Sunday, 20 February 2011

Seductive "High" Society, Wellcome Trust

Read full article on Writing Raw literary magazine.
Doctor and Mrs Syntax with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas, T Rowlandson after W. Combe,Wellcome Library

The words “opium den” may conjure visions of backpacking across Thailand, or, for the more literary-minded, the first scene of Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, where choirmaster John Jasper buries his savagely repressed feelings in a London opium den. Opium has not only inspired literary texts (think Georgette Heyer’s delicate damsels who are in constant need of revival through a laudanum tincture), but it has also started wars and destroyed empires. As the Wellcome Collection reminds us, it was the East India Company’s export of opium to China in the nineteenth century, in exchange for silk, tea and porcelain, that led to the Opium Wars.

'Allenbury's' throat pastilles, Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain

“High” Society is a collection of paintings, original manuscripts, objects, machines and videos that is simultaneously seductive, poignant and amusing. While a complex chart spells out the dangers of drug abuse, and tells us that the US has spent $2500billion on its War on Drugs in the last forty years, a series of haunting black-and-white photographs by Tracy Moffat shows us the relationship between a sinister maid, and her mistress who is hooked on laudanum. The mistress, in the grip of an overwhelming hunger, lolls naked on her bed, as her maid feeds her habit. While not as decadent or lascivious as Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bottles that depicts his favourite muse Lizzie Siddal as a mere charcoal sketch in the background of the opium addiction that led to her death, Moffat’s stark pictures capture the tragic eroticism of being in the grip of a beast that is in the end all-consuming and much bigger than you.

The Bazaar of Constantinople, J.F. Lewis, Wellcome Library

Then there is “Drawing produced under the influence of hashish,” an eccentric ink-on-paper rendition by Jean-Martin Charcot from 1853, where strange figures that could be Jesus or the Pied Piper, walk across the page, while dancers with extensive plumage and tight skirts cavort with strangers. LSD blotters give us an exotic scene of a Japanese woman sitting next to a lantern, absorbed in her reading, and another of a Kama Sutra-like couple sharing a coy moment. These blotters are printed over a sheet of small perforated squares, and look like whimsical pictures on an Asian fan, but are, in fact, vehicles for the illicit production of LSD.
There are also artefacts of anti-drug movements. While a nineteenth-century Chinese pamphlet warns of the dangers of opium, fifty years later in Chicago, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union parades down the street with placards that read “Drinkers not drys make the gangster.” A nineteenth-century English flyer entices men to join High Shot House in Twickenham. “Established (in 1886) for the treatment of gentlemen suffering from Inebriety, the Morphis Habit and the Abuse of Drugs,” the Priory-like premises boast of “roomy and comfortable” accommodation, a recreation room with a billiard table, walks to Kew Gardens and Richmond Park, and all the “usual appointments.” The entrance fee is £1 1s, with additional weekly charges for a minimum of a thirteen-week stay.
Beware that you could spend hours trawling through this enchanting and very well-researched exhibition.
High Society
Wellcome Collection
Till February 27th
Read my review on London Festival Fringe

Read review in The Playground soon.


Illustrating Fashion

A Life of Its Own
(A shorter version first published as The Craft of Clothes on
When I go to an exhibition I want to feel sick with anxiety. I want to be rushed, ogle-eyed, and overtaken by the fear that no matter how many times I run frenetically around the space, I’ll never get to see all of its wonders. I want to worry about the possibility that while I’m staring in perplexity at the wonders of poodle-grooming, I’ll miss the heart-rending talk of a transgender prostitute from Harlem. What I don’t want is to walk into a gallery, turn three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, pirouette half-heartedly into the far left corner, and know that I’ve seen all that the gala has to offer.
So, in that sense, The Art of Fashion, a little pop-up concept show running during London Fashion Week, was not exactly the heady culmination of my dreams. It felt a little like a child who has been sent to his nursery to play tea-party with his imaginary friends while his parents throw an extravagant ball and banquet featuring Beau Brummel.
Though I must stop and ask myself, am I turning into one of those quantity-over-quality people? Am I, horror of horrors, becoming a size-ist?! As Hannah Montana might say, O.M.G! The miniscule exhibition of quirky fashion illustrations that are objet d’art in their own right is housed in the basement of London’s Fashion Capital on Seymour Street, a lush tucked-away boutique that features emerging British designers. When I walked into the shop, I was outnumbered three-to-one by shop managers, but, despite being size-challenged, the exhibition featured eye-catching illustrations.
Chelsea Art School graduate Emma Cowlam’s hand-stitched fashion illustrations are intricate, delicate and, at the same time, full of character. She manages to imbue black thread stretched across white paper with attitude, pizzazz and movement. Each drawing looks as if it has almost too much energy. The black thread fizzes across the paper, and sprouts bursts of life in what often teeters on the edge of being too much detail, but what, in fact, seems to imbue the drawings with personality. A woman in a trench-coat and head scarf, a librarian that teeters between the trendy and the cautious, a student whose frenzied head gear displays her absolute tiredness with theory, are some of Cowlam’s pictures. Cowlam has recently exhibited in the craft shop Homemade London, and been published in Elle magazine.
Another exhibitor, Spiros Halaris, a student at the London College of Fashion, works with hand-drawn and digitally-crafted images. His designs that mix the monochromatic with sharp outbursts of pigmented colour display urban chic. A long-haired young man with sad eyes, wearing kooky brick-red coat tails, and ghetto trousers, a robotic mime artist bent sideways, a woman in a black smudge of an evening gown, walking to a red-carpet night, ambivalent about the accolades – the illustrations are a more dynamic and skilful, but perhaps less edgy, version of another illustrator, Bridget Davies’s portraits (not featured in this exhibition), which she compares to the fashion images of the first half of the twentieth century. Halaris’s illustrations have featured around the world, most recently at the Barbican, and in many design books and magazines. His clients range from prosaic computer and business magazines to Topshop.
Then you have graphic art from a collaboration between fashion designer Afira and fetish artist Sardax. Dark Daze, a collection made of crime-noir comic-strip like images, depicts female power, and the play between strength and submission, where strength teeters on the borders of aggression, and submission is really a seizing of control. Afira says that in this collection she hopes that people will see women “experimenting with, enjoying and flaunting their sexual power.” Amen.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, fashion illustration was a popular way to communicate new fashions to young ladies of fashion. Women living in the country could goggle at London fashions in periodicals like Fashion, and Londoners could in turn gawk at what the New Woman was wearing in the United States in Godey’s Lady’s Fashion, and what Parisian couturiers were dishing out to the ton in periodicals like Costume Parisien. Older fashion plates were hand painted and tinted, though colour lithographs became popular towards the end of the nineteenth century. Though they started with illustrations of women in enticing costumes, tower-high headgear, and unlikely positions, fashion plates graduated to a complete mise en scene, with group scenes, elaborate scenery, and everyday or exotic locations. Fashion plates and early photographs were printed and circulated in magazines and periodicals, though, often, dancers like fin de siecle dancer Lois Fuller, coy actresses like Alice Russon, and Camille Clifford with her glamorous hour-glass figure, were featured on cigarette cases and postcards. Between the two world wars, fashion photography quickly eclipsed the use of fashion plates.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Laminated Dreams

A Bear, an Umbrella, and a Sticky Ex-Girlfriend
There is nothing more seductive than the idea that you can reinvent yourself. That you can throw off the leashes of the past, do away with crippling insecurities and wounded hope, and emerge a whole new you. Psychotherapists make a living out of the belief that happiness lies at the end of the next therapy session, while Lady Gaga, who looks more like a Dr. Who pastiche everyday, has turned the art of reinvention into an evolutionary imperative. The rest of us, meanwhile, colour our roots purple, listen fervidly to the interpretation of our personality offered by Cosmo, and visit life coaches to figure out who we could be if we could only escape who we are now.
If you aren’t a blonde pop-sensation, however, turning into a new you as you sit in the loo every morning and contemplate the meaning of life may not be quite so simple. The status quo holds a fatal charm, and as Marge Simpson would say, “I’ve dug myself into a happy little rut here, and I’m not about to hoist myself out of it.” In Laminated (produced by Lincoln-based theatre company Shooting Fish), Charlie, a flailing young writer played by Johnny Vivash, sits amidst the detritus of his life, packing away the ghosts that haunt him, in cardboard boxes that refuse to remain shut. If he can but escape the cold and critical voice of his mother, his clingy ex-girlfriend Katie, and the pompous publisher who knows nothing of literature and has asked him to turn his life’s work – his masterpiece, no less – into a children’s book, then maybe he can outrun his past and find the success that eludes him. Or – and this is his greatest fear – will trying to fly only prove him to be devastatingly average?
Old conversations repeat in Charlie’s head. His mother, as represented by a retro seventies dress in a faux-Japanese print, tells him in no uncertain terms that he is “not a writer, he writes – a small, but important, difference.” Frigid and unable to love, she is a poor substitute for his father who died when he was a child. All that remains of his father now is a hat stand, a blue mackintosh, and a muddle of contradictory memories.
Then there is Katie (Emily Bignell), his ex-girlfriend, who he met on a pier a long time ago, and who commits the crowning offence of loving him too much. Her cloying hands and her cream-cheese voice follow him everywhere and tattoo his failings as a lover into his brain, where they sit in judgment next to his failure as a writer. Does Katie need him too much, or is she in fact the woman that he desperately wants not to love?
Wracked by obsessive guilt and narcissistic self-doubt, Charlie’s only real source of support is his persevering teddy bear. Hobbes to Charlie’s Calvin, teddy sets out on a journey of self-discovery to reclaim Charlie’s soul. He climbs a steep mountain, braves a plundering ocean, and finally, in the highlight of the play, fights off a murderous umbrella. In the end, teddy gives Charlie all his devotion, and wins for Charlie freedom from the shabby little town in which he grew up and in which he can only ever see himself as a provincial wannabe. (Think Simon Doonan and the beautiful people, just angrier, and minus the jazz hands and the Goyard manbags.) But even as Charlie emerges as a promising writer and escapes the geographical confines of his past life, he comes face-to-face with his ex Katie, and with the fact that no matter how far he runs, in the end, there is no escaping himself.
Vivash and Bignell deliver convincing performances as tortured artist and eternally-patient girlfriend, and Shooting Fish founder Darren Bolton has produced a compelling – though at times a trifle long-winded and in need of tightening – script. But it is puppet master Robert Tygner and his puppets that steal the show. Tygner has Spitting Image under his belt, the odd Muppets episode, and the goblins in George Lucas’ Labyrinth. In this Arts Council-funded reprise of Shooting Fish Theatre’s 2008 Laminated, he, along with choreographer Gary Clarke, makes the ghosts of Charlie’s past come alive. Since we are a seasoned audience of the slick Wallace and Gromit stop-motion animation, and the motion capture technology used to create characters like Gollum, it may come as a surprise that Tygner’s puppets, instead of looking tacky, or at best sort of cute, come across as endearing, oddly lifelike, and hilarious. While the dolls that represent Charlie and Katie, the dress and the hat-stand that mime his parents, and the publisher-monkey are charming, it is quixotic teddy, with his wide-eyed valour and dreams of grandeur that steals the day. To teddy goes the Oscar.

Shooting Fish Theatre Company
Tristan Bates Theatre, Covent Garden
Till February 19, 2011

Read a short review on London Festival and Fringe and long review in Writing Raw, February 21st edition.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011