Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Banksy and the street artists

Originally published in Radia magazine...

“I wouldn’t Banksy on it.”
(quote from Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop)

I won’t say that Banksy’s pop-up shop on
Berwick Street
was teeming with people breathing down each other’s necks on a Monday afternoon, but there was a steady in-flow of young women with slanting razor-cut fringes and trendy trainers, and bearded, bohemian arty types, despite the Winter Wonderland that is London this December. If you’ve had enough happy-sappy Marks and Spencer’s ads that are more an advertisement for Christmas than for clothes or food, and incessant reruns of the Nutcracker at every theatrical venue just make you want to scream, then street art may be just the right medicine.
This autumn, the pop-up shop featured works by Toulouse-born artist Dran, bringing with it the usual features of Banksy’s art: a dry, subversive, hand-on-the-crotch kind of humour, and beautiful, lonely characters that do what you’re thinking but are too afraid to say. The shop, called Marks and Stencils, was home to an exhibition of pictures, installations, postcards and objects and it was organized by Pictures on Walls, an independent collective, founded in 2001, of self-proclaimed “disaffected (meaning failed) young artists unimpressed by the art world’s obsession with pretentious waffle and warm wine.” Hmm, I don’t know about you, but I have nothing against a seasonal glass or two of glogg…
Earlier this year, rumour had it that one of the Turner prize judges, Andrew Nairne, had been heard to offer praise for Banksy’s art. He said he found it “twee” (he should watch Larkrise to Candleford if he finds Banksy twee) but also “funny” and “original.” Of course, it’s a long cry from praise to actual nomination, and as the spring-time nominations revealed, despite Banksy’s successful Bristol show and his self-deprecating film Exit Through the Gift Shop, there was no Banksy in the mix. But the question is, if ever nominated for the Turner prize, would Banksy still be Banksy? Would Banksy maintain his power to be the anonymous, dissident voice in British art, or would the art world appropriate him and make of him the prodigal son?   
There is nothing of the prodigal son about Dran, or at least, his characters. His pictures feature Scribouille, a homeless puppet who lives only for his art. Dran’s characters look forlorn and fragile, living on the margins of society, picking pockets or making art for a living – two careers that perhaps figure as one and the same in Dran’s caustic view of capitalist society. One picture, called Tame the Fear, is of a little girl offering sheaves of grass to a wooden horse suspended on a spring. Camouflage, a picture and an installation, oddly features a polar bear that looks like the sinister animal in the Birds Eye advert, that is always watching you to see if you’re eating the right kind of frozen peas. Unlike street artists such as UK-based Dan Baldwin, or the Graffiti Kings, whose art often looks like a hallucinogenic flashback with whirling stabs of colour, Dran’s art shows a person caught in a moment of discovery or longing.

Dran has been making art since 1995, and in that time he has published six books about his art, and featured his murals and pictures in many exhibitions – thereby becoming an oxymoron, a successful counter-culture artist. Dran calls his work “My Everyday Life,” the name given to the first of his exhibitions with Pictures on Walls. And as Pictures on Walls reveals, Dran’s work is not only his everyday life, it is something he does practically twenty-four hours a day. His pictures are oddly endearing, beautifully drawn, and full of wit. Street art or not, he is considered one of the most important artists of the century and he is being drawn from the margins and placed bang in the centre by galleries keen to capitalize on the growing celebrity of kooky, non-mainstream artists.
To get your regular dose of street art, pop-art, graffiti and counter-art, visit London’s non-mainstream galleries such as Elm Lesters Painting Rooms, Brick Lane Gallery, and Paintings on Walls in the new year, or just hang out in the East End and wait for a skinny, shifty, matted-hair guy or gal in a hoody to walk by with a spray can. 

Monday, 20 December 2010

I, Me, My Clothes

Red Lace Dress Covering Head, from 'Joan,' by Alexander McQueen

Check out my new article in Radia magazine, a cool new fashion and art magazine that - as it will tell you - combines beauty and brains.,-me,-my-clothes.html

"I, Me, My Clothes"
I don’t know if we have Foucault or Ugly Betty to thank for this, but the idea that clothes reveal our personal and social identities seems kind of obvious. What, then, would this exhibition have to say that was so original, I cogitated, as I walked through Burlington Arcade to the back entrance of the Royal Academy, past the quaint cashmere shops and the even more archaic city gentleman getting his shoes polished (Was I back in Victorian times? Would a ten-year-old chimney sweep try to steal my muff next?) Admittedly, some of the exhibits in this contemporary showcase of thirty artists are very forgettable, while others are more interesting to read about than look at. But a few striking images linger in your imagination.
Helen Storey’s Say Goodbye is a dress made of what look like slivers of black and white plastic, and trails of sea weed around the hem (think Corpse Bride…), suspended over a large glass bowl. Made of an enzyme-based material that dissolves over time in water, the dress is about creating eco-kind fashion, and a sustainable future. Of course, what could be a better excuse to go clothes shopping than a disappearing wardrobe? Then there is Susie MacMurray’s Widow that tells a story of overwhelming grief. It looks like a gothic-Christmas tree, with black, ticklish tinsel that cascades all the way from the waist to the hem, but appearances are deceptive. As you move closer, you see that what appear to be fluttery little spindles are actually pins stuck savagely in leather to create a rather morbid wedding-like gown. Wilkie Collins would have bundled his female protagonists into it before you could blink and say moonstone.
The exhibition has four themes: Storytelling, Building, Belonging and Confrontation, and Performance. It is a mix of exhibits that actually look like clothes (if you must be fashion-backward enough to want clothes that are wearable, well, then, there isn’t a lot of that), odd bits and pieces that look like meat hanging from a butcher’s block, people walking around in kaleidoscopic bubbles, and videos of performance art created around the world. Several of the pieces speak of national belonging, migration, travel, fragmentation, and unsettling. Like Sharif Waked’s Chic Point, which is a catwalk inspired by Palestinian men being body-searched at Israeli check-points. Damaged-looking men strut down the catwalk with holes cut in their clothing, and shirt collars embracing their navels, one of them ironically in a I Heart New York t-shirt, with the heart cut out.
A striking image is Hussein Chalayan’s ‘Son’ of Sonzai Suru. A mannequin in a flowing, flowery, filmy white dress stands surrounded by three sinister figures, dressed all in black, faces and heads covered in black hoods as they lift pieces of the mannequin’s clothing and leave her helpless. Inspired by Bunraku theatre, the exhibit is about the fashion industry as a manipulative and all-engulfing beast.
Keeping with the theme of body invasion, there is Yoko Ono’s famous Cut Piece, first performed in Japan in 1964, where she invited the audience to cut up her clothing. This piece is a Happening, started by the 1960’s avant garde, and is instigated by Ono’s one instructional verb: Cut. Audience members cut off her clothing until Ono is naked. In the video, Ono gradually takes on a look of existential sadness as her clothes are stripped from her body. The inspiration of the piece is the suffering experienced by artists. I admit I find a slight contradiction in it. Ono has, at other times in her life, spoken of the naked body as natural, instead of puerile or taboo, so, it is interesting that in this piece she uses the gradual stripping away of her outer layers to signify suffering.
The exhibition, more or less successfully, explores the expression of personal and social identity through clothes. But it is speaking more about what clothes reveal rather than what they hide and often misses the complexity of clothing, and therefore, of identity. While the exhibition explores what it would be like to wear our inner life on our shirtsleeves, it speaks less of the idea that often clothes can be used to blend in rather than stand out. Clothes have multiple significations. People use them to be anonymous, to hide behind, just as much as they use them to express their personality. Ah, wait a minute, getting your shoes polished in the market, wait, that wasn’t just about clean shoes, it was performative! Now I understand…

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

My Clothes and I

I was writing an article for Radia magazine on the exhibition Aware: Art Fashion Identity, showing at the Royal Academy of Art, and it made me think about the lies we tell with the clothes we wear.

The clothes in the exhibition tell tales of grief and loss, nationalism, migration, an artist's journey to make a piece of art, and the journey of a piece of clothing as it decays over time. Fewer exhibits, though, uncover the role of clothing in hiding, masking, disguising identity, in mingling with the crowd, in telling lies. We choose clothes not only to express and to stand out, but also to not stand out. When we want to be 'different,' we do it in tediously unoriginal ways, we choose out of the acceptably chic in-season options concocted by Vogue and marked down by Primark. We use clothing to hide cultural affiliations, class belonging, an expanding bottom, a disastrous trip to Supercuts, unshaved legs, one too many G and T's the previous night, the wrong accent, unwashed hair, evening plans or lack thereof, feelings of inadequacy, and a suntan gone horribly, horribly wrong...

Denim jeans have to be one of the biggest inventions of the post-industrial revolution era. And jeans hide a multitude of sins. When Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss first came out with denim jeans in 1873, I bet they weren't thinking that it would be the one article of clothing that would be worn by everyone from the future king and queen of England (I mean William and Kate, not Charles and Camilla, or David and Posh), to a drunken miner in Wales emerging from the local public house and staggering over to spend the night with the village sheep before they sacrifice their coat for angora, to little Ayesha performing a Bollywood recital for the Miss Asian-Leicester beauty pageant. I would even say, if I didn't mind sounding maudlin, that despite the gargantuan different in price between various labels, denim jeans must be the one consumer product that levels the playing field, homogenizes the classes. It's like the public house of the clothing world. It's the community-unifying national environmental disaster of the fashion arena. It's like football, or fish and chips, or Christmas.

One of the exhibits in Aware, called 100 Ways to Wear a Flag, by Alicia Framis, shows the Chinese flag worn in sixteen different ways, as a skirt, a toga, a sarong, a hat. I don't know about you, but to me no matter how many different ways you wear it, you can't escape it - it is still the Chinese flag. (I mean, you can make a McBurger look like food, but it's still a McBurger, right?) It may sometimes be about spectacular Olympic engineering, but the flag is also about coercion, colonialism, and brutal homogenization. 

Talking of colonialism and globalization, Yinka Shonibare's Little Rich Girls is a collection of dresses for girls, in traditional African colourful batik. The history and migration of batik, though, as Shonibare will remind you, is complex. While batik has a rich past in countries like Indonesia and India, history suggests that it was Dutch colonizers that contributed to the movement of batik from South Asia, through Europe where it didn't find enough of a market, all the way to the Yoruba in Nigeria. Who knew...
Gillian Wearing's Sixty Minute Silence is a video of what looks like a standard-issue group photograph of a police precinct. Bobbies stand and sit in dignified silence for a group picture, but gradually they start to fidget, scowl, yawn and scratch, revealing individual personalities.

We wear uniforms all the time, everyday - school uniforms, policeman's blues, doctor's coats, military fatigues, black suits worn by 99.9% of the people that get off at Canary Wharf in morning rush hour, goths, people in clubs doing their ninth tequila shot, Christmas shoppers with prams in their beige skirts and gray woollies, PTA mums, can-can dancers, MSN Lifestyle fashion-advice wearers... We make judgements of the 'right' kind of clothing to wear, and most of us who choose to live in society shudder in shame at the memory of turning up to the right event in the wrong gear (and wet dreams about carrying it off and being the ONLY person in the gig dressed EXACTLY right, thereby setting overnight fashion trends and making history).

Do we choose clothing that expresses our inner truth, or just stuff that says I'm normal and I'm not fat...?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

the thing about oslo...

Having spent two weeks in Oslo recently, performing and teaching dance workshops, I couldn't help but compare the city to London. Here are some points of comparison...

In Oslo, it takes twenty minutes to cycle from one end of the main city to another, not including the suburbs. The city is on the sea, and it takes twenty minutes on the tube to be out of the city and into pine forests and trails. In London, when the tubes are running on time (so, not that often) it takes an hour or two hours to get from anywhere to anywhere. It takes longer if you're driving in London traffic. When an Oslo local warned us that if we drove out at eight in the morning we would likely hit a lot of traffic, they meant that we would move at three-quarters of our usual speed. Not, as it would be in London, that we would come to a complete stand still and be able to pop in and out of our stationary car and do our grocery shopping and our manicures and our bikini waxes en route to the office. It has its advantages, does London traffic, and its best use is that when you are running anything from twenty minutes to three hours late for something you can run in looking dishevelled and panicky (but with a fresh Braizilian) and pant "traffic, traffic..." and people will look at you with sympathy instead of telling you that you are chronically incompetant. (I don't drive, but I've seen it work for others.)

The main city in Oslo has a population of about 500, 000 people. So, about the average of a London tube in rush hour? You don't see a whole lot of people out on the streets of Oslo at any time, except for any music event and in the local pub, and then people tend to throng there since, as a local informed me, drinking is the national pastime (wait, was I talking about Oslo there or London?) I did one time bump into a little boy in the tube who had seen us perform at his school. He kept glancing sideways at me for twenty minutes, then just as he was getting ready to jump out at his stop, he quickly turned to me and said, "Bollywood?" Is it on my face now, I thought?! But, no, he'd seen us perform.

A main in an Indian or Thai restaurant in Oslo costs approximately three or four times what it would in London. Grocery shopping costs a little bit more, too, but not nearly as much more. The portions tend to be smaller, though that could help explain why people in Oslo generally tend to look thinner and sportier than people in London. While women in London wouldn't be see dead without their six-inch heels, their dirty-teenager look full with ripped tights, black boots, and thick and runny eyeliner, women in Oslo tend to either be sporty-chic in their coordinated lycra ski-wear, or they wear lovely knitted skirts and ponchos and things. Very urban and colourful.

London is an older city, and walking through London you see as many bourgeoius, refurbished, very expensive Victorians as you do skanky council estates and run down streets lined with garbage. The main city in Oslo is full of colourful apartment buildings (pink, yellow, orange, chequered), and the city is very, very, super clean. Out in the suburbs there are wood-panelled houses, similar to the States.

You don't get brown goats cheese in London. Or at least, not quite as easily...On the other hand, you get barely any veggie food in Oslo, no veggie protein supplements, one veggie main in a restaurant if you're lucky, and it was next to impossible to track down hummus...

being local...

I knew I'd become more or less a local in Oslo when, after ten days of being there, I was sitting in a tube station at ten in the night and explaining with great panache the tube schedule to a local man. The thing is, the electronic notice board said 'Instituttet' next to the name of the tube that was due in five minutes. The same thing had happened the day before. Not knowing any Norwegian, except for the words for thank you (tak) and hi (hi), I was blissfully unaware that instututtet meant off or cancelled. Though being from London and inured to disruptions in the tube schedule - in fact, I expect them, and start to worry if things are running on time and are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing, I might have ignored such a message anyway. In any case, there I was sitting on a bench, dangling my legs back and forth, when a Norwegian man asked me if I knew anything about the next tube.

"What does instittutet mean?" I said.

"Cancelled," he said.

"Oh, that's okay," I said, with a gentle, and gently-amused, flick of the hand. "It said that yesterday, too, and the tube came anyway. In fact, they say that all the time, it doesn't mean anything."

Sure enough, the tube came five minutes later, and all was well, and I smugly got on it with a floating arabesque, feeling very good about myself and my knowledge of local trivialities.