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[photo by fairlybouyant @ flickr under creative commons]
at the tate yeserday, where i finally saw miroslaw balka's how it is, his installation in the turbine hall, a vast, dark steel container you enter by walking up a ramp then wander around inside. i was disappointed, to be honest. one of the main intentions (i assume he oversaw the accompanying explanatory text) is to profoundly disorient and unsettle the viewer by plunging them into complete darkness, which it does only very briefly. after a matter of seconds you can see the walls (just) and other people and, at any point, you can turn round and see the great rectangle of light where you entered (i actually found it more impressive from the outside, much as i find the millennium wheel more impressive from underneath).
i've read a number of enthusiastic reviews from critics who seem to agree with jonathan jones in the guardian who described the work as terrifying, awe-inspiring and thought-provoking. it embraces you with a velvet chill. which makes me wonder whether he has ever been in the countryside at night. i periodically stay in a part of Herefordshire where there is almost no ambient light at night. when there is cloud cover it is really, really dark. if you wander round outside it's a lot more terrifying, awe-inspiring and thought-provoking than a huge steel container on the south bank. Sometimes it scares the living crap out of me.
how it is kept reminding me of works by the boyle family and mike nelson, artists who recreate in the gallery, with creepy verisimilitude, environments you might find elsewhere. sure it's a surprise to find a pavement on a wall or a huge room filled sand. the change of context makes you think. a bit. but the displaced environment is always reduced in other respects. it's frozen in time. the light is static. the temperature is static. there's no wind, no smell. it's bounded. you can't roll around in it and climb over it and grab handfuls of it.
the world is rich and deep and fascinating. copying bits of it and putting them in a gallery seems rather pointless to me and on the wholeiI prefer artists who add something to the world.
oddly the other work which came to mind when i was walking around in the not-quite-dark was plight by joseph beuys which is - or at least was a few years ago -permanently installed in the centre pompidou: two rooms connected by a low doorway, containing a piano, a table and a thermometer, the walls lagged with thick rolls of heavy felt. beuys doesn't eliminate all sound - just as balka doesn't eliminate all light - but the way in which sounds are so effectively deadened, the way sounds seems to be sucked out of the air is - unlike balka's container - deeply unsettling.
this is doubtless connected to something i had never never really considered before (beuys’ work was more thought-provoking in memory than balka’s was when I was inside it), that we can easily experience the complete absence of light, but despite our regular references to silence, we never experience the complete absence of sound, for even in the quietest places we hear the breath going in and out and the tiny roar of the blood and that faint, high-pitched whine, hardly a noise at all, which sounds as if some nearby electrical object has been left on standby. which i guess it has.
from my inbox this morning:
'dear mr haddon,
we invite you to join 150 of britain's leading thinkers, doers, creators and catalysts for a very special evening in london on wednesday february 10th, 6.30-9.30pm. gathering at a location in central London, you will be joined by conservative leader david cameron presenting his first ever TED talk, an 18-minute idea worth spreading.'
it sounds like the shortest, most boring rave in history (i think i may have stolen that joke from an article in the guardian).
david cameron having a big idea? a big idea being delivered in 18 minutes? an idea worth spreading? i'm not sure whether it's margarine or manure which comes most quickly to mind.
in truth, i find it sad, because i had always harboured a warm feeling about TED ever since i watched dave eggers' inspirational 'once upon a school' presentation in 2008. how ironic that the organisation which provided a platform to help him broadcast this gloriously inclusive idea should become an elitist freemasonry.
i read this when it came out and it was clearly brilliant, but i'm now listening to it for the first time and i'm coming round to thinking it's a masterpiece, wholly authentic without being in the least antique. i'm struggling to think of any translations of long poems which come close. i keep rewinding and listening to passages because they're almost physically pleasureable.
obviously the poem is - and was - meant to be read aloud. and i could listen to seamus heaney reciting the phonebook to be honest. but i've always found that when a poet reads their work well i'm forced to consume the poetry slowly, at their own speed. consequently i appreciate things which slip under the eye when the book is in front of me (i never realised how good a poet paul farley was, for example, until i heard him read; though he'd recite the phonebook pretty well, too).
one bizarre thing. two words seemed out of place when i was listening to the first part of the poem. anathema and catastrophe, both of which are greek in origin. all the latinate words seem entirely at home alongside their germanic cousins. even gumption (an 18th cy scottish word, apparently, but one which has a jeevesian twenties ring to me) seemed appropriate in context. it must be something, i guess, about greek having always been an alien language in the british isles. though why it would take a 20th cy translation of a 10th cy poem set in denmark to throw the distinction into relief i have no idea...
why is there not a statue of this man on the fourth plinth...? i have just been listening to a backlog of podcasted editions of in our time (the samurai, the geological formation of britain, pythagoras, the silk road, sparta...). time and again a subject which seems unpromising in advance just comes alive. challenging, unpatronising, unashamedly intellectual, a little scruffy at the corners (i alway love hearing the chink of tea cups on the studio table).
the only sad thing is the lack of a full downloadable archive of previous programmes.
thinking about logicomix... perhaps my only criticism is that it perpetuates a myth that one finds more commonly in the arts, that engaging in these kinds of activities (especially ones as demanding and frustrating as the attempt to provide a sound logical foundation for mathematics) can drive its practitioners insane. i think the reverse is true, that whilst mathematics is obviously attractive to those who are good at it, it is also attractive to those people who find in its clarity and detachment a refuge from the complications and discomfort of being human, some of which will doubtless be psychiatric (i think the same is true of many writers, artists and composers who seek a similar refuge from the real world in a little universe of their own devising).