Thursday, 16 August 2007

Spirit and Life; Global Cities; Zaha Hadid; Jonathan Barnbrook; Hreinn Fridfinnsson; Porgy & Bess

Spirit and Life. Ismaili Centre.

Spirit and Life is a real gem of an exhibition at the home of London’s Ismaili (a branch of Islam) community, the Ismaili Centre in South Kensington. The building is very striking (I’ve been around it on pervious open days), with its clean lines and Islamic geometry but in a 1980’s modernist shell (the calm roof garden and central prayer hall take you gently away from the bustle of the Cromwell Road outside).

The exhibition comprises of masterpieces from the Aga Khan’s collection, intended to be housed in his new museum in Toronto (to be opened in 2010). London was to have hosted the full collection, but various planning and other objections sadly drove the planned museum across the Atlantic.

The Islam depicted here is of artistic achievement, progress, peace, culture and absolute beauty. People should certainly remember this side of history when tarring all Islam with the brush of fundamentalism (and I totally condemn Islamic fundamentalism and terror, and recognise that it is a threat to us in the UK by the by), this is a gross misunderstanding of the religion and an insult to millions of people today (I’m an atheist secularist, but I’m not a hater of religion in general. Religion has given us much of what is beautiful and worthwhile in our culture, as well as some laudable values, and cannot be dismissed as simply irrational in my view).

On display in several thematically distinct sections are iridescent pages from the Qur’an, totally incomprehensible to me but none the less beautiful simply as objects, or drawings of astonishing detail, taking you into the scene, a new detail to relish in every centimetre of the page. We have musical instruments that would have once been played for dignitaries or at weddings perhaps, jewellery and metalwork that stuns in its astonishing delicacy, and pottery, some of which looks so timeless I can imagine using it today (and I mean that as a high compliment).

This exhibition really is hard to describe, its contents ranges from the 9th to the 19th Centuries, from China to North Africa via India and Indonesia, to several different dynasties and regions, but praising one god. It is an uplifting experience, such beauty usually is, and the mind really does boggle; how can human hands make such delicate illustrations or jewellery?

The exhibition is relatively small, but perfectly formed. It closes on the 31st August and is free, I recommend anyone interested in art to catch it while you can.

Global Cities. Tate Modern.

Global Cities is not only an art exhibition (and I don’t mean ‘only’ pejoratively) but a factual survey of some the larger cities of the world, including London, New York, Tokyo and Istanbul. Seeing London’s density compared to Cairo is quite sobering, we are very lucky to have back gardens and parks throughout much of the city. The exhibition starting point is the fact that for the first time over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities, a trend that will grow massively in the coming decade (and this urbanisation sweeping the globe is going to cause all sorts of problems for everyone).

The exhibition (in the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall) takes the form of large graphics and photographs interspersed with models showing density and video instillations covering various aspects of city life (by a variety of artists around the world). Other statistics include numbers of people commuting by public transport in various cities, or the scale of diversity (for example 95% of those moving to London since 1995 were born outside of the UK, and nearly a third of Londoners are non white. But Shanghai has less than 1% of residents who were born outside of China, the city being nearly totally ethnic Chinese). It really is one of the most interesting (dare I say educational) experiences in London at the moment.

P.S: I’m sure Helio Oiticica is a very important artist, but did anyone else find his exhibition at the Tate Modern rather dull? I liked the origami style handing pieces and some of the paintings which can be simple block of colour but seem highly layered with great depth, but even so it was too huge a retrospective for my tastes. Is this a problem with big galleries, having to fill big spaces all of the time?)

Zaha Hadid, Architecture and Design. Design Museum.

Zaha Hadid is a very interesting woman, a British Iraqi architect with a very international flavour. This stylish exhibition (well this is the Design Museum) is a visual treat, especially for those of us who love architecture (and sleek architects models), but I think Hadid is more of an artist than an architect. The simple fact is that her extreme shaped buildings are very exciting to look at, but very challenging to build. I was struck by the number of years some even modest projects were still in development, a decade in some cases (she had a period of several years when nothing was built). Hadid’s ideas inspire, and the few buildings of hers that have been build delight, but I don’t think she’ll ever be as ubiquitous as Lords Foster (The Gherkin, City Hall) or Rodgers (The Dome, Lloyd’s Building), despite a huge glut of projects currently on the go.

Jonathan Barnbrook – Friendly Fire. Design Museum.

If you don’t know who Jonathan Barnbrook is, as I didn’t before visiting this exhibition at the Design Museum, you will very likely have seen his (or his agency’s) work. It is supposedly iconoclastic anti-establishment, subversive graphic design (posters, book covers, t-shirts even), but it annoys the hell out of me. Basically these slick operators cast themselves as outsiders, but their work is orthodoxy to many people, and working with that noted anti capitalist Damien Hirst (designing book covers, presumably intended to make money, and helping with his ill fated Pharmacy restaurant in Notting Hill, another commercial venture and posh venue) is hardly the act of radicals. Their works is mind numbingly obvious, and takes swipes at very easy targets (like McDonalds or Nike). I don’t particularly support these brands, and would certainly not buy anything made using child or illegal labour (I don’t own any Nike by the way), but neither do I think that they are the biggest evil in the world (and even within the world of consumerism which these people attack, they are absolutely part of it too). True political action and conviction is to be admired, but trendy, easy, fashionable (especially amongst the wealthy but shabby chic Shoreditch types, themselves conspicuous consumers of a different ilk) sloganising is not courageous (and is quite profitable judging by the Barnbrook company’s growth in recent years).

Hreinn Fridfinnsson. Serpentine Gallery.

Located in Hype Park, the Serpentine Gallery is not only housed in a beautiful setting, but is a gallery that punches above its weight (the gallery space is not huge, but neither is it tiny). Currently Hreinn Fridfinnsson, Iceland’s most noted contemporary artist fills its elegant rooms. Works on display range from the early 1970’s to very recent works.

It is conceptual art, philosophical musings on the everyday; it is simple and striking, sometimes enigmatic but never tricksy or pretentious. He uses photographs and large scale instillations, often with words, to great effect. You do feel challenged by the works on show, it is everyday but slightly subversive of the everyday feel. A shoe and a mirror entitled ‘A Pair’, or a collection of stirring sticks, with a variety of pain colours, arranged on the wall like a giant colour chart (but less clear cut).

Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen have designed the Serpentine Pavilion 2007. Which is basically a big brown helter skelter type structure. It is great fun, visually arresting and a nice addition to the park’s skyscape. Plus put together with Fridfinnsson, their names make up the best triptych of wonderful sounding (or possibly unpronounceable) sobriquets imaginable.

Porgy and Bess

A friend recently gave me a CD of Porgy and Bess, he knew I liked the show and had seen a reasonably priced recording online and bought it. But no ordinary recording; he had accidentally bought me an album recorded in the 1956 (and apparently a hit in the US in 1962) by various jazz legends, and what a treat it is.

The famous Bethlehem Orchestra and Duke Ellington and his Orchestra combine (many of these musicians notable in their own right) with the vocal talents of Mel Torme as Porgy, Frances Faye as Bess and George Kirby as Sportin’ Life, amongst others, plus a chorus too. Other notable non opera versions of the Gershwin’s 1935 (nearly) all black opera include the Miles Davis instrumental recording and Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s version (neither of which I have heard, but both of which I have just bought online due to the curiosity and admiration for Porgy & Bess in Jazz mode sparked by this recording). This shows how versatile (and indeed lasting) the material is. I’ve loved Porgy and Bess in its traditional form for years (I have a three disc operatic version already), so hearing this jazz album was something very different, but totally right, and enveloping sense of the time and place is brought to mind when listening to these talented artists.

Hearing the music of two New York Jewish composers, writing about black people in the Deep South, being performed in New York by a band of people who were all steeped in the history of black music, and bringing their own special musical qualities to the piece, is something very singular indeed. I am not a particular fan of jazz, I certainly like it in passing, but Porgy and Bess is special, even on disc it is still theatre. The lush bluesy jazz arrangements with the strong, rich voice of Mel Torme are a perfect combination.

7 comments:

Bruce said...

Hi Sean

If you are still planning to come to The Ballad of James ii on Monday the best way to get here is to jump on a number 15 bus which leaves from St Andrews Square at 18.20* and gets you to roslin for 19.00. I can give you a lift back to town after the show.

*be warned it's a very unreliable service time-wise!

Sean said...

Hi Bruce,

Thanks for that. I'll get the 15 out, and would be delighted to get a lift from you afterwards (are you part of the show, or just happen to be attending that night?).

How will I know you? I'll probably be bearing a blue suit and acarrying a long black umbrella!

I won't be on the internet after tomorrow morning, when I travel up to Edinburgh.

Sofi said...

wow, youre so culturally aware it is amazing. i have been meaning to ask you something - either youre quite well off or you get some amazing discounts to watch all the shows you writ reviews about! any tips?!

Sean said...

Hi Sofi,

Thanks very much!

As for money, sadly I'm not wealthy at all. I watch the money very carefully in fact I have no habits (smoking, drinking, fashion, gadgets) or vices apart from the live arts really. I've been meaning to do a cheap theatre post for sometime actually. I'll do one when I get back. Basically Fringe stuff should always be under £15 and West End stuff £20 or under (and you should be willing to sit in the balcony, which are often closed). Proper post on my return.

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Carlos said...

Good Job!: )

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