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.


Friday, 17 August 2012

Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty…? Damien Hirst and the Art and Science of the Body

“I just found it frustrating,” I said. “To see all those anatomical models and stuff, but with no information. What’s the point?”
“Because it’s art,” she said. “It’s not a museum. You’re meant to have an emotional response to it, not to learn.”
But information is not antithetical to beauty. 

Exhibit 1: Leonardo’s heartstoppingly beautiful drawings of the foetus in utero. Revelatory knowledge, sublime beauty: the one because of,  not in spite of or in competition with, the other.

Leonardo da Vinci, Views of a Foetus in the Womb (c. 1510 - 1512) 

Exhibit 2: ‘Anatomy of a Seated Woman’ an eighteenth-century wax figure by André-Pierre Pinson, a beautiful long-haired woman raises one hand as if to protect herself from the power which has split her open to reveal the tangle of her internal organs and the eyes which pry into her shame.

Andre-Pierre Pinson, Anatomy of a Seated Woman (late 18th century)

The discoveries of the early anatomists directly informed the painters of the Renaissance. Guides such as Leon Battista Alberti’s On Painting instructed artists to draw first the bones, then the sinews and muscles, and finally the flesh and skin. Part of what set Renaissance painters apart from their predecessors was this ability to depict the anatomical truth of the human body, increasing the empathy you feel when looking at it – the tortured saint is a far more affecting figure if his body is like yours, his pain is that much more powerful.

Jusepe de Ribera, Saint Sebastian Attended by Saint Irene (1628)

Il Sodoma, Saint Sebastian (1525)

Agnolo Bronzino, Saint Bartholomew, 1556

But in the nineteenth century, there was a deliberate attempt to distinguish between two ways of representing the body, the artistic and the anatomical:

This technical “non-style” marked a decisive divergence between the way that artists exploited their styles to depict the body in a communicative manner, and the way that anatomists sought to give absolute priority to the factual information they wished to impart. Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace, Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now, p. 32

Here we have the seeds of the idea that factual and emotive representation are at odds with each other, and detract from rather than enhance each other’s power. To inform and educate, we shuoldn’t be distracted by feelings of empathy, disgust, or desire, or indeed the feeling that the body is sacred in some way. The medical gaze should be stripped of all that is invested in art. But how successful can such a divergence really be?

Exhibit 3: In the new WellcomeHistory of Medicine exhibition in the Science Museum, there is an instrument used in obstetrics  in the second half of the nineteenth  century, called a Guyon Compressor. It’s a big shiny thing, (sensitive souls look away now), designed for use when natural childbirth is impossible, to crush the foetus’s head in order to extract it and save the mother’s life. 

As much as Damien Hirst’s work is meant to allude to the contrast between the clean surgical world and the red, rotting, messy flesh that it works on, the reality does this a thousand times more. It’s impossible to look at that instrument and not feel the agony, the emotional and physical horror of its use for the women, for the doctors. It sits in its glass case with its helpful text and its dates and it's all clean and shiny but you can almost hear the screams.

There’s no doubt that Hirst has a fantastic visual eye, and he’s hit on a great set of repeated motifs which mark his work out as distinctively Damien Hirst: the butterflies, the glass cases, the grids and rows, the diamonds, the cigarette butts. And while the spot paintings and pharmacies might be irredeemably shallow, some of it – in particular the ‘stained glass’ or mandala-like compositions made of thousands of butterflies – are aesthetically stunning.

But in other cases, like the ranged surgical instruments on display in ‘Trinity – Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology’, this is very much like visiting the Wellcome Collection or the Science Museum but without any of the actual information. In recent years the Wellcome Collection has excelled in exhibitions (such as ‘Dirt’ and ‘Identity’) which don’t so much blur the boundaries between art, science and medicine as make you forget that there ever were any. 

Similarly, the gruesomeness of the rotting cow’s head can’t come close to the Grant Museum of Zoology’s tightly packed jars of moles for full-on visceral horror. This aestheticized, sanitized, media-friendly shock of the biological is far weaker precisely because it has no other purpose than to gesture at these ideas. 

And then there’s the other discomfort with art which draws on the scientific for its inspiration, that unless it declares itself quite clearly otherwise, there’s always the suspicion that an anti-scientific undertone is never that far away. Hirst is quoted in the exhibition leaflet as saying:

"There are four important things in life: religion, love, art and science. At their best, they’re all just tools to help you find a path through the darkness. None of them really work that well, but they help. Of them all, science seems to be the one right now. Like religion, it provides the glimmer of hope that maybe it will be all right in the end…"

He said this in 2005. Not really enough years ago, given that it’s such a hokey sentiment, this sort of cheap relativism. Yeah Damien, science is just another kind of religion, no more true... The wrongness and corruption of Big Pharma, and the fact that many medicines are useless or even dangerous, isn’t enough to justify this kind of nonsense. 

What this leaves this particular viewer with is a sense of frustration that people still divide themselves up along these lines, that something that looks ‘scientific’ is exploited for artistic thrills but at the same time cheapened because its true order is rendered meaningless, the sly nudge-nudge wink-wink because everyone knows, if you can write a blackboard covered in x’s and y’s and big curly brackets, that’s basically the same as doing maths, innit? And scientists just dress it all up with those mystificatory words but really it’s just magic, yeah?

It's only in the butterfly room, a startlingly hot and humid room where dead butterflies lie on the floor and huge live ones flap through the air, eating the slowly rotting fruit in the bowls, that there's a real sense of being inside a kind of creeping nightmare. There are no glass cases here, it's not clean and it's not controlled. It's quite frightening, these giant flapping insects beating their wings towards you, and the ragged wings of the corpses. Somehow this rises above the vibe of the cow's head and the dead flies - perhaps it's exactly because you're not isolated from the bio-horror, but inside it, feeling your own body sweat and itch, your own discomfort and even fear. In this room you're part of the rotting lifeforms.

Ultimately this is what unites us with the butterflies, living and dead, the sharks, the meat and the invitrined fish: we are biology. Hence the fascination of anatomy too, of all being meat underneath.

When that sense of the body is lost, when it's all too clever-clever and blingy and sterile, Hirst leaves you cold. But when he makes you hot and bothered, perhaps it's something worth thinking on.

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern until 9 September 2012.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Strebbing the Suburbs (Just like Quiet Riot did)

Two astonishing aerial dance events in ten days? It must be 'a summer like no other', as the Mayor of London's lackeys' t-shirts are saying. This time it was in the unlikely setting of Victoria Park, Finchley. Free to all and a huge crowd had turned out.

A green crane towered over the suburban trees and picnicking families. Indian string music began and a host of dancers took to the stage, a ballerina in a glittering red dress and Kathak dancers, the stage ringed with parasols and floodlit in red, purple, white. Masses of white balloons floated up and away over the dark-grey trees.

As it went on, the music and the not-quite synchrony of the dancers became trance-like, the taka-taka tongue-clicking and the tapping toes, the flicking heads and expanding, contracting circle of dancers, building into a transporting whole. Unlikely people were drumming their feet in the audience.

Seven giant white bells rose high into the darkening sky, releasing balloons as they went, and transformed into seven white angels in dresses who threw glitter into the wind. The trees sparkled. As the crane swooped and circled over the crowd, there was one breathtaking moment after another;  fireworks, flashing lights and powder unreal against the navy sky.

Traipsing home through the park afterwards, red streamers still hung in the trees where they'd fallen. I thought of the Mary Poppins books - the quiet, orderly park always the place where reality melted at the edges and other worlds could slip in. Where statues come to life and shadows escape their owners, and a woman with a parrot-headed umbrella floats down on an unexploded firework with her feet neatly turned out.

Bells is a collaborative spectacle created by Theater Tol (Belgium) and Akademi (London) combining aerial theatre and Kathak dance. It was presented by Artsdepot and is part of Showtime, presented by the Mayor of London.

The show will be on 2nd August in Lewisham and 4th August in Chiswick. I recommend it for a gentle blurring of the edges of the real.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Strebbing brilliant but...

Yesterday Elizabeth Streb’s action hero dancers from Brooklyn took over the monuments of London, working their way over from the City in the early morning to a spectacular finale on the London Eye late at night. The bits I managed to see – the Human Fountain in Trafalgar Square and the Speed Angels outside the National Theatre – were astonishing. However (and I want to get this out of the way first) the decision to brand the whole event as a ‘surprise’, meaning that even the date was kept a secret until the very last minute, and the locations and times of each performance were only revealed about half an hour beforehand, was a poor one.

Like many others, I read about Streb in the Evening Standard some weeks ago – death-defying dance stunts performed outdoors, one day this summer, free across London - and it leapt out to me among the Cultural Olympiad events as something I really wanted to see. I was slightly confused by the lack of any date mentioned, but assumed this was down to last-minute organisational issues. When I realised that this was in fact an intentional part of the event itself,I assumed that it would at least be essential to the performances. 

What happened in the end was this. Halfway through Sunday, with other commitments and plans in place, I realised on Twitter that the ‘One Extraordinary Day’ was now happening, and more than half over. In a rush, not ideal with a toddler in tow, I legged it down to Trafalgar Square in time to catch most of Human Fountain. A four-storey rig stood in front of Nelson’s column with platforms on three levels, and on these were a multitude of figures in bright red bodysuits, flinging themselves from the platforms in a variety of poses and combinations, landing on the floor with an almighty crash, then picking themselves up to run back, clamber up the side and do the same again. Over and over, red bodies falling, flinging, scrambling, crashing, an astonishing show of bravery pushing at the limits of human endurance. At times verging on difficult to watch,but more difficult to turn away from. Streb’s dancing is less gendered than any dance I’ve seen, with strong, muscular women and men performing the same incredible moves. 

Afterwards, I guessed that the next performance would be somewhere towards the South Bank, reasoning that they’d been moving westwards throughout the day, and it was obvious where  the last event, ‘The Human Eye’, would be. Hopefully I meandered down Northumberland Avenue and across the bridge at Embankment, eventually finding the embryonic event at the National Theatre, where a very very tall structure was being set up in the outside space. We camped out on a step, subsisting on very tasty hot dogs from the van parked nearby, and by 8pm had been in our almost front-row seats for over an hour when three dancers in vivid red came out. Streb has been quoted as saying that music is the enemy of dance but the soundscape here really added to the atmosphere. The dancer in the middle looked terrified as she was attached to her harness. 

Then they were winched into the air, where they sometimes posed like trapeze artists, sometimes flailed like puppets, up and down, sprawling red figures against a sky which turned from grey to white-scattered blue as the evening wore on and the sun lit the buildings. Planes and helicopters and birds flew past, seeming almost to touch the three red human marionettes who squirmed on their strings. Some of it seemed tightly choreographed – presumably it all was – but at other times they appeared lost, helpless, and chaotic, snatching at the air as their feet cycled madly. 

It was a great, eerie, performance, and I would have loved to stay for the late show, the undoubted masterpiece, but starting at 10.30pm with a one-year-old and no chance to plan in advance, it was off the cards. At least I got to see some of it, unlike the writers of the plangent messages on Twitter and Facebook, begging for a bit of notice to give them a fighting chance of getting there on time. The refusal to do that, to help out those who were desperate to see it with the basic information about when and where, just seems like a perverse way to treat your potential audience. 

I can see the idea in theory, that this was a shocking series of events where superhuman figures suddenly appeared out of nowhere, leaping across the monuments of London, but in practice it can’t work like this. In practice there are many people there for a long time in advance, rigging, planning, putting up crowd barriers, not to mention all of those ‘in the know’, the press, those who’ve just blundered along. By the time the event starts it’s very obvious indeed that it is about to happen – indeed there are huge banners proclaiming ‘Surprises Streb’ all around.  

So it’s hardly an instantaneous appearance, just a needless annoyance which makes it impossible for those with prior commitments to work, family or anything else to attend this once-in-a-lifetime event. Even worse, it makes it truly impossible for those with disabilities who need additional time to plan and make their journeys. Instead, this favours those who can drop everything in an instant, the able-bodied, the rich (who can jump in cabs, and probably know what’s happening weeks in advance anyway), tourists, and random passers-by who might well enjoy it, but not as much as those who would really have loved to see it and would have made the effort, if only they’d had the chance. Videos here and Guardian picture gallery here

Sorry that so much of this review is about the logistics rather than the performances, but art happens in the real world where people live. (And unlike all the Proper Reviewers, so do I.) In short, this is an amazing dance/action company whose performances stand up on their own merit and they don’t need gimmicks like this to impress anyone.

Friday, 10 February 2012

You Might Not Be Beautiful. Gok's Teen's: the Naked Truth

Gok Wan is on a mission.

“I don’t want any teen to go through what I did”. The How To Look Good Naked star reveals how as a 21 stone teenager he endured years of misery and bullying.”

It’s all very Jamie Oliver: a passionate, personal crusade, comprising a bit of raw confessional, some contemporary social critique and taking action for real change.

However, while Jamie’s various series have seen him slogging his guts out dawn to dusk, chasing up recalcitrant truanting teens, arguing with local authorities, managing school canteens, and ultimately winning an audience with then-PM Tony Blair, Gok’s mainly involves looking at pictures of models while going “urrr, she’s too thin!” and getting girls to write on mirrors in lipstick and cry.

The teens in this programme are amazingly docile.

“Why do you think you don’t look good enough?” Gok asks.

“Because I see images… on the internet… celebrities,” says Paige, hesitant but obedient.

They flash up lots of thinspo photographs and slogans. Perhaps they could have chosen instead to show Isabelle Caro, dead at 28, or Katie Chilver, rather than these glamorised, 'triggering' fantasies. But this isn't a programme specialising in conceptual coherence.

Gok takes Paige on a life-changing journey to see a model do a photoshoot. The photo gets retouched. Paige cries.

“I didn’t know it was fake,” sobs Paige, who puts this new knowledge into action when she goes home by, erm, uninstalling the Photoshop software she uses to retouch her own pictures online.

14-year-old Brianna, meanwhile, whose anorexic phase has already long passed, sits quietly while an American dietician shows her some computer-generated images of how she’ll look at 30 if she’s anorexic (weird, haggard, wrinkled and grey) and not anorexic (just weird).

“Gosh, I think I prefer the non-anorexic one,” says Brianna politely. “Thank you.”

“I think I really got through to her,” says the dietician to camera as Brianna leaves.

At some other point, Gok gets a bunch of adolescent girls to look in a mirror in front of their mums and teachers and to say they have fat thighs or flat chests.

“I just look… ordinary,” says an ordinary-looking girl. Mums dab at their eyes with tissues.

Assorted celebrities crop up from time to time. The idea is that they confide their own teenage horrors and reassure today's younger generation that this too will pass. The problem is that (a) they're mostly incredibly irritating and (b) their problems include 'fitting in with everyone so not being really true to myself' (Duncan from Blue).

Despite the odd bit of lip service about ‘confidence’ and ‘self esteem’ , the programme is thoroughly Christina: “You are beautiful, no matter what they say.”

What is never suggested is that maybe you’re not beautiful, and maybe that doesn’t matter; maybe that’s not the worst thing. It’s not because the images are retouched that it’s a bad idea to aspire to have thighs with a big gap between them: so what if they’re real? Perhaps there could be other things to dream of, wilder skies than these.

In the photoshoot, while Paige and her comrades are squealing over the revelation that even the primped and preened model can’t match up to her own photograph, there is another woman in the scene: the photographer. Hair scragged back, in jeans, without make-up, here is a woman doing a technologically savvy, well-paid job, one that doesn't entail being half-eaten away by your own excess gastric acid by the age of 27.

But we don’t hear anything from or about her, and here’s the untold story, the one where looks aren’t everything. The one where Paige's very creditable photomanip skills could be put to better use than making her collarbone stick out.

The stated aim of this programme is laudable but no serious thought has gone into it, as evidenced by the repeated inclusion of pro-ana material as wallpaper. Judging from the teaser trailer for next week’s programme, the flashy stunts (landing in helicopters) and relentless shallowness which characterised ‘How to Look Good Naked’ aren’t on the way out any time soon.

Gok’s Teens: The Naked Truth is on Channel 4, Tuesday evenings, 8pm. And on 4OD here

Friday, 20 January 2012

You are not a drone: The Cult of Quatermass

The Cult of Quatermass took over a basement in Hackney last night. Maps of communication networks and an old Periodic Table are tacked up above the wooden control desk, where a reel-to-reel tape is flanked by flickering video images and an oscillator screen with green lines arcing across it. The panels on the walls are a mass of clunky buttons, switches and knobs, delivering an instant nostalgia kick. And you can touch them (yay). Some seem to shift the noise which fills the air; others don’t have any discernible effect.

The creators emerged unannounced and unsmiling. Willing acolytes crowded the stairs as AAS twiddled dials, stopped and started tapes and climbed ladders to produce a sustained performance of droning, pulsating sounds. There was squealing at the upper reaches of the sonic spectrum while low thrums made the walls vibrate. Sometimes a thought-defeating chaos of noise, at other times different signals and voices seemed to make themselves heard and something more defined and rhythmic took shape as sounds meshed mid-air.

AAS were impassive and focused as they operated the controls and picked their way silently through the crowds of receptive listeners. Upstairs, bottles of Red Stripe swam in a barrel among splintering icebergs.

At first, without introduction and with no obvious moment of beginning, it seemed kind of shambolic and inexplicable. Then it gradually exerted a quasi-hypnotic pull so that the restlessness you felt after 1 minute faded away, and after 10 minutes you could have carried on listening more or less indefinitely. Rising and falling with the sound, dipping in and out of thought and pure hearing. There was something compelling about the slightly clumsy, amateur way it was carried out, the unremarkable clothes and the way that they had to push past people which made it quite genuinely odd and intense.

The Cult of Quatermass was commissioned by Pil & Galia Kollectiv for Xero, Kline and Coma and is developed from the earlier AAS project, The Quatermass Code (2006) which took place at BlocSpace in Sheffield.

It is a sculptural installation of a laboratory control room containing video works, an audio work and machines for producing sounds that can be mixed, live, by the audience. The narrative is built around the characters of Professor Quatermass of the British Sonic Research Unit, a drone band called Samekhmem, a cult of people called ‘Receivers’ and the ‘sacred eternal drone’ that is the obsession of Samekhmem, Receivers and Quatermass alike.

‘Silence. Even a vacuum may contain vibrations. Space itself is the dark matter we seek. All of time is compressed into a single vibrating filament, a new form of religion emerging from alphawaves.’

– Journal entry three months ago

The video and audio works draw inspiration from a range of cultural references and practices including: J. G. Ballard, Situationist dérives, audiomancy, William Burroughs’ cut-up technique, and glitching.

The Cult of Quatermass is at xero, kline & coma, 258 Hackney Road, London E2 7SJ, until 21 February 2012 (weekends only, 12.00-18.00).

For more information go to or contact: