Guardian scoop: Picasso shot Archduke Ferdinand

Tuesday 2 May 2006

I know the lefty press loves a good conspiracy theory but this is a bit of a stretch, even for them:

Who knows what the avant garde would have created if there had been no assassination in Sarajevo and no first world war? Or did the very extremism of cubist art somehow bring about the ensuing chaos?

That’s right Jonathan, World War I was fought over cubism. Actually, judging from his recent articles, it’s surprising he didn’t blame the Americans, for once.
Apart from weird digressions like this, I agree with most of what Jones says about the Tate Modern rehanging of its collection. It’s halfway done now, and I was going to wait until it was all open to the public before writing about it, but given that The Guardian is blabbing about what’s on the fifth floor I may as well say how it looks… soon. I’m too busy right now.
Funnily enough, Picasso was questioned in Paris in relation to the Archduke’s assassination. He told them Braque did it.

Repeat Play

Monday 1 May 2006

The best-known line in Samuel Beckett’s Play is one that is never heard spoken on stage, but its consequences are heard throughout the second half of the play, and define the drama. Out of all the plays being put on at the Barbican for the Beckett centenary, this is the one I was most eager to see: reading it, even with the most conscientious imagination, can in no way substitute for experiencing it in live performance.
Luckily, I managed to get to see it. (In an indication of my artistic seriousness of late, I missed most of the Beckett centenary events because I was in Italy doing pretty close to sweet bugger all. I had planned on going to see Krapp’s Last Tape when I got back but some fool cast John Hurt in it so it’s been booked out for months.)
In terms of drama, Play gives you everything and nothing. The plot is a received idea: a love triangle, the most hackneyed of cliches but an inexhaustible source of dramatic machinations. If in Waiting for Godot nothing happens twice, then in Play something happened, once. The three protagonists – man, wife, mistress, all long dead – pick over the details of the affair, interrogated in turn by an inquisitory light. What remains of the story when there is nothing more to it than memory?
The three, being dead – cremated, in fact – are ash confined to urns: the “action”, such as it is, consists of their voices and the light. Performing the play hinges on questions of timing and execution – musical questions – as much as of dramaturgy.
The connections between Beckett and music have always been obvious. Music appears as a character in its own right in several of his radio plays, and his stage scripts took on musical directions to varying degrees; from the mysterious Quad, a wordless choreography apparently more suited to dancers than actors, to Krapp’s Last Tape, a monologue with deft use of tape recording and playback that has been, or should be, the envy of composers who have attempted combining live performers with tape. (Morton Feldman, a composer who collaborated with Beckett on several occasions, was astonished to learn that Beckett didn’t own a tape recorder.)
Play is the text that most entices musicians: it’s closing direction “repeat play” caps off a text that resembles a musical score as much as a drama, with its dependence on vocal dexterity and precise timing between the three actors. Kenneth Gaburo conducted a performance of Play by his Mew Music Choral Ensemble (NMCE), interpreting the script as they would a piece of music.
Back when he was interesting, Philip Glass was hired to write music for a number of Beckett stage productions, including Play. What impressed him was that at every performance the emotional climax came at a different point in the play, proving that the substance of the play was not in its text, but in the relationship of the text between the actors and the audience. Play makes clear the audience’s complicty in theatre.
In this performance, the great emotive moment came early in the second half, as we realised we were hearing the same story all over again. The lighting, already wan, dimmed to near total darkness; the voices, already soft, retreated to a murmur that would have been unintelligible to anyone entering the theatre. This knowing use of sound, of how little of the voice was needed to carry through the small theatre, was the most successful part of the production. The audience silent, craned forward slightly to hear a tale they had heard before.
At first we laughed (the new received opinion: Beckett is funny) at the seemingly irrelevant details of their story, which seemed then to define the triviality of their minds. The second time around these little digressions became uncannily poignant, the enduring memories of a life irretrievably lost, clung to as dearly as their self-inflicted hurts and humiliations.
If you really want to see John Hurt perform Krapp’s Last Tape, he made a film of it in 2000, the same year he narrated The Tigger Movie.

Jesus owes me 80 Euros: a voyage to Italy

Friday 28 April 2006

While I was offline I got bored hanging out at the laundrette and so went to Italy instead. Here’s a few highlights apart from the bits everybody knows about the great food/climate/art/pickpockets etc.
My girlfriend can arrive in any country and in less than 12 hours get involved in a loud conversation on the pavement with a local who’s spent enough time in Australia to discuss, in exhaustive detail, the acceptable usage of the word “cunt“.
If you’re too tight or broke to stay in Venice, you can stay over in Padua, which is a 30 minute train ride away. It’s much cheaper, unless you go on Easter Sunday and no-one tells you that’s the night they cancel the last train out of Venice and you have to catch a taxi back to Padua.
If you like Italy but aren’t so keen on Italians then go visit some ruins, which are all full of French; or else visit Florence, which is full of Americans who are unnervingly familiar with the place. The Germans will be waiting for you at the bar afterwards.
The only truly archetypal dopey American tourists I’ve seen were all in Rome: if you overhear some of them wondering aloud if there are any good restaurants around the Trevi Fountain, recommend to them a little place nearby called I Cazzi Gabinetti – they can ask a local for directions. Hilarity guaranteed.
You can also amuse yourself at dinner by watching your waiter attempt to translate “osso bucco” into English, before telling her the correct term is “osso bucco.”
Over dinner in Rome we sat next to two Italians chatting away about places they’d travelled to, from Vegas to Nepal. They were very enthusiastic about Melbourne’s Federation Square.
Having foiled a pickpocket in Riga, my girlfriend also managed to thwart another kid in Rome, just as he was about to make off with someone else’s bag. Later that night she celebrated by shortchanging a bartender over the price of a cognac. Note to self: never, ever attempt to double-cross the girlfriend.

Italians either really like coconut, or think that tourists really like coconut.

We went to the Vatican to look at the pope, but when we visited he was curled up asleep at the back of his enclosure. The Holy See was disappointingly light on duty-free shopping, and although they do a nice line in stamps their range of postcards only extends back to the last pope, so you can’t send your Star Wars nerd friends back home a card of Pope Lando.
Also disappointing was the Vatican bookshop’s lack of publications in Latin; however, they do stock an Italian translation of Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Unlike at Montserrat, there were no crazy menopausal women at St Peter’s who wanted to punch on with us.
Italian TV is less batshit insane then I remember it, but they still hire just that one shouty baritone guy to overdub everybody from Mr T to Woody Allen. Woody pops up in phone ads with someone else speaking his lines so I must conclude that Italians consider him eye candy, a thought which is alternately distressing and inspiring.
From the way you’ve heard everyone talk about it, you’d think that Naples was a filthy shitheap of a city swarming with petty crooks.
I might put some photos up on Flickr, but I didn’t take that many while I was there. It seemed kind of pointless. Everyone knows what the Colloseum looks like, but on the other hand you feel like a total wanker if you stand outside it facing the other way, trying to photograph a packet of Fonzies in the snack stall parked out front.
Besides, if you really want to experience what a visit to the Colloseum is like, just watch Double Team.

Working backwards. I did stuff.

Thursday 27 April 2006

Thanks to travel, and to my internet provider screwing up my service without explanation for the better part of a fortnight, I have a large number* of half-finished posts lying around. Because all the news is stale, stale, stale, I’m going to put them up in reverse order so the latest stuff isn’t too old and the oldest stuff looks like a series of appropriately nostalgic flashbacks.
Right now, the new! improved! name and subject indices have been updated to the end of March.
A special thankyou to the extra person who subscribed to this site through Bloglines during my forced absence from updating the site regularly, only to unsubscribe again once I added a fresh post last night. I hope you enjoyed my blog while it was stagnant, and I’m sorry I spoiled everything for you by adding fresh content.

* Four.

Life is good

Wednesday 26 April 2006

Today is an auspicious day. My long Babylonian captivity in the laundrette down the road has come to an end and I have resumed occupation of my bunker. The internet connection is once again fully functional.
Moreover, today marks a year since I left Australia and relocated to London. This anniversary has given me cause to reflect on the many changes in my life over the past twelve months away from my native country, but one happy thought in particular stands out: I have now gone an entire year without hearing The Cat Empire. Life is good.

Just because I can write this shit doesn’t mean I can read it.

Wednesday 12 April 2006

Lousy Bandwidth Week Fortnight continues – my soon to be ex service provider thinks 5 days’ wait for them to reply to your problem with their server is acceptable. I’m getting a feeling this could take a while. In the meantime please enjoy a couple of hasty posts below, typed up at the laundrette. From time to time I can post text, but can’t actually access my own website to see if it’s com>>>>>>%20%& nbsp;^H^H^H^He<>& nbsp;< /font>operly< /div>

Two things I forgot to mention about Riga

Wednesday 12 April 2006

I’m not good at list-based stuff, so here’s two things that got left off the “Signs that Latvia isn’t quite fully touristified yet” list.
You can get a cheap double room at a hotel for 17 Lats a night. “Double” as in two planky single beds, with a bathroom down the hall. And next to the bathroom, a toilet with a sign above it asking you not to put toilet paper in the toilet; instead, please use the little plastic rubbish bin sitting on the floor. Eww. When booking a hotel room, ask for a non-smoking room, and ask about their toilets.
Riga has the world’s slowest, clumsiest pickpockets. My travelling companion was walking past the train station when she lazily reached back and grabbed the wrist of an indeterminately-sexed teenager, whose hand was halfway into her bag and was awkwardly fumbling with the catch to get his/her pudgy mitt further inside. She/he stood gawping like a bunny in the headlights while my dear, sweet confidante pinned him/her/it to the wall and went through its pockets until satisfied that nothing had been taken. A friend/sibling/parent/guardian/other of the teen-thing stood by and watched without objection.

Advanced East London infiltration techniques, part 2: the Hard Sell

Wednesday 12 April 2006

This one only works if you’re a healthy-looking, unaccompanied male. Wait until nightfall, then stand in the middle of a street about 25 metres away from a busy shopping precinct. Whenever a female walking alone comes nearby, shout at them, “Please, I need help!” Try to sound really desperate. Don’t do this too often, or soon you’ll have more women than you can handle!

Whoops!

Sunday 2 April 2006

I got back from Paris OK, only to return home to find that someone* had changed the locks to The Bunker. Luckily, the laundrette down the road is open 24 hours. Posting will resume sometime, once I’m safely indoors again and my ISP finally admits I’m not online like they say I am.

* “That would be the landlord.” Thanks. Stop reading over my shoulder.

Goodbye again

Thursday 23 March 2006

Having crossed “walking across a frozen river” off my list of things to do before I die (do not try this after you are dead), I realise I still haven’t fulfilled my lifelong ambition to overturn a parked car and set it on fire. Therefore, I am off to Paris for a few days, where violent, anarchic dreams may still come true. Hopefully there will still be a few untorched Citro├źns left by the time I get there. Postings will resume in a week.
Next week: Having namedropped Morton Feldman a few times this week, I plan to go to tomorrow night’s concert and book launch of Feldman’s interviews and lectures. So you can expect a writeup, plus photos from Riga on Flickr.
If you can’t stand to tear yourself away from this site to check a few links over there –>, here’s a small selection of recent reviews:

Oh, and sorry about the blog’s front page disappearing for a few hours back there. I’m pretty sure that was my fault.

I go to Riga

Thursday 23 March 2006

I went to Riga for a long weekend (a) because I could, and (b) having spent a mild, dry winter in England I wanted to see some serious snow and ice at last. The latter was not a disappointment. Also, I had to get across the channel because I was desperate for a decent cup of coffee. Anywhere in Europe will do for that, and in Riga coffee is good, cheap, and plentiful; as is beer, vodka, cognac, and smallgoods.
The old town is picture-postcardy, the sort of European town you see in old movies about vampires. Steeples abound.

Further out is a large Art Nouveau precinct, which was how Riga started out the modern era until the 20th century intervened. Much of the historic part of the city is remarkably intact, given that Latvia was unfortunate enough to be caught between Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, who took turns invading and occupying the country before the Soviet Union took over, apparently for good. It’s worth visiting the Occupation Museum to find out what has happened to this place since 1940. No wonder so many of the older couples around town were enjoying cream cakes and cognac whenever the opportunity arose.
The other must-visit place is the huge produce market behind the train station, a series of former zeppelin hangars overshadowed by a huge, somewhat crumbling, Stalinist edifice (think Moscow University), stuffed with every possible type of food. No cameras allowed – a hangover from black market days? – so sadly no picture of the bloody great fish that made a break for it when I walked past.
Despite all the culture, for me the high point of the trip was walking across the surface of the Daugava, the main river that leads out to the ports. It’s March, and it’s still frozen over.

As you can see, it’s pretty wide. This is the sort of thing you don’t get to do on the Thames. Or the Yarra, for that matter.


Signs that Latvia isn’t quite fully touristified yet

  • It only costs 20p to catch a bus to the airport from the centre of Riga. However, there is no obvious signage at the bus stop to point out which bus goes to the airport.
  • Riga International Airport is small. There were four flights out of town the night I left. Apart from some merry Germans, all the other travelers seemed to be on a first-name basis with the airport staff. Out on the tarmac, two baggage handlers were pulling donuts in the snow with their motorised baggage carts.
  • The tourist information office gives away a weekly english-language newpaper listing events, restaurants etc. The two main stories at the front of the paper: taxi drivers in Riga smell bad and try to rip you off, and building standards in the Latvian construction industry can be pretty dodgy.

London Field Guide

Wednesday 22 March 2006

On the bus through Shoreditch on Saturday, waiting for a cordon of police motorbikes escorting a bus with drawn curtains across the windows, a brace of Elvises walking down the street waving to passersby, the group of Mancunians in the seats behind me cooing over the dirty great Banksy that recently appeared in a vacant lot.

Then, later on in Trafalgar Square, communists!

Honestly, this is probably the first time I’ve seen real life communists in the wild since I left university the first time. They were out protesting about either Iraq or Iran. There were 15,000 or so people there, so whatever demands they were making got pretty diffuse among the calls to liberate Palestine, something about Venezuela, something else called the Women’s Strike, and urgent pleas to reinstate Serbia and Montenegro in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Hopefully there were also a few placards insisting that anodyne Mark Quinn sculpture on the fourth plinth be replaced.

More about Guston

Wednesday 22 March 2006

Having gone off about Philip Guston the other day, here’s some more amusement: Guston Interactive! Put together by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for their Guston retrospective a couple of years ago.
Also, having mentioned Morton Feldman, here’s Guston’s Friend – to M.F., painted in 1978, after their estrangement in 1970.

Feldman also dedicated a piece to Guston – in 1984, four years after Guston’s death. I’d post an MP3 of For Philip Guston: it’s a great piece, but it’s four hours long so I suspect I may not have quite enough space for it.

The Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade

Tuesday 21 March 2006

Attempts to get a website happening have come to naught. Because there’s some server space lying around it seemed like a good idea to set up a permanent home for some of the music that has been featured here. If you missed them last time, here’s your chance to download at your leisure the lovely and multitalented Julie Dawn’s Austrian Flame (the BLAD corporate anthem), Buddy Greco’s superlative take on Like a Rolling Stone, and (ahem) my own modest contribution.
The Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade!
Also includes a FREE bonus track, i.e. a fusty old piano piece I wrote several years ago and can’t be bothered talking about right now. It’s nice, really!
The Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade!
There are also links to music hosted elsewhere which has benefitted from my free publicity, by such disparate talents as Morton Feldman, Steve Bent, and the Evolutionary Control Committee.
The Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade!
Sorry, no music by Jeremy Bentham.

Looking at Philip Guston

Saturday 18 March 2006

About a year ago, I managed to screw up my application for Right of Abode in the U.K. and had to travel to Canberra to sort it out. The side benefit of the trip was getting to see four Philip Guston paintings, from different periods, in pretty much the same room at the National Gallery of Australia. Yes, I looked at Blue Poles again but it was the Gustons (and a honking great Clyfford Still) that floated my boat that day.

The first Guston I saw was one of his big, abstract expressionist canvases from the 1950s, back when I was an impressionable nipper. I didn’t realise how dramatically his style changed in the late 1960s until I found a book of his drawings, where over the years his abstractions became more and more reduced, sometimes to single lines. Then, out of this void, odd, bemused little hooded heads started peering out of a clumsily drawn, cartoonish world.
Were his arty mates cool with him going all impure, cartoony and representational on them? No, they were not. But today, it’s hard to resist the appeal of someone who turned his back on the artistic orthodoxy of his time and began to paint in a personal style so alien to convention, mainstream or alternative.
Guston was part of a postwar cohort of big, lumbering American men cack-handedly pulling off works of subtle beauty despite themselves, along with Charles Olson in poetry and Morton Feldman in music. Feldman and Guston were friends, but fell out when Guston resumed figurative painting. I love Feldman’s music, so my interest in Guston developed largely out of his relationship with Feldman, who often talked about how painters influenced his music.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m very happy that a gallery in London has been exhibiting 20-odd of G’s paintings and drawings, from the early 50s to the late 70s. First, I get to see a lot of Guston; second, I get a good chance to figure out just how good he is.
I found a useful article online about Guston’s development, although there’s some things in it I’m not sure about. G is hardly unusual among artists in have some early, derivative phases in his life’s work before finding a true, individual style; nor are late bloomers as uncommon as art writers often like to pretend. As for the deficiencies in his abstract painting, I find it particularly appealing how, in the best of them, he does reach transcendent effects through his short, heavy strokes. Like his other klutzy contemporaries, harping on his weaknesses until they become his strengths.
In the Timothy Taylor Gallery show, you can see that the weakest works were those where Guston tried to employ the long, confident lines which are the standard technique of ‘good’ artists. They feel sktchy, or straining for a striking effect. The awkward, lumpen heaviness in his lines and brushstrokes come into their own when creating his weird, cartoonish world. They start off hovering uneasily between whimsical and menacing, but by the latter half of the 70s the imagery has agglomerated into some of the most sinister, cryptic ‘last works’ of any artist.
He comes across as someone who had to keep painting until he struck upon something that worked. Some canvases are formulaic, or show more effort and fixing-up than other painters of his age usually liked to let on: the abstract works are much less forgiving of these failings. There are also some small, minor paintings, which are useful for showing G working up his vocabulary of shoes, books, heads. Often these works are overpainted, but this seems to be more about resuing the surface than second thoughts.
In one of the best, a large, late canvas called Calm Sea, his short, heavy strokes filled with reds and pinks transforms the flat planes of sea and sky into a roiling surface of red, flickering beneath a shimmering blue void.
I wonder now if you can build some sort of analogy between Guston’s return to representational painting to more definitely articulate the conflicted mood of anger and melancholy, and Feldman’s subsequent retreat from experimental graphic scores for his music, to increasingly conventional notation which more clearly presented his own, ambiguous sound world. Maybe not.
(As for where the cartoon influence came from, people keep namedropping Robert Crumb, although Guston’s world looks much more like George Herriman’s Coconino County to me.)
Ubuweb, bless ’em, keeps a stash of Guston’s drawings and poem-drawing collaborations with writers, including the complete series of “Poor Richard” drawings.