Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Tracey Emin and abortion

In 1990, Tracy Emin underwent a “botched” abortion of twins. It is this traumatic event that provides the centre of artistic gravity at the current Hayward Gallery retrospective of her work. She approaches the subject of this abortion with a range of different media: video, sculpture, letters, scratchy monoprints, appliqued blankets, watercolours and scraps of ephemera. These different expressions conjure up acute and oblique associations with the termination. Together, they provide an artistic time capsule cementing her memory of the abortion to the physical and psychological cost of having it.

There are objects of great tenderness and emotional power: an unfinished baby shawl, The first time I was pregnant I started to crochet the baby a shawl (1998-2004), and vitrines with neat displays of baby clothes and tiny shoes lovingly created for the human life she terminated. Such objects are vehicles through which Emin can grieve her action, capturing not only the loss of innocent life but, also, the loss of the experience of motherhood.

Emin is not emotionally neutral to the abortion, far from it. There is no sense that she views abortion as just one medical procedure among others or that she is promoting an ideological stance. Emin openly recognises the reality of her actions - that she has ended a human life – and the devastating consequences of doing so. One consequence was that Emin destroyed all her work and did nothing creative for over two years. The abortion creatively paralysed her. In this sense, Emin’s experience is not uncommon to that of many women who have undergone abortions. The raw details in Emin’s work eloquently express how her intentional destruction of an unborn human life inflicted deep psychic wounds on her soul.

And it is this notion of “the soul” that Emin returns to again and again. In Emin’s artistic vocabulary, “the soul” becomes a recurring leitmotif. The 2001 neon sculpture, You forgot to kiss my soul, speaks of desires that go beyond mere eroticism. Her 1994 journey across the United States, from San Francisco to New York, was famously punctuated with readings from her book “Explorations of the Soul”. Of course, it is impossible to establish what “the soul” means for Emin. Severed from any specific religious meaning, the idea drifts and collects secular accretions. Yet, it is clear that for Emin “the soul” is not a completely meaningless concept. It is an attempt, an albeit clumsy attempt, to articulate an interior reality that is unique to Man. An invisible core and unity within us that gives our lives a distinctive dimension.

In the well-known soap opera of Tracy Emin’s life (from Margate "slag" to establishment figure of the contemporary art scene), it is the work around the 1990 abortion that truly resonates. It is a sobering reminder that most women do not have abortions lightly. They do understand the destructive meaning of this action and they often struggle to deal with the consequences of it for many years to come.

Yet, what is absent from Emin’s work (as with much of the “popular” discussion surrounding abortion) is any attempt to provide a moral context. In her twenty minute video, How It Feels, Emin candidly describes her abortion but this is done as an almost entirely subjective, feeling based description. Valuable though that perspective may be, the idea that abortion may also be considered rationally from an ethical standpoint is ignored. Instead, Emin takes the default position: “Abortion has been sanctioned. It is a given” and this is enough to give it some form of moral credibility. There is no discussion of whether this act is morally wrong. Thus Emin concludes, “I would have been so much happier had I not had the abortions, but I truly believe that I would have been so much unhappier if I had had the children." And there the moral debate appears to end in her mind. Yet this hedonistic utilitarian response means she is forced to live with an uneasy tension. And such a tension inevitably leads to a perverse rationalisation of her actions:

When I first started becoming successful, I believed I was in a Faustian pact, and in return for my children's souls, I had been given my success. I am not a Catholic, but I have a profound belief in the soul. It's only now, now that I know that it will never bas filled with strange guilt and misunderstanding of myself. I felt that my abortions had somehow been possible for me to have children, that the guilt has finally lifted. I give a lot out into the world, and I care and love for all that I create. It's a really big endeavour that extends much further than just the ego of myself.

Such muddled, relativising thinking is not uncommon. Emin uses the prevalent consequentialist language of our age where “the ends justify the means”. And yet such language looks suspect before the stark challenge of tiny shoes carefully arranged in a simple, single line.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Body Fascism vs. Lucian Freud

The images that surround us of the human body are largely manufactured, photo-shopped assemblages. They cannot be trusted. They are counterfeit representations of what it means to be an enfleshed being.

The body fascists - those who wish to alter the body's meaning - have made it their mission to uncover every dissident blemish, stretch mark or fleshy ridge and airbrush them out of existence. Women’s bodies have become pornographic constructions. Part Lara Croft and part Barbie Doll. They bear no resemblance to anything that could be described as natural. And that’s the point, the natural is a thing repellent to modern sensibilities where the artificial has captured the imagination of a Nip/Tuck generation. Men’s bodies are also under the same reconstruction. It is the homoerotic body of the gym bunny on the cover of Men's Health magazine that men are to aspire to. A pumped, ripped, shredded physique that has little to do with masculinity and everything to do with a pathological narcissism, a flexing and posing in the mirror of our physical insecurities. In contemporary culture, the idea that we are flesh has become unacceptable. The human body has become a taboo.

Lucian Freud loved the human body. Not the fictions created by advertising agencies and pornographic websites, but the human body in all its fleshiness and rawness. Like all great artists, he wanted to destroy the taboos surrounding the human body. He wanted to represent our fleshy reality with all its fierce imperfections, astonishing proportions and weight, seductive originality. His paintings are works that reverence every natural expression of the flesh and that is why so many people (blinded by the cataracts of body fascism) find his work so disturbing and subversive. Freud’s paintings challenge every manufactured image around us. They bypass false images of the human body and show, in the most candid manner, the glory of human nakedness.

In Freud’s work, every brushstoke, colour combination and assertive line defines the contours and crevices of the human body. There is nothing tight and toned about Freud’s nudes. He is not afraid to show us the way human skin stretches and slips, in fact, he relishes the fact. He loves the sagging midriff, the flabby breast or moob, the slack backside. Training his clinical eye on the human body, he finds its infinite variations a source of aesthetic fascination.

The art critic, Michael Kimmelman has observed that Freud’s paintings and etchings are more than highly-achieved figurative representations but that they remind us of a profound truth, that we are “all vulnerable and sublime in our ordinariness”. The Aryan body physique represents a power and control that aims to rival nature and reinvent creation. It despises the human body in all its weakness and fragile beauty. Freud’s oeuvre places nature in all its ambiguity and strangeness at the very heart of his artistic enterprise. Nature is to be respected. The human form, nature’s most complete and original expression, is a thing which can only make us pause in silent wonder. Freud’s masterpieces remind us of this fact and will continue to do so for many generations to come.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A Separation

The Iranian film director, Asghar Farhadi’s film, A Separation, won the Golden Bear at Berlin this year. It is easy to see why. A messy, acrimonious divorce leads to a complex web of social, moral and religious dilemmas. The film is so morally nuanced that every finely calibrated glance or hesitation alters the audience’s perspective on the characters and what we understood about a particular situation. Moral ambiguities ratchet up the tension in the film. Farhadi is interested in the very nature of morality. He asks: "How do we measure morality, and on what basis can we say whether an action or decision is just or not? When I'm asked why I don't divide my characters into good and bad people, my answer is to ask what measurement I should use to divide them?"

The audience, far from being passive popcorn spectators, is cast as a jury who must acquire the wisdom of Solomon and try to determine some form of moral resolution. It is clear from the opening scene – a hearing between the warring husband and wife – that Farhadi is not going to patronise his audience with easy answers but make them work hard.

The marriage of a middle class couple, Nader and Simin, is falling apart. Simin wants to leave Iran with her husband and daughter, Termeh, but he refuses to do so. Nader’s main argument for staying is that they must look after his elderly father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. When Simin moves out, Nader is forced to make provision for his father’s care and he hires a working class woman, Razeih, to look after him while he is at work. In the opening half hour of the film, Farhadi sets up this complex web of combustible relationships. When he lights the touch paper, he ignites questions concerned with the nature of truth and lies, faith and reason, modernizing attitudes and those that wish to preserve the status quo, moral responses that are influenced by secular influences and those where a sense of sin prevails. In an interview, Farhadi says:

Yes, and there are even more divisions – between father and daughter, for instance. But the main separation – the most important in Iranian society – is that between the different classes. A lot of people in Iran today lean towards a modern way of life, yet there are those who are more traditionalist, who want to go back to a mythical olden day. For the middles classes it’s more to do with individual freedoms. Class is where the real struggle lies. It’s turning into a hidden war.

Such divisions in society and religion are familiar in the West. But A Separation never deteriorates into inert ideological positions. Farhadi refuses to take sides. Instead, he uses domestic, human trials to provide a window into the broader legal, theocratic and class structures of Iranian society. Farhadi is determined not to caricature Iranian society, to turn it into a cartoon Muslim state. For example, he makes clear that there is no homogeneous, simple response to Islam. The educated, Nader and Simin, are not devout. The carer, Razeih, is religious. When Nader’s father wets himself, her first response is to phone an imam for the correct religious response. Can she as a woman help clean the old man? What would the Koran permit in such a situation? How far can you go? And it is the Koran in the final scenes of the film that seals the fate of Nader, who is accused of murdering an unborn child.

A Separation is not an Iranian film, but a film about a marriage in meltdown and that is something that transcends cultures. Beautifully acted, A Separation has all the tension of an Alfred Hitchcock film and will leave you with sweaty palms. But it also has a penetrating intelligence that continually shifts moral expectations and makes you think deeply. Not many films do that these days. A Separation honours the audience by treating it as an intelligent community. That is what the very best cinema should and can do. A Separation does.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

London Road

The serial killing of five prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006 and the impact on the local community doesn’t sound the most promising material for a musical, but London Road at the National Theatre is one of the most original pieces of musical theatre you are ever likely to see. London Road is proof that a musical can be more than superficial entertainment, that it can deal with weighty, nuanced subject matter, such as, the meaning of community and the possibility of reconciliation.

In the programme note Alecky Blythe how she interviewed all those who had been affected by the murder of the prostitutes and used these verbatim interviews – with their every “um” and “hmmm” – as the basis of the work:

My first interviews from Ipswich were collected on 15 December 2006: five bodies had been found and no arrests had been made. The town was at the height of its fear. I had been gripped and appalled by the spiralling tragedies that were unravelling in Ipswich during that dark time...It was not what was mainly being reported in the media about the victims or the possible suspects that drew me to Ipswich, but the ripples it created in the wider community in the lives of those on the periphery.

However it was not until six months later on returning to Ipswich to gauge the temperature of the town post arrests but pre-trial, that I stumbled upon what was to me the most interesting development so far. A Neighbourhood Watch that had been set up at the time of the murders had organised a London Road in Bloom competition and the street could not have looked more different from when it had been under siege by the media scrum the winter before. ..Such was the impact of the terrible happenings in that area that the community had come together and set up a series of events, from gardening competitions to quiz nights, in order to try to heal itself.

In Rufus Norris’s brilliant production, this transformation occurs before your eyes as a tea urn produces a hanging basket and the stage blossoms with begonias, petunias, fuchsias and creates an oasis of suburban hope for the community. The composer, Adam Cork, has taken the verbatim testimonies and set them to music, retaining the conversational tics and hesitations that are found in the original recordings. What might have been a journalistic exercise – a conventional piece of docudrama – is taken by the music in a completely unexpected direction.

Simple phrases such as “Yeah, s’quite an umpleasant feeling, everyone is very, very nervous...erm...and very unsure of everything really”, or, “You automatically think it could be him” become the basis for choral singing and complex rounds that take on a hypnotic quality. The natural rhythms of conversation are given a new musical intensity that mirrors the intensity of feeling and emotion experienced by the community.

It is hard to describe the imaginative brilliance of this piece without it sounding like some sort of dodgy experimental theatre. It is experimental and it is theatre but it is very far from dodgy. London Road has one of the most talented and accomplished casts you are likely to see on the London stage at the present moment. This is a production with real imaginative flare and conviction. The subject matter and music gives voice to individuals as they explore the healing properties of living in community and a way of finding meaning and stability in the midst of chaos and violence.