Sunday, July 11, 2010

The L=A=N=G=U=I=D Book

Just dropping in to doodle on the big blank that currently represents July 2010 here in beautiful downtown Thompsonsville. Don't expect intellectual pyro-bedazzlement, dears; I'm pretty surprised and pleased with myself just to be sitting up. It's the Sunday afternoon of the hottest weekend of the year so far, and for various reasons, only some of which I've figured out, the little room where I live out my days has a bullying tendency to take the temperature you first thought of and multiply it by a merciless several. I've spent most of the weekend all but pinned to my bed by the heat, feebly reading whatever book is nearest to my hand. I wrote a poem years ago which included a weird line about words frying like butter on a dog's tongue: well, that's exactly what this post feels like to write.

Mostly I'm here to remind those who are in a position to give a hooting fig that I will be doing some manner of doo at the SoundEye festival in Cork this week: to be precise, on Thursday -- reading in the afternoon (alongside some critical Vogue Femme shape-making from Keston "Shwam!" Sutherland), and dancing for chicken at the evening cabaret. I'd point you to more details but the SoundEye web site is being pretty coy about letting forth the data stream. It's going to be a good gathering, though, I think, & there are bags of people I'm excited to hear and see. Very pleasingly, Jonny Liron is now also reading, on the Friday, which means I finally get to hear something he's been working on for ages and keeps refusing to show me, which can only be a good sign. I'm still trying to finish the big poem I was talking about in my previous post: hopefully tonight, after the sun goes down and the moths come out, with their cooling frenzies, I'll be able to wrap my head around it for just long enough to do the necessary.

It's been all change this week: Henry & Elizabeth went off to Oxford without me (where they seem to be flourishing more happily than ever), while I gathered some pals for a week of R&D on a project for the Royal Court. It's barely even a gleam of a twinkle yet, and I've really no idea if anything much will come of it, but it was an interesting, challenging, unutterably confusing week, in the best of company. Also we had the good fortune to end up working not at the Court itself but at the Jerwood Space, one of my favourite working places in the world -- not least because the cafe is always good for a little light rubbernecking over a mezze plate. Last time it was Barren Andrew Loud-Warbling and Sir Trevor Numpt, on breaks from stitching together the divers offal and deep-fried chicken-heads out of which they assembled Love Never Dies. This time around, we were instead treated to Eddie Redmayne -- who, one must concede, radiates a certain je ne sais quoi (or, no, come on, we both know exactement quoi) -- though it was two grand dames of the classic sitcom, Jean Boht and Ruth Madoc, who had my starstruck attention all week. It made me quite giddy to be scoffing the same houmous.

The R&D week included a field-trip to the Serpentine, where Wolfgang Tillmans has his first solo show in London in several years: it's astounding. His practice seems to have shifted decisively and categorically since we last saw his work so intensively gathered: which is not to say that the dimension of this show that I find so exhilarating wasn't always there, but it feels so much stronger that one reads the work in quite a different way. It's not easy to characterise without feeling clumsy, but it's something like this: previously we viewed individual photographs, and in making the connexions between those photographs we came to an understanding of Tillmans's style; now, with this show, his practice feels more like installation, in which it's in those relationships between individual (or serial) images and ideas that Tillmans's suggestive, even assertive, work is done: the single image becomes almost indecipherable, until it's brought into productive relation with others in the room (and with our own gaze, of course, and our conversation with our friends in the gallery): and the artist's "point of view", so to speak, is another level up again, in the gestural quality of the variousness of the work he shows, a curatorial quality, an anthologist's sensibility. (Literally, in the case of, for example, the -- very moving -- inclusion of a small card by David Wojnarowicz.) Where it felt like Tillmans used to document, or testify to, a life lived energetically within a certain milieu, suddenly it feels as though that slight tendency towards (an admittedly starry) parochialism is obliterated, and the same sense of intimacy and familiarity (and queering nonfamiliarity) is infinitely extended. Just occasionally the linking becomes less pleasing, when it moves through a promiscuity secured by metaphor rather than material -- where a piece of carpet looks like the night sky, for example; compared to the studies in colour here, those more winsome authorial manoeuvres seem slight and a little specious. Aside from that, the generous reach and the rigorous eye on evidence in this show, and the example they give of looking as a way of thinking, are quite amazing. I wish there were more bodies, as Tillmans is among the front rank of portraitists and has a remarkable facility with his presentation of naked people, as the image 'Dan', which has been widely used to promote the show, bountifully indicates.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Dan (2008)

The Tillmans show is on at the Serpentine till September 19th, which means that, with luck, I should be able to get back and see it again before it closes: as I also intend to do with the Francis Alÿs show at Tate Modern, which I found intriguing but largely insubstantial when I saw it a few days ago, but which seems to have really got under my skin, such that I'm keen to give it a second viewing, maybe with a bit more time to spend given its huge scale.

Those who share my mild regret that there aren't more pictures of naked people at the Tillmans show may care to know, by the way, that if you visit the web site of the wholly terrific Ryan McGinley (whose Moonmilk was among the artistic highlights of last year for me), you can see there the photographs from his recent show at the Team gallery in New York, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. It's a set of studio nudes, in uncharacteristic b&w -- though signalling quite muted grayscale rather than high contrast. What I find really beautiful about these pictures is the ways McGinley finds to re-produce the sociality and loose informality of his earlier work, so much of which is outdoorsy and airy, in this one-on-one studio setting. It's a very unexpected turn for McGinley but I find it stimulating and wonderfully achieved. Somehow he seems to be able to make these presentations of the unclothed body flicker in a state between naked and nude, neither fully occupying nor wholly refusing the prestige of a studied artistic frame. In this they seem like very theatrical images to me, in which performance and the documentary could be seen as meeting, unresolvingly, in a zone that I guess I'd want to call 'testimonial'. It's a kind of flicker that I seek in so much of my work, it's sort of radically speculative -- in the way that Ken Campbell always used to say that he didn't believe but he was prepared to suppose. McGinley's portraits have within them the kind of facets that characterise the edges, as it were, of Tillmans's photographs; as so often, I find myself remembering the interior facets of Marina Abramovic's "wounded" amethyst geodes, and the accompanying "instructions to the public" that the geodes are to be viewed and contemplated for a "limitless" duration; discovering the inside of the body, that is nothing but new-revealed surfaces. Always, always, the flicker-point.

Ryan McGinley, Jasper (2010)

Towards the end of the week, with Tillmans and McGinley sitting in my head on the borderline where 'exemplary' starts to tip towards 'reproachful', I had kind of a useful meltdown. I won't spell it out -- if you're interested, please just see any of the theatre-related meltdown posts hereabouts, passim -- but I spent a day in a serious funk of feeling like everything worthwhile was (and is) impossible, and everything currently possible is not worthwhile. For some reason I suddenly found myself in a pessimistic frame of mind, and was able to know that I was being overly pessimistic, but for all that, there's a grain of truth in my feeling that (a) the working patterns I've been in for the past few years are hopelessly unsustainable, and (b) I don't really want them anyway: or, there are other things I want more. (Yes, those would be the impossible things.)

All this was exacerbated in a little chain of reading that started with having my retinas tickled a couple of days ago by the (sort-of) manifesto issued earlier in the year by The 95 Cent Skool, an upcoming poetry seminar in Oakland, California: which has proved somewhat contentious -- not, it seems, so much because of its content, but by dint of its being a hardline-sounding manifesto in the first place, and therefore appearing aggressive to those sensitive souls who don't like its tenor. For what it's worth, I really like the cut of its jib:

Our concerns . . . begin with the assumption that poetry has a role to play in the larger political and intellectual sphere of contemporary culture, and that any poetry which subtracts itself from such engagements is no longer of interest. “Social poetics” is not a settled category, and does not necessarily refer to poetry espousing a social vision. It simply assumes that the basis of poetry is not personal expression or the truth of any given individual, but shared social struggle.

It was a piece of cake to find myself in accord with these sentiments; but a clicky-chain of links led to a description -- quoted in her Wikipedia entry -- of the excellent Juliana Spahr, one of the convenors of the 95 Cent Skool, that slapped me a bit more rousingly upside my present woolly head: Spahr's work, says Kimberly Lamm, "distinguishes itself because she writes poems for which her critical work calls."

This is something which I've struggled with at least for as long as I've had this blog and, with it, a sort-of public space in which to make pronouncements about the tasks and commitments that might befit the attention of contemporary theatre artists. So often, there's been a palpable gulf between what I've made and what I've insisted "we" should now be making. I suspect that it's a bigger gulf to me than to most observers -- and sometimes I don't even notice when the work has hit its marks. (Only a kind text from the lovely and brilliant Alex Ferguson alerted me to the fact that Henry & Elizabeth, which I feared wasn't doing much radical work, had at least, in the event, resoundingly passed the Cat Test.) One instantly wants allowances made (for oneself, of course, not for all the other chumps) -- the opportunities to make what one really wants to make do not come along often, and, as Leo McGarry reminds us, "you gotta dance with the one who brung ya". But as even the opportunities to make work one is merely content to make as a way of just staying alive seem now to be dwindling, with money tightening everywhere and risk aversion clogging the sector's bloodstream, it feels absurd to be clinging to this predicament. I can no longer tell whether I'm the dead horse or the one flogging it, but neither role has much in it to cause one to spring out of bed in the morning.

So. I'm not going to say any more for now -- after all, it's as likely to come to nothing as it is to yield what I'd like it to yield -- but: I've been thinking pretty hard over the last three days, trying to build, bottom-up, a new model for getting done the kind of work that I'd like to get done. And next week, I'm going to start talking about that model to some people, and see if I can get them as excited as I am about what it might add up to. I hope it's neither overstatement nor needless titillation (as if such a thing were possible) to say that what I'm currently sketching this weekend is a set of working structures that I'm not aware of anyone else having used. I'm sure they have -- we're so bad at sharing and recording what we know -- but it feels like, forgive me, something of a paradigm shift. One useful part of this exercise has been about going back through a whole lot of previous work, the stuff that really did feel like it was doing important things -- ...SISTERS is figuring large, and Speed Death of the Radiant Child, and Homemade -- and also (perhaps surprisingly) The Big Room, which hardly anyone saw and half the participants hated. I realise, inter alia, how bad I've been at building from the stuff I've found out by doing these formally innovative pieces. I've been too eager to hop from one thing to the next without ever really debriefing myself. Now I go back and look at what's amassed, I think I know a bunch of stuff that, when you put it all together, actually adds up to a pretty distinctive language, which is vanguardist enough to be of potential academic interest (hint hint) but also really, really approachable to a large-enough audience.

Either that or I might just sit at my desk for the next forty years playing with this. (Don't worry, that's not a link to a picture of my penis.)

I should have said something in the above about seeing Slavoj Zizek on the South Bank on Monday, as part of the Literature Festival, but I'm not sure I have anything useful to say. Except, I guess:

Zizek is Zizek. No is buildings. Is tomatoes, huh? Is Zizek, is dancing, is music, is potatoes. So, Zizek is Zizek. Okay?

Hope that helped. See you all in (a) Cork, or (b) a while, whichever is the sooner.

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