Friday, 19 February 2010

The English identity crisis and Jerusalem

The English. Two words that (a) make some people swell with Henry V pride (b) make others cringe and apologetic and (c) do both of the above. Why does the idea of Englishness produce such ambivalent responses? Perhaps it is because some would like to believe that Englishness is the Women's Institute (before the calendars); John Betjeman wandering in some church yard; the Lark Ascending; picnics, oak trees, Windermere; the BBC World Service. But this romantic construct has a shadow side: lairy lads squaring up to each other outside nightclubs. Pale girls standing in huddles, giggling and shivering, as they watch drunken punches being thrown. The wailing of police sirens. Vomit and ugliness on the streets. Is this the true identity of the English? Or, perhaps, the Lion heart of Albion is not to be found in Ye Olde English pubs or the epidemic of retail parks but beats in the darker, ancient soil of this green and pleasant land?

Jez Butterworth's new play, Jerusalem, opens with a young woman dressed like a bit-part fairy from A Midsummer Night's Dream singing, Jerusalem. She stands in front of the fire curtain which has been painted with a distressed image of the flag of St George (the action takes place on the 23 April: the Feast of St George). As she reaches the climax of the anthem ("...I will not cease from mental fight/ nor shall my sword sleep in my hand..."), her singing is drowned out by the drum 'n' bass of rave music; the flag lifts to reveal stoned youngsters dancing in a forest clearing. If you want to find the identity of the English then don't look to the Countryside Alliance but look at the rural slum-dwellers, the forest "trailer-trash" living on the margins of our towns. Welcome to the pastoral idyll of Byron Rooster, the Lord of Misrule.

Byron Rooster, once the West Country's own Evil Knievel, has become a middle-aged Pied Piper gathering the impressionable and disaffected with promises of "whizz, wangers and sick beats" and his surreal stories of an England populated by fairies, werewolves and demon hounds. The actor, Mark Rylance, plays Byron Rooster as part shaman-hermit, part feral-waster; a mixture of John Clare and Falstaff. This is a performance of immense psychological depth and nuance, perfectly pitched especially in the telling of his fabulous stories. There's the story of how Byron was once kidnapped by four Nigerian traffic wardens who forced him to watch a snooker semi-final. Escaping this torture, he met an English giant, the architect of Stonehenge, "just off the A14 outside Upavon. About half a mile from the Little Chef. I'd been up for three days and nights straight playing canasta with these old ladies in a retirement home outside Wootton Bassett...bled me white...three nights drinking straight Drambuie with nothing but Custard Creams to soak it up."

Using a modern idiom, Rooster channels the old English mythologies that have been largely lost to this culture: Wayland the Smith; Woden, the god of the slain; Thunor with his hammer of fire and his sacred groves; Frig, Balder and Ing. In his programme note, Paul Kingsworth writes:

But the myths of a nation are about more than gods; they are about the folk legends, the small stories, the culture that grows from season and place. In England this gives us, amongst others, the strange mystery of the green man, his foliate heard carved on churches over centuries...Who is he? If we once knew we have forgotten, like we have forgotten Jack the Green and the origins of Robin Hood; like we have forgotten Hereward the Wake and Eadric the Wild and Jack Cade; like we have forgotten...the story of the wind smith, the meaning of the white horses and the ballads of the sea.

In a secular age, is there any place for myths? Do they have any value? J.R.R. Tolkein (who tried to retrieve ancient English myths and re-present them in The Lord of the Rings and his other works) argued that myths could steer us towards powerful truths about ourselves. Although myths were created by humans, their unique, universal quality was evidence that they came from a hidden, profound reality beyond our conceptual grasp. Myths provided human beings with a creative way to approach the mystery of this reality by an indirect, veiled route. "In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology," wrote Tolkien's biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, "Tolkien had laid bare the center of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of The Simarillion."

For Tolkien, Jesus Christ was the reality that man was looking for. In the true myth of Jesus Christ, man's truest identity and destiny were revealed. Pagan myths provided fragmentary images of the Eternal Reality but in Christ, the true myth took flesh and the Triune God was revealed to humanity. Thus, Tolkein believed that, far from being an exercise in escapist fantasy, myths alone could begin to express the ultimate form of realism, the ground of our being.

Jez Butterworth's play does not attempt anything as ambitious as building a philosophy of myth, but it does relocate the idea of myth centre stage, reminding us of its importance. Butterworth argues that the English identity will only be discovered when we unearth the mythic hoard that has lain hidden in the landscape of the English psyche and allow it to stir up truths about what it means to be English and more importantly, what it means to be a person.

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth at the Apollo Theatre, London.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

A Prophet: "the new Scarface for the banlieues"?

Malik must kill or be killed. He slips a razor blade between his jaw and the flesh of his cheek. As he does so, you can hear the sound of steel scratch the enamel of his teeth. He tries to hold the blade in his mouth but starts to gag. He spits it out. He tries again. Fails. With greater care, he eases the blade into place. He holds it for a brief moment and then spits it into a basin, his teeth stained with blood. In this scene, performance, sharpness of editing and sound effects all fuse in the hands of the French director, Jacques Audiard, to create three minutes of pulse-racing claustrophobia and tension. With such unflinching attention to detail it's clear that A Prophet is no Shawshank Redemption. This is a prison film with all the Holywood gloss and consoling sentiment stripped bare to reveal the concrete and bars of a penal system gone rotten.

From the minister of justice to former inmates, A Prophet was widely praised for providing a grainy snapshot of the French prison system. But the film is more than just an accomplished piece of "social noir". A Prophet has existential ambitions. Through the main characters, it explores how we inhabit our actions and choices; how a person's moral identity is revealed in their actions. Who I am and how I act are intrinsically linked. And when our consciences are undeveloped, morally infantile or conditioned by vice, we struggle to act in ways that express the truth about our personal dignity and that of others. Our moral sense is dulled and we are left morally stunted. With these interests in mind, the immoral content of A Prophet exhibits a moral purpose.

The film opens with the nineteen year old Malik (the unknown Tahar Rahim giving a mesmerising, raw performance) beginning a six year prison sentence. In this brutal environment, his immediate moral horizons shrink. It is not only the prison walls that restrict the moral view, but the resident Corsican godfather who has both inmates and prison staff in his pay. However, other, unexpected horizons expand: Malik learns to read and write; to use his intelligence and charm; to understand that the power structures around him are maleable and based on fragile codes of loyalty and friendship.

Malik begins to play the system, using the prison market economy (with its currency of drugs and prostitution) and his Arabic origins to move between different ethnic camps within the prison. Slowly, he begins to acquire his own power base. Audiard is keen to emphasise that though Malik is influenced by the demoralised society around him, nonetheless his actions remain freely chosen and he is responsible for them. He becomes an unstoppable force of immorality, choosing deception over truth; violence over compassion; using those around him as a means rather than an end. Of his own making, he becomes the Lord of death and destruction.

But Audiard is not only interested in charting Malik's will-to-power. He captures Malik's interior life, his conscience, "the most secret core and sanctuary of man". Audiard achieves this by visualising Malik's "prophetic" premonitions and by his being haunted by his first victim, Reyeb, who exhales cigarette smoke from the razor blade slit in his throat. John Henry Newman pointed out that the noble name of conscience can be debased into "a liberty of self-will". Given the right conditions and a docile acceptance of such debasement, the conscience can be corrupted with ease and speed. Malik is an example of this.

A Prophet is a film of questions rather than answers. Audiard (who also wrote the screenplay) asks if it is possible for morality to survive when the social group or society we live in has become degraded? We can see what our actions achieve, but how do we judge what our actions mean? Are there ways in which we can protect the voice of conscience from the white noise of moral relativism? In a moral dark age, who can claim to be a prophet?

Friday, 12 February 2010

Alexander McQueen

I own and wear a Gieves & Hawkes black suit (bottom of the range, off the peg, bought in a January sale, but, hey, it's got the label). Following his time at Anderson and Shephard, Lee Alexander McQueen went to Gieves as a young apprentice. There he picked up a tailor's chalk and learnt to draw patterns; cut the finest cloths; sew and tailor. Every element of a suit from the finesse of a seam to the lie of a vent was executed with surgical precision. The skills McQueen learnt in Saville Row never left him. Even his most operatic creations were experiments in tailoring, albeit a provocative style of tailoring. His creation of startling and, at times, disturbing silhouettes were conceived in a Saville Row basement, bent over a workbench with a pair of scissors in his hand. When Lady Gaga appears in her video, Bad Romance, dressed like some alien mermaid fished from the ocean's depths, McQueen transforms the human form into something both recognisable and other worldly. In terms of fashion, this is a million miles away from the conservative environment of a tailors to the military but in terms of technique, the Paris catwalk and Saville Row were the intertwining strands in McQueen's creative DNA. His work though visually iconoclastic was rooted in technical discipline.

McQueen's clothes transgressed the conventions that kept fashion and art apart. This was most evident in his fashion shows where he condensed ideas and concepts into a chamber piece of performance art. In the Spring/Summer fashion show of 1999, a beautiful model wearing a huge, multi-layered white skirt stood on a bare stage which slowly began to rotate. On either side of her, two robotic arms began to dance and then, without warning, spray paint onto the skirt. It was as if the graffiti of the street had stormed the salons of the fashion world. In this theatrical gesture, the Stratford lad showed that he had the power to both create and destroy; to be simultaneously couturier and bovver boy. Part of the excitement that surrounded McQueen was that even in the most sophisticated circles he retained something of the delinquent vandal. Only he had the audacity to call a show Highland Rape, inspired by the Battle of Culloden or allow amputees and the obese to invade the catwalk.

His clothes climbed down off the catwalks and straight into the streets and council estates of our cities. The fashion for trousers and jeans that hang low across the buttocks, revealing a g-string or Calvin Klein band was lifted from McQueen's tailoring of trousers that dipped below the pelvic line. His bumsters inspired a whole new way of wearing trousers. The emaciated silhouette of skinny trousers that McQueen toyed with in his collections are now the de rigeur tight jeans and leggings that fill our high street shops. The Pagoda shoulders (1980's padded shoulders but on steroids this time round) that you see everywhere are McQueen's invention.

The ephemeral fascinated McQueen. Fashion, by definition, depends on the fleeting and the superficial. The beautiful blooms for a moment and captures the eye of a magazine editor or buyer, then it is gone. Karl Lagerfield remarked that, in his clothes, McQueen "always flirted with death. Who knows, perhaps, after flirting with death too often, death attracts you." Recent McQueen prints featured a gothic skull which can now be seen on every scarf and t-shirt worn by the young. It is impossible to say if, in a society where death is increasingly disguised and concealed, this was a fashion memento mori or whether it indicates McQueen's personal fascination with death.

But McQueen's importance will not be based on his preoccupation with mortality or the tragic nature of his own death. His importance will lie in the fact that he could take a roll of fabric and in his mind's eye, he could see how it might transform the human form: lengthen legs; broaden shoulders; pinch a waist. Combining this interior knowledge with his store of cultural references from history, religion and society made for new levels of creativity. McQueen understood that in societies where the visually crude and crass predominate, a garment of transforming beauty could still seduce us. Fashion, for a brief moment, could make us pause and wonder. His legacy is not death, but beauty.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Hip-hop, Catholicism and Chris Ofili

A common criticism levelled at contemporary artists is that they don't know how to paint. Chris Ofili certainly does. The current retrospective at Tate Britain presents him as the most painterly of painters. His works are all about the sensual layering of paint; the celebration of virtuouso technique; the fusing of colour and pattern that calls to mind the printed textiles of Nigeria, Ofili's ancestral home. Not content with exuberant brushwork, he decorates his works with an infectious rash of psychedelic ornamentation, a multi-coloured braille. Collaged magazine images and glitter fizz and spark. Images are sampled from popular black culture (the pimps, dealers and prostitutes of blaxploitation films) or religious iconography (the Virgin Mary, the Last Supper) and then mashed up on the canvas. And, somewhere, you will find the unmistakable signature of the artist: a lump of elephant dung elevated to the status of a modern totem. "[Using the dungballs is] a way of raising the paintings up from the ground," explains Ofili, "and giving them a feeling that they've come from the earth rather than simply being hung on a wall." In Ofili's hip-hop aesthetic the beautiful and the degrading, the sacred and profane, history and culture bump and grind to a sweaty rhythm.

In 1999 as part of the famous Charles Saatchi Sensation exhibition, Ofili exhibited his painting, The Holy Virgin Mary, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The then mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, issued a law suit against the museum and declared, "There's nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects!" It is fascinating to see this work in a less heated environment and without the white noise of controversy. By placing the The Holy Virgin Mary within Ofili's oeuvre, rather than isolating it, the painting can be approached with a less prejudicial attitude. Certainly, the work remains deeply unsettling and provocative but it's difficult to articulate why. Ofili takes opposing cultural and spiritual positions and allows them to collide. An African sensibility and black power politics clash with Western European representations of the Madonna; title and image clash; the holiness and purity of the Madonna clashes with the degraded images of women in pornography; black stereotypes clash with the liberal values of the art establishment; oil painting clashes with animal excrement. The painting is an assault on the viewer's expectations and provokes a reaction. One reaction was to see the painting as an act of blasphemy. However, the art critic, Waldemar Januszczak (initially sympathetic to that reaction) offers an alternative interpretation Sorry, Chris Ofili, I was talking dung - Times Online:
Ofili’s art, with its recurring religious tonality and ecstatically colourful surfaces, is in fact engaged in a battle for sanctity. Far from being deliberately offensive or trite, this exhilarating, excitable, energising art can be understood as an attempt to find spiritual meaning in a spiritless world. I am not saying Ofili is a monk. The kind of religious energy he taps is wild and irresponsible, ecstatic and confused. It’s Blake’s energy, not Raphael’s; St John of the Cross, not the Vicar of Dibley. The Holy Virgin Mary, I now read, was an attempt to understand what happens to the insoluble ancient mystery of the virgin birth when it runs into the modern image of womanhood promoted by Ofili’s beloved hip-hop culture. How can the traditional image of the Virgin Mary survive Snoop Dogg’s world of bitches and hos? What fruits are possible of such a meeting? It’s a ridiculously eccentric question, yet strangely pertinent. Ofili deserves the loudest applause for daring to ask it. That’s what he’s like. All through this show, in half a dozen rooms of spangled toing and froing between poignant ancient mysteries and manic disco rhythms, thoroughly beautiful artworks are asking thoroughly unusual questions of our thoroughly confused times.

Interesting though this take is, nothing about Ofili's work feels either Blakean or inspired by St John of the Cross. Using these figures to hang an argument about Ofili's "religous energy" feels contrived. Neverthless, Januszczak does remind us of the artist's sincere interest in religion (Ofili was raised a Catholic, served as an altar boy and had a Catholic education), not just as a source of iconography but as an important value in human discourse. And nowhere is this made more clear than at the stillpoint of the Ofili retrospective, The Upper Room, which is both an installation and a series of paintings.

You enter The Upper Room via a long dimly lit corridor which leads into a chapel like chamber. The viewer moves from a shadowy, confined space to an open one with shimmering paintings resting against the walls: six on each side and at the far end of the room, a single large canvas. Each of the twelve canvases around the walls contain the identical image of a monkey holding a cup based on a 1957 Andy Warhol drawing.

Yet each painting has its own distinctive colour scheme, so that it becomes an illuminated jewel in its own right. The chief monkey at the head of the room is painted in luxurious gold and sumptiously textured. Though conventional references to the Last Supper are removed from this work, their absence paradoxically heightens the religious associations and the memory of the sacred event is made real for a new, largely secular audience in an act of artistic anamnesis. Even in a world where transcendence is threatened, the religious imagination bleeds into the secular and transports us from restlessness to contemplation.

Chris Ofili, Tate Britain, 27 January - 16 May 2010