not books but other bits

The new exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, A World of Glass by Nathalie Djurberg with music by Hans Berg, is probably the best exhibition I’ve seen there – and elsewhere – for months.

Nathalie Djurberg works chiefly with stop-motion animation, creating short films which address very complex adult themes that their childish appearance belies. The apparent simplicity of the work is completely at odds with its subject matter and the arduous process involved creating this kind of work Some of her earlier films epict – for example – a female eskimo slaughtering a walrus, disembowelling it, and then climbing inside the carcass and swimming off; or a woman whose children climb back inside her vagina, after which their limbs start protruding through her skin, turning her into a multi-limbed and awkward beast… Wallace and Gromit it ain’t.

A World Of Glass is composed of four short films, music, and a series of ‘glass’ sculptures. The sculptures are not, in fact glass, but a kind of plastic. This is because they are actually casts of many different objects, moulded together with clay, which creates wonderfully strange fragile-looking sculptures like otherworldly towers of glassware; tables set for a strange feast, perhaps. Some even resemble stalagmites in the way they seem to rise shakily and unevenly from the tables. Indeed, the lighting and the tinkling, echoing music does create a cavernous atmosphere. It all brings to mind Alice’s topsy turvy through-the-looking-glass world, and every nursey rhyme or fairy tale you’ve ever heard. This exhibition taps into something essentially very dark, but childlike too – Brothers Grimm eat your heart out.

Hans Berg – who creates the music for all her films – has added an unusual twist to this exhibition, making just one soundtrack for all four films. This creates a spectacularly immersive effect which builds through the exhibition as the audience becomes more aware of the links being made between the audio and the visual, as the musical arcs correlate to the story progression. It’s atmospheric, challenging, gripping, often surprising and not without humour. Expect animals, animalism, nudity, violence, gore, sadness, desperation and fear… with a sprinkling of humanity, beauty and wonder. Great stuff.


my exhibition guideTracey, you made my day – no, you made my week. I’ve been meaning to see this exhibition ever since it opened, but with one thing and another haven’t got around to it. The price of admission when you’re neither a concession nor a student is high enough to put me off on days I could take or leave it. But yesterday I bit the bullet and spent £12 on a ticket to see Love Is What You Want. It was worth every penny, including the £3.50 I spent on postcards (I can never resist the postcards).

Emin’s quilts and blankets are probably the first thing that I think of when I think of her – the appalling spelling, the textures and patterns and overlays; the blinding frankness.  ‘planet thanet’ made me chuckle. ‘I want an international lover who loves me more than the world’ hung on the uppermost level – shouts over the heads of all the others, and tugs you forwards into the exhibition; full of passion and longing and sweet simple naive ambition.

I didn’t spend much time over the neons. ‘people like you need to fuck people like me’ ‘love is what you want’ – they serve a purpose, and the arcade/sex shop vibe is apparent, but they don’t do much for me. The films in the next few rooms, however, are a revelation. I sat through Why I never became a dancer twice because I just couldn’t get enough of the triumphant joy on her face at the end – that’s what surviving and succeeding looks like, right there. Riding for a fall has a similar moment in it – a little smile right at the end.

I could go on at length about each step of the way round the exhibition – the intimate family mementos, the comic value in so much of her work, the horrific account of a botched abortion, trauma, tales of being knocked down and growing tall again, the wonderful self-portrait in the Vivienne Westwood dress of money pouring from between her legs… but all this is self-evident, and expected, in a way. I would have been disappointed not to see used tampons and scrawled mis-spelled deeply personal letters – it’s part and parcel of what makes Emin the artist she is; getting all up in the masculine establishment’s face with her crochet knits and her crotch.

I’d like to talk instead about the top floor of the exhibition. This floor is less visually confrontational than the lower floor’s work. There is limited use of film, still less neon, and no sound. There is also less colour here – much of this work is monochromatic – white on shades of white or grey or blue. There is one self-portrait on this floor entitled ‘Sometimes I feel beautiful’, which is just that – beautiful. There is also some of the exhibition’s most graphic gynaecological work, which I find to be the most powerful element of her work so far – perhaps excluding the autobiographical films. There is a lot of embroidery on old bedsheets, and one which sticks in my mind depicts a  woman’s crotch and bears the legend ‘Harder and better than all those bastards’, which just made me smile.

I’m not sure that I prefer these to the more colourful, more complex, more scrappy and exuberant works downstairs; but there is a coming of age feeling about them – a maturity. This isn’t necessarily a good thing – perhaps the earlier work is better art – but I found these paler, more pared-down sketches and bedsheets and vulvas very compelling; they seem to get to the bare bones of what Emin has been saying all these years.

Often simplistic, yes. Emotive, yes. Crude, certainly. Like her or loather her, Tracey Emin is important. If you’re the slightest bit curious, you should go and see this show before it closes.

Nathan ColeyThe Kent coast has apparently become the centre of the British art world. And why not? It’s only a matter of time before everyone and everything is priced out of London – let art and artists lead the way.

After all, Ms Tracey Emin, premier female British artist du jour – currently enjoying a long-awaited and fabulous retrospective at the Hayward Gallery – grew up in Kent’s own Margate. But it’s not Margate or Emin I want to talk about – it’s Folkestone.

Despite having lived on the Kent coast for just over a year before re-locating back to London, I never visited Folkestone. It’s a strange truth about small towns that people rarely leave them, even to visit neighbouring towns. It’s stranger still that the distances and/or journey times involved often equate to what most city-dwellers would consider a short and easy commute. But this is all besides the point. Folkestone is currently holding it’s Triennial; ‘the flagship project of the Creative Foundation, a charity based in Folkestone, which is leading the large-scale renewal of the old town area, known as the Creative Quarter’. It’s basically a two-month long celebration of the arts, held in and around Folkestone’s public spaces and galleries, and it’s spectacularly good fun.

I suppose it didn’t hurt that the day we went was a sunny Saturday, and the kids from local schools were out in a carnival parade, and it was just the right temperature for eating fish and chips outside, and the light was so clear that every photo we took, and all the people we spoke to glowed with that unique seaside glow. But I’d encourage everyone to go, even if it’s raining.

The sheer scale of the thing is impressive in itself; there are permanent installations by some big names (Nathan Coley, Tracey Emin and Mark Wallinger to name a few) and temporary exhibitions by a fantastic array of well-knowns, home-growns and newcomers. Particularly notable among these, I think, are Paloma Varga Weisz and her Rug People, Cornelia Parker’s The Folkestone Mermaid and Strange Cargo’s brilliant and touching Everywhere Means Something To Someone.

Rug People‘s location on the derelict Folkestone Harbour train station is remarkable and atmospheric in itself. We spent a good half hour wandering up and down the platform gaping at the rust and the plants; the place looks as though humans have vanished from the face of the earth (or at least Folkestone) and it’s been untouched and unseen for decades.

The whole effect is of a town coming out of its shell and shouting loudly that it wants to be there. Like Margate with it’s new Turner Contemporary, Folkestone seems to be pinning it’s hopes on art, artists and art-lovers to drag it from obscurity and ruin. Unlike Margate, it seems that Folkestone is a lot further down the line to making this actually work. It’s really very heartening, and I left feeling uplifted and hopeful (and a bit giddy from all the fresh air and sunshine).

On at the BFI until next week, is the restored version of the 1970 film Deep End that was thought to be lost forever – what a find! Directed by Jerry Skolimowski, starring Jane Asher and John Moulder-Brown, the film is nothing short of bizarre, and in this quality lies it’s brilliance.

This is – you will note – the first film I have written about here. It’s not because this is the first film I’ve seen since I started writing this blog.. but because I was trying to steer clear of writing about EVERYTHING I’ve seen and done, and just keeping focussed on the stuff that seems worth writing about/interesting enough to sustain, well, interest.. So here goes: Deep End at the BFI.

It’s string of ever-increasing strangeness from start to finish, with a few discernable threads of well-trodden plot development to keep the audience on the straight and narrow: boy meets girl; flirtation ensues; girl has fiancée/is unattainable; boy driven wild with longing; boy engineers a situation where the two can be alone together. There’s nothing really likeable about either of the main characters except their winsome good looks; both engaging in a kind of adolescent kiss-chase which gets nastier and more grown-up – and therefore painful and destructive – as the film progresses. However, the saving grace of the film is that it is undeniably and often laugh-out-loud funny.

The grace and innocence with which characters skirt around the oddities of the plot and dialogue lends the whole film a sense of art-house otherworldliness – treading a fine line between hyper-real and surreal – which is very enjoyable. The fact, for instance, that the film is riddled with ludicrously predatory women, all circling around this hapless – and increasingly deranged – 15-year old boy highlights and heightens the almost apocalyptic significance given to sex and sexuality in this film. Make no mistake about it – this is a film about the end of the 60s – sex has Happened to society and left a trail of neurotic/savage carnage in its wake; young virgin boys beware! The pool and public baths at which the two main characters meet is a crumbling ruin of a building clearly crying out for demolition. Occasionally workmen appear in the background of key scenes to paint the walls red; (red! In a swimming pool?) perhaps one of my favourite ‘SYMBOLISM!’ moments – one of many odd moments to define odd moments. Stylized and sex-crazed. Subtle, it aint. But that’s where the beauty of it lies. Go see it.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS: how nice it is to see snaggly teeth and poorly done make-up and large middle-aged women in films. Really. It’s sad that it’s so refreshing.

Using the intonations and rhythm naturally present in speech, interview material is transformed into musical theatre. It is not straightforward ‘musical’ material – there is always a sense that reality wins out over one’s expectations of the musical theatre genre, which is fitting for such gritty subject matter. Perhaps ‘gritty’ is not a suitably descriptive word. When I tell people what the play is ostensibly ‘about’ – the murders of five prostitues in Ipswich between 2006-7 – there is a certain amount of recoil. When you consider the actual content of the script, however, one cannot avoid the realisation that this is a play about community in all it’s most unflattering and mundane guises, infused with a frisson of morbid excitement. The fallout from this unwanted ‘excitement’ is a heartening mix of community cohesion and press-bashing.

The wonderful characterisations by a highly versatile cast alone makes London Road an enjoyable excercise in theatre-going, but the script is the star of the show – hovering as it does between art and reality. These are, after all, the words of real people; residents, prostitues, shopkeepers, TV presenters, that are being crafted and re-worked into melody. We are occasionally reminded of this throughout the performance, never so powerfully as when phrases that have just been sung on stage are replayed in their original form – an interview with a prostitute from Ipswich. It’s a real feat of musical and theatrical invention, which continues to be surprising and touching until the end.

One quite important criticism would be that the second half seems unnecessary. The play could have been run as a piece of short theatre and maintained it’s energy and momentum much better. The real impact lies in the audience’s examination of the residents and their reactions to the unfolding events, and the second half is largely focussed on the news coverage of the verdict, which is less engaging and feels less directly related to speech patterns. Perhaps this is something to do with the flat language of the media.

A fascinating idea. Perhaps a little over-long.

Last weekend was the opening of the new Turner Contemporary art gallery on Margate’s seafront. I attended.

Having spent the best part of last year living in Deal (a small, quietly vibrant seaside town on the Kent coast) I got to know Margate a bit, mostly through outreach work that the company I worked for did there. It’s a very deprived and depressing place, but there is so much visible potential (so much fantastic architecture, so much space, so much beach) it’s possible to remain upbeat about the place in spite of it all. I suppose perhaps that’s the Londoner in me talking – a place that has unused/semi-derelict Georgian terraced houses with huge windows? Unthinkable. Fantastic. I think that’s part of the problem; the intimation of gentrification that opening a stonking new art gallery brings with it. Is that what Margate needs? I suppose the idea is to attract money to the town and hope for the best.

Stepping off the train I am struck by the contrast with the last time I set foot in Margate. Here is an extract from something I jotted down whilst waiting to be collected from Margate train station cafe, not more than a few weeks ago:

“past a closed pub towards a ‘cafe’ sign, which on closer inspection marks a chip shop with indoor seating. Someone in a grimy sweatshirt sits inside with their back to the window and is the only customer. A few steps further down the street is a patch of grass. A burly dog is defecating. You couldn’t make it up. Down the hill, stretching out into the distance is an elongated row of boarded up kebab shops, broken street lamps, the sound of seagulls… concrete and grease-smelling view.”

So last weekend the sight of hordes of people on the promenade, sitting outside pubs I hadn’t noticed were there, strolling, laughing, generally making merry, was a bit of a shock, if a pleasant one. I can’t imagine that all of these people are local – the whole scene seemed improbable. Perhaps local in the same way that our little group is – all the way from Deal, half an hour away by train. This, I think is part of the problem with the whole project, and what makes me uneasy about it. Who is it for? It’s not for the people of Margate, surely? There is no denying that there is an artistic community here, and all over the Kent coast, Whitstable in particular, but is the fact that artists live here enough? Where is the audience? I suppose the idea is that there will be a gradual influx, both of day-trippers and permanent settlers who can’t afford to live in London or have lost the inclination. Both of these things, I feel certain, will happen – it’s only a matter of time – but how soon? I can see the potential here, can see the hunger in the eyes of developers.. but how long does Turner have to earn back the millions spent on this brand spanking new state of the art gallery? There are a lot of questions.

But, to the gallery itself! What a fantastic space. It really is very beautiful, inside and out, and the location couldn’t be better. As we appraoched it, the light installation set up for the opening glowed on the water like a lighthouse or a moon, outshining the real full moon which hovered also above the gallery. Bright lights of Margate! and the people, still flocking around their new playground. I wonder how many will return.

The work on display was very much themed around locality, and all was of  a high standard, all clearly well thought out and chosen for purpose. I would expect nothing less for such a high-profile event at which there is so much at stake. There was live music downstairs from the Cocos Lovers, a Deal-based band making big waves. It’s always heartening to see them amassing more and more followers. See them live if you can (they’re at lots of festivals this summer): there’s no substitute. We weren’t allowed to bring drinks from the cafe into the room they were performing in, so we climbed (ever-so gracefully) over the balcony railings outside to drink and loiter, looking in. I suppose they didn’t want their brand new floors soaked in beer on opening night, which seems fair enough. The music was playing on speakers outside the bulding as well, so people looking out to sea could hear it too. A lovely touch; very atmospheric.

All in all I suppose there’s no room for negativity about this project. It’s a great space and surely an art gallery is never a wholly bad thing; one just hopes that the people in charge have a well-laid plan. It’ll be a huge shame if it doesn’t work out, so I urge you: go and see it! Make it work! Give Margate a chance.