Tuesday 22 November 2016

Review by Robert Richardson of “You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970” (exhibition at the V&A Museum, London, 10 September 2016 – 26 February 2017)

An entrance ticket for You Say You Want A Revolution?  includes the issuing of a headset and device that provide a soundtrack synced to the different rooms (and electronic wizardry means there is no need to press buttons). The soundtrack includes the spoken word, but it is mainly pop and rock music from the period. It is as much a part of the exhibition as the artefacts it complements. I think this is a good decision and preferable to having a section analysing music in a cold, detached way: it successfully communicates how music was pervasive during this time. For me, though, it failed to include some of the period’s strongest sounds, where is the edginess of MC5 and Captain Beefheart, and the challenging satire of The Mothers of Invention and The Fugs?

I thought the earlier parts of the exhibition were the most effective, because I suspect they draw more on the V&A’s own extensive holdings.  We are plunged back into a time when “Swinging London” was style central for the planet, and the fashions still look amazing. A small section on Twiggy, the working class “Queen of Mod,” shows her as the perfect model for styles soon adopted as street fashion, more brilliant and alive than anything Paris or Milan could muster. It was also the era of the peacock male, as celebrated in The Kinks song Dedicated Follower Of Fashion. Mick Jagger appeared on Ready, Steady, Go!, the greatest pop programme of the day, wearing a military tunic purchased at I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet (the original shop sign is in the exhibition), a boutique in Carnaby Street. By noon the next day all similar jackets had sold out. Before the internet and mobile phones, television on its own could create speedy trends.

When entering the rooms presenting war, social unrest and protest, the colours drain away and unsurprisingly the mood is sombre and disturbing. A mannequin has the uniform and shield of the feared CRS, the riot police de Gaulle, in 1968, ordered to suppress the student riots in Paris. They clubbed to the ground anyone in their way, not just students but tourists and journalists as well. Close by is footage of the equally ferocious American police clubbing demonstrators for black civil rights. These were violent times, and of course included the horrors of Vietnam. Later in the exhibition, we learn that towards the end of the decade B52s of the US airforce dropped bombs on North Vietnam in such vast quantities that the explosions were close in magnitude to nuclear weapons. I was uneasy about the cursory way the exhibition presented the war, but to be fair, with a wide-ranging agenda this is unavoidable, and of course it has to be there. The war cruelly informed the era, and reinforced a counterculture that both demonstrated against it and turned towards creating an “alternative society.”

I found the presentation on drugs and psychedelia to be the most disappointing section. There should have been more emphasis on cannabis use and the movement to legalise it. The highhanded, hypocritical judgements of those who happily used alcohol, a legal but arguably more destructive drug, are still resented to this day. LSD was legal in Britain until late 1966, and exhibition text states its role in expanding consciousness and a “revolution in the head,” but a video simulation of a 1960s light show (often a visual accompaniment to hallucinogens and psychedelic music) is quite simply lame. I suppose health and safety prevented an actual light show from taking place. The hippie drug culture should have been engaged with more thoroughly: there is for instance plenty of archive material on Timothy Leary that could have been used. Testimony on good and bad acid trips would have also been interesting. One positive aspect of this section is the relating of the psychedelic experience to eastern religions. While China under Mao adopted Marxism, hippies reversed the direction. There was a rejection of the hegemony of Western-centric systems of thought and the monotheistic religions with origins in the Middle East, and one of the most important reasons for this interest in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Zen was for some people these religions and philosophies matched insights gained from dropping acid.

San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love is referred to, but the exhibition underperforms by not giving enough space to it, the years immediately leading up to it and those that followed. San Francisco was by far the most important place for the counterculture. What happened there spread throughout the world, via the sensationalist mainstream media and the more enthusiastic underground press such as the International Times (IT) in London. Hippie ideals and alternatives were also communicated by the psychedelic music generated in San Francisco by bands such as Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and It’s a Beautiful Day, and the blues of Big Brother and The Holding Company and their singer, Janis Joplin. There were the Be-ins at Golden Gate Park, and the Diggers, modelling themselves on the movement of the same name in 17th century England. The San Francisco Diggers serviced hippiedom, and this included providing free food as both a necessity for those without money and a radical stand against consumerism. Where is the material giving prominence to these San Francisco phenomena?

The room dedicated to Woodstock is the most spectacular. Extracts from the film of the festival are shown on a big screen, and there are plenty of seats for watching the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish. Artefacts from that weekend abound, including some of the notes left on a particular tree: a rallying point for those who had lost their friends in the huge crowd: no text messages in those days!  The enduring sound of the festival is Jimi Hendrix’s version of The Star-Spangled Banner. His playing and use of feedback brought about a fierce musical reflection and condemnation of the violence of his country, both in Vietnam and at home.

The late 60s advanced the causes of feminism and gay rights, and also environmentalism, which is the subject of a strong final section. The hippie communes in America, some of which lasted into the 1970s, are mapped out. Taking responsibility for growing food and living generally in ways that cared for the planet, the communes were a practical response to an increasingly damaged environment. This was a concern of the counterculture that in a time of the climate change denying President Trump deserves a continuing emphasis.

This final section also mentions that Steve Jobs saw the closeness brought about by psychedelic drugs as a catalyst for the internet, and in 1995 Stuart Brand, who in the 60s founded the Whole Earth Catalog, stated that the derision the counterculture had for centralised authority became a philosophical foundation for the leaderless internet. These positions help to explain the quasi hippiedom of Silicon Valley.

I have taken issue with some aspects of this exhibition, but make no mistake there is wonderful material, and the lively exhibition design means that something of the late 60s zeitgeist is present, which is quite an achievement. There is often a pleasing dialogue between general information and specific objects: you can read about the interest in Indian music and see George Harrison’s sitar; you are informed about the origins of personal computing and then can look at the first computer mouse.

John Lennon sang this exhibition’s title, “You Say You Want A Revolution?”  and on display are the HAIR  PEACE; BED PEACE placards from John and Yoko’s 1969 Bed-Ins for Peace, their  “happening” in Amsterdam and use of fame to stage a protest. A few months later in Montreal, they recorded Give Peace A Chance. Let’s do that, shall we?

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He is a member of the Biennale Austria association of artists, and recently exhibited online with the Paris based Corridor Elephant publishing project. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Review by Simon Cole of "Welcome to Leicester," ed. Ambrose Musiyiwa and Emma Lee, and "Born to Run," by Bruce Springsteen

Home Thoughts From Abroad

Holiday reading is important to me. It has to be a conscious choice as the pile of books by the bedside gets bigger, and the time available to read them gets smaller. So a half term break saw two choices make the cut. Springsteen's Born To Run, and Welcome to Leicester: Poems about the City.

Springsteen has produced a magnificent rollicking read, as he heads from sleeping on the beach surrounded by all of his few possessions to mega stardom. Along the way he hasn't lost his sense of humour, of irony and of who he has lost along the way. His descriptions of his battles with himself and his depression are vivid and moving. 

Having engaged with The Boss, I turned my mind back to Leicester, taking myself very quickly from Asbury Park, N.J. To Spinney Hill Park, LE5. Early on in the Welcome to Leicester anthology Paul Lee recalls Spinney Hill Park, in 'her green lap', he recollects how

delighting feet sloshed through
The dew-slick flood of grass

I was hooked. I loved the evocations of places I knew as a child, and know now. The cinnamon scents washing over the Caribbean Festival, the colours and tastes of the Belgrave, THAT view of Old John from the top of London Road and late night in Granby Street. That is a scene that every police officer who has ever worked the night time economy would recognise as Julia Wood describes 'The cash-machine drunks on the pavement.'

There are two omnipresences throughout that are brought to life. The unblinking oversight of a dead King, and the inspiring tale of the fox that was an underdog. 'We've won the bloody football', writes Steve Wylie, 'while policemen laugh', before expressing guilt that he isn't exactly sure who one of the heroes adorning the lampposts in the city actually is! The sense of sport bringing together all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds is writ large throughout. It does capture what it felt like to be in Leicester as the impossible happened, as people danced in the street, as tears were shed, as Nessun Dorma rang out, and as one in four of the population headed for Victoria Park to sing and shout and cheer themselves hoarse. I suppose that as I write this I appear to have 'something in my eye'. The poems capture that feeling very emotively.

Overlooking all is one man. Whilst I would love that man to be the chief constable it is, of course, Richard the Third. 'A pile of bones, Both regal and diminished', a Plantagenet, a resident of York, a talisman, a commentator, a source of inspiration. In Charles G Lauder Jr's 'The City' he is the King hailed by the City one day, before his 'usurper' is festooned the next. Together with the bespectacled 'Italian alchemist' Ranieri as his Caesar, the miraculous discovery of the King in the car park runs as a driving force for a renaissance of civic pride.

For me the biggest theme is of belonging. Poets describe a search for a place to be home, where they can be themselves. Farhana Shaikh writes 'To Leicester Where We Belong', and of her grandparents arriving with just a single suitcase to their name. Some of the language and places of the past used in many poems reminded me of my own grandmother, Leicester born and bred. She would recognise the sounds of the market, the stories of those that make things, the chance to look out from the City into the county beyond. The image of Hui-Ling, Chen's 'Night Swans on the Grand Union Canal' would have resonated with her.

So what's not to like? Inevitably some of the writing grabbed me, and some didn't. In a collection of almost 100 poems and 150 pages that is unsurprising. I felt that some of the footnotes were a bit utilitarian and unnecessary; part of the joy of reading new things is finding out what is being alluded to for yourself.

What I loved most was the swirl of images and names that look like the place that I live and work in every day; the Diwali wheel, Idi Amin, The Big Issue, Windrush, suffragettes, hope, DNA, DMU, Attenborough, Watermead Park, the Haiku hike around Aylestone Meadows and even some policing. I especially loved the stately dance of Maria Ronner's 'On A Bus', as cultures meet, and the niqab and woolly hatted anorak find out a way to get along.

So, as I sat far away watching waves roll endlessly into a foreign beach, I found myself back in landlocked Leicester. Perhaps Browning should have written 'O, to be in Leicester' as he reflected on his home thoughts from abroad.

As Rob Gee shouts 'I am from Leicester, and I can do anything.' I have even got my own pen and paper, well... laptop... out and have started scribbling down some poems of my own, me ducks!


1. Welcome to Leicester is available from Dahlia Publishing: http://www.dahliapublishing.co.uk/2016/09/welcome-to-leicester/
2. See also, Kershia Field’s review of Welcome to Leicester, http://everybodysreviewing.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/review-by-kershia-field-of-welcome-to.html and Eliot John’s review of the anthology, http://everybodysreviewing.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/review-by-eliot-john-of-welcome-to.html
4. See also Ambrose Musiyiwa's blog post on the anthology, http://ambrosemusiyiwa.blogspot.co.uk/2016/09/new-poetry-anthology-celebrates-city-of.html

About the reviewer
Simon Cole QPM is Chief Constable of Leicestershire Police. 

Saturday 12 November 2016

Review by Robert Richardson of “Abstract Expressionism” (exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, 24 September 2016 – 2 January 2017)

When Picasso and Braque invented Cubism, it was the result of a consciously discussed approach, and their paintings during that period seem interchangeable. Exhibition text at the beginning of the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism notes significant differences between the work of individual artists.  How much, then, is it a movement? Is it more than an imposition of art historians and critics? Well, all art movements do not have to be as tightly formulated as Cubism. The impulses, establishment and continuing recognition of Abstract Expressionism point to something definite, and, post 1945, famously shifted the art world’s centre of gravity from Paris to New York. It is also well named, being concerned with abstract responses to subjective sensibilities and perceptions  (differentiating it from the figurative Expressionism of earlier in the century).
Exhibition text also provides a useful handle for getting some kind of grip on understanding individual artists. It refers to two broad categories. There are those who are gestural, with Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell good examples of bold and at times ferocious mark making; and others, notably Rothko, who chose to express themselves through areas of colour (sometimes labelled “colour field” artists).
It is an achievement of this exhibition that Jackson Pollock does not blot out the other artists while at the same time retaining his position as one of the supreme artists of the twentieth century, The curators have pulled off the spectacular coup of Pollock’s two largest paintings — Blue Poles (loaned from Australia) and Mural (commissioned in 1943 by Peggy Guggenheim for her Manhattan townhouse)— being hung on opposite walls of the same room. Pollock’s “action painting” was a revolutionary, rhythmic way of composing paintings. As with other Abstract Expressionists, what might seem random was actually deliberate, while simultaneously in the moment. His dripped paint was a journey measured by the dimensions of the canvas, but with a vast complexity of deviations. As we look at this work we embark on a perceptual journey of our own, and it is constantly surprising and fascinating.
In such a comprehensive show, there are usually winners and losers. Barnett Newman, as much a proto-Minimalist as an Abstract Expressionist, seems slightly diminished. The singular restraint and elegance of his vision are not well served when offset against the more muscular and dynamic work in other rooms. In contrast, Clyfford Still gains from a powerful selection. He was based on the West Coast, rather than New York, and many of Still’s paintings are now confined to a museum in Denver dedicated to his work. Showing in London has meant his reputation, already high, has been notched up. This is justified: his distinctive style, at times looking like torn paper on a monumental scale, is a combination of energy and contemplation. One of the exhibited paintings was completed in 1944, making it clear he was there at the start of the movement.
The Royal Academy has a track record of important exhibitions, but those, like this one, that can be more loftily described as historic are rare at any institution. I visited the Royal Academy’s Post-Impressionism in 1980, and left knowing I had seen one of the greatest London art exhibitions of the second half of the twentieth century. Abstract Expressionism has a similar status for the first half of the twenty-first: it is a once in a generation event. The work encompasses intensity and the sublime, and demands the commitment and perceptions of each viewer. Such an experience creates its own lasting reward.
About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He is a member of the Biennale Austria association of artists, and recently exhibited online with the Paris based Corridor Elephant publishing project. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

Thursday 3 November 2016

Review by Robert Richardson of “The Girl on the Train” (2016, film, directed by Tate Taylor)

Alfred Hitchcock in many of his psychological thrillers, a genre he made his own, was skilful in applying light and shade: the carefree or humorous is contrasted with the twisted and murderous. Unlike action movies in which murder is a throwaway item, Hitchcock, born and brought up a Catholic, gives its true weight as the ultimate crime both in terms of the law and an accompanying sense of it being a terrible reality.

The Girl on the Train aspires to be a contemporary film in the Hitchcock mould, but it is all shade and does not have the variety of moods Hitchcock achieved. Nevertheless, it is a competent piece of filmmaking. The director, Tate Taylor, presents quite an intricate structure, playing with lengthy flashbacks (supported by titles indicating the position in time of a sequence of scenes), while the plot maintains its coherence. When revealed, the murderer (and no spoilers here) is shown to have the authentic narcissism of the psychopath. If all this sounds somewhat hackneyed, there is enough individuality in some of the characters, and their backstories, to avoid the stereotypical.
As with Hitchcock, the soundtrack is used to ratchet up tension. It also has an eerie quality, and this creates a dream-like atmosphere, although it is the underbelly of the American Dream, making it, of course, a nightmare. A wealthy suburban neighbourhood includes male characters with a disturbing desire to manipulate and control women, emotionally and sexually, but, thankfully, the females can be assertive with their own deceits.

Hitchcock directed stars such as Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. It was a strategy that added an existing glamour to the mix. The Girl On The Train lacks this. In its place, though, are some solid performances. Emily Blunt is wonderful as Rachel, a very fragile and damaged person who conjures up some determination and strength.

I saw the film at my local cinema, and it was packed out. It is easy to see why The Girl on the Train is a word of mouth hit: it delivers a superior rendition of the thriller, and the nastiness lurking beneath respectability provides the enjoyment of an easy moral high ground. It is destined, I think, to be shown time and time again on satellite movie channels. The Girl on the Train is a good film, but I’m not sure that I would want to see it twice, whereas Hitchcock’s very best films keep calling me back. 

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London), and he has recently exhibited online with the Paris based Corridor Elephant publishing project. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York). In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany.