Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Poetry Hour

I'm not entirely certain how it happened that I came to miss the news of Josephine Hart's death last year. I suppose this is what happens when you only read the FT and the IHT. Where else are such deaths reported but in the obit pages of the broadsheets? What a strange, long-lasting tradition; the obit pages. I wish the British Library would have posted a notice on their events page - where I regularly go to find out when the next Poetry Hour will take place and always come away wondering why the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour never appears anymore. Almost certainly, someone, somewhere would lambast such a notice as callous and disrespectful, but for my part, I still find it difficult to understand why our culture deals with death - even difficult deaths - as a quiet thing to be hidden away. Or as a thing to be boxed off in the pages of broadsheets no one reads anymore.

I miss the Poetry Hour. For my money, it was consistently one of the finest cultural events in London. There is such power in beautiful, insightful poetry read aloud, particularly when it is read by highly-skilled actors. I'm a huge supporter of the next generation of poets and poetry publishers and I certainly think Britain has a rich and vibrant contemporary poetry scene it can be proud of. Many of these younger poets are as skillful performers as they are writers, though the scene's interest in supporting the new and the next (no bad thing in a discipline still understood by most of the rest of the population as Shakespeare's sonnets), means that there are very few opportunities (outside of academia, at least) to re-examine the beauty and skill of previous generations of poets in a public setting.

The format for PH was simple but effective: Hart always introduced the poet-subject with brief contextual background - in her wonderfuly thick voice - before the actors took turns reading various poems from the chosen poet's oeuvre. I can't remember all of the evenings I attended, but the two that stand out were Damian Lewis and his wife Helen McCrory reading Auden, and Charles Dance and Dominic West reading Larkin. I also heard on Radio 4, before I ever went to PH, Robert Hardy and Greg Wise reading Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, which still stands out as one of the best things I've ever listened to on BBC Radio.

I've written elsewhere about the Larkin and the Auden evenings, about how both events made me entirely re-evaluate my views on both poets and their respective works. I can't fully express how wonderful, in particular the Larkin, evenings were - the pleasure of being made to realise and reflect upon how poems are song and how song is so intimately bound up with human culture and human expression. That these are words which are meant to be read, meant to be listened to and how wonderful, almost essential, it is to listen to them together with other people. And because Hart so often selected experienced stage actors, people whose professional success depends upon their ability to make words meaningful, the old poems came alive in ways in which they so rarely do on the page.

So now that I finally know why the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour never appears on the British Library events page, I wonder whether the time might not be ripe for an adaption and extension of the theme? Perhaps a new poetry hour that teams the next-generation of future-classic poets with their soon-to-be-superstar-stage-actor counterparts? Tempting.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

A weekend with Newton in Lincolnshire

Photobucket We've been spending most of our weekends outside of London in the last few months, which has been rather lovely, particularly since many of these weekends have involved trips to various parts of England which I've never visited before. While I do love travelling to strange and distant lands, there's something very pleasant about hopping on the train on Friday evening and arriving somewhere a few hours later - and with such little fuss! - only to wake the next morning surrounded by great natural beauty. It's all too easy to forget, especially living in London, that England is full of so many beautiful and fascinating places.

This past weekend we headed up to Lincolnshire to investigate Compass, new contemporary art commissions at Woolsthorpe Manor, Grimsthorpe Castle and Ayscoughfee Hall produced by arts-organisation Beacon. Beacon had organised a bus to take us, and a large group of other art enthusiasts, from Lincoln around to each of the various sites and works. We had a grand old time and covered a lot of Lincolnshire ground to boot. We spent a wonderful evening with the directors of Beacon - John and Nicola - who left London 13 years ago to buy up and convert an old Methodist church in a little village outside of Lincoln and some of their friends, who also left London (some five years ago) to buy up and convert an old Methodist church in a different little village outside of Lincoln. Apparently there are a lot of unloved Methodist churches to be had in Lincolnshire.

Even though I'd seen pictures of Newton's house many times before, I somehow didn't quite make the connection in my head between hearing the name Woolsthorpe Manor and Newton's home until we were walking into the grounds of the house. It seems silly to be so excited simply by virtue of being in the same house where Newton was born and then came back to work during the plague years of 1666-7, but the history of a place like that makes me feel absolutely electric. We even ate an apple off a tree in the garden, though why they have one particular apple tree fenced off, as if it were irrefutably the apple tree from which Newton's apple of gravity fell, I have no idea. History as tourist attraction. 

We went also to visit the John Vanbrugh-designed Grimsthorpe Castle, (Vanbrugh was commissioned in 1715, though there has been a house on the site since 1516) though we we unable to go inside, the exterior of the house and its gardens were lovely enough to keep our eyes entertained for the 30 minutes or so we were there. Finally, our tour took us to Spalding and the utterly bizarre Ayscoughfee Hall. The original building dates to 1451 and, in terms of the building's central structure, remains much unchanged. In terms of decoration, the building has changed superficially as much as one might expect in a building more than 560 years old. There's a Gothic-looking Victorian front facade and, excepting the dark, Victorian library, most of the interior rooms resemble a series of enormous Georgain fondant fancies. Heritage Lottery funded a three-year "sympathetic restoration" project which completed in 2006, but I haven't been able to find out much about what the building looked like pre-restoration on the internet. A conservator's report, which indicates that the restoration was carried out under the aim of bringing the building back to how it might have looked when the Johnson family lived in it at the end of the seventeenth century, reminded me of Robert Pollidori's photographs of Versailles. History by its nature is not fixed, but restoration demands history stand still at a precise point of reference - it's like putting a blue plaque on a building and denying the memory of all others who lived there. How would one go about restoring a house or a building so that each of it's previous histories, previous lives, live together in harmony? I have not the slightest idea how one would begin or even what the end result might look like, but I do know that it wouldn't look like Ayscoughfee Hall.

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Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Lighthouse Keepers

I used to date a guy who had the most ridiculously esoteric interests. And I mean genuinely out there, not just crackers as a matter of impressing unimpressible London-types. It wasn't the best of relationships, but I have to give him some credit as he introduced me to a few truly awesome places in northern Wales and, as per the terms and conditions of our split, left me with Emma, a dear and delightful friend. He was into comedy, which was how we met - I previously dated another member of his Cantabrigian improv comedy troupe who I met one year during the Edinburgh Fringe (a long story. who cares!). Anyway, just before we started going out he'd formed a new sketch comedy group - The Three Englishmen - and perhaps during one barn-storming brainstorming session, or so I imagine, the ex whipped out a juicy little story he'd been saving about three lighthouse keepers who went missing from their lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides in 1900. Like sherry from my refrigerator, the three vanished without so much as a by-your-leave, never to be seen or heard from again. The Englishmen couldn't quite work the lighthouse keepers into a sketch of comedic genius and so instead hit upon the rather wonderful idea of turning the story into a torchlit play.

I remember the first time I went to see this little cracker way back in 2008. In fact, my memory of that first outing is so strong that, when I went to look back over old blog entries to find out the exact date, I realised that I'd forgotten that they'd performed the play again in a completely different venue a year later. Clearly a case of selective memory, as the second venue was far too small for the play's silly physicality and the whole thing just didn't quite work as well as it did the first time.

If you've ever been in a relationship with a "creative", you'll be well aware of that sinking feeling that comes from having to attend their opening or listen to their poems or their songs or whatever, and, on the frequent occasions when the work is terrible, feign enthusiasm if you still want to keep having sex with said person. I remember walking into the Cockpit Theatre for the first outing of The Lighthouse Keepers worrying about exactly this thing and, at the play's end, feeling not only relief but genuine respect and admiration for this utterly bonkers little work of theatre that they'd created. It still stands out in my mind, not exactly as a work of genius, but as a refreshingly unique and entertaining approach to making theatre.

Because of this back story, it came as something of a surprise when I found out that the ROH was putting on a chamber opera about the very same lighthouse keepers! As I learned from the catalogue last weekend when I went to see The Lighthouse in the ROH's petite Linbury Studio, it's not a new work, but a piece written by Peter Maxwell Davies in 1979. It's a fine little opera and though, despite the fine singing and excellent playing by the small orchestra, it's modern music that somehow isn't quite modern enough and not really the sort of operatic music I prefer.

As for the plot, as Delacroix says of architecture, so can be said of theatrical plots: "A finished building encloses the imagination within a circle and prevents it from straying beyond its limits.  Perhaps the only reason why the sketch for a work gives so much pleasure is that each beholder can finish it as he chooses..."

Though I can't quite remember the details of the plot of The Three Englishmen's version, it felt more meaningful because - unlike Davies' version - it never tried to answer the question of the mystery of what actually happened to the lighthouse keepers. As Delacroix figured out, the magic of these kinds of stories is that there are no true answers and so it's left to our imaginations to fill in the blanks. 

Even more mysteriously, just after I bought my ticket to the ROH's The Lighthouse, I found out that The Three Englishmen are reviving their torch-lit production of The Lighthouse Keepers on 29 October as part of the Leicester Square 13th Hour Horror Festival at the Leicester Square Theatre. Spooky!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Footloose and fancy Frieze

Photobucket As a blogger, I get invited to a lot of things - art parties, bar openings, trips to Iceland - and ad companies are always getting in touch to sell stuff on my site or to write guest posts on all manner of un-related topics. I never accept because I'm not trying to make any money off the blog and because I get to go to parties and trips and plenty of fun things anyway, regardless of the blog. I've always seen this blog as the one place where I can just make it up as I go along. I'm not being paid to write this stuff, so my thoughts don't always have to be perfectly expressed or even fully worked out

So, a couple of weeks ago when I got an email from Le Méridien Piccadilly asking if I wanted to come hang out with other bloggers on a Frieze-week extravaganza, I started to reply with my usual "thanks, but no thanks" spiel. But I looked through the itinerary again and thought that if I was ever going to go on a blogger event, it should probably be this one.

And you know what, the whole thing was brilliant fun. I think my style as a blogger is about as far removed from the lifestyle "isn't TK hotel AMAZEBALLS" vibe you can get, but it was certainly an interesting three days and I had some particularly intelligent conversations about the contemporary art world with people in industries I don't often interact with on a professional level.

Among other things, being with the Le Méridien group - who sponsor the Outset/Frieze Art Fair Fund for Tate (which uses the monies raised through their sponsorship partnership with the hotel, and elsewhere) to acquire works from Frieze for the Tate Collection - meant we had easy access to quite a few events that I probably wouldn't have otherwise bothered attending, alongside other amusing field trips with private tours of the Serpentine Gallery and the two Tates.

Photobucket On the morning of our first day together, we attended an Outset/Méridien panel discussion on growth in the contemporary art world. Because it was an invited audience of art-world VIPs, the panelists were far more honest and relaxed about their positions and ambitions than I'd ever encountered them in more public forums, and as a result, the discussion actually ended up being very informative and interesting, if entirely one sided. As JPJ so succinctly put it: "the aim is to win territory without sacrificing quality." The four certainly made a robust case for the side of growth, but it would have been interesting to have at least one person taking the opposite case. Indeed, as Georgina Adam argued in a recent round-up of Frieze week for the FT, what with the White Cube showing Anselm Kiefer in Hong Kong, and both Gagosian and Ropac launching new spaces in Paris also with Kiefer, it seems that unchecked growth may lead, at the very least, to many artists overstretching their creative capacities.

Photobucket We also went to the Outset 10th anniversary dinner at the RCA which was organised and prepared entirely by students. There was such a scrum when we walked in that I lost all of the bloggers and ended up sandwiched between three former RCA students (two of whom had had work purchased by Outset for Tate's collection) and a professor of business strategy at LCC who also teaches at Sotheby's, helping former investment bankers open art galleries! Never mind that Jérôme Sans and Candida Gertler didn't talk to us! I went classic Crystal-kamikaze on the people at my table and introduced everyone to everyone, so much so that by the time pudding was served out entire table was getting properly stuck in to an argument about the current state of arts education in the UK. Awesome.

Photobucket Equally, I normally find traipsing around Frieze makes me spit fire, but I was in such good humour that I actually had a jolly time wandering through the fair. I ran into loads of people, which is always fun and helps keeps one's spirits up, but I think it was partly because the work was all a bit straight this year - lots of smallish sculptural pieces, paintings and other 2D work - there wasn't anything hugely grotesque or abominably idiotic to bring my blood up to boiling point. In any event the difference between being jolly, in high spirits and critical, as opposed to angry, mildly depressed and critical was so great as to be hugely liberating. I went through something of a rough patch this summer what with cynicism winning the daily battle far more often than optimism, so it was rather refreshing to find myself back in good spirits. Even at Frieze...

[lots of nice things I saw at Frieze in bad BB pics, ignoring the 98% that was rubbish…]

Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket The principle reason behind the Le Méridien blogger event was to spread the word about the hotel group's partnership with various artists and designers, but particularly their support of the Outset Fund. I must admit that I found the four works purchased this year by the fund to be absolutely dreadful (pictured below, from top to bottom: Hideko Fukushima, Nicholas Hlobo, Caragh Thuring, Jack Whitten), but I think the partnership is an interesting one. As we've all seen from the Red Bull Stratos insanity, brands feel they have to differentiate themselves from their competitors, and while Red Bull has chosen risky stunts, Le Méridien has opted for art and design. 

In some respects, this isn't anything new: hotel aesthetics have always been a major part in what draws customers in. I often pass the best part of an afternoon reading in the foyer bar at Claridge's, it's such a lovely, relaxing space. But Le Méridien have really pushed these art-design partnerships to the forefront of their branding. They have a cultural curator who oversees and commissions artists and designers (in a Courvoisier Future 500-style network of 100 people involved in creative commissions for the hotel) to work across all of the hotels in the group, and each hotel has a partnership with a major cultural institution in the host city, so, for example, in London your key card (which has, of course, been designed by an artist) will get you free admission to the Tate's paid exhibitions. Definitely better than an afternoon raid of the mini-bar...

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Monday, 8 October 2012

Paname: the city that wants to go to sleep

I've been going to Nuit Blanche almost as long as I've been going to Paris. I've seen the all-night arts extravaganza evolve from something resembling more of a weekend music festival to its most recent incarnation as a Paris open house meets artist film fest. In 2008, I saw Ryoji Ikeda's spectra [paris], still one of the most immensely engaging installations I've ever experienced. 2010 stands out as the best Nuit Blanche ever, ever, ever: from 7am to 7pm, we wandered around the city in a daze of wonder (possibly exhaustion) from one dream-like piece to the next. In the courtyard of the Hôtel d'Albret, some friendly volunteers even served coffee and croissants to us hardy souls who were still awake at 7am after Fayçal Baghriche's 300 alarm clocks all went off, marking the close of that year's festivities.

Last year, though, things to a marked turn for the worse. Who knows what happened exactly, maybe the money just ran out or perhaps Paris lost interest, but the 2011 Nuit Blanche was the worst I'd ever been to. If you're putting on an all-night arts fest in a city whose inhabitants don't start glassing people at 3am after, you need to consider the rhythm of the thing. The hardest bit is the 3-5am mark when enthusiasm wanes and bed beckons. Part of what made 2010 so great was that the balance was just right: there were plenty of show-stoppers; lots and lots of smaller pieces hidden across the city; and plenty of interesting films in the lecture halls of the city's many universities which meant that when you were flagging at 4am, you could sit somewhere warm and dry for 40 minutes zoning out to an interesting film. Last year, everything was outside and it was as if the organisers had made a rule disallowing any visitors to sit anywhere. Inside a school gym, watching a film, people were bared from lying on the empty floor. What's the point in having a festival run all night if you don't engender the conditions to make such a thing possible. Ridiculous.

So it was with some trepidation that we went back this year. So much so, that we rented a flat for the weekend instead of doing what we usually do and get the Eurostar to Paris on Saturday, arriving around 6pm and then back again the following morning around 10am. Knowing that we had a flat to go back to meant that we certainly didn't make as much of an effort to get around everything this year, instead choosing to check out the clever-clever Calderpiller at Les Halles before a leisurely dinner with friends at Macéo (which incidentally was very good), before heading East to the BnF and making out way back to the middle of town before heading home around 4am.

While things were certainly better than last year, there weren't any standout pieces as with 2008 or 2010. Instead, this year was more focused on the opening up vistas of the city not often available to the public with a series of belvédères across town. We began over at the BnF in Bercy, which was nice as I did quite a bit of research for my PhD in this library but hadn't visited again since. Also, the area of Perrault's library typically open to the public is underground - the four towers house the book stacks and administrative offices, so it was rather exciting to be allowed up to the 18th floor of one of the towers. The lookout offered little by way of a beautiful panorama of Paris, but it was fascinating to be able to see the layout of the library building from that vantage - it makes more sense from height than from at human scale. You could also make out quite clearly the utterly peculiar shapes of Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy and the cruise-chip-like Cemex building nearby.

From the library, we strolled along the Seine until we reached Les Docks de Paris: an old depot for goods brought to Paris via the Seine built in concrete at the turn of the last century. In 2009 the docks were redeveloped by Jakob+MacFarlane who elected to keep the original structure, which now houses a school of fashion and design. It's covered with two, long neon green tubes hiding walkways and staircases (ver, very ugly in person) and though I'd seen it from the train many times, I'd never actually visited until last weekend. On the terrace was showing a dreadful film by Katerina Jebb (though the premise of the film was interesting enough), and though there was a bar and it seemed like a cool-enough place to hang out, we didn't stay for long as there wasn't actually that much going on (an architect's boring pavilion is not a good installation).

We then spent a half hour queueing to get into the Natural History Museum (there's a lot of queueing at Nuit Blanche), and though the museum itself was AWESOME, the three pieces by Kate MccGwire were not.

Likewise, La Ceinture de Feu, at the Institut de Physique, which was literally what it says on the tin: a belt of neon wrapped round the Institute by Angela Detanico and Rafael Lain. Inside, a film on the history of neon lights by philosopher Luis de Miranda was showing, which may have been interesting, but at that point my feet were throbbing and my mind was starting to turn to mush and I was finding it difficult to concentrate on the finer points of complex French.

In search of something lighter, we headed off to Édourad Albert's notorious Jessieu Campus only to find ourselves in the middle of a quite wonderful sound installation/performance by Décor Sonore. Half a dozen or so performers, dressed in white and black jumpsuits with matching makeup, stalked through the site making live, improvised music using the buildings and bits of rubble lying around as percussive instruments. Combined with an underlying soundtrack of sustained tones, the whole thing was surprisingly captivating.

The history of the campus itself is interesting and the buildings are actually quite beautiful so it's a shame many seemed to be unused and that the place looks like a stalled building site, though the tower at the heart of the campus was renovated, having all its asbestos removed in 2007, and is now lit up like a stack of jolly ranchers.

All in all, not a disaster of a night, but not enough to convince me to come back for more next year. Better a weekend spent at Versailles and the Palais Garnier than traipsing round town to queue for hours for the pleasure of crumpling in front of lacklustre art installations.

Special mention must go to the cakes. If you're ever in Paris, two of the best are la pâtisserie des rêves, where we gobbled up a Kyoto-Brest which had date and saffron cream squirreled away amongst the crème patissière, sandwiched between pastry and dusted with matcha. And at Pain de Sucre, we had another divine pastry with rosemary and almond and pistachio and rubharb. Yummy!

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