Saturday 29 April 2023


Whitechapel Gallery, London

“I paint what I am”
- Etel Adnan

To The Other Half Of the Story

After the Royal Academy’s sprawling, gargantuan retrospective on American Abstract Expressionism, surely that epic tale was at last told. In fact, as the Whitechapel now informs us, it was literally only half the story.

I did mention, if only in passing, the dearth of women artists on its walls. There’s no going back and counting now but, checking David Anfam’s book on the Ab Ex era, of 169 illos five are by women. (Split between Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler, who seem the twin exceptions to prove this rule. Krasner got ‘Living Colour’ a genuinely awesome show at the Barbican recently, and Frankenthaler ‘Radical Beauty’ at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.)

In which case you might wonder what Michael West and George Hartigan are doing here. The answer is, figuring there was no other way round it, they took on male names. And if that makes them sound more like Nineteenth century novelists than modern artists, Hartigan even took her adopted name from George Eliot. Lee (born Lenore) Krasner did this too, we’re just more used to hearing her name. While Elaine de Kooning signed her work the less specific but equally un-giveaway EDK.

Not that this worked particularly well. Several reviews claimed more than half of these works had never been publicly been shown in the UK before. I failed to find many images on-line in any form, but did discover several of the artists don’t have their own Wikipedia page.

But, not content with that, this show takes on another wrong by adding another word to it’s title. Abstract Expressionism as a practice preceded the American movement by decades, but they took over the term as surely as they did Hawaii. (And at about the same time.) Much like the Tate’s recent ‘Surrealism Beyond Borders’ show, this goes for a more global reach. (When artists named below aren’t American, I’ll flag them up.)

And even if you’re some G-beebies viewer who wails at ‘wokeness’ for a hobby, if you like art then surely what you want to see is good art. And if you’re missing out on good art because of some absurd and outmoded restriction, it should occur to you that what you’re doing is missing out.

Without The Intermediary of Images

A quick re-cap on what Ab Ex is… Too often, people’s first reaction is that artists are strangely constraining themselves, restricting what they can do, all to live up to some hifalutin’ theory they’ve devised. But that’s not it at all. Like so many other Modernist movements, it’s more a back-to-basics approach, expunging the weight of tradition, going back to an art which is about making marks on a surface. It had become necessary to, as Ida Barbarigo put it, “unlearn how to paint.” Rather than narrow options it expands possibility. And the boiled-down, doing-stuff title of this show does convey this quite well.

The result is what Else Fischer-Hansen calls “psychological painting”. The artist gets over her state of mind directly, without the intermediary of images. The marks on the canvas act as a seismograph of her mental state. We don’t even need to know what the artist is thinking, we can just see what she is feeling. Such is the stress on this that at times it feels like the physicality of paint is almost fetishised. A little like ectoplasm with mediums, the fluid stuff becomes their link between the intangible and material world.

Was the effect of this good or bad? The answer is yes. As the great Mark E Smith once said about punk: “the great thing is, anyone can do it. And the terrible thing is, anyone can do it.” And as I said of the Academy show “my reaction to the artists here runs the gamut, from absolute awe to total indifference.”

While pretty much every review I read of this show remarked on how many artists there were (over eighty), and how that made things overwhelming, but pointed out that at the same time many of them weren’t much cop. And of course pretty much everyone disagreed with pretty much everyone else as to which were the also-rans. (Including the top two. I can be in absolute awe of Krasner. Yet while this show starts off with Frankenthaler, like she’s a draw for the crowds, my response was absolute indifference.)

But let’s stay on the upside, at least for now. It’s remarkable how this simple idea leads to such a wide variety of approaches. Dusti Bonge’s ’The Beckon’ (1956, above) is a highly composed images, dominated by a series of descending vertical strokes. The fact that it’s so clearly painted makes those descending lines into a statement. The colours are also carefully chosen, with bright white pushing to the front, brown and then black placed at the back.

Whereas Korean-born Wook-kyung Choi’s ’Untitled’ (1960, above) is riotously overloaded. It’s something like looking at an over-flyposted wall, with a mass of shapes and forms half-glimpsed, jostling one another like a crowd where everyone in it is calling out at you. Could that be a black figure, for example, just peering out for the side of that top green patch? (The gallery used a different work by Choi, also ’Untitled’, as their main image for the show. But I preferred this one.)

While Choi takes what would otherwise be static forms and juxtaposes them, British painter Gillian Ayres’ ’Distillation’ (1957) is convulsive - not just dynamic in effect but born out of dynamism. It’s hard to credit that it isn’t moving even as you look at it, blasting out from some point in the lower centre. The term ‘Big Bang’ to explain the birth of our universe was coined in 1949 by Fred Hoyle, and this is the era where it came to win out over the earlier steady state model. Ayers isn’t illustrating such a moment, but the sense of dynamism as fundamental to things is surely not a coincidence.

(I had resolved, in the show’s spirit of discovery, to include only artists new to me. Of which there’s not exactly a shortage. And Ayers appeared in the Barbican’s equally revelatory ‘Post-War Modern’. But her work there, at least the one I picked on, was quite different to the one I’m using here. So my rule’s bent, but not broken.)

Then, in ’Reminiscences’, (1964, above) Chinyee (Chinese) paints shapes as individually indistinct as Ayers, but in amuch more contemplative style. Like a soft-focus photograph taken to extremes, each colour and shape seems to blend into the next, with the result it recedes rather than leap out at you. You could be forgiven for thinking it would resolve into an image, perhaps a nature scene, if you only squinted at it long enough. Combined with the warmth of the colours, the effect of this is beguiling. Notably it doesn’t have the immediate, action-based titles of Bonge or Ayers, and hints at how memory is simultaneously comforting and fallible, each perhaps enabling the other.

Ab Ex was strongly Surrealist influenced, Sonja Sekula among them. But ’7am’ (above, 1948/9) is at least as much Futurist. With a surface of sharp delineating lines in a loose grid pattern, it would look like some kind of blueprint if there wasn’t such a surfeit of them. Then, with the softer shapes behind them, there seems a near-unguessable amount of pictorial depth. Different pictorial devices seem to exist at once, as if clamouring for our attention. To the lower right is a reasonably realised arch bridge, while other shapes are abstract. It seems to lead up to two dominant towers, like looking at a cityscape. But behind them appear the bases for an arched roof.

It’s a classic Futurist device… too much information, delivered in too many different ways, capturing the way the city is itself collage-like. It evokes the city as something dynamic, not built of bricks and concrete but made out of motion. (Like many an artist, Sekula moved to and was inspired by New York. But more than a decade before this was painted.)

…with so many artists on show you could just keep going with this. But by now the point should be made. Ab Ex is an approach not a rigid style.

Art Is A Language You Can’t Read

As we’ve seen, in Ab Ex’s first and strongest commandment, images are ruled out, or at least de-prioritised. With the result many works aren’t titled, titled ’Untitled’, numbered or just named after the colours used. After all, if you can say it, why bother with painting it?

Yet within the picture frame, words are often retained - but made into symbols. As we saw at the Academy show, this often took the form of (normally made up) ancient hieroglyphs. In a kind of illusion born of distance, you could imagine they didn’t just contain wisdom unknown to us but wisdom inexpressible in the humdrum, everyday alphabet we used. In a grass-is-greener effect, the language which sees to say the most is the one you’re not using.

Yet the Argentine artist Sarah Grilo does something different. ’Not Even One More Day’ (1966, above) is so large it’s like looking at a wall. Except the wall itself has been removed, with the signs, posters and graffiti which might have adorned it remaining up. About every form of writing is used, from typeset to outright scribble. Occasionally a complete word can be spotted, but mostly there’s fragments. So our own alphabet, one of the most familiar things we have, is presented back to us in this defamiliarised way. The ‘magic’ of language, which normally just dissolves into its function, is floated before us and so foregrounded.

Is Art Angst?

Let’s circle back to the women artist theme… With this sort of thing, there’s a balance to be struck. Primarily, women’s art is not a genre. (Or men’s art is as well, a claim made by nobody ever.) Women artists are artists, and each should be seen in terms of her own art. On the other hand, if they’re going to do exactly the same stuff as the male artists, only more of it, we’re not really gaining anything.

And here my uncharacteristic dalliance with positivity, which was never going to last forever, hits some hard realities. Because some of the problems with Ab Ex weren’t to do with the hang-ups of individual artists; they were widespread across the movement.

Tom Waits once said “bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering”. And if he’d seen some of the works here, he’d have added bad painting. Noting that much of the Academy show was ‘manpainy’, I wondered if women artists might escape this self-regarding trap of privatised emotional states. And true enough, few of the works we’ve seen so far fall into that. As the show says of Ayres’ art, it “reflected how she claimed to see the world, in ebullient shapes and colours.”

But you could say that for many of the male artists at the Academy show. The problem was recurrent, perhaps persistent, but not inherent. And it turns out we’ve been heading for that fall all along, as the show devotes one of it’s four sections to angst. A movement so fixated on the bombastic business of the artist making her mark, then leaving it there for all to see, perhaps it was never going to entirely escape.

And while there are works in this section which do work, you feel most of them do it by not really belonging in this section. A rare exception is Spanish artist Juana Frances’ ’No. 49’ (1960, above). Part of the appeal is her use of non-art materials such as sand and grit. But more, in a movement fixated upon the touch of the artist, her works don’t necessarily look made. They could have just been subject to some natural process, possibly even by accident.

And this defuses that sense of the grand artistic statement. We can just look at an environment that seems abraded and scarred, ravaged and denuded as a moonscape. (You don’t get anything near the full effect of any of these works from thumbnails. But in this case it may be doing no more than proving the work actually exists.)

Gesticulating With Brushes (Or Sometimes Without) 

Wook-kyung Cho said “I dash into the canvas and develop various situations without any conception or any plan.” And rather than first planning their way through sketches, artists normally found the painting as they worked on the canvas. You improvised in order to compose. You might strike lucky and find your work quickly. If you didn’t you could just keep going, until the point you looked up and liked what you saw. But all of this improvisational method doesn’t stop the work being composed, even if its not consciously thought out. Painting’s advantage is that its a deliberative medium, allowing for pause and reflection, for both creator and audience.

So it’s less a leap and more of impasse between this and the notion of a canvas as a record of an action. Wanting to know the gestures the artist made during composition, that’s like asking how Hemingway typed. So all these works made this way, they’d seem like a category error even if they didn’t overlap so much with all that individualised angst.

Besides, if you’re going to go about recording gestures there would seem to be better options than canvases. (He said, possibly sarcastically.) There’s an extra room added to the end of this show, described as “a sister exhibition”, called ’Action, Gesture, Performance; Feminism, the Body and Abstraction’. Including the video record of a performance Carolee Scheemann gave in 1974, called ’Up To and Including Her Limits’. She swings on a harness around a bare space, drawing on the walls and floor.

Any value this ever had is now lost to time. But the point is - this is the record of a performance. The ‘finished’ walls she decorated look just like a toddler was let loose with a crayon. And some of the works hung here look like someone just pulled a series of grand and wild strokes before a canvas, mugging for the cameras, then the resultant work was somehow exhibited.

Amaranth Ehrenhalt painted ’Jump In and Move Around' (1961, above), which with it’s medley of upfront colours at least looks like someone is having fun. Though as the title effectively confesses it looks like it was more fun to do than look at, successive colours slapped on a canvas without looking much.

Canadian artist Miriam Schapiro's ’Idyll II’ (1956, above), is superficially similar. But looks like beneath that flurry of mark-making there’s some underlying composition. The indicia tells us that she often started by copying more traditional works, over which she’d overpaint her own efforts. Perhaps this gave her a double opportunity, rubbing out the art of old while borrowing its form.

There’s been a few of these shows lately, trying to rediscover the names blotted out by more orthodox art histories. And they seem a better use of everyone’s time than to reiterate the cast list of the greats all over again. While this is more uneven than some of the others, as always the advantage is also the disadvantage. It’s like busting open a prison camp and watching the mass runaround, there’s simply too many suppressed names to be re-released in one go, and the effect is exhilarating but also overpowering. It needs to be the start of something, it can’t restore a balance simply by itself. But whether these newly remembered names will stay remembered, and more work by them will be shown in the future, only time will tell.

Saturday 22 April 2023


Hayward Gallery, London

”Time is an otherworldly concept and truth an unreliable beast.”
-Mike Nelson

Immersion At Work

Is this a dream? Here we are in the slick, uber-modern Hayward Gallery where cash payments are like yesterday, baby. And the indicia is all bits of paper pinned to noticeboards. And that aesthetic is adhered to throughout. Though it may better be called an anti-aesthetic, a foregrounding of bog-standard plain-ness. A film is projected onto brown plywood boards.

To some, DIY is a punk philosophy about rejecting consumerist culture. To Mike Nelson, it would seem to to have a more literal definition - bodging bits of wood together in sheds while reaching for your bevel. He’s not artist-as-craftsman, posing in a smock, so much as handyman-as-space-creator. The show proudly states it took over thirty builders four months to assemble, leading you to picture them sucking their checks about the right cowboys who’d staged the previous exhibition.

The worst thing you could do at this point would be imagine this is another example of Instragrammable art - works staged as a photo-op for punters to quickly click and share. In fact it’s the very opposite. As Jeremy Deller has said “to be fully appreciated, [this] really is an exhibition that needs to be seen in person.” Nelson himself has pointed out: “my instinct has always been to make immersive works. They should have a spatial aspect but also a psychological effect on the senses.” (And please remember all that while you peruse my inexpert photos.)

And this is a little like the way Abstract Expressionism responded to the prevalence of colour photography, art taking a direction where it couldn’t easily be snapped and captured. Saying art shouldn’t, in a direct physical sense, be too easy to access, it can leave you sounding like an elitist. But the truth is that what’s too easily clicked on is too easily clicked off, and everything passes by in a blur. (The trend for turning already existing artworks into ‘immersive experiences’ is probably a more risible, commercially oriented variant of this.)

There are five environments to explore, all reworkings of installations Nelson has staged elsewhere. ’The Asset Strippers’ places once-familiar agricultural machinery on plinths, the way we present ancient artefacts. No longer connected to their use, we can’t do other than to frame their form, turn them into sculptures. In this way, looking at other people looking at them can be more significant than looking at the machines themselves. The name comes from Nelson buying them from asset sales, and most likely they’d otherwise have been sold for scrap.

Nelson has commented on placing “artefacts cannibalised from the last days of the industrial era in place of the treasures of empire that would normally adorn such halls”. But truth be told this worked better when a fuller version was staged in the ornate, august halls of Tate Britain three years ago.

Memory Merely Flickers

There’s frequent other references to the fallibility of memory. Nelson has mythologised about the Amnesiacs, a biker gang of Gulf War vets who suffer from PTSD flashbacks. (Perhaps based on the Hells Angels being vets of World War Two.) And here we have ’Amnesiac Shrine'. Naturally we never see the gang, only the residue of their actions, as if getting their flashbacks second-hand. And these often take the form of cargo-cult attempts to reassemble the past, a ‘fire’ with red plastic sheeting standing for flames (handily illustrated), objects stuck together in the shape of a motorbike, animal horns as handlebars, and so on.

While the exterior of ’Triple Bluff Canyon’ is a bunker-like building almost entirely buried by sand. It’s very similar to images in Chris Marker’s ’Sans Soleil’ (1983). A film which starts with what looks like young children on a road in Iceland, all bucolic and charming. Then shows us the same space later, after a volcanic eruption, where only the peaks of roofs are discernible from under a covering of black ash. Memory merely flickers, always in danger of being smothered by forgetting.

You can go inside the bunker, after some English queuing, and discover an old-style darkroom. Pictures are hung up to dry, as if resisting the weight of the sand outside. Yet they’re no more comprehensible to us than the machines in ’The Asset Strippers’. That placed foreign objects in a space recognisable to us, while this does the opposite, placing us in a foreign environment - but the result’s the same. It’s like they’re in language which lost its comprehensibility when this space was vacated, and now remain like a residue.

While the first environment we cross, ’I, Impostor’ is like a cross between a very run-down branch of B&Q and a hoarder’s attic. We realise these aren’t random items; everything is prepared, the wood cut into precise shapes, some objects even labelled for assembly. Yet we don’t see any plans for this, they’re placed together as uselessly as those drying photos. It turns out these are the pieces for an installation Nelson once staged, but not for us here. (Though it does, if I’m honest, seem an outsized means of establishing this point.)

The Absence Hits

’The Deliverance and The Patience’ is a jumble of interconnected rooms. Unlike ’Triple Bluff Canyon’ there’s no way to cross them in a linear fashion, you just have to wander and hope for the best, multiple-choice doors jarring with any attempt to form some sort of narrative. I’ve still no idea if I went through them all. They’re stripped back, floors often bare and walls reduced back to beams, and full of archaic objects, bakelite phones and the like.

And what’s through those doors seems entirely unconnected. One’s an old-style travel agents, another a gambling den, another looks like someone slept rough in it, another again is dominated by an occult shrine (again handily illustrated). While the door to each is unique, as if at the same time you’re in a physical space you’re crossing some sort of portal. (Each door squeaks so loud, drawing attention to itself, that it must surely be a deliberate feature.)

Nelson writes on one of those noticeboards of how the links between rooms are more conceptual, like jumping between scenes in a film. And, as you were probably about to say yourself, memory works in a similar way. We remembers incidents in an encapsulatory fashion, like a series of rooms without the connecting corridors, a few roof peaks amid a whole load of blackness. Plus, memory can link together physically apart spaces.

But more than that… What should feel prosaic and straightforward, the instant-hit advent-calendar moment of seeing behind another door, doesn’t at all. The absence hits you as much as any presence. There’s the constant feeling of elusiveness, of missing something.

Reviews mostly talked of reconstructing what happened in those rooms, putting together the clues left us like detectives. Which makes them seem too much like puzzles, waiting to be solved. (And notably the same reviews didn’t offer much of a solution.)

And it would be as easy to read all this as an exercise in nostalgia, a lament for the analogue, hands-on past, an old man shaking his fist at an iCloud. But that isn’t it. Instead it uses the (real or apparent) materiality of the past as a means to convey estrangement. Perhaps its always the past which feels material, becoming solid in hindsight, while the present just passes past us like water through our fingers. Whatever happened back then formed us, made us what we are. And is now inaccessible to us.

There’s something formalist about this whole show, art which is largely about the making of itself. You need to picture it all being put up, the saws going across and nails into those bits of wood. At one point there’s a full reproduction of Nelson’s studio. You could scarcely stress the materiality, the madeness enough.

But this takes us to a paradox. You physically walk through those spaces. You could pick up and move objects should you choose. Yet I often felt like a kind of phantom, an insubstantial being. Despite - or perhaps because of - this being my past. I once answered bakelite phones like those, went to travel agents to buy physical plane tickets. Yet that world I lived through I’m now watching from the outside. It’s the act of rebuilding that world which shows us how disconnected from it we are. (It would be interesting to see how those a couple of generations younger than me reacted to this show.)

Experience, at least the forms of experience which seem formulatory to you, always fall the other side of the line. And so the best way to experience this show would be quite alone. But short of breaking into the gallery overnight, and perhaps sleeping in the sleeping rough room, there isn’t much of a way to test that.

Crucified By Graph Paper

The largest environment, ’Studio Apparatus for Kunsthalle Munster’, is the biggest break. It has no references to time or memory but instead offers a discombobulation of the human body. What might initially look like stones are statue heads, the sort of thing which often adorn church walls, but are here trapped within that wire grid. And my high-falutin’ explanation for all this is…

…okay, I haven’t got one. All I can tell you is what it feels like to look at.

With its rigid structure the wire frame is imprisoning, the heads like people caught in the gears of some soulless mechanism, crucified by graph paper. But all those open spaces are simultaneously insubstantial, like a spider’s web. Which adds to the nightmarish quality of the image, making it seem both oppressive and unchallengeable. It stakes out a space you can’t get in, while those heads can’t get out. Though the heads look stone rather than concrete, the addition of a cement mixer suggests that within that space they’re being made on some kind of production line, like a mechanical queen bee populating its hive.

Saturday 15 April 2023


Jazz Cafe, London
Tues 18th April

With Faust it’s not even you’re never sure what you’re going to get. Since the revival there’s been different permutations of everyone’s favourite legendary anti-art neo-Dada Krautrock combo, so you can’t even be sure who you’re going to get. 

The last release I’d heard of had been founder member Gunter Westhoff, who had previously forewarn all reunions, joining up with drummer Zappi. The album, ’Daumenbruch’, was the more freeform side of Faust (who are fairly freeform to start with). And as the Jazz Cafe seemed a suitable version for such a thing, I’d wondered if that Faust would be this Faust. But I'd guessed wrong, and Jean-Herve Peron emerged to greet us. Still, he’s scarcely an unwelcome sight…

(Though it seems there is an insider’s tip to telling Faust from Faust. Peron’s version is styled fAUst, while Westhoff and Zappi go with faust. I don’t know if that adds to the fun or spoils things. But if Irmler is tempted to revive his version, they’re now going to have to go with fauST.)

Last time I saw fAUst was six months ago, reworking ’Faust IV’ with a large ensemble at the Union Chapel. This time, befitting the smaller venue, they’re more a lean machine. There’s still eight of ‘em in all, but only for the finale do they really take to the stage en masse. In a telling detail, last time when ensemble members had nothing to play they’d sit back and flip through books, stage management Brechtian style. This time the taskless vanish until needed again.

Not unusually for Faust there’s a spectrum of musical styles on offer, from full-on free-form noise (aided by angle grinders) to acoustic ballads done as a duo. At times there’s even Faust tracks for you to recognise.

Over time, Peron’s daughter Jeanne-Marie Varian has developed from band member to frontwoman, taking to the role with some aplomb. Her sheer glee at at it, somewhere between childlike joy and devilish delight, is very Faust. For one track she stages a psychotic episode, running from mania to fury, the music mirroring every turn.

True, not everything works as well as it might. ’J’ai Mal Aux Dents’ is given a more skanking rhythm, the keyboard player bopping like Jerry Dammers. But the backing vocals lack the required insistency, and Geraldine Swayne’s recited lead line don’t have that stream-of-consciousness quality the song needs. (Varian might have served better.) And one number was cool jazz. Venue befitting perhaps, but a worrying sign.

But the highlights were classic Faust in full swing. On ’Sad Skinhead’ Varian and Swayne traded vocals like it really was a love song, both charming and absurd. (It’s odd how what was once of their weaker numbers has since come to feel like a classic.)

There was a long floating drone number (name unknown to me), with bowed instruments and singing bowl. Which slowly but surely built up a backbeat, like a grand monument growing a pair of legs and then running with them.

So fAUst were more unmissable Faust. But if faust do feel like coming to town…

(More of me raving about the importance of Faust here.)

Saturday 8 April 2023


Komedia Studio Theatre, Brighton
Monday 3rd April

Nina Nastasia is a New York singer-songwriter and longstanding John Peel fave. My previous attempts to see her have not always worked well. She appeared as part of a package tour where she seemed nervous and off. Then I ventured out on a night so freezing I was surprised the gig hadn’t been cancelled. To arrive at an empty bar and the news the gig had been cancelled. This was followed by twelve years of silence.

But now new album ’Riderless Horse’ has led to a new tour. It’s the first release for her to be playing solo. And you can see why, it’s been described as “her barest and most personal work ever.” She’s been open in interview about its origins, so it’s not too tabloidy to mention here. She broke with her manager and long-time partner over obsessive behaviour which became controlling, to find he’d killed himself the very next day. And many songs on the new album are directly addressed to him.

In the circumstances it seemed a somewhat churlish thought, but I wondered if it would repeat my last gig at Komedia, where Emma Ruth Rundle also played solo. Where the intimacy only intensified the intensity, until it became too much of a good thing.

And I always loved her band sound, with the violins which wailed on the edge of songs, like cats refusing to either come in or go out. I tend to think of her lyrics are planspokenly descriptive, with her singing style and musical style throwing the emotional filter over them.

She soon makes a comment about her ill-advised drinking whisky without water on-stage. But the night turns the other way around, and a single voice plus guitar fill the room without overwhelming. Perhaps because the songs were written to be played this way, perhaps because the have some tonal variety to them. ’Go Away’ is about as strong and strident a statement as the title suggests, which ’Blind As Batsies’ is by comparison almost jovial.

I assumed the new album dominated the set list, but checking afterwards it didn’t entirely rule the roost. The old songs slid in quite neatly with the new. Perhaps confirming Laura Snapes’ theory in the Guardian that this poison-laced relationship may have been her rosebud all along. (“This wasn’t foreboding songcraft but often completely literal.”)

So all in all, these songs of loss and despair led to splendid night for all. But my earnest wish remains to see her with a band. Even if I have to wait another twelve years.

From London the next night…

London Sinfonietta
South Bank Centre, London
Thurs 6th April

Over a decade ago, the Tate staged a Gerhard Richter exhibition. I intended to go, but didn’t. And up till now that’s all I could have told you about his art. In 2106 he made an animation of his art. Though rather than ‘animated art’ the the art’s essentially treated as raw materials for a new work. Starting with horizontal bands of colour, simple yet shifting. Out of which grow mirrored images, sampled sections of his artwork, developing like Mandelbrots. Then it slowly reverts to those strips of colour.

Steve Reich then put a score to it, and as the double headliner suggests we get the combination here. It’s slower-paced and more serene than the standard pulsing Reich, perhaps keeping pace with the film. The feeling is unhurried, late afternoon. Reich is quoted in the programme: “the structure of the music would be tied to the structure of the film”. Initially, when the film’s at its simplest, the score simply duplicates it in sound, then separates later.

Reich's also quoted in the programme on his connection with visual arts, pointing out that in the early days of Minimalism concert venues closed their doors but gallery spaces were more accommodating. And the music’s interest in structure over development proves the truth of this. With both sound and image essentially ‘abstract’ it becomes like a team-up rather than a struggle for dominance, a full-on synaesthesiac experience.

I wondered mid-piece how the sound would work without the visuals, then thought that a silly question to ask when I was getting the visuals. Listening to it afterwards I’d concede Reich has written greater works, but in combination it works very well indeed.

Julia Wolfe contributed what was essentially a modern composer’s version of George Harrison’s ’Only a Northern Song’. Based on a recording she heard of a brass section still very much in learning mode, she wrote ’Tell me everything.’ Which is a rollicking exuberant ride, like a toddler charging across a room, somehow always right in it’s wrongness. She’s quoted in the programme as finding it funny, which it is, but on the laugh-with side of the equation. It seemed to get the thinnest applause of the night, but as the record shows I’m a longstanding fan and was swept up in it.

In tribute to Mira Calix, who died too young last year, the Sinfonietta played ’Nunu’. Which may be her greatest hit, though never was there a more bizarre version of that label. It works its way up from sampled insects sounds, via plucks and taps into a mutated form of melodies. Otherly strange, but beguilingly so, enchanting rather than challenging. Calix’s relentless experimentalism didn’t always pay off, truth be told, but this piece wouldn’t be any more successful.

Julius Eastman was an entirely new name to me. Seems he was on the same New York scene as Arthur Russell, dedicated to eradicating the uptown/downtown demarcation, mostly by exploring the links between Minimalism and pop music.

’Joy Boy’ is a melodic piano pieces augmented by the most minimal contributions from the other instruments, until it’s impossible to hear individual lines apart from the complete work. Though sadly dying aged forty-nine, it seems he was prolific and it would be good to hear more. (Hint, hint, music programmers.)

Anna Clyne’s ’Fractured Time’ perhaps worked the least well for me. It’s agitated flurries seemed to want for something to work against, like a movement from a larger work rather than a piece in and of itself. Though it should be said if this was the weak link, it’s a sign of a pretty strong programme.

Saturday 1 April 2023


(SPOILERS AHEAD! In fact I’m going to assume you’ve already seen this Sixties horror classic. Which you have, haven’t you?)

The Slowly Spreading Undertaste

When films become classics, even when they deservedly become classics, it cannot help but have a distorting effect. It’s not so much that their reputation becomes inflated, it’s more to do with our being encumbered by knowledge. We learn about them by osmosis, we become primed even before we’ve seen them ourselves, our expectations set. Like going back to listening to ’Stairway To Heaven’ as if it were just a song, overcoming the weight of that requires a mighty effort of will.

So let’s try a mental exercise which may rectify this, at least a little. If you started watching ’Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968) outside of any context, at what point would you realise it was a horror film? The opening theme, ostensibly a lullaby but with something sinister lurking in it, that might be a tip-off. But still a long way from the sturm-und-drang of, say, Hammer film soundtracks. It’s something you’re more likely to notice, at least consciously, in retrospect.

Events are set in a recognisable location, Manhattan, and filmed naturalistically, with long takes, conversational dialogue and – perhaps most of all - minimal music. (The way the infamous dream sequence opens with only a ticking clock is particularly effective.) Unlike superficially similar films like ’The Omen’ or ’The Exorcist’, supernatural events either happen offstage or are interwoven with those dream sequences. The first sign of diabolic goings on, the sideboard in front of the closet door, is played out without a single string murmur. It’s only that the film is bothering to show you this, that you know to look for significance in it.

Ira Levin, who wrote the source novel, said ”the most suspenseful part of a horror story was before, not after, the horror appears.” (I’ve not read this, but the film is supposed to be more faithful to it than is usual.) So what better way to rack up that suspense than to save that horrifying reveal for the very last scene?

The film is epitomised by the drugged dessert Rosemary’s given to eat, which she complains has a “chalky undertaste”. That bad undertaste is at first faint, but grows more and more unavoidable as the film progresses. And part and parcel of that is the slow reveal, that we accumulate more and more small clues till we figure what’s going on.

And the idea that Satanists might live not in a film world but in our reality, and sometimes share our domestic concerns such as not staining the floor, has reach. We can avoid going to remote castles or dark woods as a way to stay away from the horror. But it won’t help us. It’s already here, in our world, casting a web we haven’t noticed yet.

The film expects us to work as detectives, to note seemingly innocuous details such as that covered closet or a lost glove, and put them together with others not revealed until some time later, without any of this being laboured. In a time before home recordings, when movies were mostly only watched once. I was first shown it by a friend, who described it as “good but slow”. Yet my experience was the opposite. Watching, you can’t break your state of high alter, no matter how innocuous the scene seems. You know you can’t afford to pass over any detail.

True, we’re not told everything. We don’t know for example whether the first victim did commit suicide to escape her fate, or refused her role and so was bumped off. (I’d guess the second as her suicide note doesn’t grass up the Castevets, but it’s not something we’re told.) But we put together enough of these details to work out the plot, in both senses of the word. Another film might try to generate creative tension over whether Rosemary’s sussing out the plot or simply losing it. Here, we know from early on ill deeds are afoot.

”Don’t Read Books”

One reason our witnessing is partial is because we only see what Rosemary sees, with virtually the whole film shown from her perspective. Several times she makes phone calls without our seeing the person on the other end, highly unusually for popular cinema. Now characters in horror films are normally a step behind the more savvy audience, and their slowness can become tedious. “Why do the killings keep happening every time there’s a full moon?” they ask uncomprehendingly, while we throw things at the screen. But here that’s turned that into an advantage.

Guy, her husband, has his list of actorly achievements reiterated, emphasising its meagreness. So he gets caught up in the plot early, when they offer his acting career a black magic boost. He’s depicted less as a bad character than a weak one, easily swayed. When he gets given the part he’s sought he rehearses laden down with some highly symbolic crutches. He tells Rosemary she’s not been hurt, “not really”, a claim he seems to have bought into himself, despite using a definition of “hurt” other than the one most commonly used. A fool and his virtue are easily parted.

But crucially, Rosemary is barely any stronger. We do much better with the information she’s given than she does. And this is cemented by the ‘dream’ sequence, where undrugged by dessert, we’re perfectly clear that much of what we see is for real. Having only just written about Carroll’s Alice, Rosemary isn’t unlike her. Both strive to please others in a world they don’t understand. When she goes back to the regular Doctor, she’s so panicked and prattlesome no wonder he doesn’t believe her. In modern-day Manhattan, no-one will believe you when you scream.

One thing we are now very much too aware of is the ending. At the time, seeing the Satanists succeed must have seemed all but unbelievable to audiences. Films simply didn’t finish that way! Rosemary has assumed her baby’s being spawned as a sacrificial offering. On discovering he’s actually Satan Jnr. she’s at first horrified but gets persuaded by the serpent-tongued Roman to look after him anyway.

And yet, paradoxically, there’s belated attempts to undo this ending, as if it’s still too much. The film is sometimes absurdly portrayed as a feminist story. Through doublethink some try to snatch victory for her from the teeth of basic observational skills. This is also due to ‘women’s issue’ themes, such as pregnancy, which people seem to perpetually confuse with feminism. If anything it’s a pre-feminist film, where Rosemary struggles for agency, without achieving any. "Please don't read books”, she’s told, “And don't listen to your friends, either.” She’s gaslit, even if the term wasn’t then in common use.

Nor does it make much sense to see the cult as a metaphor for patriarchy. Which is a set of power relations institutionalised in society, things which are unsaid because they ndon’t seem to need saying, not some conscious conspiracy. Anyway, the cult is outside of and against its surrounding society, not an example of it.

Furthermore, when looking at ‘Carrie’ it was necessary to say it was unlikely to be a feminist film, given the director’s general exploitational tendencies. Here we need to point out that director Roman Polanski is an actual rapist. (Though ironically the rape scene, shot from Rosemary’s point of view, isn’t overly salacious. At least by the general standards of popular cinema.)

And I get why people do this. It’s a great film, so naturally they look for a way it could be said to have a more progressive agenda. But what happens on the screen is what happens on the screen.

”I Don’t Believe In Witchcraft”

But mostly this baseless line of enquiry obscures that in this film age is as important as gender. There’s the scene where Rosemary insists on throwing a special kind of party where no-one over thirty is invited. But that involves a flurry of characters who are in and out the film quickly. While it’s their mutual friend Hutch, who forewarns them about the building’s history from the start, who is the only one to really spot the plot, to the point he’s the only one the cult find necessary to kill. And Hutch very much represents learning, the wisdom of age.

Famously, Rosemary says “I was brought up a Catholic. Now I don't know.” She’s also shown reading ’Is God Dead?’, a genuine cover to Time magazine. She and Guy mock older characters behind their backs. But the young couple, though ready to have children themselves, aren’t controlling their own destinies. They’re unattached particles, their movements between the two magnetic poles of Hutch and the Castevets.

The moral of the film is “guys, what if when we stopped listening to the Pope we went wrong? What if instead of becoming independent we started trusting the wrong people over thirty?” And if that’s a highly conservative message, this is a highly conservative film. Albeit, ironically, one which was watched by liberal and progressive audiences while the Catholic church clutched its rosaries.

It's a horror film cliché that the characters are first frightened, bewildered innocents, but go on to find the mettle in themselves to challenge and defeat evil. This works well functionally, it stops them all dying off within the first hour. And it can appeal to audiences. We can try telling ourselves that in their situation we’d be like that too.

And, very near the end, the film flirts with this. Rosemary escapes her captivity and uses the same secret passage they did to get into the Castevets apartment. There’s the iconic shot of her holding out the kitchen knife. She has her one – precisely one – quotable put-down, to Roman - “Be quiet, you're in Dubrovnik, I can't hear you.” (Where he’s ostensibly gone.) But we’re being set up for a fall, and the serpent-tongues Roman soon succeeds not just in beating her but drawing her into his plot.

Because we know, in our hear of hearts, we only got ahead because we didn’t eat the drugged desert, because we’re looking in from outside and Rosemary isn’t. She isn’t someone we can aspire to, but she is someone we can all too easily relate to. We’re more Rosemary than we are Ripley, even if we want to think otherwise. And the message of the film is here. For evil to succeed all that is necessary for good people to be a bit ineffectual.

But there’s another angle to it…

Through Thin Walls

The opening shot is of the couple entering the Bramford building, which from that point on has scene after scene set in it. The Count's castle features less in ’Dracula’. Viewpoints often foreground doorframes and apertures. We’re told early on that Rosemary’s and the Castevets were originally one large apartment, later subdivided. Suggesting a dissociated mind, split into separate elements not necessarily aware of their interconnectedness. Overheard through the thin partition wall, the Castevets literally invade Rosemary’s dreams. That adjoining walls becomes a permeable membrane. But, it seems, only one way. The Castavetes are like the couple’s Id, their voices seeping through.

Seen from this angle the message becomes - you cannot hold the evil at bay because ultimately it is part of you. There’s no getting off this map. And you are probably ahead of me here, but these two viewpoints align rather than conflict. Evil is not without but within. And it likes it best when we try to tackle it alone. Seek authority.