Sunday, 22 November 2009

On Happy Days @ Belvoir Street Theatre

"Another heavenly day" pronounces Winnie at the beginning of Samuel Beckett's 'Happy Days', dressed to the nines in peach chiffon and buried to her waist in rubble. The statement will always draw laughter from an audience, its absurdity is self-evident, and yet as the play continues that mood changes and the perfect internal logic of that statement becomes might bring the self same people to tears. It is in this that 'Happy Days' is a long way away from the theatre of simple glib paradox.

'Company B' regularly do Beckett proud, he suits a house style that at its best is humane and theatrical. This production directed by Michael Kantor is no exception. It is formed around a brilliantly rhythmic, sympathetic performance by Julie Forsyth whose control is magnetic. Here she is buried in a mound of black rubble that, mercifully implicitly, must remind us of Ground Zero all jagged planes like a crashed stealth bomber. The mound is like an accretion of culture. Together with Willie's Edwardian outfit, the music hall ditties and Winnie's fraying reminiscences it is the weight of the past that gradually engulfs the characters. It doesn't so much set the play in a post-apocalyptic wasteland as in a continuous stream of history. The mound is our world.

For the starkly classical theatricality of his plays Beckett is an intensely Irish writer, in English or French. He came from a culture steeped in the subversion of the English language and the repetitions of the Latin mass. There is both resistance and magic in words and Winnie uses them here to give shape and meaning to life and to defy the harsh monotony of this broken universe. For Beckett words are proof of life, and they are for Winnie too. She talks to or at her similarly buried husband, Peter Carroll as Winnie, their occasional conversations are independent non-sequitirs, but the effort of speech and the hope of its reception are enough. For Winnie speech is heartbeat necessary, even when her repetitions seem more like instinct than conscious thought.

There is a third character in Happy Days, 'Brownie' a service revolver that has an unspeakably brutal and terrifying presence. The gun is the temptation to end it all, not to persevere. It is the snake in the garden where Winnie and Willie, at the end of the world, are Adam and Eve at the beginning. It is the great dramatic engine of the play as we anticipate what Winni might do with that pistol, the crux of the play. We must overcome, our humanity insists that we give life meaning and that we at least attempt to share that with someone else. This is what makes 'Happy Days' so optimistic, and like life so gruellingly joyous.

It is difficult for me to withhold praise from play or production. I love the fact that the best piece of theatre I have seen this year, by a long and winding way, is by the most serious and intellectual of authors. It demonstrates the compassion of ideas and the tenderness of thought. Beckett, with help from Forsyth, Carroll and Kantor in this relatively short two-hander, makes most modern theatre appear stupid and redundant by compressing so much empathy, contemplation and razor logic into such a dense and jewel like mass. More than week hence and I'm still moved.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

On Sculpture By The Sea

It seems churlish to pretend that 'Sculpture By The Sea' isn't happening, after all it is on my doorstep and the influx of traffic and old ladies into Tamarama is hard to ignore. So whilst it remains a beautiful sun kissed day and I feel generous I might share (or at least take this opportunity to gratuitously inflict some of my photography on my patient readers).

This annual festival fills the beach and cliff tops around my home with everything from the sort of abstract geometric public sculptures that might adorn the forecourt of a municipal office through objects rendered oversized and out of place, like Claes Oldenburg's discarded doodles, to jokey installations that take their meaning from their ocean side location. It's easy to scoff at 'Sculpture by The Sea', God knows I do, but if you open enough oysters you do find the ocassional pearl.

It's futile to seek a theme in SBTS, but two equestrian statues do stand out. One, 'Subterfuge' is an assemblage of industrial rusted cast-iron into the form of a Trojan horse. It has a quiet grace and an enviable place, looking out over the northern tip of Tamarama. The equestrian statue was once the pinnacle of the sculptor's art so it seems fitting two accomplished examples should be here. The second, and stronger work, is Belinda Villani's 'Tribute To A Workshorse' it is a lifesize reed sculpture of a pack horse with a seated rider. It reminds one of the pre-Raphaelite desire to give dignity to labour and might have made William Morris happy. The horse and rider are beautifully modeled, with a quiet muscular dignity. The choice of medium, kind of wicker reed, places it in a pastoral idyll, but at once emphasizes the fragility of that particular mental place.

Tamarama beach is home to a not very classical nude 'Little Boy Lost' by Paul Trefry (which is unintentionally hilariously given a modest pair of Speedos in the shot on the SBTS website). It would be easy to dismiss it as a Ron Mueck impersonation and it is really, but trying a little to hard for empathy with its oversized and manipulative eyes, but on a quiet beach, admittedly that's only possible before about 6AM, it seems to look less for its parents than for a meaning out on the horizon toward which it faces.

Diamond skulls would usually raise my hackles but I found that the early morning light refracting through Phil Hall's 'Dying for a Drink', a large scale piece made from bottles, raised it from its appalling pun of a title. That's the thing with Sculpture by the Sea', if you plonk something down on a beach and wash it in the perfect light of dawn you can forgive it a lot of crimes.

This strip of coast becomes the land of public sculpture for a couple of weeks and often one can only wonder why some works want a place by the sea. One work that deserves it is Stephen King's 'The Eight'. I hope it's not just supposed to be some rowers shouldering their craft. In fact we have a large wooden place that evokes myth and history, it might be ancestors landing for the first time from a distant shore, caryatids from a pre-historic Parthenon or the sculptors of Easter Island finding a new home. These kind of confluences of our collective memory make for powerful art.

The most successful pieces interact with the land and ocean, that's not to say that the annual examples of pieces framing sky and sea or simply clinging to the deeply beautiful cliffs qualify. Some works can make the landscape look and feel new, they work physically and visually rather than conceptually. One work that does this beautifully is Satu Bushnell's 'Transition' are the series of large mirrored beach hits that cling to the stubborn undulations of the cliffs above McKenzie's Bay. During the day their imperfect reflective surface twists the rock even further, knowing that this geology is restive and alive, whilst at dawn they burn with the rising light. They are a brilliantly physical contemplation on light and space and a piece I'd be happy to have here forever.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

On Ricky Swallow @ NGV

Ricky Swallow: The Bricoleur. There, I've written it now, in all its dated cultural studies glory. Melbourne's NGV presents us with an exhibition of a young artist's career with a title that tries so hard to give us an intellectual justification it almost begs interrogation. Ricky Swallow is an artist, now based in California, whose works span sculptures (often in wood) of everyday objects treated monumentally or hinting at familiar art-historical themes and watercolours that borrow heavily from Picasso for style and Sixties and Seventies pop culture for subject. Despite the title bricolage is a practice rather than a position, the show could more accurately have been called "Ricky Swallow: The Pasticheur".

Some Swallow's works are profoundly good. His sculpture 'The Man from Encinitas' seems at once a death mask and gloriously alive. The white plaster is a virtual fingerprint of artist and subject, the ripples and scrapes from the sculptor's hand give it a sense of potential at rest that is dignified and graceful. Much of the problem here is that whilst some works are astounding others are so breathtakingly pointless that they make you wince. The series of watercolours that Swallow produces are really art school pastiche. They appear like sketches, like a conceptual artist having his cake and eating it saying "see, I can paint, but it doesn't matter".

Swallow disingenuously presents himself as nothing more than a hobbyist, as if playing down the artfulness of his craft absolves him of anything as tedious as traditional artistic production. Like a smart kid at school embarrassed to look clever in front of his peers. It's a cheap and unnecessary trick. Swallow is much more than a hack sculptor. He has a beautiful control of finish, at exactly the right times and places he chooses the hyper-realistic smoothness or a more fluid expressionistic effect where chisel marks speak in the wood. When he juxtaposes mass and lightness he might not be breaking new ground but he has a sure and delicate touch. Swallow is at his best when he's human. In 'Unbroken Ways (for Derek Bailey)' a disembodied arm that dangles like those in a pieta meditates on the fragility of flesh so eloquently that the back story it is given is unneeded. If wood can communicate the fragility and life of flesh then single entendre titles are a distraction.

Swallow is at his best when he's exploring ways to communicate through the innate qualities of materials. Thus a black power fist struggles and emerges from a log in 'History Holding' speaking more eloquently about the artistic potential than any artist's statement. Similarly in 'Caravan' a highly formal piece in which cast bronze balloons are speckled with angry insistent barnacles Swallow reminds us of the point of the object. This is always going to be more affecting than glib post-modernism, but he just can't help himself sometimes. So my deep dislike for portentous and ironic titles bristled up immediately here. 'Salad Days' and 'Killing Time' are only two of the jokey puns, the problem is that art that simply supports two meanings isn't very smart or complex. There's no room for subtext. Irony is not the complex and neutral form that ambiguity is. It doesn't invite engagement or interpretation. Art ought to aspire to infinite meanings, or maybe even only one. Irony doesn't make for good art, when irony is the defense mechanism against meaning, masking an anxiety about sincerity.

I wonder if Ricky Swallow feels being a genuinely powerful sculptor isn't art world cool enough, that it needs an arch and shallow patina for it to be critically proper. Perhaps Swallow's funereal imagery is his way of burying himself as an artist beneath a pall of secondhand references, or maybe the sombre intimations of mortality are supposed to make the punchlines funnier. It's a shame either way.

On Peter Greenaway's Last Supper

Peter Greenaway's work is full of, perhaps, unintentional ironies, firstly that one so interested in reviving cultural 'visual literacy' should make films that are so wordy. Secondly, here at the North Melbourne Town Hall's Arthouse, his multimedia installation of Leonardo da Vinci's 'Last Supper' explores paint and place through projection on a facsimile of the original. Image and object have become interchangeable.

The work is part theatrical set-piece, part wordless lecture it is interesting in part for its production values and also for the way it closes down the space in which we see the familiar diners but leaves their meanings open. The space created here in a Melbourne (in an inner suburban Town Hall which isn't a million miles away for the unprepossessing location of the original in Milan's Santa Maria Delle Grazie) is walled with black drapes, in the middle is a long white banquet table set with white porcelain detritus of the meal, as if it were a washed out vanitas. At one end is a facsimile of the last supper, complete with alcoves, arches and the invading doorway that cut off Christ's feet. At the other end, at least initially, is a reproduction of Donato's Crucifxion, which faces the 'Last Supper' in situ.

Multiple projections wash back and forth over the fresco. The effects are impressive. The brilliant illusionistic modelling of Leonardo's disegno is brought out as shadow is cast to emphasise the effects of perspective. We get a sense of the passing of time and daylight upon the room and into the picture, seeing shadow from the room's windows move across the wall and over the painting as well as the effects of the changing hours on Leonardo's internal pictorial light sources. That light appears natural and then spiritual, in doing this Greenaway doesn't attempt to give the painting a halo but he does remind us of its role within a monastic refectory.

It would have been easy to concentrate on the narrative of the image, creating a slideshow tableau vivant, but instead Greenaway's eye is analytical, searching for Leonardo's technique. The hands in the image are gradually isolated, showing how they direct attention and reinforce the groupings within the composition. This is a mercifully Dan Brown Free Zone.

The opposite end of the space is what makes this more than an Old Masters in Imax experience. The crucifixion dissolves and a camera zooms into the surface of the painting. We go down to the level of each flake of paint as it clings, agianst the odds and its creator's flawed technique, to the plaster. The effect is more than an essay in conservation light it helps us feel how images exist as objects, created from pigment on a surface. The fragility of the original ghost on the wall is heartbeaking but here we remember the power of the remnants that still retain Leonardo's intent.
I've been lucky enough to make the pilgrimage to Milan's airlocked treasure, and whilst Greenaway can't quite replicate how it dominates and integrates with the space he retains a critical sense of scale, although raised as if on a platform or a low dais the scale is so human that the passion and grace in the figures on the wall acts as a mirror on the diners below.

This 'Last Supper' isn't a perfect work. The table running down the centre is unnecessary set dressing, in fact as it is treated like an object of veneration itself, with repeated exhortations not to touch it, it reminds us that we're in the art world and not in a refectory. The music too, a kind of amplified portentous chamber music, suggests a drama in progress where Greenaway's eye is far more subtle and gentle.

The last thing the 'Last Supper' requires is further layers of interpretation, in understanding this Greenaway pays Leonardo a huge compliment, the absence of theory and backstory privileges the paint on the walls, the patterns it creates and their presence in a room. It is a loosely forensic approach but one that demands we look and think, rather than listen and believe. You might hope that it will catch on.