Saturday, May 22, 2010

Las Meninas X 3

So we didn't get to any Festival de Otoño en Primavera performances while in Madrid after all. We were too busy gallery and museum hopping, the highlight being the superb collection housed in the Prado. During a survey of every room of the museum (something I rarely do), I returned three times to Las Meninas, which true to the complexity of Velasquez's vision really does merit repeated--and intense--scrutiny. But for the crowds of tour groups and school children clustered around it this would be easier done than said.

Following upon my last post, where I mentioned seeing Picasso's take on Velasquez's most famous painting in Barcelona, we were pleased to discover that in a gallery in the new extension to the Prado there was a special exhibition of the British pop artist Richard Hamilton's preparatory sketches and proofs for his own take on Picasso's take on Velasquez (commissioned on the occasion of Pablo's 90th birthday).

Here's Velasquez's original:

And here's Picasso's version:

And, finally, Hamilton's:

Among other things, it's interesting to note in Hamilton's version his cubist representation of the Infanta, as well as his transformation of the dog in the foreground into a Picasso-like bull. In the bookshop, Richard picked up a handsomely printed catalogue with a lead essay that seeks to explain this transformation of the dog into a bull via Hamilton's pioneering experiments in pop art, arguing most provocatively that Hamilton's famous "Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing" (see below) is in fact itself a take on Las Meninas:

Having stared long enough at Velasquez's work last Thursday, I think I see what she means.

In the meantime, we've moved on to Seville, where it's currently 36 degrees celsius. There's a puppetry festival in town, as well as lots of religious devotees. They sort of go together, I think.


Monday, May 17, 2010


Nothing like one’s last night in Barcelona coinciding with the city’s beloved football team, FC Barcelona, winning the Spanish League Championship. They were celebrating until 2 am along the Rambla and in the Plaça de la Catalunya, which just happened to be a block away from our hotel. A welcome distraction, no doubt, from all the restraint measures recently introduced by the Spanish government to stave off what's recently happened in Greece.

Boy do Barcelona’s football fans ever know how to celebrate. They trump North American pigskin followers any day, not to mention diehard Vancouver Canucks fans—and their team actually rewards them by winning! As far as I can tell, supporting FC Barcelona involves a lot of slagging of rival Madrid, which was the case last night, even though it was Malaga, and not Madrid, that was in the final.

Madrid is where we’re off to today (I’m typing this in the train station, although won't likely post it till later this evening upon reaching our destination). We’ve already planned our trips to the Prado and the Reina Sofia to see Picasso’s Guernica and Velasquez’s Las Meninas, among other iconic works. It will be especially interesting to reacquaint myself with the latter work, having made so many references—good Foucauldian that I am—to it in various lectures in the intervening years to “illustrate” a point about the self-referential loop of representation, and especially having just seen Picasso’s own inimitable Cubist take on the painting at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. Needless to say, Picasso makes Velasquez himself the dominant figure of his painting—a portrait of the portrait of the artist as giant ego AND unleashed id.

I was also pleased to discover that our visit coincides with the first week of Madrid’s annual Spring Festival of Autumn (go figure!). Some theatre and dance favourites will be in town, and while we’ll miss Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola! and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet’s latest collaboration, Babel, there’s plenty else on offer (including a work that references the theories of Giorgio Agamben), and hopefully we’ll get to take something in. Then, too, there’s more football fallout to look forward to, as the UEFA Champions League final (featuring Bayern Munich and Internazionale) is being played while we’re there.

One last note on Barcelona, however: yesterday, while most of the city was gearing up for the big football match, Richard and I fulfilled a long held dream by visiting the German pavilion Mies van der Rohe designed for the 1929 World’s Fair in Barcelona. Actually, the pavilion is a meticulous reconstruction of the one Mies designed, the original having been torn down right away in 1930 following the end of the Fair. Quite the scandal when it was unveiled in 1929—especially as it stood distinctly apart from the other baroque and neoclassical buildings that constituted the main exhibition grounds—the pavilion is a marvel of light, space, and functional materiality. And, there, in the centre of the building’s main room were the two Barcelona chairs that Mies and partner Lily Reich designed especially for the King and Queen of Spain’s visit to the pavilion. Apparently the royals never sat on them, but the chairs were a hit nonetheless, and with a few modifications (out went the white pigskin and in came black leather) the chairs became a classic of modernist chair design and continue to fill chic offices, hotel lobbies, and streamlined homes the world over.

By the way, stay tuned for more on chairs in future posts, as I’ve written a whole play about them. And, much to my continued amazement, the play is actually going to be produced this September.


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Marina Abramović at La Pedrera

While visiting Antonio Gaudí’s architectural masterpiece, Casa Milà, or “La Pedrera,” yesterday on the Passeig de Gràcia in Barcelona, I was pleasantly surprised to see that in addition to the normal admission to the building (definitely worth the wait in line), visitors could also take in a video and photographic installation by celebrated performance artist Marina Abramović, included as part of the city’s ongoing LOOP Video Art Fair.

Abramović, needless to say, wasn’t present at La Pedrera yesterday (though the 12 minute video of her silently holding a full container of milk in the kitchen of a former orphanage in Gijón, Spain in 2009 definitely had “presence”). That would be because she’s currently in New York spending every opening hour of MOMA in a chair in one of the museum’s rooms, silently exchanging energy with museum visitors who care to line up for the chance to sit opposite her for a minute or two as part of a major retrospective of her work called, fittingly, “The Artist is Present.” A retrospective of performance art seems somewhat oxymoronic, and Abramović’s show has aroused some pointed discussion in various performance studies quarters for her decision to—in her words—“re-perform” some of her major past works of body and performance art (including collaborations with Ulay) using paid performers whom she has auditioned and trained. Indeed, one wonders what Peggy Phelan, Abramović’s great interpreter (see the amazing essay “Witnessing Shadows,” published in Theatre Journal), would make of all this. Phelan, after all, is the critic who famously argued (in 1993) that the “ontology” of performance rests on its “disappearance.”

It has only been a few years since Abramović’s last major gallery show in New York—at the Guggenheim, where, significantly, she performed all the works herself. In that time the artist seems to have wholeheartedly embraced the idea of filmic and photographic documentation: not simply as a way of recording and preserving the live event as an object of study, but also to create independent works of media and installation art in and of themselves. Hence the show I saw yesterday at La Pedrera. Comprised of a series of photographic C-prints and the single aforementioned video, the piece is called “The Kitchen: Homage to Saint Therèse,” and sees Abramović using the famous mystic from Ávila’s writings on rapture (especially as focused on her ability to levitate) to explore everyday suspensions between the physical and the spiritual, the rational and the emotional. How it’s possible, in other words, to become transfixed by a full bowl of milk. And how it’s possible to become equally transfixed watching someone watching a full bowl of milk.

Entirely appropriate that such suspensions, such liminal states of being in and of the world—including between the live and the mediated—should be explored inside Gaudí’s magnificent structure. After all, it was a building that was designed upside down.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ruined at the Almeida

So the ending was less sentimental than I’d anticipated from reading the text—in part because the amazing Jenny Jones managed to reveal Mama Nadi’s vulnerability and pain without sacrificing any of her toughness; in part because the equally superb Lucian Msamati did not overplay Christian’s white knight qualities; and especially because director Indhu Rubasingham wisely choreographed the closing dance between the two not as a full-on, full-contact swoon, but rather as a tentative shuffle, with plenty of distance kept between the two actors on stage. Hope is contained within that space, to be sure—which was playwright Lynn Nottage’s stated intention in parting from Brecht’s epic theatrical principles (Ruined is consciously modeled on Mother Courage and Her Children). However, hope’s easy and rapid fulfillment for these two damaged souls—as, indeed, for all the victims of the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—is by no means certain. In fact, my only critique about the ending of the play is that the parrot’s final words—“Mama, Primus. Mama, Primus”—were not articulated clearly enough, and with enough of a temporal jolt, to effect what I read in the text as a return, from the anomalous display on Mama Nadi’s part of emotion and sentimentality, to the Brechtian world of commerce (Primus is the brand of beer that Mama Nadi sells to her customers at her bar/brothel).

As for the rest of the play, what I was pleased to see was how generous the play is in performance to the secondary characters. Even those with few lines in the text (such as Fortune’s fellow soldier-friend, Simon, played by recent RADA graduate Damola Adelaja) are given a chance to take centre stage and reveal their full complexity. Strikingly, the character that comes across as most cipher-like in this production is Mr. Harari, the foreign diamond merchant who, when the going gets tough and he can no longer figure out whom to bribe, absconds with Mama Nadi’s “insurance policy”—and, consequently, what Sophie (Pippa Bennett-Warner) sees as her one chance at redemption. As played by Silas Carson—no slouch as an actor—Harari doesn’t seem to have anything to do. Which is, perhaps, the whole point, Rubasingham no doubt attuned to the fact that Carson is the only white actor (though it should be pointed out that the character of Mr. Harari is actually Lebanese, which is supposed to add a bit of complexity to his take on the civil war in the DRC) amongst an otherwise all-black cast, thus visually reinforcing his character’s “unbelonging” in this world. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, with special kudos going to Michelle Asante as Salima, whose devastating Act 2 speech about her abduction and serial rape and climactic, self-immolating gesture of defiance are even more powerful when embodied on the stage as they appear on the page. The tall and striking Kehinde Fadipe imbues the somewhat underwritten part of Josephine with memorable self-presence (especially in her Act 2, Scene 1 dance), and David Ajala makes Fortune’s lament for the wife he’s lost to the double violence of rape and the subsequent shame he himself heaped upon her seem heartfelt and sincere.

My only real complaint about the play, after seeing it in performance, is that the songs seem to get lost. I’m not sure if this was a result of the sound amplification within the relatively intimate space of the Almeida, but it was not always easy to hear the words of the songs that Sophie is given to sing. And this is a shame, because as with Brecht they offer important commentary on the action we are witnessing on stage. The reprise of “A Rare Bird” at the end, consigned as it is to the radio in this production, combined with what I identify above as the lost opportunity with the parrot, robs this otherwise excellent mounting of Nottage’s searing play of what I see as the more nuanced—although no less forceful—nature of its political and social indictment of the history of gendered violence in war.


Monday, May 10, 2010

Auden's England

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave…
- W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”

It’s been almost exactly a year since Richard and I were last in London, and once again I must begin with politics. Whereas last year the global financial crisis and the just emerging expenses scandal were sending polling numbers for Gordon Brown’s Labour government to new lows, this year the electorate has finally had a chance to pronounce on that government. Yet the election results are decidedly ambiguous, throwing the country into further uncertainty. David Cameron’s Conservative Party won the most seats in last Thursday’s election, but fell shy of a majority. This has thrust Liberal Democratic leader Neil Clegg, whose party machinery somehow failed to translate his surging popularity in the wake of the first ever televised leaders’ debates into an increase in seats, into the role of kingmaker.

Still, as of this writing to my knowledge no deal has yet emerged about a possible power-sharing coalition between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, and various constituencies on both sides are nervous about the so-called compromises to their parties’ “core values” that might result. Which means, according to local media pundits, that there is still a slim possibility of a Labour/Lib Dem coalition being struck from this mire—especially if, as is widely expected, Gordon Brown announces his imminent resignation as Labour leader. However, as the Conservatives won the most seats and the popular vote, this would be a very risky move on the part of Clegg (and Labour, for that matter), risking voters’ wrath the next time the country goes to the polls.

Strange, though, that unlike in Canada all of these details seem to be thrashed through in advance by the various leaders/parties, presenting the Queen with what amounts to a “gentlemen’s agreement” to work together for the good of the country rather than all the ideological jockeying and abuse of parliamentary procedure that is par for the course with our minority Conservative government.

As for the performances, so far there has been an Auden theme: a wonderful revival of Hans Werner Henze’s 1961 opera Elegy for Young Lovers, with libretto by Auden and Chester Kallman, at the Young Vic, in a co-production with the ENO, and magnificently directed by Fiona Shaw; and Alan Bennett’s latest play, The Habit of Art, which reunites the playwright with director Nicholas Hyntner and actors Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour (both so wonderful in The History Boys), and which imagines a meeting between Auden and Benjamin Britten while both were at Oxford towards the end of their lives and Britten was struggling with the music for his last opera, Death in Venice.

Auden apparently based the egotistical and cannibalistic poet, Mittenhofer, in Elegy on W.B. Yeats, and it really is a most unflattering portrait of the artist who is willing to do anything—including, it is suggested, abetting the deaths of those closest to him—for the sake of art. Bennett’s play suggests that in Elegy’s Mittenhofer Auden was also composing a composite self-portrait, as he has his Auden claim at one point that “Real artists are not nice people. All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue.” And, indeed, what Auden (despite his moving poetic elegy for Yeats, recited in the Bennett play at one point) found most unforgivable about Yeats—that his poetic talent had diminished towards the end of his life—he also feared about himself.

Apparently writerly self-doubt is something Bennett also has in common with Auden, as the rather clunky play-within-a-play scaffolding he has erected around his imagined meeting between Britten and Auden (we are watching members of an acting company rehearse a play—Caliban’s Day—about the two artists) allows him the opportunity not just to reflect post hoc on differences in the two men’s sexual self-presentation, but also to conduct a debate with himself about the merits of his own play (mostly via the Griffiths’ character’s merciless questioning of the fictional playwright’s motives at various points in the play-within-a-play).

One final note on the Henze opera: the whole experience was made all the more memorable by the presence of the 84 year-old composer himself in the audience—and me witnessing the great Fiona Shaw giving him a hug.

Tonight we’re off to the Almeida to see the London premiere of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, about rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a play I taught this year in my Introduction to Drama course. It’s gotten rave reviews here, and I’m anxious to see a live production. I shall report on its merits when I can—likely from Spain, where we’re off to next, Icelandic volcanic ash permitting.