Thursday 27 October 2016

Body of work: Antony Gormley at the White Cube

Not only is this my second art-related post in a row - but another in my slightly regrettable series of 'just in time' features: Antony Gormley's exhibition 'Fit' is running until 6 November (2016, for future archivists) at the White Cube, Bermondsey. If you can squeeze a visit into your schedule, I urge you to go.

So much of Gormley's most celebrated work seems to explore how the body affects or influences space and landscape: the towering Angel of the North, the 'you-are-being-watched' lurking figures of 'Event Horizon', even the 2,400 performers who signed up for 'One and Other', taking over the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square and invading the consciousness of passers-by, one hour at a time.

As a result, I'm always particularly intrigued when he decides to show his work indoors - it's as if his normal M.O. is inverted and we experience the pressures of confined space upon the body. Anyone who has seen the thronging clay figures of his 'Field' installations (see photo below) may recall or at least recognise a simultaneous feeling of uneasy amusement and slight claustrophobia when gazing at the miniature masses. I also remember loving his Hayward Gallery exhibition from around a decade ago, 'Blind Light', where he used the (admittedly cavernous) dimensions available to create some powerfully interactive pieces ('Blind Light' itself was a glass room-within-a-room, filled with a white fog - viewers could wander inside and disappear from the sight of their companions outside).

'Fit' is a somewhat different proposition. AG has divided the gallery into small rooms, most of which contain just one or two pieces. Often, there are only narrow gaps and channels available to look at the sculptures, and this effect is heightened when, of course, you are sharing the experience with other visitors.

As such, you can definitely feel some kind of exchange going on - the space is bearing down on the pieces, while the pieces seem to want to burst out - and you're in the way. In the end, the pieces conform to their surroundings. As if succumbing to a sort of gravitational force, every component of every piece is boxed, compacted, straight-edged - I didn't see a single curve in the entire exhibition. The familiar contours of Gormley's Gormley-based humanoids are wholly absent.

For all that, it's clearly still the human body that interests him, and one of the most striking - and endearing - features of the show is how these apparently simplified block figures still express so much personality and individuality. The exhibition blurb points out that certain pieces are counter-reactions to others - and one pair they might have had in mind are 'Pose' and 'Big Shy', below:

To me, the confidence of the reclining figure versus the coyness of the timid wallflower are right there, in those chunky, solid arrangements - as clearly as if they had painted features. Throughout, the 'characters' on display might be made of lines and cubes, but Gormley does not go for complete regularity or symmetry: thin iron blocks might be placed off-centre from the main body of the piece, or steel rods might stick out at a slightly different length or angle on each side - as if suggesting sideways turns, or hand gestures.

For all this concentrated use of space, there are two relatively expansive show-stoppers. 'Passage' is this exhibition's 'Blind Light' - but reshaped in this exhibition's image. While that fog-filled room felt edge-less, open - here the participant walks into a tunnel, just wide enough to hold a person (again, with only straight lines, no curves, around you). To anyone observing on the outside, you are swallowed up by the darkness. Inside, though, you can test your own tolerance for the walls around you as far as you want into the 12-metre corridor - if you turn around, you can see outside perfectly clearly. As an artwork, it achieves two simultaneous viewing experiences: inside, as your eyes get used to the tunnel (it's dark, but not the 'total darkness' of, say, a cave system where you can't see your hand in front of you) you gain a heightened self-awareness. The noise you are making, externally (the echo of your footfall) and internally (your breathing, in particular - I briefly started talking to myself). But it's as gripping an experience for the companion outside the tunnel entrance, aware only of sounds, and the memory of your shape until you re-emerge.

Finally, we even get a 'sequel' to the Field series, called 'Sleeping Field'. Like its parent, the new installation at first impresses thanks to its scale (it occupies one of the rare large rooms in the show) - but arguably, the delightful variety of postures taken up by the faceless block figures gives them even more of an individual presence than the curvy, yet rather shapeless, creatures in the original. With several vantage points available at various stages of the exhibition, it was possible to pick out one 'favourite' after another.

Restricted techniques, tight parameters, enclosed spaces - yet seemingly infinite rewards.

(The photo of one of the original 'Fields' is from AG's website - and I couldn't see a credit. However, photography was allowed at the White Cube - so the other images here are by Specs!)

Saturday 15 October 2016

Private views: William Eggleston, Georgia O'Keeffe

If you're London way, there is still just time to catch two vastly different, but equally dazzling, exhibitions: William Eggleston's Portraits (at the National Portrait Gallery for another week) and Georgia O'Keeffe (at Tate Modern until 30 October). I haven't managed to write about these nearly as quickly as I'd hoped - but I still thought them worth drawing to your attention, since the book accompanying the Eggleston photographs in particular is well worth your time.

Eggleston is, in my opinion, rightly celebrated for his impassive gaze at Americana, and I can see why he's been compared to, say, Hopper in achieving that sense of detached melancholy (in film rather than paint, of course). WE does not confine himself to photographing only people - far from it. But as regular Specs perusers will know, portrait photography is something I'm very fond of doing myself, so the opportunity to see a large amount of his work in this genre and gain some inspiration from it was irresistible.

Photograph an empty location, and you can capture stillness. But once people are in there, movement or change is always implied - there cannot be total disengagement. The two 'forces' going on in many of these pictures, then - WE's apparent 'attempt' (deliberately subverted, I'm sure) to shoot his subjects with the same coolness as his landscape work, and the simple fact of their energy and presence pushing against this - make for a wonderful tension. If anything, I thought of film-makers: the saturated false normality of Lynch, or the eerie symmetry of Kubrick.

Take the shot below. At first glance, it's tempting almost to laugh at the old-fashioned hairstyle and see the photo as almost satirical, condescending. But that tight vertical line of focus shows the similarity of the grips and the necklace. Geometry is in evidence everywhere here - follow the lines from the corners of the near seat, through the corners of the far seat, to the 'corners' of the hairdo. The friends/couple are merged into one shape, making two opposite triangles, giving them a deep connection without ever needing to reveal their faces. The only thing breaking this balance is that the two cigarettes (both somehow 'equally' out of focus) mirror each other 'into' rather than across the picture, lending the subjects an even stronger link.

For an extraordinary marriage between people and their surroundings, I'd be hard pressed to find a more eloquent example than the next photo. The loyal manservant falls naturally into the body language used by his boss. But notice how the men are echoed by the pairs of trees receding into the distance to the right - particularly the closer pair suggesting the one on the right is the sturdier of the two. I'm also struck by how there are only really three colours in the photo - the inescapable black/white contrast picked up in the car and its radiator, the house in the distance, the clothing... and all else is an autumnal shade, as if this situation is transitory: the white man's skin in fact the same ruddy brown of the leaves, earth and even the water.

From image to image, I just found myself marvelling at the photographer's eye. His seemingly instinctive way of capturing people at exactly the right time and place even allowed for some gentle humour: the girl in the back of a car, placed so accurately that the windows of the car spread out behind her like angel wings - but in a perfect inversion of the shape of her curved specs. Or, in one of my favourites from the whole exhibition (below), an early shot of a man about to cross the road, near a STOP sign. But the man also is the STOP sign in human form - the timing is such that his awkwardly raised leg, mid-gait, puts his rigid frame at the same slightly-skewed angle.

Sometimes Eggleston's self-removal is problematic - the photograph of his girlfriend in tears, staring accusingly down the camera lens, is uncomfortable and unforgettable - and we occasionally feel like we're witnessing scenes we perhaps shouldn't. But in a way, I'm glad that someone who seems to have lived a life at the edges, quietly observing, is also capable of edginess - otherwise it would be easy to believe he has somehow moved among us completely unnoticed, leaving no trace but his photos. One of the most thought-provoking and involving exhibitions I've seen in years.

After these smaller-scale wonders, Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings came as a kind of blissed-out, sensory overload. I had perhaps the same pre-conception of O'Keeffe as many others - I knew her name, and of her importance, but the only pictures I really knew about were the large flowers. Much like this one:

So, one of the glories of the Tate's exhibition is its ambitious scope - GO'K's whole lifetime is covered, and the outsize flora take their place as part of her never-ending cycle of artistic development.

I will get one thing off my chest about the 'hang', so to speak - or perhaps, more accurately, the curation. GO'K's quotation "Men put me down as the best woman painter... I think I'm one of the best painters" features prominently on the posters - and it's been assembled by two women. So, while being aware that as a chap, this is not my field of expertise or comfort zone, I was expecting a full-on feminist, celebratory approach of Keeffe's originality and brilliance. I wasn't expecting quite so much focus on her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, photographer and artistic mover/shaker. Clearly, they were important to each other, but after a few rooms, I was finding Stieglitz to be something of an annoyance. For example, while O'Keeffe seems to have willingly acted as his muse, did we really need to see so many of his photos of her - isn't that his work? Or the fact that they both produced city scapes (like the painting below) is surely not cast-iron evidence that he was an inescapable influence, but rather a natural outcome of the fact they both lived in a city. Worse, he apparently perpetuated and galvanised the tendency of critics to see G'OK's work as erotic, irritating her no end. I don't want him airbrushed completely out of her story, but I resented his material taking up space that could have been given to more of hers.

It seems to me that O'Keeffe's work is more about the sensory, rather than the sensual - the paintings suggest heightened levels of experience, rather than contrived layers of meaning. Some of the most breathtaking pieces early on in the exhibition are her abstracts inspired by music: communicating what synaesthesia (the condition that allows people to experience a stimulation 'across' the senses - for example, to see music as colours or shapes) might actually be like for those of us in the relative dark. And the famous large-scale flowers - which were also subject to the 'sexual' over-simplification - in fact force the viewer to engage with the plants' beauty and intricacy to a hyper-real extent, since it would be impossible to experience the bloom in such overwhelming dimensions in the wild.

As time went on and O'Keeffe moved herself physically further into nature - initially the rural Lake George area of New York State and ultimately her extended stays in New Mexico - the art became not so much surreal as more totemic, emblematic. The exhibition finds room for her skulls and bones, shown almost levitating against the bright landscape, like bleached-out, sun-drenched vanitas still lifes... contrasting with her 'Black Place' paintings of remote, monochrome hills. Telling details zap you like lightning bolts from her abstract work - as below, where the interlocked sections of bone are echoed by the fissures in the distant rock face.

One of my own favourite paintings is far less elemental. But this East River view, I think, combines so many features of her greatness. I love the way the entire view is slightly slanted left, as our eye rarely sees everything as totally flush and horizontal. The buildings, while totally realistic, strike us as a pattern of recurrent, near-regular shapes, seemingly with the potential to repeat and regenerate for ever. And her billowing clouds are present in the smoke pouring from the funnels and chimneys. In the haze, the hue of the open land far off picks up the colour of the water. I couldn't tell you how long I stood transfixed, staring into this.

Two artists utterly poles apart in attitude and approach: disinterested observation versus deep engagement. But both seem to arrive at the same instruction - stop, and look more closely.

Saturday 8 October 2016

Cross purposes: 'Norma' at the ROH

Bellini's opera 'Norma' is justifiably famous for at least two reasons: as one of the most highly-regarded works in the 'bel canto' genre (an especially florid style of Italian singing - gorgeousness almost for its own sake), and having, in the title role, one of the most demanding parts in the entire repertoire.

The new production of 'Norma' at the Royal Opera House had already made the headlines long before the actual run. Anna Netrebko withdrew from debuting in the role about a month after the season was announced. However, within a week or so, Sonya Yoncheva - also taking on Norma for the first time - had been cast in her place. This generated a bit of 'BUT IS SHE A NORMA?'-style speculation (surely it's the same with any new incumbent of this particular role). But as someone who is happiest when their corner of social media is in 'polite' mode, I was really pleased to find that most reactions I saw to SY's involvement were of curious, optimistic interest.

I was excited, too, because I knew SY only through her lovely album 'Paris, mon amour' - I'd never heard her live on stage. And I was particularly intrigued by the swift return to the ROH of director Àlex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus, the troupe behind the brilliant recent production of Enescu's 'Oedipe', which I wrote about here).

To canter briefly through the plot... the Romans have occupied Gaul. The Druids are governed by a kind of first family, namely Oroveso, their chief, and his daughter Norma, their high priestess. These aren't the chilled-out hippy Druids you'd expect to find hanging around Stonehenge; in fact, under Oroveso's leadership, they are itching to make war on the invaders. Norma advocates peace, not least because she has had two children on the quiet with a Roman lover, Pollione.

Pollione, card-carrying complete bastard, has actually transferred his affections to another, junior priestess called Adalgisa. Adalgisa puts up some resistance, but ultimately agrees to leave with Pollione. However, she feels the need to explain her impending departure to Norma. The truth comes out just as Pollione turns up to collect Adalgisa, and there is, of course, an almighty dust-up. Both women are furious to find out about Pollione's deception - so he leaves by himself. But Norma's rage is apocalyptic.

She comes very close to killing their children in a Medea-like act of revenge, but stops herself. Adalgisa returns to her vows after failing to persuade Pollione to come back to Norma - at which point things, as they say, escalate quickly. Hearing that the Romans plan to take Adalgisa back by force, Norma stirs the Druids up to war. Pollione is arrested and brought in after being caught breaking back into the temple. As a sacrificial victim is needed for the war ceremony, Norma shocks the entire ensemble by revealing her secret - including her children, for the first time, to hands-off granddad Oroveso - and proclaiming herself as the offering. She dies with Pollione on the pyre.

High octane stuff. But - as a 'bel canto' high watermark - however sorry or tense the situation, it's all underpinned by utterly gorgeous music. If, like me, you're a bit more used to later opera where the orchestra tends to track the mood of the action more closely, it can at times seem a little surreal or ironic, as if the score has passed through music written since and out the other side.

But of course, it's neither of those things. As the convention of the time, it would not have had this strangeness-in-hindsight. And the cast, playing it completely straight, bring out a total sincerity. Somehow, the loveliness of the melodies makes it more unbearable that this is happening to these people. Norma has a rightly-celebrated solo aria 'Casta diva', where she prays for peace. But for me, this was possibly surpassed by the writing for duet and trio near the end of Act I - where first, Adalgisa's confession and Norma's compassion ripple over each other until realisation dawns, then - once Pollione turns up - their fury erupts, but in sublimely intertwined lines: as any two voices fall back, the third fills the gap to take its place in the argument.

(The ROH's clip of Sonya Yoncheva singing 'Casta diva'.)

Sonya Yoncheva was magnificent. No problem supplying the seemingly effortless beauty in the voice, but also dominant and commanding when necessary. I was convinced by the body language and attitude that this was someone who could control and influence a mob. She gave the character moments of fearsome physicality - a cry of rage at the exact moment the lights went out on Act 1, and later on, an unchecked assault on a gong, when in war mode. The supporting cast were all on form, too. Sonia Ganassi (apparently performing with a cold; still great) brought out the initially weak and anguished Adalgisa's latent grit, and Joseph Calleja was suitably thuggish as arch-git Pollione - terrific sound, but if I had to change one thing, I'd get him to interact with the other characters more, rather than declaim outwards quite so much. (This, of course, could have been how he was directed.)

I was also hugely impressed by the staging and production. The forest, gleaming in darkness, seems very strange and stylised, until you realise the trees are made entirely of what must be hundreds of crucifixes. (A chilling realisation of how the wood is described by Pollione and his friend Flavio as evil, containing death.) The 'Druids' in this production are definitely being aligned with Christianity - it's hard to miss the comment on aggression/repression in contemporary religion - but the specifics are nicely blurred: the swinging censer and tree-crucifixes might suggest Catholicism but if so - Norma and Adalgisa would not be priests.

Ollé revisits some of the time-shift concepts that helped make his 'Oedipe' production so fascinating. In the first half, the characters wear vaguely recent/contemporary military and clerical garb... but after the interval, Norma's children are shown in an ultra-modern flat, with 'Watership Down' on the TV (as if these kids aren't traumatised enough!) and a spacehopper taking centre-stage. Church and state seem to blur further as Norma and Adalgisa appear in business-like trouser suits, religion and war now a matter of admin - of getting things done.

To me, this meant that every aspect of the opera carried a tension between what things 'ought to be', and what they are. I've already mentioned the way the divine music can seem a mismatch for the ugly subject matter, and Ollé's overall production looks to that model. All the individual elements we see make sense: the costumes, the props, the locations... but they only 'add up' in the opera's alternative universe where we find ourselves. We can absorb the critique of today's society, without missing out on that wave of escapism opera gives us, as a modern audience.

The final image of the production is an astonishing coup de theatre, as the partially-hidden sacrificial pyre itself takes the shape of a stage-high burning cross - queasily reminding the audience of the Druid's KKK-style headgear and finally igniting the underlying theme of where fundamentalist rule inevitably leads: to death. And more than that, to death of the innocent.

An evening of real depth and power, stunningly performed and realised.