Friday, October 23, 2009

Kiss The Blade: Beatific Visions

Alice Baxter, Annie MacKenzie, Ashlin Raymond and Ella Sutherland at 69 Cathedral Square, October 2-4.

I’m sure you’re all fucking sick of the future.

That whiny “dude, where’s my flying car — I was promised”, the sad gits who thought that the world really would look like the set of Star Trek complete with attractive available women in miniskirts, the endlessly retro hipsters who arrogantly think that the new, the now, the whole fucking future stopped because they were born, it all gets terribly dated, doesn’t it? If you are going to be retro-futurist, you have to be deft and careful about it, because while playing with tenses is all very well, there is only important tense when looking at a work of art, and that is the present.

Ashlin Raymond’s film Ludic Celebration Transformation was ridiculously Blake’s 7, even down to the utterly daft costuming. If you want classic British SF revivalism, then look no further. I half thought I’d see Terry Nation’s name come up the credits. It was perfect; madly over the top, totally cosy. The effects were at that point where they are developed enough to be shockingly bad, but still charmingly good. There’s this lovely moment where two hands — both bearing the most brilliant stage jewellery — fade away across each other, and at once one sees Anne Tirard and the Graff Vynda-K sauntering across the television screens of 1970’s Britain, all Pertwee and Baker and K-9 falling through history and the future in a wooden blue box. Except, of course, like Kerr Avon one feels it is all bullshit, all an attempt to brainwash Roj Blake one way or the other, all total lies in that vision of what is to come where Servalan stalks through Alison & Peter Smithson lecture theatres, power plants, and the stately homes of England. The sound lives up to expectations; like the best of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop it’s a throbbing mass of noise sliding up and down the scale, magnetic tape cut and reunited.

The second floor of 69 Cathedral Square is a truly weird space. It looks like it was abandoned in the mid-90’s by a horrible corporate in the face of Cthulhu, the desperate despair of the cubicle deserted before that which is not dead.

I’m going to completely ignore the pieces by Ella Sutherland and Annie MacKenzie; they were good but I honestly can’t think of anything useful to say about them, and wovon man nicht sprechen, darüber muß man schweigen.

Alice Baxter’s Test Site (TK) is not retro. She disdains to refer; she stoops to conquer. Two lights on tripods blink at each other. Contained within magic circles, glittering mystifying lines drawn in the sand, designed to be seen from above, they stutter on and off, like they know something we don’t. Lighthouses and UFOs and theatrical devices and pulsars wave across a abyss of fresh air. Mathematically they claimed the space, drawing parabolas across the floor, across the ceiling, standing forth as problems in conic sections suitable for Seventh Form Geometry and yet without any such logic, without any such sensibility. There was that vivid feeling of the Stapledonian, with Wellsian and Clarkian tones echoing through that empty room overlooking Christ Church Cathedral; there was a cold and beautiful estrangement as ouside, without any fuss, the sun went down, and the luminiferous pillars flickered into the dark.

what this is

Well, I wrote stuff for Canta this year, which can be found over there under Keir Leslie, but unfortunately Canta hasn't put them all up on the internet. Well, I tell a lie, maybe fortunately. But anyway, I think I should probably put this stuff on the internet, just because I can. Unfortunately I can't for the life of me remember when they were published, so they're just in random order and you can assume they tended to be written during the time of the shows reviewed.

Musical Modernism is an application of Hatherlyite principles to a proposed development; it is not perhaps the most temperate piece, but I rather like to think it is generally correct.

There are reviews, of course, of the big three shows at the Christchurch Art Gallery; of them, the Pick is the one that people seem to think the most insightful.

Apart from that, generally just writing.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Musical Modernism

The proposed new School of Music is truly shite. I don't say that because it conflicts with the existing Gothic Revival buildings, or because it is an affront to even consider building anywhere near the sanctified works of Mountfort. However, the building's plainly bad and the idea's daft. I do not think the two facts are unrelated.

At present the School of Music is housed in one of the prettiest buildings on campus, in a pocket-sized pastoral Brutalism. There's a lovely little stage at one end facing a gently curving bank. It's of handsome proportion, each part balancing out into a harmonious unity, without falling prey to monotony. It isn't grand, and isn't pompous or overbearing. It is what a School of Music should be like: a utopianly idealistic building, human in scale, truthful in materials and a nice counterpoint to the landscape. It's just right.

The proposed structure in town, by `Sir Miles Warren and Warren and Mahoney' is ugly and clumsy. It's the awful postmodernist Sir Miles Warren that's turned out this time, not the decent modernist who designed the UCSA building and the Town Hall. It's fussy but boring, too slavish in copying the existing buildings but still entirely awkwardly out of place. The renderings are, as is traditional with these things, vague and not much use in trying to work out what the whole thing's going to look like when it is built. I hate to say it, but if it were built, it might almost replace the Law building as the ugliest building of the University.

The heritage issues are a distraction, resting on a slightly laughable idea that the only way to preserve the character of architecture is to make sure that no one dares think of doing anything new and interesting anywhere nearby. It's nonsense. To begin with, I have very little love of a Gothic Revival promoted as a way of keeping the proles in their place, Morris and Ruskin upside down at the antipodes. If the buildings of a backwards settler wannabe-aristocracy are to be interrupted by a decent modern building that believes Jack's as good as his master, then really, that should be rather perfect. If the Canterbury Association wanted a new little England here on the plains, then let us instead build a new Jerusalem of honest concrete and plain steel.

Sadly, we aren't being offered that Jerusalem. Instead, we're getting the actual Jerusalem, a rather embarrassing mess of petty rivalries, dodgy squabbles over land, and stupid old boy's clubs. The university is closing the Physical Sciences Library for lack of money, but it can afford to rent land in the city for a new building while acres go unused out at Ilam. No doubt there are elaborate justifications for this, but I can't be the only one who rather suspects that dull books about orbital mechanics for pimply physicists just aren't sexy like new auditoriums for musicians are.

The new School of Music looks more like a monument to the ego of a collection of old men than a serious attempt to deal with the long term problems arising from the structural underfunding of the arts (and, in fact, anything that isn't making lots of money) at Canterbury.

The Policy Implications of a Failure to Create.

That's Obvious! That's Right! That's True! et al at the Christchurch Art
Gallery, 23 July – 22 November.

This is possibly the best show you can see in the province of Canterbury at the moment. It makes the Seraphine Pick next door look like talented Seventh Form work. It's harsh and serious. It takes the viewer quite literally out of the cool white cube and into a space defined by engagement, away from the pale introspective psychologising of Pick and the eerie reminisces of van Hout. It is not fun. The world is not fun either.

There's a temptation to just list all the parts of That's Obvious! That's
Right! That's True!, to repeat all the claims and statistics et al range throughout the grey room, scrawled on black boards, projected on screens, typed up on neat sheets of paper, and announced from loudspeakers. But that is not really what et al are getting at. We all know, vaguely, that Israel's actions in the Occupied Territories are abominations amongst the nations, that the modern industrial economy was fuelled by women and children digging coal from the earth in mines miles deep and a metre high, and that fundamentalist Christians and Islamists are not very nice people. We do not particularly need to be told at this late date that there are some flaws in free markets, or that there may also have been some issues with civil liberties in the former Soviet Republics.

Rather, et al want to look at the structures that cause those actions. How is a reality constructed where the economic development of the world is determined by the performance of the US housing market? How is a reality constructed whereby it seems eminently reasonable to accuse the figurehead President of Ireland of complicity in the crimes of the PLO? There isn't a simple answer. But et al explore these issues, through the creation of an environment defined by the industrial treatment of information. It is printed in a newspaper, New Zealand
Altruism Review, and bound up in plastic, reams of meaning wrapped unreadable up in a milky sheen. It is softly spoken over loudspeakers, a female voice carefully reciting passages on the conditions of the working class in England from Marx's Capital. It is prostituted by the government of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, in communiques from the Society for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Nations and statistics on the number of lectures on atheist subjects.

Et al subject this material residue of the superstructure to an intense gaze; they work back in to it, bring charcoal (the forests of Europe were destroyed that the industries of Europe might have charcoal) over and around the claims of power. This contestation of the forms of control is messy. It is not the sort of art that ends up being beautiful and elegant. It is a rough passionate art, an art that exposes ugliness and must, therefore, bear the birthmarks of the world that bore it. Et al can in fact draw (or rather, write) with a piece of burnt stick on a surface of mashed fibre in such a way as to make you very angry with that which is the case.

They Were Folly And Fun:

Seraphine Pick, at the Christchurch Art Gallery, 23 July--22 November.

If you go to see the Seraphine Pick show, you may as well leave once you've seen the first room. It goes downhill from there. There are still some good works but as a body they fail to live up to the of the early paintings. Pick follows the pattern of a 60's rocker, begining tight and raw and finishing excessive and self-indulgent. It is a pity, because Pick is obviously good at painting. Sadly, after the first room, her talent never really shows through for more that a few brief flashes to remind you that Pick is still very good when it all clicks.

The early paintings, mostly dating from the Olivia Spencer Residency, are predominantly white, with faint lines passing through and across a scratchy field of off-white. They, along with the tottering bathtubs and colanders, are the stars of the show.

But after a while, it seems like Pick is unable to handle her themes effectively. She works on a smaller scale, but it looks like she is over reaching. Compositions much simpler than the layered ghostly lines of the white paintings seem messy and ungainly. Figures become stiff and awkward, and where before Pick's work recalled Bill Hammond's deep layered canvases, it now looks like she has seen that Hammond looked at Hieronymus Bosch and decided to do a Bosch. But in the rush to paint meaning she forgets to paint paintings, and the ideas get in the way.

The curation is not kind to her. Too much is shown. The wall of --- and I don't really know what to call it; I suppose preparatory works --- hung all atop one another is an awful idea. I don't particularly care how Pick works, and if the rest of the paintings need a cloud of explanations, they aren't very good paintings. There are perhaps two or three works among that bank that are worthwhile, but the rest really aren't adding value. A photograph of a mushroom cloud from Wikipedia doesn't gain anything by being painted. Why not just print it off and frame that? It wouldn't tell us anything less, and it would be much cheaper in terms of materials.

However, it would not be fair to say that everything after that first doorway is crap. The portraits are good, when Pick manages to go lightly and delicately. (I do wish Pick would give titles to more of her works; all I can say is that I liked the painting of the girl with headphones, Untitled.)

As you walk around the exhibition you can hear et al's installation through the walls. Comparisons are always unfair, but you can't help feeling that Pick could be doing stuff just as impressive as et al --- for she clearly has the talent --- were it not for her tendency to be distracted by shiny things. Still, that first room like a Young Marble Giants track is worth the rest, and you really should go see this show.

Honey's Dead: Surface Tension

Audrey Baldwin at CoCA, August 11-29

Audrey Baldwin poured honey over her naked self in front of an audience of a hundred people. Before anything else, the sheer courage of the action has to be recognised. It took nerve and control to walk naked through that whited space, to sit before that mirror, with one's back to the crowd and to do and to suffer as natural persons. For it was being seen by the audience that made the act interesting, made it a performance invested with meaning. Without the audience, Baldwin was merely being a bit odd, and really rather wasteful of good food; with the audience, it was different.

This sort of work is rather hard to understand, in the simple sense. Clearly, there were a series of references to art: to Velázquez's Venus at her Mirror, to Beuys and his fat and felts. There were a series of references to theory: to Laura Mulvey's work on voyeurism, to Judith Butler's notions of the performativity of gender. Kristeva and Abramovic seemed to peer out from the mirror. Indeed, the mirror was a very nice part of the iconography, suggesting feminity and self-absorption, providing both a symbol of the seemingly private action we are watching, while also letting Baldwin return our gaze. There is no doubt an over-theorised paper to be written on Voyeurism in the Performances of Audrey Baldwin, with references to Lacan and the subject/object division and the social construction of gender.

But at the same time, such readings collapse when faced with the fact that they function as reductionist devices which take the discomfort and tension of the moment of alienation and turn it into a series of theses about the nature of voyeurism about Lacanian theory and the nature of the mirror scopophilia gastrophilia and about the creative tension of the Fall. But no matter how opaque the prose gets, no matter how many references to daft European philosophers and repetitive English playwrights and repetitive English singers run through this, no matter how much repetion and pretension intrudes,the fraught atmosphere can not be reproduced, and the attempt to do is merely wasting time.

For at the core of Baldwin's performance was the relationship between the performer and the audience, which is not something that I can write down. She took a group of people and divided them very precisely, affixed a gulf between herself and the audience, and then told us to look into that abyss. It was very well done, with skill and verve, and sadly, it was a skill that can't be written down.

Audrey Baldwin is very talented. If you get a chance to see her perform, you should take it. Part of her talent is her versatility; she is equally at home with grand machines like Never Have I Ever -- or this piece -- and with what I suppose you could call smaller works like Sweet. I personally preferred the quiet intimism of Sweet to the larger works, but Baldwin's ability to use the performance as a medium is unquestionable, no matter what she is doing with it.

This Is Our Wall Of Sound

Collection II. Sarah Jane Parton at the Mona Vale Fernery. 11-12 AM September 20.

History is one of the great issues of the early twenty-first century. We are at the end of it, and it's all over bar the shouting. Liberal capitalism has won, having vanquished all those monarchs and princes, communists and fascists, even the socialists and social democrats. There's nothing left to do but sit back and watch the Dow hit 36,000.

Which is of course the problem. History isn't over. Liberal capitalism fucked up. Currently anchored by Johor near the Straits of Mallaca is more tonnage than the combined British and American navies. One tenth of the world's shipping fleet that should be carrying stuff from the factories of the Far East to the consumers of the West in time for Christmas, is instead lying off a Malysian jungle. The western consumers aren't buying. The bubbles have popped, and nobody's blowing any more.

So we are left with the problem of history again. Sarah Jane Parton is used to dealing with the notion of the future that isn't what it used to be. Guidance took the future obsessed technocracies of the Eastern Bloc as a text to produce a beautifully elgaic analyis of the failure of the past's futures. She walked a balancing beam, with on the left a soppy nostalgia for the old regimes and a simplistic dammnation of the nasty Stalinists on the right.

The Mona Vale Fernery is a rather odd building. It has brick walls, but is only roofed by that green garden netting. There's a path around the edge, and a pond in the middle, with a small promentory almost cut off from the outside by the water in the middle. The outside path is higher than the central spit, creating a subtle theatrical effect, something exploited to the full by Parton's placement of an orchestra of children --- utterly adorable children, I should say, with all that awkward endearing geekiness of the primary schooler playing the recorder in plain bright coloured woolly jerseys. Or at least, mainly the recorder; there was another rather deeper instrument, but I am not an expert on plastic wind instruments.

Kids on their own are one of the standard devices of apocalyptic sf, as in Lord of the Flies or Z is for Zachariah. Here, the isolated children call up that YA terror, with the fernery looking awfully triffidic and yet all quite cosy. One of the things that was so painful about many of those novels was the sense of a betrayed future; even when it was cosy we were still in the past, which was almost as scary as the man-eating plants.

Parton is what I suppose you have to call a lefty artist, and she takes her anti-consumerism seriously. Her work recycles. The children are dressed in second-hand clothes, all scrounged and saved. She makes sure to buy carbon offsets when flying. And she uses recycled film of the early days of the New Zealand Welfare State, when capitalism had last collapsed and we were trying to build the houses quick. I was reminded of Raised By Wolves by the commitment to an engaged performance art using archival material, although the shyly risky performativity of Parton's set her apart from their detailed and relaxed recitals.

Collection II, for all that it quotes from the 30's Welfare State and 70's sf, is a work that tries to deal with the central problem of our time: what is to be done now?