Friday 30 May 2014

Agony and ecstacy: 'Dialogues des Carmelites'

In this post, I'm writing about the production of Francis Poulenc's 'Dialogues des Carmelites', which I saw last night at the Royal Opera House, London. So, a quick 'spoiler warning' to start. 'Carmelites' is famous for (among other things) its ending - one of the most powerful in all opera - so I'll talk about it freely in this post. Many opera-goers are likely to be familiar with it, and knowing what's coming does little or nothing to dilute its impact. That said, if you're in with a chance of seeing or hearing it before discovering the climax then please do so! Leave this place immediately (my next paragraph is a plot summary) - but please come back afterwards...

(This image is the graphic used on the Royal Opera House website.)

First - to cover the bare bones of the story. France, around 1790. Blanche de la Force is a fragile young woman who decides to leave her aristocratic home and retreat from the world by joining the Carmelite order. While she seems to achieve a certain level of inner peace, life with the nuns is not without its peculiar terrors. One of the sisters, Constance, dreams that she will die young, together with Blanche, on the same day. And the terminally-ill Mother Superior - after charging senior nun Mother Marie to keep a careful eye on Blanche - renounces God in her dying moments for abandoning her, with Blanche and Marie still looking on. As revolution gathers pace, the plot surges forward. Blanche's brother tries - and fails - to get her to leave for her own safety, and eventually visiting officials tell the nuns that the order will be dissolved. The Carmelites vow to face martyrdom if necessary, but Blanche loses her nerve and flees. Marie tracks her down to her old home, and finds her working there as a servant (with her father already lost to the guillotine). She cannot persuade her to rejoin the rest of the nuns in prison, so gives her the address of a safe-house. Later, the order's chaplain persuades Marie herself to keep away, as God must have decided to spare her. However, as the nuns leave their cell and go to their execution one by one, Blanche rejoins them at the last minute, turning Constance's dream into a prophecy.

The opera has its roots in fact - there was a mass execution of Carmelite nuns in 1794 - as well as a novel and play. However, Poulenc fashioned the libretto from the play himself, so must have exercised total control over what to include or omit, and how to pace not just the music, but the plot. The opera is something of a structural marvel: three acts of four scenes (or 'tableaux') each, giving a 'triptych'-like balance.

The middle act is like a pivot, where essentially the tide of events turns against the nuns and the outside world invades the monastery. The outer acts are more about character, and work like 'reverse-mirrors' of each other. The old Mother Superior - previously a tower of strength - loses her faith at the moment of death, and Act 1 closes in defeat and horror. At the climax of Act 3, Blanche goes to meet her end after finding her faith. Arguably, the phenomenal power of the opera's closing moments comes from this almost impossible demand on the audience to see the spiritual victory in the midst of such merciless tragedy.

Well - that, and the extraordinary score. As the title suggests, there is not an excess of physical action, but conversations and argument drive the story forward. Poulenc - manipulating words and music - underpins the philosophical and religious discussions with melodies and rhythms making extraordinary matches for speech patterns: one scene that especially sticks in my mind is the confrontation between Blanche and her brother, with his urgent, chattering persuasion meeting the relatively serene parry of her rebuttals. The incredible death scene of the prioress (fantastic performance from Deborah Polaski) - is as demanding a solo as you might expect, somehow communicating exquisite beauty and terrible pain simultaneously. And given the subject matter, I ought to mention the way Poulenc absorbs sacred/choral music into the whole, its stately progress in seamless alignment with the relentless march of the opera towards that ending.

The opera calls for the nuns to die while singing the hymn 'Salve Regina'. Poulenc sets it to a glorious, devotional melody that glides over a sinister, funereal beat. The sound of the guillotine - written into the score - slices across the tune (it's deliberately out of step with the hymn's rhythm, so almost impossible to anticipate) as each nun is cut off, mid-song, in turn. I remember one 'chop' in particular being followed by the most alluring harp flourish, and getting the unmistakeable shudder of 'wrongness' down my spine. The scene really is one of those genuine musical and theatrical high watermarks: audacious, unsettling, moving, strangely exhilarating (there's always a part of you - even if the rest of you is reeling, sobbing, slack-jawed - that just wants to sit back and enjoy it for its brilliance) and incontestably beautiful.

Staging this scene must always present a challenge. On YouTube, you can find versions where the nuns literally climb a scaffold which leads off-stage, or where black gauze falls in front of each one as their voice drops away. This production by Robert Carsen has already been acclaimed elsewhere before coming to London. His elegant and sparse setting for the whole opera - barely any scenery, the characters moving props on and off the stage, and creative lighting marking points of utter stillness as a single character or image moves us from one scene to the next - is perfect for the ending. The nuns stand in formation, making modest but choreographed hand gestures as they sing, and as each one dies, sinks slowly to the ground, lies on her back and stretches her arms out to make the cross. From our high view up in the Amphitheatre, I think we really benefited from the imagery and patterns Carsen has managed to create on the stage. And all through the opera, the ending is presaged: as we file in, the stage is visible (rather than behind the curtain) covered in perfectly laid out habits; and the nuns surround the dying prioress, lying face down in the crucifix shape in silent prayer.

Such an inventive production really becomes an opera so rich in ideas. Poulenc was a man of faith, although not without conflicts. He was openly homosexual, although it's worth bearing in mind that in France, attitudes were considerably more relaxed than over here in the UK. We didn't even legalise it (for men) until the late sixties. (The opera dates from 1956.) I was intrigued to discover that in France, gay sex effectively became legit during... well, there's a coincidence - the French Revolution.

But - Poulenc suffered a nervous breakdown trying to complete 'Carmelites' and it seems difficult to separate this from a kind of crisis and re-adoption of his Catholic beliefs. Like those horror stories (from 'The Turn of the Screw' - filmed as 'The Innocents' - to 'The Omen') where it could all be 'real', or in the protagonist's mind.... it seems to me that 'Carmelites' can be read as much as a humanist opera as a religious one. It wades through some very murky psychological waters.

For example, two of the nuns arguably have 'death wishes'. Blanche (sung with great sensitivity by Sally Matthews) is in a state of perpetual fear. She is frightened of the outside world, then frightened of the inner one. She is scared of both living and dying. We find out in Act 1 that Blanche's mother died in childbirth and it becomes more plausible that Blanche feels that she is in some way defective or cursed. While Sister Constance openly desires an early death and takes the rather odd decision to tell Blanche about her dream that they would both die young, together. Bewilderingly, it is then Constance who appears to be the initial lone voice against the martyrdom vow, but she soon changes her mind. (It is tempting to wonder if she is protecting Blanche, who skedaddles immediately afterwards. Constance says the chaplain will confirm her as the dissenter, but in truth she barely seems to let the poor bloke get a word in edgeways.) We never see Blanche's 'moment of clarity' when she conquers her terror to join Constance serenely at the guillotine, so we can only guess at the magnetic effect Constance's eagerness to die might have on the already unstable Blanche.

One character on an altogether different path is Marie. She seems to spend the opera escaping God's clutches. A possible contender for the Mother Superior role, she is not in fact appointed. Searching for Blanche at the crucial moment of the nuns' arrest, she never actually returns to share their fate - even though Blanche does exactly that. Marie is practical, sensible and dynamic, but as devout as the others. So it's interesting that her survival, and the chaplain's suggestion that she has been spared by God for a reason (presumably to achieve some further good) raises a question mark over whether the nuns' martyrdom is in fact right or necessary.

Despite this undercurrent of doubt I can't help suspecting, the opera perfectly sustains a fully religious interpretation. This 'dual' nature also seems to be reflected in the push and pull between the sacred echo of early music and the secular, speech-mimicking dramatic 'Dialogues' between the characters. No wonder it's a work of such haunting, deathless genius.

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I was in two minds about including this video of the ending from YouTube. (It's the same production from the Teatro alla Scala, around ten years ago.) However, I reasoned that you could just go off and find it anyway, if you wanted to! - plus, I think if any scene will persuade you to seek out the opera in full, it is this. Imagine watching this live, after spending two hours in these characters' company. It is utterly remarkable.

Monday 19 May 2014

Much appreciated: the Specs code of practice

Regular readers of this blog - thank you, darlings, thank you - will know that I rarely dip into politics or political correctness, and what I'm writing about tonight is hardly a new issue, more's the pity. But I suppose I'm fired up to draft something because what I happened to read about today is so specifically about something close to my heart, I couldn't let it pass.

Depending on your tastes in music and social media, you may already know that some of the broadsheets' opera critics have come under considerable fire for their reviews of Glyndebourne's latest production, Strauss's 'Der Rosenkavalier'. To give some very brief context, all three characters making up the opera's central love triangle are sung by women: the female parts by two sopranos, and the young man torn between them by a mezzo-soprano.

I've no intention of naming any names here - if you're curious, you will find out all you need to know through Google - but essentially, all three of the writers were disparaging about one of the women's physical appearance, despite largely praising her singing. The subtext - not that it was especially 'sub' - was clear: this woman would be just right if only we had found her more attractive.

The mezzo Alice Coote, in a very cool-headed but brilliantly thorough response, picks this apart beautifully. You can read her open letter here. Wisely, she argues deliberately and exclusively from the 'opera' angle, since the nature of genre makes the offensive comments all the more ridiculous (for example, she's at pains to point out that physicality is clearly an important element of, say, ballet). Opera, says Coote, is all about what the human voice can achieve. (I would respectfully add that I enjoy listening out for what the orchestra is doing, too, but that's to take nothing away from her point.) Opera leads a completely non-visual life on radio and CD. On stage, it takes on an extra dimension, as the direction, production and interpretation all make a contribution. It may well be unique in its ability to satisfy the listener/viewer in these two separate scenarios. Given those riches, what the performers actually look like is irrelevant.

Well, if only that were true. But in our current media climate, where appearance is the be-all and end-all whatever the form or genre of entertainment, no wonder these men - all watching the same production, all working quite independently - felt moved... no more than that, felt entitled to home in on someone, especially a woman, who happened to look a bit different.

Any response I can make on the subject of sexism, and the harm it causes, is inevitably inadequate - I don't experience the sharp end of it, day in, day out. But so visceral was my reaction to this, that my mind went into a kind of free-fall - to the point where I wondered what people these days thought criticism actually was. Or what it was for. Do these reviewers sit there after a glorious performance, racking their brains to think of the chink in the armour? The thing they might notice that would make them seem more clever (or 'winningly outspoken') than the other critics? A need to exert power over careers, or approaches, or artistic decisions they're not in a position to make themselves? It's now a cliche that the internet has made everyone a critic (and worse, has acted as an enabler for horrific abuses) but these are not anonymous trolls, cowering behind pseudonyms - it is apparently now ok to make these sort of statements with your own byline in the next edition. The general culture we now seem to inhabit, though, I'm sure has its roots in the 'go ahead and say it - no matter how hurtful' electronic arena.

The critics themselves - and I don't necessarily include just the three miscreants from today - would no doubt argue that they are sent to review plays, operas, exhibitions and the like, and as such, must call it as they see it. I don't disagree with that, provided they can back up their opinions and avoid making it personal. If you say something is useless or rubbish, tell me why. Tell me a little about your tastes, so I know why whatever you're slagging off doesn't satisfy them. Acknowledge that if this is the fifth 'terrible' work you're seen by someone in a row, that fans of that person are probably going to enjoy it. Criticism has become a dirty word - I want analysis. I want understanding.

I know why I write this blog. It's a privileged activity. I'm a punter, so I tend to only go to things I expect to enjoy - which in turn means that I almost always come to you as an enthusiast, a champion. I like to think that where I've stumbled across something that hasn't always made sense to me, I've explained why, and then tried to turn in on myself and examine that response. I suppose I've ended up by accident with a code of practice:

  1. Negativity is one of the most harmful viruses infecting the internet. Use your powers for good, not evil. If there is an artist, musician or anyone you love, you help them to continue, and you add to the lives of others by sharing that enthusiasm.
  2. Be mindful that 'criticism' is now itself a kind of artform, a kind of writing - rather than a tool. Libraries, Spotify, Soundcloud, streaming, YouTube, virtual web tours and seminars... it is very easy for people to get a flavour of what they're interested in without needing a critic's steer (or sneer). So again, write about what you love. If I'm interested in something, a thousand of you slagging it off will not deter me from seeking it out. But if ONE of you recommends something I don't know about - I will go and find it.
  3. Mostly, when enjoying the arts, you are watching or listening to people doing something you can't do. They have the talent, they put in the hours. Even if you play their instrument, they're probably playing it better. They've probably written something you couldn't have imagined, or found an interpretation beyond one you could've divined. None of this invalidates your response to what they do - but you owe them respect, courtesy and rigorous use of your brain cells before you start to type.
  4. Never be dismissive of anything. If you think you can write something off in a sentence, you won't have thought about it hard enough. So don't write about it at all.
  5. Put yourself into what you write. As people get to know you, they will look for that in your responses. I think I'm most like this with opera. I clearly don't know that much about opera, at least not yet - but anyone who wants to know the details can look in a 'Big Book of Opera', rather than the 'Specs' blog. I feel I'm writing about my adventures in learning about the artform, and that readers can choose to join me if they want to.

Ultimately, then, I just don't feel like I write 'reviews' as such, or 'criticism' - although I must inevitably flirt with those things. I suppose this is a rallying cry for what sometimes feels like the lost art of 'appreciation'. I'm not here to tell you whether or not I love something; just to try and explain why I love it, and why I think you might too. I promise never to look for chinks in the armour when so much of it is intact, and dazzling.

Thursday 15 May 2014

Ancient and modern: Thebans

When you're relatively new to regular opera-going, it can be very hard to choose what to see. There's so much catching up to do. As I mentioned in an earlier post - oh look, it's here - I've become a 'Friend' of the Royal Opera House and largely found that there's been plenty there to use up my time and budget, just trying to catch whatever productions I can, and to keep adding to my knowledge. Not just learning about opera, but about myself, too - which composers I respond to, and which performers I find myself wanting to see over and over again.

So it was almost a spur of the moment decision to 'defect' temporarily and book a ticket for English National Opera's 'Thebans', at the Coliseum. This is a brand new opera composed by Julian Anderson, with a libretto by poet/playwright Frank McGuinness. I was definitely attracted to the idea of catching a new work in its world premiere run - that seemed impossibly exciting - but what clinched it was my love of Greek tragedy, dating all the way back to my Classics & English degree. 'Thebans' is based on Sophocles's three plays dealing with the Oedipus myth, and I was unable to resist going along to see how Anderson and McGuinness had tackled them.

The original plays occupy a unique place in our limited archive of surviving tragedies. Greek tragedies came, as a rule, in trilogies, and were performed in a way that we don't really countenance today. During dramatic festivals, the audiences would watch all day - the playwright would exhibit a tragic trilogy, as well as a 'satyr' play (a kind of ribald, knowing comedy - not linked to what we call 'satire', apparently, but nonetheless presumably designed to stop the audiences all going home and slitting their wrists).

For lovers of patterns where there should be none, it's diverting how often 'threes' come up with Greek tragedy, trilogies aside. We have surviving work from three Greek tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides). We only have one trilogy that survives in full (Aeschylus's 'Oresteia', itself the basis of several operas). We have one set of three plays where all three of the tragedians covered the same story (the Electra myth). And strangest of all, we have Sophocles's 'Theban plays', which tell a continuous story in three parts - except they were never conceived as a trilogy. Each individual 'episode' dates from a different point in Sophocles's career.

In story sequence, the plays are 'Oedipus the King', 'Oedipus at Colonus' and 'Antigone' (although Sophocles wrote 'Antigone' first). 'King' is the most familiar part of the myth, where Oedipus - ruler of Thebes - gradually learns that he has brought plague on the city by unwittingly killing his father and marrying the Queen, Jocasta, his mother. When the truth is revealed, Jocasta commits suicide. Oedipus, however, blinds himself (all very symbolic - he couldn't see the truth staring him in the face, and so on) and goes into exile, reliant on his faithful daughter Antigone. He leaves behind a scheming brother-in-law, Creon, and two warring sons. 'Colonus' tells the story of Oedipus's death - as a kind of cosmic payback, his burial place is destined to enjoy good fortune, and Oedipus decides that Theseus (king of Athens) will be the beneficiary of this, rather than Thebes - despite the efforts of various characters (including recurring 'bad guy' Creon) to get him to return. Finally, in the play bearing her name, Antigone lands in hot water when she defies acting ruler Creon and gives burial rites to her treacherous brother (both Oedipus's sons die in their 'civil war' over control of Thebes). Creon's son Haemon is in love with Antigone, and when she hangs herself rather than wait for Creon's goons to kill her, Haemon also takes his own life in front of his dad, who arrives too late to grant a last-minute reprieve. The play has that tragic 'zing' where the audience sees that justice is served on Creon, but at terrible cost.

'Thebans' the opera, then, brings these plays together as the trilogy they never were at the time. McGuinness does a superb job of filleting the action so that we power through all three stories in a running time of about 2 hours. Perhaps it helped him that Greek tragedies are not too 'plot-heavy' - I don't mean that in a 'nothing happens' dismissive way; more that the stories are logical, linear, inexorable, grinding their way towards an inevitable conclusion, with the tension arising from wondering how the playwright will take us there. The libretto has a brutally spare poeticism that carries some of the slightly artificial phrasing of Greek drama with moments of candid vernacular. There was a moment where I literally caught my breath, as Creon takes the crown from Oedipus and - as the music underpinning their argument cuts out, he hisses, 'You no longer rule the roost - that's OVER'.

After giving the plays a unity they previously lacked, Anderson and McGuinness take a left-field turn that I felt paid off brilliantly: they move the story out of sequence. So, the opera has three acts in the order 'King', 'Antigone', 'Colonus'. In the programme, Anderson explains that this was simply the most exciting way to tell the story - and he's right. 'Antigone' is utterly desolate, uncompromisingly sad and only takes up around 25 minutes of the action. The final act, a flashback to Oedipus's death and the tussle over him that precedes it, is far more dramatic and satisfying. Anderson also points out that it gives the final act an almost dream-like feel, where you know how some of its characters later end up - and he places Colonus in a forest clearing, neither Thebes or Athens, but somewhere apart.

As a result, 'Thebans' is the first, and maybe the last, piece of art to remind me of both 'Pulp Fiction' and 'Parsifal'. The movie sprang to mind purely because of the out-of-sequence storytelling - if you saw and enjoyed that film, you'll know that there's no 'sensible' reason to fool around with the timeline, but it lends some of the later scenes (where you are watching living characters, already knowing how they eventually die) more heft. If there are other operas that do this, I'd love to hear about them, but 'Pulp Fiction' is what popped into my head!

Seeing the forest setting of Act 3 made me wonder if, subtly or even subconsciously, Anderson was feeling Wagner's influence. There are some odd parallels: the sick society that needs healing; a member of that society turning on it as an aggressor; the transformation of the lead character into a Grail-like talisman; the hero's own blindness - at least, initially - to his own destiny, and in finding it, some expiation of his former crimes. We also understand that 'Oedipus at Colonus' was Sophocles's final play, as 'Parsifal' was Wagner's last opera, itself designed to consecrate the stage.

It's also an interesting exercise for me to try and comment on the music in 'Thebans'. It's so new, that there's no CD or DVD to refer back to, so I have my memory alone of the opera's sound and impact. Certain impressions remain intact:
  • Appropriately for a production with roots in Greek tragedy, the writing for the chorus was especially powerful and imaginative, with the citizens of Thebes really seeming to gossip and clamour.
  • Throughout, the music felt tense and nervy, hugely effective in ratcheting up the tension.
  • Peter Hoare, the tenor who sang Creon - and therefore had to create a convincing character across three very different 'plays' - at times achieved a genuinely 'evil' sound and was generally magnificent.
  • I suspect Strauss's 'Elektra' must also have been somewhere in the mix of influences, as soprano Julia Sporsen's brilliant tour-de-force closing scene has Antigone crying for her dead father.
  • The messengers in the play were sung by a counter-tenor (the excellent Christopher Ainslie). Messenger speeches were Greek tragedy convention for recounting the off-stage carnage, but it's also worth noting that the ancient Greek word for messenger is 'angelos'. In the New Testament - written in Greek - it's 'messengers' from God who bring the glad tidings and we get our word - and therefore concept - of 'angels' from that. It's really fitting then, I think, that a counter-tenor voice, with its more usual links to sacred, choral music should act as messenger here.
As I type, there are two or three performances of 'Thebans' remaining. I really hope they've filmed or recorded it, because it deserves a wide audience, but if you too fancy a spontaneous operatic adventure, please go and check this out. It's ambitious, powerful and full of energy and conviction. Recommended!

Monday 5 May 2014

Old Bailey, in ruins

Two exhibitions to tell you about - as quickly as I can - since they are just about still showing in London. Mind you, I suspect many people will already have made up their mind about whether or not they want to see the first one I'll mention: David Bailey at the National Portrait Gallery.

His signature style - close-up black-and-white portrait, plain white background - must now be so familiar that even people with the most casual interest in photography might argue they'd never really need to go to a special exhibition just to see them. Only last month, the Queen's latest birthday commission - shot in exactly that format - put Bailey back on the front pages.

For all that, the exhibition contains a few surprises. Curated by DB himself, the show certainly includes the 'greatest hits' (the 'pin-ups' box, the Rolling Stones, Hollywood icons) ... but no doubt with an eye on his legacy, he is careful to include some of his B-sides and album tracks, too. As you might hope if you came along to the gallery as curious about the man as the work, the exhibition really amounts to a giant, multi-part self-portrait of David Bailey. And that's why I think even those of you who feel you've seen it all before might still get a lot out of going along.

Two points I'd draw out in particular...

1) The 'wall' devoted to his wife, Catherine. A model when they met, she has become muse as well as partner and insists (given the nature of some of the images) that she is a totally willing collaborator and in fact remains the party in control. I believe her. However, some of the photos do seem odd - for example, those of her giving birth. I couldn't help thinking that someone in the room might have given Bailey something more useful to do. ("Push!" / "Congratulations, Mr and Mrs Bailey" / "Can we do that again? Wasn't quite ready" etc...) More seriously, does the fact you're a photographer mean you should document every moment, no matter how private? But the sheer number of Catherine pictures, all ranged in a single explosive array, do speak volumes about their working relationship and the importance he places on it.

2) I was struck by how Bailey's rock-and-roll scenester existence informs a lot of his other work. For example, he was prompted to go to the Sudan through Live Aid. In particular, he often seem to use his textbook 'iconic' black-and-white method when travelling far and wide and making portraits. It's tempting to think of this as a safety net or security blanket - especially when used with such consistency from Papua New Guinea (1974) to the Naga Hills (2012). But that belies the rattling connections that looking at the pictures set running in your brain: the cool, confident gaze of the tribespeople reveals them as the 'movers and shakers' - and indeed royalty, I guess, in the case of certain chiefs/elders - and Bailey gazes back, perhaps having his cake and eating it, making us think twice about what we're prepared to find iconic.

In contrast to the relentless focus on one artist, over at Tate Britain, a fascinating show called 'Ruin Lust' picks an extraordinary theme and runs with it. It may not stay 100% true to its supposed topic, but nonetheless it works as a mind-expanding survey of one of the strangest artistic obsessions over the last 300 years: depicting ruin and decay. (The Germans really do have a word for this - "ruinenluste" - and there, in translation, you have the exhibition's title.)

The exhibition takes care to provide historical context, as Turner and his contemporaries discover the appeal of painting ruins of, say, Tintern Abbey, which are as gorgeous to look at, if not more so, as any intact version. But the show really scores by illuminating how the 'ruin' became such a useful tool for underpinning other philosophies and ideologies behind the aesthetics. Again, I'll list examples so I can try and give you succinct highlights....
  • John Gandy's painting of the then-new Bank of England, commissioned by its architect John Soane to be depicted as a 'future ruin'. This genius idea allowed the painting to show the beauty and complexity of the interior layout (the roof having 'gone') while fitting the trend for ruin paintings.
  • War artists - in particular the haunting images of Graham Sutherland and John Piper - are given good coverage, but in the case of Paul Nash, the exhibition chooses to focus on his photographs. These images of seemingly abandoned or isolated segments of buildings and machinery carry over the deliberately surreal and eerie atmosphere of his paintings. I won't forget the stairs-into-mid-air shot in a hurry.
  • John Armstrong's painting of the bomb damage to Coggleshall Church. The Tate website speculates that the structure shown underneath implies the resilience of the building against attack. I don't disagree, but I also find something of an Escher-like, futuristic, 'how-does-it-all-fit-together?' feel to the exposed interior. Rubble must've fallen inward, too - but this is perfect, clean, mechanised, and almost seems to project towards the view further than the confines of the building.

As you can probably tell from the pieces I've listed, the exhibition gains a great deal of power from the seemingly paradoxical idea that ruins are somehow future-looking: today's structures are tomorrow's ruins. Ironies like this crop up throughout. Tacita Dean's 'Kodak' (which I felt was a bit off-topic - it's more a celebration of something passing into history, than a ruin as such) is a documentary on the film manufacture, partly made with some of the discontinued stock. There's also a terrifying series of photos by Jane and Louise Wilson of the concrete-block remains of the Atlantic Wall coastal barriers built by the Nazis, shown here in close-up as derelict monoliths, imposing, brutal, but now useless.

Please don't think of the exhibition as downbeat - there are too many ideas, too much making your brain fizz as you go around. Even at its darkest moments, the ingenuity and inventiveness of the artists wins through - for example, the necessarily bleak 'zine art' of Laura Oldfield Ford shows graffiti on an estate - something looks wrong, until you realise that the writing isn't following the intricate and beautifully drawn perspective of the building shown in the picture but across the 'fourth wall' of the front of the image. Genius.

Please see 'Ruin Lust', if you can - it's on until 18 May, so don't tarry. And although the accompanying book is a fascinating artefact in itself, it's not really a full-on catalogue as one might expect - so to get the full measure of what's on display, you really do need to be there. 'Bailey's Stardust' is open until 1 June.

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Both photos are taken from the gallery websites (and I see the copyright message for the Bailey shot is embedded in the actual image - *doffs cap*)...