Tuesday 25 October 2011

POSTMODERNISM: STYLE AND SUBVERSION @ the Victoria & Albert Museum until the 15thJanuary 2012

We all like to bandy around the word ‘Postmodern’ like it’s anyone’s business, right? Well I do. But how many of us stop and actually question what we really mean by this or at least why do we use that word rather than others? When do we most use it? And to describe what? I think most of you right now are thinking the same as me, that we mostly use that word in an ironic sense with a determinable sarcastic note. For example, I have many people come with me to an exhibition in Dalston and, when they see something wacky, they sarcastically exclaim, scratching their imaginary beard: ‘Oh it’s so Postmodern!’. We all then have a good laugh and move on. Sound familiar? A few days ago I went to the V&A’s exhibition, ‘POSTMODERNISM: STYLE AND SUBVERSION’ (@V_and_A) really to see when this term came to be, what it really meant and how it is important to our lives. Now as I did a degree in English Literature and have studied some contemporary art during my time at MASS MoCA in the States, I had some idea of what ‘Postmodernism’ meant in terms of literature and art but still was wanting a firmer footing in this precarious conceptual minefield.
The show was an interesting one. The first thing one must say is that the show certainly has its limitations. For instance the big claim as being the first major exhibition on Postmodernism worldwide does ignore the fact that this for the most part is a show about Postmodern design, fashion and architecture. It doesn’t take in art and literature into its remit even if that also was subversive. Having said that, it does contextualise these three areas to some degree in relation to film and music. Now that we have renamed this exhibition in our minds as ‘Postmodernism in Design’, we can look at its great triumphs. This exhibition is a wonderfully-curated show detailing a period that many of us lived through and of which were part: the late 1970s, 80s and most of the 90s. Through a multifaceted array of objects and styles of display at different eye levels, this exhibition brings this period to colourful life. We are taken (not that far) back to a time with bright luminous colours, clashing fashion styles, androgynous off-centre hairstyles, garishly stylistic TV and music videos, and over the top typefaces and advertising. What came to my mind most was the scene when Michael J. Fox’s character first walks out into the main town square and then into ‘Café 80s’ in ‘Back to the Future: Part II’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AP-ObLX7lZc ;  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E1P_ZEy6bk&NR=1) and is hit by a bombardment of disjointed occurrences. The famous town hall (yes, the one that gets struck by lightning) is situated right next to an absolutely crazy structure with no attempt to match styles for so-called neat townscaping. It has jutting out edges and facets that block the view of the pristine 1950s town hall, serve no real purpose, and almost purposefully seems to accentuate its poor continuity with its bright blue colouring. Inside the café, Fox is astonished to see people decked out in randomly chosen bright, synthetic plastic-looking clothing though drinking and eating to the music of Michael Jackson’s classic track ‘BAD’. American nostalgia is scattered around the space awkwardly, juxtaposed with haphazard technology. TV monitors career around the room taking people’s orders. Rather than real faces doing the waiting, we have a stylised Michael Jackson and Ronald Reagan, irreverent and unlikely. What was described in essence was a Postmodern future rather than a Modern one. This was the overriding image of Postmodernism as portrayed by the V&A.

Whereas Modernist design aimed at inferring modern efficiency, utopian ideals, streamlining, flat colours, the discreet hiding of technology and clean edges (IKEA is probably the biggest example of this in many ways), Postmodernist design, by contrast, pushed forward the jarring juxtaposition of the old and new, or at least conflicting styles. Thus in the late 70s and early 80s, architectural designs were taken forward that took classical motifs and threw them with more modern structures. The finished products look deliberately awkward and fly in the face of idealism and the user-experience. Fashion and music, exemplified by Grace Jones in the exhibition, had outfits that brought together sharp, non-symmetrical, angular dimensions with the elegance of classic dress. Likewise fashion and hairstyles that meshed the classically male and the classically female in look were also the ‘in’ thing. I thought of the Pet Shop Boys and their outrageously over the top videos of the 1980s, The Tube and its ancestor The Word in the 1990s. These all seemed Postmodernist in many ways, dystopian, chaotic and irreverent. In terms of furniture and jewellery, we are shown cabinets, armchairs, bookshelves and necklaces that are cut across in styles – classical design meets garish, plastic-looking, brightly-coloured blockiness. The exhibition took the seminal film ‘Bladerunner’ (1982) by Ridley Scott as the archetypal Postmodernist film: a vision of the future that was far from somewhere we want to live, where identity is up for grabs and we live in darkness everyday. Costumes, music and imagery were displayed in the exhibition as proof of the hybridity of this important film, a piece that refuses to sit comfortably in the categories of sci-fi, film noire or fiction. At one amazing moment in the exhibition, and I do not use that word often, many of the exhibition visitors were standing in a square space looking from one large screen above us to another adjacent to it, all showing 80s music videos. It felt like we were droids, anonymous sheep-like humans staring at our past in a strange future. It was very ‘Bladerunner’ to say the least.

The exhibition was a success. It opened my eyes to Postmodernism in relation to design and in relation to this early period of my life. We had all been part of it and it reminded me that we should always keep our eyes open and realise what is happening around us, never take anything for granted. We may have never come into contact with Postmodernist high fashion or furniture but we certainly saw the outcomes trickle down into music videos and hairstyles. My only complaint about the show is that it became a bit generalist in its approach to the term by the last segment. Postmodernism seemed to blend into the key concepts of the Pop Art movement and, although there were certainly overlaps in ideas, this was a shame. I think it would have been better to stop the show at 1990 and bring in contemporary art’s response to Postmodernism. For example, does Postmodernism in art have less meaning than Conceptualism when it comes to this era? Where were the Fluxus artists and the Minimalists? In literature, where was Salman Rushdie’s Metaphysics and Fabulation, the increase in black humour or dystopian playfulness, or indeed the much touted ‘death of the author’. Experimental music was handled through the consummate American composer, Philip Glass, but altogether a little too loosely. Dance and theatre likewise were meagre inclusions.

I left the show wishing for more on this important couple of decades, though certainly knowing more about what it means to be ‘Postmodern’. I must admit I did feel that this exhibition was an important start in the continuing deciphering of the term. As such it came across as superficial at points, drawing together aspects of the eighties that were in our face at the time and saying it was Postmodernist in retrospect. Having said that, the period was so recent that it is hard to be totally objective about it all. Either way I enjoyed the show immensely and would recommend it highly to any of you. It occurred to me in conversation with my friend afterwards that one might postulate that when you see your next wacky artwork at a small pokey gallery in Dalston and someone raggedly dressed in your group says in that mock-refined tone that it is ‘soooo Postmodern’, that in their pretended posh speak and choice of words, as well as in their choice of place to say it, they are ironically being Postmodern even if the work is not. There’s something for you to get your head round.         

Jana Manuelpillai

‘An Eternal Cycle: Paradise and Purgatory’ by Park Seo Young and Lyoo Song Nyeo – Buddhist Art Exhibition @ Mokspace Gallery --- Exhibition closes 10th November so see it now!!

I had my first taste of Korean contemporary art at Mokspace near the British Museum on the 14th October and I have to say it was a good introduction. Situated over two floors, the ground floor showing images of Hell and upstairs describing concepts of Buddhist Heaven, this exhibition aimed to decrypt ideas of death and its inevitable consequences for its audience. Park’s paintings of Hell are based on the works of the Joseon Dynasty and show the Great King Yomna and the other nine kings of Hell judging whether people go to paradise or purgatory. What struck me most about these works was how much they had in common with Western interpretations of the same subject matter. We see customary scenes of torturers with their lines of victims awaiting their fate much like we would see them in works by artists such as the early Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch. They are intricately painted by Park to make us think about our lives and consider the implications of our mistakes. No one wants to meet with these nine kings just as we do not want to be introduced to Satan or Lucifer and his fallen angels of Hell. Dante would be proud of these works. The detail Park employs almost feels like a painterly repenting for her own sins, the creation of realistic images of Hell being a way of the artist relieving herself of guilt. As with Renaissance images of this subject matter, moving from the top of the composition downwards generally means a movement from purgatory or the potential of purgatory to the judgements of a painful, never-ending agony made possible by ‘demon’ types who enjoy their occupation a little too much. I was struck by the manner that Park employs different artistic techniques to situate the action before us. Outside the foreground, nature is shown through a wash technique, whilst the main foreground barometer of pain is made to come forward with more scrupulous painting and subtly stronger colouring. It is as if the natural world is beyond the touch of this world of Buddhist judgement that has opened up before us. Somehow I always imagined the Buddhists would go easy on us. Not so much.

Upstairs Lyoo paints paradise as a welcome, if not surprising, relief. Subverting the traditional Buddhist paintings of this subject matter, Heaven is created as a festival of drinking and merriment, quite different from Western interpretations of Heaven. It is in this way made by Lyoo to be a very earthly Heaven, ironically subject to the human cravings of living in a modern age. In some ways it is a traditional depiction of Heaven under the influence of heavy marketing and PR: it gives us more of what we love and that we know perhaps is bad for us. Thus this show depicts the difficult relationship of our everyday ills to what will become of us after death. Deep down we hope that Heaven will have more of what we crave on earth but feel guilt over. In other words, we hope simply that it will be an end to guilt. Fascinatingly, Lyoo shows that even Paradise has a hierarchical structure where those who drink at the bottom of the image are drinking the dregs of what those at the top have been bathing, drinking and frolicking in due to its abundance. Sexual freedom and lust is also hinted at with the decorative use of human bottoms often acting as fountains and such like. I would hurry all of you to Mokspace to see this show before it closes on the 10th November. Whilst you are there, decide for yourself which is worse: a Hell that is what you expect of Hell or a paradise after death that, far from being otherworldly happiness, is simply more of the decadence and indulgence of our lives here on earth.

Jana Manuelpillai

Thursday 20 October 2011

Julia and Angus Stone - 'Big Jet Plane' - Worth a listen. Simple lyrics and simple video to match.


This is a really charming, sweet track. Definitely worth a listen. Lulls me to sleep.

Review of Woody Allen's 'Midnight in Paris' (2011) - A superficial hallucination of a film

Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’ – a superficial hallucination of a film

I have to say I am getting tired of the hype surrounding Woody Allen’s films. As much as I love his early work, particularly the witty script and analytical psychology of ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Manhattan’ (the definitive part of his film career, one might say), his recent films have all left me cold. Take Allen’s new film, ‘Midnight in Paris’ with Owen Wilson that I saw recently at glorious Phoenix Cinema (@phoenixcinema) last week. This film was, to me a poor effort for many reasons. First and foremost I thought the story was altogether one-dimensional, overly sentimental and nostalgic and rather predictable for Woody Allen. We follow Owen Wilson as a successful film screenwriter who wants to get back to literary ‘roots’, so to speak, and realise his dream of writing fiction for a living. On a suffocating trip to Paris with his overbearing fiancé (with whom he has seemingly nothing in common apart from his lust for her body and her lust for his money) and his equally oppressive in-laws, he escapes into the Parisian night to re-walk the paths of the great European writers before him for inspiration against his writer’s block. From the start of the film, he is painted obtusely to be a writer with a classic continual idolisation of the past, in this case 1920s Paris: the ambiance, music, art, literature etc. We gather all this information in about twenty minutes. I think even on writing this you can work out that in the end he will (a) realise his fiance is not right for him, (b) un-block his writer’s block ,(c) stop living in the past. And all this unsurprisingly takes place. At a push we may guess that he probably come to replace his fiancé with someone new who he has more in common with, perhaps someone in Paris? Yes, this happens too.

How all of this happens in the film is unusual, a surprise to be sure. Each midnight, Wilson’s character is transported in time to 1920s where he meets all manners of artists, musicians, patrons and writers. They all mill around the story as it progresses – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, John Steinbeck, Edgar Degas, Toulouse Lautrec etc. The story appears to wind around these character cameos, most of the time superficially delineating them (Dali sees ‘rhinos’ in everything, Steinbeck relates everything to the stark realities of war etc.), each sycophantic appearance getting a self-congratulatory chuckle from the audience. Through meeting these artists and writers, getting his book appraised by Stein, and meeting someone in the 1920s who idolises the late 1800s, Wilson’s character accomplishes everything in the above paragraph. The irony is Allen shows a writer realising he shouldn’t live in the nostalgia of the past by creating a film that well and truly depends on nostalgia of the past. Allen delights in the costumes, the music, the scenery and backdrops, the cars and of course the cameos, all executed with precision and a directorial eye for detail, yet in their use these attributes amount to nothing more than a sentimental, stereotypical view of Paris: the city of love and romance where esoteric artists and writers walk the streets, entertain in indulgent parties and ponder and drink to oblivion in quaint, basic bars. Mythical Paris, where everyone is beautiful, liberal-minded and fascinating in personality, conversation and talent. While Allen idealises Paris we are supposed to be interested in a writer learning not to idealise Paris. It is utterly ridiculous. Lovely to behold, but a hallucination. Marginalised in Allen’s 1920s Paris is the poverty, racism and prostitution of the day. One might argue that there was no need for these serious issues to be handled but I would say that there was so little to this flimsy film that it could have done with some depth somewhere along the way.

Indeed this is not the first time that we have seen this of the veteran director, Woody Allen. To some extent what irritated me about ‘Match Point’ (2005), was his cultural stereotyping of London’s inhabitants – cold characters with a grey sensibility and a great deal of reservation accompanying. As if someone on the Deathstar has removed their costume and acted the same in a London character drama. In addition it was a poor film with little of the real tension it claimed. ‘Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona’ (2008) showed Allen on directorial holiday in Spain. Again, we saw classic stereotypes: Javier Bardem as the passionate, charismatic, cultured Spaniard with heavy soulful eyes in touch with all deep matters of the heart, able to awaken such passions in the holidaymakers from the US. Penelope Cruz as the free-thinking, dynamic, past lover of Bardem’s character, also led by the heart and her turbulent bipolar emotions. I remember my Spanish assistant being irritated with the stereotyping, that Bardem and Cruz should lower themselves to these roles and that Allen, a favourite director of hers, should in turn create such a superficial film. At the time, it didn’t bother me so much. It was when I saw ‘Whatever Works’ in 2009 that I realised that this director is best in New York, or at least in the USA. He is at home there and he creates intelligent films, his best works, there in that city we all know he knows so well. ‘Whatever Works’ wasn’t perfect, it also suffered like ‘Midnight in Paris’ from an anticlimactic ending. Still it was a much better film and made the recent piece a silly bubble by comparison.   

Jana Manuelpillai

A strange and moving animation about our need for relationships and community.

Thursday 13 October 2011

True street art that banksy look like yesterday's news - INSIDE OUT


What a breathtaking way to change the world forever. Thanks to @theleano again for showing me this.

This stunning video by Bon Iver is worth a gander. Such amazing symmetry found between the music and image

A voice to listen out for - aloe blacc

A great female mc and voice from the land down under - Vida-Sunshyne

‘BROKEN GLASS’ by Arthur Miller @ The Tricycle Theatre, now @ Vaudeville Theatre, West End

‘BROKEN GLASS’ by Arthur Miller @ The Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn
Now @ Vaudeville Theatre until 10th December

Arthur Miller’s ‘Broken Glass’ could have been better than it was. It wasn’t a bad play – don’t get me wrong. The performances were on the whole very strong, the story one could tell had the potential to be very powerful, the theatrical execution was justly understated and added tone. With Arthur Miller’s script at its heart, to me, this play had everything it needed to work. Yet it didn’t. Well, not completely.

The story follows Phillip, a hardworking Jewish man obsessed with work and his own desire to be assimilated into New York aristocracy. Phillip is suddenly shocked and upset to find his wife, Sylvia, unable to walk, seemingly paralysed after reading newspaper reports of Kristallnacht in Germany. An enigmatic Dr. Harry Hyman is called in who uncovers the psychosis of Sylvia’s obsession and points its relationship to her husband’s own personality and deepest desires. The most interesting element of this play is the paradigm of projected fear, sexual attraction, complex love and self-hate that forms itself. We are drawn in through the juxtaposition of the two very different dysfunctional couples: the ‘ladies man’ Dr. Hyman and his irrepressibly upbeat non-Jewish wife, versus the stuffy and uptight Phillip and his Jewish wife Sylvia, the apple of his eye now chair or bed-bound. Both men love their wives though appear governed by forces that they feel are out of their control and that therefore take them away from their wives. Hyman, by his wandering eye for women, a leftover of his Casanova days of youth, now finding focus on Sylvia; Phillip, by his need to be far away from his Jewish origins (shown in his inability to empathise with those suffering in Germany and his need to disassociate himself from the Jewish community of New York in front of his employer). In this way, much in the play pivots on Sylvia. And therein lies the rub. Sylvia’s character seems to not carry well in the story and in a sense starts a chain of discrepancies in which other characters appear not to tally either. Her relationship with her doctor is on the brink of an affair, his lusting verging on tipping her over the edge into adultery though paradoxically bringing feeling to her legs. Yet she is supposed to still love her husband. Hyman loves his wife yet seduces Sylvia in an ambiguous manner where we are not certain if it may be a test of her disability or a genuine amorous approach behind Phillip’s back. Either way, Hyman’s relationship with Phillip seems very genuine and well-meaning and it is hard to believe that he would do that to him as he is aware on some level that he is Phillip’s only friend.
Likewise Sylvia appears by the second act to have a friendship with Hyman’s wife and does not appear to feel any guilt for the illicit closeness she and Dr. Hyman enjoyed. The ways in which the different characters come to interact appear to get more and more confusing and unbelievable even though the concepts behind the play strengthen. In the second act, Phillip comes to understand that his dictatorial stance with his wife in the past, his prevention of her humanity, combined with the lack of sexual attention and (most important) hatred of all things Jewish (as if it were a bad word), has morphed him in her mind into a Hitler figure of sorts, an unfeeling tyrant. It is him in fact that has paralysed her. This seems a surprise to the audience as many lines in the script are given over to the amount of love Philip has for her and it is hard to imagine that he has been so unfeeling as to be the sole cause of her disability. We learn how she is the reason he works so hard and she is clearly the one and only love of his life, even if he cannot show it or cannot make love to her. All in all, by the time the realization comes to Philip in the play, the audience are half an hour ahead of him and so his sudden enlightenment as to his self-loathing takes on a slightly comedic element that I am sure was not intended by Miller. Sylvia getting her abilities back and Philip being bed-ridden after a heart attack seems positively over the top and unnecessarily symbolic. By the end I got the sense that the play was intended to have the effect of, say, a piece like Ariel Dorfman’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ but fell well short. I enjoyed the play mainly due to the basic concept of a Jewish person being unable to function due to sympathy for other Jews suffering far away and another Jewish person being unable to empathise due to the need to function in a land far away from other Jews. This dichotomy alone made the play worth a watch. I just hope that the nuances of the character’s interactions are made more realistic when the play moves to the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End. I fear the replacement of Tara Fitzgerald as Sylvia may help in this area. Although she generally performed well, she certainly stood out as least convincing on stage.                   

Jana Manuelpillai

How to make an art thief of us all - Volkswagen Art Heist

Wednesday 12 October 2011

The Exciting Future of Sri Lankan Contemporary Art

The Future of Sri Lankan Contemporary Art

I believe an exciting future lies ahead of Sri Lankan contemporary art, one that stands apart from the glory days of the 43 Group and the days of Imperial art education before this. One that is distanced from India and China’s dominant art scene that moves at an untameable speed across the waters, forcing, in some ways by example, the route for other smaller countries in Asia wanting to enhance their art market. Sri Lanka has the chance, in this economic upturn, to tread carefully, to take each step with grace and, in this, stand out in the stampede.  

Many who come to my gallery ask me why I am excited about Sri Lankan art? What makes its future special? I always tell them that as much as war destroys, ravages, rapes, scars and burns, it can also inspire creativity. Of course, this creativity never makes the past war worthwhile. That would be an insensitive and naïve thing to say. However the creativity is unmatchable and within that creativity is often a strength of conviction that astounds as much as heals. I honestly believe that the art that will now emerge in these post-war years will help Sri Lanka and it will be creative like nothing before it. It will never re-build, un-ravage or vanish a scar but as it is borne from this tragedy, as such it will be a potent antidote, like a poisonous snake’s venom being used for a victim’s cure.

The future I am excited about involves an increasing desire to artistically respond and attend to Sri Lanka’s recent history, its civil war that ensued from 1983 until May 2009. How can such a historical haemorrhage as this period do anything but create new ideas, mediums, new senses of self and new understandings of what it is ‘to move forward’? I envision artists rising to this challenge, describing Sri Lanka’s unusual modernity with open emotion and daring courage like war veterans stepping forward to express their trauma or else long-ignored soothsayers, their portentous voice overlooked for the sake of louder, inflexible voices in the crowd. I look forward to this as much as I wait with baited breath for Tamil artists to come to the fore in the art world to add variety to Sri Lankan contemporary art. Right now art is dominated by talented Singhalese artists, the vast majority of which, from my experience, working out of Colombo.

What art will war torn areas like Vanni and Jaffna give rise to? What movement will returning talented artists like T. Shaanathanan initiate in the Northern province? How will artists in Colombo that have been political, or at least socially-motivated, in their art for many years re-direct their work with this new freedom given to them. I am excited to see how artists like Jagath Weerasinghe, an outspoken artist if ever there was one, will respond in his work and how we in return will respond. Anoma and Jagath Ravindra, two established artists, have for a long time been interested in themes of finding redemption, salvation, peace and escape from this world. What will they find in their abstract forms and layered meditative surfaces that will refresh and guide us in our progress to a new Sri Lankan future?

It will take a greater variety of artistic minds to make of the art scene something idiosyncratic and worthy of exploration (and indeed investment) on a global level. But I believe that the variety exists. Ready or reaching maturation. I believe that artists have now a chance to help society rebuild itself, to right history, to correct identity and in doing all of this restore faith and hope to a country that for so long has been without any, shrouding its despair in tourist beach resorts, fashion shows and umbrella-ed cocktails. Artists in this way are charged with the greatest of all commitments at one of the most pivotal periods in Sri Lankan art history. This is why I am excited. The route artists take, and the decisions art dealers, gallerists and buyers make in the coming years, will shape art from this small island for a very long time.

Jana Manuelpillai
The Noble Sage Art Gallery, London   

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Lana del Rey - New Music

I am really enjoying this new music by Lana del Rey. I cannot wait to purchase her new album. never thought of pre-ordering but this really has got me dancing! Enjoy! Like a tarantino film waiting to happen...