Week 43 – Kihlberg & Henry – October 26-November 1

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“Sit on the carpet!” Yves ordered me in a stage whisper. The crowd at the gallery opening was pressed along the walls in a thick uncomfortable crust around a carpet in the middle of the space, breathing in and watching a blue film.

“Oh thank God for that,” I broke for the breathing space of the carpet and sat down with my bags and my gin cocktail. Other people followed, but more stayed. This is crowd dynamics.

It was busy and the sound of the microphone overloading wasn’t conventionally pretty but for me being in a wholly aesthetic intellectualised environment is a good relief of or distraction from stress. I feel I can breathe easier in these places.

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Karin Kihlberg & Reuben Henry’s “This Building, This Breath” is a new film-stroke-performance, which they presented for Week 43 of Fig-2.

fig-2_43_50_14You don’t know when you go in that the voiceover is being performed live. It sounds a bit distorted and unpolished because it hasn’t been filtered or produced. Watching the film as just a film is enjoyable in itself. It is a wide-ranging meditation on breathing referring to culture, biology and martial arts and it develops through an engagement with the buildings and spaces we inhabit to establish a poetic proposition that the room itself is breathing.

You might notice after a few times through the film that the sound seems to be changing, or that some of the utterances don’t seem to come from the speakers but a cappella, or someone might just tell you. I was astonished, and had a cheeky peek round the corner of the back of the screen that delineated the viewing room, and there he was, Reuben Henry hidden away behind a computer and microphones, performing in camera. It was a Wizard of Oz moment. The curtain drops away and ecce homo. More Latin, sorry! I only used in camera  (‘in private’) because I enjoy the fact that in camera means off camera.

fig-2_43_50_8It seems relevant here, because another clue would have been that above the screen was a camera pointed at us through which Reuben could view us and sometimes respond to us. When the studio space was empty in the week he would be able to see, and rest until someone came in, but he essentially performed the film all day every day for the whole of Kihlberg & Henry’s week at Fig-2. This makes it a durational performance, like Marina Abramovic or sitting through The Hobbit.

fig-2_43_50_5It’s especially extraordinary given many viewers would not have known it was a live performance at all. There are of course other instances of performances taking place in camera or unbeknownst to an audience. Examples of the latter usually have an element of anthropological study, such as when Leah Capaldi doused herself in strong perfumes and took herself onto the tube at rush hour, recording the reactions of the other people to the whiff.

Acconci1The classic example of invisible performance is Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1972) in which a ramp was installed in the gallery underneath which Acconci reputedly lay masturbating for eight hours a day. The work is simultaneously private and public. I also recall reading that there is an ambiguity as to what he was really doing down there, about the truth value of it. Reuben Henry could have set a backing tape off and sat back and we’d have been for the most part none the wiser.

Piss_Christ_by_Serrano_Andres_(1987)We have to accept that the piss in Andras Serrano’s photo Piss Christ is piss when it could be lemonade, and some still believe that Piero Manzoni (I seem to be really into Latin and Italians today), that Manzoni’s cans of Artist’s Shit actually contain gummi bears rather than the artist’s waste. This reveals that there is a contract that occurs between the artist and the viewer when they come in contact, an element of trust, faith in the work, like the suspension of disbelief you experience while watching a story. In a sense, the Wizard of Oz moment is a disruption of that. You thought this was a film? It’s a man!

fig-2_43_50_1The exhibition will be touring to Plymouth Arts Centre and Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool in 2016. These spaces are totally different to the ICA Studio. Even if the script and images remain largely the same, the work will be different, both because of the nature of live performance as unrepeatable and because the film draws attention to rooms and spaces so the viewer will be more aware of the space they’re in, which will be different in each case. I wonder what the Wizard of Oz moment will be like elsewhere.

The voiceover begins soothingly explaining what is about to happen: “The images will cease. There will be blackness. Like the room, you will be weightless. In ten minutes there will be nothing but images.”

We are encouraged to “Breathe deeper, breathe slower.”

“The breath you took – did you mean it?” This is a interesting little kōan. How can you ‘mean’ a breath? We think of breath as involuntary and don’t notice it until we choke on a pretzel and momentarily lose the knack. Learning to control our breath can have a real effect on our wellbeing. In a moment of stress, you take a deep breath to calm down. In exercises like yoga and meditation breathing is one of the basic techniques you use to improve all-round physical and mental health.

urlThe film lists symptoms of unbalanced deep breathing (UDB) patterns that can lead to “almost all maladies including excessive stress, anxiety, panic, phobias, depression, high blood pressure, allergy, fatigue, poor sleep, speech or singing issues, emotional imbalances, personality distortions, excessive body weight, heart problems and may forms of cancer.”

pete_doherty-350x307In my yoga session in Fig-2 Week 27 Siri Sadhana Kaur told us “Through the munthra, through the posture, the breath, align yourself to truth. To your inner wisdom.” The breath is the key unit. A breath is to yoga what a word is to a poem. Though you haven’t heard me wheezing at night. Not quite what Graham Coxon said about Pete Doherty’s lungs, “they sound like a bag of crisps” (what with all the crack) which isn’t that great for a happy meditation experience, but then neither is being on crack. Crack just makes you want to make loads of phone calls.

 photo by josh cardale“Breath cleans the mind of images,” said Reuben’s voiceover, “Think of nothing..” This is not at all what meditation is about, as I learned at a meditation session here during Fig-2 Week 38 when the instructor explained that meditation is not about emptying the mind: “You wouldn’t want to encourage your mind to be blank, because your mind is designed in a way that is supposed to connect you with the world around you. So why would you ask your heart to stop beating, why would you ask your digestive system to stop working? If you want your mind to go blank, get your best friend to give you a healthy blow on the head.”

060711-fw-prince80“What does nothing look like?” asks the voice, another kōan to accompany the one about the meaning of breath. I’m reminded of a Prince song except I remember the lyric wrong; it’s similar but actually it’s “We’ll try to imagine what silence looks like,” which seems even harder than imagining nothing. To me nothing looks like an eye (a camera is a pale imitation) and silence would have been preferable to Prince’s records after 1994.

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While Week 38 explored how if you better inhabit and use your own body you will benefit – through breathing and exercise – this week explored some of the same themes by thinking about the buildings we inhabit, imagining that the building itself is breathing. The film describes “a room with an unbalanced breathing pattern” while we view film of buildings being earthquake tested. “The room expands” making the proposition that the room itself is breathing.

CSfJzkVWsAAvy7fSick Building Syndrome is an acknowledged condition that affects the health and comfort of building occupants that appears linked to time spent in the building but without identifying a specific illness or cause. Most of the suggested causes are interestingly linked to breathing: poor indoor air quality, poor heating, ventilation and air-conditioning, contaminants such as aerosols and gases, molds, ozone exhaust and poor air filtration.

This-Building-This-Breath_Kihlberg-Henry-1These are all how a building ‘breathes’. It sounds odd to say a building breathes, but think of it in the way we describe how a food tastes. The food isn’t doing the tasting, it’s being tasted. A book might read well, but it can’t itself read (unless Google has already invented some kind of self-reading book, which wouldn’t surprise me). A building might breathe well.. or ill.

I hope this feat of linguistics doesn’t spoil the poetry of imagining a building breathing. Truth is beauty and all that. Speaking of linguistics . .

mutant lisp generatorAt one point in the voiceover Reuben read the textual punctuation, the way you would if you were dictating to an amanuensis. Full stop. New sentence. A text’s punctuation indicates when you’re supposed to breathe. I don’t mean that you’re at risk of dying if you read the unpunctuated text of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses or took a gamble on Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable, though the film does state “Breath is the punctuation of your death.” You’ll still breathe, though there are those suspenseful Silence of the Lambs moments when you suddenly become aware you haven’t breathed for the past two minutes.

IMG_0363If written punctuation is there to tell us when to breathe, the opposite is true in speech, where our breathing may be one of the ways in which we punctuate our speech to clarify what we’re saying. In Fig-2 Week 30 we discussed punctuation in Anna Barham’s work with voice transcription software.

click to make it big!
click to make it big!

When we listen to someone speaking we hear a stream of unpunctuated syllables to which we have to apply our own punctuation to understand, deciding between whether we hear ‘four candles’ or ‘fork handles’. If you wanted to be really clear you might take a little breath between four and candles to spell it out. So breathing can be a kind of punctuation, making it in the context of speaking a linguistic act, which is another way of answering the question “The breath you took – did you mean it?”

The room becomes a living thing, a character. We say that something – an environment, a person, an expression, an idea – ‘takes on a certain character’ sometimes when it comes into contact with a new thing or when we think of it in a new way. This curiously points toward a notion that these things are not discrete entities that are complete and immutable but are in fact a sum of sensations and definitions subject to change when their context alters.

CSfJzatWUAAZUmUThe film concludes with these words “Do you feel C-A-L-M? Breathe this breath. 30 seconds. This building.” then he whistles, and concludes with the injunction “Hold your breath indefinitely, room.” Roy Orbison’s song “House Without Windows” strikes up and we see a slideshow of buildings whose windows have been covered up in diverse ways. These are choked buildings that can no longer breathe.

“He’ll have it memorised by the end of the week” said Fatoş at the Monday opening. Reading it all day for a week, that’s what you’d expect, but by the end of Sunday Reuben hadn’t memorised it. He still had to read the words. After a few days mistakes had started to creep in. In the last performance on Sunday he stumbled over a “comma” (luckily he didn’t fall into a coma, ahaha).

Everyone is familiar with having a job that they soon learn how to do perfectly and which they subsequently start doing perfectly badly.

theoffice_davidbrent_tvThere should be a name for that. There’s the Peter principle, but that’s a bit different, that’s when people are promoted for their competence in their current role rather than the intended role, so they stop rising when they can no longer perform effectively, having risen to the level of their incompetence. This is why you always think you can do your boss’s job better than them.

It’s different to the Peter Principle though: it’s about repetition, in a job, or a performance, or making a film. It’s not even boredom, it’s just entropy. Seeing or doing the same identical thing a hundred times makes you notice the tiny details of difference between these supposedly identical things, and they become destabilised.

fig-2_43_50_7As Stanley Kubrick’s endless takes of a scene progressed, film would spool out of cameras, actors would forget lines they had said a hundred times. It’s a curious quirk of repetition. Maybe it makes our brains unravel, sometimes in a good way. During the yoga weeks ago Siri Sadhana Kaur said “Through repetition we don’t understand the world, it takes us out of the logical explanation of things, puts us into a different space.”

Essentially, during the week while Reuben had been hidden away in a tiny cell behind a screen he had been exploring space. Far out.

Now breathe.

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Week 32 – Oreet Ashery (Anoxide + New Noveta) – August 10-16

Anoxide is this death metal band made up of four glamour models and the midget off game of thrones. DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA. DJENT DJENT DJENT. SHRED SHRED SHRED.

anoxide-3“Who likes babies?”

MUTHAFUCKKAAAAA

“So this one…’

OLD PEOPLE SHIT

anoxide-4“…goes something like this…’

OLD PEOPLE SHIT

“We are Anoxide. Let’s do this.”

Anoxide are heavy as fuck and bringing it in this weird garage down a ramp at the top of an art gallery. The drinks are free but it’s neat gin, fuck that. We’re all screaming and throwing each other about. It’s dark, it’s green light, it’s your elbow in my eye. Everyone’s screaming and whirling about, the guys are making a circle pit while the band tear it. It’s not loud enough, it’s bad, the singer is screaming and growling, hands in the air and everyone is jumping and headbanging and moshing out.

MUTHAFUCKKAAAAA

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The guys are throwing each other around. They push into each other but never fall over. There’s the kid who was outside earlier playing this weird flute or something. He’d set out some kind of hamper and he was wearing Brighton-issue crusty crap. Here he’s the alpha dog of the pack, the one who starts and directs the trouble. He’s tossing rolls of blue cleaning paper across the space, up and across they go in bluegreen flames. Anoxide are heavy and crunchy as fuck. The low riffs turn into double time drums into screeching guitar solos into growling and chanting and djunt. Kill everyone and fuck every hole.

TIMG_0407hen the lights go on, and it’s blinding. A door opens, and a couple of girls wearing red dresses are dragging poles through the crowd. Everyone’s still screaming and there is piercing electronic noise from the speakers. Performance duo New Noveta, the two girls in the sexy red, are panting and sweating and they look distressed as they fuck about with this bucket of fish and these long white poles that they’re trying to move in the bright white garage light. The crowd opens as they move through it and they take ages to move along. The fire doors open and they go up out of it. The faces in the queue outside gape in at us. Did this really happen? The fire doors shut.

anoxide-2Four snare hits and Anoxide are back. The lights drop to darkness again. Listening at home to this shit gives me a fucking headache and racing pulse, which is what it’s supposed to do. I’ve left it way too long to write this fucking thing. And I cannot read the fucking logos of metal bands. UNFATHOMABLERUINATIONAre they deliberately unreadable? Look at this, their bandcamp says “lyrics written by anoxide” so it’s not just all growling but fuck me it has in fact literary qualities.

IMG_0398“Shout out to Stitches” he says, “Shout out to Stitches.” Stitches must be the one with the stupid flute who’s naked with a scarf round his neck. Everyone’s mates, we’re all having sex in the circle pit and sweating and dripping. We’re covered in sweat. Drenched. Wet. Wringing. Saturated. Fucking soaking. The band play an older one, it launches out then goes into a solo then a serious head banging riff and then the verse with the ride cymbal going over a chromatic descending riff. The guys are soaking, the roof is dripping, everyone is crazy, the garage is smashed up but sexy and beautiful. The riff opens up, we’re drunk and we’re dead.

Screen-Shot-2014-07-09-at-14.17.31-528x352This is exactly a year after I saw another death metal band do an art show. Unfathomable Ruination played a full set inside a soundproofed metal box containing no oxygen. I say ‘saw’, once the door shut you couldn’t hear or see anything. It was amazing. I really wanted them to die in that box. You’d be able to sense them all pass out as they used up all the oxygen and then the door would be opened and there would be a dead metal band.

Unfathomable Ruination played three days a week for a month in this box under the Gherkin in the shit City of London for ‘Box Sized Die’ as part of João Onofre’sSculpture in the City” project. On the last night of their residency they were allowed an extended set of 31 minutes and the bastards still didn’t fucking die. There are photos and there is a sound recording of this performance in the soundproofed metal box that you couldn’t see and couldn’t hear. Naturally the gig is edited down to a length of 4’33”.

File 17-10-2015, 15 20 15

FURTHER READING 

Should I worry if my child is a goth?
Blackest material ever made created by scientists
Did dark matter kill the dinosaurs?
Crude Behavior: How Big Oil Tries to ‘Artwash’ Itself
The Little Death: Living and Loving as a Necrophiliac
The pleasures of METAL DRUMMING
There is a death metal band from Santa Cruz called PARASITIC EJACULATION

FURTHER FURTHER READING 

Anoxide and New Noveta performed on the opening night of Fig-2 Week 32/50 in which Oreet Ashery installed a beautiful white space and explored notions surrounding death and dying as part of her ongoing project Revisiting Genesis.

Fig-2 page for Week 32
Fig-2 interview with Oreet Ashery
FB event page for Anoxide at Fig-2
Video of New Noveta at Fig-2

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Week 41 – FOS – October 12-18

ART WORLD BLAG
lets get drunk and trash the mallPeter Duggan's Artoons (Guardian)

IMG_1314“Do you wanna go in?” he asks.

“Yeah, I haven’t got a wristband though.”

The big guy clocks the worky lanyard round my neck and the notebook and pen in my hands, and leads me back to the ICA box office.

“Jessie was telling me,” I say to him, “There are two bands on separate stages facing each other playing simultaneously really loud.”

“Yeah it’s pretty loud.”

I’ve already had a word with the box office, who told me it was sold out. I’d gone back before unsuccessfully and was squinting through the doors at the event in the theatre space, which is when this fella noticed me.

“Can we have one guest list please,” he doesn’t so much ask. I’m given a red ICA wristband. What is going on here?

IMG_1331I wish someone had told me Bo Ningen were playing, the psychedelic noise rock favourites I’d seen headlining before at Raw Power when I was so ill with that ear infection. This was not a conventional gig, but it was substantially their characteristic onslaught, if dipped in art installation production values.

Lights flickering all over, on one side Bo Ningen jammed on a stage behind three huge revolving mirrors obscuring and revealing them. On the other side turntable artist Powell simultaneously scratched and spliced. Artist Zhang Ding has designed the space as a “mutating sound sculpture”. Sightlines are broken by the revolving mirrors, lights scattering all over like a walk-in mirrorball. The stage sound undulated through the spaces between the revolving mirrors while the bulk of the volume came from the overhead sound system.

IMG_1312Technically this was unique, but the aim behind placing two acts in such a confrontational cagefighting scene is, it says here, “to be cooperative, improvisational, experimental and self-reflective rather than competitive.” Hugely enjoyable, it was nonetheless hard to work out how to interact with the two stages. The confusion in itself was enjoyable too.

IMG_1317Zhang Ding has programmed two weeks of these pairings of artists and musicians playing against each other. I used to say that all poets want to be musicians and all musicians want to be poets, but the more contemporary interaction is between musicians and artists. This is like the return of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and all those art-music mashups that used to be so frequent before the milk-snatchers took everyone’s dole money away. Nowadays these intersections seem to occur more in sanctioned bankrolled fine art gallery contexts, but at least someone is doing it.

IMG_1323Zhang Ding’s ICA experience Bruce Lee-inspired Enter The Dragon is on from now until 25 October and looks like a hot ticket. It’s, as I say, inspired by Bruce Lee. Whether or not it reflects the philosophies that Bruce Lee sought to embody in his film work is an intriguing reflection. The beauty and popularity of martial arts films seems to owe more to the physical aesthetic of movement and incredibly fit blokes kicking each other than to the Eastern philosophies that underpin the martial arts as they are slowly practiced away from the frenzies of the silver screen. Perhaps the fracturing effects of the revolving silver screens of Zhang Ding’s ongoing installation indirectly reflect that ambivalence.

IMG_1366I know,  I’m supposed to be telling you about what’s going on at Week 41 of Fig-2, which was and is happening upstairs at the ICA studio. I’d been talking to Jessie and had a few gins and went into the main ICA to see what was going on. It’s Frieze London this week, the thirteenth year of the $Big$Art$Event$ that makes rich people get their knickers in a twist for five days once a year, and Art London has gone crazy.

It costs a fortune to get into the Frieze art-market-cum-pop-up circlejerk, but is easy to get into if you’re rich and buying, or if you’re writing. I’m not rich, but I write a bit. Typically, Frieze has crept up on me and I’ve missed my chance to attend as a scribbler or on one of the 5-7pm cheap tickets or to just pretend I’m a student. I could pay fifty thousand quid for a ticket, but really Frieze is like Pizza Express — you’d be mad to go without the vouchers.

IMG_1369Fig-2, however (the curatorial ultramarathon installing a completely new show every week throughout 2015), is gloriously free, with a continuing spirit of art for art’s sake without an outward reference to commerce. Germane to that, the continuing spirit of my free pieces about Fig-2 is the spirit of not writing about what it is I’m writing about. This is the spirit of modern critical engagement. Contemporary art is not supposed to be about what it is about. We love absence as presence, and art that doesn’t look like what it looks like. This is a post-cubist notion fostered by fashionable drugs.

Seriously this week London is insane. Tonight there was a Bill Viola private view in a car park, another one revisiting Gerhard Richter’s Colour Charts, Andy Beckett and Mark Fisher at Goldsmiths talking about the bloody eighties, hours of other shit I’ve forgotten, and of course the opening of Fig-2 Week 41, my first encounter with the Danish artist known as FOS.

IMG_1346His name is Thomas Poulson. His name is Thomas Poulson. FOS has interlinked practices in art and design. Finland seems to have traditionally had the edge on cutting edge design, ie. arty chairs. Sweden gave us IKEA, which ain’t bad. But Denmark gave us LEGO, that beautiful intersection of colourful playfulness and pedagogic utility. Denmark also gave us FOS.

IMG_1350At what point does design become art? When it is impractical. As Oscar says, all art is quite useless. Design has always been the blue-collar aspirant less-regarded younger sibling to art that actually improves our lives rather than just takes the piss out of it. But there is a long conversation about art that has tried to go the other way (from art to design) and become useful.

IMG_1349Carsten Höller’s Hayward show Decision recently sold itself on the practical application of interactive elements including helter skelter slides and 3D goggles. Which isn’t that useful, but it’s part of the interactivity zeitgeist. In Brian Eno’s John Peel lecture last week he vindicated the Thatcherite view that the arts should produce a financial proof of its worth while at the same time locking it down that art is anything we do that we don’t have to.

IMG_1360Maybe it’s not that poets want to be musicians and musicians poets, but that designers want to be artists and artists want to be designers. Steve Coogan points out in 24 Hour Party People in role as Tony Wilson, he says to designer Peter Saville who has produced a typically immaculate poster too late for the gig it was supposed to be advertising, “It looks fucking great actually – yeah, really nice. It’s beautiful – but useless. And as William Morris once said: “Nothing useless can be truly beautiful.””

IMG_1358The pieces that FOS has displayed for Week 41 of Fig-2 are an abundantly semi-ruly positioning of objects at the intersection between beauty and utility. Yes, I’m going to talk about Fig-2 now. Strap in.

IMG_1336Totemistically, on a very hard bench in the corner there’s a blanket and a copy of the huge edition of Leonardo’s Complete Paintings and Drawings. Leonardo was and is the master of making unlikely beautiful objects that have real world application, if only hundreds of years later. His flying machine never really took off, but his ideas are still an evergreen resource and an inspiration to everyone in art, design and Leonardo was even better at being gay than man of the moment Prem Sahib (who also currently has a show, Side On, at the ICA). Leonardo is my favourite ninja turtle, period.

IMG_1343FOS’s installation is very welcoming: there’s a mixture of kitschy seventies furniture – the glorious yellow carpet, a dresser, a chair, a glass table, a black sculpture that could be a vase, an intimidating triffid in a comedy pot – that were once utilitarian but have become art objects in the age of retro without abandoning their utility. Though you feel that when hipsters buy these sorts of things they’re buying them for their friends to look at rather than sit on.

CQy7V0IWIAA9Sr5On the walls the art-as-pointless-thing is represented by six small bronzes and two really huge and beautiful (if useless) metal works that seem to generate their own planetary orbits. A red free-standing metal strip balances on a couple of magazines, presumably a statement in itself, including a sketch with the legend “RELIGION IS ABOUT SPEED.” God, I’m typing as fast as I can here, Thomas. The central bronze sculpture is pure art out of the Henry and Barbara mould. It works as a beautiful piece in itself and in the living-roomy set up of the space as a reminder that works of art that we might consider important or meaningful are usually deployed as a way of making your expensive maisonette a bit more expensive-looking after a nice shopping trip at Frieze.

IMG_1370FOS has done a great job of mixing up his day job in design with his cachet in fine art in this show. It’s excitingly overflowing with ideas and a palpable love of materials and design as something to enjoy both aesthetically and physically.

If you’re quick you can still chill out in FOS’s arty living room setup upstairs at the ICA until Sunday, and kick off to Zhang Deng’s Enter the Dragon shows downstairs until the 25th. But forget about Frieze. If you need to ask, you can’t afford it. Console yourself that nothing useless can be truly beautiful. Stick to IKEA. The hotdogs are a work of art.

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Week 31 – 3-9 August – Broomberg & Chanarin

“It occurs to me to somehow reimagine the bouffon week as a punch and judy show involving Trump, Berlusconi and Boris. How would that work?”

600_Adam-Broomberg-and-Oliver-Chanarin-Bouffon-2015

Part one: Punch & Judy (I)

ENTER PUNCH

PUNCH    Mr Punch is one jolly good chap,
He left his baby in the back of a cab!
After a country supper he came back
But the foetus had turned into a pig!

PIG        Oink, oink, oink!

PUNCH    That’s the way to do it!

ENTER JUDY

JUDY    I’ve just seen the news on twitter!
Naughty Punch, you had better
Explain what it is you’ve had for dinner —
What have you done to my poor baby pig?

PUNCH    Calm down, dear! I’ve only done to this little victim
What I’ve been doing to the country since the election!

ENTER CROCODILE

CROC    Snap! Snap! Snap! goes the telephoto lens
Starving the poor to feed up our friends!
Let’s hope this party never ends!

THE CROCODILE EATS JUDY

CROC     Snap! Snap! Snap!
PUNCH    That’s the way to do it!

ENTER SCARAMOUCH

SCARAMOUCH    Bunga! Bunga! What, again!
I’m not a Saint, you can tell by the tan!
It’s better to like beautiful girls than be gay
Ciao Pretty Polly, come stai?

PUNCH    Scaramouch, do you do the fandango?

SCARAMOUCH    Solomente for the love of Italio!
I had to a-save it from myself
Tutto for the love of obscene wealth!
The right-a man for the right-a jail!

ENTER THE DEVIL

PUNCH    There’s the Devil, Dodgy Vlad!
All his friends are in a body bag!
See him riding on a horse’s back —
Noone’s told him the nag is dead!

DEVIL    Spasibo! Now I am the Tsar!

PUNCH    Not so fast, you King of Vodka!
I’ve already planned for my successor
We’ve had cloned Margaret Thatcher’s Vagina —
Our mates did it cheap, it’s made in China!

MARGARET THATCHER’S VAGINA EATS THE DEVIL

PUNCH    That’s the way to do it!

Part Two:  The Bouffon

The establishment has always permitted a circumscribed degree of satirical attack as a means of enabling the downtrodden to let off steam. Historically, satire has always been bounded by either time (a certain day of the year in which “natural orders” were overturned) or person (only a specified highly ritualised figure is permitted to cross certain lines). The Romans had Saturnalia and the whispering slave on the triumphal chariot, medieval power structures had their jesters, King For A Day and Lords of Misrule.

IMG_0341Local permutations of the medieval jester vary, and for Week 31 of Fig-2, Ollie Broomberg and Adam Chanarin brought one of them back to life. The ICA studio became a ‘green screen’ studio inhabited by a bouffon figure, a grotesque lumpy hunch-backed clown. The Bouffon or ‘Dark Clown’ originated in medieval France. The undesirables of society, riffraff de l’autres, would be exiled from the town and forced to fend for themselves outside the city walls and starve in their own filth and destitution, much as benefits claimants and refugees are forced to by the Department for Work and Pensions. The beautiful people would allow them back for one day of the annual hock-tide celebration, when the Bouffon was invited to the Royal Court with explicit permission to ridicule the authorities. And this is where the problem begins, with regard to Week 31 and the problem of satire as a whole. The bouffon in its first incarnation is officially sanctioned satire, which is an oxymoron. The bouffon would have to be careful not to upset them too much. The pleasure of a pinch, but no blood.

Fig-2_31_50_1A camera filmed the bouffon and presented her on a TV screen with a background taken from the Imperial landscape that surrounds the ICA studio: the Mall, Downing Street, Horse Guards Parade, Buckingham Palace; an area characterised by daily military parades and other displays of state power. The bouffon mimed bumming the police and the Beefeaters, jumped in and out of traffic, and generally pratted about. A particular highlight was the bouffon pole-dancing around the Duke of York Column behind the ICA. You probably don’t need more than about twenty minutes of pelvic thrusting in any context comedic or otherwise but to its very great credit the performance went on for two hours. Was it funny? Yes, within the bounds of what we were there to enjoy, which was satire, and it has been long observed that satire doesn’t have to be funny to be effective. Not being five years old, we don’t actually find pratfalls funny, but we can contentedly agree to find them funny in the context of appreciating their implications in the company of a group of like-minded people who have come to appreciate the same thing.

Fig-2_31_50_8Was it effective satire? This is where we run into difficulties. Given the history outlined above, it is surely no coincidence that the bouffon’s style of ‘satire’ is limited to physical comedy. The bouffon’s comedy is literally silent, or rather, mute. The bouffon comes from a tradition of not wanting to bite the hand that feeds it. For satire to be successful, for it to be satire at all, it can’t just be mocking. But the bouffon is limited to mocking, restricting to poking fun but unable to construct the ironies necessary for satire to occur. The word bouffon is appropriate; it comes from the Latin verb buffare, to puff, to fill the cheeks with air. It just gives us hot air. The bouffon is intended to be provocative, to poke fun at everyone in society and reveal uncomfortable truths, but I’m not convinced. Not incidentally, there was something very comfortable about being in the studio that day. The police officers and guardsmen representing the establishment were, of course, oblivious to the Bouffon’s presence; tucked up in the ICA’s cosy home on Pall Mall, we all pretended to be doing something a little daring in the very heart of the establishment, but the fact is none of what happened there was projected outside the walls. It was the other way round; the establishment was projected in.

Fig-2_31_50_7Interestingly, Broomberg and Chanarin’s new film work Rudiments (currently on display at the Lisson Gallery) develops the themes raised in the Fig-2 show adding the missing element of direct interactivity. Instead of poking fun at soldiers digitally overlaid via green screen, the film documents a group of military cadets whose rigorous training of martial codes is interrupted by the Bouffon’s comic pratfalls and play. The conflicted reactions of the young soldiers-in-training gives a better illustration of the possibilities of the bouffon than the green screen perhaps could.

Part Three: The Buffoon

File 03-10-2015, 15 46 54A few weeks after the Bouffon’s cavorting at the ICA, it emerged that the four-dimensional lizard-made-of-ham Prime Minister David Cameron“put a private part of his anatomy” in the mouth of a dead pig’s head while he was at Oxford during an initiation ceremony for a drinking club called the Piers Gaveston Society. It’s the kind of revelation that will rot your teeth and straight up give you Type 2 Diabetes. My favourite thing about this story in a crowded field is that Charlie Brooker felt obliged to issue a disclaimer that he’d known about it when he wrote Black Mirror in 2011 in which the Prime Minister is forced to fuck a pig live on television.

File 03-10-2015, 15 48 29But even the pig is itself a blind, a sideshow, something George Osborne for one is quite happy for us to laugh at (witness his calculated snigger when asked about the revelations). Lawrence Richards (“What the British are really laughing about”) and Rob Fahey (“The PM, the Pig  and musings on Power” both quickly published impressive pieces that Joanna Walters (“Hazing, #piggate and other secret rites: the psychology of extreme group rituals”) also developed. They outline how Pig-Gate fitted into a tradition of “hazing” in networks of power. Throughout history exclusive and extravagant elites have bonded through rituals of humiliation. Revelations are held in check by a model of mutually assured destruction if anyone’s secret came out. The system is also upheld not so much by the threat of revelation as the curious fraternal bond of secret knowledge; possibly even a post-traumatic survivor’s mentality, particularly following instances of bestiality and homosexual rape in these rituals.

It has emerged recently that there was a rash of child abuse being committed by politicians in the 1980s, and that this was hushed up ‘in the interests of national security’. Richards examines how paedogeddon being committed by politicians was kept secret and how for the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher this was useful as a way of holding power over others by holding their dark little secrets over them. She was a real nice lady, the Baroness. As with the Pig Gate revelations, it’s remarkable how no-one has questioned the truthfulness of revelations of a cover-up about paedo rings in the upper echelons of the Tory political class in the eighties. It’s just accepted as a fact, with a bit of a tut, but it’s abstract. And it is all so, so much worse than any of us ever imagined. I mean, secret cabals of powerful men (and so far as I know we are mostly talking about men) colluding in concealing child abuse and murder? Really? The stuff of paranoia, surely. Well, no it seems not.

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What is satire to do in the face of such dementedly awful realities? The prurience of the general public as presented in Black Mirror was dutifully reproduced by all us lot in our glee over PigGate, which is the main thrust of that show: Brooker wasn’t really satirizing politicians (who can do that themselves, after all), he was satirizing us. We’re left bitterly and humorlessly maundering on the street corner or screaming into the void of the internet, irony evaporated, stuck with raw sarcasm. It’s not just the bouffon. It’s the mode of the age, borne out of resignation and the impossibility of outdoing reality at its own self-satirizing absurdism.

150820175214-banksy-dismaland-super-169[1]Dan Brooks, writing about “Banksy and the Problem With Sarcastic Art” sees sarcasm as the dominant aesthetic of our age: “a contempt so settled that it doesn’t bother constructing ironies”. He discusses a passage of ‘snark’ a ubiquitous form of internet writing that participates in sarcasm “typically by adopting the derisive tone of satire without the complex irony… There’s no insight here to raise this irony to the level of satire. There is only mockery.”

But poor old snark is all we’ve got left, isn’t it. Satire is once more the preserve of the establishment just as it was in the age of the Bouffon. Mark Fisher (“The strange death of British satire”) deals with satire’s history in the twentieth century (or part of it). He traces the emergence in recent decades of the sniggering, knowing-yet-adolescent non-humour which now defines political light entertainment like Have I Got News For You and This Week and roots it in the survival techniques of pupils at British boarding schools, “self-mockery… used to ward off the threat of an annihilating humiliation”.

article-2182965-1453AD23000005DC-394_634x792[1]The star exhibit here is Boris Johnson. His antics are carefully calculated to look anti-establishment but serve to entrench it by neutralising criticism, dissolving it in mild self-mocking buffoonery shorn of issues of importance, full of a distracting power. The pseudo-satire of Bojo neutralises real satire. As in medicine, a little dose of the real thing helps us develop immunity. Boris is like satirical small-pox. Actually, to think of it, it was actually cowpox that Jenner injected people with to immunise them against smallpox, so in fact Boris Johnson is political cowpox.

slide_242179_1314827_free[1]Had Fisher cast his net further back in time to capture the likes of the bouffon he would have seen that the establishment have always taken a harmlessly low dose of satirical poison to inoculate themselves against true revolution. If it is true, as he claims, that truly satirical voices thrived as never before in the middle decades of the twentieth century, well, what we’re seeing now is nothing more than hammy, lizardy hands massaging it firmly back into its traditional box. The buffoon triumphs over the bouffon.

Satire as a force had eaten itself by the time Henry Kissinger, who as National Security Adviser to Richard Nixon had Vietnam napalmed, won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize. Saudi Arabia, a country that practices sexual apartheid, religious oppression, summary beheadings, and is about to crucify a child, a country that doesn’t even drink, has won its bid to become head of the UN Human Rights Council. This is like putting Gary Glitter in charge of a children’s party (or David Cameron in charge of the pig-feed). This stuff is irony writ larger than it’s ever been writ. There’s a room full of comedy writers somewhere outside the universe trying to outdo each other, but they all work in politics.

Part Four: Punch & Judy (II)

12063476_920632064639976_3708738705272456345_n[1]Jeet Heer (“Donald Trump’s Comedic Genius”) describes how presidential hopeful Donald Trump isn’t just a joke, but is a serious comedic talent. He has mastered disruptive comedy and the stand-up takedown in the comedy of insult. He is a clown who acts perfeckly outrageous but who “suffers no punishment—indeed, goes from triumphant poll to triumphant poll”, a punishment evading Pulcinella (Punch) self-describing himself as a “non-politician” in order to inveigle himself into politics. Like our own Jeremy Clarkson, he deflects criticism of his bigotry and misogyny by maintaining that he’s not politically correct. It’s just a joke, like on top Gear! Broomberg and Chanarin’s Bouffon is described as a ‘dark clown’ but it’s really acts like Donald Trump who are the dark clowns, “using laughter for sinister ends” to voice bigotry rather than interrogate it. Satire eats itself and shits out establishment heterodoxies. Funny that.

IMG_1202Just as Trump’s ‘humor’ actually leaves establishment assumptions untouched, you know that BoJo wouldn’t take the piss out of the changing of the guard like the Bouffon did at the ICA. Whereas in Italy Berlusconi cocks more of a direct snook at establishment symbolism because bribery and bureaucracy are part of the everyday life experience of Italy, so people really do object to establishment symbolism. Whereas the UK as a nation will happily celebrate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge having unprotected sex.

Riotta_TheEnduringAppeal.jpg[1]Fisher describes the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi’s analysis of Sylvio Berlusconi: “Berlusconi’s popularity, Berardi argued, depended on his “ridiculing of political rhetoric and its stagnant rituals”. The voters were invited to identify “with the slightly crazy premier, the rascal prime minister who resembles them”. Like Johnson, Berlusconi was the fool who occupied the place of power, disdaining law and rules “in the name of a spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle”.”

In the not-quite-discredited-but-are-you-really-still-teaching-this Freudian structural model of the psyche based on the id, ego and superego the id is the pre-socialized instinctual impulsive driver of the libido and the dark slave of the pleasure principle that is held in check by the critical and rational agencies of the ego and superego.

Jheronimus_Bosch_011[1]Berlusconi and Trump are like Punch. Pure walking id, totally dissociated and always evading the consequences of their actions. I have to quickly tell you the synopsis of Harrison Birtwistle’s horse-scaring ‘60s opera Punch & Judy, because it is insane. Punch is rocking his baby, then throws it into a fire. Judy finds the charred baby and freaks out. He stabs her to death, then rides off on a horse to seek Pretty Polly who rejects him, and he murders the Doctor with a giant needle and the Lawyer with a massive quill. Polly rejects him again, and he murders the narrator by sawing him in half. He has nightmares about a satanic wedding with Pretty Polly. He goes to the gallows for his crimes but tricks the hangman into hanging himself. Pretty Polly reappears and they sing a love duet around the gallows, which is transformed into a maypole.

Like bozo BoJo, and the late Jeremy Clarkson, Donald Trump is an overindulged poster boy for the disruptive comedy of ‘plain speaking’ that prises apart but paradoxically reinforces the status quo. It does this by making politics look completely ludicrous and hopeless but without offering the possibility of better. In that sense it’s more related to Banksy’s sarcastic approach but coming from an establishment rather than anti-establishment perspective. How ridiculous it is, quoth-a, to aspire to change this leviathan. It is what it is. Let us laugh. Now vote, and we can promise you tax breaks for billionaires. The joy will surely trickle down!

Theirs is a comedy of disruption, not just that but Trump exactly fits the Borat model. Like Punch he is never punished for his outrages. Cameron too will make it through Pig-Gate largely intact and if he is remembered for being the Prime Minister That Fucked A Pig then history will have been kind to the PM that presided over the Bedroom Tax, taking away children’s school meals, privatising the NHS, tax breaks for billionaires.

IMG_1209Given that satire is now impossible because it’s been neutralized by buffoons and overtaken by events, we are going to need a sophisticated signalling system to tell us when satire is taking place. In Monty Python ‘SATIRE’ flashes up on the screen.  But if there is one thing we have learned from PigGate, and which Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle presaged in his satire of satire “What is satire?” it is that for any satire to be satirical it will require the involvement of an animal. “A toilet bowl full of goats? Satire. A limpet shell with a limpet in it? That’s doubly satirical to the point where it could almost be too serious. A crow inside a swift? Yes, that works: they’re two different animals. Sausages? Not on their own, no.”

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Postscript: STATE BRITAIN

Broomberg & Chanarin’s depicition of the Whitehall government area of London reminds me that the Whitehall area is suprisingly unfamiliar in art. I can only think of one other major example, but it is a masterpiece. Mark Wallinger’s State Britain (2007) was a meticulous reconstruction a ‘peace camp’ that protester Brian Haw had built up in Parliament Square from 2001 until in 2006 the ‘Serious Organised Crime and Police Act’ prohibited unauthorised demonstrations within a one kilometre radius of Parliament Square and Brian Haw’s protest was removed.

To my mind one of the greatest, most fist-pumpingly awesome Eureka moments in the history of art must be the moment Mark Wallinger noticed that the one kilometre exclusion zone exactly bisected Tate Britain. Marking this with a line on the floor of the galleries, he positioned State Britain half inside and half outside the border.

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Thanks to Alix Mortimer

Week 28 – Patrick Coyle & Francesco Pedraglio – 13-19 July

Fig-2_28_50_-1Fig-2 is famous for its collaborations. The project itself is a direct collaboration with each week’s artist where the artist and curators work closely to craft a seven-day show. Several of the weeks have also featured two or more featured artists in collaboration, and Week 28 was a collaboration between Patrick Coyle and Francesco Pedraglio. They both do a lot of spoken word performance and their show played brilliantly with interactions and slippages between the physical and the verbal.

Fig-2_28_50_36The studio space was set out in a backwards S shape demarcated by the free-standing panels. On the front of these, Francesco’s black vinyl strips were laid out like mazes. Within the back were disparate objects collected by Patrick. Around the space everything was lilac or purple. Ground acai and acai berries, meths in a Dewars miniature, Winsor and Newton galeria Acrylic (purple), random purple markings, a lilac gas canister, purple cups, purple staining. It’s like Prince had a loft clearout.

Fig-2_28_50_-28Throughout fig-2 we have seen the six skylights of the ICA studio space closed off or opened to light, given colourful gels, and with this week they found a new look. One of the skylights has at some point been stepped on and it’s concave rather than convex, so it’s like a sky pond. Patrick filled it with purple water and put in weird objects, some of which over the week went mouldy, some solidified, some returned to liquid.
11157432_806467892757538_4163445423355068377_oThis is reminiscent of Jacopo Miliani’s Week 16 in which the artist brought in flowers every day but left them without water so over the week they faded away, presenting in physical form an illustration of time, which is such an all-pervasive notion in fig-2 with it’s radically curtailed exhibition times and rigid lengths.

Fig-2_28_50_-29Just as Miliani presented space as a choreographic score, here the studio space contained the raw physical ingredients that would go into the word soup of a half hour performance. The pair took it in turns to ‘read’. Francesco delivered a memorised poem three times, delivered almost slickly, with Patrick reading his speeches about purple, the mating habits of cedillas, the acai, the acaiphabet, the lab goo. All of these things were drawn into a verbal texture during the performance that magically transformed words and ideas into new ones.

Purgatorio de l’inferno is a long poem by Genoese avant-garde poet and playwright Edoardo Sanguineti which is kind of a Marxist response to the Divine Comedy of Dante. Francesco read, retranslated and reinterpreted Sanguineti’s tenth canto, a section I read as a warning to the Damned about materialism.

Fig-2_28_50_-22It is in three short stanzas. In the first we see the cat in boots, the peace of Barcelona, the locomative, the peach blossom, the seahorse, and “if you turn the page, you see the money”. We see Jupiter’s moons, the sun’s journey, the checkerboard, Latin literature, shoes, the school of Athens, butter, a postcard from Finland, the masseter muscle, and childbirth, and “if you turn the page, you see the money.” The last section is ironic: we see the generals with their machine guns, graveyards and graves, savings banks, security, history books full of history, and then when you turn this page, “you see nothing.”

Fig-2_28_50_-13Francesco presented his own translation of this three-part poem three times, each time gathering subtle variations and additions (the Arab Spring, spring break, the first day of spring, as well as socks, pillows, headaches, phone bills, and kebabs after a drunken night) concluding the whole performance with the original Italian. For each thing that Sanguineti’s poem lists, Francesco called it into being through the performance, through the imaginative act of saying it into being. The vinyl strips on the walls reconfigured themselves into signifiers that represented like a new language, a neologism, the signifieds of the poem.

Fig-2_28_50_-25By the act of naming, objects are charged with symbolic value. Francesco used the tape as well as red window blinds, lightbulbs, stones, in each case claiming that they represented the postcard from Finland, or the peach blossom or the Peace of Barcelona. This is magical. Literally the essence of magic. The magician tells us that the assistant has been cut in half and we are prepared to accept it, to countenance a new reality imaginatively.

Fig-2_28_50_-26Similarly, we take on trust the signification of words during translation, that this means that. There’s every possibility we could be misled, as happens in the Hungarian Phrasebook Sketch where a prank language book misleads Hungarians. But if we so chose we could accept these alternative meanings, that “My hovercraft is full of eels” is a way of asking for a box of matches. This is literally how codes and cyphers work, by agreed renegotiation of signification.

Fig-2_28_50_-8Francesco stresses that his translation of Sanguineti’s poem is “unofficial”. This underlines the doubt about what is being transmitted, and the possibility of transforming it into something else, perhaps not intended. He could be giving us an accurate translation or he could be giving us a hovercraft full of eels. He is certainly taking a line on the wall for a ride round the poem, so how do we trust language? If we turn the page, is there money, or nothing?

Adam naming things in the Garden of Eden, Francesco redefining the line, Patrick beginning by asking if anyone can “do me a purple” was all part of a performative tapestry of re-appropriation and resignification too. It demonstrates the arbitrariness of signification. The magical realism of bringing objects into being by naming them, the imaginative act in which we are complicit every time we accept that the invisible surroundings portrayed by a mime, or the invisible interlocutor of a stand-up comedian up there on the stage.

Fig-2_28_50_-23Are they there or not there? In Week 18 we went into metaphor, the saying that this is that which occurs with the knowledge that this is not literally that, but our minds accept it for the purpose of comparison or instruction. The show is therefore all about the process of definition and signification, the hypnotic elixir of language that drugs us with its heady excesses of meanings.

Fig-2_28_50_-30The week’s Sipsmith gin cocktail was called the LIQUID HYPNOTIC ELIXIR and it involved orange, sloe gin, and, crucially, acai. The acai is purple. The acaiphabet is a secret cypher invented by Patrick, which is unknown to anyone else and encoded by arrangements of acai berries. This private language is another example of special verbalisation seemingly intended to manifest the non-verbal communications of plants that happens through their strange mating habits involving seeds and berries. Patrick admits good-humouredly that in curatorial terms this idea didn’t go much beyond apparently spelling out the artists’ names on the wall, but it fits into the themes of definition, communication and signification.

Fig-2_28_50_-4Patrick described the life cycle of the cicada, burrowing soon after birth into the earth and staying there, only emerging to mate and having mated dying. The funny little diacritical mark the cedilla, usually found under the c in words like Haçienda, can be found clinging limpet-like under the s in fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek’s name.  It is also found in the unfamiliar Açaí palm but not usually in the familiar Acai berry, the popular purple superfruit.

Having described the life cycle of the cicada, Patrick explained that, in contrast, cedillas live in the sky and burrow into clouds, emerging to mate; the winged cedillas attach to certain letters and once they deliver their seed they die a critic (diacritic). The young hatch and make their way through the artist guide, digging in with their strong legs to feed off “excess of egress”.

Fig-2_28_50_-31Excess of egress wasn’t to be found in the beautiful part of the installation that was a video of some viscous purple “Lab goo” being poured into a purple cup. This weird substance has the consistency of the melty terminator in Terminator 2 and won’t quite be poured into the cup but bounces back and forth without quite being poured. This is a wonderful thing to behold and in the performance brought Patrick to lilt poetically “lapping the side, lapping the side! slapping the thigh! lapping the side! shimmering bright – slapping the side! touching the left, lapping the side, lapping the side” – I thought I misheard all of this as “lapping the side” which amused me all the more, assuming it was “slapping” but it was actually “lapping” after all. Part of the show’s pleasure in wordplay delighted in such imaginative slippages as can take place between “the side” and “acai” and ICA.

The performance concluded with Patrick at the piano, and the song began with a reprise of “lapping the side” which you can listen to and enjoy via this here widget. It’s my favourite song. Cedillas sing it as part of their mating ritual.

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POSTSCRIPT: The one week of this duo show was curiously dominated by threes. We had this in Week 17 where Charlotte Moth presented The Story of a Different Thought – “a bird with three eyes, three versions of the same name, three versions of a story”. It’s hard to say if this multiplication of threes could be said to be another theme weaving in and out of fig-2 or just a thing we have as a culture about threes, from at least Plato onwards if not earlier. Three’s company.

Week 18 – Kathryn Elkin – 4-11 May – The Elephants In The Room

  • First Movement: Trauermarsch (The Elkin in the Room)
  • Second Movement: Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Mahler The Elephant)
  • Third Movement: Scherzo (Beethoven’s Elephant)
  • Fourth Movement: Adagietto (Okkyung Lee: Improvisation and Composition)
  • Fifth Movement: Rondo-Finale (Bernstein: Killing An Elephant)

Death is love’s final form. The sexual climax, la petite mort, is the rehearsal. To die for love, what could be more beautiful? Silence, please.

  • First Movement: Trauermarsch (The Elkin in the Room)

The fig-2 project is generating a huge amount of new work. Most of its weekly shows have been created specifically for fig-2 by the commissioned artists. For Week 18/50 Kathryn Elkin presented “The Elephants in the Room” documenting her collaboration with cellist Okkyung Lee. They spent a day in the studio working through the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The 22-minute film audio contained one complete solo cello take extemporised from the Mahler material, with the video taken from the conversations and experiments leading up to the take. In the fig-2 studio space the film was augmented by two performances entitled Mud, in which the artist and three volunteers read Elkin’s transcriptions of things she had said during the collaborative process: cringey, halting, nascent, funny moments.

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A style of modernistic fragmentation is often used and abused to represent cognition in action, and there’s plenty of sub-Beckett around as a result. Until I listened to her interview with fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek I didn’t realize the words were a transcription. It feels better to know that it was verbatim, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Perhaps I missed this because I’d been volunteered to be the third reader on the Sunday performance, so I was probably trying not to trip over the furniture, so to speak. The words have a music of their own that correlates with the deconstructive, reconstructive, improvisatory opacities of the music itself:

10351658_813880422016285_101759427499973172_nWell what I ummmmmmm
well what I propose
at this piece of music
together and
I thought that it would be tooooooooo

To explain what I think her title “The Elephants In The Room” means, we are going to have to go on a musical journey through Mahler’s Fifth and Beethoven’s Sixth, try to solve the mystery of the “Immortal Beloved”, think about the difference between composition and improvisation, and finally consider Bernstein’s lectures on ‘musical semantics’ and what happens when we listen to and think about music.

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  • Second Movement: Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Mahler The Elephant)

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony has five movements. The fourth, the Adagietto, is famous as the theme to Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice, as well as for having been conducted by Leonard Bernstein during a memorial to John F. Kennedy. These associations can make it seem all about death and mourning, but really it about love, written for his wife Alma Schindler, who claimed that Mahler left a small poem that may be understood to be the ‘words’ to this “love song without words”:

Mahler-5AdagiettoGIFbijgesneden“Wie ich dich liebe, Du meine Sonne,
ich kann mit Worten Dir’s nicht sagen.
Nur meine Sehnsucht kann ich Dir klagen und meine Liebe.”

(How much I love you, you my sun,
I cannot tell you that with words.
I can only lament to you my longing and love.)

Mahler’s Fifth is the first of the central trilogy of works that abandon the use of voices and poetic texts, which were an important part of the previous four symphonies, whereas the fifth, sixth, and seventh, are thought of as ‘pure’ orchestral works. But how pure? Kelly Dean Hansen argues that it has “an inner programme” even if this programme is not explicit. The fifth in particular might be considered ‘transitional’ if we were to infer that the vocal elements of the earlier four might have existed in some sketch way before being transformed or cut – making the fifth less of a ‘pure orchestral work’ at least at the stage of composition. The existence of the poem to Alma and the fact that scholars have ‘reconstructed’ the song (see image) makes a strong case for but its absence from the symphony calls into question how much we can say that its attached resonances relating to Alma make it ‘about love’, just as how much as the listener’s associations of it with Death in Venice and John F. Kennedy make it ‘about death’.

In a nod to Beethoven’s ninth Mahler’s fifth has been called the “Funeral March to Joy” – it opens with a funeral march trumpet call followed by the orchestra’s opening which uses the same rhythmic motif from the start of Beethoven’s fifth. If Mahler’s fifth could therefore be said to be haunted by Beethoven’s, pity him the ninth. The ‘curse of the ninth’ is a common superstition among symphonic composers, because Beethoven never started a tenth. It affected Mahler to the extent that after his eighth his next three major symphonic works were each unperformed when he died. There’s an eighth-and-a-halfth Das Lied Von Den Erde which is a symphony disguised as a song cycle, then the actual Ninth and then a Tenth. Though perhaps he was right about the curse of the ninth – this tenth was thought incomplete until 1960 when the complete short score was discovered.

It’s understandable. From 1907 Mahler had been living under the shadow of death from a heart ailment, which did in turn lead to his death from a blood infection in May 1911, just eight months after conducting the first performance of his eighth. The Moebius strip of associated meanings is completed by our knowledge that the character of Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice was actually based on Mahler. Mann’s Aschenbach was a writer, but when Visconti adapted the novella for the screen, he made Aschenbach a composer, who not only looks like Mahler but whose death is soundtracked by the Mahler Adagietto.

Beethovens-letters-to-his-Immortal-Beloved

  • Third Movement: Scherzo (Beethoven’s Elephant)

While Kathryn Elkin was researching Mahler and Visconti her neighbour was playing Beethoven until 2am every night. The music was affecting her and fed into her thoughts about extra-musical meaning and musical semantics surrounding the Adagietto and Death In Venice.

Just as Mahler’s poem to Alma might be considered an extra-musical layer of meaning, there is similar speculation in Beethoven’s oeuvre. We’ll discuss the programmatic elements of his Sixth Symphony later, but let’s take a little scherzo into the matter of the “Immortal Beloved”.

Countess Josephine von Brunsvik might be considered the most important woman in Beethoven’s life. There’s little evidence of his having loved any other, and he wrote at least fifteen letters to her in which he called her his “only beloved” . She died in 1821, aged 42. During this year, Beethoven composed his very last Piano Sonatas Op. 110 and Op. 111, which are like requiems, with discernible reminiscences to the earlier Andante favori Josephine’s Theme“.

In Teplitz on 6/7 July 1812 Beethoven wrote a love letter that he didn’t send. The location and date of the letter were only established by scholars in the 1950s and it is addressed to an unknown recipient whom he refers to as “Immortal Beloved”.

Beethoven scholarship has a puzzling resistance to the most logical theories, and knowledge about Beethoven and his “Only Beloved” Justine was somehow suppressed for 150 years. There is still stuff coming out. In cases of cover-ups, there’s usually an elephant in the room, and so we find. Justine and he had separated two years before but it is possible that they met again at the time of the “Immortal Beloved” letters; the suppression of the Justine theory may be because almost exactly nine months later she gave birth to her seventh child.

According to her diary entries in June 1812 Josephine intended to go to Prague. At this stage, however, her and her sister Therese’s diaries end abruptly and do not continue until about two months later. Meanwhile, Beethoven traveled to Teplitz via Prague, where, on 3 July 1812, he must have met a woman he subsequently called his Immortal Beloved.

Steblin writes in 2007 “All of the puzzling aspects about Beethoven’s affair with the ‘Immortal Beloved,’ including his various cryptic comments, can be explained in terms of his one known beloved – Josephine. Why do we doubt his word that there was only one woman who had captured his heart?” The most recent decade of European scholarship seems to have been ignored in America, and the mystery remains unsolved.

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  • Fourth Movement: Adagietto (Okkyung Lee: Improvisation and Composition)

Okkyung Lee’s music was developed through improvisation with loose instructions from Kathryn Elkin and the impetus of the Mahler score. The video doesn’t show her playing the ‘final’ take, which we hear, and we only see them working toward it. It’s somehow both improvised and composed. What is the difference? Chris Dobrian’s essay “Thoughts on Composition and Improvisation” draws the following conclusions:

  1. Composition is written. Improvisation is not.
  2. Improvisation takes place in real time. Composition does not.
  3. Improvisation is often a group activity. Composition is rarely a group activity.

The act of making a recording in a studio produces a ‘final form’ – so you could argue that the improvising musician is a composer as much as the traditional composer putting black notes down on paper. But improvisation isn’t quite the same as composition. It foregrounds the circumstances of creation at the expense of composition in a more formal sense.

By including the discussions she had with Okkyung, Elkins makes the video’s accompanying performance piece ‘Mud’ centrally about itself, about the process of creating and transforming meanings. Ordinarily we would not be party to all the thoughts or discussions that went into the creation of a work, but here they are presented as part of the work itself. These are transcribed, so in a sense the work is as much documentary as artistic, though the art comes with the selection and chopping and reordering of these thoughts, leading up to Elkin’s explanation of why the work is going to be called ‘Mud’. Just as Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu concludes with the author, another Aschenbach type character in both life and art, just setting off on the writing of A la recherche du temps perdu.

  • Fifth Movement: Rondo-Finale (Bernstein: Killing An Elephant)

Elkin’s fig-2 show was crucially informed by Leonard Bernstein’s lectures on musical semantics, in which he frames musical meaning-making in the context of Chomskian structural linguistics. Bernstein argues that “music has intrinsic meanings of its own which are not to be confused with specific feelings or moods, and certainly not with pictorial impressions or stories. These intrinsic meanings are generated by a constant stream of metaphors which are all forms of poetic transformations.”

Artistotle puts metaphor mid-way between the unintelligible and the commonplace – it is metaphor which most produces knowledge. In metaphor an imaginative leap occurs in which ‘this’ is said to be ‘that’. Bernstein gives the example of “Juliet is the sun” We know she isn’t literally, but we understand that something has been expressed that might be inexpressible. This is how music conveys meaning and enables us to experience ‘this’ and/as ‘that’ at once like no other art form does. When music expresses something by recourse to individual feeling we feel “passion, glory, misty, something”. But we can’t report our precise feelings in scientific forms, only subjectively. Our descriptions of music vary wildly. One listener hears a sunset, another a bird. Similarly, Rossini’s William Tell Overture is the Lone Ranger Theme to several generations of listeners, just as the Mahler Adagietto is the theme from Visconti’s Death In Venice.

Regarding this associative personal dimension, Bernstein asks if there a transference of affect from the composer to the notes to the listener? “Did Beethoven feel like that or did I make it up? Or had the feelings been transferred? We’ll never know. The probability is that both are true.” This gives music a beautiful semantic ambiguity. It possesses the power of an expressivity that we can respond to, but it is a metalanguage that can “name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable”.

Bernstein demonstrates the ways in which music communicates specifically musical meaning by analogy to metaphor, demonstrating rhetorical tropes, figures of speech, that he can find in music that are transformed in the Chomskyan sense to produce meaning. Anaphora, the repeating a sequence of words at the beginnings of neighboring clauses, he finds right there in Mahler’s Fifth. (He even explores chiasmus, which I wrote about at some length in Week 17). Music is constantly transformative of material and it is here rather than in our subjectivity that he challenges us to find the  the ‘meanings of music’.

To illustrate this, Bernstein takes us in some detail through Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, which bears a great deal of ‘extra-musical’ material. It is subtitled ‘Pastorale’ and each movement has yet another title. This is distracting enough if you’re trying to concentrate on the music as music, but Beethoven even adds bird calls and village bands and lightning and thunder, making the work as close to program music as he ever came. Bernstein asks if it’s possible to clarify between intrinsic and extrinsic metaphors. Is it possible to listen to it as pure music?

Beethoven’s subtitles are perhaps “suggestions” with the music not meant to be interpreted as “tone painting” but those extra-musical references are there and are hard to ignore, just as it’s hard to forget about Aschenbach or William Tell or the Immortal Beloved. They form a visual curtain of nonmusical ideas that interposes between the music and the listener. Bernstein at the conclusion of his lecture presents us with the challenge of ridding ourselves of all this rustic ‘Pastorale’ material and hearing the music as music. The Sixth is an extraordinary catalogue of variations of transformed elements of the first four bars, which are a simple bass motif in the chords F and C which forms a motto of whole symphony, just as the immortal opening bars of the Fifth underpin it and are similarly transformed throughout.

10846196_813547002049627_3720868295181635872_nThis explanation that the meaningfulness of music lies in its musical transformations chimes with Okkyung Lee’s development of the Mahler material and her radically transforming it. The experimental cellist’s use of improvisation and fractured syntax and modernistic harmonies and language takes it away from the familiar world of Death In Venice but it is not methodologically differently in what Beethoven does, or what Mahler has already done in the original Adagietto in transforming the basic material in the course of the piece. Those are mahler’s transformations, these are Okkyung Lee’s, not to mention Kathryn Elkin’s as a de facto co-composer, with the listener’s own semantic contribution by recourse to our subjective listening act.

“While I count to five, try not to think of an elephant” says Bernstein at the end of the lecture. It’s a classic thought paradox: as soon as you try not to think about something you are necessarily thinking about it. He asks that we abandon all extra-musical material (the programmatic elements) and just listen to music as transformations.

Katryn_Elkin_Fig2_17_50_-11The title of Kathryn Elkin’s week at Fig-2 “The Elephants In The Room” is nowhere explained, which might make it itself another ‘elephant in the room’ in addition to those I’ve outlined. I take it that the title comes from Bernstein’s lectures, and have used it to try and explore the presences and absences that go into how we find and transmit meaning through music (and indeed any art form). Bernstein concedes “I doubt that anyone succeeded in avoiding the elephant”. But next time you hear Mahler’s Adagietto, the one from Death In Venice, try Bernstein’s experiment: see if you can avoid the elephant.

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Bernstein lectures on musical semantics, different ways of translating musical ideas in terms of linguistics etc: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Unanswered_Question_%28lecture_series%29

Musical phonology https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntmTQ8J7m5Y
Musical syntax https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlaeEJ6ASJw
Musical semantics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V82aqyG1k5M
The Delights & Dangers of Ambiguity https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gw7nVMx7zrk
The Xxth Crisishttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAuDrnkN080
The Poetry of Earth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=034GXOyVbjg

Week 16 – Jacopo Miliani – 20-26 April

11157432_806467892757538_4163445423355068377_oEach morning during Jacopo Miliani’s week at fig-2 he rearranged the presentation of the light blue fabric rolls suspended from the skylights, and added another bunch of flowers. The idea was to create “a choreographic score as exhibition.” A choreographic score is a set of instructions for dancers. How can an exhibition, a presentation of ‘things’, function as a score? There are incredibly wacky examples of musical scores that rely wholly on the interpretation of the musician. A dancer entering a space could interpret the space, but it relies on a very loose definition of what a score is. It’s a prompt really.

Marketa Uhlirova’s Birds of Paradise is a beautiful book that documents costume in 1920s and gay 1960s film as a production of spectacle for its own sake rather than as is more usual an expression of character in narrative. The cover image is a still from dancer and choreographer Loie Fuller’s Serpentine Dance, and this might be the sort of thing that Miliani was trying to ‘choreograph’ by repeatedly installing the fabric and flowers.


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The exhibition was lovely to look at, light and airy, but I’m not sure it really presented “the triumph of the spectacle” in the way that Louie Fuller’s Serpentine Dance does. In the Thursday evening talk ‘Uttering the Spectacle’ (the title following the fashion for verbing the abstract noun), it was hard to understand what he was trying to do. His ideas seemed impossibly quirky and hard to share. It seemed to make sense to him but I felt I was missing certain connections about the processes and symbolism in fashion and dance that seem to be assumed: the changes in the show’s arrangement, and in the play of light during the day, the creases in the fabric that “memorise tensions”, the purported symbolism whereby fragility is expressed through the fabric and flowers. The absence of any dancers from the choreography was intended to represent (unpresent?) an absence at the heart of the exhibition. Having an absence at the heart of your presence is very fashionable.

“There is nothing in the room because God is dead”, says mummy.

“Oh dear,” says Peter.

1926298_806467849424209_9142822375522577561_oIt’s know what to make of an attempt to “bring temporality and introduce impossibility to understand choreography in the setting for the audience, or for an aftermath as in film and image” and to evoke Japanese Noh Theatre’s precision with an admittedly impossible “movement of the space” (thinking of space as space rather than as an architectural property). I love the quirkiness and impenetrability of his thought – so overspecified, arising from a lifetime of thought and work I’m not party to. In that sense the real absence at the centre of the installation is a reflection of that disconnect, which resonates with fashionable artistic practice more widely and the inability to access someone else’s thought process. It’s impossible to enter in another’s subjectivity but isn’t this why we have art? To communicate something unknown? An unfashionable idea, I suppose.

11077778_806467766090884_2731059377912460545_oFabric has fragile qualities, but fragility is not its defining characteristic. In fact fabric is pretty robust, robust enough to make clothes out of. So to base a show on the fragile quality of fabric is a mistake, because that fragility is neither inherent (and therefore obvious) nor transmitted to the viewer. In this sense there really is an absence at the heart of the show, because the meaning that is sought is not apprehended by the show itself, never mind its viewer. The flowers don’t have water, so they’re dying, but you can’t see the water to know that. He describes himself as “sadistic”, a murder of flowers, but, mate, they’re just flowers.

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I kind of get it, but it’s kind of nonsense. This sort of missing semantic connection has been analysed as a criticism of conceptualism. Works themselves frequently don’t include the necessary information required to understand how they function as meaningful art works. Necessary biographical information is explained on sheets of A4 or on wall commentary which without having read you would almost certainly be none the wiser. This is true of so much YBA art.

It contrasts with so much great art where there’s a transformation that occurs somewhere between the deeply personal circumstances underpinning its creation, and the independence of what is created, where it takes on a life of its own independent of its creator. I’m not saying Mandy by Barry Manilow (whose name it amuses me to pronounce like ‘manilla’) is a great song, but how many of his audience realize it was written about a dog? Or am I thinking of the Rolling Stones ‘Mandy’? To think about it, most of the great songs of all-consuming love are actually about dogs.

Communication is impossible. There’s always too much or too little of yourself, of form, of content, of meaning, and everyone wants something new but what we really want is something old, that we already understand. You don’t read a sonnet to see how well they can write a sonnet, you read it to see how cunningly they vary the sonnet form while profoundly retaining it. You demand sameness with a twist of personality, not just personality. Personality is boring. Personality is interviews, not form, not art. There’s no world record for running 85 metres, even if you’re faster than Mo Farah over 85 metres but then slow down over the last 15. We value mavericks like Harry Partch (who invented a 43-note musical scale and built his own instruments) who create their own 85 metre sprints or 15 mile marathons, but there isn’t a sense of ‘achievement’ in just doing what you feel. Anyone can pass their own exam paper. There’s a Peter Cook character who proudly boasts “I speak thirty-seven languages – thirty-six of my own invention!”

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