Friday, 28 September 2007

Thoughts; The Terracotta Army; Summer Films; Greenwich Planetarium and Museums; Matthew Barney Exhibition

Some varied thoughts on some of my other cultural activities in the last few weeks (and more in the case of cinema).

The Terracotta Army

The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army, to give the exhibition its full title, is an absolute must see for anyone interested in history, art or culture in general. Probably the British Museum’s biggest blockbuster exhibition since King Tut in the 1970’s (and the boy king comes to the Dome in November, but not the great sarcophagus itself, it will never leave Cairo again), and the Terracotta Army show is part of a cultural exchange programme with Beijing’s main museums (which is all very worthily spelt out in the catalogue), but beyond the hype and the diplomatic niceties, this exhibition is simply exhilarating. 20 of the figures have come to the Reading Room (with a platform build above the listed desks), not all of them warriors, but bureaucrats, strongmen, musicians and acrobats too, all there to serve or entertain the Emperor in the afterlife (built by the Emperor Qin, who forged what we now call China, in approx 200BC, to make his rule eternal. There are over 8,000 figures, mostly warriors, but also everyone that would normally make up his court too).

I can’t replicate all the articles and reviews that have gone into detail about the exhibition and the warriors in general. But I can tell you that my personal feelings when coming face to face with the figures was something akin to bliss. It was also quite moving, making eye contact to these amazing, mass produced (yes, mass produced in 200BC!), but also individually personalised statues, almost portraits. You get very close to the figures, more so than at the site in China apparently. There you see the massed ranks of figures in the distance (only a fraction have so far been uncovered), here, most strikingly with the main martial group, you get to see them up close and personal. No figure is the same, and here in London each type is different, we have two generals, an archer, foot soldier, charioteer and his horses (amongst others). Their dress, shoes, hair and facial hair are all different, personally created from a uniform base by an army of craftsman and convicts (forced labour and slavery created something this beautiful and human). Alongside the human figures are beautiful birds and many other artefacts relating to the Emperor, his rule and the creation of the army. The exhibition runs until April, and I’ll certainly be going again several times.

Summer Films

What a summer of films, unfortunately I mean that in a slightly disappointed and exasperated way, not as an enthusiastic exclamation. I won’t mention some of the more expected clunkers (Transformers, Shrek, Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four. Yes, I did see them all, for varying reasons), but retreads aside (two stupendous Bergman’s, plus the brilliant Richard III, directed and starring Laurence Olivier. Richard’s opening soliloquy is delivered by Olivier to a fixed camera at one end of the room, he comes towards us, his face moving into darkness as his dark intentions are made clear. Superb), I’ve not seen a really wonderful film for months (La Vie En Rose, Zodiac, Darrat and Tell No One, all count as wonderful in some way or other).

Knocked Up was pretty tame and highly predictable stuff, hardly a radical comedy departure. The follow up, Superbad, was more gross out, and mildly amusing, but not laugh a minute either (and again, has an infuriatingly ‘sweet’ ending). Both of these films, supposedly at the cutting edge of Hollywood comedy, seemed like good ol’ fashioned gross out comedies to me (the latter in particular), certainly not left field or indie as some make out.

Atonement was beautifully shot and had some great acting, but was let down by a lack of plot (or a silly plot) towards the end and the wooden acting of Kiera Knightly (though I did shed a tear at one point, but it was an emotional day). Hallam Foe, another British hope, fell rather flat for me. Jamie Bell was very good, but the story just didn’t grip me, it all washed over me, it was more a mood than a story at times (so yes, it was ‘atmospheric’ and again beautifully shot, especially in my favourite [Scottish] city of Edinburgh).

As for Death Proof, what can I say? Controversial, gripping, visceral? No, boring and overlong, self indulgent (Tarantino has an overextended ‘cameo’) tosh. Risible really (but why the hell is this an 18 certificate?).

The Simpsons Movie was a huge disappointment, not one tenth of the charm and humour of the TV show at its best. Why did they have to leave Springfield? And Over in Baltimore, Hairspray seemed rather antiseptic (think, this was a John Waters movie once!).

I did enjoy Harry Potter, but that seems likes an age ago, and was exactly as expected (and a mega franchise to boot). Also of the franchise ilk was The Bourne Ultimatum, which I did enjoy quite a bit, a very satisfying and tense action thriller (although ultimately silly and leading nowhere sensible). Was Spider Man 3 this year? Yes it was, and it was that forgettable (especially compared with the first two). Who decide that Peter Parker should become and emo?

A Mighty Heart was a good effort from Angelina Jolie (directed by Michael Winterbottom, of the awful non story 9 Songs, but some good films too) to prove that she is a serious actress, and she certainly is. Whilst the film, about Daniel Pearl, the US journalist killed in Pakistan and more specifically his French wife, Mariane, was not phenomenal, it was a serious and solid effort that was consistently interesting.

However, maybe the worst film of the year (so far...) was Pirates of the Caribbean 3, I could only manage 15 minutes of the mind numbing crap before removing myself from its orbit. There I must stop, as the April isn’t considered Summer in London.


A visit to Greenwich is always a pleasure, so I booked for the new Peter Harrison Planetarium that has not long opened at the Old Royal Observatory (originally designed by Wren, and an interesting site without visiting the planetarium, with exhibitions on time and the history of astronomy amongst other things) sitting atop of Greenwich Hill in Greenwich Park. For a modest fee you can see a very instructive show about our solar system lasting 30 minutes (entitled Star Life, and suitable for children). I’d not been to a planetarium since going to the now defunct London Planetarium (at Madam Tussaud’s) as a child, and I was sad to see that close and very happy to se this new institution open (the Observatory and Planetarium are run under the auspices of the National Maritime Museum just down the hill). Alongside the planetarium are brand new Weller Astronomy Galleries, which are interesting to the casual observer of all ages (the children seemed to be loving the interactive exhibits). I’m not particularly interested or knowledgeable about astronomy or science in general, but that’s why the planetarium, the astronomy galleries and the observatory are so interesting, they really did teach me a thing or two (and I’d been to the Observatory before).

Down the hill (and up the hill you have a great view of Canary Wharf and East London) is the Queen’s House (again, run by the National Maritime Museum), which is a superb mini palace designed by Inigo Jones in 1616 for Queen Ann (James I’s wife), said to be the first purely classical building in England. And it is a beautiful and elegant treasure in itself, now housing the NMM’s art collection, showcased in some superb rooms. The collection, naturally with a nautical theme, ranges from painting of the Spanish Armada to depictions of life at sea in the 20th Century, via portraits of the great and the good of the maritime world. We have works by Turner, Gainsborough, Reynolds and a huge range of other British artists to see, I liked a painting of Napoleon as a prisoner aboard the HMS Bellerophon before his exile to St Helena, he was still a proud and cocky leader, not at all the defeated man. However, I personally find the building more exciting than most of the art on display inside it.

Next to the Queen’s House is the main event, the huge National Maritime Museum. I had forgotten how large this institution was, its collections cover everything from a 17th century royal barge to exhibitions on transatlantic liners via the early seafaring explorers. You really could stroll into this fascinating collection and come out five hours later, even if (like me) you are not a salty sea dog. Seeing Nelson’s holey tunic is quite amazing though, as is generating a large wave by gently turning a handle.

All these attractions are free (apart from the planetarium show), plus Greenwich also has Wren’s Royal Naval College (you can visit the splendid main hall, again free), Hawksmoor’s imposing St Alfege’s is worth a visit (and they sometimes have concerts) and a variable indoor market (selling stuff not produce, if you see what I mean). The town centre is more homogenised than it was a few years ago, and the old pie and mash shop is much missed, and of course the Cutty Sark is under wraps at the moment, awaiting restoration, but Greenwich is still one of the must see London towns. Add the Greenwich Theatre and the smaller fringe Greenwich Playhouse, and you even have a theatre town.

Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint, Serpentine Gallery

Is this a ‘cool’ (or maybe I mean hot) exhibition, or was it just the free admission and pleasant Hyde Park setting that filled the modestly sized Serpentine Gallery with hordes of yummy mummies, their shrieking babies, gormless husbands and wannabe Shoreditch twats? Matthew Barney is an American artist, but is also Mr Bjork, who works in various media. Here at the Serpentine we get lots of exhibits related to an unseen film called Drawing Restraint 9 (to be shown at the Gate Cinema), and we also get lots of little videos featuring himself, pushing the body to extremes perhaps. He gives us huge plastic instillations, ramps and vaseline. I thought the show interesting enough for a wander around (it is visually arresting and meticulous), but not intellectually compelling or coherent (but then I’ve into seen the film). Also perhaps I was on an off day, my mind not as open as it could have been (posing idiots, screaming babies and huge crowds can do that to me).

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