Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The last of the Big Smoke

Regular readers of this blog (there must be one or two) will know that I like to take myself off to London a couple of times a year for weekends of culture - art, theatre, music, chilling on the Southbank, that kind of thing. It's lovely - you should try it. Anyway, at the weekend I took what might be, for reasons I don't intend to go into here, the last such trip for a while. We drove down on Friday afternoon and took up residence in an excellent little apartment in Hammersmith (I'm not going to tell you exactly where, because it is excellent, and if I spread the word too far and wide then next time I do get down to the Big Smoke I won't be able to stay there because it'll be fully booked, with you in it!). But I digress. After a brief bout of Christmas shopping in Muji at Covent Garden, we had an excellent dinner in 32 Great Queen Street, before heading to the New London Theatre on Drury Lane to see War Horse. And what a show that is - a true theatrical experience. Based on Michael Morpurgo's children's book of the same name, War Horse tells the tale of a boy and his horse and their experiences in the run-up to, and during, the First World War. In case you're wondering how they bring horses to life on stage, well, it's done with the most amazing puppets (right) I've ever seen - full-size horse puppets that are so well animated (right down to twitching ears) that you soon forget the puppeteers and become wholly engaged by the character of the horse. The show also provides a very vivid evocation of the horrors of WWI: the madness of cavalry charges into machine-gun fire, the lunacy of going "over the top", the terrible futility of trench warfare. Yes, it's a children's book, and yes, you have to suspend your disbelief a little bit to swallow the redemptive ending, but War Horse is a truly astonishing show, and genuinely moving to boot. I'd see it while you can if I were you.

The next day we headed over to the Southbank, where our first stop was the Christmas market. If I'm honest, this was a bit disappointing. Don't get me wrong, the stalls that were there were great, and suitably Christmassy, but they were nearly all food outlets. This is fine in that it gives the market a lovely smell, and gets the tastebuds in the Christmas spirit, but I would have liked to have seen more stalls selling unusual gifts. Yes, there were some... but there weren't enough. That wasn't the only disappointment though, because we headed up to the Tate Modern next, specifically to see the Pop Life exhibition... and, to be honest, that was a bit of a disappointment too. Yes, I accept that a key aim of the exhibition is to celebrate the growth of commercialism in art, but that grates a little with me - I prefer the idea of art for art's sake, rather than churning something out just because you know it will sell. I did like Keith Haring's "Pop Shop" (his style is illustrated on the left), and Tracey Emin's work, love it or loathe it, at least feels very real and personal, but some of the rest? Jeff Koon's work with Ilona Staller (aka La Cicciolina) is exhibited behind closed doors because of its adult nature, and that's no surprise given that it's basically just giant close-ups, in different media, of them having sex. There's nothing wrong with this... except that when you read that Koons contacted Staller after seeing her in porn mags, engaged her to work on this with him, married her, posed the pair of them in increasing explicit works, and that in later works the Koons figure was beefed up and better groomed... well, it just feels like wish-fulfilment for the artist, rather than art for art's sake. Koons might like to dress this up as portraying a modern-day Adam and Eve, but really it's just self-indulgent, self-gratifying sexploitation. (This is where I should append "IMHO" but I just can't bring myself to indulge in such a linguistic transgression, sorry.)

What else? Well, talking of sexploitation, Richard Prince's original "Spiritual America" has been removed from display - this features a naked, 10-year old Brooke Shields, heavily made up and slicked down. It's been replaced by "Spiritual America IV", which shows an adult Shields recreating the pose in a bikini, ironically less heavily made up and without having been quite so vigorously baby-lotioned. If you believe the Tate, this replacement of the original picture with the more recent update was at the artist's request. If you believe the BBC News website, the change was made after a visit from the police... And now I know I'm going to sound pious and old-fashioned but Andrea Fraser's exhibit left me cold. She basically asked a gallery to find her a collector that would be willing to be filmed having sex with her for an hour, given that the collector would then pay a not insignificant sum to own the first copy of the resultant film. Is this art or is this, oh let's say, not too far removed from very clever prostitution? Is this art or has Fraser, like Koons, dressed porn up as art and hidden behind the shock factor? In the words of many (too many) a reality show, you decide. At least the exhibition ended on a high note though, with McG's video of Kirsten Dunst performing a pleasingly-faithful cover of the old Vapors track "Turning Japanese" whilst prancing around the streets of Tokyo, dressed in a colourful costume that seemed (to this boy, at least) to owe a lot to Manga and animé (right). I watched this all the way through... twice... Oh, and I did like Damien Hirst's "Ingo, Torsen" but that may be because I found watching twins knitting in front of Hirst spot paintings strangely hypnotic...

A mixed-bag at the Tate then, but a generally enjoyable (and genuinely thought-provoking) trip to London. And as if that wasn't enough, it also gives the perfect excuse to wheel out The Vapors themselves... enjoy.