On Being Curious.

Plus! Culture website The Double Negative has a book out. Here's the press release:
On Being Curious:
New Critical Writing on Contemporary Art
From the North-West of England


Edited by Laura Robertson

Published by The Double Negative on behalf of Contemporary
Visual Arts Network North-West (CVAN NW)

10 new articles on contemporary art from 10 emerging writers: On Being Curious is a book telling the story of the North-West’s contemporary visual art scene, yet contributes to national and international debates around what it means to make powerful, arresting and effective arts practice.

The first book edited and published in house by The Double Negative magazine, On Being Curious has been commissioned by the Contemporary Visual Arts Network North-West (CVAN NW), as part of their successful Critical Writing Bursary & Workshop Programme (2014-16). It is funded by Arts Council England, Lancashire County Council, University of Salford, Manchester School of Art and arts organisations across the North-West. 
The writers’ chosen topics include award-winning artists, projects, exhibitions, art schools, agencies and artist-led venues, and provide a rich snapshot of the contemporary art scene in the region from the last 18 months.

On Being Curious editor Laura Robertson said: “On Being Curious just goes to show what can be achieved by providing emerging writers with clear and constructive editorial support; editorial contacts at publications; networking and skills-building; and critical writing bursaries. I feel very honoured to have been part of this book and the wider CVAN NW Critical Writing Bursary & Workshop Programme.”

On Being Curious has been praised by frieze magazine’s Jennifer Higgie, a-n’s Chris Sharratt, and ArtReview’s Oliver Basciano – who commented: “This book provides 10 smacks in the face to the idea that art criticism is dead. Art needs to be interrogated, artists’ ideas stretched and pummelled, loved and lauded: the writers contained within these pages do all this and more, with verve and humour, hitting points and making targets with scary panache.”

On Being Curious will be available in a selection of public and university libraries across the North-West and the UK, including at the British Library.

Read more and download the FREE e-book version on The Double Negative
here:

http://www.thedoublenegative.co.uk/2016/05/on-being-curious-ourfirst-in-house-book-on-contemporary-arts-criticism/
Message ends.

"devastating"

Health Joe Gatt plays 0718 in the new Star Trek films (in the comics the character is revealed to be a humanoid manifestation of the Enterprise ala Idris in The Doctor's Wife in Doctor Who) and is an alopecia sufferer. On the franchise's official website he writes about how he's lived with the disorder and how people treated him:
"As most of you – especially my Star Trek fans -- know, I have alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack its own hair follicles, thus preventing hair growth. It doesn't affect the body in any other way and is not contagious. This happened to me when I was about 11 years old, initially, with some patchy hair loss, and then at 14 all of my hair fell out. By the time I was 14 1/2 I was totally hairless... and have been pretty much that way ever since. As you can imagine, this is a pretty devastating thing to happen to a kid. The teasing, the bullying, the ignorant comments, the discrimination, the judgements… I didn't see a way forward. I didn't leave the house. If I did it was always with a cap on. My friends deserted me, all except one."

37 Christopher Plummer



Hamlet played by Christopher Plummer.
Directed by Philip Saville.

Woosh. Ever since seeing a clip of Plummer's Hamlet narrating the players as part of the Playing The Dane documentary broadcast during the Bard on the Box season in 1994, I've been more than intrigued by Hamlet at Elsinore in which BBC and Danish Radio co-produced an outside broadcast recording of the play at Kronborg Castle in actual Elsinore. This has only increased across the years as innumerable documentaries have included shots of its primary curiosity, Michael Caine in his single classical role playing Horatio.  Now, finally, this morning, well, here we are.

The BFI's still invaluable ScreenOnline section has a short explanatory piece about the making of Hamlet at Elsinore.  As they explain, this was a milestone in television history as the first drama recorded entirely on location outside of the studio, the result of the Danish company having originated the idea but eventually bringing in the BBC to produce, the former supplying sets (obviously) and background cast with the latter providing crew and the primary cast.  Given everything they had to work with, bulk cameras and lighting rigs and appalling weather it's impressive that it even exists at all.

That it exists and is also of such high quality is a miracle.  At just over three and a quarter hours and containing most of the play, this is an entirely "cinematic" interpretation which also somehow doesn't deny its theatrical origins.  There are noirish moments which stand alongside both the Olivier and Kozintsev film versions and at only a few points do its televisual origins show.  Although there are certainly moments when Saville experiments but doesn't quite achieve what he set out to do, Hamlet at Elsinore is clearly in the vanguard of great productions.

Saville and the team fully utilise the location with what must every room in Kronburg utilised in some part, with the chapel even being utilised for the nunnery scene and the expansive central courtyard being the perfect setting for the arrival of the players and for Hamlet to hail, from a window, the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  There are shots of the modern interior here but nothing much as change in the past fifty-odd years, even the paintings are in the same positions, which in the show are presumably supposed to depict Hamlet's ancestors.

The key directorial choice here is ceilings - in almost every scene there'll be a shot framed from below across an actors chin, up their nose and towards the ceiling of a room as if to increase the apparent headroom of each location.  Given the technology available,  the number of close-ups is startling, especially for Plummer's Hamlet who is introduced in isolation, the viewer unable to quite grasp his position in the throne room at mother and step-father interact with him until everyone leaves and he has the space to himself.

Keeping the action mainly within the walls of the castle necessarily guides the cuts.  Laertes's challenge following his father's murder isn't shown at all and the opening battlements scenes are staccato, even losing the opening line of the play in favour of introducing some dread and mystery as to what the soldiers are encountering, flailing about in the darkness.  For all that, a truncated Fortinbras is present bolstered by an impressive army of extras within what must be the woods at the edge of the castle (doubling as much further away).

Cutting "Who's there" and all aids Michael Caine's introduction as we hang on his every word as Horatio describes to Hamlet the emergence of the Ghost which in the full text usually puts Hamlet's reaction as the focus as a scene which we've already been privy to is described to him.  Caine's militaristic, almost clipped but matter of fact delivery is extraordinary, as though he's the first person to say these words, reveal this uncanny visitor.  So subtle is his work, it almost derails Plummer's performance which at this early stage is far more expressive.

There are deep, deep undercurrents of feeling behind Caine's mesmerising eyes.  Coolly spoken for much of the play, waterfalls of emotion flow from him when Hamlet dies as he's finally able to release the pent up feelings he had for his friend. According to his autobiography, he'd been told by a producer on Zulu that "I know you're not, but you gotta face the fact that you look like a queer on screen." so he worked it to his advantage here and "decided that if my on-screen appearance was going to be an issue, then I would use it to bring out all Horatio's ambiguous sexuality."

Plummer's Hamlet is less convincing.  The mad scenes oscillate between half-hearted and pantomime and the character never quite makes sense even when he's supposed to be sober in decision.  The actor's natural charisma just about masks this indecision but my mind often wandered to questions about production choices while he was on screen which is a strange place to be.  We're never quite able to grasp his inner turmoil, never quite convinced that he's not simply just saying these words because they're in the text rather than because he believes them.

In fairness he's not aided by some of the directorial experiments.  Plummer doesn't deliver his soliloquies to camera, which isn't unusual in filmed productions, apart from a single glance during To Be Or Not To Be.  Except in the desperation to do something different with the famous speech, its delivered as a montage against open spaces within the castle or close-ups on Hamlet, but the necessarily for the time haphazard editing makes the result disjointed and difficult to follow in terms of the emotional thread.

The fourth wall is instead broken when Hamlet addresses his father's spirit and the audience is placed in the point of view of the ghost, the camera hovering above Plummer.  Like To Be, it seems to be a decision born of diversity and then has the added problem of trying to coherently provide a voice at this key moment in the play.  The solution is a disembodied voice, but the actor then spends half the speech whisper-rasping like one of Doctor Who's Ice Warriors so that half of the necessary exposition is lost as is the connection between the two characters which is usually so meaningful.

Fortunately the production is stronger elsewhere.  Jo Maxwell Muller's Ophelia is initially estranged from her father and has an obvious affection for Hamlet.  There's a Brief Encounter moment at the docks as he sees her brother off as her expression becomes cold and disappointed when Polonius arrives and steals their final precious moments together with his endless advice, almost drawing on a smile when she has to turn and acknowledge her Dad.  Later she's unaware of her father and the new King eavesdropping on the nunnery scene, running away in disgust.

It's a strong cast, almost inadvertently.  Peter Luke the producer had decided not to fill out his production with big names so as not to distract from the story.  So he chose Caine, Plummer, Robert Shaw as Claudius  and yes, Donald Sutherland as Fortinbras (at a time when he was still playing Hotel Clerk and Tall Man in Nightclub) which means that a retrospective viewing doesn't have that effect at all.  Even Roy Kinnear shows up as the single Gravedigger years before he became a key player in comedic acting.

Despite my reservations about Plummer, which I'll admit might not be the same for someone who hasn't seen thirty-six actors play the character as well, Hamlet at Elsinore is an incredible piece of work.  The text is rendered lucidly and there are still moment when it's almost like hearing the words for the first time.  If I've drawn anything from it, it's that Michael Caine's self-esteem issues have denied what might have been a career peppered with some excellent Shakespearean turns amid everything else.  Is it too late for him to give us his Lear?

Ella Kruglyanskaya at Tate Liverpool.



Art "Oh hello you."

This lunch time, Tate Liverpool were once again kind enough to invite me to the press view for their three new shows, Maria Lassnig, Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms (the paid exhibitions) and Ella Kruglyanskaya (which will be the free exhibition on the ground floor). All three shows are well curated, the objects thoughtfully chosen and with a keen sense, as has been the case in recent years, of finding ways in which they thematically and materially overlap, in idea, composition and motif.

Unfortunately for me, I've never, not exactly not been a fan of Francis Bacon, or more specifically not feeling anything about his work. From being taken to an exhibition at school and in the years since, often in visits to Tate Liverpool, I've tried my best with it, built an understanding of his thought processes, even bought a postcard of his famous triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) (which is on display). But there's nothing here for me and now that I'm in my forties I've made my peace with that.

After the disappointment of not having the kind of revelation which occurred during the Warhol exhibition (see here), I wandered disconsolately to the ground floor space (well got the lift) and into the Ella Kruglyanskaya exhibition and smiled. And smiled some more, and smiled again. The first image through the doors is Fruit Picnic (2011), an image of two figures lolling across a multicoloured mat, one winking at us, the other fast asleep, wearing a belt with a buckle in the shape of a mouth. What could I say but:

"Oh hello you."

Ella Kruglyanskaya is a New York based painter (originally from Latvia) and this is her first dedicated museum exhibition (although she's had plenty of shows in commercial galleries). There's some explanatory text on Tate's website about how this is a retrospective of her work from the past ten years, and the first appearance of paintings made in 2016, some completed just a few weeks ago apparently.  It pays homage to the history of art, in her use of egg temora and a medium and embracing "a wide range of influences from German expressionism to film and popular culture of the 1950s and 1960s."

On reflection, I understand my own taste enough to realise exactly why I had this reaction.  In the same way that Spotify Discover or Netflix attempt to fathom what your tastes are and present you with other things you might like, Ella Kruglyanskaya's work strokes my art appreciation algorithm almost obscenely.  It doesn't tick all of the boxes, there aren't any depictions of Shakespeare and none of them were painted in the Victorian era, obviously, but in terms of wanting to buy half the exhibition as postcards and t-shirts, this is pretty close.

Here's why:

There's a strong feminist undercurrent.  The artist also chooses to depict women and pairs of women interacting, not for our visual pleasure in the Laura Mulvey sense, but happy in each others company or in the case of the small, graphic Primary Colors (2006) and Girls and Guns (2006), in a state of all out war, acknowledging the panoply of ways in which women have been depicted across visual culture.  When voyeurism is implied, as per the images of bathers, the composition makes the viewer feel slightly uncomfortable as though we're invading a private space.

Many of the paintings are not as they first appear.  The newly completed Girls With Drinks With Paper Cuts (2016) and Bather with Paper Cuts (2016), look from a distance like pencil drawing and collage glued to a canvas, but look closer and they're actually photorealistic paintings of same (the artist offering a clear influence from Matisse who occupied this same space up until a couple of weeks ago).  Sideways Face (Paper Ruin) (2016) attempts a similar trick by sculpturally implying three dimensions on a two dimensional plain.

Kruglyanskaya also embraces post-modernity, the messy interplay of elements from a range of different cultural influences.  Girl With Sunglasses (2008) noirishly utilises the frames of a woman's shades to reflect a beach scene.  The aforementioned Paper Cuts pieces are graphically similar to the kinds of artwork typified by the the day-glo 80s and you could well imagine them being used on anything from a music compilation to advertising an alcoholic tipple.  This isn't a criticism by the way, I love their complex simplicity.

Which means they're also very web-friendly images, of the kind you might imagine cropping up in social media feeds.  Primary Colors (2006) and Girls and Guns (2006) show two frames of an abstract action and although we're meant to imagine what we're seeing, they're not unlike animated gifs.  PBS Ideas Channel has a strong piece about how images are now being used to imply, depict or replace emotion online and there are plenty of this artists paintings which could be utilised for this purpose.  Especially Gossip Girls (2010).

This is only a small exhibition but it offers a good enough sense of Kruglyanskaya's work for me to want to see more.  An online image search for her name presents dozens of others, some variations of paintings in the Tate's exhibition, some even more graphic and on the nose in their symbolism.  This makes sense of the bananas on the pullover in Lips and Lemons, for example.  As the artist says in this interview: “Even when they’re offering themselves up to be looked at, there’s a sense of resistance. Consuming their voluptuousness feels a bit risky.”  I happily take that risk.

My Favourite Film of 1946.



Film For a good long while It's A Wonderful Life was in the "necessary five", my favourite films of all time, but has subsequently been nudged out by In The Bleak Midwinter as the Christmas film of choice (the other four on the list are When Harry Met Sally, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Seventh Seal and Star Wars (although having seen Whip It and Frozen again recently that coveted Ferris slot look a bit shaky). Why the change? Well, quite simply because it's so, so depressing and to such an extent it's become very difficult to watch. One of the key elements of that list is that I'd be happy watch any of those films right now and the idea of seeing Life in that context doesn't exist.

For a while it also had special status. With annual appearances at cinemas, I decided that I would never own a copy of my own and would only be able to see it in auditoria, so it is the film which I've seen most on the big screen, at the ABC on Lime Street, the Cornerhouse in Manchester a couple of times, the Odeon on London Road and FACT Liverpool (which I hope I haven't jinxed based on that track record). Initially these were 35mm prints which looked like they'd seen many festive seasons but eventually they were replaced with restored digital copies.  For over ten years, it was as much a part of the tradition of Christmas for me as visiting the continental market in Manchester.

The only occasion my vehemence about seeing the film in cinemas became a problem was when asked during my film studies course to write an essay about Frank Capra's film and the extent to which the climaxes of his films with their apparent dip towards tragedy before a last minute restitution was a result of his auteurism as a director or his writers, especially his early collaborator Robert Riskin.  Life is a key example of this and so would require me to watch it closely, yet I decided to write about it from memory anyway which is just how film studies historians worked anyway before the emergence of VHS, unless their university happened to have a print themselves.

Then Mum bought me the blu-ray for Christmas and that was that.  Not because owning the film would necessarily negate seeing it projected, but watching the events unfold alone in my room, isolated, somehow put a new perspective on what happens in the film, George's sacrifices and what now looked like a false catharsis at the end which seems like it has the potential to last until the horrors of dealing with New Year's Eve filled me with dread for reasons to emotionally lengthy to put into words here, but suffice to say it meant I was done with It's A Wonderful Life as a favourite film, or indeed something I could just watch whenever.  But we'll reconvene at some point I'm sure.