Wednesday, 25 May 2011

I have never particularly liked modern art.
To me 'modern' art was just a bit of a big joke. As if there were some secret society of individuals who thought they would make a mockery of classical painting by making childish scribbles, simplistic cube compositions or ridiculous installations which looked like nothing more creative than a piece of domestic waste. I was convinced that this 'modern' art was lacking in skill, artistry and meaning. I had been educated about eighteenth-century European painting and sculpture. The art I was used to was enormous canvases of oil painting, painstakingly rendered to produce a dramatic, engaging and emotive visual piece. I had been on a university study trip to Paris and stood for half an hour in front of Jacques-Louis David's 'Intervention of the Sabine Women' and felt tears welling up in my eyes. 
When was the last time a piece of modern art had this effect?

Tracey Emin had always seemed to me like the high priestess of modern art. She exhibited an UNMADE BED. If this was art, come to my house. It's a gallery of similar treasures.

Then last weekend, as part of our resolution to be more cultured, my housemates and I went to see the Emin retrospective exhibition at the Southbank Centre. There were some pieces in this collection which confirmed my opinions about modern art. I don't particularly like to see used tampons at any time, let alone on display in a glass cabinet and I'm not fond of rough sketches of nude women exposing their genitalia.

 Emin's work essentially confronts the idea of what could be classified as art. It is raw, provocative and deeply personal. What is on display is not just material objects which she has produced but representations of and revelations about her memories, thoughts and emotions. I used to think that modern art couldn't or didn't mean anything, that it wasn't an expression of a frame of mind or an opinion. Emin's work is the exact opposite. In a certain respect she is fearless. She has put on display the worst parts of herself and the most traumatic events of her life for all to see. The first room of blankets are like large tapestry scrapbooks of her diaries. Recounted memories are interwoven with quotes and profane outbursts, but all on the traditionally feminine medium of patchwork embroidery. This startling juxtaposition establishes the fragile and tempestuous relationship between how society, and more specifically men, view women and how Emin views herself.

The other piece which dominates the room is the sculpture 'Knowing My Enemy'. An homage to her father, this partially collapsed wooden pier with a small hut at the end, is a physical manifestation of the dream he had of a place that he, and hopefully she too, could find happiness.  The structure at once represents a certain loneliness but strangely also a sense of peace.

The neon signs in the following room are a classic example of Emin's sharp wit and ability to condense a  complex idea into a simple phrase: 'Is anal sex legal? Is legal sex anal?', 'I know, I know, I know' and 'People like you need to fuck people like me' are just some of the delights, alongside the show's namesake:

The films were, in my opinion, the most expressive and intimate pieces of the exhibition. 'Why I never became a dancer' is a palimpsest of scenes from Emin's hometown Margate. The commentary is a sweet, revealing narration of Emin's first sexual experiences and the beginnings of her unstable relations with men. As a young girl she submitted to the abusive taunts of a group of men she had slept with and abandoned her youthful dream of dancing. The film then ends with an adult, uninhibited, Emin dancing freely and herself taunting the camera lens with a wry grin. The most affecting of the films was a twenty minute interview with Emin about her reaction to having an abortion. It was horrifyingly sad. She speaks in such graphic detail about the physicality of the abortion as well as her thought process leading up to it and afterwards that you are completely taken aback. You feel traumatised and heartbroken watching it to the end.

I wouldn't say that the exhibition changed my opinion about modern art in its entirety but I feel very differently about Tracey Emin. Despite the somewhat unusual nature of installations such as the unmade bed, there is a definite sense of purpose and meaning to Emin's work. She has something provocative and interesting to say in her pieces, and although the medium may not be what I am used to, I think the message is one of great import.


(all images courtesy of loveiswhatyouwant)

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Music videos have long been looked down upon as an inferior medium for artistic expression and high-fashion clothing. Whilst I would agree that there are countless artists whose videos are nothing interesting, exciting or new there are those like Lady Gaga (as a mainstream pop example) who seek to do something different, and groups like 30 Seconds to Mars who create cinematic masterpieces which could better their full length feature counterparts.

This Beyonce video may not be pushing the boundaries of the norm in terms of the concept or execution but the styling is definitely a visual feast of epic proportions. My favourite look has to be the Gareth Pugh gold metallic mini dress. I have on several occasions looked at the pieces from this collection at the showrooms of Karla Otto and longed for the day when I'd get to shoot something. I don't know who the designer is of the jewellery which accompanies this look but the pieces are modern, bold and perfect accompaniments to the fierce dress.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

'We were as Hansel and Gretel and we ventured out into the black forest of the world. There were temptations and witches and demons we never dreamed of, and there was splendour we only partially imagined.'
Of all types of literature, autobiography has until now been my least favoured. I don't profess to have read enough of this genre to make a particularly well informed judgement, but autobiographies have always seemed to me to be self-pitying, self-congratulating, courting fame and sympathy and just generally being written with mercenary intentions. I read Russell Brand's two autobiographies and found them highly entertaining. There may have been certain memories or events recounted which were affecting and/or enlightening, but on the whole it was just a light-hearted, comic, quick-read which wouldn't be classed as a literary success- more of a written documentation of his fantastical verbal effusions. 
Whilst I was in Miami in February I stopped by Books & Books on Lincoln for a browse. With an afternoon to fill there's nothing better than coffee, people watching, flicking through art books and reading the blurbs of countless paperbacks on the shelves. On a mid-shelf down one of the narrow through-rooms of the cosy little store I saw an unassuming black book cover with a small black and white double portrait and simple white text. 'New York Bestseller. Just Kids. Patti Smith.' The paper is quite thick, like parchment, with rough edges which gives the book a love-worn feel. The text throughout is interspersed with black and white photos, sketches and excerpts from poems like a scrapbook.
I didn't know much about Patti Smith before I started reading. I remembered seeing her in the Annie Leibovitz documentary 'Life through a lens' where she was photographed infront of a flaming trashcan- a photo which became a cover for Rolling Stone. So I knew she was a 'rockstar', that she had a famed androgynous look and that she had a relationship with the enigmatic Robert Mapplethorpe. I was not prepared for the astounding poetic beauty of the writing.
I can honestly say that it one of the most intensely moving, profoundly affecting books I've ever read. It was so real, truthful and honest-it was like reading a close friend's diary. You feel the pain and elation of every high and low. You sympathise on every level with the conflicting sense of both love between Smith and Mapplethorpe and the need for self-expression and one's own identity. It is a record of artistic struggle, a love letter to a lost soul-mate and a sweet ballad to New York City. It is partly what you may expect from a rock and roll musician but it is mostly so very much more.
'Wild leaves are falling
Falling to the ground.
Every leaf a moment,
A light upon the crown
That we'll all be wearing
In a time unbound;
And wild leaves are falling, 
Falling to the ground.'

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Boho-glam, androgynous chic. 
Messy ombre beach hair, masculine hats, oversize tailoring, stripes, prints and sequins come evening. 
Kate Bosworth, Ashley Olsen, Whitney Port, Sienna Miller, Gillian Zinser, Drew Barrymore.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

'It's not where you go. It's how you get there.'

Such is the tagline of Gus Van Sant's 1991 film starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. The storyline is a very loose adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV: a young man (Reeves) forsakes the privilege and pomp of his wealthy family to run wild on the streets under the tutelage of the charismatic but corrupt drunkard Bob Pigeon. Reeves' character, Scott, knows that his time amongst the raucous group of street dwellers is only temporary, as once he comes of age he will make the transformation from self confessed 'fuck up' to suave businessman to earn his father's respect and love. River Phoenix is a friend and fellow hustler on the street who ropes Reeves into a road trip of self discovery and adventure on a mission to find his mother.

I must admit that watching this old (ish) film I was prejudiced by my conception of what is a stereotypical 'road-trip' film. You know the type: mindless humour, gratuitous nudity and awkward sexual experiences. With possibly the exception of Thelma and Louise, which in my opinion is a poignant and sentimental portrayal of female friendship, most road-trip films are male centred but only shown from the take of the journey being about 'bromance'.

My own private Idaho is completely different. The relationship between Scott and Mike is shown with such beautiful realism. It's touching and sentimental but not over-done. It's not idealised and there's no 'happy ending' as far as the friendship goes but you know that there was, for a time, genuine feelings of camaraderie and (on different levels) love between the two men. 

Keanu Reeves may not have honed his skills as a multi-dimensional actor- he is just as monotone as Neo in the Matrix- but it sort of works in this context. He is a young man on the brink of adulthood-conflicted but also remarkably self assured. His slow development is quite sweet. River Phoenix is spectacular as a love-torn, emotionally fragile, innocent yet socially astute young man. His facial expressions, body language and tone of voice is so subtle and gentle that over the course of the film you see how much of a total, fully-psychologized character Phoenix has created. This man is having such a range of sexual and social experiences which he believes he has control over but he is so obviously damaged and affected by the loss of his mother. He is haunted by this idea of himself as a young child with his mother outside the family home. The pastel hued, hazy flashbacks which spring in a sporadic manner through the narrative whenever Mike feels threatened, are rose-tinted reminders of the domesticity and stable relationship which Mike lacks and so obviously craves. Although he has become part of this dysfunctional sort of family of hustlers, thieves and drug-addicts he yearns for something more enduring which he believes he may recapture upon finding his mother, or perhaps with Scott. Yet upon the double disappointment of Scott's italian romance and the realisation of his mother's eternal absence from his life he becomes more settled than he ever has been. The double funeral of 'fathers' at the climax of the film makes you question the disparity between the family you are born with and the family you choose for yourself. Which is more real? Which more understanding? Which more capable of supporting and loving you?