Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Yinka Shonibare 1: MAD world

Imagine, if you will, a blind date with a British artist...

Tracey Emin would take you straight to her bedroom, open up her diary and photo album for a few tortured hours of show and tell. Damien Hurst might take you to the aquarium... or to the morgue. If you're lucky, only your senses will be assaulted. But with Yinka Shonibare, you'll probably end up rummaging through bolts of fabric at the Brixton markets.

Shonibare is the Lenny Henry of the art world. More savvy than savage. Not so much a political agitator as a polite one. With him, you'll nod and smile your way to enlightenment.



An exhibition of Shonibare's work in a variety of media -- billed as the most comprehensive showing of the artist's work to date -- has just opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. It's there until February 1, 2009.

The MCA then tours this exhibition to the Brooklyn Museum, New York, and the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian in DC.

I spoke to Shonibare in July.


[CHRIS BOYD:] I REALLY APPRECIATE THAT YOUR BALLERINAS HAVE HEADS!

[Yinka Shonibare:] They're real people! I think I should be in a little bit of trouble if I did it to real people.


white swan and black swan

IS CREATING ART A SUBSTITUTE FOR THERAPY FOR YOU? SHOOTING HEADS OFF?

Oh yes. You're talking about How to blow up two heads at once. The ladies, huh?

A lot of my work relates to do with identity issues and also takes in current affairs as well and so when a lot of the global conflict was happening, there's also humour in my work, and when the Iraq war happened and then of course Afghanistan you had -- literally every day -- there was conflict in the news every day.

As an artist, how can I explore those issues? Is there an absurd side to this? Is there a funny side to it? There's also this sense of gallows humour if you like.

I'm thinking, okay, two sides are fighting. Each side thinks their P.O.V. is the better point of view. And the other people are the baddies and [that] they're good.

Actually, at the end of the day, nobody really wins a war because you're both inflicting maximum damage.

SO IT'S YOUR TAKE ON MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION?

Exactly. Exactly. Trying to find, also, a humorous angle to the absurdity of it as well. Also do something to engage people without being too heavy handed.

SO, HOW IMPORTANT IS IT THAT YOUR ART BE LIKABLE?

I think that you have to engage people. You have to make people interested in the art. One of the ways of doing that is to produce something -- even if it's a horrible subject matter -- you have to find a way of getting people's attention. One of the ways of doing that is the beauty of the work. Under that beauty is also the dark as well.

SO THE BEAUTY & GALLOWS HUMOUR IS AN INVITATION TO LOOK CLOSER.

Yes. And then hopefully -- once you've managed to get people's attention -- hopefully they might want to go further and ask further questions about why is he doing that, what's he doing that for?

I'm not a politician so my work is never about trying to preach a fixed point of view at people. It's more about highlighting things and let people think for themselves. And also, I'm an artist. And what I do... The entertainment angle is also an important part of my work.

I know that a lot of conceptual artists don't want to acknowledge that or talk about the aspects or decoration or the aspects of beauty because there's a lot of snobbery in the art world. But I don't really work that way. I want to use common, everyday materials that people can relate to -- and talk about important issues with.

I get my fabric from Brixton market and the fabrics I use are Indonesian influenced batik fabrics that the Dutch produced around the turn of the century for sale to the Indonesian market. But in Indonesia, they wanted to protect their own trade so the fabrics were rejected. So the Dutch versions of batik were tried in West Africa where they were very successful.

THEY WERE ADOPTED BY THE LOCALS.

Yes, exactly. And I'm very -- the fabrics are associated with Africa. When the people see them they think Africa. African fabric. But at the same time, I'm keen to highlight that what you might see as being fixed can also have other aspects to it.

And the fabrics are not -- they're international in a way. They're kind of trade routes... Dutch, Holland, and then Indonesia and then Africa. All of the identity can be quite complicated.

BECAUSE OF OUR PROXIMITY TO INDONESIA, WE'RE QUITE FAMILAR WITH THESE FABRICS... WE ASSOCIATE BATIK WITH HIPPIES AND DRUG-SMOKING!

I like the fact that you said that. Because what I'm doing -- what I'm doing there is that paradox of... on the one hand, I take something from popular culture, and then I take it into stiff Victoriana. Stiff upper class Victoriana. And of course that stiff upper class Victoriana is almost a metaphor for the establishment. And hippies [are] in opposition to establishment.

AND TO AUTHORITY --

Exactly.

AND TO REGIMENTATION.

Exactly. So what you have there is a contradiction. You have a contradiction of the batik from pop culture against the establishment Victoriana.

And the idea for me using Victoriana as a metaphor came from Margaret Thatcher in the 80s was talking about returning to Victorian values.

SCARY!! I DON'T REMEMBER HER SAYING THAT. VICTORIAN VALUES?!

I was thinking: Okay, so where do I stand? I live in England. I'm from Nigeria. Nigeria was colonised by the British. The Victorian era was the height of colonialism in Africa. How do I relate to the repressive Victorian regime?

So Victoriana for me actually means conquest and imperialism. And so, in a sense, it is actually my fear. So what I then decided to do was actually confront my fear and face my fear. And the way to confront my fear, to actually parody that fear. A lot of the work that came out of my desire to face my fear and to turn it into parody.

The irony of all of this is that -- since my work has actually been about what imperialism means and how that relates to my own identity -- it's quite ironic that I was then made a member of the order of the British Empire.

[LOL] I BELIEVE YOU MAKE A POINT OF USING YOUR MBE AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY. IS THAT TRUE?

Absolutely! I use it everywhere. So my actual artist's name is Yinka Shonibare MBE.

EXCELLENT! MY [RELATIONSHIP DELETED] WAS AN MBE... AND SHE WAS A LESBIAN!!

I don't think that the queen knew that she was a lesbian!

I VERY MUCH DOUBT IT! [...] NICE TO BE INVISIBLE SOMETIMES.


Perhaps it might be slightly easier for them... persecuted gay men... good that the world has changed a bit.

I WAS REMINDED WHILE YOU WERE TALKING OF LANGUAGE, OF ENGLISH THE LINGUA FRANCA IN THE COLONIES. I REALISE IT'S PROBABLY STILL THE NUMBER ONE LANGUAGE IN NIGERIA --

Absolutely. If you want to get on in the world... If you don't know English, you're going to find that quite difficult.

HAS AN INFLUENCE ON THE LANGUAGE. "POLLUTES" IT, GIVES IT COLOUR, GIVES IT SLANG AND BROKEN ENGLISH. I UNDERSTAND THERE'S QUITE A BIG RAP CULTURE IN NIGERIA --

Oh yeah. Absolutely. There [are] local versions of English. The language has changed. A lot of people who win the Booker prize don't have English as their first language. People like Salman Rushdie. The English language has been taken on in the the third world, if you like, or the other world. Has been reappropriated...

A number of Indian writers have also won the Booker. English is something that develops according to the local language. For example in Australia, Australian English is also very different from the English here. It sort of evolves.

People are not passively colonised. Yes, they may have English, but they do make it their own. And they do develop their own identity after that.

SO WHEN I LOOK AT THOSE BEAUTIFUL PHOTOGRAPHS OF TUTUS MADE OF THIS LUSH MULTICOLOURED FABRIC, IT GIVES ME MUCH JOY BECAUSE -- I'VE BEEN A BALLET CRITIC FOR MORE THAN TWENTY YEARS. I KNOW HOW RIGID AND STARCHY -- AND HOSTILE TO FREE THINKING AND IMAGINATION -- THE BALLET WORLD CAN BE...

Absolutely. As was my experience when... It's a short film in collaboration with the Royal Ballet in London. It's from Swan Lake. It's my version. The film is called Odile and Odette. Odile being the bad character and Odette being the good swan. So what I've done... I've made two characters, one black, one white. And they dance opposite each another with a hollow frame in between them, so you get the illusion that one is a reflection of the other.


Heads or tails? A still from Shonibare's film Odile and Odette.

TELL ME WHICH IS WHICH IS THE GOOD?

You don't know.

EXCELLENT.

That's the point of the film, cos it's constantly switching. The viewpoint is constantly switching all the time. The film actually will be in the show.

WHAT ELSE WILL YOU BE BRINGING TO SYDNEY? IS THERE ANY SITE-SPECIFIC MATERIAL OR ANY NEW MATERIAL?

A piece that might be outside... It's a white flag at half mast. This is a piece I did for the Southbank Centre in London. They have a flagpole outside. And this, again, was during the conflict. So that's one piece that will be outside.

And it's the first time, actually... In relation to the rest of my work it's quite dramatic. Cos it's the first time I've actually taken the pattern away.

YEAH, I WAS WONDERING IF IT WAS THE FIRST TIME YOU'VE USED PLAIN WHITE...

It was almost like a halt or a break. When the horrible things were happening in Iraq... It was more about the frustration of peace and the fact that... When a flag is at half mast, it's always about mourning the loss of something...

AND YET, OF COURSE, THE WHITE FLAG IS THE FLAG OF SURRENDER, ISN'T IT?

In this case, it's actually not surrender. It's indeterminate because it's actually half-mast. It's not fully flown. It's at half mast. So that's one that's gonna be outside.

In the actual exhibition, there will be major pieces of mine. There's a piece called Scramble for Africa. I don't know if you've see an image of this.

I DON'T THINK I HAVE. DESCRIBE IT TO ME?

It's a recreation of the Berlin conference in the 19th century...

OH, OKAY. IS IT A RECTANGULAR TABLE AND THERE ARE PEOPLE WITH HANDS ON EACH OTHER'S ARMS? IT'S LIKE --

Yeah, yeah.

IT'S LIKE A CARTIER-BRESSON PHOTOGRAPH.



It was when Africa was being divided up. It was in Europe. They had this conference in Berlin. And the conference was called Scramble for Africa. So on the table there's a map of Africa drawn. So it's merely capturing a moment when all these brainless people got around the table -- headless, brainless -- to actually divide up the spoils amongst themselves. See if they have original entitlements to it.

The other major piece that's going to be in the show is a piece called Gallantry and Criminal Conversation.

THAT'S THE ONE WITH THE CARRIAGE SUSPENDED IN AIR, IS IT?

Exactly.

AND A LOT OF SEXUAL ACTIVITY!

Exactly! It's a huge installation. I was actually looking at power and sex tourism. And during the "grand tour" in Europe in the 18th and 19th century people travelled to places like Venice. And the idea was to go and learn more about culture. But actually it was a great opportunity for people to be sexually liberated as well. So they couldn't be gay at home, they could do this in Italy. It's also about sex tourism and power. Of course, as you know because of your proximity to Thailand... It's always a power relationship. The powerful have the money to explore their sexual fantasies in far-flung places of the world. So that piece is more like a playful way of exploring that.


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Friday, September 19, 2008

"Hinch? Shame. The rest was horrorshow." (In Nadsat, that means 'good', okay?)

There was an inordinate amount of interest in my notes, tonight. Maybe cos -- technically at least -- I was off-duty. Pity the lap-top packin' critics sittin' around me. K8 from the Herald Sun and Gamer Boy from The Aged. Both had to file copy within an hour of the scheduled end time. Being an opening night, an' all, the curtain was late. (A creditable 15 minutes, but still!)

I've only had to do that once. To file for the next morning's edition. I had to phone a review in, parked in the bourge mobile. Once that was out of the way, I went out dancin'. I heard my review quoted by Neil Mitchell on the way home. (It was a big night!) Anyway, neither of tonight's 'crickets' made an appearance at the after-show party. (Pussies! You missed out badly!)

Anyway, by request, here is the first page of my almost legible notes... and an exegesis of sorts!
"...if you can get a nine week suspension for gobbing in the general vicinity of a member of an opposing team, what do you suppose a bloke should get for spraying all over his leading lady?"



Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt reckons the key to note taking is 'impression' words. I don't entirely agree with her, legibility is my first priority!

"Karaoke music" (the top line) reminds me that the musical accompaniment to Tamsin Carroll's singing in the opener was too too perfect. It didn't sound live.

The second line reads: "Brad's a spitter." (Yes, I even punctuate in the dark. Without looking down. Weird, huh?) So he deserves a bit of a spray, right?

If you can get a nine week suspension for gobbing in the general vicinity of a member of an opposing team, what do you suppose a bloke should get for spraying all over his leading lady? His character's new fiancee no less? How about Hepatitis?! (How dare he spit on Kellie Rode!!) (And, yeah, Kel's playin' a virgin AGAIN!) [I just googled Kellie Rode virgin to locate that last link -- I'm a bit disappointed to discover that this blog ranks 4 -- wot, so low? -- out of three and a bit million.)

The next line? "Hinch -- Shame." The best I can say about Derryn's narration is that he had his lines down, pat. He didn't miss a cue or an entrance. He only lacked a pulse. Any animation at all would have been welcome.

Next line: "Tap - clicktrack." When Columbia (Sharon Millerchip) went tappa tappa tappa across the stage, the audio didn't match up with her footsteps.

The next bit, ahem, is a zygote of a blog post that will probably be thrown out with the embryos for stem cell research and general cloning. I was off on one of my time-warping reminiscences... Thinking back to the first time I saw the Rocky Horror Show at the Johnston Street Teletheatre in the '70s. I wondered how we heard performers, way back when, before integrated circuits and radio microphones... Anyway, the line reads: "Bulge in the pants from cordless mic battery pack."

See, all I really needed to write was bulge in the pants, yeah? But what if I'd lost my notes! Or someone read them. Sometimes you've gotta spell stuff out!

Rocky (Simon Farrow, a stuntman no less!) used his utility belt in the first act. Janet (Kellie Rode) had some bizarro pouch thing hangin' from her bra strap, rear.

Suspension of disbelief in contemporary music theatre (now that's an especially ridiculous concept!!) demands that one ignore cables snaking down spines, bud microphones in headgear, five thousand pieces of clear sticky tape on faces, shoulders, et cetera... Oh, and being able to ignore those goddam bulges.

Idle/Idol thought... the better the performance, the less visible/noticeable the pack. (Rode excepted... there was nowhere to hide!) I don't think I once noticed iOTA's, for example. But before I begin my raving about iO [staggeringly good] and Paul Capsis [as Riff Raff, talk about luxury casting!], a quick line or two from the last page of my notes.

Overheard at the par-tay:

Said (by a woman) to Ouzo-swigging, 26 year-old, mother-of-three dancer with happy teeth [I couldn't make this shit up!]:

"You look sexy. [Pause. Then, matter of factly:] What happened?"

Same mob, later:
Don't party too hard!
As fucken if!
The short version? Great show. (I mean, really, I can't tell you how relieved I am that it was worth a few hours of my time! I missed Criminal Intent for this! LOL) OUT STANDING party. My compliments to the caterers at Comme. I haven't been there since it was Mietta's... Sigh. More ghosts. More stories to tell...


Rocky Horror Show is at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, until the proverbial cows come home.

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Philip Glass on Samuel Beckett

Anecdote time.

Chamber Made Opera and Ariel New Music did a ripper production of The Fall of the House of Usher in 1990, in the newly opened Merlyn Theatre.

In the Melbourne Times, I gushed about the "neo-romantic score... full of drenching melancholy" and reckoned that the overture to the second act was the most "accessible and attractive" music Philip Glass had written since Company.

Many years later one of the production team (who shall remain nameless) who harboured a very special contempt for critics -- or, perhaps, just me -- sneered that Company was written by Sondheim and that, therefore, I was a fucking cretin.

In all that time, the thought never occurred that there might be a piece of music called Company that was not a musical written by Stephen Sondheim.

I confess, the thought that ran through my mind when confronted by this utter ignorance was a line Jacob Bronowski attributes to Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." [Yeah, even my thought bubbles are pretentious!]

Now answering to the rather grander moniker String Quartet #2, Company is Glass at his most -- dare I say -- minimal. Compared to the 747 Jumbo Jet of Einstein on the Beach, Company is a paper plane... a remarkably fine origami paper plane.

Company gets its name from the Samuel Beckett piece it was composed for, as incidental music, in the 1980s.

It's about eight and a half minutes long, as first recorded by Kronos. About half a minute less in the rerecording. (Kronos released a CD which has four of the five numbered quartets. I'm unsure if the music for the film Dracula yet rates as String Quartet #6 or not.)

Along with Einstein, Company is my favourite piece of Glass. (Piece of Glassware?) I used to play it on repeat for hours at a time. The snake chases its tail ever-so-nicely.

Anyway, when I was doing my homework for my interview with Glass -- homework that began at the end of February I might add -- I was delighted to discover that Glass had recently composed music (also recorded by Kronos, so far unreleased I think) for an off-Broadway production of some short plays by Samuel Beckett.

In response to my opening salvo that there was a "desire for desirelessness" throughout his music, Glass brought up the Beckett Shorts production. You Thesps should find this very interesting and controversial!


The reason for that/
In poetry is that/
We can say that/
The origin of/

The inspiration for music is not the language of music itself but the interaction of music with another medium.

Now/
It depends on/
For example, now/
If I were working on a piece of Beckett/
Which I just recently did/
A piece of/
Beckett Shorts/
That was done/
And Misha Baryshnikov was one of the actors/
It was in an off-Broadway set-up in New York/
But it was actually a very nice show/

[It] Was very much as you describe it/
It was very cool/
It was very detached/
But it was Beckett

So/
In other words/
The music came out of that context/
This/
A particular aesthetic which I admire/
Which I've always loved.

And I was looking for a musical -- not analog exactly -- but a kind of a musical response and setting for what was in the play[s].


[There followed a series of machinegun asides in which Glass made reference to movie score after movie score -- the more obscure ones -- to one of his operas, one of his symphonies... and with each mention he'd ask if I had seen or heard the thing. After saying no about five or six times, I finished up interrupting and excusing myself by explaining that my background was performing arts, that I'd seen Twyla Tharp's Company perform In The Upper Room and seen Robert Wilson's production of Einstein on the Beach (TWICE!) and a handful of the operas, seen Bang On A Can do Two Pages [torture!], seen Kronos do Mishima, driven thousands of kilometres to see his own ensemble... then I pleaded that Company was my favourite piece thus bringing him back onto (relatively) safer ground for me...]

[CHRIS BOYD:] SO I WAS DELIGHTED TO HEAR YOU WERE DOING MORE BECKETT...

[Philip Glass:] I work with Beckett when I can. Actually, when he was alive I worked with him a lot. But since he died some years ago, his estate has curtailed the use of music in his works. Even though he himself instructed me about how he wanted it, they claim he didn't have any connection to music which is absolutely nonsense.

So I'm not allowed to do it very often, but very recently I was able to do the one. We got permission. We had to get permission to use music! [laughs] Oh, gosh!

THE ESTATE ATTEMPTED TO CLOSE DOWN A PRODUCTION OF WAITING FOR GODOT IN SYDNEY RECENTLY... BECAUSE THEY DARED TO USE A DRUMMER!

And they claim to be protecting the work and, actually, they're ruining... They're ruining the opportunity for another [generation?] of Beckett lovers to interpret it. And that is the future of any work. The future is not what we do, it's the future work people after us do.

I mean/
Clearly/
They're not gonna be doing exactly what/

Let's not get started/
I'll get more angry!/
I've been the victim of that!

Not only with Beckett, but with Genet, with Brecht, with Kurt Weill... So many of the big estates are trying to rein in everything. And it's just horrible! Anyway, we don't need to talk about that.

That was basically my response to your/
[very slight pause]
I guess it was a question!

THERE WAS A BIT OF A QUESTION MARK AT THE END OF IT!




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Thursday, September 04, 2008

I threw a (latte) glass, darkly...

Knock knock.
Who's there?

Knock knock.
Who's there?

Knock knock.
Who's there?



Philip Glass.


If I had created that joke -- an oldie but a goodie -- it would have been a bit more like this:

Knock knock.
Who's there?

Knock knock. Knock knock.
Who's there?

Knock knock. Knock knock. Knock knock. Knock knock.
Who's there?

[Repeat until utterly utterly exhausted... then work backwards, thus:]

Knock knock. Knock knock. Knock knock. Knock knock.
Who's there?

Knock knock. Knock knock.
Who's there?

Knock knock.
Who's there?


Like Glass attempting to notate the music of Ravi Shankar for western musicians, in Paris in the mid 1960s, writing up an interview with the composer requires that one dispense with the "bar lines" of grammar and punctuation.

The man speaks -- rapid-fire -- in blank arpeggios. (And, it must be said, sometimes brutal ostinatos!!) His speech is as additive as his compositional technique. I've used the slash '/' to denote an a definite fracture. A stop/start. Glass doesn't ever trail off into elipses... The next figure [of speech] follows hard on. But it's more that just a new phrasing. It feels like a completely new motif. A new thought. At the very least, a new take on an old thought.

The first two lines of the following extract, for example, might be read as "I worked with both of them at different times." But that's not how he said it. And not, I feel sure, how he meant it. To me it his speech sounded like trial and error. Or, better, try and re-try.

Here he's speaking about Allen Ginsberg and Leonard Cohen:

I worked with both of them/
At different times/
I worked with Allen for about ten years/
And after he passed away/
Sometime after that/
A 4 5 6 year period elapsed/
Then I began to work with Leonard
And I had/
And they were both connected with Buddhist practices/
So/
Tremendous/
It was/
For me, to work with these two men, who were both so similar/
They were both so very/
Their work has very erotic elements in it/
And one is obviously straight/
The other one is not/
We know who/
Which is which/

[Here, I interject with an "indeed we do!"]

But if you start with/
For me, as a composer, to work with these two men/
Who barely knew each other by the way/
They had met but they didn't really know each other/
But I knew them both very well/
I still know Leonard/
But to work with them/
And for me/
I was able to/
Let's say/
contemplate the similarities and differences between them.

See what I mean about transcription? Compressing this into "I knew them both very well... I was able to contemplate the similarities and differences between them..." would be downright dishonest!

I've got a big piece on Glass in this weekend's Financial Review, by the way.

We had an intense and rather compressed telephone conversation a few days ago, in the wee hours of Sunday morning my time. It was rather like slugging down a ristretto (or two) in the middle of the night. It left me bug-eyed.

I'll post more off-cuts soon. Prime off-cuts they are, too!



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