Sustainability themes were prevalent in this year’s installations (straight through to materials used), but the majority of the spectators gathered -in throngs on an early Saturday night-were predominantly engaged on the level of pure sensation. Lights whirled, flickered, sprayed, pulsed and coursed, set in and around the parks, plazas and squares of London’s concrete financial village. Liquid Sound in Cabot Square brought brash, unapologetic Las Vegas ostentatiousness to its choreographed fountain display; Affinity invited an audience to immersive itself in a neural network;
Stratum, with its grid of lights, conducted a symphonic conversation with viewers; the psychedelic forest of Sasha Trees (returning from last year’s programme) decorated a construction space with their hyperreal colours; Neon Tree and its nest of Chihuly-like squiggles pleasantly infested the body and limbs of a random tree in Canada Square Park;
the landscaped pools of Jubilee Park transformed into illuminated ball pits to the delight of kids (and more than a few adults), while nearby Squiggle unspooled like a river in tranquil undulation; Lactolight commanded Westferry Circus with its outsized circular wheel of light and sound array. The only piece not to work successfully was Sky on Earth which attempted to impart to a viewer the sensation of flying above a storm cloud (here mimicked by strobe lights and bubbles)-the space in which it was situated was too expansive and broad to be able to attain proper intimacy, and the way in which the crowd was marshalled through the experience was much too quick and rushed for any sort of meditative relation.
I will never quite understand the need to locate a selection of works indoors (a defeat of the purpose for an outdoor, after-hours lights festival), but much magic is made on a crisp January eve as you wander trails and paths to discover the next jolt of lit excitement. Canary Wharf Winter Lights ran through 25 January
Please visit Instagram for my video posts of this event
Under a canopy of microphones, like an omnipotent garden of confessional devices, an unscrupulous record producer and his new protege (a young female singer with whom he has collaborated on a wildly successful single) descend into rancour and antipathy over intellectual property rights and psychological abuse. Structured as a series of three simultaneous conversations-legal, therapeutic, personal, occasionally overlapping-the play explores, somewhat schematically, the nature of the artist (the ways in which narcissism shading off into sociopathy may be excused due to talent), deceptive legal manoeuvrings, the politics of ownership of a shared piece of work , the pressures and liabilities of partnership, venomous power dynamics cut along gender and generational lines.
Ben Chaplin is charismatically dissolute and grungy as the wholly self-absorbed producer, coasting on a nonchalant egomania that helplessly pulls otherwise smart, savvy people into its vortex, and Seana Kerslake is emotionally raw and wounded as the young artist experiencing her first professional betrayal (reeling still from her father’s early passing).
The other actors (the respective lawyers and therapists) unfortunately exist only as sounding boards and contrivances to pose the script’s conceptual inquiries, not allowed to exist much beyond the surface-if writer Joe Penhall had found a way to dramatise the issues solely as an assiduous byproduct of the argumentative, calloused relationship between the two leads, had them battle through their words and actions, the play would have really crackled and felt much more immediate, shaking off the rather stodgy approach, which continually interrupts the vigour with a lethargic, staid sense of the academic. Mood Music continues through 16 June
This original musical details the youth rebellion (and revolution) following the austerity and deprivation of World War II, whereupon the dark and damaged facade of Britain rose a new generation full of swagger and cool (the Teddys) with their own lexicon, their own rituals of wardrobe and behaviour-as in America, here was the start of the rock-‘n-roll era. Writer Tristan Bernays isn’t interested in presenting his material as a history lesson, instead revealing the parameters of this burgeoning lifestyle in the blooming love affair between the lead boy and girl, following them from their respective preparations for a night out on the town, their strategies for negotiating their way around disapproving parents, their troubled acquisitions of funds, their furtive movements around neighbourhoods where police prowl and enemies lay in wait and, finally, in a club where they first notice one another, revealing their mutual passion for the American teen idol Johnny Valentine, playing a secret gig at a grotty club in Elephant & Castle that very evening.
Molly Chesworth and George Parker work furiously in the lead roles, Chesworth all hard edges and grand detachment, Parker confident and cocksure, both vulnerable beneath the bluff (and each inhabiting a host of supporting characters skilfully). By the end of the show, both are drenched in sweat at the effort. From the moment an audience member walks into the space, Max Dorey’s set design is already registering, the whole of the theatre resembling a bombed-out area, full of detritus and crumbled material, dense fog lingering. A quartet of spirited and lively musicians, each with a distinct character arc, portray Johnny and his band, essentially playing an ongoing gig throughout the length of the play (a mix of original tunes in the style of the 50’s and a few standards).
Bernays has his lead characters speak in rhyming couplets much of the play, mostly in their private musings, which is a poetic device that doesn’t always work seamlessly (oftentimes it calls too much attention to itself), and there are a few unfortunate developments, the material trending darker as the play progresses, that aren’t in keeping with the generally upbeat nature of the majority of the show (the storylines feel ill-suited and inconsistent). There’s a curious punitive nature to the closing moments, a rather peevish adult confirmation of youth being abandoned to vice and criminality, their sum total of choices and conduct ruinous.
That the audience is asked to jump onstage following curtain call for a dance and jive with the musicians is a bit immodest considering where we have just left the protagonists. Teddy has now concluded its run
More grist for the mill of ephemerality, this four-room immersive installation just behind Liverpool Street station is meant as a warm bath for the senses, a pool into which the harried urbanite may wade for sensory comfort, but in fact seems designed mainly for photo possibilities for an Instagram or Snapchat account, the spaces too cramped and too cursory to achieve much resonance or dimension. I felt bad for doodler extraordinaire Rob Lowe, aka Supermundane, as the cumulative, possibly overwhelming geometrical effect of his black-and-white squiggles and patterns adorning every available surface of the initial room is thwarted by having the central entrance to the exhibition open straight into it (and, rather inconsiderately, placing a reception desk in one of its corners!). Organisers would have better served the work by constructing a vestibule through which you pass first, allowing for the room to achieve autonomy-as is, the public intrusion is a discredit. Through a side door, you enter the second room, an infinite volley of magnolia blossom trees and soft undulating lights greeting you (courtesy of mirrored reflections), a barely perceptible soundtrack of nature sounds underscoring the experience-a tranquil spot, but you’re not held for long. On my visit, the third room (across a hall), a motion activated space in which an individual’s gestures create motifs of colour and light on an accompanying screen, along with chosen musical soundtrack, was closed due to technological failure. A group of teenaged girls commandeered the fourth room, titled the Zen Studio, an assemblage of relaxation-provoking materials and furnishings such as soft carpeting, plush blankets, pastel hues, subdued hexagonal tiles, lavender scents and gentle sounds, and a dominant, focal bean-bag bed on which the girls vibrantly and vocally lounged, perhaps in defiance of the principles of restfulness on which the room was founded. Supermundane has provided the vivid and energetic outdoor mural (it spills out thrillingly around the plaza) which greets the visitor prior to proper entry. If you angle a frame correctly, the image will no doubt look stylish and impressive, leading friends and followers to fits of envy, but the authentic experience itself , the physical interaction, is pale and frustratingly superficial-but then again, it’s manufactured only as transitory whimsy. Sense of Space continues through 18 May; the on-site Art Bar offers drinks (craft beers, wine and pop) and vegan victuals.
From an unassuming window just off the corner of Old Compton Street and Greek Street, comfort food, Chinese-style, is being dispensed to the Soho masses, an offshoot hatch (framed in a pleasant salmon pink) from neighbouring restaurant Bun House. The dish is jian bing, a crepe-like item (also cousin to the burrito or traditional bap, according to founder Z He) that is the most popular street food on the avenues of China, a plethora of apertures pervading the central quarters feeding happy students and city workers. The process starts with what appears as a buckwheat base (actually a batter composed of ten essential grains) cooked on a copper griddle onto which an egg is broken and quickly added is cilantro, a sweet soy sauce and a dense dressing of fermented beans, sesame paste and peanut butter, finished off with (the truly innovative ingredient) crushed wonton chips, then folded over and placed in a signature paper bag and ready for takeaway and eating on the street as you stroll to your next destination. To the basic crepe (£6) may be added Iberico pork, miso chicken or cumin lamb (anywhere from a £1-£1.80 surcharge). On my visit, the preparation was painstaking (perhaps as a result of being the first customer, the griddles may have needed time to properly heat) and precise, which, if not course corrected as the day progresses, could lead to frustrating queues. I’m certain that the pace of the cooking quickens as the day goes on and the demand rises (and griddle temperature maximises). Legend has it that a chancellor was tasked with providing a regiment of soldiers who had all lost their woks with a nourishing meal and so had cooks concoct an easy and efficient recipe with simple ingredients, received by the army with such ardor that they quickly fought their way out of an ambush and into significant victory, strengthened and heartened by this culinary invention. The source of the “pleasant lady” moniker heralds from an approximation of the last character of He’s name. For this elegant, graceful stand, it works.
On the grounds of a rather ill-at-ease Hampshire farm (weathered, chipped, broken, worn-down land and furnishings), a family quietly but trenchantly succumbs to the depravities of grief, engendered by the death of the patriarchal figure and their inability to confront or process the information. All three surviving members (mother, son, daughter) suffer a state of suspension, enmeshed in personal (perhaps pathological, possibly misplaced) networks of duty, responsibility and expectation-it’s clear that the farm is no longer productive enough to provide monetarily for the household, yet stubbornly the family endures in its activities, lorded over, with formidable passive-aggressiveness, by Claire Skinner’s Jenny. A staggering (and monopolising) oil pipeline runs through the yard in designer Rae Smith’s haggard, arid set, a tremendous metaphorical symbol of the concessions the family has had to make to corporate interests and encroachments just to be able to remain afloat (the product of which son Ryan and friend Pete have begun to siphon off). Pete is both agent of hope (his rekindled relationship with daughter Lou offers a lifeline of escape and retreat) and victim (he shares a complicated, entangled past with this family, having spent a spell in prison for something for which he was not directly responsible, another character on stage moreso). Time has collapsed to such a degree that progression is practically non-existent, past and present and future troublingly crushed together. Jenny masterfully manipulates her children (playwright Barney Norris provides her with some awe-striking arias of blistering, near-comic cruelty), infantilising them into crippling destabilised psychological states, assured to never abandon her. A plaintive, minimalist music score registers each tremor of desolation and discord. The oppositions and conflicts between the family members is given effective emphasis in sharp triangular and circular patterns of blocking. Sion Daniel Young as Ryan registers the strongest of the ensemble, in some ways the most fragile and sensitive person on stage-open, wounded, passive, charting stars-not quite able to declare himself, paralysed by obligation; Ophelia Lovibond tremulously gathers force of resistance and courage in confronting her mother and the meaning and sense of their rural existence; Skinner, distorted and embittered, may not even recognise the ways in which disappointment and anger have shaped her into a form of monster (I only wish that Norris and Skinner had found a way to better suggest the transition of her character, Skinner never quite convincing that she ever was the sleeves-up, dirt-encrusted kind in the first place that she would hold the farm and its continuance in such sacred trust and esteem). The final moment bestows upon her a redemption, a confession which she is only able to speak to the wider cosmos (although witnessed by the ever watchful Ryan, who offers consolation). A muddied sound system rendered the very earliest dialogue difficult to comprehend, quickly remedied, but I wonder if, overall, the intimate structure of the relationships would be better served in a smaller space. Along with Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Peter Gill’s The York Realist, there is a real movement to push outside the urban centre into a mythic and pastoral realm, exploring the outer reaches of British identity, giving voice to the disaffected and the forgotten-nothing like a surprise in this anxious age of Brexit and political discontent, a crisis of cultural selfhood.
Twice now I have been burnt by the supposedly “immersive” installations constructed for this ground-floor space located on the O2 plaza just outside the North Greenwich tube stop (the first was the wildly overrated “Walala X Play”). Booking has been essential for both shows (free, through Eventbrite) due to “overwhelming demand”, yet both times I’ve attended, I’ve shared the floor with just a handful of people (leading me to believe that the organisers falsely and ingenuously seek to create a cult of success around the events, rather than letting popularity organically evolve from any intrinsic value and worth of the work itself, although weekends may see crowds gather). Ostensibly a lighthearted lab for the benefits of chromotherapy (as well as the healing and creative properties of light and sound), multi-hued polyhedral shapes fill the room, hanging from the ceiling in a slow twist of rotation, others anchored at ground level, allowing a spectator to submerge the head inside for a cathartic bath of light, a carpet of triangular patterns underfoot (transitioning randomly from the solid to the spongy). Using Rudolph Laban’s theory of wellbeing as inspiration (positing the body as being a composition of the aforementioned geometrical shape, in constant threat of disablement from environmental pressures), the exhibition is structured to take the individual outside the assailed quotidian, and allow for a moment of awareness, offering a chance to breathe and synchronise with the restorative vibrations of the body. All well and good, but sophistication eludes the piece, and rather reminded me of being in a corridor of a primary school-visiting late into its run, the floor was quite careworn and tatty, earphones were not working (preventing me from listening to Natureboy’s bespoke soundtrack for the exhibition, an essential aspect of the experience absent), and the distracting natural light spilling in from the windows defeated full engagement with the structures (a problem the previous show shared). On both occasions, write-ups for the exhibitions have led to fervid expectations, unable to be matched by the mechanics of the actual, real-time experience. No doubt I will be convinced again, in hopes of the one day when expectations and reality will converge gloriously. Harmonics in Space closed on 29 April
What first strikes the eye as you round into this subterranean space (which nicely complements the general themes of this first U.K. show from luminary Berlin-based artist Bisky) is the kick of colour, erratic slashes of red exploding around the works (courtesy of the artist himself in an ecstatic bit of freeform painting directly on the walls of the gallery)-signalling bloodshed, insurrection, anger- and the swirling, heaving, orgiastically energised colour pools emanating straight from the works themselves. Upon closer inspection, what at first may appear Edenic, a bacchanalian carousel of free agency and liberation, is worried by miasmatic blots of paint, troubling erasures and absences, unsteady movement (equilibrium is lost), queasy images of enforced closure and abuse-a concern just outside the canvas seems determined to unleash contaminants onto the subjects, disrupt the Utopian ideal. The figures are on the verge of being torn apart, coming undone. People plummet, fireballs rain down, chaos reigns-truly these are works for tumultuous times, of great uncertainties, the world of Brexit, Trump, Syria, warlords, racial unrest, homophobia, sexual inequality, ethnic cleansing, the daily assaults of 24-hour newsfeeds and social media. As gloriously queer as these works are, they are able to hold all of these sensibilities. Bisky grew up in communist Germany (his father a highly ranked official, once the director of the Konrad Wolf film academy in Potsdam, later chair of the Party of Democratic Socialism, successor to the East German communist party; his mother was a prominent cultural sociologist who also held an esteemed and prominent position within the party), so his style may be seen as a response to spending much of his life under the pressures of an oppressive regime-indeed, many critics trace the link of state-sponsored imagery (some would say fascist) of glorified youth, in all their opulent physical splendour, prevalent in socialist art, to Bisky’s vigorous studies of engaged groups of men (with homoerotic subtext now entirely teased out into the fore). Yet his characters are affronted by various exterior forces, social, political, cultural, that seek to vanquish their identity, their activity, destroy an inclination seen as a rebuke to normative standards-yet the colour, at least in these works, resists annihilation. A frequent subject is Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch anarchist sentenced to death for his involvement in setting the Reichstag ablaze in 1933, a protest against unfair conditions for working-class labourers, an act meant to foment positive change, but now acknowledged by the majority of historians as being instrumental in the rise and ascendency of the Nazi regime. In him, Bisky recognises the romantic impulse, a quixotic and illusory gesture, meant to fail-but he appreciates and respects the purposeful, determined desire. In one instance, he drowns van der Lubbe in an overlay of colour, small speckled universes caressing him, claiming him from a background fray. We’d like to smugly think that matters have moved on, progress has been made, evolution has awoken, but, as Bisky reveals, much viciousness and discord remains, cleverly concealed and masked, but churning underneath, attempting to insidiously extinguish. Anomie runs through 19 May