Wednesday, 19 November 2014

She stepped out of her dress and locked eyes with her reflection

Yeah, not bad, she thought, squaring up to the mirror. You're doing alright for your age, sweetheart. 
She ran her hands down over her smooth, toned belly, grimacing as she encountered the tiny roll of fat, then over the curves of her thighs. All that kickboxing had paid off; her muscles were palpable beneath the skin. She moved her hand towards the centre of her being, until her exploratory fingers made contact with the first soft hairs...


Fucking men writing as women. Fucksake. Fuck off.

This post has been stewing for some time, but I was finally moved to write it by a text from a friend today who said:
You got me into Paul Auster, I usually like him but 'in the country of last things' I'm getting so pissed off with his trying to write as a woman from stuff about hairy legs, crying when she cuts her hair, and her description of her [redacted because it's so fucking unpleasant] when she was younger. Have you read it? Any thoughts?
The follow-up text said:
Soon after I texted you I got to a bloody lesbian sex scene ffs! It's a shame because it's a great novel.
For years I have been wound up by these scenes, written by men, with women protagonists. Somehow, within a few pages of a man starting to wonder 'what would it be like to be a woman?', the answer turns out to be: lesbian sex, female changing room, masturbation, or the most basic of all, grimly parodied above...'scene where woman protagonist regards herself naked in the mirror and narrates what she sees'. 

This last, the mirror scene, is everywhere. Sooner or later, if you read a lot of books, you will come across one of these. There's one at the beginning of an otherwise good Iain (M.?) Banks novel that leaves a sour taste - but apparently only if you're female. I'm yet to meet a bloke who notices or minds these scenes. The duff note that they sound is, it seems, inaudible to male ears. 

These aren't crappy semi-pornographic trash books; these are proper novels by proper writers. Not as simple as 'written for kicks', this is bloke-as-universal, (male) writer as omniscient, demonstrating his brilliance by writing a scene where by definition no man could really be present, but managing to distance the character from herself so that we can still see and judge her as a female body from the outside. The mirror, with the 'self'-appraisal and the reported internal narrative, is a prurient, perfect trick for pretending to believe that women have subjectivity while at the same time transforming them back into the object of the gaze. 

I've read male characters written by women, and quite possibly the notes they hit are equally flat. But it's not so obvious to me, as a female reader, and also they tend not to spend their time describing a solo sex scene in great detail. Margaret Atwood seemed to find better things for Zeb to do than wank while staring at himself in the mirror.

Perhaps it shouldn't be this great gulf; perhaps, as people with multiple dimensions (not just sex and gender), the specific sex/gender shouldn't be all-important. But it is. This may be down to self-consciousness; some male writers are acutely aware of the challenges of putting themselves in the place of a woman. Kingsley Amis said in an interview:
I kept a very thick and detailed notebook for Take A Girl Like You—about a hundred pages. But I think that was partly nervousness, because I knew that its theme, and using a female protagonist, was going to put a severe strain on my resources. 
Perhaps the reason that female writers are better at writing men (if indeed they are) is that the universal, unmarked, ungendered subject of - well - subjectivity, is male. As girls, we grow up knowing how to think, see, feel, hear, experience the world as men. We have to consciously unlearn that, to recognise how our ways of looking are shaped by a view that sees women as other: other to ourselves.

I remember reading Nancy Friday's brilliant Women on Top and My Secret Garden, books of women's sexual fantasies, and anticipating Men in Love with great excitement. Women's fantasies were so raw, so unexpected, so various and powerful, imagine how good the men's would be! And, I suppose predictably, it was a huge let-down. Because the men's fantasies were so familiar. They were the meat and potatoes of the erotic, the world of fetishes and desires that is materialized around us, the worlds of pornography and advertising and film and art. Of course, I realised afterwards, I KNOW what men fantasise about.

It's a shit business, but it does give us an advantage when it comes to 'cross-writing' as a male character, it's almost more natural than writing as a woman. Because that's what protagonists sound like. Because that's what people are. Women, on the other hand, are a lot like people, but spend an inordinate amount of time remarking to themselves on the view of their own naked bodies.

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Art of Nature (or, what I learned in my first year of having a garden)

  1. Seeds do not grow if you plant them in the ground. If you want to see anything at all happen, plant them in a tray first or get baby plants. Plant them straight in the soil and they apparently fall down a long tube to the centre of the earth. Which is a good start for a Technicolour sci-fi story, but less useful for us up here in sky-world.  
  2. The only way to make it rain is to water the garden. See also: cigarette/bus stop, pregnancy test/period. Speaking of which:
  3. Pregnancy and gardening don't mix. In the morning sun you may feel like an earth goddess, but come nightfall you'll be frenetically googling toxoplasmosis and wishing you could immerse the world in Milton. Also, you may not be able to get up again (see #9)
  4. Yes, it is a weed. 
  5. There is broken glass in the soil. You can find it easily by simply not bothering to wear gloves.
  6. Your soil type is 'crap'. You do not need a fifty quid testing kit to tell you this.
  7. Growing stuff to eat costs about four times as much as buying it in a shop. But it feels more moral.
  8. Slugs are from hell. The way they move is horror incarnate. They leave shiny trails of evil to taunt you. Tiny parasitic worms live on their semi-permeable skin. 
  9. You will always end up on your knees. Actually, this is just a general rule for life.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Ice Cold in NW1

I’ve written before about hunting for art. That time was in a multistorey car park in Peckham. This time it was in the bowels of the University of Westminster on Marylebone Road, rattling unlikely-looking Sunday-lockdown academic doors and wandering cavernous pillared warehouse spaces before stumbling finally into the exhibition.

Entering through the exit, as we did, the immediate impression is of darkness, liquid and straight lines. A moment of adjustment, then the Knightmarish realisation that you are standing on a narrow walkway between sharp-edged pools of water.

With each minute that passes your eyes adjust, and now you see figures silhouetted against paler, flickering screens, railings and steps, a higher floor where images play on screens, and patterns of light dancing on the walls.

Gradually it makes a sort of sense.  A long bench between square pools of dark water, into which you can dip your hands, making ripples which are projected and multiplied on the walls. Screens you can walk around and behind. Upstairs, four films play simultaneously and side by side, glimpses of life among the ice: chunks of melting glaciers held up on the deck of a boat like glassy fish; men chipping icicles off the side of boats; an Inuit woman explorer; huskies; igloos; and calving icebergs.

And through it all a real coldness, a nip in the air that doesn’t match the rest of the building, a cool, damp, half-clean smell.

Out of Ice by Elizabeth Ogilvie in association with British Antarctic Survey is at Ambika P3, University of Westminster, 35 Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5LS, until 9 February 2014.

Friday, 13 September 2013

JapanCanal Dreams: David Blandy Anjin 1600

A walk along the Regent's Canal in post-work rush hour, under the wet brick bridges almost flattened by aggro cyclists, past the back of new-builds, pubs for prats and still-standing horror estates then back to street level to find the Rose Lipman Building, improbable home for David Blandy's new exhibition Anjin 1600: Edo Wonderpark (even more improbably sponsored by Deutsche Bank, among others).

The centerpiece is Blandy's film about his own relationship with Japan, his lifelong fascination with its aesthetics and culture, which plays at the back of a large, dark, tranquil 'Japanese' garden (built by Rhino Rock of East Peckham). Surrounding this are a number of other installation pieces which allude to the same themes: cultural appropriation, video games, anime, control (embodied in AAS's majestic sci-fi control panel of oscilloscopes and mysterious buttons).

The installation is slick and atmospheric, and communicates Blandy's genuine feel for this culture: in  its otherness, but also its familiarity for those of us who've grown up with arcade games and manga. I'd like to watch the film again at a quieter time, so may be braving the streets of De Beauvoir Town again in the near future. 

Anjin 1600: Edo Wonderpark is at the Rose Lipman Building, 43 De Beauvoir Road, N1 5SQ. 13th September - 26th October 2013, Wed-Sat 12-6pm. Late night opening Thursday 3rd October, til 9pm. There are also talks and workshops accompanying the exhibition, see website for details.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Send Into Outer Space - Ross Ashmore in Southgate

“I’m at a gallery opening in Southgate,” said the text. Gallery opening? In Southgate? You intrigue me, my friend. 

Born and bred suburban North Londoner that I am, Southgate is peculiarly un-redolent of associations, I discover. I had a school friend who lived there. It’s, er, on the Piccadilly Line by Arnos Grove. After that I sort of draw a blank.

Well, no longer! This week I have had cause to visit Southgate twice to see two very different but both excellent exhibitions of painting at the new gallery Space at Southgate. Opened at the beginning of this year, Space is a collaboration between Fionn Wilson, who manages painting, and Gosia Stasiewicz, photography. It’s housed in a cavernous, rough-round-the-edges (and at the top) space which allows the works a lot of room to breathe and be seen properly. This is no bijou Mayfair hobby nor self-consciously gritty Shoreditch basement. This is, as the name suggests, A Space.

First visit was on Wednesday to catch the last day of Maciej Hoffman's huge, disturbing oil paintings – great primal howls of black, grey, red and white. Many of these were suspended from the ceiling, so they pressed in on you like a particularly distressing maze. Hoffman is a painter from Wroclaw, Poland, recently relocated to the UK.  Hoffman’s work has something of the Francis Bacon about it, as if you're seeing something very deep and dark screamed across the canvas. There is an impression of movement in many of the paintings with violent, sweeping brushstrokes, but not a sense that it is happening in any ‘real’ place.

Then back again last night for the opening night of Ross Ashmore’s ‘underground paintings’ – thickly daubed 'Expressionist' paintings of tube stations. Ashmore is on a mission to paint every tube station in London (and beyond). So far he’s completed all of zones 1-4, and sees the paintings as a single work-in-progress. He is firm that he won’t be selling any of them, but it’s not difficult to see why he’s getting offers. The paintings currently on show at Space are just a fraction of his completed works, currently over 200.

Acton Town (detail) click to enlarge
 Each one captures a moment – Arsenal on a match day, with mounted police overlooking a sea of red and white, The Boston Arms rising high behind Tufnell Park, Mill Hill East commuters taking the tube out of Narnia while one lucky person escapes on a bus. In their commonalities without repetition, in their authenticity without photorealism, in the excessive thickness and tangibility of paint, these paintings hold the attention for a long time.

St John's Wood
Space also shows work by local artists and outsider artists, and by photographers, including the work of Gosia Stasiewicz, one of its founders. It has an exciting calendar of exhibitions planned for upcoming months and I strongly recommend visiting. 

Ross Ashmore is at SPACE, 141 High Street, Southgate, London  N14 6BP throughout March 2013.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Fear, Faith and F...

Watching Derren Brown give a lifelong nonbeliever the experience of a religious conversion is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on telly. Natalie was the perfect subject – sweet and engaging, a stem cell scientist (a play on playing God?), huge-eyed and entranced by Derren as he wove together elements of hypnosis, autosuggestion and who knows what else to give her one of the most powerful experiences of her life. Rising to her feet with her eyes brimming, shaking, trembling and sobbing, she whispered 'sorry, sorry' as she was overwhelmed by awe and love.

This was the climactic moment of the two-parter ‘Fear and Faith’, an exploration of the psychology of religious belief and fear/anxiety. Part 1 was Derren meets the Wizard of Oz as people with various fears (heights, social conflict, singing in public) were given the new drug ‘rumyodin’ (being trialled for the first time outside the military) to help them conquer it. With the help of rumyodin, socially timid Bloke A stands up for himself in a pub fight (perhaps inadvisably), vertigo-stricken Bloke B stands on a narrow ledge, you know the sort of thing. This is Derren Brown so it pretty much goes without saying that the drug is just a sugar pill, an anagram of ‘your mind’, and that these people were – ta da! – all conquering their fears themselves, using their own inner resources. You kind of suspect that they all kind of suspect all along; indeed, one of the women who’s been told that it is an intelligence-boosting drug says “look, I’m not stupid, I know it’s probably a placebo”, having effectively been given permission to express this thought. It’s all a little bit self-help. Jolly good fun, sure, but it's Derren Brown. We don't want good: we want mindblowing.

Part 2 is much better from the start. It kicks off with a satanic rite, demonstrating that even among self-proclaimed atheists and skeptics, very few are willing to stab a photograph of their nearest and dearest and pledge their eternal soul to Satan in return for earthly ease. (I have to say I’m with them here. It’s Pascal’s gambit in reverse, and surely not worth it for the lulz.) The rite itself is genuinely disturbing and the prorgamme gets darker from there. People are left in pitch blackness in a crypt and (with the help of a few parting words from Derren) thoroughly freak themselves out, hallucinating faces in front of them and presences behind them. All except for Natalie (the aforementioned stem cell scientist) whose rational brain isn’t going to be fooled so easily.

The rest of the programme is a skilful and engaging tour round the various aspects of religious belief, including a section which seems almost like a quick guide to giving yourself paranoid schizophrenia. Derren tells a woman that she has been selected for his new show, Intervention, that she’ll be secretly filmed at all times, and that his people will be making a series of small interventions in her life at unexpected times, some more obvious than others. Of course within days she’s seeing significance in every dropped coin in the supermarket and re-evaluating her priorities in the light of it. And of course, ta da! There was no secret filming, there were no interventions. Tell someone there’s a meaning,a plan, a secret pattern behind the random stuff of life, and they’ll discern it – or in the case of paranoia, they don't even need to be told. Derren knows that we know this is how it works by now, and some of this (people don’t cheat if they’ve been told there’s a supernatural presence in the room, you can make people think they smell mint), although fun, has the feeling slightly more of an argument being made than of shock memorable TV moments.

The difficulty here is that, if it’s an argument rather than (or as well as), entertainment, it’s got to be rigorous. Early on, Derren is discussing why we might be hard-wired for belief, and gives an argument from evolutionary psychology; drawing on the work of the psychologist Jesse Bering, Derren explains that “most likely” good moral behaviour is desirable because language means bad deeds can be gossiped about, and that the easiest way to ensure moral behaviour is to implement the idea of an all-seeing divine being. Admittedly, framing this argument in under a minute, accompanied by animated gossiping cavemen, may not do it justice; however, it seems to be exactly the type of ‘just so story’ which we should surely resist. It does no good to spend several hours (indeed several years) giving beautiful and unimpeachable demonstrations of skepticism if you then present something equally speculative as “most likely” true.

However, Derren’s conversion of Natalie, which unfolds gradually throughout the programme, leaves you in no doubt of his personal power. Surrounded by candles in a church, in a conversation that’s part confession, part memory, part foreplay, he taps his fingers on the table, playing her like the virtuoso he is. He encourages her to evoke and relive feelings of protection, love, and awe, leaving her at just the right moment with more or less explicit permission to allow all of these feelings to sweep over her and carry her away in a tidal wave of belief. She buries her head in her hands, weeping.

When she comes back to see him at the TV studio a week later, she still looks post-orgasmic, flushed and starry-eyed but riven with conflict. What’s true? What does she believe? Who is she? How has she lived her whole life without God's love - and yet what's left of her life if there is such a thing? Derren’s not-too-gentle explanation, in front of the audience, that he created those feelings in her, leaves her visibly in turmoil as she tries to reconcile this second grand upheaval to her belief system. This is the really incredible stuff Derren (and his team) can pull off, this getting right to the core of people, this quasi-sexual domination, this always sadistic revelling in control and revelation. It’s really very good stuff. More please.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Yayoi Kusama and Louis Vuitton, together at last.. er hang on

Some gushing from yesterday's Evening Standard courtesy of Fashion Correspondent, Karen Dacre:
From tonight, renowned Japanese artist and writer Yayoi Kusama will take control of Selfridges windows [...] Part of a new friendship with Louis Vuitton, with whom she has collaborated to create two clothing and accessory collections, Kusama's takeover of Selfridges is one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by an artist.
Revered for her simple, timeless dot prints...

Hmm, well, more like revered for being a voluntary inpatient in a mental hospital since the 1970s and creating existentially nauseating pseudo-organic sculptures where thousands of phalluses sprout like crazed mushrooms from domestic furniture.

But never mind. It's a shop window! Yay!

Karen concludes her analysis thusly:
And with dots a major focus on both the catwalks and high streets for autumn and winter, it seems they are certainly sticking to the point this season.