Having never been to the Burton Taylor before, I’ll admit to finding the intimacy of the place slightly confronting. Especially since for the opening night of Yesterday, a musical with an all-female cast (well, a cast of three) there were a fair few empty seats.
As the lights dimmed, I still had high hopes though. Yesterday had first come onto my radar when I’d seen a rehearsal video for Vulture Sessions of the cast singing ‘Here in this room’. It had promised exciting new student-written theatre and some great music. And at its best, this innovative production gave just that.
Whoever cast Yesterday got it bang on. The cast all have cracking voices and suited their roles perfectly. Yesterday tells the story of three women connected through their relationships with one man, the elusive Alex, whom we never meet. As his manically over-protective and unstable mother Julia, Georgia Figgis gave a powerful performance, able to switch from raging manipulation to expose a more fragile and cracked core beneath. Joanna Connolly plays Sally, the wife from America whose life is thrown into disarray when she meets Alex in a smoky Soho bar. Hated by Julia and conflicted both about her feelings for her husband and his feelings towards her, Connolly gave a moving and poignant performance. Last but not least, with a voice that could melt in your mouth, Jemimah Taylor perfectly captured the gradual corruption of youthful hope and innocence of Anna, a girl who becomes Alex’s lover.
This show came to life in the moments where all three women sang together. I wish there’d been more of them. The problem with Yesterday as a piece of innovative theatre is that it doesn’t quite hang together. Clearly there’s talent in the writing and music: just take a listen to ‘Here in this room’ which I hummed cheerfully as I cycled home. But it wasn’t all quite as good. Perhaps my main objection was the format itself. Described as a ‘musical in three halves’, Yesterday is really a series of songs, more often than not solos, connected by soft jazz. I wanted more interaction between the characters and more development: I wasn’t convinced I knew the characters at the end all that much better than when I met them at the beginning.
Undeniably lyricist Katie Hale and composer Stephen Hyde have some interesting and original ideas. The prominence of the drums, their rhythm a means to determine time and space in the intertwined timelines, was intriguing. With no set at all I liked the idea of defining place through the music. Certainly it captured the ebb and flow of London, but (and maybe I just lacked the imagination) I wasn’t quite transported to the capital.
Yesterday is an experiment that doesn’t quite deliver the perfect product. But it’s got a stellar cast and flashes of real potential and creativity from the writers. In fact, I think I’m still humming away…
Photo: dennis crowley
If you google Liu Bolin, the results will largely celebrate the playful colour and amusement of his work. Bolin’s recent international success has centred explicitly on just that, ignoring or failing to realise the darker socio-political implications of his creative assertion of erased identity.
In fact, Bolin’s first use of the ‘invisible man’ was an act of silent protest. He disguised himself within the demolished scene of his former Beijing studio, destroyed by the Chinese government to prevent artists living and working together. The photo asserts his invisible but persistent presence and identity in the face of suppression. Other earlier works demonstrate equivalent acts of protest on behalf of the individual against the overbearing dominance of the Chinese government. Bolin calls attention to multiple cases where individual autonomy is erased by state authority: in family planning and lawful election, through the propaganda of the National People’s Congress, and in the individual fates of workers affected by artificial changes from a communist to a market economy.
What’s remarkable about Bolin’s photographs is their lack of digital retouching. He and his team hand-paint his face, body, and clothes to artificially conceal him within his chosen surroundings, making him at once part of, and distinct from, the scene, using the modest means of the traditional artist. The act of making himself invisible through art in reality emphasises his presence, and seeing through his invisible body offers a new perspective on the scene behind. Bolin’s invisible man represents all men, and the communities of men, women, and children he develops in later works symbolize the myriad communities of China that are uniformly silenced. Likewise, the warlike connotations of camouflage are not accidental; aesthetic camouflage emphasises how the conformity of the individual is enforced by the combative power of the military state.
Bolin’s work engages not just with China but on a global level, integrating the burdened presence of the Chinese individual with the contradictions and problems of other societies. Assorted photographs from his oeuvre address war in the Middle East, memories of 9/11, the threat of rising sea levels to water-based cities and communities. Bolin even goes so far as to probe the ancient world of Pompeii, creating a dialogue with classical civilisation that draws parallels with his own society. The more light-hearted of his works nevertheless play a part in his purposeful vision; backgrounds of instant noodles and mobile phones function as trademark displays of Chinese cultural identity that are at once part of but distinct from the fabric of commonplace existence.
Liu Bolin’s spectacular photographs are basically a lesson in perspective, asking viewers to search for the concealed rather than the externally obvious amidst familiar scenes. His work gives voice and presence to the communities at risk of becoming marginalised within the force of China’s cultural domination. As a globally recognised Chinese artist, it is important that Bolin’s work is understood fully for its promotion of individual identity, only then can it perform its function in representing and articulating a multitude that compel acknowledgement.
“We’re all so mauled by information, but it’s recycled information. We need to shut it out. So, you’ve got to get bizarre. This is an artist’s purpose – to break away from the recycled. Performance art can do that.” (Jack Bowman) Breaking away from the recycled was exactly the theme of Ruskin Shorts 2015. Ruskin Shorts is an annual event which has been running for several years, and this was the first year the competition was based on performance art. The acts were strikingly innovative, even disturbing. We began with a show of extraordinary clothing designed to fit multiple people, by Mirren Kessling, and Mark Mindel, making a potion under a sheet with a haystack printed on it. The audience then proceeded downstairs to witness Simon Raven perform a strange busking act, using the sounds of a silver egg pregnancy charm, a slide whistle, a camera flash, and a novelty barrel orgab to echo the chimes of the ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxford. This was followed by a hilarious diaristic reading by George McGoldrick, a skype call by Angeli Bhose in avatar form, a clinical description of a series of unconscious bodies discovered after the allegations of chemical weapon use in Syria, and finally the serenading of an ‘iProp’ by Hannah Catherine Jones. Each brought into question a particular cultural norm through a brilliant mixture of soothing entertainment and unnerving absurdity, but especially probing was the work of Angeli Bhose. I spoke to her about her performance:
What was your performance and how did the idea come about?
For my performance, I took on the role of a character, Mystical Phistical. She is a yoga teacher, Watercolour Palm Tree Artist and the Ruskin School of Art’s first Visiting Digital Student (VDS). She is an avatar or character who I have been “working with”. Her yoga company has recently been bought up by oil giant Haliburton, and she’s also beginning to exhibit and sell her paintings on the side. Performing as her, I skyped our friend and fellow artist Elaine Ang to catch up, and discuss how ideas around commercialisation, collaboration with “unethical” companies, copyright, and artists’ labour are affecting us. The idea was that the audience would be almost awkwardlyspying on a loaded conversation, but also drawn close by a discussion of problems which affect all who live, work and distribute content in this contemporary context.
Why did you choose to engage with social media specifically?
Social media has become a central part of how we communicate and relate to each other. To me, it’s really important to find in artworks themes, materials and mediums that we deal with every day and to discuss how they might be affecting us. Social media has created new platforms for expression, but also as a storage space for personal information which can be used to target advertising and make us more likely to buy things which fit with our personal brand. Skype is a rare application where the information we input cannot be used in this way yet, so I felt it could be used to create a more open space for this discussion of issues in art and production. Elaine and I also Skype regularly anyway, and end up talking about many things which were discussed in the performance, so it felt honest and appropriate to use the same platform as we do other times we are “in dialogue”.
How does performance art compare with other forms of art?
As a medium, it has a directness of expression that feels unique. During a performance, a tension often descends on the room, and creates an atmosphere of concentration. This allows the artist to hold the attention of an audience member in a way that may not be possible if they were wondering through a gallery space, glancing at works, or walking past public outdoors work, for example. To me, it feels like a special platform where a relationship can be forged between the artist and the viewer through reciprocal concentration, presence and engagement, permitting a more open conversation.
What’s your opinion on the work of the other performance artists at Ruskin Shorts 2015?
I felt that overall it was a fantastic event. The range of performances was interesting to see, and the whole thing felt energetic and exciting. Foxymoron’s aria created by translating the code of a documentation photograph into Italian and singing it was dense, comic and transformative. Mark Mindel’s performance as some sort of creature making a potion out of beer and temporary tattoos whilst hidden by a printed blanket was enveloping, tense and careful. We were very lucky to have a full house and I really hope people keep coming to the Ruskin Shorts to see what’s going on in and around the Ruskin.
In a record-breaking transaction this February, Paul Gauguin’s 1892 painting ‘When Will You Marry?’ was sold for as much as US$300 million. To put it in perspective, that’s around three times as much as the British nation raised for Comic Relief this year, or ten times Oxford City Council’s 2015 budget. Something in all of us can’t help but wretch at such an obscenely large amount of money being spent on the private acquisition of a ‘trophy piece’ of visual display when both the money and the painting could be better deployed elsewhere. We all know that the true value of art lies not in its monetary tag, and that the ‘success’ of an artist cannot be gauged by the price paid for their work. Yet we continue to allow art to be priced, bought and sold like any other commodity, make our society’s artists compete for commissions and sales to earn a living in the capitalist marketplace and permit ‘wealthy’ individuals to buy and ‘own’ a work of art that they have not created themselves. In short, we are allowing art to be subsumed by capitalism.
The real value of art lies in its ability to inspire and enthuse the viewer, listener or reader. A good artist transforms a palette of external colours, sounds or words into a spectrum of internal emotions by conveying, as the philosopher Clive Bell put it, a ‘significant form’ or meaningful arrangement to their audience. The ultimate aim may be to convey or portray a particular message or scene or simply to engineer aesthetic beauty through visual, aural or verbal patterns and shapes. Each one of us will experience a work of art in our own way and draw different but equally valuable meanings from the feat of human creativity we behold. Roland Barthes held that the writer – and the same might be said of the painter, sculptor or composer – is not the ‘author-God’ of their own work, but merely an intermediary channel through which the culture and society of which they are part speaks to itself in the form an audience that, through their own interpretation, actively participates in the creative process.
In this sense, the most ‘valuable’ art is that with which the public most engages, which means that it must not only be emotionally significant in and of itself but also be accessible to a large number of people. That’s where the problem of ‘ownership’ of art comes in. In a capitalistic world in which each person’s ‘success’ is gauged by the size of their bank account, the wealthy can buy the right to choose whether to keep a work of art for their private friends or show it to the public, in either case showing off their own wealth and superiority.
Works of art can be reproduced of course, and it is through copies of the original recordings and manuscripts that music, film and literature are generally experienced. But here, too, capitalism has art in chains. In the capitalist world, writers, performers and producers are not automatically provided with the money or resources they need to live on the basis of their contribution to our collective culture and enjoyment of life. Instead they must continually prove their worth through the fickle measure of sales to a ‘consuming’ public. The result is that we are brow-beaten into listening to particular songs or watching particular reels by music and film industries that greedily employ their own art of mind-moulding marketing and fickle persuasion to ‘sell’ their commissions to the general public. But if that public dares encourage that art to flourish by sharing it freely with their friends and neighbours, they risk being hauled into court for breaching copyright laws.
This control of art by neither the artist nor the audience but by intermediary profit-driven corporations demonstrates without a doubt the stranglehold upon our culture that capitalism exerts. The need to make money out of art assaults the freedom of the artist by constraining them to move upon a plane of convention and proven saleability that satisfies their corporate masters but undermines the quality of their expressions. The ability of the disgustingly rich to squander their unjustifiable wealth upon privatised paintings in denial of the cooperative pleasure that could be achieved through public ownership is a further symptom of this capitalist drive towards the pursuit of individual success at the expense of equality and collective prosperity. The distinction between the ‘High Art’ media of the rich and well-educated and the ‘Low Art’ of the television-opiated masses serves as a powerful indication of the excruciating lack of equality of education, aspiration and power that ails our society today. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, it is this distinction between different artistic media that conveys a profound message. Society is in crisis, and capitalism is to blame.
PHOTO/ Jonny White
Born at the end of the 17th century into a period of growing social inequality, William Hogarth’s engravings and paintings are one of the best insights we have into the people’s world of the early Georgian period.
Hogarth’s work is more than outwardly critical of the society in which he lives. Each of his engravings is intricately done, with minute details adding yet more context to the face-value story they’re telling.
And, of course, it’s the story-telling which makes Hogarth’s pieces so memorable. The Rake’s Progress, perhaps his best known piece, is remarkable for the way in which not just a man’s life, but the strata of society, is conveyed through just eight images. Tom – the anti hero of the cycle – journeys from middle class comfort to the gaudy excess of the New Moneyed elite before tumbling downwards the debtors prison and, finally, Bedlam.
No section of society escapes the harsh wit of Hogarth’s brush. In his world, the rich are vapid, the poor wretched, and the protagonists unlikable. In The Harlot’s Progress, a precursor to The Rake’s Progress, a priest passes by on his horse while an innocent Moll (soon to become the titular Harlot) is inspected by a brothel-keeper and a pimp. Even the clergy are objects of ridicule in this step beyond the normal into the absurd, and every detail of the world has been scrupulously created, down to Moll’s date of death inscribed on her coffin, noting the age of this “old woman” – 23.
Hogarth’s social world also gives us an insight into the rich diversity overtaking London. Forget the white-washed façade you’re probably imagining. Looking into the engravings, there are African prisoners, Jewish merchants, syphilitic prostitutes and French dancing masters, showing off a rich tapestry of characters coming from a distinctly London-centric artist. There’s glorious chaos in almost all of Hogarth’s pictures of the lower classes, painting a world for his wider audience which speaks of a city expanding as they begin to reach further across the globe.
And all the time, he’s doing this with his audience in mind. Hogarth’s paintings are more than simply critical of the world he lives in. They’re deeply satirical. As well as commentating on the state of things as they are – and Gin Lane, perhaps his most famous painting, showing a mother so intoxicated by gin that she throws her baby into the river whilst laughing manically – doesn’t just comment on the poor who were driven to cheap alcohol. It’s also a comment on the demonization of these same poor, particularly by the wealthy, who viewed them not just as another class, but as another species. When he draws an image of Moll the prostitute, sat on her bed aging and syphilitic, he does so in resemblance of the Annunciation of Christ. No object is sacred from Hogarth’s scathing brush, least of all established religion.
His work also turns towards the upper-middle and elite classes, especially in London. In Marriage a-la-mode, our two protagonists have entered into an arranged marriage in which they both engage in a purely superficial version of “love” masked by the fripperies of velvet and lace. In true Hogarth style, the story soon takes a dark turn, with the wife’s lover murdering her husband and the subsequent suicide of the widowed wife. Pretty grim. But also a morality tale with a clear message to the observer: don’t get caught up in money and material goods, not when it comes at the expense of true feeling. That’s some deep stuff, direct from the pen of the 18th century’s artist of choice. But it’s not all Protestant work ethic and rejection of the trappings of middle class life. Check out some of Hogarth’s jokes hidden in the plain sight: in the scene Shortly After Marriage in Marriage-a-la-mode, the wife’s spread legs underneath her broad skirt indicate that someone’s been enjoying at least some of the advantages that marriage can bring.
The first true social commentator and satirist, Hogarth was an artist who worked everything around him into his pictures and engravings. To look at his work is to get a glimpse into the complicated world of early 18th century London, to walk in the streets and hide behind the velvet curtains of a wealthy family’s drawing room. Hogarth’s work was characterised by its biting social commentary, and even today we can maybe learn something from looking at ourselves through the lenses of another world.
IMAGE/ Wikipedia Foundation
Linda Nochlin, in her 1988 book Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, asks, “Why are there no great female artists?” The answer is that we are looking in the wrong places. Rather than unearthing unappreciated women artists from history, or rediscovering forgotten female painters, “ the question involves shifting the ground slightly and asserting, as some contemporary feminists do, that there is a different kind of ‘greatness’ for women’s art than for men’s”.
It is a question that is central to the Pembroke Art Gallery’s first major exhibition, ‘John Bratby and Jean Cooke: Who is Slaving at the Kitchen Sink?’, which explores the creative products – and creative tensions – of the artist couple John Bratby and Jean Cooke. The exhibition is comprised of paintings drawn from the Royal Academy, the Piano Nobile Gallery, the Government Art Collection, and a range of private collections – including those of Lincoln College and St Hilda’s College – and is due to open on 30th May with a lecture by the art historian Dr Greg Salter.
The impetus of the exhibition is “something of a riddle”, says the Pembroke Gallery’s curator, Sarah Hegenbart. It began with the discovery of an unknown painting in the Pembroke College library, which bore no label and no mention in any archival records. Once the dust had been blown off the impressionistic, dark-toned image of a woman painting in a studio, it became clear from the style of the work that it was by John Bratby, famous British modernist, and founder of the ‘Kitchen Sink’ school of realism.
“We couldn’t figure out who the woman in the painting was”, Hegenbart recalls, “but we had the suspicion that it was Bratby’s first wife, Jean Cooke, who was a painter in her own right”. Research revealed that this had been a violent relationship. Bratby, apparently, would often paint over his wife’s canvases in anger, and his depictions of Cooke chart the disintegration of their relationship: she would later describe how “he always painted me as a very old woman”.
Research revealed that this had been a violent relationship
The breakdown of their marriage is chronicled, whether consciously or not, in their paintings of each other, and is highlighted in Pembroke’s exhibition. On one wall hang portraits from the couple’s early years, depicting their children and family life. Hegenbart describes these as “very loving… they seem young and excited and passionate about their art”. But follow the paintings chronologically, and watch as the portraits become darker: Bratby and Cooke begin to depict each other as haggard, angry, and old.
“We were also interested in charting aesthetic parallels between the artists”, says Hegenbart. The aforementioned ‘Kitchen Sink’ school of realism, the foundation of which made Bratby famous, made prominent the detritus of middle class life. His work The Vice and Tools in the Pembroke exhibition provides a stark example: the strong contrasts and thick brushstrokes make clear that the tool box is the sole focus of this picture. Cooke differed stylistically from the ‘Kitchen Sink’ school, but her paintings Fruit and Tin and Hand with Matches demonstrate a softer, arguably more feminine interpretation of the couple’s everyday surroundings.
Stark and dirty, light and soft. It is a contrast that reappears in the couple’s later works, and can be seen particularly in Hegenbart’s pairing of two portraits by each artist, both of women. Cooke’s rendering of the former St Hilda’s principal, Mary Bennet, is soft- focussed and respectful. There is a deliberate ‘ugliness’, however, in Bratby’s portrait of Kathy Wilkes. She is painted like the The Vice and Tools, in contrasting greens and blues. The painting seems to be simply tone and form, disconnected from its female subject.
Stark and dirty, light and soft
What makes an artist great? We may well ask this of John Bratby, who became something of a celebrity in the 1970s, with a raft of television appearances, and his works rumoured to be collected by Paul McCartney. But, the Pembroke Gallery argues, it is Jean Cooke who more deserves the title of ‘great’. The eye naturally returns to the back wall of the gallery, where Cooke’s Cinema Paradiso hangs. It is an example of her later work, and the starkly modern, visually piercing image speaks of an artist who has finally come of age. Pembroke Gallery’s first major exhibition leaves us with the thought that yes, there are of course great female artists. But sometimes they need to be taken out of their male counterparts’ shadows.
Claudia Zwar is the Chair of the Pembroke College JCR Art Committee
The exhibition will be open to the public throughout Trinity term, on Wednesdays and Fridays, from 12-2pm. For more information visit www.pembrokejcrart.org