Friday, July 25, 2008

Gehry in London

Gehry’s 2008 Serpentine pavilion is a masterful answer to his recent archi-critics, who can’t stand his popularity and have accused him of being a ‘one-trick pony’.

The pavilion is wildly different to Gehry’s recent buildings – not a curve or titanium tile in sight.

It is still wildly modernist, yet pleasingly references history (Gehry said on tv he was intrigued by the Roman invasion of England; hence the catapult-like form) and pays flattering homage to the Serpentine Gallery. Looked at frontally, the pavilion forms a delicious, wildly eccentric frame for the classicizing older building.

Some of the initial drawings show the shattered roof line was going to made up of curved panels – the built version has flat panels; by far the better aesthetic option.

It is also the first pavilion to have a lift!

Great stuff. A really wonderful addition to London summer ’08.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Journey to the West

This classic Chinese text’s title is pretty confusing to Westerners – the tale tells of a journey from China to India, both countries very far to the east of us. Calling India ‘the west’ just feels wrong, but of course to the Chinese it is quite simple fact.

Personally, I blame Diocletian’s division of the Roman Empire into “East” and “West” in AD285. To us Europeans, the East will always begin in the eastern end of the Mediterranean.
Heavens it’s been a while since I was last at the Royal Opera – to my shame, my last visit was pre-rebuild/extension, which puts it at least 8 years ago!

- But I was there last night for the London premiere of Damon Albarn’s, Jamie Hewlett’s and Chen Shi-Zheng’s opera Monkey: Journey to the West. It’s fabulous – the Floral Hall is a fantastic ‘see and be seen’ sort of space, and the terrace overlooking Covent Garden piazza and central London’s roofscape is just lovely for a snack or drink pre-performance, especially in the evening sun; the terrace catches soothing evening breezes. The Opera house was decorated monkey-style for the event, and was serving monkey cocktails. The capacity crowd was really buzzing with anticipation.

The opera itself is visually spectacular and very beautiful; brilliantly conceived by Jamie Hewlett. Chen Shi-Zheng directs the cast of thousands with amazing control – the focus on the story is sharp despite a cast of thousands doing absolutely stunning things – awesome acrobatics, aerial ballet, exciting kung-fu fights etc etc. It’s actually so complicated it’s remarkable the whole thing went off without a single apparent mistake.

Damon Albarn’s music is gorgeous; individually the numbers are very beautiful. However, as opera one can’t compare it to Verdi or Wagner – it’s fairly episodic, and there isn’t an arc of musical development over the full piece. However, I’m still looking forward to the CD being released.

I have to mention Fey Yang as the Monkey King – he was absolutely magnificent; endearingly cheeky, yet acrobatic and superb at the fighting (in character). An incredible performance, giving out 100% energy from beginning to end.

The three co-creators came on stage at the end of a well-deserved standing ovation.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


The West End Whingers were slightly premature in their praise for the apparently newly-oiled seats at the Old Vic. My seat last night was as squeaky as an annoyed bat – however, Peter Hall’s production of Pygmalion was so good this minor irritation evaporated. And the seat itself was in the distinctly posh part of the auditorium – the poshest I’ve ever been at the Old Vic (6th row central, stalls, no less).

I’m glad I shelled out, because the production and performances were so beautifully detailed it was wonderful to be able to appreciate them all close-up, as it were. The “Not bloody likely” scene was side-splittingly funny: Eliza’s (Michelle Dockery) partially-transformed accent got spontaneous applause mid-way through.

This was a belt-and-braces properly traditional production – down to real rain and a real taxi on stage. However, so intelligently done it was a tremendous pleasure. My doubts about Shaw were quite quelled.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

oily adventures

Tate Modern opened its oil tanks to Tate members this weekend – yippee! Power Stations are a bit of a thing with me, ever since my work placement as a student at the HQ of a power company in South Africa. Bless her, my boss didn’t have a clue what to do with an art history student, so she sent me out on field visits to the power stations, leaving me with very fond memories of the “dark Satanic mills” kind. Actually, they are very exciting, even sublime places – the furnaces, the turbines, the cooling towers, etc etc etc.

My field of expertise is coal-fired stations, so seeing the remaining innards of an oil-fired station intrigued me. Also, I missed the tours of Bankside before the deplanting, which I have always regretted.

Anyway, I have to say the oil tanks were a slight disappointment. I’m not a driver, so I don’t really have a feel for how fast oil is burnt in a combustion engine. I was anticipating the tanks for a power station to be absolutely vast (at least 5 stories high) – so although these are big, they definitely are smaller than I was thinking.

The Tate was planning to convert the spaces into auditoria, but artists who saw them persuaded the authorities to leave them as ‘found spaces’ for artists to play in. So think circular versions of the turbine hall, not as high.

All very exciting, and the Tate is apparently going to announce Herzog and de Meuron’s developed plans for the new Tate Modern extension this week. It is planned for completion in time for the 2012 London Olympics. Yay!

P.S – I know I’m being retrogressive in insisting on ‘The’ Tate, but I really hate the branding company’s arrogance in attempting to annihilate the definite article. It’s an act of foreclosure on the English Language, no less, and imperial overstretch by ‘Tate’. Nicholas Serota will have to threaten to discontinue my membership before I submit to the ugliness of the naked Tate.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Major Barbara

No doubt about it, there’s a George Bernard Shaw boom on at the moment. The NT’s Saint Joan last year was pretty awesome; I’m a little bit more quizzical about its production (just ending) of Major Babara.

Undoubtedly, this play raises interesting and still very relevant questions. I thought the second act in the Salvation Army shelter was as great as theatre can get – it’s just the last act, despite the spectacular setting in an armaments factory (brilliantly realized in this production) displays some of Shaw’s most wordy faults. It does drag – worse, the characters Undershaft and Cusins debate loftily at length while the rest of the cast sit around like Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. Occasionally Lady Britomart Undershaft or Charles Lomax pop up with a comedy turn to jolly things along. The only dramatic tension is the choice facing Adolphus Cusins, and how he will square this with Barbara. The contrast with the morally fluid and dramatically explosive second act is pretty extreme.

I loved the cast and production – this was just a Shaw thing with me, I think. I’m seeing Pygmalion this week, so we’ll see.

Pope's Villa at Twickenham

Context really does affect how one experiences art. I always find looking at things in Sotheby’s or Christie’s quite exciting – everything’s for sale!! – but if it is an important piece, the time one spends looking at it is somehow more heightened and valuable than if it was, say, in the National Gallery where it will still be next week, if one fancies coming back.

I popped into Sotheby’s last week to have a look at the ‘Sudeley Turner’ – Sudeley no more as it has now been sold for almost £5.5 million. I’ve never seen it before, and can’t really say it featured heavily in my Turner studies at Uni. Its official title is Pope’s Villa at Twickenham.

It’s pretty gorgeous: Joseph Mallord William Turner in the full flow of his attempt to out-do the miraculous evening glow of the celebrated French master Claude Lorrain. Indeed, one critic immediately after viewing this picture called Turner “indisputably the first landscape painter in Europe”.

Turner was motivated by the vandalism of Baroness Howe (known as “Queen of the Goths”), who so hated the literary tourists drawn by the poet Alexander Pope’s villa that she decided to tear the villa down. Turner portrays the already roofless villa catching the raking last rays of the sun (very restrained and subtle, the melodrama of the Fighting Temeraire is absent here). The sun-washed villa is reflected in the limpid Thames. In the foreground, a group of workmen are negotiating the sale of architectural salvage from the house.

It is fascinating that a lively debate about national heritage was thriving that far back in history, and it is equally ironic that the painting itself enacts its own circumstances, as another great piece of national heritage is lost, perhaps to leave the country forever.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Burial at Thebes

The Rose is Kingston’s new theatre (opened 2008). I’ve been wanting to check it out, and Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company’s production of Seamus Heaney’s new translation of Sophocles’ Antigone seemed a good opportunity to do so.

While Kingston is quite a comfortable area of south west London, I feel the town centre is also quite a bit chavvy, so I was very worried The Rose would struggle to find an audience. I was totally relieved therefore to see it had quite a respectable turn-out: the theatre seemed about two-thirds full when I went.

The translation was pretty magnificent: simple and clear, but powerfully poetic when it needs to be. Greek tragedy is pretty wonderful stuff – it draws you in to the moral issues at stake quickly, presents all the arguments for and against without redundancy or over-analysis, gets on with the story, and wham bang all over in about 75 minutes. Brilliant.

Great ensemble work from the company. Their use of the set was good – I don’t know whether it was their own or they were just using what is there already. Apparently, The Rose is unfinished and it’s the backstage area which is still incomplete. The set certainly looked very rawly concrete.

Monday, July 07, 2008

three years on