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The Paradox of Lives Run Through ‘Social Media’

14 Dec

A man leans back to pose for his selfie stick, not realising his head is on fire… 

 selfie stick

this was the defining image of the Social Paradox Exhibition, which took place on November 23rd at the Stolen Space Gallery in Shoreditch, sponsored by newly launched calendar app Calio.

‘The Social Paradox’ is an apt name for an apt name for a street art exhibition which sought to demonstrate how the tools we use to organise our social lives at the same time hold us enslaved to outdated popularity metrics which often serve to isolate more than connect.

One canvas by Iranian street artist Nafir displayed a girl jubilant about gaining 3 ‘followers’, who were displayed as 3 flesh-eating zombies stalking behind her. Another by iHeart on the subject of VR showed a young boy wearing virtual reality goggles looking down at his hand dissolving in front of him. The real world had become less tangible than the virtual one.

Joe Iurrato’s canvas displays a young boy and girl sitting in front of a sunset, arms around each other… taking selfies. ‘Modern Love’ is the piece’s title. Sad, he implies, that we are so busy recording and curating our lives to enjoy them. The theme of the whole exhibition was neatly encapsulated in the piece by WordtoMother, called simply ‘Social Media Mask’. The self-image we manifest for public viewing becomes so all-consuming it takes over our real identity.

I’m not going to step over into Freudian-style analysis of the conflict between the conscious, unconscious, the ego and the superego… but you get the idea. There is a dichotomy between how our upbringing and social norms state we should behave, and the need to play up to a social media audience which revels in the obscene, the disastrous and, on the flip side, over-idealised standards of perfection. It’s no wonder so many people suffer from ‘anxiety’.

Meet the Organisers….

Citrus-fruit IPA and boutique-label G&Ts were provided complimentary by a local brewer FourPure, the bartenders cheerfully admitting to having sneaked a drink or two or three and a bit giggly as a result. The ambience was pitch-perfect, and typically of Shoreditch everyone was striking an attitude or making clever conversation, an atmosphere which made it intimidating to take copious notes, so if my description of the exhibition is short on detail it’s because I was having too much fun.

Calio, the tech venture behind the company, actually has its manifesto that our lives contain too much tech; that an app should serve a useful function that is rooted in reality. The calendar app they have designed is spartan in its simplicity. You can invite your friends to an event which you create; suggest several different times and locations which they can vote on. And all these are stored in your personal calendar. You can sync this calendar with friends and family.

To widen its commercial appeal, Brand Accounts are going to be introduced in January. Artists and event planners can create a business profile, and by following them you get updates about all their future events.

While the app doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles currently – though the makers say they are open to suggestions – by distancing itself from the ubiquitous ‘share’ culture, they provide an alternative platform to facebook, where there is an inbuilt tendency to constantly assess and reassess upcoming events by the number attending, ‘maybe attending’ and just ‘interested’. And it has better functionality than Whatsapp, being designed specifically for events.

Calio has a bit of a cult following at the moment, and might accumulate a similar user base to that Whatsapp did when it first launched just by positioning itself as an alternative to the status quo. Calio does not share your data with third parties. In fact, they’ve made a solemn promise not even the app managers can view your personal calendar.

Will they, like Whatsapp, sell out to the highest corporate bidder? I asked co-founder Ramy Al Kadhi, and received a response of sound business sense, despite he and founding partner Latif Baluch’s anti-establishment posturing.

“Obviously we know what the value of the company is, and as business people if someone came up with something higher than the valuation, we would have to take it seriously. But they would need to demonstrate a growth path for that.

For example, if someone wanted to make it about events curation, we’d say no. It’s essentially a calendar app, and that should be our focus.”

I asked what inspired them to come up with the idea.

“There used to be a beautiful app called Sunrise, which let you sync its calendar app with all other apps. Outlook bought them for £100million. They closed Sunrise down, and converted the user base to Outlook…. We saw a gap in the market, and while we’ve created a number of apps before – it’s what we’re in the business of doing – with this one it was something we thought people would really need.”



Unanimous tribute to ‘Charlie Hebdo’: a ‘counter-sense’?

11 Jan

Translated from Le Monde (link to real article below)

On the day before the coordinated tributes to the victims of Charlie Hebdo, and as the French had already started to assemble throughout France, certain cartoonists and journalists of the weekly satirical expressed their surprised in the face of such a wave of emotion. Of demonstrations of support which can seem strange, towards a magazine which has always cultivated irreverence and the art of not doing the same as its friends.

“They sounded the bells of Notre-Dame for Charlie, I must be dreaming!” exclaimed on Friday Gérard Biard, editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo, to underline the irony of the situation for an anticlerical magazine to be universally celebrated, even in the most famous Parisian cathedral”.

A Magazine which has Suffered Criticism from all Quarters

Several members of the editorial team have received with a little bitterness these marks of solidarity towards a paper which in other days had little support. Among them, the writer/editor Zineb El Rhazoui, who explained to the Monde :

“I would have liked that those who died benefitted from so much support while they were living. And that was not at all the case. ‘Charlie Hebdo’ is a paper which has been criticised by almost everyone. And what has happened, you could have predicted. We received threats all the time and certain of us said that it was almost like we were looking for it…”

Others were bluntly not going to demonstrate, behind the image of Laurent Léger, investigative journalist at Charlie Hebdo:

“I am not going to the demonstration on Sunday but I think I am the only one on the team at ‘Charlie Hebdo’ to have made this choice. I do not like demonstrating in general, I think that ‘Charlie Hebdo’ could be absent from the procession where they would be all sorts of politics and on the subject of which there has been a controversy with the FN. However, I think that the wave of real support is formidable and I hope that there are lots of people at the Sunday demonstration.”

‘Charlie Hebdo’ has always remained apart. Now ‘Charlie Hebdo’ is becoming mainstream. We have become part of the establishment, for a week or two. It’s new. But this is a necessary transition, I am not against it. And I know that in a few weeks, a new story will drive out this one and we will be alone… We have been a bit superseded: it is for nothing more than ‘Charlie’ that people are marching for. That is clear.”


“We vomited on all these people who, suddenly, call themselves our friends”

Cartoonist Luz, survivor of the attack of the 7 January, told magazine ‘the Inrocks’ that he believed for his part that “the huge symbolic weight is all that Charlie has always worked against.” He added:

“It’s incredible that the people support us but it is in a counter-sense (contre-sens) to the drawings of ‘Charlie…. This unanimity is useful to Hollande to reunite the nation. It is useful to Marine Le Pen to demand the death penalty.

People speak of the memory of Charb, Tignous, Cabu, Honoré, Wolinski: they would have reflected this attitude.”

The Dutch cartoonist Willem, real name Bernard Holtrop, spoke the most condemnatory words to Le Point. Reacting to the support of the head of the Netherlands’ extreme right party, Geert Wilders, he exclaimed: “We vomited on all these people who, suddenly, call themselves our friends.”

And on the global support and sympathy for the paper:

“They had never read ‘Charlie Hebdo’. A few years ago, thousands of people descended into the streets of Pakistan to demonstrate against ‘Charlie Hebdo’. They didn’t know what it was.

Now, it’s the opposite, but if people are demonstrating to defend freedom of speech, obviously it’s a great thing.”


Runaway Online Success of ‘The Interview’ Prompts French Newspaper to Chronicle ‘Decline’ of US Box-office

30 Dec

Translation (link to original article)

The online showing of ‘The Interview’ returns $15million

Before the cyber attack and the threats it was subjected to, Sony Pictures intended to distribute its film ‘The Interview’ across 3,000 screens. After having cancelled its release, then going back on its decision and proposing its showing in just under 300 locations, the studio also placed it online from the 24 december. It was no surprise that early results of this simultaneous exploitation (exploitation simultanée), the “day and date” in the Hollywood jargon, were excellent.

Sony announced the statistic of $15million (€12,3million), sales and over-subscribed rentals, for the first four days. In all, the film – put forward at $14.99 (€12.30) to buy, and $5.99 (€4,90) to rent, both with high-definition versions, has been downloaded 2 million times. According to the authoritative site Deadline, more than half of the takings came from Google, where the film took the lead in sales from the day it was placed online. To add to that, $2.8million (€2,3million) of revenue came from screen showings.

>>Read the review of the film: We watched ‘The Interview’ and we were a bit disappointed<<

The declining ‘American box-office’

The online success of ‘The Interview’ could re-launch, in the US, the debate over the simultaneous release of films in cinemas and in Video On Demand (VOD) – a principle which is for the moment rejected by the big cinema franchises – while Hollywood assesses the year passed by. The ‘box-office’ lost 5% in relation to 2013, which represents the biggest annual fall in nine years, reveals the ‘Hollywood Reporter’. The statistic of $10.4 billion (€8,55 billion) is expected on the 31 december, compared to takings of $10.9billion in 2013.

The year saw some major success, with ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy’ and ‘Hunger Games: the revolt (la révolte), part 1, but also ‘The Big Lego Adventure’, ‘Captain America: the Winter Soldier’, ‘Gone Girl’, ‘Interstellar’, or even ‘The Hobbit 3: the Battle of Five Armies’ – films which have boosted a year marked by a very disappointing summer in terms of cinema attendance (down 15% compared to 2013).

With the release of a series of highly anticipated blockbusters, from ‘Star Wars: Episode VII – the Awakening of the Force’, to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, passing through ‘Fast and Furious 7’, ‘The Minions’, ‘Jurassic World’ or ‘Avengers: the Era of Ultron’, the studios expect in contrast a good year in 2015.

Profile of Shakespearean actor, LAMDA graduate and Sodium Party star James Corscadden

25 Oct

James Corscadden

LAMDA graduate James Corscadden has just finished a run of King John at the Union Theatre. He also stars in an independent film by an Irish company, Sodium Party, to be released in April.

With a firm handshake and a twinkle in his eye, Corscadden is brimming with insights and anecdotes about his latest play, King John. Although one of Shakespeare’s less well-known texts, it is reportedly full of political insights with a modern resonance.

We grab an evening coffee at Starbucks and he spoons it with vanilla sugar, and starts describing his new projects. Animatedly, with an Irish lilt. “Well one of the main things is, there hadn’t been a production in London for ten years. Not many people even study it academically… though it was very popular in Victorian England.” The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) will be doing a production in April, though their version will reportedly only be half the length.

So why is it relevant? Firstly, the way public opinion surfaces as a consideration by the characters, at a time when monarchy was still defended by the principle of divine right. He describes a key scene where the Cardinal tries to justify the legitimacy of the young boy Prince Arthur, (nephew of King John.) The Cardinal professes that not to give the true heir his due will turn the people against the government. This is even more significant when seen against the context of Magna Carta, which does not feature in the play but looms in the background.

Corscadden himself relates most to a passage in a speech by Philip the Bastard, about commodities. “It’s one of the best bits of Shakespeare for me,” he says. “People have such honourable intentions but drop them as soon as something comes along that they want… though Shakespeare obviously put it more skilfully.” Greed and material desire are evidently still relevant issues today.

So is nationalism and violence, particularly among the younger generation. When his character, Louis the Dauphin, and Philip the bastard, learn that the original reason they went to war has gone away, they carry on regardless. “They miss the point of the political problems and get caught up in nationalism, perhaps because their elders have set such a terrible example.”

The play has been very well received, and Corscadden is able to cite just one poor review, by the Guardian. “She still gave us three stars. Which, from the Guardian, is pretty respectable. But the way she wrote the article, it sounded like she had more of an issue with the play itself.” One of Shakespeare’s earlier pieces, from the early 1590s, some of the scene changes are rather contrived.

He is also eager to talk about his film project Sodium Party, which he was talked into doing while still a full-time student. Essentially it is about a girl and her imaginary friend. The subject is that of madness and delusion, fuelled by drugs and the love of a bad boy, Danny – played by Corscadden. In her attempt to grow out of her childhood trauma and escapist fantasies, the protagonist ends up caught in a web of unreality. The cinematography is also apparently incredible.

Conversations at the side-door, at the BBC Proms

16 Jul

‘My Fair Lady’ premiered friday morning at the Royal Albert Hall, as part of the BBC Proms Season. It is the first time the orchestra has recreated a musical all the way through, and they and the cast almost out-performed the cast of Lerner & Lowe’s 1964 film.

The actor playing Freddie, Jules Ovenden, talked about what made this production so successful: “It’s set in London, and is a way of celebrating London at this historic time. The cast are all hand-picked, and established stars in their own right.”

Jonathan, a cellist from the orchestra, admitted they had had more rehearsal time, but that it was necessary because there was “lots to put together.” Having practised since Monday, “We were well prepared.. the actors needed the extra help.”

Ovenden said most of the actors had only had two to three days’ rehearsal that week. Impressive, considering the extensive choreography involved in scenes like the dance at the races, and the opening one in Covent Garden’s flower market, where they wield umbrellas with prodigious skill. Gentlemen mince and hop-step with as much panache as the ladies.

“It is also a powerful piece politically in terms of sexual politics,” said Ovenden. The play centres around the conflict between flower-seller Eliza Doolittle, and Professor Henry Higgins, who agrees to give her elocution lessons after betting with a friend that he can pass her off as a lady. Ovenden plays the upper-class romantic Freddie, who becomes besotted with Eliza.

Higgins’ lines, such as “If you are naughty.. Mrs Pearce (the housekeeper) will wallop you with a broomstick,” look somewhat dated today. But the chemistry between the two leads outweighs the… less politically correct aspects of the adapted script of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘The Pygmalion’. The scene where Higgins mocks the working-class accents of the people in the market is a triumphant ode to cultural elitism.

A devotee of the original film can spot where the acting was amplified for the big stage: there are many more dance scenes. When Higgins wants to persuade Eliza to sit down at the races, he has to squat several times, which she copies, until he gets the message across by miming drinking tea. At another point, the significance of Eliza’s not needing any clothes when she sends back to her lodgings for her belongings, is drawn out at length by a convincing hunchback, who got a laugh after every sentence.

The vague homosexual tensions between Higgins and his friend Colonel Pickering – in lyrics like “Why can’t a woman be more like you?” are nicely understated. Both leads are strong, and Eliza delivered that immortal line, “I washed my face and ‘ands before I come, I did,” convincingly.

Other highlights at the Proms this year are Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No.9’ on Friday 20 July, and Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’ Tickets are available at:

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Theatre 503 stages a slaughterhouse: Meat

9 Jul

Scene from the 2006 film, “Fast Food Nation”

Battersea’s Theatre 503 is home to many writers, directors and performers of experimental drama. Its visceral and immersive production of Fallout Theatre’s Meat has just finished, to widespread acclaim. Could it be enough to convert the most dedicated meat-eater to vegetarianism? We ask the writer why he chose to invite his audience into a meat-packing house.

Meat, written by self-described ‘vegetable-grower’ Jimmy Osborne, is set in a small-town slaughterhouse, where main character Vincent has worked the line for twenty years. Osborne admitted he was heavily influenced by Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation in creating the setting, particularly the chapter on meat-packing practices in small factory towns. The gruesome description of the inside of a slaughterhouse, and the depiction of the harsh and exploitative labour policy within, are drawn out in the play.

Vincent kills animals to fill a daily quota, to the extent that it has become almost meaningless. When he is confronted at bottle-neck by a teenage thug, he finds himself acting in self-defence, but in an awfully methodical way. Fallout Theatre produced the play, and the cast all perform convincingly. As the hunt for the suspected murderer alights on innocent victims, and the dead boy’s mother comes to apologise for her son’s hooliganism with a bunch of flowers, Vincent is increasingly pressured to tell the truth.

At the play’s centre is the moral dilemma of a divided sympathy: between the hard-working, law-abiding professional slaughterer, and the troubled young tearaway who cannot deal with the loss of his dead father. Simultaneously, it is a portrayal of the social problems engendered by a small town, dependent on the income and employment from a highly unsavoury industry.

Particularly good is the chemistry between Vincent and his wife of many years. She moves from trying to blackmail him into buying her a leather jacket, with his credit card (“I feel so dowdy”), to a genuine middle-aged rekindling of a teenage romance. Their daughter is appropriately lippy, and Robert, the dead teenage boy, is a live wire of suppressed and misdirected anger. The set was also very realistic, with meat-hooks hanging from the walls and ceilings. At the start I feared I would end up having nightmares, but in fact the play was more of a moral parable. But visceral.

The writer Jimmy Osborne disclosed that he “is currently working on an original play, and developing a stage adaptation of Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden with David Aula.” He gave us a preview of his own work: “My new original play is set on the East Coast England and is about: How far would you go to keep a dying way of life alive?”

Osborne was keen to promote the activities of FallOut Theatre, which acts as “a platform for young directors, writers and actors to launch their work”. He continued, “FallOut will be premiering new work in 2013”, though he was unable to reveal any detail about their plans for fear of spoiling the surprise.

The next production by Theatre 503, after the talent-seeking festival Labfest, involves a 50-year-old lawyer and a teenage stripper. His daughter has some understandable issues with their blossoming relationship. Controversy and drama are what Theatre 503 does best, and they are unafraid of tackling difficult themes.

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‘Paypal empale la litterature erotique’ – why la Liberation are concerned for freedom of speech

12 Mar

A French newspaper invoked freedom of speech, in defense of one’s liberty to read and publish literary works about incest and zoophilia. A recent article in La Liberation described how the US online payment system Paypal has tried to prevent customers from purchasing literary content it deems unsuitable. The author speculates as to whether the French classic by the marquis de Sade, la Philosophie dans le boudoir”, with its explicit scenes of violence and incestual relations, will one day disappear from the market.

Also included in the list of forbidden works are Nabokov’s “Lolita”, and Balzac’s “La Passion dans le Desert” (concerning relations between a soldier and a panther). Many sites have been pressured into refusing to allow purchases of these books, and others, on the grounds that the contents could be seen to encourage these forms of sexual perversion. The Self Publishing, Excessica and Smashwords have reportedly all admitted to having their transactions subject to censorhip.

Paypal defended its actions on the grounds that the forbidden works often contained pictures. And that the stories blurred the lines between fiction and reality, “sometimes intentionally”. Forgive me for asking, but is that not the point of good writing? Only a child could become so confused by these scenes as to be persuaded to reenact them in real life. No one has tried to suppress publication of the Harry Potter books, on the grounds of the number of children hurling themselves against the wall between platforms nine and ten at Kings Cross. The Twilight series has not been withdrawn to prevent teenage girls falling dangerously in love with a 200-year-old sexual predator, whose ultimate desire is to drink his girlfriend’s blood.

Protection of young children was the grounds for defence of Facebook’s censorship actions in America, where the law forbids display of explicit content where it might be available to under 13s. Yet an organisation from the US has also registered protest at this attack on freedom of expression. The Association of American editors and Reporters without frontiers have overseen the publishing of an open letter, in which they state their concern about private companies using their economic influence to dictate what people can write, hear and think (” utiliser leur influence économique pour dicter ce que les gens doivent livre, écrire et penser”)

At the moment it is only e-books that are censored in this fashion, which in itself is a distinction which makes little sense. Nothing short of the discretion of the person at the counter would prevent a 13-year-old buying a copy of Nabokov’s “Lolita” in a bookshop. Taken to its logical conclusion, Paypal’s decision would lead to a ratings system imposed on all fiction. This would be a travesty. I personally would not have learned to read half so fast if I had never pilfered my mum’s copy of “Bridget Jones’ Diary.”

Furthermore, it should not be Paypal’s job to decide what is and is not appropriate for readers. They are not even responsible for distributing and selling the e-Books in question – merely approving the transactions, as a supposedly impartial third party. Perhaps it is time that some form of governmental legislation was introduced to put closer restrictions on what can be bought, as well as viewed, over the internet. At the moment I believe it is still possible for children to purchase Ann Summers’ “rampant rabbit” over the internet, an item even a parental filter over search terms would not flag as inappropriate.

When does someone’s freedom of expression and to impart information (article 10) impinge on other basic human rights? La liberation are clearly not alone in believing their right to buy and read the marquis de Sade’s reminiscences are a vital part of their cultural heritage. Liberte, egalite… fraternite?

NB: the views expressed above are not those of the author. This was a largely directionless and satirical critique of someone else’s article.,14233.html

Elizabeth Whittaker – ex-pat sculptor carving a career in Northern France.

31 Oct
medieval toothache

The sculpture Elizabeth nicknamed 'Medieval Toothache'

I’ve been sitting on this interview since July when I stayed in Elizabeth’s villa so should publish it now before it becomes irrelevent.

Elizabeth is an unusual figure in the UK sculpture scene, largely because she entered it so late, with minimal professional training. An antiques dealer until she retired at 50, she has brought much of her knowledge of medieval and renaissance culture (fostered also by the time spent studying music in Vienna in her youth) to bear in creating the themes and models in her work.

She learned her trade on a stonemasonry course at the Vauxhall college of Building in south London, where she gained the ability to work with chisels and carving tools, as well as creating moulds. Today we are fortunate in the materials we are able to utilise, with great effect and precision, to recreate ancient masterpieces – and works of nature. Elizabeth stresses the importance of silicone and latex rubbers in modern mould-making, where the Victorians had to make do with gelatine and beeswax. This has been put to breathtaking effect on a large reproduction of a leaf in her rented property in France, a life-size replica with an intricate network of veins. She somewhat disparagingly terms it a ‘bird-bath.’

Miniature treasures lie semi-concealed all around both her French villas, which act to some extent as a showcase for her work – though, she stresses, there is not much of a local market for it. Part of the pleasure, for her, seems to be the act of creation itself. The twin lion statues who flank the front door are made from a mould that her ex-boyfriend created from the abandoned timbers of Nonsuch palace, a Tudor stately home. A relief of Cosima de Medici adorns the wall in two places, surrounded by a frame of her own creation. The gargoyle-like figure on the wall by her workshop she has nicknamed ‘Medieval Toothache,’ and has actually found a buyer; she sold it to her dentist for twenty pounds.

While she does not claim that her difficulty in making a major professional break was what drove her to buy a house abroad – she genuinely wanted to live part-time in France – Elizabeth does have pronounced opinions about the problems faced by aspiring sculptors. As an art form it is particularly demanding in terms of space and materials. Thus the idea of what she terms ‘social workspace’. Like government-subsidised ‘social housing’, she feels there is an official obligation to provide funds for those trying to make it from unofficial origins. Much ‘cultural’ municipal funding obviously goes to those artists and galleries with established reputations. For large-scale outdoor sculptural projects requiring expensive resources and a team of workers, authorities are reluctant to risk anyone unknown, however talented.

Local connections seem to be important; one of the things that triggered her artistic ambition was her success contributing to a project near her home in Chiswick. Several maquettes she submitted to the self-appointed council – of which she was also a member – influenced the eventual decision to mount a statue of Hogarth, one of the founding fathers of modern art, (as she describes him.) In France her relationships with her neighbours have led to her producing several meaningful face masks, full of wrinkled wisdom. One larger piece, for which extensive modelling was required, is a bust of a close friend, which was then cast in bronze.

While anxious to promote her own work, which is also produced and promoted from London, she is generous with tips and recommendations for other aspiring artists. She insists on the mention of Lev Vykopd, a talented associate and oil painter whose series of paintings of glass-blowers decorate the kitchen. Furthermore, through her personal learning curve she has learnt some valuable trade secrets. Apparently there is a warehouse, on Blythe road in Hammersmith, which contains moulds and reproductions of countless ancient statues and works of art. One example is a section of the Parthenon frieze, recreated to scale. The best part? This warehouse is public property.

It sounds too good to be true, but hey, anyone looking to make their own version of the Venus de Milo, or Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’, why not track down a copy of the original and see if you can do any better.

A cast of the lion-figured support from Tudor-era building Nonsuch Palace

A cast of the lion-figured support from Tudor-era building Nonsuch Palace

iron leaf cast

Iron leaf cast - fountain and birdbath

‘Degas and the Ballet – Picturing Movement’ at the Royal Academy of Arts

26 Oct

Why was Degas so fond of the ballet…

This exhibition has come under some criticism for attempting to impose the theme of ‘movement’ on Degas’ numerous portrayals of performing dancers. When asked himself as to why he chose dance as a recurring subject, Degas replied that he was trying to capture ‘the movement of the Greeks,’ whose grace he felt they epitomised. Considering this ancient classical influence, and the fact that his paintings were often presented as an alternative to new innovations in photography, even mocked them, it seems occasionally artificial to try to link his artistic development with developments in photographic technology. This being said, it is impossible to state with certainty how and to what extent that an artist is influenced by their cultural environment. Furthermore, the use of multiple media of presentation, like film and photographs of moving animals, does help enhance the viewer’s sensory experience.

At the beginning of the exhibit, Degas’ portrayals of ‘A Rehearsal,’ highlighted in perfect pastel shades, and ‘A Ballet Rehearsal,’ in more banal colours and surroundings, effectively capture both the innocent glamour of the French ballet, and the humble upbringings of most of the young dancers. While Degas never fully professed himself an Impressionist, and did not actively seek to portray scenes of social realism, their influence on his pallette and style is evident. The painting of ‘A Ballerina posing for a photograph’ is seen as a deliberate contrast with the highly staged photos of dancers, also competing for public attention at the time; his decision to set the photo in a modern studio with a view of the Parisian skyline from the window is perhaps his bid to vye with technical ‘innovation.’
Ironically, photographic technology was such that it was less effective at capturing movement than paintings, and subjects were forced to stay in a stationary pose, usually in some contrived scene with complicated props. This theory does fit with what we know of Degas’ slightly old-fashioned advocacy of artistic craftsmanship, evident throughout these lovely spontaneous works.

The second room is dedicated entirely to a wax sculpture, and the preparatory sketches for it, the ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.’ The model, Marie van Goethem, a ballet student from the Opera, posed for a series of twenty drawings from different angles, which Degas then transformed into a three-dimensional being. The curators get a little carried away with the idea that ‘Contrary to his usual practice, here it was the ballerina who remained still while the artist himself became an observer in movement.’ The contemporary controversy surrounding the object cannot be explained solely by its means of production, which apparently had been carried out before in a similar manner, by sculptor Francois Willeme with a ring of cameras. Perhaps it is down to the fact that in some of the photos the young dancer is nude, supporting evidence for the more unsavoury explanation sometimes posited for Degas’ obsession with painting young ballerinas. This is of course unfair on the artist: his subjects were of a variety of ages and appearances.

In his later years, it is asserted, his subjects aged along with the artist himself – or at least his technique mellowed, with the pallette becoming darker and more sombre, the figures more distinctly outlined. It is not true, however, that his subjects refrain from vigorous action in their old age any more than in his earlier works. The style is different but ‘movement’, such a key theme, is still in evidence. In some of these works he even painted with his fingers, creating a very physical effect. Another form Degas’ dancers took – slightly earlier, in the 1870s, when he reached probably his peak of public popularity – is in wide panoramic portrayals of ballet classrooms. Not merely rehearsals but classes where the performers are contrasted with diverse other pupils who fidget and play around, in one case two of them standing on the piano. Perhaps he sought to reveal the less idealised reality behind the perfectly staged performance which was all the audience knew of that world. The curators, again, link the form to developments in photography – particularly the cameras which, when placed on a tripod, could rotate to take in a larger panoramic view. Thus were numerous contemporary school pictures composed and recorded. Clearly though, Degas was as interested in the individual figures as the layout of the canvas, as he went back to perform separate studies of many of them.

Because of the design of the exhibition it is necessary to briefly touch on the photographic history placed alongside Degas’ work. Two ‘contemporary pioneers’ in using photography to accurately capture the human figure in action were Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey. The former was responsible for the infamous eleven-volume ‘Animal Locomotion’, depicting both people and animals’ sequence of movements. A nice link is that Muybridge also spoke at the Royal Academy in 1882 and 1889. Marey reportedly had a more scientific approach to photography and declared hyperbolically that ‘movement is the most apparent characteristic of life.’ He, like Degas, also liked portraying ballerinas. The links made between artist and photographers, though, are limited to some sketches based on the work of the former and a vague stylistic likeness in the case of the latter. Degas’ own conversion to the camera, after he obtained his first model in 1895, occurred after he had already produced the main body of his work; before this he is alleged to have often mocked the medium. It seems, therefore, that Degas had a conflicting relationship with photographic innovations and, while movement was a key component of his images of the ballet, the technological means of portraying it may not have been uppermost in his mind while he was portraying them.

His figures did become more anatomically realistic in later years, as their muscle tone was progressively more defined; he also continued to occasionally experiment with portraying new forms of dance, like Greek dancing. In terms of photographic acheivements, they consisted largely of self-portraits and, in a final testament to his artistic legacy, in 1915 he himself was made a feature of the latest technological innovation; director Sacha Guitry lay in wait for him and filmed him secretly as he walked down the street (Degas had refused to be a part of the proposed documentary about respected French artists – Monet, Renoir, Rodin, who all gave their consent to be filmed.) This fairly accurately sums up Degas’ attitude to the intrusion of technical machinery on the art scene: however hard he fought, he could not prevent the movement, the onset of modernity.


Grayson Perry: ‘Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ at the British Museum

20 Oct

On being asked what his favourite piece in the exhibit was – whether his own or one of the creations of the ‘unknown craftsmen’ – Perry declared himself unable to declare. ‘My next pot is my favourite,’ he joked, ever one to spot an opportunity for self-promotion. ‘No, I have no favourites; I’m an equal opportunities curator.’ This is of course the central message of the exhibition: a celebration of the anonymous artists responsible for creating so many important cultural artifacts stored in the British Museum. The paradox of a modern artist famed for his larger-than-life personality and skilled cultivation of publicity curating such an exhibit has already been pointed out. Yet Perry seems genuinely to be disillusioned with the lack of real artistic talent in an industry where, increasingly, a clever idea is a more than adequate substitute.
This concept was set up particularly cleverly in a piece called ‘Tate Modern Reliquary’ (by Grayson Perry himself, 2009), which also incorporates the sense of mass production and ownership of much contemporary art, where everyone can literally take home a piece of it. ‘Tate Modern is the cathedral of the cult of Modern Art,’ the caption reads. ‘I designed this reliquary for the Tate gift shop. Each one contains a fragment of one of my pots.’ It is difficult to tell whether the religious analogy is intended to mock the somewhat naive belief of the visitors who worship at the shrine of ‘Modern Art’, believing that they have found a genuinely holy or original piece (most medieval reliquaries were of course fakes), or whether Perry means to sanctify art as a common belief we can all share. He would probably greatly enjoy the conflict between these two interpretations.
The tapestries and ceramics created by the artist are beautiful. Pieces like ‘I have never been to Africa,’ a comment on Western misperceptions of that continent, and ‘A Walk in Bloomsbury,’ his tribute to the area around the British Museum, continue his tradition of painting social commentary onto pots. A giant tapestry is one of the centrepieces of the exhibit, depicting numerous scenes from modern life; a clay ship of a similar gigantic scale is another. A popular game is apparently attempting to discern Perry’s creations from those of the anonymous craftsmen. One out of two figures – ‘Our Mother’ and more particularly ‘Our Father,’ looks like a genuine religious statue of some benign deity, though the medium of cast iron and oil paint might give it away on closer inspection. A statue of ‘Alan Measles,’ Grayson Perry’s infamous teddy bear mascot, on horseback, is easier to spot, though does resemble an authentic, bear-like warrior. A large jug engraved with machine-guns is stylistically almost identical to two others, from the German Rhineland (dated around 1520-45 and 1690).
Many of the original pieces are of historical as well as artistic interest. A ‘Model of a European family’ and ‘Model of two Dutchman’, from the Chinese Qing Dynasty, respectively 1700-50 and 1662-1772, are testimony to the intense curiosity and inter-cultural interaction between East and West. It is interesting to see this from the other side, where so much study of relations between the ‘West and the Third World’ is made through an Orientalist or Euro-centric perspective, even if Europe is no longer seen as inherently culturally superior. A flag made by the Asafo, a military group set up by the Fante in Ghana, 1850-1927, is apparently notable because the adoption of a Company flag was a British military practice. Not only did they co-opt the device, the Fante turned it on its head by depicting a black man holding a sword up victoriously, a white man lying headless next to him. Other exhibits, such as the portable shrines from Japan and West India, and a sarong from Indonesia (dated, somewhat ambiguously, 1600s-early 1900s), are just exquisitely designed and crafted. The figurines taken from tombs – on which the name of the exhibition is partly based – are also haunting and beautiful.
Perhaps the weirdest, most incongruous item – besides the authentic ‘Hello Kitty’ handtowel –was a ‘Doctor’ mask from Romania, a kind of giant Mr Potato-head with Mickey-Mouse sunglasses, a tophat with a picture of a blonde woman in a garden, and a vial dangling from its nose. A relatively modern relic, it was reportedly made by Ion Tatuianu and his brother for New Year performances. My personal favourite were the numerous ancient ceramics containing borderline pornographic scenes, and a pubic ornament from Western Australia, donated by the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. How they got hold of it is anyone’s guess. Overall this was a clever, quirky and insightful visual treat. Perry’s disclaimer on the wall at the beginning was too self-deprecatory: ‘Do not look too hard for meaning here. I am not a historian, I am an artist.’ Even historians rarely claim to find true meaning in their discoveries, but here it is notnecessary. The pieces speak for themselves.