Wednesday, 24 October 2007

A FEW MORE WORDS ABOUT CONTROL

“Ultimately the character portrayed with the least satisfaction is the city of Manchester. I don't mean specific locations, but the look of the film in general. Where are the dark, empty streets, the Manchester of the Seventies, evoked by the lyrics and music of Joy Division? I don't expect the film to be a history lesson but its glossiness is disappointing. How can an audience understand Joy Division without understanding its environment?”
http://observer.guardian.co.uk/focus/story/0,,2180296,00.html

Always amusing to read a review of a film where it says exactly what you said, only the other way up. But who is this know-nothing, who has so little feeling for the music of Joy Division they can’t see it when its corollary is so clearly put up on the screen? None other than Natalie Curtis – Ian and Debbie’s own daughter! I hang my four-eyed head in shame!

She continues…

“In recent years much has been made of the notion that Ian's biggest problem was the women in his life, when in fact his inability to deal with his relationships, not to mention everything else, was a symptom of his depressive illness. Sadly, the film does little to show this, or how these two women were more aware than anyone of how ill Ian actually was and how hard they tried to help him.”

…while meanwhile…

“No matter how close either woman tries to get to Ian, neither can ever really get inside his head: neither cups of tea nor romantic conversations will do the trick… Control frames these failures - these gaps not closed - in such gendered terms; in terms of each woman's proximity to Joy Division as a band and Ian Curtis not only as a man but as a (burgeoning) rock star. This is not necessarily the fault of the film, for the contours of this story took shape long ago.”
http://fangrrrl.blogspot.com/

Perhaps Control is one of those films which divides its response neatly between girls and boys. “His inability to deal with his relationships… was a symptom of his depressive illness” sounds to my ears like a summary of the film rather than a critique of it. And, to make a comparison with the other great rock’n’roll suicide of our era, I don’t think I’ve heard any “some bitch drove him to it” style suggestions, a la Courtney Love. The film does show Debbie trying to help him, albeit in an ineffectual way, suggesting doctor’s visits which fail to happen. The irony lay in his making Debbie a surrogate mother without surrendering to her the authority of a mother. (How true to history all that is I’ve no way of knowing, of course.)

Plus a large part of the appeal of Joy Division to me is the conjunctions they found between the personal and the social, the private and the public spheres. (Formally caught in the combination of Curtis’ words with the evocative music, as already said.) You put in what you want to take out of these things of course, but for me it’s emphatically not merely the story of an isolated male ego, triumphantly insisting on his own private hell whatever the cost to those around him. (I never stand to hear Joy Division compared to whingers like Radiohead!)

Of course, that may well be just a personal response, choosing to see the glass half-full. And truth to tell, the last line quoted does somewhat resonate with me. Curtis quotes Wordsworth in the film, and in many ways he was a kind of post-industrial romantic - finding himself in tower blocks and empty car parks rather than waterfalls and fields of daffodils. But the deal’s the same, you look at the word outside of you and see only a reflection of your own face. (Me, I prefer the notion of two-way traffic.)

Hennings also says:

Listening, this last week, to Pere Ubu, Joy Division's cross-Atlantic mirror…

Reading this line just today, I was struck by the fact I don’t compare Joy Division to Pere Ubu more. Apart from musical connections (like using synth as soundsource rather than instrument) the comparisons between Laughner and Curtis are too obvious to spell out. But partly the contexts are so different. Paradoxically, the aesthetes in Ubu reviled American gonzo punks like the Ramones without any of that mud ever sticking, while Joy Division quite clearly had their feet in punk yet somehow effortlessly transcended it. At the time it seemed an incredibly powerful statement that the band just wore ‘normal’ clothes on stage. With every other band on earth spiking themselves up into hackneyed shock, that ‘normal’ look added massively to their mystique! (Joy Division happened after the Pistols, while Ubu went alongside the Ramones – at least as far as chronologies went.)

But mostly the consequent events are so different, that they can’t help but reshape what went before. While the electro roots of early New Order are clearly there in late Joy Division, I increasingly lost interest in their subsequent albums. (I’m glad they avoided becoming the first Joy Division tribute band, but have no desire to own a copy of Worlds in Motion.) With Pere Ubu, Laughner’s contribution lasted for two singles (not two albums) and subsequently they’re seen by pretty much everybody as Dave Thomas’ band. The tombstone on the cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart ultimately cast a longer shadow than that bomber over Tokyo…

Monday, 22 October 2007

A FEW WORDS ABOUT CONTROL


Anton Corbijn’s recent biopic of Joy Division’s ill-starred singer Ian Curtis can be said to have many achievements, but perhaps a crucial one is its ability to set the scene so well. So let’s try and follow its example…

From its very beginnings, British punk felt it saw a defect in previous home-grown music. In seeking to emulate American rock and blues, earlier bands ended up duplicating something second hand. While American music arose, quite naturally, out of the American landscape, British groups would sing diligently about (say) the L-Train while oblivious to what the L-Train was or where it went. So in Britain punk retaliated by taking up a provincial anti-Americanism (one of the Clash’s main anthems was “I’m so bored with the USA”), by dropping the L-Train and instead singing defiantly of the Number Seven bus.

While it would be easy to ridicule all that in hindsight, we should remember some (such as Paul Weller) were able to do it well. But the problem with this fixation upon fag ends, chip wrappers and damp weather was that it became just that Рa fixation. American music had arisen naturally from its landscape, while this obsession with seedy Englishness soon became at best a clich̩ and at worst a put-on. Any dickhead, after all, can sing about stepping in used condoms in the hallway.

Joy Division, probably more by luck than judgement, hit upon a more winning combination. Curtis’ lyrics were (depending upon who you talk to) painfully introspective, universally existential or some combination of the two. (Typical line: “Seeing me this time/ Hoping for something else”.) It was in the music where the band conjured up cavernous yet claustrophobic soundscapes which, to quote K-Punk, “suggest the derelict factories and litter-strewn ex-public spaces of a decommissioned industrial economy.”(1) Bypassing the literalism of words, the music left you feeling you stood in a crumbling entropic Britain. It was a world away from the Clash’s rallying calls of onedownmanship.

And, perhaps more by luck than judgement, Corbijn uncannily duplicates this vital balance. While the frontstory recounts the details of Curtis’ life, something which in another context may have felt soapy, the sheer vivid look of the film makes it come alive. A shot as simple as rain on a phone box window becomes something simultaneously mundane and numinous. Rather than chase an elusive ‘authenticity’ the film achieves a kind of poetic realism. (2) (It should perhaps be noted that there had always been a strong visual dimension - the band’s look and sleeve design have been celebrated for synesthesiastically adding to their soundscape, and that Corbijn had been a photographer of the band.)

This is news to be received gratefully, for I had high hopes and bigger fears for this film. Biopics are normally something to avoid like the plague, and rock biopics are the worst of the very bad bunch. Made by those who understand more about lens apertures than music, they try to turn the amps to 11 and manufacture excess in the absurd belief that’s what rock music is about – or will at least drown out the complaining. This is bad enough at the best of times, but the most significant element of Joy Division’s music was its sense of restraint. Possibly more than even their post-punk contemporaries, they eschewed orgiastic solos for an austere discipline bordering on rigidity. Not to name names, but an Oliver Stone at the helm here would mean a Titanic on our hands. Even the film’s title, spinning off from the track She’s Lost Control, reflects this relationship between discipline and derangement.

We need Corbijn’s restraint for a separate, but possibly more important, reason. It’s scarcely a plot spoiler to reveal Curtis committed suicide, on the eve of the band’s first American tour. While the band’s star had been rising, it seems this terrible act propelled them into the big time. His death hit the headlines, made both a twisted selling point and an eerie sense of his melancholic lyrics, and one month later came their first hit single. Youth culture is of course obsessed with early death, but this story is so true to legend that interest can quickly become ghoulish. (I can remember seeing a bootleg t-shirt commemorating his death, and wondering even at the time whether a man’s life is best commemorated by a t-shirt.) Yet Corbijn avoids, for example, any gratuitous shots of Curtis as a gurneying corpse and instead portrays the moment of his death through his wife’s reaction.

Of course for all that we may ask whether we really want to know this sort of stuff. As Simon Reynolds has commented, underneath the grandeur of the songs the problems besetting Curtis were “mundanely specific.”(3) Isn’t it falling into the same ‘pop psychology’ hole as all TV documentaries seem to have of late?, with their banal and bathetic revelations that the Russian Revolution failed because Stalin’s dad didn’t hug him and the like. Curtis’ lover Annik Honore has commented: "The music should always be more important than people's private lives”.(4) Or as Bob Dylan memorably said “a poet tells you what you feel.” Shouldn’t our focus be on the music and our own reactions to it, and the tawdry details of those who made it be left to gutter journalists?(5)

Again, this question is a bigger deal for Joy Division than almost any other band. Even by the standard of bands, they went out of their way to create a mythos for themselves. If for a band a mythos is currency, they were shrewd enough to know you make a currency valuable through scarcity. As Emmy Henningshas said “part of Joy Division's allure lay in the fact that there was so little information outside of the sound and the record sleeves to go on. As a band they gave very few interviews, and the fact that nearly every photograph ever taken of them has become iconic is due partly to scarcity - images become icons through being both rare and precious.”(6) The band were like some ancient civilization where there were never quite enough artifacts unearthed to understand – some designs, bits of tablet in a script no-one’s sure how to read.

Curtis was found dead on May 18th 1980, precisely one day after my fourteenth birthday. At the time I held onto a huge yet half-formed belief in his death as something grand and existential, as if he had the courage to face something essential I could only glimpse secondhand through his songs. Too young to truly understand death, I figured it must be something cool.

Of course I was already seeing the world much differently by 1996, when his widow Deborah published her biography Touching From a Distance. Though I only read press excerpts, I was struck how far the husband she knew was from my image of a doomed Keatsian romantic. Instead he seemed a fairly typical Macclesfield male, leaving the wife to domestic drudgery while he went out and about, and (when she was permitted out in public) obsessive over her covering herself up. It’s Deborah’s book which has been adapted and extended into this film (she even served as co-producer), and in fact the very reason it should be made is because it dispels all the ‘die-young’ myths surrounding Curtis’ life. As Deborah has put it, "We're looking to give the world a truthful view of who Ian really was ... It will be a balanced approach - this isn't the rock and roll Shine."(7) Let’s do the punk thing. The punk thing is to kill your idols.

It’s unafraid to show Curtis as callous, as much torturing as tortured. One reader of Deborah’s book was even driven to title an Amazon review Rock Martyrs are Subhuman Too. (8) Yet he and everyone else is portrayed in quite a nuanced manner. Even the loudmouthed manager, Rob Gretton, is shown as torn over his response to Curtis’ unraveling life, concerned over his fraying health yet eager for him to keep performing, ultimately out of his depth. The film’s also unafraid to introduce farce elements into this otherwise bleak story. In a nicely telling moment we follow Curtis into the Labour Exchange with ‘Hate’ scrawled punkishly over his jacket, only to find out he’s actually working there as an advisor. These scenes are both funnier and more effective than the earlier, somewhat histrionic 24 Hour Party People precisely because they’re played so deadpan.(9)

The lynchpin of both book and film is the emotional triangle between Curtis, Deborah and first the band – then Annik Honore, the Belgian fanzine writer who became his mistress. In a sense, there are two Curtis’ in the film and they occur in reverse order to the one you’d expect. While still a schoolboy he carries himself like a self-confident star, only to become sullen and introspective when the front man in a successful rock band. Though we spy Burroughs and Ballard on his teenage bookshelf, the music he loves is not glum but glam – the Dionysian dressing-up of Bowie and Bolan. When Debbie first meets him, he’s in a combination of mascara and school blazer. As if unused to aesthetes in Seventies Macclesfield, Debbie is soon smitten by him - complaining he’s “a bit presumptuous” then letting him kiss her three seconds later. “You’re mine and you know you are,” he tells her by way of a marriage proposal. It’s like she was his first groupie, arriving even before his first gig. His subsequent disdain for Debbie can best be summed up by Blake’s proverb “the bounded is loathed by its possessor.”(10)

In a key early scene he recites a poem to impress Debbie. Yet when asked if he wrote it he shakes his head and replies “Wordsworth”. For all his acting the part of the star, as yet he has nothing to say. (Perhaps in an alternate universe he stayed like this and Oasis were formed fifteen years early.) While meeting the rest of the band at a Pistols gig gives him the opportunity, it’s the loveless bind of marriage to Debbie which gives him the motive to write. He earnestly scribbles lyrics in an exercise book as an alternative to talking to her, as she timidly taps at the door inviting him to bed. Henningsremarks how Debbie is “patronised as a terribly embarrassing reminder of the humdrum domesticity that rock music sets itself up time and time over to escape.” When a pregnant Debbie finds him backstage getting cosy with a hanger-on, he defiantly shoots back “should you be out in your condition?”

So instead of being at the football or with the pub darts team, Curtis was fronting a cutting-edge band which redefined music? Yes – and no. Factory Record’s Tony Wilson famously said he signed Joy Division because they were the only band he saw who had to be on stage – and he perhaps meant Curtis more than the others. The band was more to him than an excuse to get away from the wife and crying child. In fact, for a while seems to have served as his lifeline, the place where he could sing what he was unable to say. But as time goes on, the lifeline came to feel more and more like a noose.

Though never laboured, the film is normally clear. Only over this transformation does it become slightly elusive, and my comments here consequently more interpretive. In the early days, Curtis is the arrogant and ambitious one of the group. His tactic to get Wilson to sign them is march up and call him a “bastard” for not having done enough for them already. But as success builds the band becomes more of a bind, his input an expectation… all too much like the “opportunities” he’d find the hapless doleys back at the Labour Exchange. At one gig he finds himself unable to sing. When Rob Gretton’s solution (getting someone else up who happens to know the words) is less than successful (it results in a riot), he confesses his fears to Wilson.(11)

Curtis tells Annik his marriage was a “mistake” taken “too young”. While this feels more than a chat-up line, we might reasonably ask in that case why he doesn’t just leave Debbie for Annik? The film flirts with the idea that Annik is the one person he can express himself to. The above comment is made as they stay up all night talking, while the rest of the band crash out. But in a later scene Annik makes a prying attempt to open him up, with Curtis replying disarmingly his favourite colour is “Man City Blue”.(12) And, if his songs are to be taken as the voice of his heart, they seem far more concerned with lost love for Debbie than found love for Annik.(13)

When Debbie insists she must divorce him over Annik, Curtis asks “what’s that got to do with us?” The line got a laugh at the showing I attended, and while it is a classic piece of chutzpah its also possible he really meant it. As Beatrix Campbell and others have argued, there’s a common male desire to avoid maturity by making your wife your second mother – a desire compounded by the social breakdowns which were underway at this time.(14) The night before his suicide Curtis visits first his actual mother, and then Debbie to ask her to drop her divorce claim. Curtis first drove a wedge that kept Debbie away from his creative life, then complained that all she stood for was domestic drudgery. Yet, infanatalised, he was unable to completely cut the apron strings and run off with Annik. This was not long after their daughter’s birth. Babies are often a crisis point in such a scenario, bringing out in the father something approaching sibling rivalry. But it seems it was Debbie’s threat of divorce which took him over the edge. Though accounts often emphasise his last acts as watching a Herzog movie and listening to an Iggy album he hung himself, with horrific appropriateness, by the most domestic of icons - the clothes dryer in their flat.

www.controlthemovie.com
(The official site also has a cool trailer)

(1) www.factmagazine.co.uk/da/61846
(2) If the film has a fault, it’s that at times it leans a little too heavily towards the poetic and breaks the vital equilibrium. Real events are rejigged, compressed or even distorted – for example the urban myth gets repeated that Tony Wilson signed the band with a contract written in his own blood. (A tale which only seems to have started with 24 Hour Party People , five short years ago). Such things matter little. But I doubt, for example, many Macclesfield pubs were playing the Velvet Underground in 1979, and these jarring moments can throw you out of the film’s spell.
(3) Rip It Up And Start Again – Post Punk 1978-1984, Faber and Faber, 2005, ISBN 0-571-21569-6
(4) http://www.side-line.com/interviews_comments.php?id=23440_0_16_0_C
(5) The spotlight on Curtis’ troubled soul also makes for something of an auterist approach, with the rest of the band in very much secondary roles. We’re told band rehearsals are “pretty shite, actually” until he arrives and galvanizes them with his angst. But perhaps he needed them as much as they him. Producer Martin Hannett’s vital role seems particularly neglected. After a Tony Wilson film (24 Hour Party People) and an Ian ‘n’ Debbie film, the idea someone might make a Joy Division movie about Joy Division now seems remoter than ever. Notably, the band had agreed to dissolve if any member left, not just their front man. However, the last shot with (presumably) joinee Gillian Gilbert implies the others are ready to carry on reconstituted as New Order.

(6} fangrrrl.blogspot.com/2007/10/sister-midnight.html
(7) http://www.side-line.com/interviews_comments.php?id=23440_0_16_0_C
(8) =”http://www.amazon.co.uk/Touching-Distance-Ian-Curtis-Division/dp/0571207391/ref=sr_1_2/026-7793081-6048466?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1192899908&sr=1-26048466?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1192899908&sr=1-2
(9) Directed by Michael Winterbottom in 2002, and (while heavily featuring Joy Division) more the story of Factory Records.
(10) Assuming the film is faithful to Deborah’s book the character she seems least even-handed with is herself, time and again she’s portrayed as a doormat.
(11)Though the song doesn’t appear in the film, the psychological blood-and-circuses of Atrocity Exhibition would seem to contain Curtis’ most explicit doubts about the inherent exhibitionism of his career direction: “For entertainment they watch his body twist/ Behind his eyes he says, 'I still exist.'”
(12)It should be conceded the Annik scenes do suffer from the film being based on Deborah’s book. The film scrupulously avoids portraying her as some clichéd femme fatalle yet, even more than his
time with the band, his moments with her were conducted away from Debbie. There’s a consequent extemporising, as they attempt to cut her a character out of little cloth.
(13) Anyway, is this ‘explanation’ quite the rosebud it appears? While it may account for Atmosphere or Love Will Tear Us Apart, how does it explain away Decades or Dead Souls? Curtis’ depression came to be a dark prism through which he came to see the surrounding world, and this is precisely what makes the music so worth listening to. Art is no mere mirror to life, and reductive and schematic approaches to it need not apply.
(14) Strictly Campbell’s argument was confined to the unemployed, jobless Northern males unable to confirm their identity in the classical way, stuck in the women’s world of the home. Nevertheless, there is a parallel.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

TERRACOTTA BOYS ON TOUR

An Agency Worker Sees ‘The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army' at the British Museum (13 Sept 2007~ 6 Apr 2008) and wonders at the significance of their standing on Karl Marx’s old desk

The editorial staff are proud to announce that, even in this new young-people-friendly ‘blog’ format, Lucid Frenzy is not abandoning its dedication to the completely out of date. Its on-line life kicked off with a 1955 film, and now progress with a review of a set of action figures created in 210BC.

Well… sort of. As the subhead gives away, China’s Terracotta Army will actually be standing guard in the British Musuem’s Reading Room until early April next year – tickets still available! And it’s not really a proper review, so much as a reaction to something Jonathan Jones wrote in the Guardian about it.

“The First Emperor… is not the star of his own show. These nameless soldiers are the stars…How Brecht would have loved the terracotta army, and how he would have enjoyed this exhibition. How Marx's ghost might enjoy rising up from the desks below to savour it….This exhibition does the opposite of what it promises, and is the better for that... The emperor is gone. The human endures.” (1)

The reference to Marx comes from the fact the exhibition is directly above the Reading Room, the very place where Charlie took advantage of the quiet and the free heating to scribble down Kapital. And Brecht comes from A Worker Reads History where he says… well, you can read that one yourself…

“Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?” (2)

It’s true everyone is calling this show by its subhead – The Terracotta Army not the First Emperor. But, while it’s a supreme irony for me to say it, Jones is quoting Brecht inappropriately. In fact the great thing about the First Emperor is that even in death he remains so larger than life. He’s such a classic case of the megalomaniac ruler that if he didn’t exist you’d have to make him up. The fact that we still only have his guardsmen to view, that his own tomb remains unexcavated, merely adds to his mystique. He becomes like Citizen Kane keeping his Rosebud, like the directing yet unseen (and therefore all-powerful) Lord of the Manor in Miss Julie. I even started to wonder at points whether the whole thing was some elaborate jape, that all there’ll turn out to be in that mausoleum was a note reading “fooled you, archeologists”.

Proclaiming himself Emperor not only of China but the whole universe, he speaks through this show of his divine mission to standardise. He sought to impose both order and his image on the universe, and probably didn’t distinguish much between the two. He defined a doctrine of Legalism, that man was inherently wicked and needed rules and regulations to keep him in line. Weights and measures, the script people wrote in, the axle width of cards, even (most contentiously for today) a single currency… all had to be unified. For this unifier, everything reduced down to one.

The exhibition is as keen to propound this myth as Jones to knock it down. Chinese history becomes a simple before-and-after case. Before, primal chaos. (The Warring States Period.) After, order, stability, that sort of thing. Jones is on his best foot when decrying this, “what seems to me to be a strangely simplified version of Chinese history... It gives the impression there was nothing much before him, and continuity after him. Neither impression is correct.” The First Emperor conquered the surrounding states, true. But they were surrounding civilizations. And even his own clay guardsmen were vandalized and looted in a period of chaos which erupted very soon after his death.

But Jones’ argument seems to rest upon a kind of alchemical transformation, where the very burden of labour power becomes its own escape. The workers, told to build so many warriors, obeyed their orders so supremely well that they were able to bring their own creativity, their very individuality to the regiments they were charged with churning out. (“The love that endures in this art is above all the passion of the creator. What makes it a living art, despite lying in the cold grave so long, is that anonymous artisans…put their own selves, their feelings, their love of life, into these sculptures.”) So we have over seven thousand warriors, of which every one is in some way unique, humanised. Their faces become, by proxy, the otherwise lost faces of their artists. (3)

It’s a romantic notion, but not a terribly convincing one. For one thing, the work seems to have been mostly carried out not by artisans in quasi-autonomous craft unions but by prison labour. And the warriors’ production was an early example of mass production, of which identikit legs and torsos were assembled, and only at the very end given individualised touches. The pieces were all signed, but not out of some artistic pride. Both workman and foreman were obliged to sign each kit-part piece, so he could be tracked down and hauled up should defects emerge. Even the craft elements of those ‘finishing touches’ were more than likely an extra imposition upon bonded labourers, a final chore upon a long list of backbreaking tasks they could really have done without.

With notions so well-meaningly flimsy, we may be forgiven for wondering what really underpins them? At one point Jones mentions how the visual aids and notation have a ”rhetorical spin that might be mistaken for a glorification of the authoritarian state.” Others have commented more bluntly on why these figures have been released. Eying the world stage, is China now keen to reposition itself as the cradle of civilization? There’s some validity to this, it certainly felt fitting to see Zhang Yimou’s movie Hero (which earnt many similar criticisms) on sale in the kiosk. (4) But to merely nay-say is to side with the little Englanders and Paleocons. And after all, China can make quite a credible claim for itself as such a cradle. So Jones instead leaps for a third place which looks a pleasanter spot - without checking whether the ground there is solid underfoot or not.

So if not Brecht, who should be our guide to this show? Of course the ultimate example of the chaos inherent in life is death. It comes and goes as it chooses, sticking to no rules, obeying no timetable. Dictators dish out death, but they don’t like the way it can’t be put on the payroll. To modern minds, this leads to some fascinating yet perplexing contradictions in the First Emperor’s thinking. We often assume people in the past had an irresolute faith in the afterlife, something we lost only recently. The First Emperor built a city tomb to rule in it. Yet he spent much of his life thinking up schemes to cheat death. (Almost all absurd, and almost all doubtlessly hastened it.)

It’s widely held that the Chinese then held to a Phaorah-like concept of physical resurrection. Grain and other foodstuffs were stashed for his reawakening. Yet everything else is curiously jumbled up. The warriors were terracotta, yet brandished real metal weapons. (All since stolen.) Terracotta stable boys have been found by the bones of real horses. And in other places, terracotta horses were made. Jones writes convincingly how he “was fascinated by the idea of model worlds”. Certainly, despite the headline-getting warriors the tomb was a terracotta city with figures of all types and quite possibly designed as a microcosm of the universe. Did the real and the ideal become so jumbled in his megalomaniac and mercury-addled mind that he ceased to distinguish between a real and a clay horse? Or were the warriors really intended for a far more prosaic purpose, a massed army of scarecrows, a hex to scare off superstitious tomb robbers?

But of course the tombs were quickly robbed and, temporarily at least, the empire fell apart. (5) Ruling after death turned out about as successfully as cheating death. What we now see is awesome, but a supreme monument to folly. It’s like one of those mass parades they still put on in North Korea. There’s no secret inside his unopened tomb, it’s one of the oldest stories of all. And our guidebook to it is not Brecht’s Worker Reads History but Shelly’s stinging ode to mortality Ozymandias (“Tell that its sculptor well those passions read/ Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things”). (7) In that way at least the emperor is gone and what is human endures.

Digest Version: The Terracotta Army – an Autonomous Workers’ Soviet?

No.

www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/all_current_exhibitions/the_first_emperor.aspx

Footnotes:
(1) www.arts.guardian.co.uk/art/visualart/story/0,,2162551,00.html (The link also takes you to some cool pictures.)
(2) www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/1406.html
(3) Disclaimer - Slightly less than seven thousand have been shipped over for this show.
(4) The exhibition hints this mass production was an invention of the First Emperor, but notably declines to say so outright. While the scale of production may have been new, it seems doubtful the form was.
(5) A section of the Wikipedia entry, Terracotta Army Outside China, would seem to suggest these figures have always been shown in Europe and Canada over the more antagonistic America. www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terracotta_warriors
(6) This accidental effect actually adds emphasis. The fact the figures have lost the objects they once held goes to make their poses all the more ritualised, like mimes displaying the significance of what they are doing by not holding the encumbering tools that would be necessary to literally do it.
(7) www.rc.umd.edu/rchs/reader/ozymandias.html

Friday, 5 October 2007

PUNK ART’S BODY IMAGE

A kind of postscript to the previous blog about the recent Panic Attack exhibtion of punk art, which delves into body and performance art, and into punk's relationship to radical feminism. I apologise if all that sounds a bit mainstream, but I figure this is my shot at the big time.

“The 1970s saw a flowering of artists’ work involving performance and the body – often reflecting the new identity politics that were a feature of the decade which saw the rise of radical feminism, gay liberation and black empowerment.” Indeed, both catalogue and exhibition strongly imply that the body was punk art’s second site of interest after the urban environment. Formally speaking, they’re most likely right. However, what’s all this talk of liberation and empowerment? Isn’t news almost always bad news? Rare to see are newspaper headlines reading such things as “World poised in anticipation of another day of peace and coexistence in Southern Glomobia?” When you focus on something, you normally focus on what you see as the problem. So doesn’t it stand to reason that as soon as you make the body a site of interest, you simultaneously make it a crux of anxieties?

Sheer ignorance keeps me innocent of whether there was such positive, ‘empowering’ performance art as implied by the above quote. But if punk paralleled performance art in its bodily fixations, it certainly wasn’t that side of it. Punk predominantly appealed to screwed-up white outsider kids, and it was the more masochistic – not to say self-destructive – aspects of performance art which appealed. Punk’s roots, after all, lay in Iggy cutting himself up with glass from onstage.

“Such grotesque figures may be best understood as conscious repudiations of the closed body of the Renaissance, in which all protuberances will be smoothed down, all apertures closed… [they] assert what Bakhtin calls the’ ‘unfinished body’. Parading its lumpy extensions, pregnant with liquids.” (Timothy Hyman’s ‘A Carnival Sense of the World’, from Carnivalesque, National Touring Exhibitions, 2000.)

This distinction between the classical and the grotesque is almost exactly paralleled in punk’s rejection of the jiggy song. Traditionally in popular music, the only problem with sex lies in getting hold of it. But with punk that’s just when the problems begin! Check out the Pistol’s Bodies (“Throbbing squirm gurgling bloody mess”) or the Dead Kennedys Too Drunk To Fuck (“In my room/ Wish you were dead/ You bawl like the baby/ In Eraserhead”, climaxing with the immortal line “Now I got diarrhea!”)

It’s doubtless significant that much of this happened during the Second Cold War, when slicing yourself with some glass seemed a perfect microcosm of a world at war with itself, or the Seventies slide when ‘finished’ ‘smooth’ urban environments seemed in short supply. But that really just made for a handy backdrop. Like much in punk, the drive came from much more personal and immediate sources. Unable to beat the jocks back up, the schoolyard weirdos found a way to beat up themselves. Unable to score, they convinced themselves sex was probably horrific anyway. And this drive came from the very source of their identity.

While it would be somewhat absurd to argue white suburban males are the world’s most oppressed group, women, gays and racial minorities can to an extent take a virtual refuge in a common identity. But what separated the outsider kids from the jocks was not skin tone or gender but their status as losers, with the result that loserdom soon became a badge of honour in the punk community. Death (the ultimate in losing) became a way out, but as a more masochistic variant of the sci-fi fan’s desire to become a brain in a jar. “I’m not a body!” Rotten had yelled on Bodies, if somewhat improbably. Instead as in many punk songs he’s a detached outsider, an intelligence released to float free of society and doing nothing but criticise it. The point about “the kid in the back of the room” in the Kennedy’s Insight is that he’s not really in the room at all, he’s already removed from it. (My ”Oi You! Punk and the Slag off Song”, from the prehistoric print version of Lucid Frenzy, delved deeper into this hyper-individualism.)

…except… except punk had a counterweight, which like all good counterweights could often exert an equal pull. Crispin Sartwell has commented “early gigs by Minor Threat, the Faith, or GI, for example, were incredible collective experiences… the closest I've ever come to a complete loss of individuation”, and anybody whose been to at least one good punk gig will know what he means. And, closer to our theme, except that the concept of a body at war with itself has another twist.

“It is often said that hardcore is the essence of suburban disaffection as applied to teenagers; the nihilism sweeping over Orange or Montgomery County… But hardcore was a critique of that nihilism too, a treatment for it.” (Crispinsartwell.com/hc.htm)

All of which is true, except pro-punk commentators like Sartwell are too readily to neatly divide the scene into ‘positive’ bands (like the Dead Kennedys or Fugazi) and ‘nihilistic’ ones (like the Circle Jerks). The Kennedys could write empowering anthems like Let’s Lynch the Landlord or Nazi Punks Fuck Off but also paeans to nihilism such as Forward to Death (“I don’t need this fucking world/ This world brings me down/ I’m looking forward to death.”) Fugazi, often seen as the epitome of punk as a progressive force, wrote Styrofoam (“We are all bigots/ So full of hatred/ We release our poisons/ Like Styrofoam”) and Shut the Door, their own exploration of the forward-to-death notion.

Neither would it be right to assume these bands flirted with nihilism as some rhetorical device. Their continual alternating between hope and despair was quite real, and the fuel which not only drove them as bands but punk as a scene. Punk wasn’t a political party putting forward a programme. Punk was meant ) to be disunified, conflicted and chaotic. The whole draw of punk was that it made a noise which mirrored the noise in your head.

As the catalogue specifically refers to feminist art, it’s worth looking at punk’s contemporary relationship with feminism. Now of course, we’re supposed to imagine they went together like a horse and carriage. It’s certainly true that punk inspired women’s involvement to a then unprecedented degree. But it departed from mainstream feminism precisely because it chose to focus upon the body and render it problematic, to magnify popular images of femininity to the point of distortion. Punk performers like Ari Up or Siouxsie tended to be highly sexualized figures, but they combined familiar images of sexuality (such as fishnets or knickers) with a sense of threat. This didn’t always go down well with the rest of the sisterhood. "A lot of young women, including myself, completely rejected the idea of feminism”, commented Helen Reddington, ex-punk and author of The Lost Women of Rock. “Because feminism at that time came as a set of rules and punk was about anarchy and rejecting rules. I thought, I don't want that. I want freedom. Now though, to me feminism means freedom, but it didn't look like it at the time."
www.guardian.co.uk/women/story/0,,2143793,00.html

However outdated it may now seem, the Prostitution exhibition fits here tighter than a glove. Fanni Tutti has explained how it led to her being simultaneously banned from further work in the porn trade, while being “chased across the gallery” by a Spare Rib editor! http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/this_britain/article2614594.ece

POSTSCRIPT TO POSTSCRIPT! Yes, even I know performance art doesn’t necessarily imply body art!

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

PANIC ATTACK: ART IN THE PUNK YEARS

Review of a punk art exhibition held in the Barbican from 5 June to 9 Sept 2007, so no point rushing to see it now really. A slightly condensed version of this review appeared in Last Hours 16, see www.lasthours.org.uk

Drunk or sober, it’s a conversation I must have had thousands of times by now. What was punk really “all about”? Though certain patterns emerge, I soon came to realise that everyone had their own take on things. Its adherents don’t tend to see punk as a consumer identity to buy into, or as a historical artifact to ponder, or anything which lies outside themselves, but something we bring into being. For them punk started the day they started doing it, and its history consists of whatever they did. Who makes history? We make history. By and large, this is all to the good.

But sadly some come to take it all too far, and come to see punk as some repository of eternal values, forever poised in splendid opposition to “the system”. These values then tend to become only expressible through certain fetishised forms, such as fast and loud guitars. Those forms then become absorbed, loud and fast guitars end up on MTV or car adverts. People then either pretend this sacrilege isn’t happening or devote their energies to denouncing the unbelievers who have stolen their vital punk artifacts. It’s a kind of punk fundamentalism.

All of which is, by way of preamble, to say there’s nothing inherently wrong with telling punk stories which aren’t yours, or describing things you wouldn’t necessarily have done yourself. Many will baulk, I am sure, to be told “Panic Attack! defines the ’punk years’ as stretching from approximately 1974 to 1984”, and to be generally concentrating on London and New York.

But one upside of the show setting itself such a specific remit is that it gives you a clear sense of time and place. While the fundamentalists posture, the times where punk has made a difference are when it was engaged with the time and place it was in. The show’s initial blurb writes how punk coincided with and reflected the decline into far-right values most clearly marked by the Thatcher and Reagan electoral victories. “Punk” they say, “appeared as both a symbol of and adequate response to these ravaged times”.

Of course at the time many participants were only instinctively aware or even unaware of this seismic shift; they were reacting to more immediate events and were doing so with their gut. In a series of Peter Hujar photos of downtown New York, one looks up to the towering World Trade Centre from the street below. For a moment you get an entirely unintended effect – a sense of the weird juxtaposition of fags, punks and misfits hanging out in the shadow of such a gleaming temple to commerce. Now of course a combination of Bin Laden and Rudolph Guilani have seen both the misfits and their backdrop removed from such a location.

The blurb continues “although punk is most commonly associated with music and its attendant graphics and fashion, the exhibition argues that much of the best British and American art of the time is also punk in spirit.” At first sight, this makes a double kind of sense. If punk music was predominantly a response to its surroundings, would not artists working in other forms have come to similar conclusions? (Or as they put it,’”embody the punk zeitgeist”.) But more importantly, we might want to question the histories which paint punk as predominantly musical.

‘Hip-hop’ was initially coined as a fusion term – referring not just to music but clothing, graffiti, design and (ultimately) culture. If at worst punk obsessed over guitars, at its best it exhibited much the same attitude. Photographers and fanzine makers are often insistent they were not ancillary events to the bands, but doing punk stuff in their own right. In fact you could argue punk and hip-hop were essentially similar - existing in an era before multimedia technology existed, or at least when it was embryonic, but willing it into being. Even with the straightforward bands there’s often the sense you need to watch them, look at the album cover and read the lyric sheet simultaneously. On a DVD you can do just that. But back then you needed to put those elements together in your head, like assembling a gun which was split into separate parts in order to be smuggled through security.


Take for example the artist Linder who wrote and assembled collages for punk fanzines, provided covers for the Buzzcocks and other bands, formed her own post-punk outfit Ludus, and continues with exhibitions, multi-media and performance art to this day. 

However even mainstream coverages of punk often refer to graphics and fanzines, if for no other reason than they reproduce better in books. We might ask how much cross-traffic there was between punk and the visual arts, between the venue and the gallery? Of the thirty-three artists in the exhibition, you could probably get into some pedantic argument about how many figures had formal involvements in both scenes. (Were Jarman and Mapplethorpe punk figures or fellow travellers? Were Basquiat’s forays into bands long enough to call him a punk? etc etc) 

But let’s leave such pedantry for another time. My argument would be a double one. Firstly, whichever counting mechanism was devised, I contend such crossover figures would be in a minority. Secondly, virtually nobody outside this minority does anything at all interesting throughout this exhibition. Without this direct connection, you can’t help but feel, we’re left with a number of art school chancers who were not parallel ‘embodiments of the punk zeitgeist’ but merely saw ‘punk’ as an exciting buzzword to add to their press release.

Take for example Tony Cragg, whose pieces here consist of him taking similarly coloured plastic rubbish and staple-gunning it to the wall “to reflect upon such subjects as inner city unrest and media-fuelled patriotism”. It’s a classic of the ‘radical’ gesture which upon close examination (or indeed any examination) proves to be trite and empty. For one thing, is rubbish really so shocking? Since when did rubbish become the unacceptable face of consumerism? Of course I don’t like seeing rubbish litter the street, but the damage from discarding a drink can is nothing compared to that from driving a 4x4. This fixation upon rubbish is not only snobbish and puritanical, but exemplifies a wider trend.

Many works here are complicit in the liberal notion that punk was a protest about negative things like unemployment and urban decay. But it would be better to argue punk was a celebration of urban decay! As alluded to earlier, punk inhabited a transitional zone between the collapse of the post-war consensus and the ‘reality’ of free market economics we now inhabit. It was easy at this time to see Babylon as collapsing, and this collapse as the fertilizer by which punk might grow. Abandoned buildings meant squatting opportunities and skipped rents. Unemployment meant time off to practise your art. It’s all falling down? We never liked it anyway. Punk was always closer to a Ballard novel than a World in Action special report. X-Ray Spex’s forays into a plastic future were so much richer and nuanced than Cragg’s messing about with rubbish.

Moreover, sticking bits of rubbish on a gallery wall is redundant chiefly because it in fact changes nothing for the gallery-going experience. Formally, it works no differently from looking at watercoloured landscapes on the wall. (Had janitors been employed to sweep in rubbish over the Italian shoes of the opening night attendees, it might have been a gesture worth considering.) One of punk’s more distinguishing features had been to transform the gig environment, combating its descent into a mere passive spectacle. If punks had felt that way about the rock gig, how much more strongly would they feel about the gallery?

This is not just the social observation that galleries tend to be more full of wealthy connoisseurs sipping Chianti as they discuss inner city unrest. (Though that reason alone would of course be enough.) Unlike the rock gig the gallery experience is individualised and based around questions of ownership. You’re expected to contemplate the works passively and quietly, internalizing your reaction. Indeed, in tests the words people most associate with galleries and museums are the ones for churches. A gig conversely is collectively owned by its attendees. (In fact, punk insisted the attendees’ response was vital to the gig, that they were only marginally behind the band in order of importance.) Moreover, in a gallery the work is usually a single original or at most part of a limited run. The rest of us may gawp at this work, but it is owned by either a (normally wealthy) individual or an institution. (The analogy carries for albums or fanzines, which we even tend to think of in terms of copies rather than originals. When did you last wonder where the master tape for your favourite album was?)

Given the show’s emphasis on New York, it’s interesting to reflect how contemporary punks saw its visual arts scene. It was, in brief, war. Adele Bereti of the Contortions commented “we all lived by walking into art openings, stealing all the food. Everyone gawked at us because we were almost like an exhibition of our own… The art scene was very conservative: in the galleries everyone would be wearing suits. In a way we were more exciting than the art on the walls.” There were probably time-specific reasons for such enmities. Firstly, free lunches should never be knocked. Secondly, punks at the time tended to live in the cheap-rent Lower East Side which bordered artsy SoHo, generating neighbourhood rivalries. (James Chance commented “SoHo should be blown off the fucking map, along with all its artsy assholes!”) But most importantly, the hostility towards visual arts was arguably because of punk’s tendencies towards performance art and multi-media. The anti-gallery stance was less a wall than a filter, a way of keeping out all the elements you didn’t like about the visual arts scene while extracting the essence which you did. (Both quotes from Simon Reynolds’ ‘Rip It Up and Start Again’.)

Radical art must always challenge its parameters, wherever it encounters them. But that doesn’t mean punk must exist in some permanent antipathy to galleries. Saying you can only relate to galleries by invading them is like saying you can only relate to gig spaces by disrupting bad boy band performances… a worthwhile thing to do, maybe, but you wouldn’t devote your life to it. In fact many involved in the arts scene had been mounting such a challenge since the Sixties. Movements in conceptual, performance and even auto-destructive art had defied the notion of a saleable art object - producing art which only existed as a time-limited performance, an idea, something easily reproducible or even something which smashed itself up before the potential purchaser could get his credit card out. (Given this its remarkable how few artists here attempt anything similar. The nearest is probably the video pieces.)

So if punk could instead have subverted the galleries, two of the main ways it could have done so are references to popular culture and employing the disarming power of humour. Punk didn’t see itself as some dour form of social realism but as something which permeated popular culture, barbing pop hooks and inverting the language of ads – the poison in the human machine. Galleries, on the other hand, don’t tend to be barrel of laughs. Again, the main people here who employ such tactics are those associated with the punk scene. For example, there’s the blackly witty comic strip panels of former Black Flag artist Raymond Pettibon. Against the dead weight of litter nailed to the wall, these comic panels seem simultaneously sprightly yet dark and foreboding, exuding both energy and menace.

One caveat needs spelling out. If the best and most punk-influenced work on show here is the punk-connected, that doesn’t mean punk is always and inherently in the right! At several points the works here manage to pinpoint and then magnify weaknesses more widely found in punk. Stephen Wallats’ piece, a series of imagined thoughts projected into the mind of a young mother living on a housing estate, is creepily patronising in a “I know how the proles think” sort of way. But it also feels uncomfortably similar to a whole genre within punk, for example Scritti Politti’s Skank Block Bologna. (I’m thinking there of a good punk record, one which I’ve bothered to commit to memory. The more third-rate punk music we drew in, I would suspect, the closer this comparison would get.)

Similarly, a weakness of such a time-specific show is that it now seems dated. Hilariously, the ticket desk personally warn punters of the potentially offensive nature of some of the works. This mostly seems to refer to the duplication of the Prostitution exhibition put on at the ICA by Throbbing Gristle (then still called COUM Transmissions) in 1976. At the time this caused a furore only topped by the Pistol’s later Grundy interview; indeed even as the show went on one wall of the exhibition was given to the outraged tabloid headlines it generated. Putting porn magazines on the hallowed walls could be seen as an almost perfect example of subverting the gallery context.

…well, for then maybe. Nowadays, when hardcore porn is never more than a mouse click away and ‘Porn Star’ has become a T-shirt, its about as shocking as if someone shouted “what a fucking rotter” on the telly. In fact the porn pages now seem almost quaint, particularly in their habit of including some absurd text story alongside the images. (Called self-parodic things like ‘My Driving Instructress Gave Me a Lesbian Love Lesson’.) Today such tame and tedious drivel may make us question the ‘schematic shock’, the notion that pressing media panic buttons should be our main activity. Indeed, at their worst, Throbbing Gristle did tend to fall into this trap.

But if its no longer shocking it comes to works in a different and presumably unintended way. The hook is that the photos featured not some anonymous model but a band member, Cosey Fanni Tutti. Beneath the rhetoric it’s clear she posed for these top shelf mags as a day job, a way of keeping the rest of the band in black armbands and noise machines. Its reminiscent of the scene in Quadrophenia where Phil Daniels discovers his rebel mod hero is a Bell Boy at the Grand. Its as if Johnny Rotten had at the time held down a day job at the deli counter at Tescos, and forgotten footage had been released of him pleasantly serving slices of cheddar to the customers. You can’t, it seems, rely on a gallery opening happening nearby every time you get hungry. And even rebel punks still need to eat…

Coming soon! Post-scripts about punk's relation to radical feminism. Be afraid... be very afraid...