GO WEST: ELEPHANT WEST GALLERY WHITE CITY

EXHIBITION SPACE 

Lauded quarterly print and digital art journal Elephant has ambitiously ventured into the bricks and mortar trade, opening their own gallery space this past November in the rapidly developing area around the Westfield shopping complex in White City . The latest sweeping aspect to the neighbourhood’s £8 billion 10-year regeneration plan (following the refurbishment of the erstwhile BBC Television Centre into a court of luxury homes and public retail plaza, and the establishment of the Imperial College I-Hub collective, as well as a new media square that resonates with the area’s broadcast history), architects Liddicoat and Goldhill built around an existing petrol station, in the last few years used for a series of public art pop-ups, expanding the space to accommodate not only a mid-size gallery, but a workstation, cafe/bar and a few food stalls, purpose built for exhibitions as well as talks, music events and social networking. A new annual art prize, the Elephant x Griffin (this year with eleven shortlisted artists, all recent graduate students), has been established, the collected works now on display in the gallery’s second show. Creative director Robert Shore, espousing Elephant’s mission statement of “Life Through Art”, states his interest in curating work that gazes outward to the concerns of the wider world rather than introspectively (or onanistically) to the narrow concerns of the “art world”. Highlights of the current show include Catherine Howell’s unsettling alternative maps, bleeding resin onto the floor, borders obscured, referencing uncertain but determined migrations, traumas both physical and intellectual writ upon the canvas; Ramona Zoladek teases miraculous life out of hard plaster tubes and plastic bags, leaves and tendrils bursting out of ungenerously scaled and apportioned spaces, defying conditions, fragile but resourceful; Mariane Thoermer’s groovetastic wool rug creation is a psychedelicly crafted pair of eyes weeping lush tears, a tangled throw of thread gathered at its base;

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Louisa Stylianidi’s piping network of uncomfortably realistic ears tease the viewer near, whispering barely audible soundscapes, a tumble and jumble of incomprehension, truth and fact just out of reach; one of Kyung Hwa Shon’s pieces breaks free of the gallery parameters altogether, affixing riotously colourful jagged shards upon the facade of a building down the road, like intermittent rifts and warps into alternate realities-or playful incursions on staid urban environments. For those lacking the consumerist gene, for whom the idea of wandering around the mania of a shopping mall-no matter how aesthetically modernist or impressive-is anathema, here is now a civilised reason to alight at White City Tube Station, an oasis just a few steps to the right outside the door. Elephant x Griffin closed on 13 January

https://elephant.art/west/ 

 

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EMPTY SPACE: INTRONAUTS @ JACKSONS LANE

THEATRE/PERFORMANCE 

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At the risk of sounding wantonly churlish, this production from Green Ginger as part of London Mime Festival is such a catalog of careening, unfortunate conceptual and narrative errors that it very nearly exhausts any sense of goodwill towards its good intentions that an audience member may harbor. In the near future, people (privileged, perhaps, although the class structures underpinning the process are never made implicit) are able to purchase and have bodily inserted a miniaturised human worker, the intronaut of the title, to carry out essential maintenance tasks. The poor, exploited, overworked title character is cursed to spend her days mired in the dirty work, sent cavalierly to the distressed regions of the host, suffering the biological hostilities of the gullet, gut and anal passage (in the blunt opening sequence).

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The piece continually flirts with the intriguing premise that host and worker share similar profiles of isolation, frustration, boredom, a certain sadness just on the edge of crushing despondency, but this interesting idea is never properly developed (the host’s insomniac state, his inability to concentrate, prevents his worker from finding much rest between punishing chores). Fatally, the creators decide to embody the intronaut, who, in the performance by one of the company members, comes off as a stroppy, insufferable teenager, indulging in a protracted series of cringingly juvenile behaviour, in great and regrettable contrast to the powerfully poetic use of the puppet elsewhere, who with visual ease and elegance suggests the vulnerability, terror and fragility of the intronaut’s existence.

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The sophisticated visual production is leagues ahead of all other aspects (there is a great use of projections upon a scrim screen and a beautiful sequence of the brain materialised as a rounded cabinet, the drawers of which each hold an emotional memory or trigger) and you wish the creators had trusted this to carry the show and jettison the dialogue and the awkward performances (neither member is a gifted enough actor to lend proper nuance and depth to the central relationship). Perhaps the hush of gesture and behaviour, a mute communication, playing to the physical strengths of the artists, may have better emotionally defined the tender, unwieldy contours of the relationship.

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The brief textual transmissions between the two, the host hesitant, the intronaut speaking in a robotic childlike voice trying greatly to comprehend the increasingly desperate demands, provide some of the most effective and poignant moments, all the better for brevity. When the host requests a visit to his brain (a no-go zone for the intronaut for the dangers inherent) to research and “solve” his melancholy, the ethical dilemma is swiftly dispensed in favour of a great adventure, born of a stew of resentment, ennui and sudden empowerment, not exactly in the host’s best interest. In the end, the intronaut just wants to party, losing herself in a cerebral cavity, leaving her host (as in a clip from a Laurel and Hardy sketch he glumly watches at one point) in a perpetual lugubrious slapstick gestural loop. Intronauts ran from 11 Jan-13 Jan

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https://mimelondon.com/

SHAPE OF WATER: WALTHAMSTOW WETLANDS

PLACE OF INTEREST 

For years, Barnes has with unassailable prominence held the mantle of hosting London’s premier wetland centre-now a scrappy, ambitious E17 upstart is gunning for eminence in the city’s popular imagination. After a £10.6 (publicly funded) restoration of existing Victorian reservoirs, Walthamstow may now with great pride assert their claim to housing Europe’s largest urban wetland reserve, a sprawling 500-acre site with a 13-mile network of pathways, a beautifully restored engine house that offers a cafe, children’s centre and gift shop, and a viewing deck at the top of Grade 2-listed Italianate Coppermill Tower that affords a stunning widescreen optic kick of the surrounding grounds and Lea Valley. From its elevated platform, a guest may see a comprehensive cluster of London landmarks in close succession, from City skyscrapers, Canary Wharf, the Olympic Village development, even, most surprisingly, Ally Pally (and, at another vantage, for football fans, a distant-but impressive-view of the new Spurs stadium). The grounds are bisected by the fairly busy Ferry Lane/Forest Road exchange, so the solace and serenity of your visit may be momentarily shattered as you cross between the sections. For avid anglers and birders, opportunities abound, countless berths available from which to practice the passions; small islets provide sanctuary for a variety of birds throughout the year, and the environment is officially recognised as a breeding ground for the grey heron, cormorant, tufted duck and egret. Scattered throughout the space are engineering remnants of its past, including two majestic water gate towers that speak of Victorian solidity and style. In the atrium above the cafe (The Larder, serving hearty fare), the most incongruous element is found: a neon piece from legendary local business God’s Own Junkyard, a blinged-out glitter heart with a written greeting that would not look out of place at Studio 54. The period Ferry Boat Inn (now a pub, formerly a ferry house-there was once a bridge toll to pay), located on the main road, is another option for sating the appetite. Although I very much enjoyed my crisp winter walk amongst the wildlife, I await a return in the  gentler air of spring or summer for a more indulgent, less bracing idyll. The reservoirs are not merely cosmetic-they remain operational, supplying water to 3.5 million Londoners. Officially (and modestly) open since October 2017, this free public space (a parking fee applies should you drive) is a fairly secret gem that needs to be discovered. You needn’t have to travel to Surrey or Kent for a swift commune with the country air.

https://www.walthamstowwetlands.com/

TALK OF THE TOWN: EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE @ APOLLO THEATRE

THEATRE 

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Imagine the surprise, on careers day in class, when 16-year-old Jamie demonstratively, declaratively states his aspirations to become nothing short of the most fabulous drag queen to ever rise from the environs of Sheffield. To the great consternation and concern of his teacher Miss Hedges (at my performance portrayed by a  rather underpowered, uncertain Michelle Visage of Rupaul’s Drag Race) and his classmates, Jamie sets off on his inspiring journey to full expression, defying judgement, hostility and rejection.

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This feel-good  hit musical coasts along on the energy and goodwill of its cast and the skillful sensitivity of its musical score (most devastatingly in the second-act “He’s My Boy”, sung with raw soul by actress Rebecca McKinnis, acknowledging the great complexity of her love for her son, a bewildering mix of protectiveness and fear and anger and wonder and sadness-she emerges as the strongest and most poignant character of the show). The music and lyrics are a collaboration between Dan Gillespie Sells (of pop group The Feeling) and Tom MacRae, also responsible for the production’s script.

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Its intentions, rightly so for a West End show, are towards big celebration and euphoria, but (especially and admirably in the second act) real life is allowed to flower enough for brief engagement with the more sour and dark aspects of Jamie’s story, entrenched behavioural threats to his stability and sense of self for a moment throwing him off course. His relationship with his father, although left commendably unresolved, is the narrative that suffers the greatest from its broad parameters.

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With the assistance of a group of veteran drag queens down at the local club (who take Jamie under their fiercely watchful care) and former drag legend Loco Chanelle tenderly mentoring him in the finery of the profession (and the unequivocal support of his mom and “auntie” Ray), Jamie is given the solid foundation he needs to flourish. The unemphatic diversity on display in Jamie’s school is a laudable aspect to the production, a respectable reflection of the U.K. educational system (Jamie’s best friend, Pritti-a tender performance from Lucie Shorthouse-faces her own struggles against discrimination and prejudice as a young Muslim woman).

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Anyone who thinks Jamie’s intention to attend his prom in a dress and heels will not be realised (and that the school will not come to his defense, even the token school bully and censorious administration) has clearly never seen this type of musical bauble before, an effervescent and buoyant slice of optimism. The audience floats out of the theatre on a high of the best of human conduct.

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The only thing left tantalisingly absent is the scene of Jamie’s initial drag performance as his alter-ego Mimi Me-the first act rather frustratingly concludes just as he is to take the stage, leaving the audience to imagine myriad scenarios of (fabulous or fledgling) triumph. The show is based on a 2011 BBC3 documentary starring the real-life Jamie Campbell.  Everybody’s Talking About Jamie books through 28/2019

https://www.everybodystalkingaboutjamie.co.uk/

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SPACE TO BREATHE: WE LIVE IN AN OCEAN OF AIR @ SAATCHI GALLERY

EXHIBITION 

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Wedding state-of-the-art VR technology with a deep appreciation for the systems and networks of the natural world, with particular focus on the plant kingdom, this immersive experience from Marshmellow Laser Feast plunges the spectator straight into the neural pathways of a forest scene, thrillingly casting off corporeal form. Outfitted in the somewhat cumbersome accoutrements of the technical gear (headset, rucksack, wristbands, heart monitor!), every breath now expelled in a visible wash of blue microbes, fellow viewers reduced to vascular silhouettes that float around you, a majestic Sequoia tree (considered to be the greatest organism in existence) anchors the central area of attention.

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Throughout the 20-minute programme, you are encouraged (quite past the spectacle) to contemplate the human interaction with and connection to the essentially invisible but vital universe of nature, our dependence upon its magnificent processes and our often malignantly careless stewardship of its delicacy. Lifted out of our separate consciousness, now a buoyant gust of disembodied spirit, we inhabit a space where we are able to witness the abstract whirl and course of carbon dioxide and oxygen and feel as one with the respiration of the earth.

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With imperceptible ease, the viewer rises along the tree, past its crown, until the final moments pass as a pleasant hallucination of nakedly biological pulsations-you emerge from the session with a happy awareness of having been broken down into your basic chemical components. At £20 a session, though, it is quite a dear education.  We Live in an Ocean of Air continues at the Saatchi Gallery through 20 January 

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https://www.saatchigallery.com/art/salon_009.php

 

WADING IN OPTIMISM: DRIP @ BUSH THEATRE

THEATRE 

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Very sweet (and very slight), this one-man piece concerns teenage Liam’s attempt to win back the favour of his fellow outcast Caz after he spectacularly fails her by pulling out of a synchronised swimming performance at the last moment, thereby forfeiting their opportunity to participate in a school wide competition Caz is hoping to win (Liam, paralysed with fear, has neglected to reveal to Caz his complete lack of swimming skills).

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The play is arranged as Liam’s appearance at an assembly, the production’s stage manager serving double duty as a school administrator to whom Liam directs lighting and sound cues. Armed with an acoustic guitar, Liam narrates (and sings in a series of awkward, gently aching confessionals) the tale of his and Caz’s relationship, their kinship and mutual support against an otherwise hostile, ostracising world. Lest the audience’s attention begin to wander as Liam’s monologue unfurls, the character often engages directly with the crowd, canvassing our participation (at various stages handing out water guns, beach balls, bells and, in the climactic number, bunting-and enjoining the crowd into a singalong).

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An early request to have the audience don ponchos (which were handed out as you entered the theatre) so as to embody the pool water that inspires so much apprehension doesn’t quite have significant enough payoff in the moment. Much of the enjoyment and captivation of this hour-long show depends upon the sole performer, and Andrew Finnigan brings loads of geeky, earnest charm to the role, a tender yearning (every quiver of doubt and elation is felt), suggesting a slow build towards self-discovery and confidence. There is a love interest throughout (fellow schoolmate Josh), initially admired from afar, then brought into close alignment after coming to Liam’s aid, embroiling the two in an ambiguous relationship tinged with hope.

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Originally an entry at the Edinburgh Fringe (the work of Tom Wells and Matthew Robbins), this is content to be a modest trifle, never edging into darker territory or complication, optimistic that its characters will find their way out of tricky adolescence to healthy senses of self. Drip closed on 22 December

https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/event/drip/

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COLOUR ME KITSCH: RACHEL MACLEAN@ZABLUDOWICZ COLLECTION

EXHIBITION 

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Like her fellow contemporary video/film artists Ryan Trecartin and Ericka Beckman (both of whom have also exhibited at Zabludowicz), Maclean harnesses the aesthetics of online culture and reality television to investigate and deconstruct thorny present-day issues, the visual palette awash in gaudy, highly saturated colours, the material pushed into the realm of camp. The use of artifice is boldly engaged, a gesture that is ultimately both beneficial and detrimental to the effectiveness of the material-the performances aspire to baroque pantomime. The outrageousness may leaven the seriousness (making it more palatable to digest), but the shrill sentiment can grate over the course of each piece’s running time. In Spite Your Face, Maclean’s “Disney-on-crack” 2017 production, the fable of Pinocchio is darkly fed through the twisted portal of a post-truth, post-civilised universe in which corruption and lie-telling have become sanctified states, a lost world where the gasping grab for wealth and adoration are the only holy pilgrimage. The main character’s proboscis, that most vital of Pinocchio’s appendages, is the phallic locus of anxiety, power and violence. As the brand face for the new perfume of Untruth, he is surrounded by a grotesque menagerie of callous male monstrosities, lascivious in their corporate machinations and manipulations. The screen is set in portrait format, a response to the dimensions of the work’s original environment (the deconsecrated Chiesa Di Santa Caterina in Venice, where Maclean represented Scotland at the Biennale in 2017), which compatibly fits within this venue’s main hall (a former Methodist Chapel). In a continuous 37-minute loop, the characters exist perpetually in a cycle of florid ambition, deception and vice, fixed in patterns of lewd behaviour and rigid fate. Make Me Up is a viciously cheeky satire of authoritarian patriarchy and its comeuppance, in which a bevy of doll-like women lorded over by a controlling male figure who speaks in the stentorian tones of Kenneth Clarke (with actual dialogue from the 1969 tv series Civilisation, which effortlessly,eerily synchronises with the themes being explored, without any alterations) are tasked with a series of increasingly humiliating, degrading acts dictated by a sexist, narrow-minded mentality. Newly annointed dollies Siri and Alexa (!) lead a steady revolt against the constraints and smug manoeuvres of the male impresario (seeking the “glitch”which will release them) until a sudden tempest of self-awareness infects the group, a torrent of found audio recordings of a chorus of female celebrities and political leaders and academics recounting their theories of feminist agency placed in the characters’ mouths, a lipsynch fantasia.The women crescendo to a final group dance, no longer under the influence of a repressive male force, concluding with an exciting blast of aggro electro beats and assertive, independent movement. The film’s message is a bit dampened by the 45-minute length; it could have possibly had a greater resonance at half its running time. Most powerful is Maclean’s first VR piece, I’m Terribly Sorry, that most reserved of British phrases, a six-minute immersion in a woozy acid-jazz British landscape of undulating Big Ben teapots and keychains, red buses and solar-powered figurines of the Queen. Each participant is asked to take pictures of various mobile phone-faced characters (stand-ins for privileged urban dwellers) who approach you in the street, soliciting for funds, their explanations convoluted and subtly, menacingly demanding.

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After becoming suddenly implicated in a shocking incident, a phalanx of shadowy figures descend upon you, looming over your perspective, vulnerably crowding you in, to visit threat upon you. The comfort of distance has been wholly erased, the viewer plummeting straight into the heart of violent action and victim hood.

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Whereas the two films slightly overstay their welcome, leeching power in the process, this short, sharp meditation upon Brexit-era U.K. is haunted by cultural tensions, migrant crises, an elevation of apprehension and mistrust, inescapably engulfing and entangling the viewer.

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The museum’s rooms are dressed with vulgar plush carpets, lurid satin curtains, and beribboned pink-cushioned chairs, reflections of the wanton narratives spilling out onscreen. No doubt there is an abundance of slick energy and striking extravagance in these works, but exhaustion and impatience wore me out long before the  films’conclusions, both only fitfully engaging.  This exhibition closed on 16 December

https://www.zabludowiczcollection.com/exhibitions/view/rachel-maclean