Monday, 30 November 2009

fashion crushes: Katie Gallagher & Jen Kao

Two of my favourite fashion loves at the minute are Katie Gallagher and Jen Kao. I wish we heard more about up and coming designers from other countries in the UK, but I suppose it makes sense to promote local talent, which is what inevitably happens. What's interesting about the - I guess you'd call it the global fashion industry - is that different styles have seeped into different markets. These two designers, but especially Katie, look more like they came out of the St Martin's machine than RISD (Rhode Island School of Design).

Katie Gallagher only showed her first full collection this year - S/S10 in September 09 - and it's pretty fabulous for a first collection: incredibly focused and beautifully finished. The thing I really love through is that she doesn't dabble in side seams. Which is cool. Her pieces don't have any side seams whatsoever, only curved seams that wrap and mimic the body. I mean, when was the last time you saw a straight edge on a woman's body. Exactly.

FC #2 is Jen Kao. She went to Parsons and NYU and launched her label in 2007 (the pics below are all from F/W09). The thing I like about the work of both girls is that the designs are sexy and fitted without being trashy and that they are easy and sheer enough for layering (which I suck at so anything that helps me in that direction = bonus points). Sort of powerful meets pretty and I like that. It's a good feeling when you get all dressed up and you know you look good, not slutty, just fierce, fierce, fierce.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

a year in pictures

Lots of random photos. These aren't all from this year - some from late last year - but I'm pretending they are all from this year for the sake of conceptual unity. Anyway, it's nice to be reminded of fun times.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

beauty is not the only fruit (or why the Pope no nothing)

The Pope seems to be one of those figures, a little like the Queen, that people just can't resist. He summons: you come. That sort of thing. And so when he summoned 300 or so artists from all over the world for a meeting to discuss the state of contemporary art and aesthetics, they came.

It's not altogether surprising that while the rest of the art world has moved on, the Papal court is still stuck in the Renaissance. To be fair, I'm not that surprised, given that the Catholic Church's hold on art was never as strong as it was during the Renaissance. And what art it was! Certainly some of the most beautiful works of fine art ever created were done so because of the Church's patronage. The gorgeous frescos within the Vatican itself are testament to this, as is the nearby Galleria Borghese - one of the most splendid museums in Rome, if not the world. We'd most likely not know of the brilliant Bernini were it not for Cardinal Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, who was one of Bernini's earliest patrons.

Having defended the Catholic Church far more than I intended to, I still find Pope Benedict's comments during the symposium somewhat limited. Essentially his holiness brought these artists together to urge them to get back to beauty. He told the artists, 'You are the custodians of beauty: thanks to your talent, you have the opportunity to speak to the heart of humanity, to touch individual and collective sensibilities, to call forth dreams and hopes, to broaden the horizons of knowledge and of human engagement.' Sure the sentiment is nice, but the view is especially limited. As I'm sure we're all aware, beauty is not the only fruit...

The idea that beauty is the most appropriate force for inspiration and positive change is ridiculous and limited. Let me bring the following works of art to your attention:

As even just the four works above demonstrate, there are a hundred ways to be moved by art and only one of them is beauty - if anything, beauty is one of the most superficial emotions provoked by art. It's beautiful, but so what? What moves you about beauty? What about beauty makes you think differently about the world? What is so profound about artistic beauty? As Conrad says so well with his idea of the 'fascination of the abomination' sometimes it is the terrible, the awful, or the sublime which elicits the most profound thoughts. Or maybe it's something that you can't quite put your finger on - this is what people talk about when they break down in raptures over the Mona Lisa - certainly not a 'beautiful' painting.

Maybe what the Pope really means by 'beauty' is actually 'nature' or 'truth'. This is something the eighteenth-century writers speak about a great deal. They don't say that art should be beautiful, they say that it should imitate, yet surpass nature. The best art is recognisable as something true, but which manages to surpass mere empirical truth.

A piece I love by Canova - the statue of Cupid and Psyche - illustrates this well. With the exception of mythic Cupid's wings, the figures resemble humans, but their sculptural perfection surpasses nature - these lovers will never age - and I think there's something in that which moves people. It's not necessarily the beauty that moves you - though this is certainly a contributing factor - it's the melancholy that comes from comparing the imperfection of love in real life with the perfection of Canova's two lovers. They will never argue, never part, never do anything but stay locked in each other's embrace for eternity (ignore the fact that this is sort of creepy, really...) and that's part of what moves us, it's not just that the statue is a thing of beauty.

So I guess if you're an artist and you want to get into heaven, paint pretty flowers or clouds or whatever, but if you want to provoke some kind feeling in the viewer, you're going to have to try a bit harder.

Monday, 23 November 2009

our true intent

Despite the fact that I have way too much work to do, I hopped across the road to Pure Groove (thankfully, I only live round the corner) tonight for a screening of the newish ATP (All Tomorrow's Parties or the uninitiated) documentary. I didn't think I'd be that crazy for it as it's just a bunch of random clips from a music festival. I know of the festival, obviously, but I've never been so I didn't know if I'd connect with the film or if it would only really work for those who've been to ATP. Thankfully, it was a fabulous film - it succeeded in completely pumping me up about the experience and as soon as I got home I started looking for tickets.

The doc is composed of basically three different types of clips: footage from holiday camps in the 50s and 60s (the festival is held in an out-of-season holiday camps), band performances, and random happenings around the festival. The music is amazing, with so many good bands making brief cameos: Les Savy Fav / Mogwai / Gossip / Octopus Project / GZA / The Dirty Three / Battles / Portishead / Daniel Johnston / Nick CAve / Seasick Steve. Apart from the performances, the best bits of the film were the random clips of spontaneous jam sessions breaking out in a room or on the beach or in the street, people falling down and just being generally ridiculous - a picture of this super chilled out atmosphere emerges where it seems like everyone attending is REALLY into their music.

Bit of a shame that the trailer doesn't give more away - you can't really get a sense of how good the docu is, but I suppose you get a sense of the fun.

If you're in London, you can check it out on the 4th of December at Bocking Street Warehouse.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

if you are easily offended...

look away now.

This is my ridiculous want of the day. It's a bicycle that costs $9,500!!!! By Fendi, of course. But it's ridiculous in a good way. Don't need it. Will never buy it. Still want it.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

i can burn your face

'To burn a face' is a slang expression used among spies
for the threat to expose another agent's identity.

It's funny how spectators of art so often take 'truth' for granted. If someone whacks a shark in a box of formaldehyde and says it's art, we believe that not only is it a real shark in real formaldehyde, but also that it's real art, provided it's in a gallery setting of course. If an artist says that the ashes in a pile in the corner of the gallery resulted from a wind shelter they exploded with a hand grenade, we believe that as well. It wasn't until I went to check out Jill Magid's show at the Tate Modern that I realised how much we were willing to accept at face value.

Though Jill Magid's exhibition at the Tate Modern is in the little gallery on level 2 and hasn't been promoted well or reviewed much, it's the most interesting exhibition I've seen in the TM since Cy Twombly's exhibition in 2008. As a viewer, I'm very intrigued by the idea of Magid's work, her commission with the AIVD - the Dutch Intelligence and Security Agency, the country's secret service - and the restrictions placed on the artist about showing the work, but the very nature of the work itself made me surprisingly sceptical.

It's a very small show, but it took less than 5 minutes of wandering around before I begin to wonder whether I was being had. Was this exhibition a true reflection of the artist's actual experience or was it simply that a very clever individual had dreampt up a fantastic conceptual framework which resulted in some pretty words scrawled in neon light. I've since done a bit of research and it seems that Magid did have a commission with the AIVD and worked with them from 2005 to 2008. Under regulations - which similarly exist in parts of the UK - stipulating that new buildings must provide an element which engages with the arts, usually a public sculpture, she won the commission. It sounds like an initially forward thinking AIVD hired Magid to find the 'human face' of the organisation, only they got a bit more than they bargained for. She carried out her commission by meeting privately with a number of agents and collecting personal data about them and their experiences working as agents in the secret service.

In fact, Magid herself requested to be vetted by the agency and was eventually granted security clearance. Her exhibition speaks strongly of her own desire to be part of 'the secret' and to act as an agent herself. Though no matter how close she got and what kind of access she received, what happened next only demonstrates how clear the divide is between 'us' and 'them'. In 2008, Magid was set to show the results of her commission at a gallery in the Hague, though the day before its opening, a group of AIVD agents showed up (sounds more like a film than real life!) to vet the work. Magid also gave the agents a copy of the manuscript of her novel - which she wrote in lieu of a report about the experience - which they later returned in a heavily edited form.
AIVD edited page from Magid's novel

When Magid complained to the AIVD that the censored manuscript was no longer publishable, they brilliantly suggested that she show the manuscript in a one-time only exhibition, after which it would become the property of the Dutch government and not be published. What else do you expect when you undertake a commission for a secret service agency. Having said that, I think Magid, and the exhibition side-step the problematic issues surrounding permissions and secrecy beautifully and imaginatively. As Magid was obviously not allowed to reproduce photographic images of the agents, she had to think of another way to visually represent them. One of the ways she did so was to visualise language as a series of neon signs - these are words or phrases the agents said during their interviews - which are then written in neon in her own handwriting.

Exploring the negative imapact of a highly intrusive surveilance society is one of the most overused tropes in contemporary art - it's usually presented in a screechy, obvious, in-your-face manner. Magid's work makes the same statement but uses an entirely different pack of cards: the message is so subtle and refined - mixed with an unexpected longing to be on the other side - that it takes until long after you've departed the exhibition to figure out what the real message is all about.

PS While you're at the Tate, make sure to check out the Miroslaw Balka's work in the turbine hall. It's great fun!

Miroslaw Balka;s 'How It Is' at Tate Modern (image from London Smoke blog)

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

whose fault is it, really

Given that I’m a Classics PhD student, I spend an awful lot of time reading obscure texts, written in a language that no one even speaks by men most people have never heard of. Which is something of a shame as much of what these dead chaps wrote is rather splendid and though I’m loathe to say so, still relevant today.*

My thesis deals primarily with one text – Lucan’s Pharsalia – an epic poem written in the first century under Nero (you remember, he played the fiddle while Rome burned) which looks back on the last days of the Roman Republic. This ain’t Homer or Virgil – there’s no dawn and her rosy red fingers here. Lucan’s Erichtho makes Homer’s Polyphemus [the Cyclops] look like the BFG, and his grotesque descriptions of battle are entirely devoid of the traditional conventions of honour and glory normally found in epic. It’s a no-holds-barred gory, raging tantrum of a text, which positively bemoans the previously unimaginable fall of the Roman Republic.

One of the things I most love about Lucan’s epic is that, as expected, he rails against the leaders of the civil war – Caesar and Pompey – but his purest expressions of loathing are reserved for the Roman people.

When Caesar enters Rome for the first time, Lucan writes beautifully of how the people are so terrified of what Caesar might do that they are prepared to do whatever he wants:

“So he speaks and enters a Rome thunderstruck by terror, because they believe that he will sack the walls with black fires and scatter the gods, as if he had captured Rome. This was the extent of their fear: they equate his wishes with his power. No favourable greetings, no feigned cries of happy uproar do they pretend; hardly have they room for hatred. The Palatine halls of Phoebus [i.e. the Temple of Apollo] are filled by a crowd of Fathers brought out from their lairs, though no one has the right to summon the Senate; the sacred chairs were not resplendent with the consul, no praetor – by law the next in rank – is present, and the empty curule chairs are missing from their place. Caesar was everything: the Senate-House listened to one man’s voice. The Fathers sat, prepared to vote in favour if he asks for tyranny, for temples for himself, for the slaughter and the exile of the Senate. Thank the gods his sense of shame exceeded Rome’s self-degradation.”

This is what I mean about the contemporary relevance of the ancient texts. This passage reminds me all too well of the fear-mongering that goes on in my own terrified country: the war on terror, anthrax, communists – you name it – if the politicians and the media are able to whip up enough fear, people are all too willing to give up their civil rights.

Lucan delivers a stinging reprimand against the people for such cowardly behaviour and, as the ultimate dressing-down, suggests that ultimately the people of Rome are to blame for their own downfall. Something we’d all do well to remember, especially comparing, say the difference in cost v public anger over the MP expenses scandal with the banks bailout. MPs were paid just over £93 million in expenses in 2007-08 [the most recent total figures I could find] whereas the bank bailout was £28.7 billion – more than five times the cost of annual military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. But which do you think most twisted the britches of the general public? Not the bank bailout, which hardly merited so much as a sip of tea being spat out the nose, but the MP expenses ‘scandal’ which has hardly been out of the press since the story broke over the summer. Frankly, I don’t have a problem with MPs claiming for expenses (though I’m less happy about them claiming excessively, obviously) – in theory, these people are public servants (again, I might not be that enchanted by the behaviour of the current lot, but I agree with the position in principle) and it’s their job to look after the health of the country. £93 million over one year is not really that much money. £28.7 billion pounds is, however, A LOT of money. That taxpayer money went to bail out organisations with zero interest in the public welfare is absolutely mind-boggling. That the people of this country were ready to draw and quarter their MPs for a few thousand pounds worth of expenses and yet raised little more than an eyebrow when these same MPs gave shed-loads of taxpayer money to bail out the banking sector is just incomprehensible.

As Lucan says of the Romans, it’s not enough to blame the sender of the message when the recipient is equally culpable. Like Caesar and Pompey, some of our civil leaders may be dirty bastards, but who lets them get away with it?

*Loathe to say so as there exists a breed of classicist who feels the need to belittle our subject matter by constantly undermining it in ‘justifying the contemporary relevance of the ancient texts for the modern world’. We’re academics interested in knowledge, not in increasing profit margins, I don’t understand why there’s any need to forge bonds of contemporary relevance. That they exist is both happy coincidence and proof of the extraordinary nature of the quality of the writing and the subject matter of the texts.

Monday, 9 November 2009

take care of yourself

Am way behind the times here. This is no doubt due to the increasingly frequent nightmares where the board who sit on my viva line me up against a wall and shoot me instead of just failing my thesis. Hence writing thesis, not blog. Good times.

Having said that, I've still been out and about to see and do lots of interesting things in the last few weeks (yes, aside from work and nightmares): Ravel's L'Heure espagnole and Puccini's Gianni Schicchiat the ROH - amazing, hilarious, and beautifully performed - and who knew this ravishing aria was in the rather unassuming one act about a cheeky Italian farmer. Divine dinners at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon (the third best dining experience I've had in London in the last year, after Landau at the Langham and the fine food and wine evening at the White Swan) and on the old Pullman Orient Express train. If I have the time, I'll write these up properly but I did want to single out one thing in particular: the Sophie Calle show on now at the Whitechapel Gallery until 3 January.

It's a sort of retrospective of Calle's work but the clear star of the show is Take Care of Yourself (as vile a phrase in French as in English: prenez soin de vous), a piece which won rave reviews at the Venice Bienalle in 2007. After receiving an email in which her then lover breaks up with her, Calle whizzed the email off to 107 various women and asked them to use their professional skills to interpret the missive. While the exhibition is simply unmissible and anything I say about it here would only get in the way of your own response to and enjoyment of what is a very, very clever piece of artistry and social engagement, there was one thing that really stood out for me and that was the email itself.

I don't know about you, but I've been broken up with by letter before (and it was handwritten, baby. One up on Madame Calle) and while his letter was as polite as the situation demanded, it wasn't anything like the email Calle's lover sent to her. I kept thinking over and over (you practically come to know the letter by heart - in French and English- if you stay in the exhibition long enough), god, why have I never gone out with a French bloke before! I don't want a boring 'I hope one day you may forgive me. It's nothing you did, nothing I can explain, blah, blah, blah' break-up letter, I want a mysterious, freakishly formal email about 'the others' and how he will always remember the 'unique and beautiful way I interpreted the world' - I still never did quite figure out what the hell he was referring to with 'the others'. Trust me, it's not as obvious as it sounds. But the disconnect between his letter, grounded in the rhetoric of courtly love, the fact that he sent it via email, and well, just that men actually exist who write letters like that sort of turned my world upside down. I think it's a sad day indeed when a gal starts looking at the men of another country differently (favourably, even) by the way the write break-up emails. Obviously, I'm not getting out of the library enough.