5 April 2017, Litro The centenary of the October Revolution finds us in a strange place: nearly thirty years removed from the crumbling of the short Soviet century, with its neoliberal successor unravelling into the grotesquery and parochialism of nationalist populism. As museums and curators of communist memes try to “make 2017 1917 again,” we react with a conflicted mingling of vindication, nostalgia, and rue. The snide “told you so” retrospection of 100 years but also an envy of that bolshie optimism–ratios depending on your politics and tolerance for wall after wall of propaganda posters in Cyrillic. It’s hard not to be cowed by the scale and abandon of the Bolsheviks’ dreaming, especially from this age of budget ambitions, when all of our skyscrapers are owned by the Qataris, our infrastructure slathered in corporate branding and grandest schemes to improve the world are apps and the sharing economy. At the Royal Academy these lost revolutionaries dream in gliders and Suprematist tableware. Across town in the Design Museum they’re fantasizing about a socialist transfiguration of the city—with horizontal skyscrapers, communal houses, “health factory” resorts, and a cosmically aligned “knowledge centre.” Read more at Litro
22 February 2017, Litro To hear Jonathan Jones tell it, the Royal Academy has gone full Proletkult and Pravda with Revolution, their ambitious exhibition of 15 years of Russian art, October Revolution to Stalinism, man-machines and suprematist squares to blockish peasant forearms and fields of wheat. It’ll be catnip to Wolfie Smiths and other bedside revolutionaries, who will surely be eager to spend £16 to gawk at an embalmed Bolshevik past, but what about all the dead kulaks behind the red wedges and ushankas, Jones worries. Read more at Litro.
14 September 2015, Litro The first issue of the revamped magazine of the Central Association of Austrian Architects—Bau: Schrift für Arkitektur und Städtebau—launched in 1965 with a bang. Or rather, a Whaam!, a stylised blast spliced from Roy Lichtenstein’s 1963 diptych and detonated on the cover. It’s one of a dozen covers from the magazine’s 1965-70 run currently displayed, along with several original issues, in the ICA’s Fox Reading Room, until October. That explosive first cover was graphic revolt against the prevailing architectural ethos, of Modernism and Internationalism, and a sly discharge of their fascination with machinery and functionalism. That very machinery, new technologies of communication and space exploration, devised, through war, as means of destruction, threatened to invalidate the traditional definitions and contexts of architecture. What was architecture when buildings were only the most basic containers for our lives, when the human sphere was conducted across new dimensions, of media and information, in a Baudrillardian hyperreality of television, theme parks and instantaneous communication? What importance did buildings have when, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, we had “extended our central nervous system… in a global embrace, abolishing time and space”? Read more at Litro.
4 December 2014, Litro It’s almost hackneyed to find a fixation with death and sex in the city of Freud. This was a city whose ruling dynasty was thrown into crisis when its crown prince died in a suicide pact with his lover, and a city that spent its money building ornate sarcophaguses and its leisure time touring them in a vast cemetery that artist André Heller called an “aphrodisiac for necrophiles”. Schiele wrote that in Vienna “alles ist lebendig tot,” all is living dead. Sex, regenerative but also pestilential and perilous, was at the crux of a splendid, zombified society. With HIV evolving itself into obsolescence, antibiotics trampling our most gruesome, nose-rotting STIs, the Global North has all but forgotten the latent mortality of sex, its creel of terrible potentials, from pregnancy when maternal mortality rates hovered near 40% to syphilis. Certainly for Egon Schiele, as for his hypocritically erotic and prudish Habsburg milieu, sex was a viper’s nest, prickling with the risks of venereal disease and social stigma. His sister Melanie claimed Schiele’s dalliances with prostitutes were a God-defying game of Russian roulette against the syphilis that disfigured, deranged and killed their father. Schiele’s drawings of carnal pleasure and […]
October 16, 2014, Litro Karl Kraus wrote The Last Days of Mankind, his grim, Goliath satire about the Great War, for a theatre on Mars. “Theatre-goers of this world would not be able to bear it,” and not just for its monstrous length (209 acts over fifteen hours), the quixotic lavishness of its stage directions (a dead forest murmurs, 1200 horses drown, and there’s something about a singing flammenwerfer), Kraus’ palimpsest layering of its scenes and crenellations of obsolete German, weird aphorisms, and allusions to opaque Habsburg history. It’s the unflinching dramatization of “man’s inhumanity to man” that Kraus believed would make it so unbearable. It’s an inhumanity that isn’t contained in no man’s land but exists—originates—in the marbled rooms of Ringstraße palaces, in factories run by profiteering industrialists and stalls by black market opportunists, and especially, for Kraus, in newspaper columns. On his Martian stage, journalists hound a dying man for a headline-worthy quote and racketeers loot the bodies of the dead, telling them how lucky they are to have escaped the slog of profit-making. Here, at the Tristan Bates Theatre, the Last Night epilogue is managed, boldly, with a cast of four, martial footfalls, smoke that evoked both […]
July 4, 2014, Litro. Isherwood went to Berlin in 1929 because, as his autobiography diagnoses, in its tinny third-person voice, “Christopher Isherwood was suffering from an inhibition… he couldn’t relax sexually with a member of his own class or nation.” This need for an erotic distance, a detachment from the homophobia invested in the middle-class and the nation—the expat, class traitor equivalent of turning the family photographs down while having sex—was “not unusual”. Wilde wrote of the illicit pleasures “feasting with panthers,” dallying with grooms and rentboys, and Edward Carpenter’s bucolic socialism was grounded in a conviction that same-sex love could be a “great leveller”. Isherwood’s craving for strangeness and his rejection of England and its “poshocracy” were stronger still: he deliberately flunked out of Cambridge and sought sex and adventure in Germany, among the people who killed his father, as his mother regularly reminded him. Read more at Litro.
Litro, May 16, 2014. Sam Mendes’ totalitarian King Lear has been holding a terrible, gory court at the National Theatre since January; a mic away on Sunday, Southwark Playhouse hosted SALT Theatre’s irreverent spins on Shakespeare’s grimmest tragedy themselves. Their Write at the Heart series seeks the alchemy that transforms a classic play into a new one, a Shakespeare into a Stoppard, and while there are no Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns here, the six playlets at this development night all found compelling tangents to Lear to explore. It was all staged on the bleak, post-apocalyptic rubble of a stripped down rendition of Dennis Kelly’s Debris and somehow it works. The debris field stage left was an unsettling obstacle for the actors to overcome, a material echo of the catastrophe of their relationships. It worked as well in a military camp as it did in a hospital waiting room, a McDonald’s, and a family kitchen. Read more at Litro.
The Maude, May 13, 2014 (posted as a Facebook comment, somehow ended up published somewhere) ModCloth refused to accept my review of these sassy, v. avant-garde wedges, so I shall be heard here, on The Maude, a weblog which has nothing to do with fashion or looking good or even feeling good, instead. My very legitimate customer complaints will not be silenced: I was so excited to find these shoes. I’ve always thought that my outfits were not complete without a symbolic trampling of my childhood in the form of disembodied doll heads. And for 12 hours they were spectacular. I so enjoyed looking like the twee heroine who took a stand against toy manufacturers and their outrageous promotion of unrealistic body ideals, or maybe the victim of devastating claw machine accident that claimed my feet. Unfortunately, as I stopped at the supermarket on the way home, the clear heel of the left shoe became dislodged and six Barbie heads popped out and skittered across the floor. I was able to rescue two, but the four others were picked up by a particularly slobbery child and could not be retrieved. My left heel is sadly depopulated and I will be seeking […]
Litro, February 28, 2014. Tennessee Williams originally intended to title his memoirs with a stanza from an Anne Sexton poem. “Flee, Flee This Sad Hotel” was misquoted from “Flee on a Donkey”; Williams thought he’d snagged it from Rimbaud. They were finally published in 1975 as Memoirs, an uncompromising plumbing of decades of drug use, taboo sexuality, instutionalisation, grief, and hotel-hopping. Williams had apparently decided his life was “as much a merry tavern as a sad hotel”. But the five one-act Williams plays staged this month in London belong more to Sexton’s sad hotel—even her asylum—than to a Chaucerian inn or Williams’s later-life circuit of lavish hotels. Set in hotels and boarding houses, these five plays—The Magic Tower and The Strangest Kind of Romance at Pentameters Theatre andGreen Eyes, The Pink Bedroom, and Sunburst by Defibrillator at The Langham Hotel—tear into the sadness, violence and queerness of these transitory homes and the strangers they bring together. Read more at Litro. Photograph by Simon Annand.
Litro, 12 December 2013 Maybe it’s because the hanging is a month old and secured only by ball head pins, but the outsized prints of Joanna Piotrowska’s FROWST are curling at the edges like bedroom posters or snapshots tacked and forgotten on corkboard. They’re family photos made static and huge on a current of anxiety, fretting tableaux of overridden bodies and strained poses, and they’re already in meltdown. Someone in a velour tracksuit droops over an (almost) naked man in a lawn chair, headless except for the jut of a jaw, and two men recline in underwear on a rug: we’re intruding on an intimacy, or at least a physical proximity, if an unheimlich one. Piotrowska photographed family members, but the relationships are uneasily ambiguous, the tightness of the poses worrisome. A woman holds a grown man under the arms like a baby, but the possibility they aren’t mother and son nags. Even more disquieting is the private pose of VII, as a woman stiffly straddles a man crammed between tables and we stare over her shoulder. The prints are large, to linger on and knock us with the buzzing tensions in these poses, the strain of being so close. Read more at Litro.