'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Saturday, 25 June 2011

I’ve lately developed a healthy obsession for the Greeks. Ancient that is, not modern. Bloodbaths, matricide, all powerful goddesses - what’s not to love? It’s archetypal stuff that anyone with any self-knowledge can probably relate to. Actually I seem to have discovered that even if you haven’t a great degree of self-knowledge – mine’s a bit thin on the ground I’m beginning to suspect, although that in itself seems to be a fairly good starting point on the basis that the minute you think you know is usually the exact minute you stop knowing – you can acquire some through reading these timeless stories and spotting your own habits in the character’s unfolding dramas.

We’ve all got goddess traits of one sort or another and it’s fun spotting your own, although I should confess I did get a bit of a hint on which mine might be from an American girlfriend who, upon hearing of my latest romantic nuclear meltdown, (and we are talking Chernobyl here, a Chernobyl of female rage and destructive indignation at perceived maltreatment of women in general and moi in particular, aka misogyny, from someone who’s public ‘spiritual’ face falsely suggests he should know better) asked me what was with me and my Artemis complex.

A lightbulb came on and I immediately remembered what had been my favourite painting when I worked for Anthony Mould in the late 90s – Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Lady Anne Dawson as the Goddess Diana, Diana being the Roman equivalent of the Greek Artemis.

I decided this must have been my subconscious identifying with the insignia of Diana the Huntress – the silver crescent moon in her hair, the adoring greyhound gazing up at her whilst she rests a gentle protective hand on its neck, not to mention the enviable antique rose coloured silk gown with plunging, but not immodest, d├ęcolletage.

It was like suddenly coming across my best friend and mirror image – a perhaps slightly over competitive, but in its positive manifestation highly focused, nocturnal, animal lover and somewhat aloof feminist loner who keeps a strong army of female friends and a strict approach to the kind of behaviours she expects from her male partner, i.e. a bit of respect if you don’t mind, otherwise there’ll be trouble. Oh, and a nice line in feminine rage with which to drum up aforementioned trouble as needed.

There’s one particularly amusing story about Diana inadvertently shooting dead her lover, Orion, from some miles distance, when her brother, Apollo, challenged her skills with the bow and arrow. After all, who can resist a good challenge?

Another woman who had more than a little Diana about her was ground breaking photographer and Suffragette Madame Yevonde (1893-1975) who’s most famous quote is the nervous-makingly astringent: ‘be original or die’. Quite right, tell it like it is and no messing.

Madame Yevonde was one of the key pioneers of colour photography. At a time when photographers and public alike were so used to seeing the world reproduced in black and white that the new fangled colour version was met with some hostility, Madame Yevonde was flying the flag for the new with alacrity.

Possibly one of her most important bodies of work is the Goddesses series part of which is currently showing at the PM Gallery in Ealing. Here you’ll find her work hung along side a photographic portrait project by contemporary artist Neeta Madahar, which is a shame in a way because Neeta’s work doesn’t have nearly the va-va-voom nor the creative insight to match up to Madame Yevonde’s. To have hung her work with that of the great woman might have been a mistake akin to Damien Hirst’s brainwave to show his first ever body of work with a brush alongside Gainsborough and Reynolds at the Wallace Collection. A bit of humility might not have gone amiss.

But never mind because the trip out to Ealing is more than worth its while for anyone with an interest in female archetypal psychology or powerful portrait photography. With images here of 1930s society ladies taking on the guise of mythological characters including Arial, Hecate, Flora, Venus and even Medusa, it might give you the chance to discover your own inner goddesses.

Role Play
PM Gallery and House
Mattock Lane, Ealing
until 3 July

I’ve just finished reading a delightful book from Persephone Books who publish forgotten classics by (mostly) women writers. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson was first published in 1938, then forgotten about for many years by all but a few, and then, on the back of its being re-published by Persephone Books in 2000, was made into a ‘major motion picture’ in 2008.

Seventy years after it was penned by a secretary from Newcastle, and six years after her death at the age of 96, Miss Pettigrew grossed $17 million at the box office. Maybe that’s not that much in movie terms these days, I don’t know, but what I do know is that if something I’d written grossed $17 million ever in a million years, I’d be thrilled over the moon. Although of course poor old Winifred was dead by then, so thrilled was probably out of the equation, but nonetheless, my point stands.

And my point is this: I’m always expecting in life that if I do the graft then the payoff will shortly follow. I think actually that’s what we’re taught to expect, but I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that in reality it’s a bit more complicated than that. I’m finally coming to understand that you must put in the graft and that you must then let go of it and, crucially, you must also let go of any expectation of a payoff from it. The payoff may well come, or it may not, but to plan for it is a mistake.

Particularly in producing anything creative, too fixed an idea of any particular end result is a fatal error. For where is the heart to enter if the head has already closed every door? And without the heart what have you created? Nothing more than an intellectual game; nothing of depth or integrity; nothing of meaning. In short then, nothing at all.

If you let the head rule the heart, if you imagine you can think your way through life, you may well dull some of the pain, but you will also numb the joy, and you will never, ever be truly creative. Because creativity comes through the heart, not the head.

But, as usual, I’ve allowed myself to waffle far from the point I had in mind. What I was wanting to say was that I wondered if Miss Pettigrew was perhaps the first ever piece of chick lit. Although I’m aware the term probably isn’t a great compliment and I’m not even entirely sure what it means, I do love Bridget Jones – I read it every time things go a bit stinky in life, and Miss Pettigrew seems like something of a go-girlfriend style precursor.

As well as its ahead of its time post-feminist over tones, Miss Pettigrew is also of that very time specific and very English genre of novel that’s one of my favourites - 1930’s Waugh-esque posh kids lounging about sipping cocktails, going to non-stop glamorous parties in diaphanous gowns, driving their cars far too recklessly just for a giggle, using phrases like “cheese it” and having elaborate conversations that go round and round in circles making no rational sense whatsoever, which is absolutely my favourite kind of conversation.

It must be said though that Miss Pettigrew does lack Waugh’s dark subtle underbelly, but she more than makes up for that absence by the fact that absent too is the Smurfette effect, i.e. that world common to literary fiction wherein the reader finds herself amongst a group of blokes with no more than one or two token women who constitute simply the love interest. Miss Pettigrew on the other hand is written from the girl’s perspective with the fellows taking up the romantic bit parts. Delicious.

What’s more I was over-joyed to find stated in serious literary print that has withstood the test of many decades of time passing, a truth that I have long known but never quite had the stomach to say aloud: that a girl’s most essential tool for successful navigation of the world at large is indubitably her face powder.

“Miss LaFosse and Miss Dubarry powdered their noses.
“Come along now Guinevere,’ said Miss LaFosse. ‘You must powder your nose again. It isn’t done not to. Last gesture before entering a room – powder your nose. It gives a sense of confidence.’
With trembling fingers, nervous, clumsy, contented, for the first time in her life Miss Pettigrew powdered her nose.
‘Do you know,’ she said happily, ‘I think you’re right. It does add a certain assurance to one’s demeanour. I feel it already.’
‘Attaboy,’ praised Miss Dubarry.”

Yes indeed girlies, it’s all about the heart. Without too much in the ‘thinking’ department I find one can manage perfectly well in life, but without the nose powder… one isn’t even off the starting blocks!

Monday, 6 June 2011

I went to the Mark Leckey performance at the Serpentine on Thursday evening. A grand job was done of building up the suspense as it didn’t start until half an hour behind schedule. But lucky for me as I was running twenty minutes late myself having spent too long with my webdesigner, Helpful Webhosting – excuse the flagrant plug but their utter wonderfulness warrants it - polishing off my new look website that I’m tickled pink with.

If you’re not impressed with that however, then check out this: It looks like a cat but it is not a cat. It is a lion in the living room. I’ve seen smaller ponies.

It was hot and sweaty at the Serpentine but no less appealing for that. So appealing in fact the girl in front of me fainted. Delightful Liverpudlian Mark Leckey apologised for the heat and the soon to be experienced noise levels. I noticed at that point quite a few people were wearing ear plugs and I thought for a moment they must be the uber-initiates and that the next half hour was therefore going to be torture for the rest of us. But it turned out they were just the suckers who’d bought the ear plugs the Serpentine were selling in the foyer. Money better spent on beer because in actual fact the ear plugs were completely unnecessary and I decided it was entirely lame-arse of the Serpentine to go in for such a piece of nanny-state-ism. It’s contemporary art for goodness sake, embrace it as the artist intended.

BigBoxStatueAction took the form of a gigantic speaker stack positioned opposite the Henry Moore sculpture Upright Motive No 9 (1979) in the Serpentine’s main atrium. The performance involved the speaker emitting experimental music, sampling and live interjections from Leckey at a volume that made my jeans quiver but didn’t seem to adversely affect my ears.

The sound was focused directly at the Moore sculpture apparently in an attempt to elicit some response from it. Leckey himself was studying the Moore for signs of said response fairly closely throughout. Nobody else seemed that interested what Henry might have to say. I suppose it’s investigating whether or not one’s perceptions of the Moore sculpture are altered by the introduction of this significant degree of sound into its immediate environment. Of course one’s perceptions are altered. How could they not be? Perhaps then it was investigating in what way one’s perceptions are altered?

Overall the show has caused quite a critical curfuffle. Jonathan Jones in The Guardian gave it the slating of all time. His review, which seemed to me to be a sensationalist, ill-informed and frankly, personal attack, attracted a staggering 308 comments before the comments page was closed 5 days after the piece went live. More than 30 of the comments were from Jones himself, seemingly digging himself an ever deeper hole, even claiming at one point that he doesn’t like contemporary art. There was also a comment from Mark Leckey who came out of the whole thing with his dignity and reputation entirely in tact, a feat Jones failed to pull off.

A few days later Frieze jumped on the bandwagon with a curiously pompous investigation into the credibility or otherwise of broadsheet art journalism:

The whole thing made me realise how much we all love to take the upper hand. Everyone’s always got to be right the whole time. We’re all so keen for everyone to know how much clever we are than they. But if we’re all so much cleverer than each other then who on earth can ever be cleverest of all? Whoever it is it’s bound to be a man. Tusk, Beverley, childish. Anyway, its gin o’clock now so I’m off. You can argue amongst yourselves about who’s cleverest. I’m quite content being thick.

BigBoxStatueAction 2003 performed by Mark Leckey and Jack to Jack at Tate Britain.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

"If you are going through hell, keep going."
Winston Churchill

Tracey Emin, Love is What You Want

The problem with success is that once you've attained it it's almost impossible to avoid being typecast by it. One of the biggest misconceptions about the twenty-first century phenomenon that is Tracey Emin is that her work is all about sex. In fact as Ms Emin's first major London exhibition clearly shows, her work is about far more than her sex life. In fact, I would argue, her work concerns itself very little with her sex life. A lot of other things go on in a bed besides sex. No, her work is about intimacy. It is about love. By which I do not mean crappy Hollywood-style love with a small 'l' to which most of us these days are already horribly over-exposed, but big Love with a big 'L' that takes no account of gender, race, or even - as we discover at the Hayward via a by turns comic and somewhat disconcerting video sketch featuring a dribbling bullmastiff - species.

Tracey Emin seems to take a lot of flack in this country. What I can't quite figure out is why. Is it her success and our perverse British desire to see the mighty fall? Is it because she went on TV a bit pissed and exposed herself as someone who is occasionally - gasp - out of control? It can't seriously be because she pays people to stitch things for her? Surely not, because Reynolds paid people to paint things for him, as did Gainsborough and we don't have a problem with them. Maybe it’s the narcissism we perceive in her use of her own life as the starting point for her art. But where then would we like her to start? An artist can't really begin a meaningful examination of life with someone else's life can they? For how do we know what someone else's life is like? Maybe it's because we imagine she can't draw and that's why she embroiders tents and submits unmade beds as art? Yet it has often been said, and I tend to concur, that she's a very able draughtsperson. So, it's a mystery to me. But whatever it is, for anyone to provoke that much irritation simply by going about their business, they've got to be doing something meaningful. Frivolity, surely, just isn't that annoying. Could it be then that she's pointing to something we might not want to look at? Something in ourselves? Is it that in showing us her own vulnerability she is also showing us ours? And perhaps we're not completely sold on the idea of gawping into our own wounds?

Maybe the kind of poignant statements her work is littered with are a bit too close to the bone:

"you stop me from feeling anything" / "I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone" / "every time I feel love I think Christ I'm going to be crucified" / "I whisper to my past, do I have another choice"

For all the vapidity she's accredited with it is fairly strong stuff.

Tracey Emin: Love is what you Want spans Emin's entire career to date including a lot of work that I'd never seen before and some work made especially for this exhibition. It opened my eyes to the vast expanse of Emin's oeuvre rather than the smallish pond of what I had thought was her oeuvre. She's prolific and works very successfully in all media. Add to that she's feisty, she's controversial, she's fun and she's a little bit cross. She's strong, vulnerable, profound, sensitive, brave, insecure, witty and all in all I cannot but to take my hat off to her. I don't care if some love to hate you Trace. I don't, I love to love you.

Tracey Emin
Love is What You Want
Hayward Gallery
til 29 August
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