Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

This Peter Pan artist pays tribute to childhood and history's forgotten artists


Grayson Perry is one of the most recognisable of the Turner Prize winners. Often appearing as his alter-ego Claire, donned in a frilly girl’s dress and bows, along with an almost grotesque childish grin, the transvestite artist’s attire is as famous as his work.

His obsession with childhood and imagination feeds into his work as well as his fashion, and “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman” exhibition at the British Museum aims to combine reality, imagination and history.

The exhibition has been sculpted with love and care by Perry, who accompanies us, like a modern-day Peter Pan into his world of chosen artefacts. Many of these objects are from the British Museum’s collections, ranging from Renaissance medals, Polynesian fetishes and Tibetan stupas. Amongst these relics, he has interspersed his own work- his Early English Motorcycle Helmet rests comfortably alongside an ancient Ghanaian headdress piece, making you question what is relic and what is imitation.

Instead of the standard, third-person captions to accompany his work, Grayson’s work has written his captions in first person, talking directly to the reader like a friend and explaining his motivations behind certain creations, in a way that is neither patronising nor pretentious.

The whole exhibition provides an insight into Perry's modus operandi as well as the work of other craftsmen. His urn, The Frivolous Now, seems to be a product of now. It buzzes with humorous references to the contemporary- 'Botox', 'phone hacking', 'Mumsnet' and 'Lotto rollover', yet it has been modelled on ancient pots from China and Greece. This is an artist whose work, which often seems frivolous, is rooted and shaped by the intense study of past sculptors. The climax of the exhibition is “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman”, a giant ship made by Perry, that pays homage to these anonymous cultural makers and resembles a recently unearthed archaeological treat.

Despite showing a deep reverence and respect of past craftsmen, Perry pokes fun and revels in their cruder creations, and mocks the contemporary art world. We see ancient relics with massive penises and tablets of Assyrians copulating. None of this is new in craftsmanship, but Perry encourages to laugh about it as well as appreciate it. Alan Measles, Perry’s beloved teddy bear, and alter-ego appears around the exhibition, embossed in urn, immortalised in a shrine, or sporting a large erection.

By lovingly combining his childish imagination with past relics, Grayson Perry guides us around his world, yet also produces a fitting tribute to all the skilled craftsmen who have been forgotten by history.

The Frivolous Now

"The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman" is at the British Museum until February 19

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Interview: Max Hoehn

A radical reworking of Pushkin's The Queen of Spades hits the Arcola Theatre this month. Its director describes his love of Russian literature and how he adapted this popular opera

Photo: Nick Coupe

At the tender age of 22, director Max Hoehn has already built up an enviable CV. Juggling a history degree at Oxford University with theatre commitments, he went on to start his own theatre company, Fusebox Productions, and has already directed at the Arcola Theatre and at the Edinburgh festival. Needless to say, he’s ambitious, and his latest project is to radically transform Alexander Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades on to the stage.

Pushkin’s famous text has been traditionally associated with Tchaikovsky’s opera version, but Fusebox’s Queen of Spades will be the first theatrical adaptation of the text outside of Russia. The opera version is still popular today and a week after Hoehn’s production opens at the Arcola theatre in Hackney, Opera North’s touring version will begin at the Barbican centre.

“Its a coincidence that the opera is being staged at the same time as this adaptation” says Hoehn, “The opera is very famous, it has a big budget with lots of resources invested in it, whereas our production is in a studio with three characters, and we are really emphasizing the fantasia of Pushkin.”

The director is keen to present his version as a completely new experience, open to those who have never come across Puskin’s work. “I think someone who enjoys the opera version can enjoy our play, and its focus on the original text, which had a lot more humour. So much of this is our own thing, and I doubt the Arcola’s audience is particularly purist about Pushkin.”

The Queen of Spades is Hoehn’s second production of a classic Russian text, following from The Master and Margarita, an adaptation of a 400-page Soviet-era satire by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was highly acclaimed at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2010. Hoehn is keen to spread his love of Russian theatre, and its skill at story-telling.

“Stanislavsky seems to be the legacy of Russian theatre but there were other practitioners who interest me, who look at storytelling. I’m interested in composition rather than Russia’s ultra-realist tradition.”

“I studied avant-garde Russian theatre and the period of revolutionary literature at university. There seems to a long history of adaptation in Russian theatre which really appeals to me.”

Pushkin’s text is set in the 1830s, but Hoehn explains its popularity with modern audiences. “Our adaptation isn’t set in 1837, but that doesn’t really matter. The story is a classic text, and people keep adapting it, because its cynicism is very modern.”

The Queen of Spades is about an army officer named Hermann, who becomes obsessed with unlocking the secret of a card trick, which would make him rich if obtained. The secret lies with an ancient countess, but Hermann has no way of reaching her. He eventually gains access to the house by convincing the countess’s ward, Lisa, that he is in love with her. Once in the house, he finds the countess, and later obtains the secret, which eventually haunts him and leads to his downfall.

Hermann’s greedy pursuit of the card trick makes him an unlikely protagonist, but he is nonetheless an exciting character for the audience to follow, while the most honest character, Liza, is the victim.

Although the plot suggests a vague critique on the dangers of greed, Hoehn says it does not have a clear message, making it a very strange story. “The tale has many parodies and genres within it. It’s very cynical and does provide social commentary, but Pushkin’s never moralistic and you see that through the irony in the story. Also, Pushkin was a big gambler and was very self-aware of it.”

Hoehn’s version plans to elevate the fantastical elements of the original text. “It’s a bizarre story, quite hallucinatory, with ghosts coming to life and macabre elements that give a heightened quality to the storytelling. We wanted to focus on the iconic images of the novel- the old lady rocking in her chair, the young man Hermann behind her desperate for money, and the winking ghost that reappears to him.”

Hoehn hopes to create this trippy, heightened sense of illusions on stage with a simplistic set - a huge, expanded bed and two chairs. “A lot of the action happens on this huge expanded bed, with massive folds in it. It’s a very simple design and quite hard to pull-off.”

Creating fantasy out of simplicity is a challenging feat, and the Arcola’s Queen of Spades will attempt to do it with a cast of three characters. Hoehn is confident he will create the right atmosphere through sound – even through the rhythm of the dialogue, which is in rhyming prose. “The nature of the text causes a rhythm. We push every front to create an experience, through dialogue in verse, lots of sound and non-textual expression which add to the grotesque. It’s a bit of an epic with three people.”

An epic with three people, melodrama through simplicity…Hoehn’s vision of his play offers intriguing juxtapositions. “Who knows what I’ll be working on next?” he ponders. No doubt, it will be something as ambitious if not more, than his current feat.

The Queen of Spades will be on at the Arcola Theatre from October 12 to November 12. Click here for tickets.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Green Wave

Director Ali Samadi Ahadi chooses to concentrate on the unknown voices from the blogosphere and the streets of Tehran


Animation is an arresting way of capturing the gruesome reality of conflict to audiences who have become desensitised to gore through conventional films or continuous media footage. Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis are notable examples of their use of animation, turning real-life events into dreamy, anarchic and contemplative streams of consciousness.

The Green Wave accounts the heroic but ultimately failed attempts of young protesters, many of whom were demonstrating for the first time in 2009, as they demanded reform from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ultra-conservative government. To the West, that event became immortalised by the death of the Neda Solta, a 26-year-old woman who was shot by Iran’s security forces. Her last moments were captured on fuzzy mobile phone footage and beamed out to the shocked world via the internet. Her story is included in the film, but the director Ali Samadi Ahadi chooses to concentrate on the unknown voices from the blogosphere and those on the streets of Tehran.

The film starts full of optimism, with footage of people congregated in the Haydarniya stadium to support the opposition presidential candidate, Hossein Mousavi. The atmosphere evokes the pageantry and jubilation of a soccer match, and the rich colours, including the green worn by Mousavi’s supporters, are highlighted by animator Ali Reza Darvish’s drawings. However, when it emerges that Ahmadinejad rigged the polls in his favour, the mood turns sombre, as protesters take to the streets again to protest the results. That is when things get violent, with the state unleashing violence and fear onto the streets of Tehran, rounding up political activists, including internet bloggers.

Ahmadinejad, known for his ridiculous rhetoric (denying the Holocaust, and saying that there are no gay people in Iran) can sometimes come across as a maverick figure, like Gaddafi . This film shows his ruthless and calculated attempts to maintain power, allowing the killing of children, women and unarmed protesters by his militia henchmen.

One of the most harrowing parts of the film is when one of bloggers is arrested and tortured in prison. His previous optimism is quashed, and when he comes out of prison he is a truly broken figure. In the prisons, people are deprived of food, subjected to lashings and are dispensed physical and sexual abuse. For a leader who is so homophobic, the use of state-sanctioned male rape by Ahmadinejad’s militia comes as a surprise - but then its function is to strip the victim of all power and dignity, not for sexual gratification. The events are also explored from another perspective, that of the militia man who has been ordered to beat up, kill and terrorise the electorate. He battles with his conscience and the teachings of Islam, which have been manipulated to provide justification for the state’s brutal clampdown.

Even though the audience may have become familiar with the fervour, determination and the tools used by protesters, from this year's coverage of the Arab Spring protests, the Green Wave is nevertheless a powerful insight into an event which set a new precedent for people-power within the Middle East and globally. The film is interspersed with real-life footage and interviews with journalists and lawyers, providing a detached perspective and chronological narrative of the events.

The film conveys two points about the nature of the Iranian Revolution which are different to the Arab Spring protests this year. Iranians were agitating for reform, not revolution, and had Ahmadinejad listened and implemented means by which to curb unemployment and economic conditions, the demonstrators would not have become so alienated from the state. Second, the film shows the presence and gives a voice to the scores of strong, determined women who protested in the country- in hospitals, on the streets and in election offices, while the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and Libya, seem to be led by men.

Despite its bleak and depressing ending, the beauty of the animation and the film’s depiction of the bravery of young people in Iran, struggling for basic freedoms, makes for compelling viewing.