Sunday, July 29, 2012

Of dragons and fears

There is no evidence that dragons ever existed.  But that has not stopped mythology dreaming up quite detailed images of such beasts. And perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this is that dragons appear in cultural traditions that do not seem to have had much to do with each other until recent times. There are dragons in Chinese culture as well as in the European. These two dragons also have close relatives in places like Japan and Korea.
According to Wikipedia, Chinese dragons date back as far as the 16th century BC. Likewise, the European Dragon is thought to have roots back to the ancient Greeks and and before then to the roots of Indo-European culture. But that does not explain how the same mythical beast appears in different cultures independently of each other.
At least one theory is that the Dragon is the creation of deep and universal, primal human fears. The revulsion that most people feel at the sight of the dragon’s reptilian fellow, the snake, seems to support this idea. The European unicorn, for example, does not seem to have an equivalent in other cultures, possibly because it is not an animal that arises from our fears. 
Perhaps the other most interesting feature of the dragons, is that this clearly impossible animal retain such fascination for more people. The word dragon still has opened and resounding association thousands of years after we stopped needing to be fearful of large reptiles.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Art that moves ...

Yesterday I saw Berlinde De Bruyckere's exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne. Titled We are all Flesh, the show is exceptionally moving and even subtly disconcerting. It left a much stronger impression on me than many more overtly and intentionally "disturbing" shows.

I left the show thinking that the art that gets past our intellectual sensors, emotional barriers and filters is often the art which resists the temptation to do just that. In a post-modern world in which to say that art attempts to shake our complacencies is a trite and cliched truism and in which work that goes out of its way to do do seems to be everywhere, this show was a welcome reminder that art that works primarily in its own terms is still often the best art.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Looking for a new Dutchman

At the Bayreuth Festival, Richard Wagner's operatic temple, a desperate search has begun to find a tenor who can sing the lead in the new production of the Flying Dutchman. The curtain goes up on 25 July and the original leading man has just walked out. Why?
The Russian tenor who was meant to sing the role and has been rehearsing for weeks, Evgeny Nikitin, has Nazi symbols - including a swastika - tattooed on his torso. "I was not aware of the level of irritation and offence these signs and symbols would cause in Bayreuth, particularly at the festival", he said to an Austrian newspaper. Nikitin added that he had the tattoos done in his youth when he sang with a heavy metal band. He was born in 1973, a long time after the fall of the Third Reich, but cultural and political memory is, quite rightly, long and showing no signs of fading.

The Bayreuth Festival is still run by Wagner's descendants and it had a particularly "brown" history during the Nazi era when Hitler, a great admirer of Wagner's music, was a regular guest. 
Clean-skin tenors looking for work should call the Festival quickly

Image: George Grie, Flying Dutchman, (2006)

Of openings then and now

Melbourne's Hamer Hall - the city's premier concert venue - has undergone a major refit, renovation and redesign to many of its public spaces. Its (re)-opening season is about to begin, almost exactly thirty years after the hall was opened as the Melbourne Concert Hall. Comparing the highlights of the 1982 opening season and those of the 2012 re-opening throws an interesting light on programming tastes then and now.

The first ever concert in the hall - one for the workers who built it and their families - featured singers Karen Knowles and Suzanne Steele, dancer Jackie Love (click on her name to see a video), the pianist Roger Woodward and the Melbourne Showband. The compere on the night was Jimmy Hannan. The foyer of the hall was also home to an exhibition celebrating the life of Dame Nellie Melba, one of Australia's most famous singers.

According to The Age newspaper the later official opening concert saw "streamers bur(y) the orchestra and a robot serve the guests nuts and bolts." But not everyone was happy. The music critic of the same paper (Kenneth Hince) wrote of the "outrageous fortune" suffered by the orchestral strings and asked "can we cure the sound and turn a major social asset into a decent concert hall?" Concerns about the hall's acoustics have long been a concern but the word is that the new fit out has finally fixed the problems.

In 1983 the London Symphony Orchestra made a visit with their conductor Claudio Abbado, in 2012 it is the turn of the Czech Philharmonic. In 1982 the first performance on the hall's concert organ was another of the highlights. As part of the 2012 renovation the organ was removed.

Features of the 2012 celebrations include performances by Phillip Glass, Shine pianist David Helfgott and concert performances by the Cape Town Opera. Rufus Wainwright is also on the bill along with Macy Gray and Nitin Sawhney.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Muzak misses

There are many features of life today that reinforce how powerless the individual is in the face of "marketing". But few are as annoying as the mindless omnipresence of Muzak. Why are we still being treated to nondescript wallpaper music? Why have most cafe and restaurant owners still not developed and appreciable musical taste or even common sense?

No, I am not saying my musical taste is the best and anyone who doesn't agree is a peasant. The people who think Muzak boosts sales need to realise that you can't play the same music day in, day out. What works on a Friday night in a club is not going to work early on the next morning. Saturday night fever needs different musical wallpaper from that required for a Sunday brunch.

Muzak seems to be here to stay. But is it to much to ask that it gets a bit more sophisticated?

Friday, July 20, 2012

The future of opera

Opera is a complex beast. It is an expensive artform. Many opera productions employ hundreds of artists and creatives. As a result most opera companies are heavily subsidised by public sources. This makes them easy targets for envious competitors who covet the apparently generous public investments in an artform that all too often seems inaccessible to the general public.

The companies themselves also slide all too easily into a vicious circle as they program the usual old favourites in the hope that this will fill auditoriums. The result can be safe, stale and predictable repertoire in dull and conservative productions. Yet there are many opera productions around that show how powerful the medium can be if adventurous and lesser known works are entrusted to intelligent and insightful stage directors.

Next year will see the first ever production of Wagner's complete Ring Cycle in Melbourne. But the cheapest ticket is $1000 for all four operas and it is only possible to book for all four. That is a pity. This is clearly not an option for anyone wanting to dip their toe into Wagner's landmark tetraology. This is opera that only confirms the old prejudices and does nothing for the artform's future.

Image: Giorgio Caoduro

Monday, January 30, 2012

Self-immolation in gold leaf

Pop music has been eating itself for the last few decades. The world of the visual arts is catching up quicker than you can read another curator's catalogue essay about the glory days of Vienna and the beginnings of modernism. The world's great galleries and museums never seem to tire of raking over the coals of the Klimt-Schiele-Hoffmann-Freud-Mahler complex in search of yet another way to present the ever-fascinating "beginnings of modernism".

The Austrian Belvedere Gallery in Vienna is the latest contributor to the all-too-familiar pantheon of exhibitions in the "fin de siècle Vienna" genre. Under the imaginative title "Klimt / Hoffmann, Pioneers of Modernism" the Belvedere is currently running an exhibition that yet again tries to breathe life into this old war horse.

This year is the 150th anniversary of Gustav Klimt's birth and no doubt the Belvedere is only one of numerous galleries around the world that will be cashing in on the event. There is certainly plenty of money to be made out of Klimt's big gold masterpieces. What a pity it is that there is so little new to be said about them.

Self-immolation in gold leaf promises to be the most appropriate title for much of the coming year on the international art exhibition circuit.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Poles apart

The other day I was an observer at a training seminar for people who want to be life coaches. One of the activities dealt with polarities in the language we use and the way we think. It began with a little brainstorming. Participants suggested a range of polarities - day/night, life/death, right/wrong, good/bad, love/hate, open/closed - and so on. You get the picture.

It was an interesting exercise and and soon there was a whiteboard full of polarities. Two things grabbed my attention. There is no doubt that a lot of human thinking works in polarities and extremes. But this is an example of the ways in which human thought and perception are divorced from the reality of the world outside our heads.

Reality consists of spectrums of phenomena rather than simple polarities. Where does day end and night begin? Love and hate are often close bedfellows (apathy is the true opposite pole of both). Only very rarely is anything totally good or entirely bad. Truth usually lies in the confusing middle ground and our penchant for thinking in polarities often represents a dangerous simplification.

That said, there is one essential polarity that is central to human perception and thinking: that between "I" and "you", between the internal and external worlds. Curiously this polarity did not occur to anyone in the brainstorming I observed. This is particularly interesting because it is the primal polarity and imbalances here can be at the root of so many other psychological problems. When we confuse our perceptions with external realities disaster can be the result and when we fail to reach a healthy amalgam - somewhere on one of those spectrums - between our own existence and that of those around us we all too often fall into an empty world of simple polarities.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mahagonny 2012

Tonight (24 January) the Vienna State Opera will perform the premiere of its new production of the Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht has never been performed at the Staatsoper before. It was first staged in Leipzig in 1930 and Nazi protests ensured that back then it had only four performances. The full opera was preceded by a smaller version, the Mahagonny Songspiel.

The new Vienna production promises to come quite close to the Brechtian ideal of epic theatre. The stage design and costumes have a strong surrealist element and reflect Brecht's desire for theatre to have a clear "distancing effect" on audiences. The famous Alabama Song is sung by Jenny Smith and a sextet of doll-like figures dressed in orange. In the pit Ingo Metzmacher promises to deliver a refined and intelligent reading of the score while the French director Jérôme Deschamps aims to remain close to the text.

I have never found that Mahagonny's more popular older sister - the Threepenny Opera - really achieved much in terms of social critique. The songs quickly became too popular for that and too often productions drift of it drift into a comfortable kind of kitsch. The new Vienna Mahagonny promises a more contemporary and thought-provoking experience.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Value and Price

A friend of mine has for more than five years followed a family rule by which he and his wife never mention the price of anything they purchase. Oscar Wilde said that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. So the idea behind the family's rule is to counteract the problem that Wilde describes.

How often do we come home to show our partners something we have bought and the first thing we tell them is the price? Why? Is a dress, a pair of shoes or a shirt that cost $25 better if it costs $125, or for that matter, if it costs $5?

If you cut price from your vocabulary for a while you will find that other qualities come to prominence. Soon you start to notice the colour, the cut or the material of a dress or shirt. The sensual aspect of the things we buy is revitalized.

Try it. Of course, it is a challenge that requires both parties to agree. While one agrees not to ask the price the other needs to agree not to brag about a particular "bargain" or about how much they paid. But it's worth it if the reward is a greater sense for the "value" Oscar Wilde so dearly missed and that seems to have all but been lost from contemporary society.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Messengers and mirrors

As seven European countries had their credit worthiness downgraded last week renewed calls went out for the creation of a European rating agency. The underlying thinking is that the negative ratings reflect some sort of Anglo-Saxon conspiracy to torpedo the good burghers of continental Europe. But also part of the mix is the old desire, if not quite to shoot the messenger, then at least to replace him with one bearing better news.

Meanwhile the mainstream news media is replete with warnings about GFC2.0. In Europe "crisis" is the word of the month and will probably become the word of the year. Yet this is a message we seem happy to wallow in.

What is it that keeps us hankering for negative stories from the mass media? It is the oldest rule in the book that you can't sell newspapers with good news stories. But too often we put the blame on this lamentable situation on the news media. In reality we get the media we deserve. The news media are a mirror that reflects our society back at us. Like any other successful service in a market economy, the news media makes money by satisfying demand and desires.

We are not the victims of the news media, we created the beast and continue to nourish it through our indiscriminate consumption of its output.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Glorious decadence

LunchIn a competitive environment complacency is one of the most dangerous states of mind to inhabit. Complacency befalls those who think themselves to be in the lead or close to it. And that is where it is, of course, most dangerous to the future prospects of those same leaders. If you are trying to catch someone ahead of you complacency is generally less of a problem - although, of course, those in second position cannot be complacent about those in third!

When you combine the temptations of history with the potential for complacency the mix can be toxic. Such is the situation in good old Europe these days. European public life is still suffused with the unshakeable belief that the continent is the fountainhead of all culture, education and wisdom. When a few years back the OECD's PISA international educational rankings showed that central European countries such as Germany, France and Austria were falling behind the educational attainment of kids in places such as South Korea, Finland, Singapore and Australia the shock was palpable. In some circles it even went as far as to questioning the measurement scheme itself, even though it was developed by an international organization with no overt national preferences. Shooting the messenger is always an option when the message is not the desired one.

Today it is the economy that should be the greatest concern for Europeans. But, here too, complacency remains the order of the day. Nowhere else do you see so clearly that the obsession with history and past achievements that prevails in too many parts of Europe can be a burden to those trying to manage the challenges of the present and those of the future. Is glorious decadence a European invention or did the Europeans just perfect it?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Modernism: art's suicide?

I was at an exhibition a few weeks back. The question the curator wanted to tackle was whether modernism had "murdered art". If so, it would, of course, be a case of suicide. After all, it was modernist artists who confronted their predecessors and, if the thesis is right, ushered in an Oedipal tearing down of earlier understandings of what art is.

The core of the curatorial position was that "Modern art ... opposed everything associated with representation and replaced it with reality." Central to the idea was the arrival of Marcel Duchamp's Ready Mades. Artists such as Duchamp, so the argument went, were no longer seeking to "represent" reality. Instead they were creating it.

The argument has its merits. But it misses the target in some subtle ways. In particular, it overlooks the ways in which the context in which art is experienced remove an object from "reality" and make it into art. When Duchamp displays a bicycle wheel or an upturned urinal in an art museum they do not have the same "reality" as such objects outside the museum. The museum denudes them of their previous "realities". A bicycle wheel in an art museum is not a bicycle wheel. Even if the artist has done very little to transform such a Ready Made, the context does the work and turns it into art. That is the social function of art institutions. Remnants of the original, intrinsic "reality" remain, but to view such Ready Mades as "reality" rather than "depictions" underplays the social and cultural function of the institutional in the arts