa (1957) although I saw no bull.]

Mark Rothko is glorious, as always, and the room of his work at Tate Modern can reduce me to tears. As always the paintings seem to ride the walls, rather than be hung on the them, the layers, the laminates of colour lumess and dammit that is a word. You are surrounded by them in an octagonalroom, dwarfed, and I was annoyed to see people taking selfies against them — not because of any objection to such narcissism, but because my instinct is to disappear into these canvas rather than superimpose myself upon them. There are exquisite vertigo.

I don’t think I’ve come across Clyfford Still’s work before, but I’ve put his museum in Denver on my long term to do list (when the US is more sensible about the TSA…). These are vast canvases, representing vast landscapes, abstracted into colours. My favourite was PH247 (1951), also known as Big Blue, a luminous canvas of many blues, interrupted by dark brown and orangish vertical strokes. This, too, is a room to get lost in.

Less successful is Willem de Kooning’s work, here dominated by his paintings of women, of which he wrote “I wanted them to be funny … so I made them satiric and monstrous, like sibyls”. Gee, thanks. These are women as landscapes, rather than in, to my eyes deeply misogynistic. His other landscapes, notably Dark Pond (1948), which I misread as and viewed as Duck Pond, are better, but I don’t feel inclined to follow him up.

The shared rooms were on the whole less successful, with less of a chance to get to know the range of the artists’ work. A few women sneak in here — Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Janet Sobel — and I suspect the only Black artist, Norman Lewis. I wanted to know much more about his work. A room of drawings, books, prints and photographs got a little unruly, as the labels and pictures were not always as clear as they might be in the crowds. The final room gives space to Joan Mitchell’s four huge canvases of Salut Tom, echoing Postimpressionism as much as Abstract Expressionism, and represents late work of some of the big names — although of course Pollock was long since dead.

One final room to draw attention to is the one of Barnett Newman and Ad Rheinhardt, who interrupt swathes of colour with zipped colours or focal zones. Rheinhardt retreated into the Malevich black square for fourteen years — 60″ x 60″ canvases painted all back. The spartan austerity is striking. But Newman was the revelation, and I wonder if he was the inspiration for the Abstract Expressionist Rabo Karabekian’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (1973). Eve (1950) is a mostly red canvas with a dark red stripe on the right hand side and its twin Adam (1951-52) is brown with three red stripes of different widths. I have know idea if they connect, but he somehow feeds into Bridget Riley‘s stripes. Newman writes “only those who understand the meta can understand the metaphysical and his paintings are as much their paint as anything else — the rich blues and reds.

Of course, these artists went through a whole range of political experiences from Pearl Harbor to Watergate, and I guess they mark the point when the art world shifts from Paris to New York, with Rauschenberg and Warhol waiting in the wings (and O’Keeffe‘s rather different abstracts predate, postdate and overlap with their heyday). They are, of course, always on the edge of being the emperor’s new clothes, just paint on canvas, randomness. But in the vast spaces of the Royal Academy most of the work transcends that caveat.

Silly Mid On

Harold Pinter, No Man’s Land (National Theatre Encore)

I suspect I’ve seen more films with Pinter scripts than plays — there was a baffling Dumb Waiter at school, a sweary Mountain Language on tv and probably a BBC Two The Birthday Party when they still did plays. I’ve probably seen more Beckett and certain more Ayckbourn and Stoppard. But then I fell out of love with theatre in my teens.

Beckett seems the key name to me — the imprisoning of a small number of characters within a small space (that’s a Buñuel film too), arguments and banter this side of violence, a sense of the bleak whilst still permitting laughs and above all a flavour of the Deep and Meaningful (if you could but work out what).

Pinter’s 1975 play has Hirst and Spooner as its Vladimir and Estragon, Briggs and Foster as its Pozzo and Lucky. The poet, critic and essayist Hirst has evidentially picked the failing poet Spooner up at a Hampstead pub, possibly Jack Straw’s Castle, and brought him home for a nightcap, and the two appear strangers. They drink vodka and whisky, until Hirst is on the edge of passing out. Spooner is joined by Foster, a thirty-something who appears to be Hirst’s secretary and may be a hoodlum, and then Briggs, housekeeper and possibly body guard. They are suspicious of the stranger, sceptical, and Spooner is kept over night.

In the Second Act, Spooner is forced to be someone else — sitting in for Hirst’s financial advisor, being mistaken (perhaps) for Hirst’s university friend, trying to become Hirst’s secretary. And all the while is the killing kindness of Briggs and Foster, threatening to become actual violence. The characters are trapped in a series of games of cat and mouse, with it being unclear who the mouse is. How far are the characters a projection of Hirst’s? How far is it a psychodrama of Spooner’s? The metacommentary of Spooner’s familiarity with being locked in a room over night or the menace of an unlocked room points to interrogations, either during the Second World War or the Cold War, and Hirst claims he was in intelligence. Foster notes that he was sent for — there are secret forces at work perhaps, but then Rosencrantz and Guildernstern were also sent for.

The names point to cricketers — George Hirst, RH “Reggie” Spooner, Frank Foster and Johnny Briggs — and Hirst thinks the last time he saw the man he takes Spooner for was at Lords, in the shadow of the Second World War in 1939. The no man’s land is both within Hirst and between enemies at war. The term, of course, is more generally applied to the First World War and if memory serves Philip Larkin’s “MCMXIV” refers to

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park…

as an example of an earlier lost innocence.

Ian McKellen, who here plays Spooner, offers a naturalistic explanation gleaned from performing scenes with Patrick Stewart (Hirst) for the late Oliver Sacks. Hirst has some kind of dementia, he genuinely can’t remember who he is some of the time and is used to playing along to hide it. Maybe, I don’t know, there is so much left over.

There are the curious hints at homosexuality — Spooner spending time on Hampstead Heath, a cruising ground (although he insists he is not looking for sex, and claims wife, children and grandchildren at various points in the play), given extra echoes because this is McKellen directed by his ex-partner Sean Matthias. I don’t know if Jack Straw’s Castle was a gay pub, but it’s the name of a Thom Gunn collection published in 1976. Secret identities, secret lives. It’s hinted that Foster and Briggs are lovers — Foster is played by Damien Monolly as omnisexual, as much coming on to Spooner as threatening him and Briggs using sexual innuendo to put Spooner down.

The tone does veer alarmingly — the increasingly dark and menacing first half gives way to the comedy of mistaken identity in the second, before darkness, or peace, descend. I was impressed by all of the cast, although clearly the servant characters have less to do. Apparently there is a film version of the original Peter Hall production, where Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud were in the central roles and (brilliantly) Terence Rigby (Big Al from Alan Plater’s Beiderbecke trilogy) was Briggs.

This production was first shown on Broadway, in a double bill with the McKellen/Stewart/Matthias Waiting for Godot, which I think I preferred, but I’m glad I talked myself into seeing it anyway.

Stockholm from Home

Passengers (Morten Tyldum, 2016)

I have a memory of being taught by an alleged ex-nun who, when she was teaching film, apparently kept reaching for “it was all a dream”. Psycho, for example, didn’t happen, but was dreamt, presumably by Marion Crane in the hotel before Loomis arrived and before she stole the money and drove to a motel. Passengers could well be a dream — it certainly comes across as wish fulfilment.

Spoilers will follow. Continue reading →