Chalk and blood – Oppenheimer at the RSC

If you sat down with a large enough piece of paper, some pencils and available time, you could probably map out all the interactions that led you to that very moment you decided to map out those interactions. Everything begins small and leads to something greater. You could trace the moment you decided to leave the house at such and such a time and which train you went for, which job you applied for, which path you chose just like every other day, except you walked quicker that one day and then, by the thing we’ve all agreed to call chance, you found that one person that changed your life. Or that group of people who would influence your thinking and change the whole world. Change it forever.

Oppenheimer - at RSC's Swan Theatre from 15th January - 7th March
Oppenheimer – at RSC’s Swan Theatre from
15th January – 7th March

Writer Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer, (currently at the RSC’s Swan Theatre from
15th January – 7th March) looks at the consequences of our macro interactions and plots them against the sub-atomic interactions being explored in physics at the beginning (and eventual end) of the Second World War. The play, delves into the psyche of those leading the research towards creation of the first atomic bomb and the people around them.

Oppenheimer doesn’t just chart dates, times and known facts. It wants you to ask yourself, who you would become, given enough pressure and circumstances. If you knew you could stop the death of millions of people on ‘your side’ through the death of some hundreds of thousands on ‘the other side’ would you do it? It’s a bit like the ‘would you kill Hitler’ questions or countless others that form the basis of simple philosophical questions. When it falls to you to make the decision, which way do you fall? And how free of bias and imperfection can you hope to be?

Directed by Angus Jackson, Oppenheimer is as much an opening up of (much previously unravelled) recent history, as it is an exploration of what kind of person does it fall to, to make such a decision to create a weapon. John Heffernan as J. Robert Oppenheimer gives us the full impact of what that decision might do to a man. By the end of the play we feel his suffering and are only returned to our own humanity when the stage dips to darkness.

Oppenheimer - RSC's Swan Theatre from 15th January - 7th March
Oppenheimer – RSC’s Swan Theatre from
15th January – 7th March

The supporting cast of characters is like a who’s who of early Twentieth Century physics, including Richard Feyman, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller and even a snapshot appearance from Einstein himself. Such was the gathering of smartest people down in Los Alamos on the Manhattan project.

In Oppenheimer the man, we also see the changing nature of science in the modern world. As one character has it, all the chalk has been washed away with blood. It’s why, during the play, the floors are marked with calculations, atomic interactions drawn out and enhanced by digital projections. A blackboard constantly set out and written or projected on to. The stage is awash with chalk by the end of the play. It’s all over the cast’s costumes. It’s everywhere. And metaphorically, it’s then washed away. Scientists began to realise that their small band of brothers, tucked away in little understood corners of research, would make a difference to the whole world.

Who would you need to be, to decide to build a weapon that could kill so many people? Can only the perfect make those sorts of decisions? It’s a challenge for anyone to tackle this well worn path, but the creative team give it their best shot. In parts I was reminded of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, (back at the National from 24 June 2014 – 23 May 2015,) with the projected overlays of stage design and that feeling, when you leave the theatre, of having become broader in knowledge and assured that anything, could happen to any of us. In the case of Oppenheimer, though, we’d just need to be a genius. And a human being.

Katharine Morling at Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre

If you like your arts poncing experience to begin with a lesson in the juxtaposing of contemporary cultures, then you definitely need to spend more time visiting Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre in Cymbran. The small but always well curated centre occupies a 19th Century Victorian manor house resting in a small dip in the landscape, while alongside is a vast entertainment centre with cinema and all the shite detritus that encompasses. There’s some proper looming going on here, with the arts centre dwarfed by the huge side wall of the other. You could read it as a massive metaphor, I guess? Except it doesn’t have to be a metaphor. It’s right there, in front of you. Looming. Art ponces don’t stand a chance.

Anyway, once you’re in the gallery it’s nice, so calm down culture dicks, everything has a place these days, remember?

Butterfly Drawers. Materials: Earthstone, porcelain and black stainTechniques: Hand building and slab building
Butterfly Drawers.
Materials: Earthstone, porcelain and black stainTechniques: Hand building and slab building

The current exhibition is of Katharine Morling’s ceramics, which draw you in and demand a certain attention and fascination that you might not expect of black and white works. To be a bit crass, they remind me of the early Paddington Bear animations by Anglo-French (lethal combination) animator and all-round children’s TV hero, Ivor Wood. As you stand before the pieces and even as you tentatively touch them, they seem to flicker from 2 to 3 dimensions. Can I say that they occupy an inter-dimensional flux point? Yes, I’ve had a lot of coffee, I can definitely say that and not be labelled a hippy.

This drawing out into the real world and actually, the aesthetic beauty of the pieces, really off-sets their weightiness. They have gravity to contend with and when you touch them: the ceramic ‘grind’ of the materials reminds you that they are in the space with you and, despite the lightness of appearance, could easily break (don’t worry, I didn’t).

Equipped. Date: 2013 Dimensions: 35 x 25 x 8 cm Materials: Porcelain and black stain Techniques: Hand building and slab building
Date: 2013
Dimensions: 35 x 25 x 8 cm
Materials: Porcelain and black stain
Techniques: Hand building and slab building

This really comes to light with pieces such as Butterfly Drawers, where the delicacy of the thing represented becomes pinned down in the material used for that representation. juxtaposing the very thing we associate the object with, against the physics of the material. But that’s all art, surely? Maybe, but isn’t the point to be reminded every now and then? There’s not a great deal of weight to the butterflies themselves, but they’d never survive in the wild anyway.

Thematically, Morling’s focus is broad: moving from the domestic of Equipped, to the potential of a political piece like Shifting Diamonds. Sometimes, it feels as though it would be nice to draw out something politically deeper from the works, but that’s just modern critical theory demanding attention. Anyway, isn’t the personal the political? Sometimes the personal can be about the things that fall under the artist’s gaze and not have to be directly about motherhood, or unemployment or… well, other worthy subjects that are often hammered home at the expense of aesthetics. If that gaze is actually taking in the world around the artist and refracting it back to us, albeit with a playfulness, that’s something worth spending time with, isn’t it? Sometimes an elephant is just an elephant, except when it’s cast in ceramic and carrying a panda bear.

post script: This review was about juxtapositions. Just in case I haven’t laboured that point to death enough.

The exhibition runs from 29th November 2014 – 17th January 2015 at Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre 



Jan Svankmajer films at Ikon

Great to see some Jan Švankmajer films at Birmingham’s Ikon gallery this week. The Czech filmmaker’s work was being shown as part of the Behind the Curtain Festival, currently running up until tomorrow (29th November), so you’ll have to be quick! I only made it to the Jan Švankmajer films, but they were great.

When you watch a selection of Jan Švankmajer films, you can immediately identify the strong influence he’s cast over animation. There’s the obvious Terry Gilliam influences, but there’s also that cultural influence that, if you’re old enough, I guess, you can feel that quirky stop-motion influence in so much of children’s animations from the sixties onwards. And of course, if you do get a chance to see any of them (away from YouTube) then don’t be put off by the idea that they’re surrealist works. They much less po-faced and fun than you might imagine art-house animations could be. We all laughed.

Also, Ikon, please put aside some money for heating the place in the evenings.

Lee Bul at Ikon

Living in space? Hoverboards? Robot housekeepers? They can all go fuck themselves. The future is now and it’s throbbing centre is the crashing of visual cultures from comic shop to art gallery. I’d rather live in a time when you can move from Nostalgia and Comics store to Ikon gallery and experience the same questioning of contemporary society, than live in the past, when those two might have existed in separate worlds, never to meet. Oh, the future of now.

Mon grand récit: Weep into stones… (2005)
Mon grand récit: Weep into stones…

The recent exhibition of the work of Korean artist Lee Bul at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery from 10 September — 9 November 2014, brought together a broad stroke of her work, tracing several concerns that appear to have emerged over time. It’s a sci-fi future-past that she explores, with the cybernetic enhancement of the human experience, whether directly through physical enhancement (she favours the donning of costumes, as opposed to the life-altering slice and tuck of Stelarc, for example) or through a consideration of the built environment. I found the references too sci-fi rich in the work, or maybe it is too ‘of the now’ to understand what the work is really saying about contemporary life, and to separate it from those references.

Sketch by Lee Bul
Sketch by Lee Bul

As a retrospective, the exhibition covers some real detail. You can trace the nodes along the journey from her earlier performance (where Bul wore the cyber-enhancement costumes) to the more recent cityscape sculptures. We get to see the concept art and the sketches, much as one would with a science-fiction movie, but I wasn’t able to find any documentary footage of her wearing the suits, which seemed a shame. Maybe they disappoint in the execution? The sketches meanwhile, are rich in potential.

All in though, to move from reading Judge Dredd to then see Lee Bul at Ikon is to be confronted with a view of the contemporary cityscape that must be true, just because they echo each other so closely, one might think. There were plenty of opportunities to reflect as the exhibition was packed with works. Somewhere, there are a lot of empty packing cases sitting ready for repackaging. In the exhibition write up, the curators suggest:

The sculptures reflect utopian architectural schemes of the early 20th century as well as architectural images of totalitarianism from Lee Bul’s experiences of military Korea.

Maquette for Mon grand recit 2005
Maquette for Mon grand recit 2005

Maquette for Mon grand recit 2005 is Adventure Time meets Sandman via Gulliver’s travels. Beautiful rich pinky flesh colours dripping across an imagined city. While elsewhere, there are scaffolding-encrusted works, hinting at a a city being broken down (to move to better climate?).

If Bul’s work seems like a beautifully wrapped gift from the future-past, to the now, then it’s a delicate glass ornament, broken in transit across time. Hinting at what could have been a breakthrough, but is more likely to cut you now.

Ikon exhibition catalogue (PDF)

Written in the dust (Chris & Cosey + Wrangler at Sensoria fest)

Sensoria festival in Sheffield is “the UK’s festival of film and music” to cut and paste directly from their website. I’d not come across them before, but it’s certainly one of the more interesting. Although, sadly I only discovered this after the event. I’d come to Sheffield for the Carter Tutti plays Chris & Cosey and Wrangler gig. Shame on me, but I missed some great events and screenings.

The gig’s venue, the Picture House Ballroom, is a large, cavernous space, and former cinema originally opened in 1920. At the moment it’s in a state of ill-repair (I’m being kind) and looking to raise funding for it’s restoration. If you have a building with uncertain infrastructure, that’s dusty and fragile in parts, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that you shouldn’t invite these two bands to play there.

But. It turns out that an ex-cinema is the perfect place for a gig. For a start no matter where you stand, the floor is angled so that you can still see the stage. On the downside (no puns, please) the bar is angled just enough so that even before you’ve ordered a drink, you feel pissed. Or maybe it was the champagne and wine I’d been on with friends before I got there?

Wrangler at Sensoria Sheffield 2014
Wrangler at Sensoria Sheffield 2014

I’m an ignoramus. I had no idea who Wrangler were and hadn’t thought I’d need to make an effort to get there before they went on. Luckily, I was there before they went on. They cranked up and immediately pulled me towards the stage and made demands on the ears and feet. With still no idea who they were, despite the signifiers/identifiers being there. This is a bit Cabaret Voltaire’ey, and that guy looks like he’s a bit Stephen Mallinder’ey. And these other two look familiar. Turns out that Wrangler are Phil Winter of TUNNG, Benge and of course, Mal of Cabaret Voltaire. Genius that I am, it wasn’t until they played CV’s Crackdown and Mal barked out, “Thanks for remembering.” That I realise who he/ they were. Like I said, I’m an idiot.

Wrangler hit deep, snapping beats that, standing two foot from the speaker as I was, hit the chest and on some tracks, try to push your bowels around and re-organise your innards. Luckily I did some bloke dancing and everything stayed in place.

 Carter Tutti plays Chris & Cosey image copyright @TomJones1875

Carter Tutti plays Chris & Cosey
image copyright @TomJones1875

Having been to see Chris & Cosey playing as Carter Tutti Void (CTV) a couple of weeks ago, I was really looking forward to comparing how the two different sounds would play out. Sometimes, a different band configuration just means musicians on different instruments, but the same sound plays through. Thankfully, this was never going to be the case with Chris & Cosey. Whereas CTV pull out more seemingly random electronic backdrops to their sound with improvisation and filtering of sounds to create a 3D sound, Carter Tutti plays Chris & Cosey tends (for many songs), to locate the music and beat behind Cosey’s voice and, even though heavily filtered, the emotional content feels its way through.

Carter Tutti plays Chris & Cosey are fun to watch! Chris, as any musician should, of course had his head down, playing out the beats and effects. Cosey sings and (shock horror to those who only know their Throbbing Gristle incarnation) dances and smiles and says thank you to the crowd while playing guitar and horn section. As anyone who has had any communication via email or Twitter with Chris & Cosey can tell you, they’re a long way from the Wreckers of Civilisation the British Government painted them as all those years ago. They’re lovely considerate and despite some drunken side stage shouts of “We want some Disciple in here” ( the fan even got the intonation right from that particular live album!) pay attention to the audience and engage with them (and myself, thanks Chris). Why mention this? Because all of the musicians playing tonight have had long careers, and yet still seem to bring something fresh and enjoyable to a live event.

The Picture House Ballroom looked great with washes of lights cast across the decaying, aged walls. If the architects and funders had any doubts about the building being able to stand the test of time and hard use, tonight’s gig has settled the foundations once and for all and probably shifted some last vestiges of dust from the cracks.

Snogging at the BFI – Matisse and the digital revolution

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern, London, from April 17 to September 7, 2014 (image courtesy of
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern, London, from April 17 to September 7, 2014 (image courtesy of

In the BFI lounge, you can get a cocktail for just over £8. For an extra £1.10 you can get someone to bring it over to you while you lounge around in the overly comfortable settees. If you’re stuck opposite a couple who are tongue deep inside each other, then you only have two possible options: order more cocktails. Or join in. Frankly, the chances of being welcomed into someone else’s make-out session in a public venue is unlikely. It’s all look but don’t touch. Everything is a challenge and there are social norms of acceptable behaviour for everything. I’m not a fan of couples who insist on stopping barely short of a public finger-bang, especially at the BFI. Those guys work hard to maintain the history of cinema as a living, breathing entity for generations to come. And they probably want to avoid the dark thought that some of those generations may have been conceived in their cocktail bar.

I’m at the BFI for a short interlude between two exhibitions. The one, Digital Revolutions at the Barbican (curated by Conrad Bodman). The other, Matisse at Tate Modern (Flavia Frigeri curating). Starting with the future, ending with the past.

Matisse is a glorious, technicolour blockbuster exhibition that approaches this vast collection of work chronologically. Working through the last few years of Henri’s life, with him developing his cut-outs: first as a solution to resolving issues of layout and colour and then he just started to actually use the cut-outs in their own right, as works of art. Bold choice!

Matisse - The Cowboy (1945)
Matisse – The Cowboy (1945)

Matisse’s 1943 work, The Cowboy, made me think of some of Francis Bacon’s later work, like his Self Portrait, 1973. All strong shapes and almost-silhouettes. What was Bacon exhibiting around the time of The Cowboy? Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was painted in 1944, and exhibited in a joint exhibition at Lefevre Gallery, London, in April 1945. I can imagine that when The Cowboy was first seen, people had calmed down a bit after the shock of Modernism and were happy to believe that any shapes could be art, then along comes Bacon and everything gets turned upside down again: because they want post-war nostalgia and happiness. What was going on in the art world back then that such different work could appear and both be art? Maybe it was just sincerity, before irony and pop-art came along? They’re both in Tate Modern now, so they’re all part of the establishment.

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944)
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944)

So is digital art! When did that happen? The Barbican has also gone for a sort of chronological view of what is digital art, but like so many exhibitions in galleries (with the exception of the fine Furtherfield, they approach the work with a too-broad brushstroke. It feels as though Bodman has decided that digital is still about the technology, as if that were the only way into the work. But maybe he knows his audience? Promise them a retro-glimpse of some computers from your youth, then hit them with the contemporary stuff. Did you know that a Fairlight was resonsible for the music to your favourite 80s show, Miami Vice? And technology is still being used to make the latest, also soon to be irrelevant tunes by Oh, and the film Gravity uses some cool technology. But, and also, you too can make art now! We can all be artists with just some software and some coding. The history of technology is the history of the democraticisation of artistic expression, assuming you can still get yourself a gig in one of the big galleries, of course. How do you do that? (See also: discussions of Marina Abramovic).

Assemblance by Umbrellium
Assemblance by Umbrellium (runs from 3 Jul-14 Sep 2014)

Remember when your Mum used to tell you that you look with your eyes, not your hands? That’s the difference between old media and new media art. At Digital Revolutions, people literally interact with the works (the ones that are set up for interaction, that is). With Matisse, you interact with your eyes, not your hands! If you want to really get something out of both exhibitions, you need to think about the context of the work. Matisse, despite being nearly seventy years ago, makes sense to us as an artist, because we know that art is shapes and nice colours and if we still aren’t sure, then it’s in the Tate Modern, so it must be important and mean something. Digital art reflects the contemporary, but sometimes I think we’re too deep in the middle of it, to really understand what it’s telling us about the now. Still, if it’s at the Barbican, then it must be important?

Matisse and digital artists have some things in common. When you look at the organic shapes of his cut-outs, what appears, from a distance, to be smooth curved lines, reveal themselves to be lots of short, straight lines. Matisse, like many artists, was fighting against the available technology to bring out what he had in his mind’s eye. The science of his time (or at least, the science available to him) limited and guided his work. Digital artists suffer the same restraints. Current computing power, displays and all those other too familiar problems we face, put restraints on the work. The pixellated landscape of Lara Croft’s early incarnations. The straight lines of Matisse. No matter what decade an artist works in, they’re up against it. The only thing to do is give it up and reach for the drink.

At the BFI, the cocktails are working their magic. I’m ready to hit the Tate Modern in the only way anyone should go to a gallery: half drunk. I notice there’s more than one couple making out in the cocktail lounge. What films are they showing that make people leave the cinema and get down to business right there and then? It’s all just so bloody modern, isn’t it?

Digital Revolutions is on at the Barbican from 3 Jul-14 Sep 2014 [Book tickets]

Matisse is on at Tate Modern from 17 April – 7 September 2014 (last week!) [Book tickets]

Ironic appropriation is dead (or is it?) Barbara Kruger knows.

In Modern Art Oxford‘s unisex toilet, the little box for collecting sanitary waste is overflowing. Sanitary waste just sits there, at the top of the box, staring at you. It seems slightly vulgur and, inevitably, you have to wonder when the toilets were last checked. But is it disgusting? Why should confronting the detritus of ‘the other’ (a male perspective) and the healthy signs of female bodies, feel wrong? We’re in a gallery for Lork’s sake. Wasn’t it in a gallery that Coum Transmissions presented us with a used tampon? Wasn’t there a whole body (pun intended) of work dealing with the female body as a political space, in galleries? That’s the thing really, what we face in the gallery, isn’t always what we’re prepared to confront in the real world. If galleries are temples for re-evaluating the everyday, why are we all sunday worshippers? We should be carrying those insights out into the real world. Come on everybody, get real. Feminism is supposed to have helped us deal with all that.

I guess feminism doesn’t have all the answers, after all? Does Barbara Kruger think so? Maybe, but not today; at least not in her current exhibition at Modern Art Oxford (on until the end of August) where the work seems to cover some broader issues about all of us and barely a single mention of feminism is seen in any of the works. Hey, maybe feminism is dead? Or passé like emotion and irony, brushed into a corner and ignored by everyone except for those too stupid to realise it. One day, feminism will be talked about like the First World War. All those lives lost in the battle and now we’re all in it together, friends at last.

Twelve (detail) 2006
Twelve (detail) 2006

Oh hang on, on Modern Art Oxford’s web page, they reckon Barbara Kruger uses “ironic appropriation of specific slogans and imagery” to play around with “the often manipulative logic at work in the language of advertising, television and other media and the role of Western consumerist culture.” Shit, sorry my mistake, irony isn’t dead. Or maybe this is historical irony? Some of the works on show are from the 80s, when Kruger created her paste-ups. These collaged works look a bit advertisement-y but play around with what you might expect in the text. In the 80s, we were all becoming only too aware of the power of advertising, thanks to Saatchi and Thatcher. Nowadays, we’re aware of advertising but we all thinks it’s nonsense, so I’m not sure we need it decoding for us? These are records of the past: historical irony.

And feminism? Or Feminisms? Any work that deals with the power of advertising is going to be dealing with the objectification of women in modern culture. Kruger’s work is ripe with engagement on the feminist front, but it’s not obvious in the work on display here. Kruger has said that there are multiple feminisms, and doesn’t explicitly out herself as a feminist artist, but someone who is engaged with feminism through her work. Nice word play there, Barbara! We’re all exploited by advertising, in one way or another then. Women and men. I told you we were all in this together.

Untitled (Titled) 2014 at Modern Art Oxford
Untitled (Titled) 2014 at Modern Art Oxford

I liked the big room with the massive words. It was so colourful and.. big! I mean proper large, considering the space available. Untitled (Titled), 2014 had some nice colours: black, green, white, in a way that wouldn’t work if it was your own lounge wall, but looks great here. The wordplay veers from light to dark, I mean in the tone of voice. With one end of the room dominated by the word Joyful, you’d imagine it was all going to be inspirational and lovely. But as you step back and scan the rest of the sentence, you realise there’s darkness as well. This is what Kruger’s work does well: Flirts with positivity, then sticks the dark dagger in when you think you’ve understood it. Advertising again, eh? The thing is, contemporary advertising isn’t about words. It’s mostly visual these days.

So sure, we all ‘understand’ advertising and we’re all capable of decoding/deconstructing it. But are we still pawns/willing pawns/drones etc? I think the argument now is who owns the public spaces? CCTV doesn’t belong to everyone, even though it’s there for our own protection. But it dominates public spaces along with advertising. Our personal space and awareness is being bombarded and extracted all at once. Who am I in the middle of this maelstrom? Kruger’s work continues to explore the location of ‘I’ in modern society, and that’s okay. But it’s moved from engagement with the outside world, and is focussed on the gallery space just a little too much to keep it completely relevant to contemporary culture… maybe?

Last I looked, the toilets hadn’t been sorted out. At least the art still gives us the clean and acceptable face of society.