Eva Kotatkova’s ‘The Storyteller Inadequacy’ may have stolen the show this winter at Modern Art Oxford, but the quiet and colourful Piper Gallery houses one of the most important shows that the gallery has seen in recent years. “Charting the complete graphic design history of the gallery, this exhibition is a photographic trompe l’oeil of around 400 unique posters from the Modern Art Oxford archive,” reads the description.
Modern Art Oxford has been a prominent space both in Oxford and in the national art scene since it was founded in 1965. Notice! is a record of the hundreds of experimental and extremely influential exhibitions that have taken place at Pembroke Street and earlier at the Bear Lane Gallery. Making use of the 500 rare and original posters in its archives, the exhibit tracks changes in exhibition – making over the last 50 years charting progress in layout, branding, political undertones and graphic design.
To create the piece, the posters (all originals taken from the archives) were fixed to the walls of the Piper Gallery and photographed in order to create a floor- to-ceiling representation of the posters in their actuality. The historicity of these posters is brought to light and made very real, as some posters are exhibited with their slight creases or with their corners captured rolling upwards as they slowly unfurl from the wall, leaving small squares of Blu-Tack visible behind.
The effect is a very honest and vast floor- to-ceiling display, capturing the essential vibrancy of these pieces of ‘art-marketing.’ On first glance the chronological ordering of the room is vaguely apparent. Most obviously, the recent posters of the noughties are much more regimented in size and framing, in comparison to the earliest pieces, being more heavily and consistently branded. Conversely, the mainly artist-created posters of the 60s vary in size, layout, and information given. The handmade quality of these early pieces is extraordinary, yet in some cases the details of the exhibition are not provided, granting a spontaneous, abstract vibe.
The movement from the ‘60s and ‘70s posters towards the corporate branding of the ‘80s is clear as the museum logo makes an appearance and the use of technology and graphic design become more apparent. The ‘90s see further technological advances and the ‘branding’ extends from the museum to a more clearly brand-focussed ‘artist’ also.
The artist is still at the foreground of the poster but in a very different way.Their artwork is still displayed but the focus shifts more towards the advertisement and marketing of the artist alongside that of the museum- dual layers of marketing and branding within one piece.
Political undertones are evident within the posters. A series of four posters from the ‘80s are presented. They are particularly text heavy and encompass the style of pieces of propaganda as the content of these range from Russian politics to World War Two. These were thepiecesthatweremostfascinating. Great names of British and worldwide art were evident- Tracey Emin’s ‘This is Another Place’ and Robert Doisneau’s exhibitions wowed me, and seeing names from Pasternak to Noel Forster, Gillian Ayres and Jenny Saville hugging the walls was quite astounding.
Most interesting however was viewing these names presented alongside the above propaganda-style pieces, one of which stated: “Whilst the world listened to HIFI from Japan, a museum tuned into art.” Also prominent were two posters for 1988 exhibitions of photography from the height of the AIDS crisis.
This celebration of art history and the history of Modern Art Oxford is displayed in an unimaginable way – one which has local pull and importance and which allows these pieces to speak honestly. The posters are grouped simply as pieces from an extensive and dusty archive, but the stories that they tell span tragedy, greatness and an international art history.
Notice! Is at Modern Art Oxford until the 2nd of February 2014.
As we move tentatively further into 2014, those unsure as to what the new year will have in store would do well to get themselves down to the V&A, where new year’s is being heralded in with two remarkable, contemporary exhibitions, Jameel Prize 3 and Elmgreen & Dragset’s Tomorrow.
On the surface there is little to connect these two shows. The Jameel Prize exposition celebrates the work of modern-day artists inspired by traditional Islamic arts and crafts. Tomorrow is a walk-through piece, pondering the futility of wealth, and the excess and nausea of western living, from the team that produced Death of a Collector. What links these very different exhibitions is their sheer modernity – these are glimpses of the here-and-now, snapshots of the world as it enters its “two thousandth and fourteenth year”.
As for what those snapshots show us, Tomorrow conjures up a bleak state of affairs. The experience is, in fact, less a glimpse than extended voyeurism, as we are invited to pore over the house and possessions of the fictional architect Norman Swann, on the brink of selling up the grand family home he can no longer maintain. Elmgreen & Dragset calculate their details perfectly, from the medicine tablets on the slick mahogany dressing table, to the drip that has found its way through the elaborate plastered ceilings, the Dominos boxes that clutter the corner of the pristine stainless steel kitchen – and the sad little union jack, nesting limply beside a news cutting on riots in Cameron’s Britain. The piece precisely skewers so many of the realities of modern western living: the co-existence of beauty and craftsmanship with cheap, mass consumption, the inability of wealth to protect from the frailty of ageing, the fear of a world where power is changing.
Norman could be a one-man metaphor for Europe, living amidst an inherited and unsustainable wealth, and while we might goggle at the so many unnecessary luxuries – (my favourite was a five foot wide oil portrait of a spaniel) – it is impossible not to feel for Norman as he is made to yield them. Walking through the house, it is as if we are prospective buyers, forcing the old man out with our very tread, or tourist spectators (as, indeed, in a way we are) gawping for our passing amusement at what was once a way of life. There is also the added sense of the morbid fascination with which we pick over disaster stories and tales of the downfall of the rich. Whatever its title, Tomorrow is a complex and disconcerting view of living today.
Jameel Prize 3, featuring works from ten different artists, is more varied in outlook, but its contemporary thrust is the same. Many of the pieces consider the rapid changes of a globalised world, such as Faig Ahmed’s traditional carpet designs with their intricate, ordered patterns collapsing in one corner, and Mounir Fatmi’s dizzying video installation, all movement and chaos. Laurent Mareschal’s drawings made from spices share and evoke the transient nature of the burgeoning street art scene; while Pascal Zoghbi’s experiments with Arabic typography, refashioning it into both poppy, commercial fonts, and sloganish spray-paint ones, seem to nod to the dual pressures of capitalism and the more socialist ideals of the Arab Spring, which are now vying in the Middle East. Change is the defining ethos of the show, and – for these artists certainly – the defining spirit of our times.
The Arab world in vertiginous change, Europe in slow defeat – two visions of the world in 2014. It is well worth making the trip to the V&A to see them, uncomfortable viewing as they may sometimes be.
PHOTO/Victoria & Albert Museum
In 2013, we were provided with plenty of fresh evidence supporting the adage, “sex sells”. Miley Cyrus’s seemingly ceaseless twerking and gyrating, for example, helped her album “Bangerz” achieve the year’s biggest album sales week for a woman, while the song and video for “Blurred Lines” vaulted a 36-year-old Robin Thicke, who had been toiling away in near obscurity since the mid-1990s, into our collective cultural consciousness. Two recent exhibitions at the Musee d’Orsay and the British Museum contributed eroticized bodies to further stoke the fires of our desire.
Masculine/Masculine: The Nude Man in Art from 1800 to the Present Day, which opened on Sept. 24 at the Musee d’Orsay, featured plenty of depictions of sensual male flesh for visitors’ contemplation. Male genitalia abounded, either coyly covered in wisps of cloth or on full view, prompting one woman when I visited to loudly proclaim that the exhibition was “positively pornographic”. Works such as the celebrated classical masterpiece the Barberini faun, with his invitingly spread legs and head thrown back suggestively, however, show that “pornography”, with its dismissive, pejorative associations, is an inapposite term to apply to the works of this exhibition, in which the male form is celebrated both for its erotic and more purely aesthetic associations.
The art at the D’Orsay, however, looked positively prim compared to the pieces in the British Museum’s exhibition, Shunga: sex and humour in Japanese Art, 1600-1900. Shunga, in the form of paintings, prints, and illustrated books with text, are sexually explicit, with frank, graphic depictions of sexual intercourse. Featuring a wide variety of male-male and male-female interactions, the works in the exhibition, according to the museum, promoted societal values “generally positive toward sexual pleasure for all participants”, as evidenced by the numerous depictions of both male and female orgasms. The light-hearted images of, for example, a cat batting the testicles of an otherwise-engaged man, furthermore, suggest an integration of sex into broader society, culture, and, in particular, art; while the images are sexually explicit, their meticulous compositions and attention to detail made them prized, celebrated possessions, regarded as suitable gifts for brides or official foreign visitors.
Both exhibitions are undoubtedly attempts to increase the cultural relevance of the two venerable institutions and to appeal to a demographic more familiar with Beyonce than Bonnard. On this front, they have been wildly successful: according to museum figures, Masculine/Masculine attendance was triple that for a show at the same time last year, and the Shunga show, which was sold-out its opening weekend in early October, was packed when I visited in mid-December.
The exhibitions, however, do not simply copy the depictions of sex and sexuality found in popular culture. Music videos and television shows worryingly feeds us the same tired model of sexuality again and again, in which young women, and particularly nonwhite women, are relentlessly objectified for heterosexual male consumption. The D’Orsay and the British Museum trade the trite images of Miley Cyrus slapping black women’s bums and rappers ogling strippers for a wide range of sexual models, featuring men and women of various ages, ethnicities, and sexual preferences exercising agency. What these exhibitions, and their incredible success, show is not so much society’s appetite for “pornography” as its hunger for more nuanced, varied, and honest depictions of human sexuality.
One theatre group, two nights, six plays. Almost Random Theatre (ART) is barely twenty months old and has begun 2014 with a stomping start. On offer were six brand new pieces: four from the winners and runners-up of two playwriting competitions two plays by ART founder and producer Chris Sivewright.
Sivewright’s School Assembly explores the twisting suffocations of jealousy and the drive for revenge. A teacher (Paul Barrand) discovers that his close friend and colleague (Simon Donahue) has had an affair with his wife. Despite unpersuasive advice to ‘keep things private’ from a headmistress (Angela Myers) desperate to avoid bad publicity, confrontation takes place and, as the play ends, it seems that so too has disaster. Paul Barrand captures ferociously the fuming agonies of a man who feels himself wronged, his body shaking in furious tension throughout. Some strange moments of script (no man genuinely devastated at the infidelity of his wife would make a bad pun about another man ‘popping in’ to her body) didn’t prevent the play from being thoughtful about the gap between appearance and conduct, although it could have been subtler, showing more and telling less.
Next up was Lisa Nicoll’s Poedunk, a black comedy in which a fourteen-year-old girl visits a psychiatrist who seems to have problems far worse than hers. The joy of this play was all in the words, with frenzied moments unfolding at perfect pitch. Ellen Publicover’s Pippi is marvellous: frantic, overthinking, self-torturing, and yet also self-empowering, determined to prove that she can make life better. Her delivery was superbly matched by Victor Ptak’s Dr Igor Harvatz. This 20-minute play has a clever twist and an interesting storyline, but what really shone through was a talent for expression that belonged to script and actors alike.
Monday’s final play, just 10-minutes long, was Pool Boy, by Edwin Preece. Although the most modest—minimal props, no flashy lighting, cast of two, action grounded in dialogue—this was also the sharpest of the Monday plays. The script is eerie, and smart, lulling the audience into the complacent sense that they have guessed the denouement, only completely to surprise them in the play’s final moments. Both actors (Soraya I-Ting and Marcus Davis-Orrom) mastered their roles, manipulating well the economy of the script.
Tuesday began Chris Sivewright’s second offering, Transformation. This play felt more sincere than School Assembly, if less coherent. Schoolgirl Emily (Rachel Eireann) is doing a school-project on well-being and has asked her grandfather (Richard Ward) for help—although it doesn’t seem that she actually needs it, given that when he is talking she tends to spend most of her time texting her friends or frowning in boredom. The relationship between the pair could have done with a little more honing: Emily spends so much time huffing or ignoring her grandfather that the closeness the storyline needs to claim for them isn’t quite believable. He seems charming, she obnoxious. The play seems more about the ills of modern life than anything else, which makes grandpa’s plea to be kept involved in the changing times sound disingenuous. And of course, ultimately, it is grandpa who shows Emily that he knows what it is to have a good time.
Jonathan Skinner’s Kind is a consummately structured piece, and my favourite of the shows. Six short scenes show the turning of fortune’s wheel as rich Richard and penniless Penny swap places. Dick wants the homeless Penny off his posh pavement and even gives her a tenner to disappear. But the two become acquaintances. The play’s plot is obvious early on, and it is part of the play’s strength that it remains absorbing even though we know how it will end. Penny (played gloriously by Rachel Eireann) seems to be one of life’s winners, even when her luck is low; her way of looking at things transcends that of the naïve young girl. Richard (Simon Donahue), on the other hand, is miserable even when things seem good and one can’t help worrying as the play ends that, unlike Penny, he won’t be able to leave homelessness behind him. Perhaps the play isn’t about kindness so much as life-attitude.
Ian Fletcher’s The Trinity ended the ART sextet. A 10-minute play about three criminals who want to become super-villains, the play explores friendship and ambition, suggesting that both are doomed to failure. The play had elements that provoked thought but would have benefited from more development. There are three major scenes and each of them seemed too short to merit the emotional significance attached to them by the dialogue. The friendship test isn’t successfully realised as momentous because the close friendship we hear the characters profess has not been exhibited. Whether this is a problem of direction or just that the play could do with being longer is a question that deserves attention, for there are seeds of potential interest here. A little more care and nourishment may bring them to fruit.
Almost Random Theatre is random. The plays range in quality and success, but all of them are innovative and energetic, and the joy the company takes in performing them is manifestly evident. Each of these plays is brand new and it’s marvellous to see a theatre company so open to fresh talent and creativity. Even better is that, for all the ‘everyone’s got a shot’ ethos, quality doesn’t suffer and all of the playwrights, with all of their actors, deserve thorough applause. Most of all though, ART is to be celebrated. This is an initiative that will continue to gather strength.
With the announcement of the Golden Globe winners this year, the media inevitably splashes out in stories from the most mundane repetition of the winners, to the painfully more mundane Daily Mail ‘scoop’ that ‘Jennifer Lawrence was thrashed the night before the Golden Globes’. As the awards are shared and spread, actors, producers, and those other people who get awarded during the interval for bizarre things like sound editing, rejoice in the recognition. Then the moment is gone, and they all gear up for the Oscar nominations.
Since the early post-war period, the circle of cinema-making has been dictated and defined by this period. Any film intending to be considered as a serious and self-aware creation has had to ensure it is released in the period of consideration for the Oscars, and preferably not win Best Drama at the Globes. Because, when journalists agree too much, they go on to realise they may be wrong.
What does not seem to be questioned as thoroughly as perhaps it should be is: why have such institutions been awarded with the ubiquitous voice of cinema? In fact, it seems difficult to recall them ever winning an award in their own right – it is ironic to think they have never been acknowledged by their own system of worth-attachment.
Rather than launching into the question of whether we should, at all, try to create any omniscient measure of cinematic quality, let us turn to the organisations themselves.
The Golden Globe award is given by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. This organisation was founded by foreign journalists, based in Los Angeles, trying to raise the profile of overseas markets for cinema amid the turmoil of the Second World War. The group was originally led by none other than the British correspondent for the Daily Mail.
The original intention, therefore, was not at all focused on cinema, or the art of picture-making. It was an attempt to improve the marketing strategy of Hollywood films abroad via access to top-end celebrities for interviews in local papers around the world.
Today, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association annually selects up to five journalists to join their prestigious ranks, and boasts a combined readership of over 250 million. In essence, these people are influential enough to have ensured these films are given a certain level of praise before they even reach the stage of award-giving. The fact these journalists are influential enough, however, seems somewhat counter intuative to the process of award giving. Namely, the worth of an award stands quite aside from a local newspaper review offering praise in the Telegraph. Yet, given the structure of the organisaiton, as nothing more than a conglomerate of those very same people behind the Telegraph, Le Figaro and Vogue reviews, the Golden Globes acknowledge nothing more than the fact several important people may have enjoyed the film.
Rather than necessarily encouraging film quality, and the death of the contrived rom-com (probably featuring Jennifer Aniston), the Golden Globes is a celebration of influence. The award ceremony is a ploy, initiated by journalists, to demonstrate the weight of their own opinion that will (in an ironically metaphysical twist) then be discussed even further in the media. It is media-led influence driving influencing media.
The films themselves are perhaps excellent, at times dire, but all in all perfectly acceptable. What they are certainly not is the life changing experiences suggested by the titles Golden Globe and Oscar.
Diane Keaton, for instance, accepted Woody Allan’s award for a lifetime achievement in writing, producing, and directing films, by noting that “Woody Allan films have changed the way we think about life.” Yes, somewhere between solving global warming and offering a military strategy for the colonisation of Antartica, Woody Allen films have also had me completely reconsider my epistemological conceptions of the world. So shaken was I, at the sight of Midnight in Paris, that I began to think of life not as the historically chronological and ordered thing that it is, but as the magically lyrical paradigm where people and events occur for my cinematic convenience. It’s done me wonders, really.
The more Golden Globes we hand out, the more we restrain cinema-makers to this seemingly inescapable globe of golden showbiz and loud noise. In fact, the best reaction a filmmaker could ever provoke is a simple, still, heavy, and thoughtful silence.
FEATURED PHOTO/ jdeeringdavis
It is the plight of the reviewer that, even as you sit and watch a film universally praised by critics, at times you actively seek out a flaw; something that nudges it away from perfection, almost to the extent that you lose focus on the rest of the film. But in the case of 12 Years A Slave you simply have to give up looking for that flaw – Steve McQueen has taken Solomon Northup’s powerful, seminal first-hand account and turned it into a piece of cinematic mastery.
Northup’s tale is one that typifies yet transcends the historical context in which it was written. Many comparisons have been made with Anne Frank’s diary, as the protagonist, tricked into slavery, is led across numerous plantations, encountering torture, abuse and cruelty at the hand of numerous oppressors.
12 Years a Slave represents a progression, an apotheosis for McQueen. 2008′s Hunger and 2011′s Shame were haunting, artistic visions of humanity, crafting emaciated or sexually distraught figures leading claustrophobic, tragic lives. The stories had an inevitability to them. What McQueen does in the case of 12 Years is to use that same physical degradation, depicted expertly by Chiwetel Ejiofor, but place it in a vast, expansive, yet terribly human canvas. The ability to recreate the claustrophobia of Bobby Sands or the mental plight of Brandon’s hypersexuality is no longer the central focus for McQueen but instead these techniques are purely nuances in a true story. One scene depicts this expertly – Northup’s realisation of his original incarceration is done in a black room, a solitary beam of light given to him as he comes to understand his life has been stripped away. Only moments before, we had warm, coloured bulbs juxtaposed with opulent dining, to be replaced by an atonal, empty atmosphere.
McQueen is unflinching in his imagery, true to the original piece. We are not spared the brutality of Fassbender’s Epps, nor the repercussions this has both on Northup but also on young female slave Patsey, played by an incredible Lupita Nyong’o. Her role is a fulcrum for a large part of the film, with much of the tragedy of the story resting with her and the experiences she is forced to cope with. Late on in the film this reaches a head, and as a viewer you are forced to flinch with the whip crack, expecting the camera to cut away and give you some small sense of relief. The moment simply never comes – instead the harrowing, underlying truth remains, for many this pain was first hand and unending. Camera movements are frenetic, panning close to the faces of Ejiofor then Nyong’o in turn, alighting eventually on Fassbender’s hateful, rage-filled expression as he continues to abuse this young, innocent woman.
Every character is three-dimensional, intricate and woven into Northup’s arduous trials. Even Benedict Cumberbatch’s plantation owner Ford, whilst seemingly mild by the standards of some of his counterparts, is still a man made rich by the exploitation and subjugation of a race, and we are forced, rightly, never to forget that. It is impossible to examine the film without taking on board its proximity to award season – one likely to commend the principle cast as well as McQueen’s talents. But it will not rest on these laurels alone. 12 Years a Slave represents not only an artistic masterpiece, but a long overdue examination of the monstrous qualities and capacities of a seemingly developed, human civilization less than two centuries ago.
PHOTOS// ufvscade, lassothemovies
The Ruskin School of Art has received permission for a new building in East Oxford.
The school is currently split between its main site on the High Street and an existing building on the site it plans to redevelop, just off Cowley Road.
This centre, which contains digital and printmaking facilities, will be rebuilt to almost twice its current size.
According to planning officer Fiona Bartholomew, the new site will “represent a significant upgrading of the site’s educational and associated facilities, the structural quality of the buildings on the site, and the external appearance of the site.”
“The integration of the scheme with the street scene will contribute positively to making this a better, more inclusive place for students and the local community.”
A planning committee of the City Council unanimously agreed to the plans at a meeting on Wednesday. Bartholomew dismissed suggestions that the development would harm the area.
“The proposals will not result in unacceptable harm to the amenities of adjacent and nearby residential and commercial properties,” she said in a report to the committee.
“The loss of the ancillary flat is justified by the benefits to the local community of the consolidation and continued presence of the School at this location and the cultural opportunities it offers to the local community.”
Angeli Bhose, a first-year Fine Art student at Queen’s, said she was “really looking forward” to the new development.
“The current building is a such a great space and we love working in it, but it is falling apart a bit. It seems like the new development has been designed to still be a proper big, communal studio space which can be worked into and won’t feel too new and untouchable,” she said.
“I’m really looking forward to the extra space and seeing the potential for showing and making work in all the new facilities.”
Ever feel like the only ignoramus in a roomful of culture aficionados? If you can’t be a buff, learn to bluff…
Need To Know
• Early twentieth-century art movement that began in the early 1900s and lasted only a few short years. Characterised by an emphasis on painterly qualities and bold colour palettes, with highly simplified and abstract subject matters.
• “See this brush work! Andre, you wild beast! Simply Deranged.”
• “This shadow, rather blue, paint it with pure ultramarine; these red leaves? Put in vermilion. Actually don’t, that looks shit.”