Monday, 4 May 2015

Postcard from London and Glasgow (via Berlin)

It’s six weeks since I left London and headed north. Three days in Glasgow, five weeks in Orkney, then back down to London and across the Channel by rail to Brussels, Amsterdam and finally Berlin – where I’m now sitting in a Kreuzberg café called Bastard just around the corner from my Airbnb (an airy second-floor bedroom in an old apartment block near Görlitzer Park).

There’s a message on the wall nearby that says: ‘The brain is desperate for an available emptiness to house its clutter. Put it here.’ Hm. Perhaps this Postcard will serve the same purpose. 

There’s another piece of street-art right next to the front door of my apartment block featuring an image of Pinocchio smoking a spliff and sporting an enormous phallus. I’m not sure where that fits in, but I’ll put it here too, and get on with my story.

Where to begin? And what to tell? Let me try to clear my head and retrace my steps.

1. Goya to Pollini

After my weekend in Nottingham and Stratford, I spent my last night in my Airbnb apartment in Islington, hugged my tearful Indian host-grandmother goodbye the next morning and deposited my luggage at Euston. I spent my last afternoon in London at a exhibition of Goya’s ‘Witches and Old Women’ album of drawings in the Courtault Gallery at Somerset House, and my last evening at a recital by Maurizo Pollini playing Schumann and Chopin at the Royal Festival Hall.

Goya’s late drawings are deeply personal. By this stage he was completely deaf and had largely withdrawn into his own world. Creating largely for himself, he was possessed by fantastical images, somewhere on a road that stretches from Bosch and Breughel to surrealism and beyond. On the edge of reason and at the outer reaches of humanity, they draw us into a miniature but painstakingly detailed universe of horror, ecstasy and pity that whispers to our fascination with the monstrous in all its forms.

Somerset House is one of my favourite places in London. Housed in a magnificent complex of neo-classical buildings situated between The Strand and the Embankment, the Courtault Gallery itself – with its winding stairways, intimate rooms and fine permanent collection – is slightly off the tourist track and somehow manages to make you feel like you’re visiting an eccentric uncle and viewing his private heirlooms.  Here I spent a peaceful couple of hours in the company of Goya and his monsters, along with the small but superb selection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings on show from the permanent collection. Finally I wandered out onto the Embankment and past the stream of evening traffic across Waterloo Bridge to the splendid brutalism of The Southbank Centre.

I had my doubts about going to Pollini that night. Back in the early 80s when I was a student and came down to London from Hogwarts regularly to hear him play, he was in his prime as a virtuoso celebrated (and sometimes denigrated) for his relentless objectivity, fearsome technique and fearless championing of modern and contemporary composers (Bartok, Stravinksy, Schönberg, Webern, Boulez, Nono) alongside thrillingly unsentimental interpretations of Chopin, Schumann, Schubert and the late sonatas of Beethoven. Now however I’d be seeing a man in his late 70s who’d recently been ill and would surely be diminished at least in terms of sheer physical prowess.

In the event, I needn’t have worried. A stooped old man in tails tottered across the stage, nodded a few perfunctory bows, sat down and without further ado launched into Schumann’s gentle Arabesque followed by an uncompromising voyage through the rocky straits of the Kreisleriana. The technique may not have been what it was, at least in Schumann’s more manic passages, but the penetrating intelligence and sense of architectural command more than made up for any occasional imperfections. After interval came Chopin’s 24 Preludes. Pollini totally owns these works (the pellucid clarity of his 70s recording for DG remains unsurpassed for me); but tonight was if anything even more revealing, without sacrificing the eagle-eyed overview of each piece in relation to the whole. After a shattering final Prelude, he tottered back on for three encores: an equally impassioned ‘Revolutionary’ Etude (the aged eagle spreading his wings and perhaps reminding us of his former activities playing concerts with Abbado for workers in factories), a tender Nocturne and finally the dramatic 3rd Scherzo. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Still humming with revolutionary fervour, I made my way back to Euston, collected my luggage and boarded the Caledonian sleeper for Glasgow. Securing an archmair in the dining car (which felt more like a well-upholstered and well-serviced hotel lobby), I ordered my first miniature bottle of Highland Park and settled back to watch the lights of nameless English towns slide past and vanish into the night.

2. Buzzcut Live Art Festival

Next morning I woke up at Glasgow Central, where a different world awaited me – or rather, a series of different worlds, one opening onto another like Glaswegian-Chinese boxes. I was here for three days, staying at another Airbnb apartment in a classic old terrace in the city’s West End near Hillhead Tube Station, and attending Buzzcut, a live art festival co-curated by Nick Anderson and Rosana Cade (with whom I did a workshop at Live Art Camp in Melbourne last November). The festival is housed at the Pearce Institute, a community centre in Govan, which is itself a severely run-down working-class district just south of the Clyde. Rosana and Nick have made the event as inclusive as possible, given its limited funding and resources. Participating artists aren’t paid, but are provided with free board and lodging (mostly in people’s houses); there’s good, cheap, locally sourced and prepared food (including delicious street-curries and wraps) available onsite in the Macleod Hall; and audiences can attend the rolling sequence of performances in multiple spaces throughout the Institute (and at a few off-site venues) every afternoon and evening for free, or by donation (on the basis of ‘pay what you can afford’). The idea is to generate a spirit of collaboration and community between visiting and local artists and the broader local population; the result feels like a non-stop five-day open-house party. I was only there for three of those days, which in the event was enough for me, as I barely left the building (apart from the odd off-site excursion) except to go home on the Tube every night to get some sleep, have breakfast the next morning and then head back for another afternoon and evening of continuous live art.

Ah, live art! Dear Reader, bear with me on this. We’re talking everything from awkward five-minute one-on-one mutual meditation sessions while seated in chairs facing opposite each other; to an endearingly guided tour of personal belongings displayed in a tent as a ‘cabinet of curiosities’; to an ongoing installation-collection of recyclable waste generated during the festival and carefully washed and sorted on the floor; to an extended lyrical public confession about personal and artistic failure in a vacant lot outside the Institute, before digging a hole in the ground in which the body of a cello was then ritually smashed and burned, and its ashes summarily dumped in the Clyde. More elaborate works included a visual essay-performance about post-war UK architecture and the invasion of public by private space, with projected archival and home-made footage accompanied by an industrial soundtrack and spoken commentary by the two artists, who had the text fed to them through mp3 players and repeated it mechanically through microphones while standing motionless against the projection wall at the back of the stage; and a vigorous session of luridly-coloured paint-gargling-and-spitting on various items of furniture in a courtyard, including a wardrobe which was then violently demolished and a mattress and bed which were finally doused in petrol and set on fire (staining, smashing and burning things seemed to be something of a leitmotif in the live art world).

I spent some time alone in a darkened room watching a topless man digitally scanning his torso in various contorted positions, and then digitally cropping and projecting close-up images of his skin, body-hair and blemishes on the wall, while a luminous message projected onto his back proclaimed:

Dreams that feel like nightmares when I wake
This body has been an inverted shell
Skin inside, tight against the heart
And miles away from a touch 

In other words, there was a surfeit of self: self-absorption, self-exposure, self-dramatization, self-recording, self-entrapment, and what I felt was a generalized and symptomatic confusion between art and life. Perhaps that’s the point of ‘live art’ – as opposed to all that presumably ‘dead art’ out there that works and deals with something other than the artists themselves as subject and medium. Nevertheless I couldn’t help feeling that the ‘self’ here being endlessly exposed and recorded was a fundamentally narcissistic and ultimately empty one. Certainly it was a far cry from the self-portraits of Dürer or Rembrandt, or even the monologues of William Yang, which in their different ways present the self as an objective subject or even a mirror held up to the world, rather than a subjective object or narcissistic ego endlessly reflecting back on itself in imaginary frustration.

My personal favourites in fact were two works that didn’t seem quite so hermetically sealed in the physical and psychical skin of the isolated individual. The first, Blood on the Streets, was a late-night off-site performance-lecture in a barber’s shop in Partick about the history of bloodletting as a medical practice. It was jointly delivered by a cheerful and winsome young artist (Jamie Lewis Hadley) and his equally cheerful and winsome young GP-assistant (Belinda McFenty), who then proceeded (after some nerve-wracking minutes of difficulty finding the right vein) to drain him of a bag of blood, while he sat in the barber’s chair smiling and talking with his eyes averted to avoid fainting. Here it was something about the juxtaposition of setting and subject-matter in conjunction with the artist’s body, reflective discourse and implicit consciousness-of-self as a social construct (there was no explicit mention of HIV, but Hadley has spoken in interviews about the fact that as a gay man he’s not allowed to donate blood) which transcended the limits of narcissism and gave the work real content. On a visceral level, it was also genuinely confronting; in fact almost impossible to watch – and at the same time impossible not to watch, with my eyes only partially averted.

The second and for me outstanding work was 4D Cinema by London-based Japanese artist Mamoru Iriguchi. Mamoru is a disarmingly modest and even clumsy stage performer, and the first half of this show was a charmingly gentle DIY multimedia drag-act, in which he ‘channelled’ Marlene Dietrich by putting on high-heeled shoes and a huge home-made box-screen over his head, on which black and white footage and photos of Dietrich, her world and her films were projected, while Mamoru’s own face remained visible through a hole in the centre of the box. This pantomime was accompanied by a hilariously deadpan account of ‘her’ life, in which biographical and thematic elements – Berlin, Hollywood, cinema, cabaret, World War II, performing for the troops, the live shows in Vegas, touring, addiction, falling off the stage, the apartment in Paris – seemed familiar yet strangely inverted, so that she was born in Paris, had her stage career before her film career, and died in Berlin. The formal and indeed ontological ‘reveal’ came in the second half of the show, when Mamoru replayed live video and audio footage of the first half of the show backwards (including the sound of his own voice, and – even more disturbingly – our own laughter), with live performance and video components now re-integrated within a single frame, complete with subtitles retelling the story of Marlene’s life, but this time ‘correctly’ in reverse. The effect was at once one of logical and psychological reparation (at last everything made sense) and profound loss (as her history became that of the last century, including the rupture between live performance and film, the real and the virtual, presence and absence, life and death, all tellingly demarcated by the catastrophe of World War Two. The result was an unexpectedly profound meditation on the paradoxes of time in the context of performance and its recording. It was also the most sophisticated use of multimedia I can remember seeing onstage. ‘Live art’ indeed!

3. Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

By Friday, however, I’d seen enough live art (especially of the confessional kind) to last me a lifetime. I decided to wag the afternoon and head into central Glasgow to see the city’s best-kept theatrical secret and arguably most exotic hybrid art-form: the Russian ‘kinetic theatre’ housed in the Trongate 103 Art Centre that goes under the name of Sharmanka. It's Russian slang for ‘barrel organ’, and the joint work of Russian sculptor Eduard Bersudsky, director Tatyana Jakovskya and her son Sergey Jakovsky, who designs the lighting and sound.

How to do justice to this unique and extraordinary body of work? In brief, Bersudsky began making mechanical sculptures of carved and painted wood, scrap metal, discarded wheels, cogs, levers, pulleys and improvised electrical circuits during the Kruschev ‘thaw’ of the 50s and 60s in the former Soviet Union. The wooden figures themselves owe something to the German Expressionist sculptor Barlach, and before him the tradition of folk and religious (especially Gothic and Romanesque) sculpture, with its angels and devils, saints and sinners, sacred animals and imaginary beasts. Bersudsky’s work however consists of ensembles featuring multiple figures derived from literature, folklore, history, politics and his own wild imagination; and instead of being religious (at least in any traditional sense), their spirit is one of rebellious and profane fantasy, with that peculiarly Russian and perhaps also Eastern and Central European Jewish flavour I associate with Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Bulgakov (especially the latter’s great novel The Master and Margarita, which is the explicit subject of one of the sculptures).

The works are displayed around the walls of a large room upstairs at Trongate, and include some earlier kinetic sculptures made in the Soviet Union under difficult and sometimes clandestine conditons together with more recent works made since Eduard and Tatyana emigrated to Scotland in the 90s. At designated performance times each day – I was the sole audience-member on that Friday afternoon, which made the experience even more bizarre – the lights go out and then one by one the ‘kinemats’ (as they’re also called) are illuminated and begin to move, each accompanied by its own carefully chosen musical soundtrack. It’s a deeply moving, darkly humorous and at times disturbingly macabre procession of human folly, hope, depravity and yearning, and when it ended fifty mintutes later I was spellbound. Like Goya, Bersudsky is an artist whose vision embraces even the most appalling atrocities and preposterous extremes of his era and his species, and yet seems to say: this is what we are, this is what we are capable of, so laugh at us, and weep for us, because you, too, are one of us, a mannequin of desire, endlessly animated by the cogs and wheels of biology and history. 


Early the following day, I was on the train again, being borne away by another set of mechanical cogs and wheels: leaving Glasgow and heading further north to Inverness (via Perth, as it happens), where I’d be connecting with a smaller train through the Highlands to Thurso, before finally catching the ferry to Orkney. There I’d be spending the next five weeks on a much bigger and more inner adventure: doing a series of workshops on voice, movement and Shakespeare with the formidable Kristin Linklater.

But that’s a subject for another Postcard.


Postcards from Orkney, Brussels, Amsterdam and Berlin will be posted over the next few weeks.

1 comment:

  1. Heya Humph
    I amenjoying reading this oh so eloquent and wonderfully illustrative account of your adventures. What a wonderful Odyssey you are on...Miss you too!
    Take care, and looking forward to the next installment
    Sal :) x