Thoughts of Growth and Loss: A review of Martin Creed, What’s The Point Of It?

 

Sitdowncomedian, and I took ourselves to the Martin Creed show at the Hayward gallery. We were both struggling a little, heavy hearts for different reasons, but found it a perfect antidote.

It was the first time I’ve seen the breadth and the depth of Martin Creed’s practice*.

Until this point, it’s only ever been catalogues, a few displays in group exhibitions/biennales/etc and a ramshackle live performance at Goldsmiths. I
 think the man is pretty great, I just didn’t realise how much until this show.
 
The thing about this show is that you just have to see it. You don’t even need to know anything more about it than that.  
 
Which renders this post a little superfluous. However, I will do my best to write something about it, so that you can make a point of seeing it.
 

Succinctly, it’s a show about ascendence (and descendence).

In as many ways you can possibly think of.
 
The curators at the Hayward have done a shit-hot job of taking you on a journey along that simple-but-profound-idea and it is immensely satisfying.
 
It is also the busiest show I’ve seen in a while, because of the frenetic and prolific nature of his work.
Yet  because of the size and the purity of his investigations, it’s not cluttered or overstated. Which feels an odd thing to say about a show that repeatedly speaks about the same thing over and over and over again.
Because he comes at it from a variety of angles, it is clear and pure – crystalline.

A diamond says the same thing about carbon over and over again and is brilliant and dazzling, without being bloated or overstated.
This show is like that.
 
Yes, I know, I just compared Martin Creed’s show to a diamond.
Perhaps I am guilty of overstating.
 

Anyway, without giving too much of the show away, you can look forward to highs and lows, ups and downs in a gorgeous cascade of variety, including:
 
Colour spectrums (ascending light/colour)
Musical scales (ascending and descending) on the piano – played by the security staff
Towers of boxes (ascending space)
Towers of other objects (ascending form and line)
Phallic cacti getting bigger/smaller (natural order)
Cocks doing the same 
A newly erected wall (it’s all about getting it up)
Even the ramp was blocked off (for clear reasons to do with safety) and you had to climb up and down those stairs.

Up and down, up and down, again and again and again.


It sounds like a Doctor Seuss book in visual form.

Perhaps it’s exactly like that – filled with direct poetry, profound ideas and joy joy joy for the hell of it.

 
A couple of nice and fitting diversions from the theme include the massive swinging MOTHERS sign. It didn’t wow me that much the second time around, but it is a crowd-pleaser.
 
The funny film of a dog and a couple of people tracking back and forth across the screen. It could be arbitrary, but it seemed to be triggered by people crossing the space, which I liked. And a cool trick with a car doing something similar;

The wall of tape – which was sort of like a colour spectrum, but more linear and ridiculous. 
Nipples and arseholes/nautical installations and objects, which were lovely (although not quite as lovely as Sue Webster and Tim Noble when they do similar things);
 

And a special mention to The Balloon Room. Although I was in no state to really plunge into that fit of joy on that day, by all accounts it was pretty exciting, if not a bit claustrophobic (like the Gormley White Light room). It is an installation that finely balanced childlike and simple joy, with opportunity for deep anxiety. That takes a certain skill.

The great wall of broccoli prints did something similar, although rather than anxiety, it produced a clear fantasy about being Martin Creed’s Broccoli Assistant:

 
(at a party)
“Oh, nice to meet you, what do you do”
“I work for Martin Creed, I’m his Broccoli Assistant”

with the business card:


Lauren Brown

Broccoli Assistant
Martin Creed Studios
London, UK


See? The exhibition takes you to some absurd places, without being obtusely, or disrespectfully ironic (everyone knows how much I hate irony as the core of an artwork). And because it is so generous, it also leaves plenty of room to dislike works without feeling left out or hating the whole show.


Like all good art shows should.


If you want a flourish for the well-rounded experience at the Hayward, pop across the way and head into the Royal Festival Hall, to the Singing Lift. It features his permanent ascending/descending sound work, which overlooks a different perspectve of the balloon room.

In fact, this added exterior perspective of the show was great and not something I had seen in many shows at the Hayward. It was a reflection of an exhibition which concerned itself with entirety.


From the outside ‘car park’, you could see the image of the two dogs on the side of the opposite building, and from exterior balcony, you looked towards the towers of The Shed and the Tate Modern – which had similar forms to those seen instide. (I did have a little wish that the tower of the Tate Modern had been painted in a colour spectrum by him, so it would tie all in nicely across that southern bank.)


Anyway, you should go and see the show.  I’m going back for seconds soon.

*I always call him by his full name Martin Creed. Just Creed or just Martin seems weird to me.

Image: pinched from the martin creed site itself.

Work and experience: Reflection on loving what you do.

I was recently looking for work, and I obviously had to reflect on the experiences I bring to prospective workplaces. It was an opportunity to look back at the history of my relationship with work. I am surprised, because I found myself feeling a little regret.

I’m too old and have too many financial obligations to be interning, which is a bit of a shame because there are a stack of things I’d love to try out, if I had the chance (read: money).

Especially because I feel like I wasted my chances with gaining a varied ‘work experience’ especially when I was in school.

I have never had enough money to take a gap year, or to do internships when I was young – I’ve always had to wrangle my money – so the school-based scheme was really my only chance at connecting my skills with all the possibilities of earning.

I don’t know what it’s like here in the UK, where I grew up we get two weeks – one each year at 15 and 16 –  to spend in a workplace relevant to our careers.

My two weeks

At 15, I was studying Italian, German and Japanese. My mother (and probably my school) suggested that, with those language skills, perhaps I should be an interpreter or translator.

If I could advise my former self, I would suggest other things. However, time has passed.

So I spent a week in June at an interpreter’s office, which turned me off the idea forever. The staff were all bored, spoke Turkish to each other – a language I couldn’t understand – and no-one really guided me through the process. I read a book for most of the week. Perfect experience.

I remember being really disappointed after that experience at the the interpreter’s office;
I was completely lost as to how to use the obvious skills I had with languages and no-one in my family, (or seemingly in school), had any kind of understanding as to how to apply them either. I was also at an age where I was having a lot of difficulty expressing how I was feeling. So couldn’t really talk about it with anyone.

So I did the best thing I knew how to do: scrapped that idea and changed tack.

I picked up science, headed towards something that I knew I could ‘use’ and that has some prestige to it.
Except I’m not a scientist and I knew it.
But I didn’t talk to anyone about that disappointment or lack of direction.
Not really. So I hid those skills (including my A+ skills at English) and wobbled off into the world alone.

At 16, I was working for a crook in a fucked up situation. I was getting paid and I was on a path of self-destruction. I manipulated the week so that I did ‘work experience’ with him and spent half the week with my boyfriend.

Those two weeks were my ‘introduction to the workforce’.

I don’t regret too much about the past, but in the middle of job-hunting and reconsiderations about the nature of my ‘work’ those lost chances are a tiny sore spot.

Lessons learned

So when David McQueen recently asked his twitter followers for advice to young students about work experience, I remembered that I had a lot of them.

Here they are:

1. Do as much work experience as you can. We only had to do one week each. At one firm each week. We got paid $5 per day (which was more I’d ever earned before), but it’s not really that much of a tester – considering how different high school or even university is from working life.

I would have spent time in a fashion house, at a funeral home, in a school, at a newspaper’s office, in a factory, working for a builder or an architect, – in all kinds of places.
Give yourself some real room for real discovery and experience.And write about it. Or blog. Tweet. Make videos, or songs or whatever it is that you do to express the deeper parts of yourself. Do that whilst you’re on that journey. It will help in years to come to look back at that raw reflection and see some truth in it.

2. Play to your strengths.  Go to places not-so-obviously connected to what you ‘want’ to do, but that use your skills.

It’s much easier to love what you do when you do it well, rather than just doing what you love. Don’t worry about getting it straight away – the happy accidents or the conscious changes we make as adults are invaluable. But it would be nice if you can get a bit of a head start.

3. Think laterally. Search websites for those skills from #2. And then some based on your school reports – even the bad ones will highlight the areas you are skilled at. Even if you’re a pain-in-the-arse-class clown, you still hold the skills of holding people’s attention, managing a room full of people, being vulnerable, witty and manipulative – skills that are great for management, public speaking, loads of areas of showbiz, teaching, etc.

4. Actually speak with someone about it before and after. Really – do your best to get some support for it. It will stand you in good stead for speaking with recruiters, careers coaches, counsellors and other people there to help and support your growth.

Our careers counsellor at school was a little bit useless, so I got away with how shit it all was and possibly deserved the lost chance.

But, if you can grasp the great opportunity you have, bookend it with a few different people. Especially with someone who challenges you on your bullshit. It should be your Mum. or your Dad. But it’s also just as likely to be your older brother, or aunty, uncle, favourite teacher.

Try to properly analyse it. Don’t just fill in the form (any kid can do that, jeez) – but speak to them. Tell them your expectations, hopes and fears about the job/role/experience beforehand. And then again afterwards.

Then use that to create a bit of a plan of attack for the next time you do it. Because, if you’re doing #1, you’ll do it again.

5. Be strategic. Have a plan of attack. Really think through what you’re looking to understand about a workplace. Use the chats from #3.

It’s not always easy or appropriate to ask questions, so be as observant as you can about things like time, goals, visions, accomplishments and relationships:

How do people organise their time? How do they treat each other? What are the ways in which they celebrate success? How do they speak about their expectations.

6. Don’t do the work experience where you already work. Even if my ‘job’ wasn’t shady-as-fuck, I would suggest this. You already know how that job works. For all the reasons above – this is a chance to really research and uncover the good, teh bad and the ugly about a role.

Good luck!

A new/old/young Sizwe: a review of the play Sizwe Banzi is Dead

 
 
 
 
It was my birthday on Saturday, so I took myself to the theatre. It was a last-minute decision after a difficult day, so I was very grateful that when I rushed in (late, puffed) and only had enough for a £10 ticket, the Young Vic staff were able to accommodate me.
As I was waiting for my late-comers’ entrance time, I had a quick run-down: a bit of the section I’d missed – a monologue from Styles about his time at the Ford factory, but nothing I couldn’t catch up on. 
 
And, it was explained to me, the crowd and entrances were segregated – we were sitting on separate bleachers.
I wasn’t shocked.
Perhaps I already knew from something I’d heard about last year’s season. Perhaps it just made sense, being that the play was portraying South African Apartheid.
 
 
 
The play
 
Sizwe Bansi is Dead was written by South Africans Athol Furgard, Winston Ntshona and John Kani, deep into Apartheid/National Party in the 1970s. First premiering in 1972, Cape Town, its first season in London (1974) won accolades and connected English audiences to the nature of apartheid (and its UK complicity – noting the presence of Barclays in the South African City skyline at Styles’ studio). It has since been performed here in 1977, 2007, 2013 and now 2014. 
 
 
The official blurb: 

It’s 1972 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and Sizwe Banzi’s passbook gives him just three days to find work. No work and he’ll be deported. That was four days ago.
So when Sizwe stumbles across a dead body with a passbook, he asks himself – does his identity card really define who he is? Could he give up his family and his name in order to survive?
 
 
 
Typically and misleadingly, Furgard is often touted as *the* writer of the play, however Ntshona and Kani are deeply entrenched in its dialogue – they played Styles and Bansi (Banzi) in the 1972/74 and 2007 seasons, and their names appearing as cameos in the play. Ntshona is the name of Buntu’s friend, and the “answering to ‘John!'” as a subordinate term was (presumably) not just about the de-nomination of Afrikans/Bantus, but also an oblique reference to Kani.  
 
 
 
Background info
Port Elizabeth, the setting for the play, is a White Area on the Eastern Cape outside the sanctioned African Reserve Areas of the Ciskei/Transkei. Highly regulated. And not to be confused with even-more regulated Port St. Johns.
 
Africans/Bantus require a permit to be in an area outside of their ‘Homeland’, or another Bantu designated work area, requiring the kind of visa the UK Home Office dreams about.
 
I am lucky to have a little knowledge of Townships, Homelands and the business of the book* thanks to some reading I had done last year1, which outlined the restrictions for working in towns like Port Elizabeth and the legalities of why the character would HAVE to go back to King William’s Town. 

Of course, I have zero understanding of the system portrayed in the play, but I got a little closer through seeing it.
 
 
This production
Sibusiso Mamba, who plays Sizwe Banzi/Robert Zwelinzima is actually adorable. He brings to the role a solid combination of solemn, awkward and honest – pathos. And this is crucial to playing a man struggling with being turned into someone he isn’t: not just his name, but someone who is twisted into dishonesty and manipulation in order to fit within the white supremacist system of Apartheid – in order to continue being something he used to be.
 
There is a section in the second half of play –  the crux of the work –  at the point in which Sizwe Bansi becomes Dead. It is where the desperation of being cut into a corner, dehumanised and bureaucratised has built to a point of such frustration, that he is willing to go to any lengths to prove that he is actually who he believes himself to be: a man.
 
The dialogue is full of tension. 

And, unfortunately, in the performance I saw, it lacked the conviction of that situation.
There is like a very good reason for this (see the next section), probably nothing to do with Sibusiso’s acting, but it was still a little disappointing.
 
Tonderai Munyevu – who I had seen recently in Zhe at the Soho Theatre – is fantastic. He’s such a bright light on the stage and brings that cheeky Southern African humour to it whilst balancing the gravitas of oppression under legislated white supremacy and poverty. I could be making this up, but I felt like he is more Styles than Buntu – more “dapper, alert, thriving’, than ‘strong, compassionate, willing’  but that’s just me projecting it onto him.
 
The Styles section of the play was exactly what I needed on my birthday: Lots of laughter, lots of humanity, lots of cheerfulness in the face of adversity, and lots of determination.
 
The blankes/whites
Throughout the last 30 minutes of the performance, every 10 minutes or so four white, drunk, fairly-young members of the audience tramped and sloshed their way across the bench seats and out the door. Stumbling, making noise, disregarding the action on the stage and being arses. One woman falling up the stairs and clearly unable to manage anything quieter than a stage whisper when talking to the ushers.
 
When the first two left, I was confused. I thought the preview I was in was, perhaps, a rehearsal and that they were crew making changes. Then when the next person left I realised that they were just being rude. And by the time the last woman left – making the most noise, I was ropable.
 
Of course, the disturbance was not just that of individuals or the performance itself. 
 
It highlighted the disregard us blankes still have for Africans and Black British people and stories. It reminded us that, despite being at a great performance of contemporary theatre, in one of the most diverse cities in the world, racism still exists. 
Overtly. Subtly. Structurally.
Truly, Madly, Deeply.
 
Theatre-goers aren’t some special breed, inocculated against ignorance and bad behaviour. And, in true privileged style, most of us theatre-going white folk like to think we are separate from it, so we also didn’t like it when they showed us up. Me included.
 
 
And this is problematic, but it was somewhat satisfying to spy one of the girls in the foyer and express my displeasure. Not in an English, passive agressive way, but it in an overt way. As overt as her racist behaviour was. I was also slightly relieved and pleased to hear others telling her and her friends off, expressing their dissatisfaction.  It felt like maybe a step towards a desire for whiteness to not include such disgustingness. Clearly I’m still in denial.
 
 
Set for racism
The white supremacy that the characters in the play are railing against is continued in the structure of the performing of the play itself. And, given the behaviour of my four ignorant friends, here, I would suggest that it’s destructive, rather than enlightening.
 
The fact that Furgard is still touted as THE writer of the play (especially in London), rather than as one of three equal contributors is a reflection of the way in which white writers are still privileged over black ones.
 
In fact, the 2013 season of Sizwe Banzi and The Island was often touted in the liberal London press – (Time Out, The Guardian) as an Athol Furgard season. Not a Furgard, Kani and Ntshona season.
All three writers wrote both these books, by the way. And it would have been the lived experience of Ntshona and Kani that enabled Furgard to even speak of many of these actions.
 
With this production, audience segregation is the action of white supremacy and it had a racist effect. Regardless of its intention.
Back to our drunk mzungus – did it charge the conditions for racist behaviour? White supremacy as a system, causes racism. If the crowd has been mixed, or our differences not highlighted or enacted in such a way – if the system was not replicated, would these people have still done this? 
 
Probably – because they were disrespectful, drunk and consequently self-absorbed and ignorant (the breeding ground of acting out internalised racism) but I’m asking the question anyway. 
 
Because I think it’s quite important for me to remember – especially as an intelligent, politically- and racially-aware white woman – that oppression and racism (see also patriarchy/misogyny, ablism, hetero/cis-normative/homophobia) it is not about individuals and their own actions. It’s the awareness that we are a group of people who contribute and that there are systems (designed) that create and perpetuate these destructive actions and beliefs.
 
It also reminded me that it’s only the privileged who get to really fuck around with paying homage to oppressive systems in art or theatre or design. It’s only really those who have no clue who are able to cherry pick symbolism, ‘reincarnate’ or try to bring it to life – because we can all go home, tralalala and write a blog post about it instead of committing suicide or stealing a dead man’s passport to stay alive.
 
1. Bantustans – The Fragmentation of South Africa was a disturbing but enlightening publication from 1964 by Christopher R Hill and the Institute for Race Relations, London. I learned a lot about the specific policy of apartheid and the gross financial and econonomic destruction that was behind the ideology, sold as ‘solutions’ every couple of years.
The Court Theatre study guide to the play is an interesting accompanyment.

image: promo shot pinched from the Young Vic website.

Hannah Arendt (The movie): A review




Last week, as I was revisiting the discussion between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks at the New School*, I remembered my academic crush on The New School as a school in which a lot of my favourite thinkers, writers and artists have taught/teach and whose research I admire.

 
Which, in turn, reminded me about the Hannah Arendt film released here last year, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, and centred around her time at the New School.
 
Now, I think Hannah Arendt is amazing.
Her books The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition are crucial, her take on Rosa Luxembourg is heartwarming and my copy of The Portable Hannah Arendt is tattered with love and much use. The reports she made about the extraordinary trials in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann were so sensational and provoked vital critical thinking about genocide, sovereignty, international law and crimes against humanity.
 
She has problematic views too. Her take on the Little Rock Nine and desegregation of education the US is one I categorically reject, and her complicity in the occupation of Palestine through her work with Youth Aliya disturbs me.

Yet her complexity and her writing (as a whole) is a formidable influence on my work, thinking and inevitably on the work of people I admire, too.
 
So it was with a bit of trepidation that I approached the film. 
 
Much in the same way films about Frida Kahlo, Sylvia Plath and Truman Capote have been unsatisfying*, I didn’t want to witness a degrading, thin or limiting rendition of someone who is complex. Especially not someone who I admire and to whom I think the world needs to pay attention. 

There is always the threat that, in attempting to funnel their life into a story of 120 minutes within the genre of contemporary filmmaking , it will reduce them to an afterthought and undermine the work they’ve done. Especially as the history of mainstream cinema banks on that kind of entertaining reduction and revisionism: palatable, easily distributable and marketable.
 
As much as I enjoyed the film, sadly, I think that’s what has happened to the character of Hannah Arendt in this film.
 
Given that Arendt is a writer and theortician, I imagine it is not easy to depict this kind of life in film.  
So the obvious way through is to focus on the drama – the fracas she caused with her New Yorker report from 1961, Eichmann in Jersualem (still available on the New Yorker website!).

So the film centred around her trip to Israel for the trials, her discussions about the trials and theories of evil, justice and humanity, the writing of those articles and the aftermath of the publishing.

 
It was the beginning of discussion about the role of law, who gets to punish, about the role of media/journalism in such a massive undertaking.


And given that, I think the title should have been Hannah in Jerusalem, or something along those lines – something that was in line with the story and trajectory of the film. By its broad title, it suggests a story about her entirety, or at least the whole of her career.

The film did manage to focus a little on her relationships with students, her work with Karl Jaspers and Youth Aliya and other writers/acedemics at the time, but it primarily focused on her relationship with her bloody husband!
Just like every other biopic about women in the arts and letters.

Frida was about Diego, Sylvia was about Ted and Hannah Arendt was about Heinrich (and/or Martin Heidegger). In fact, the only recent film I have seen about an influencial woman that wasn’t about her husband, was The Iron Lady about Margaret Thatcher. Which was about her debilitating illness instead. Not to degrade that, mind, but for god’s sake can we have a film about the breadth of an intelligent woman’s life!
 
With those criticisms out of the way, I was still chuffed to see a political theorist in film –  a female academic on film*: her strong and opinionate character, the smoking (lordy – she didn’t stop!), her friendship with author Mary McCarthy and a bit of her connection with Heidegger. To see on-screen discussion of the theories of Heidegger and the difficulty in divorcing his excellent theory work from his decision to stay in the Nazi Party – that was welcome, and perpetuated in similar grey areas about Arendt and her complicity (although not necessarily teased out).





And, as I mentioned, I appreciated seeing the New School as a kind of character, too  – the subplot of their flip-flopping sycophancy and subsequent rejection of their controversial ‘prized lecturer’.  Reminiscent of the character of Harvard University in The Social Network, the university and its influence on those who influence is an interesting side-note.

 

I am not sure how good a film this is if you don’t know who Hannah Arendt is.
This is a shame, because film is oftentimes an opportunity to also educate or intrigue people who may be otherwise in the dark. 
But if you do know about Arendt and her work, it is still worthwhile seeing for a kind of curiosity, fondness or revisiting her written work. And perhaps for generating resolve towards better scriptwriting about intelligent women of influence.






*when i say revisiting, i mean clapping my hands gleefully and yahooing around the house like a madwoman.

* geez – why are all these films just their names? how about ‘zapatista in surrealism’ or ‘in the blue hours’ or ‘the love of in cold blood’. OK, Im terrible with titles, but c’mon – single word names?
* How low is the bar, ladies?

Confiscated Childhood: A review of Afro Supa Hero and Confiscated Cabinet at the Museum of Childhood

It’s not far from where I live, but I had never been to the V&A’s Museum of Childhood before now. Crazy, huh. 

 

Anyway, last week I finally went to check out their two concurrent shows: Afro Supa Hero and Confiscated Cabinet

 
 

If I’m honest, the building itself shocked me a bit, reminding me of a starker version of the Pitt Rivers Museum (which is a weird museum – another story). It was all open and noisy. I don’t know why, but I was expecting more of a library, journey-type museum, rather than an (admittedly, gorgeous) open hall and with massive ceilings and balconies around the outside. 

 

I was also hungry at the time, so some of these opinions may be slightly skewed.

 
Wow, I’ve digressed already.
 


Afro Supa Hero – Jon Daniels


 

I loved the underlying idea behind Afro Supa Hero. I loved seeing the comics from the 1960s onwards –  I wished I could have read some of them there. I’m not even into comics that much, but there were some seemingly great action stories and ace history-based ones I wanted to peer into (especially the one about Harriet Tubman).

 

But the historical journey of Afro action figures and heroes was the really interesting bit. It was a relief to see a shift from their names being ‘Black XYZ’ to just XYZ. That’s polite of everyone.

 

Some renditions of famous black characters into toys was embarrassing – you could compare the printed image on the box to the way they’d been rendered in 3D and you could tell sometimes it was just like – “eh, we’ll just make White Lady Action Figure into darker skin and it’ll be fine!” Cringe.  

I learned that Jean-Michel Basqiat and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry have action figures (!!). Which is pretty rad, although i never really played with dolls (cough). And, on a selfish level, I was a bit bummed that Frozone from the Incredibles wasn’t in there. Maybe he’s missing for a reason. Like licensing blah blah. 
(Or maybe Jon Daniels doesn’t like Frozone?)

At the end of the historical/collectible action figures was Jon Daniels’ own super hero design.
And it was fly – matching mega afros, the earrings matching the goatie? red, yellow, green and black colours of Africa? Loved it. 

 

There were mock-ups and lego versions, although I really want to see them in production. Surely Momiji dolls need a new range – I would have bought some Afro Super Hero dolls, for sure.

Well, I say that, but I couldn’t afford to buy one of the cute mugs on sale, so who am I kidding ( I would like to think that the money went to Daniels himself and not back into the V&A merch pot)

But what Daniels’ show highlighted, of course, was the limitations of scope in action figures and super heroes and how that perpetuates the limitation of scope in pop culture of human beings, especially human beings of colour. Starting from the beginning. In childhood.

Super important issue to tackle.

 

And, here’s where I add to the problem: I wanted to draw even more out of that show. 

 

I wanted to extend it into a whole show about race and childhood and toys. 
Like, looking at the Mamie Clark research from the 1960s on colour dolls and how she changed the way race and childhood imagery was understood; it has had an influence in psychology, cultural studies, art and image-making and of course education. 

And I could totally imagine a wider scope that takes those ideas, includes the excellent ones from Daniels’ work and extends even further – Makie dolls, Bratz, Barbie, Fino and Bino dolls, Home-made toys/dolls from non-western cultures, etc.

 

I wanted to see more, not because I’m culturally greedy (although there is that), but because the influence toys/dolls have on us as adults is significant.

With them we learn to play, to associate, develop identity, understand our body and the abstraction of the internal experience to a external object in identification – we boil down our expansive selves into these very particular objects.

 

And a show like that would become a museum show about the history of where limitation starts. The history of where adults decide how small a box they can squeeze future adults into, in order to get the best possible outcome for current adults.

 

Wouldn’t THAT be a cool show to see?

 
OK, I’m being a bit ascerbic, but I do think that, given the influence of dolls from childhood into adulthood, especially when it comes to race and culture, it’s a massive topic that deserves even more attention.
 

And speaking of home-made toys/dolls….

 
Confiscation Cabinets – Guy Tarrant
 
 
 

These cabinets of confiscation were fascinating: A collection of toys/weapons/objects that have been confiscated from school children over the last 30 years.

Hand-written notes, those paper-based things girls play with, knives, flame-throwers (what?!), stones, playing cards, chewing gum, etc.

 

It was organised according to ‘age’ and ‘gender’. Two cabinets each for girls, two for boys. Two for lower grades and two for higher grades.

 

That sorting in itself intrigued me. 
Yes, there are obvious links between boys and girls of similar ages. But i think it also would be interesting to make the cabinets sortable in different ways. 
Like, actual age – what do all 9-year olds hide. 

Or chronology – all the things confiscated in 1991, or 2007. 
Maybe even by kind of school – what do grammar school kids bring and what do comprehensive school kids bring?
Actually, given the place of class and schooling in the UK, that would be particularly enlightening.

 

Vack to the display at hand, it was still enlightening for me, as a woman (who was previously a girl at a catholic primary and single-sex private high school) to see what was gendered. 
So it wasn’t just in my school – girls really do use words as weapons. And vanity is a weakness (one conditioned, I argue).

So much make up, cruel notes and there was a chewing gum/hair attack sample that was simultaneously gross and stark reminder of the nature of our attack/defence tactics: long-lasting and shame-based.

 

Boys? Garden-variety violence.

I knew it, but the image of some of the sticks and metal rods brought to highschools still made me go a little weak at the knees. How the hell you’re supposed to cultivate nuanced social interaction when that’s a threat, I have no idea. The fact that men grow up to be sensitive at all? Bravo. Hats off to the sensitive ones!

 
 
 
A History of Childhood

I do wish shows like both of these could be seen and talked about more. Especially because, given that we all have childhoods and those become our adulthoods/society at large, it’s amazing that more people aren’t fascinated with the history of the small but constant ways in which we really belittle ourselves as humans.

 

I know, clear reminders of painful history and the failings of the human condition is not traditionally a thing that we enjoy pondering over on a wet Sunday (except if you’re in a cinema), but I think I would like them to be.

 

Perhaps if we could see these childhoods in museums (in an abstract way) and how they project forward, we might be better able to make decisions about our own adulthoods, or any childhoods we may be in the business of influencing right now.


Details:
Afro Super Hero
14 September 2013 – 9 February 2014

Confiscation Cabinets 
9 November 2013 – 1 June 2014

At V&A Museum of Childhood
Cambridge Heath Rd, London E29PA

images pinched from the V&A Museum of Childhood site.

Hard out Here: Sarah Lucas and Kehinde Wiley

This was originally a post about Lily Allen’s tone-deaf video: Hard Out Here. But, well, who needs yet another mouthy white woman’s opinion on the subject, really.*

So I’m going to do what I do better – write about art.

Specifically about two recent exhibitions speak with a little more nuance about some of the issues that Ms Allen was trying to portray in that racist piece of shit video. Oops? did I really say that.

Anyway, back to it: Sarah Lucas and Kehinde Wiley.

Sarah Lucas at the Whitechapel.

…and it’s all about bitches. It’s all about the images, the violence, the tawdriness of the same-ol-same-ol images of women’s bodies, men’s bodies – the same blah blah bullshit we’re all just a little bit sick of seeing.
Maybe you’re not sick of seeing, but I am. Friends of mine are. In fact, my first visit to the show was with a friend who is battling depression because of the hatred she has about her body because it doesn’t ‘fit’ with what ‘should’.

Anyway, it’s all there in the gallery. Just there. In all kinds of detail. with varying levels of humour, finesse, mess and message.

It is refreshingly unsimplifed – in fact, it’s all over the place.
It is probably ‘sanitised’ for the general Whitechapel Gallery-viewing public, but even with that in mind, it’s not a perpetuation of the ‘good girl’ imagery. But neither is it so erratic that there isn’t plenty of room to read her messages about images of women.

About the control of our own image, and who has it.

Although this isn’t a post about the video, I do think this image says some of what Ms Allen WAS trying to get at with her BAGGY PUSSY imagery, but with a whole lot finer detail. It is hard being that bitch.

Having said that, Sarah Lucas is a white, middle class woman who presents a fairly singular image of Woman.
But for that, it’s relentless. And consistent. She portrays the violence of gender symbolism, makes fun of the entendre – the guardsman of language – and rides it like she’s going to come any second.

She is unabashed.

The variety of materials is also refreshing: sculptures, readymades, drawings, wallpapers, prints, mechanical wanking cocks (a material type all of its own), photography and text. And on that front, it is not singular.

It was a relief to see the savageness of her response to the same old sexist bullshit about the female form.

Personally (and currently up to my back teeth with it all), it is an exhibition which says ‘It’s ok honey, i feel the same way’.

The work takes up so much space, too. It gets into every bit and there’s not enough space to spread out and because of that, do make plans to see the show twice.

Before anyone whinges about it, I don’t think the antidote is to give more space. I think the slightly-claustrophobic feeling of the show perfectly demonstrates a) the intensity of being an artist: you have a thousand things on the go at the one time and there’s no space from it. You can’t walk back from your life. b) same thing about being a woman. Your imagery and the intensity is relentless, there isn’t a break from it. You don’t get to take a 10 minute breather, walk back and see how it feels to not have all of the ‘requirements’ and ‘opinions’ and ‘representation’ in your face. So why should you in an art gallery?

Kehinde Wiley at Stephen Friedman Gallery

The first time I saw Kehinde Wiley’s work was in his Black Light book at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin (note the caption: I still REALLY want this book.)

The show at Stephen Friedman gallery last month was his work from Jamaica. Floral, Patterned and Beautiful. Part of his ongoing series from around the world – especially places that have significance for (young male) figures unseen in the former colonies: Israel, Africa, Brazil.

This is one of my favourite: all pattern everything.

I love the OTT of it all. Yes, posed staring out in a fairly straight-up pose, but bursting with life and colour and yowsers!

Unlike previous works of his and other shows I’d heard about/seen, this show included the ladies. In fact, the gallery at #11 was all Ladies. Three large works of larger-than-life ladies, showing off their thang. I don’t remember ever seeing a woman portrayed by Wiley like that – he has been notoriously focused on the young men until now.

Despite the regal/papal titles given to these paintings of women, the underlying message that comes with them is that ‘this is not their life’. They are not ‘portrait sitters’, like the subjects Wiley refers to in his video about the history of portraiture.

They are the ‘bitches’ in Allen’s song. (The ones who she will never be and has never been.) These are the women for who it is fuckin’ hard. Oops – I went there again.

To repeat myself, the images are seriously beautiful. They had me, as a 30-something educated white woman staring at the ornate, decorated images of young black men. Hmm

This was the difficult part about the show for me, and the subject of a long chat with the gallery staff.
(I’m very glad they were willing to have the discussion. They didn’t, to their credit, ignore the obvious racial and ethical place of art/paintings/objects/viewers in what they’re selling, and hide behind the ‘it’s just paintins, miss‘.)

So, we have this age-old dynamic.
Me: western, privileged white appreciator of young, gorgeous black specimen. Not that’s how I personally believed I was viewing these images and people, but I cannot ignore the echoes and the dynamic that had been set up. Into which I had walked and cannot avoid because of the fact that I am most of those things. Depressing.

The gorgeous patterns, the refreshingly different images of men and women surrounded by colours and framing reserved for the white elite – they’re amazing and I love them. but if *I* take one home and stick it on my wall, am I not the same as the old anthopological doyenne with her specimens of ‘the noble savage?’.

Argh! the mobius strip questioning of ‘for whom is this art made?’ ‘who has the power?’ drove me wild, in a way that I value: Is Kehinde selling out young black street stylers – his own peeps, for the fodder of white folks, again? Or is he taking back that role of representing the young black gorgeous man into the hands of young black gorgeous man and the privilege white folks just get to watch, whilst they get to be immortalised. Or something of both. Or neither.

I left the show with all those complex feelings of wanting to take a shower, to dance in joy, all desire and need to turn off all the images in my day to ignore how annoyingly complex and shit human power and relationships are.

And to that end, the power within those paintings – especially for the black collector, or one with her eyes open, is worth the 5-figure price tag that will rarely go out of fashion.

*here are a few excellent responses to that video:

– Deanna Rodger, poet wrote and performed a piece about it:
http://bit.ly/19CG9s5 
– Chimene Suleyman, also a poet wrote an excellent essay:
http://www.poejazzi.com/fighting-against-the-fetishisation-of-women-doesnt-work-if-you-fetishise-women/http://www.poejazzi.com/fighting-against-the-fetishisation-of-women-doesnt-work-if-you-fetishise-women/
– Bridget Minamore made an excellent storify of women on twitter: https://storify.com/bridgetminamore/lily-allen-and-satire

image credits:
Sarah Lucas, Chicken Knickers, 1997
Sarah Lucas, Bitch (detail) 1995

Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of James Hamilton, Earl of Arran’, 2013