Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Art and Vengeance

You go, Granny.


"I am not by nature a violent person (even if we're just talking about a stuffed animal), so I needed to re-watch one of Steven's favorite movies, Reservoir Dogs, for inspiration, and it's given Mrs. Blonde a few ideas. So, I'll be mailing Baw-wee to Steven, except Baw-wee won't be coming in just one package. I'll be sending the bear back to Steven ... in installments."


"Her method of getting over the shock consists of recounting her misery to everyone she meets - 99 times, with gradually diminishing emotion - and asking them to describe the worst moment of their lives in return. She taped every word of these gloomy, shared outpourings with friends and strangers, collecting 99 stories of powerful grief - the woman who is told she will give birth to a stillborn child, the boy who hears his father has died."

I wish I could see Sophie Calle's work at the Venice Biennale - it's called "Take Care of Yourself" and is a response to a breakup email (!) sent by an ex, signed off with the phrase that makes up the title.

Her response to the brutal dumping was to turn his breakup message into art: she had a psychotherapist analyse him through it, an editor pick apart its grammar, a judge pass a ruling on it, a sharpshooter take shots at it, Vanessa Redgrave performed it, journo, clown, etiquette consultant and so on all had a go at it. 107 women in all, I think. Peaches made an electroclash version of it. It was translated into braille, Latin, barcode.
I'm not a fan of revenge, but I know what I like.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

One Hit and Three MTCs


Educating Rita, HIT Productions, the Athenaeum Theatre
Listen to that rain. The gentle wash of it somewhere outside this grand old theatre. I wonder if the actors are annoyed that this ex-diegetic soundtrack has been added to their show. I think it's grand.

Lisa Chappell looks like she might be a bit concerned, but she probably endured worse with that McLeod's Daughters bizzo. Mud, probably. I bet she stepped in horse shit at least once while the cameras were rolling.
She's not doing such a bad job of it, really.
This is a bit of romantic view of academia, isn't it? Maybe that's what it was like, somewhere, somewhen. Working class girl who discovers the value of higher education, bettering oneself, great culture - but she finally understands that what really matters is the attempt to better oneself and one's lot.

During interval, N___ pointed out how many model-types were here tonight. It's true. Once you notice it, it seems very strange. When she was in the bathroom she overheard one mentioning something about a class, and surmised that its a group here as part of their course. Could some course convenor have ordered his glamorous charges to come to the show tonight? Why? To instill some message about seeing beyond their limited horizons and the true worth of self-improvement? Or maybe just to suggest that teachers can be cool and funny and maybe worthy of an admittedly platonic crush?

I just lectured for two years and tutored for many more, and spent the last five or six finishing up my own higher degree, and I swear this whole deal doesn't ring true. This play has its own agenda.

The rain, however, is awesome.

Ying Tong: A Walk with the Goons, Melbourne Theatre Company, Playhouse Theatre, the Arts Centre

If I was 20 or 30 years older, I'd probably be going off now. This woman next to me is having a fit. She's rocking side to side; she's actually clutching those sides in hysterical laughter.

I suppose it is pretty funny. Spike Milligan, what a character. Deeply depressed, confined in a mental asylum as a result, yet that very depression allowed him to create some of the most original comedy of his generation. Depressed clowns: a window to the human soul, but we can also laugh at them. Like monkeys and old people, I suppose.

This woman I'm sitting next to is seriously going to blow a gasket.

I guess the MTC isn't so bad. This production has certainly pulled out all the bells and whistles design-wise, and the acting is really impressive (Spike, mostly). I never would have expected to enjoy a nostalgic riff on a comic group I really know nothing about. But at least I'm not pondering the state of my dental array.

Enlightenment, Melbourne Theatre Company, Fairfax Theatre, the Arts Centre

That ridge above my front teeth - was it always there? Perhaps my gums are receding. Am I getting old? Is my tongue really an accurate way of assessing the state of my teeth/gums and therefore drawing conclusions about a potentially deteriorating physical state?

Hmmm. I'm seeing Educating Rita next week. That's a play play. A realist narrative, classical structure, all that. If tonight is anything to go by, it's going to be a slog with few redeeming features. And that Goons show this weekend - how am I going to get through that? I'm 31, the Goons mean nothing to me.

It's an early show on a Monday evening, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at the demographic in attendance. Not that I expect model-types at the theatre anyway - ha! the very thought. But do the older folk here tonight actually relate to the dull drama playing out in front of us?

Did someone really just say the line "Oh! Joyce, I wasn't expecting you!" I don't think there could ever be an excuse for a line like that.

Chaos theory is pretty inneresting. The program tonight makes a fair deal of it. I wonder why this show is unutterably predictable, then? Is somebody being ironic? Is it that much to ask a play that name drops chaos to actually offer something resembling a surprise at some point during proceedings? And why am I supposed to care for this middle-aged, well-off couple with a half-kilo of plums in their mouths?

Christ, this show is why I stopped coming to Melbourne Theatre Company shows.

The Pillowman, Melbourne Theatre Company, CUB Malthouse

Why did I stop coming to Melbourne Theatre Company shows?

A dwarf is crucified, a developmentally challenged dude is smothered with a pillow, a kid is tortured with a drill, and Joel Edgerton gets shot in the head. And for years, I thought the MTC were all about plodding dramas centred on middle-aged, well-off couples with plums in their mouths.

Sure, this production has its flaws, but I haven't been bored at any point. I'd hope that's the absolute minimum baseline for any play.

It's getting cold, though, and we're heading into Winter. I hope to God it doesn't rain. I can normally feel it in my teeth, though.

An Important Development

Monkey foot masseurs are the way of the future.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Full as a Guggenheim

I don't know why it's taken me this long in my life to discover the brutal truth that there is a subgenre of painting which focuses on the "dress monkey": posed portraits in which chimps are given respectable, often regal attire. I feel like such a failure.

This piece was painted by an elephant. I really like it. Elephant art mostly comes from Thailand, and supposedly helps raise funds to protect the 50,000 Asian elephants left on the planet. I don't know how the money is really disposed of, but it all sounds legit so far.

These three works were produced by artists in Washington's Art Enables program, which is "open to adults with developmental and/or mental disabilities who are enthusiastic about working toward becoming professional artists and who are willing and able to focus on their work for a full studio day."

They're all examples of Outsider Art, even though they're hugely different in most ways. I came across all of them while wandering around the net after doing a quiz somebody sent me entitled "Artist or 7-Year-Old?" and which allows you to guess whether a particular work is the product of an internationally reknowned artist attending the Venice Biennale or something made by a kid, or a convict, or a blind person, and so on.

The biggest arty thing in Melbourne right now is probably the new NGV/Guggenheim collaboration.

Meet Valerie Hillings: the critical eye behind the NGV's new blockbuster Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now. The exhibition is one of the largest modern art exhibitions ever to hit Melbourne.

"There's no model for this experience,'' says Hillings. "This particular configuration has never been shown in New York.''

The exhibition, which opens on Saturday, brings together some of the most influential and controversial art of the postwar period, from the pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman.

There's a table covered in 14,000 human and animal teeth. There's a work which entirely consists of one sentence. There's even Michael Jackson and his chimp, Bubbles.

Hillings' appreciation of modern art did experience a brief hiccup when she heard about the Jackson sculpture, by US artist Paul McCarthy. "I thought 'this thing is so gross.' It's called Michael Jackson (F--ked Up). But the minute they were halfway through I the installation I thought 'this is a knock-out! I love it!'''

Hillings, who turned 36 on Friday, has an enthusiasm for art that explains her rapid rise. After applying for a small part-time position with the Guggenheim assisting her former professor, she received a call asking if she'd consider a different role, full time, complete with international travel and greater responsibility. At 33, she opened the largest show of Russian art in history, seen by a million patrons of the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, Spain.Her relative youth isn't so rare in the Guggenheim world, though.

"The vast majority of my colleagues are in their 30s or early 40s. Guggenheim gives you a lot of opportunities early. If you work hard and long hours you can get a lot of experience really quickly."

Hillings says that her mission isn't to recreate the experience had by visitors to other Guggenheims. With works drawn from across the vast collection amassed by the foundation, Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now is partly a survey. The first half of the exhibition is a whirlwind tour through the history of modern art, from the abstract art of the postwar period through to minimalism and conceptual art. The exhibition's last four "chapters" are more curated, including sections such as "The Natural World" and "Between Private and Public".

Though she might be representing one of the world's most prestigious art institutions, she's been afforded a great deal of freedom in carrying out the job. "I have a whole section of the show that is very personal. In the Post-War European Abstraction we have a whole chapter on monochrome painting and optical and kinetic art, and that was the subject of my PhD thesis. In the United States that had been all but obliterated from the art history books."

The New York Guggenheim museum opened in 1939 as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. It was housed in an automobile showroom. In 1959 it shifted to the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building it now inhabits. The Frank Gehry-designed Bilbao Guggenheim opened in 1997 and has been responsible for the economic revitalisation of the formerly ailing town.

The exhibition opens this week. I can't wait.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Let's Dance (with a bit of burlesque)

Cripes player, I've seen a lot of stuff lately. Not in the sense of having my eyes open and therefore receiving sensory data transmitted to my brain as a result (though there is that) and certainly not in the sense of saying "oooh, the things I have seen..."

Munch's Despair - not as popular as The Scream. Also more cartoony, no?

No, I've seen a lot of shows. And I might as well get back to writing a little about them, for two unrelated reasons. One: this thing has recently, inexplicably, proven in danger of transforming into an art blog, as opposed to an arts blog (with the occasional posting of animal and automated machinery youtube videos). And two: it's very very cold, and the only way I can keep my fingers warm is by typing (or by wearing gloves).

Typing: is the new "gloves"?

So perchance, some dance.

I've never really been all that hyper-enthused about the whole New Burlesque/Burlesque Revival/Give it a Burl, Shirl/I Made That Last One Up/So It's Available If You Want It caper, and it's not even that new now anyway. I won't be bothered explaining why it doesn't appeal to me, and you can read elsewhere the complete "is it empowering or capitulating to a model of voyeuristic patriarchal objectification?" debate. In short, it's just kind of boring to me.

But The Burlesque Hour is something other.

I missed the first version of this show, and now I'm kickboxing myself (mentally) for not catching it. The unholy trio of Moira Finucane, Azaria Universe and Yumi Umiumare (can I spell it? Yes I can!) are back with a new installment of the show, however, called The Burlesque Hour More! or some variant thereof, and it's a killer.

It's a violent, messy, sexy, offensive, tight and fast-paced piece that rarely leaves you hanging. The three performers take turns performing solo sideshow numbers that range from aerial trapeze to dramatic monologue to martial arts-style dance, but almost every piece plays with disturbing erotic themes or imagery that are much closer to the original spirit of burlesque than anything I've seen yet.

If Old Skool burlesque was clearly about sex but in a twisted, sublimated way - not just teasing, like striptease, but playing with serious social taboos - then this show is truly a burlesque for today. The cheeky striptease-style stuff that usually gets carted out under the name of burlesque isn't as dangerous as it should be, since 50 years ago that material carried the frisson of "I know, deep down, that I shouldn't be watching this..." Finucane and Co acknowledge this in their program notes - while the performers were often very empowered by this kind of show, there was also the plain fact that many of the people watching them were there to get off. If the new burlesque is just a socially acceptable way to watch people take their clothes off, that's the problem - originally, burlesque wasn't very acceptable. It was the bottom rung of the entertainment ladder, and it wasn't spoken about in polite company.

That's what you have here. There's nothing polite about this show. Finucane, Universe and Umiumare take their audience into hugely challenging areas - unlike new burlesque, there's little holding back here. A blood-spattered, quivering and entirely naked Finucane isn't the kind of thing you'd find in most current burlesque shows, for example. Or cross-dressing, and demonic possession, and nails and Victorian era costumes and thrash metal.

See it.

The night after this show opened, I went to a very different opening. The Australian Ballet's New Romantics kicked off last night and while, as a whole, it wasn't the best show the AB have done, there were moments that topped anything I've seen.

AB bossman David McAllister joked afterwards that he was sorry if anyone turned up expecting Pseudo Echo and Spandau Ballet (LOL) and he even had an awesome new New Romantic haircut, but beyond the pun of the title this was a heartstoppingly, eye-softeningly romantic show. The first piece, Ballanchine's Apollo from 1929 (I think) wasn't that romantic, sure, tending a little towards the, um, zany. That's just how it looks 80 years on, though - at the time it was a bold avant-garde piece, the first real modern ballet. But I couldn't help but laugh at some of the choreography, especially the frequent use of what I call Center Stage Hands, after the similar silly move pulled off at a crucial moment in the film of the same name. It's like a batting of the wrist, as if you're shooing away a fly in an aesthetically pleasing manner, and I just don't get how dancers can do it with a straight face.

Just me, maybe.

Anyway, the second and third pieces of the evening are both really strong, and I'll be reviewing them in detail somewhere else, but it's the last part of the last piece - Chris Wheeldon's After the Rain - that melted the audience, and it's the piece that trumps any other moment of ballet I've witnessed.
A duet (or pas de deux as they calls it), performed on opening night by Kirsty Martin and the now-retiring Steven Heathcote, it's a quiet, intensely emotional exchange that evokes almost every kind of emotional intimacy two people can have. It's incredibly erotic, like The Burlesque Hour, and in an equally original way, not playing on the cliches.

The sense evoked by the piece is of a couple who've been together forever and gone through plenty, deeply in love but now having faced something that their love can surmount. There's a shattering sense of loss throughout, and of regret, pleading, grief, anger, hope. You recognise instantly that these people know each other and have something profound, but it's just not enough. I know someone who cried during this piece.

What makes it so stunning is the way that without a word, a prop, even any kind of set, a short piece of contemporary ballet can conjure up what another currently running show, the MTC's Enlightenment, fails to convincingly produce in a two-hour running time. I'll write about that show later, but what interests me here is the way that the MTC show keeps telling its audience that the central couple, with a son missing in Indonesia, are experiencing a terrible and debilitating grief that is tearing them apart, but doesn't really show us that grief.

It's the opposite case with After the Rain. We don't have any idea what's gone on with this couple, but we feel a level of emotion as powerful as that felt by a couple who've lost a child (or something equally crippling).

If all that doesn't sound especially romantic, well, it is. Clearly not the sadness etched into the faces of the dancers, but in the fact that the audience is given such an intensely intimate glimpse into private lives and the secrets of another couple's relationship. Stirring stuff.

And finally, Antje Pfundtner's eigenSinn (The Wilful Child). The season's over now, but I really enjoyed this hour-long solo by the young German dancer. It's rare that dance can make an audience laugh, but Pfundtner's show is an hilariously witty work that races along. She chops off her arm with a cleaver, plays air guitar, becomes a human disco ball, masturbates, morphs into a great ape, hyperventilates, pulls out classical ballet moves - all in such rapid, ADHD succession that you never know what's coming next. All the while, she's constantly flicking her knowing gaze back to her audience, ensuring that we know that she knows we're watching, and that we know she knows exactly what she's doing.

It's also a very personal and autobiographical show, centred on her wilfulness and independence. Pfundtner was born unable to move, the connections between her brain and muscles not operating. Her body was rebelling against her the way the disobedient child of the Grimm Brothers fairytale of the title rebelled against the world. From this base, the dancer constructs a dazzling physical vocabulary focused on freedom and constraint, demands, disobedience, rule-breaking, punishment, naughtiness and mischief, needs and wants. She's been touring the show for three years, and I hope her other works match this one. She also has the most excellent eyebrows in the business.

There was a wonderfully lengthy roar of applause when she took her three bows (which she'd also done halfway through the show) and much stamping of feet and whistling and the like. An hour wasn't nearly enough.

What shocked me most about these three shows was this: I gladly see any one of them again. That's unusual.

Friday, June 22, 2007

More animals vs robots

I'd normally ask which one you'd opt for, but there's no contest this time around. The first will be all over the internet in, say, the next five minutes - I don't think the second will make it too far.

The question has dogged the greatest minds of our age: what's the hammiest rodent? At last, conclusive evidence.

And I can't even begin to describe this one. To say words fail me isn't enough. They don't just fail me. It's like words renege on a legally binding contract, jilt me at the altar, crash my car while high, trick me into signing my house over to them, then burn it down, disrespect my ancestors and infect me with a nasty and non-removable STD. That's how much words are letting me down.

But let me say, despite the initial stomach-turning burst of wrongness you might experience, it's worth sticking with this freaky Russian poppin' and lockin' muscleman for at least a minute or so.

Monday, June 18, 2007

It's Hip When You Slip

When I was a kid, a friend of mine had a book called Minerva the Dragon - it could have been Minerva the Dinosaur, I don't recall exactly - and he enjoyed it so much that he never finished it. He didn't want it to end. He said that he only wanted to read the last chapter on his deathbed. I wonder if kids still talk about literature and deathbeds and books so fantastic that they don't want to finish them.

Not that Minerva was literature. It was a pretty trashy kids book, from what I remember, but it must have been pretty terrific, too. That's John Barth's advice to writers - you can make it erudite, or witty, or self-referential or verbose, but first of all: make it terrific.

And I don't even know if my friend remembers the book. I have a vague memory of bringing it up once, not too long ago, and of him being as incredulous as I about this 11-year-old who made the decision to not allow a conclusion to be forced on one of the best experiences he'd had. Surely that same impulse is what makes the what-might-have-been more charged than the what-ended-up-happening. The romantic lure of unrequited love. The glamour of an unsolved murder. The pause occasioned by a did-that-happen-the-way-I-remember.

On the weekend I was talking to another friend and we chatted about a dream I'd had once, and had told him about. In this dream, I was had an itch in my eye or was crying or was pulling out a contact lens - whatever - but what happened when I felt around my eye was strange. I felt something solid there, and pulled out a dry, crumbling autumn leaf. And pulling one loosed more. And soon I was pulling handfuls of autumn leaves from my eyes.

When my friend mentioned this dream maybe, ah, seven or eight years ago, I had no recollection of it. It was my dream but I'd forgotten about it and he'd remembered. He'd remembered it because the image of someone dragging a stream of burnt-orange leaves from their eye sockets was so dramatic (he's an actor, but that's not what I mean by dramatic).

Ever since he told me my dream, I've remembered it, too. That image is so striking that I had the same experience he must have had when I first told it to him. But I don't remember the dream itself, just his retelling of my telling of it.

He also remembers another dream I had, where I was torn apart by feral children who feasted on my limbs. I do actually recall that fairly vivid dream, along with the peculiar feeling of calm and acceptance I felt when I realised that my death would at least provide nutrition to some underprivileged kids. True fact.

I guess we sometimes remember other people's dreams more vividly than they do. After all, most dreams serve a point, and when they've done their work we move on and let them go. But another person's dreams, being not our own, can open up a window onto all those subliminated fears and desires that gave them birth. Then again, there can be nothing more boring than listening to someone else's dreams, too.

Meet Mingering Mike, if you haven't already.

"Between 1968 and 1977 Mingering Mike recorded over fifty albums, managed thirty-five of his own record labels, and produced, directed and starred in nine of his own motion pictures. In 1972 alone he released fifteen LPs and over twenty singles, and his traveling revue played for sold out crowds the world over."

Except for the fact that Mike didn't exist - or, not in a strict sense. Mike was a lonely teen who dreamed of being a famous soul singer and created a huge number of records under his imagined persona. The albums were made of cardboard, with labels and grooves drawn on, in full colour sleeves and featuring details of all aspects of production.

Take Mingering Mike's official soundtrack to the movie "Hot Rodd" (1973).

Ramit Records #110974 (1973)

Hot Rodd (Takes Revenge)

Baby Look My Way (Love Scene)

Rumble In The Streets

It’s Hip When You Slip

Welcome To Our Party

Something In Green

Epitah (Before & After)

Man’s Only Hope (Power)

It’s A Boom

Man’s Only Dream

Talkin’ About Freedom

Suddenly A Message

Train Ride (Urgent)

Hot Rodd’s End

It opens with what's obviously the theme tune: "Hot Rodd (Takes Revenge)". Those brackets. What do they mean? "Mike's" imitation of the blaxploitation soundtrack style is already terrific, in Barth's sense. He follows up with the tantalising "Baby Look My Way (Love Scene)". Later, it's tracks like "It’s A Boom", "Suddenly A Message" and the twinned "Man’s Only Hope (Power)" and "Man's Only Dream" that flesh out another person's, well, dreams. Even if these dreams only seem so significant to me, who didn't dream them.

Maybe it's the scope. Along with Mingering Mike, various other personae made up his bedroom-doodling-recording-studio world - Rambling Ralph, Joseph War, The Big D and more. This kid had big dreams, the kind of dreams made for breaking. He wrote more than four thousand songs, and sent off some to be recorded - along with the small fee requested - before realising that the ads he was responding to were money-making scams.

As part of the Increase Your Uncertainty exhibition at ACCA, there are a series of forums which take place regularly and have been developed by the wonderful duo A Constructed World (the brains behind the same exhibition). This Sunday's 3pm forum is on Failure and I was asked to be a part of it since failure, if not my middle name, is at least something I'm fascinated by. If the notion of failure, the problems of success, the perhaps illusory distinction between the two, the social function of that distinction, the artistic challenges to that function, the dangers of such challenges and the messy edges of all of these things are of any interest, drop by and add your thoughts.
If you don't make it, though, that's ok too.