Issue 259 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

Whiteread's engaging spaces

Mike Gonzalez is captivated by a new exhibition

Rachel Whiteread's Black Bath
Rachel Whiteread's Black Bath

I met a friend outside the Rachel Whiteread exhibition at Edinburgh's Gallery of Modern Art who said he had come out with a feeling of disappointment. In a strange way, it struck me that perhaps that was quite an appropriate response. After all, Whiteread's extraordinary sculptures are all about absence and departure. So it's logical to feel a sort of nostalgia when you look at her work

Like many people, I had always associated Whiteread with her monumental pieces--the Holocaust memorial in Vienna, the ghostly House which stood in east London for a while, the empty vessel on the plinth in Trafalgar Square. The exhibition, by contrast, is mostly domestic, even intimate--which is an odd word to use about the heavy concrete and rubber pieces she makes. The first couple of rooms contain rubber casts that look like beds and mattresses. Two of them are curved in different directions. They sit in isolation in open white rooms. But if you look closely there are marks and grooves, carefully preserved. You know that someone was lying there, recently perhaps--but there's no real indication of how long these things have stood in suspended animation in these echoing rooms. It feels uncomfortable--half the story seems to be missing or lost, the spacious room somehow abandoned or emptied, leaving behind only this remnant of another life. It leaves you with that feeling of disappointment, as if you had come just a little too late to understand.

Four holes in each corner of one mattress are mysterious at first, until you realise that this is the space under the bed--emptiness cast as a solid mass. It's a device that Whiteread often uses. Her Black Bath is a cast of the inside of a bath and the space around it--the bath itself is marked by a gap between the two components of the piece. In that way familiar things seem upside down, strange and eerie. There are a table and chair--or rather there is the absence of a table and chair, the spaces under and around it solidly represented in a semi-transparent resin. And Yellow Leaf, a dining table made in the same way but with this one remaining piece of the other side, the real table, which has somehow held on in the transition from the solid to the empty.

On one wall of the gallery were Twenty Four Switches--some on, some off. At first it wasn't clear whether these were part of the gallery's electrical system or another work. But the effect was bizarre. Were you in the room or on the other side, locked in negative space, while someone else on the other side of the wall was actually switching real lights on and off? Most powerful of all for me, and the bridge to those other, monumental works, were the two shelves of books--one in black, one with gashes of colour. Yet they too were records of what used to be there, shadows of real volumes now disappeared. It's hard not to feel cheated--or at the very least bereft of all the things you might have learned from those books, if they hadn't been removed by some malign hand. These two pieces were made while Whiteread was preparing her Holocaust monument in Vienna. This solid concrete block sits brutally in an elegant bourgeois square. Its walls are casts of books--but the spines are facing inwards, locked inside this concrete library to which none of us has access. That's the barbarism, the dehumanisation, the monument commemorates.

House, like Ghost, was also a kind of cruel trick. A home turned inside out, 'transformed into a kind of fossil' (as the catalogue puts it), so that all the life, movement and dynamic of the lives lived there were somehow arrested and frozen. In the exhibition these huge casts are echoed in the piece called Upstairs--two sets of stairs at an angle to each other. They sit like the debris of some contemporary Pompeii, just like the stairways of Esher's famous visual trickery where going up becomes a descent and vice versa, and no journey ever leads anywhere.

John Molyneux, writing about Whiteread three years ago, described these pieces as 'poignant'. It seems a curiously delicate word to use about these solid, worn blocks. Yet it is precisely what you feel when you emerge from those rooms, with their remnants of other lives that force you into your own memory to make sense of these lonely, abandoned things, and translate the anonymous marks and scratches on every surface as messages from some other time. This is great art that will not allow you simply to watch. It forces you to tell your story and refill the empty spaces.


Theatre

CAUGHT BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH

A relationship fuelled by vast quantities of alcohol
A relationship fuelled by vast quantities of alcohol

No Man's Land
by Harold Pinter
Lyttleton Theatre, London

Harold Pinter has a unique distinction--he has two phenomena named after him. The 'Pinteresque' has come to refer to his complex and challenging theatrical style, while a 'Pinterism' is, according to pro-war journalist David Aaronovitch, an ill judged and unjustified criticism of US foreign policy.

So Pinter has made his anti-establishment mark in both theatre and politics. This would make any production of his work worth a look. The current revival of Pinter's 1975 play No Mans Land at the National Theatre comes with other recommendations.

The play originally starred John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, and was a huge success. Few directors have dared to take up the challenge of following in its wake. It is Pinter himself who has undertaken to revive this celebrated play now.

No Mans Land is a famously difficult play. For many years it has been a source of controversy among critics and academics. But the play's reputation shouldn't put anyone off going to see it. No Man's Land is not a wilfully obscure or consciously difficult work. On the contrary, it is a hugely funny and entertaining play.

One critic, Patrick Marber, wrote that No Mans Land is about taking the piss and getting pissed. Two writers meet in a pub on Hampstead Heath. One--Spooner, played by John Wood--is down on his luck. The other--Hirst, played by Corin Redgrave--maintains his aristocratic home. They return to Hirst's opulent apartments to carry on drinking.

Their relationship is fuelled by vast consumption of alcohol. They go through a series of emotions (in a way any drinker will instantly recognise), and they are, by turns, sentimental and belligerent, self pitying and manipulative, vicious and amusing.

Late at night they are joined by Hirst's two servants. Andy de la Tour is hilarious as Briggs and Danny Dyer is menacing as Foster. The situation becomes one of shifting allegiances and accusations. Who is using who? Who is protecting who? Is there anything sexual in this tangle of relationships? Who needs who the most?

The next morning brings slightly more sobriety but no more clarity. These are men whose lives are bound together and bound up in a past that has long since slipped from their grasp. But the past they are still unravelling has the power to hurt them.

They are confined to a personal no man's land of shrinking artistic powers and increasing impotence. Hirst is suffering from writer's block. Spooner, we suspect, simply invents his former glory. They are both caught somewhere between life and death. But despite this grim subject matter it is not a depressing play. There is little point in trying to work out exactly what is going on and what these characters have been to each other.

Pinter has written that he often feels his characters find their own life. These brilliant characters are inhabiting their own universe. I don't think the audience joins them completely in it. But it is fascinating and funny to watch them performing for each other and for the audience. This is vintage Pinter. It is a treat to see this celebrated play directed by its author.
Judy Cox


Film

NOT AT ITS PEAK

Behind the veneer of respectable suburban life
Behind the veneer of respectable suburban life

Mulholland Drive
Dir: David Lynch

David Lynch's new mystery thriller, Mulholland Drive, was initially conceived as a pilot show for what was intended to be a television series, presumably in the same format as Twin Peaks. It centres on the relationship between two actresses. One is fresh and naive, the all-American type of character which Lynch uses in lots of his work. She is countered by a more established actress who has obviously been scarred by her own experience in the film industry. She is also suffering from amnesia. In the background is a towering wall of menace that represents the corruption and manipulation common in Hollywood.

In itself the film is quite beautiful to watch and the soundtrack is great, however it opens so many doors, introduces so many strange characters, that by the end of the film I was left with the feeling that it might have made a good sequel to Twin Peaks, but as a film it was empty. One of the main characters is a rising young film director. He is blackmailed into hiring an actress he does not want. We see the process of blackmail but not the motives of those who produce the film and force him to accept their choice.

In the early 1990s Lynch directed the Twin Peaks television serial, a mystery that started with the murder of a teenager from an average kind of town. It went on for weeks and weeks, and introduced lots of different characters, all with some secret which they tried to hide. Yet as the series progressed all these different storylines came together to produce a ghastly backdrop to life in smalltown America. In Mulholland Drive the same ingredients are there, but there is not enough time for them to produce a similar statement--even if this time the target is the film industry.

The film features one of Lynch's favourite motifs, sexuality--as expressed between the two actresses--but it comes over as voyeuristic. As their affair decomposes under the pressure of life in Tinseltown the conclusion, while visually shocking, does not have the impact of, say, the relationships in Blue Velvet. In this film Lynch pulls away the veneer of respectable suburban life and love, brutally transposing it into a world of violence and sexual repression. That film is scary-- Mulholland Drive is mostly just weird.

Maybe Lynch, left with few options, like his film director character, was forced to make the most out of his situation knowing there was to be no television serial of Mulholland Drive. Yet the film we are left with says nothing that he has not said or shown in his earlier works, with much greater dramatic effect.
Nigel Davey


TALES OF CLASS AND ETHNICITY

Fun at the wedding
Fun at the wedding

Monsoon Wedding
Dir: Mira Nair

Affluent Lalit Verma and his wife Pimmi welcome a mini-diaspora to their elder daughter Aditi's wedding. Husband to be Hemant is due in from Houston. But even at this stage lover and married boss Vikram is foremost in Aditi's mind. The occasion's workers, wedding contractor PK Dubey and house servant Alice, develop a romance which is more tender and genuine than the pompous gathering they are servicing. Aditi not only ditches Vikram, following a tight squeeze with the law behind a sweating windscreen, but also confesses to a baffled Hemant. His graciousness puts the show back on the road.

Lalit's niece Ria is petrified by the arrival of brother in law Tej. His subtle seduction of ten year old Aliyah sickens Ria and forces painful reconsideration of his abuse of her as achild. Meanwhile, Rahul, back from Sydney, has the hots for Ayesha, Aditi's young cousin. And that's not everything. But it is enough to give you a flavour--families in extremis, lush vegetation notwithstanding.

However, Mira Nair's film is much more than its narrative skeleton. It is a vibrantly successful comedy drama for a number of positive reasons. Firstly, a growing number of intercontinental film talents are bridging the official cultural divides to confidently tell tales of class and ethnicity. Southall's Gurinder Chadha goes from strength to strength, with her last film What's Cooking bearing close thematic resemblance to this work. For the five families preparing for Thanksgiving in Fairfax, LA, substitute Monsoon Wedding's ensemble of cut eyes, spilled glasses and sodden embraces. Secondly, there's the brashness. The in your face camerawork belies a cheap budget, but this may not be unintended.

Thirdly, there is a believable marriage between conventions of Hindi cinema--principally the prevalence of songs--and Hollywood spectacle. The music is used less to reinforce the narrative than to set a tone or mood. Also, it could well have been directed by Robert Altman or John Sayles in terms of the ear for vernacular, lengthy shots switching between conversations, and an ability to debate the general (drama) and the specific (comedy) simultaneously. A Hindi speaker tells me that much is lost in the subtitling by way of regional nuance. So that's another treat for those Hindi-speaking viewers in Britain's expanding Bollywood screen market.
Nick Grant


Video

WHERE THE SUN NEVER SHINES

Dark Days
Dir: Marc Singer

Dark Days is the story of a community of homeless people living in a train tunnel beneath Manhattan. These people, some resident in the cavernous tunnels for up to 25 years, literally scratch out a living in the pitch black amongst swarms of rats while high speed trains fly by. This is all very reminiscent of the folk song 'Dark as a Dungeon Way Down in the Mines'. The rain never reaches the tunnels and the sun never shines here either--but there is free electricity and a broken pipe under which to get a cold shower.

The people keep pets and show touching affection for them, as they do for each other. Life, in these most abnormal of circumstances, continues as normally as possible. Small shacks fashioned out of wood collected from skips and furnished with items discarded by the people above ground become the real homes for the dispossessed. Not surprisingly drugs are a problem for many as they seek respite and escape from intolerable conditions. We learn later from one of the Amtrak rail officials who come to kick them all out that deaths through exposure and from the high speed trains are not uncommon. Disease is also spread through the cold, dank conditions and the multitude of rats with whom the residents share their homes.

But, compared to the persecution the homeless face from the police, and the violence and danger faced by street sleepers, as one of the residents puts it, 'Here we're safe--ain't nobody going to come mess with you... You'd be surprised what the human mind and the human body can adjust to.'

The film is made in black and white, with an unobtrusive but poignant soundtrack. The strength lies in its authenticity. The film was made in its entirety by the community themselves. The camera was incorporated into the day to day lives of the residents and, oddly, becomes a constant in their lives. But this is no gameshow--this is not gratuitous reality television. The confessions and life stories that we are privy to are so sad and moving.

The original idea and editing comes from the director--a former social worker--who moved into the tunnel and lived there for two years. One might ask why anybody who did not have to would choose to do such a thing. One of the residents sums it up: 'We might be homeless, but the point is not to be helpless. We don't pay no bills. We've got a television, we can cook, and you know every day I still go up on the street to earn money. I mean I still worship the almighty dollar.' Irony, humour and resilience abound in this film. It is not over-editorialised, nor is it patronising or sentimental.

We learn more about the characters' lives as the film moves on, desperate and tragic in almost each and every case. The push by Amtrak and the police to evict them is ultimately a victory. The homeless are rehoused, and we watch them demolish their little shacks and tear down the walls with sledgehammers.

We see a brief clip of a few of them in their new apartments and, as one says, 'Those were dark days. I love my new apartment, and I feel angry with myself for having lived in the tunnel for six years. But I'll never let myself be homeless again.'

This is an excellent documentary, and well deserves the many awards it has won. It is a slice of life and an attestation to the resilience of those who capitalism abandons.
Julie Bundy


Exhibition

THE TRANSFORMATION PROBLEM

Telling Tales
Tate Gallery, Liverpool

If you like to laugh with your art rather than at it, take a trip to the newly opened 'Telling Tales' exhibition at Liverpool's Tate Gallery. It's worth it for the two Tracey Emin exhibits alone. Until this, I'd heard of her brilliance, her anger and her controversy. But I had no idea just how truly funny she is.

Her CV, hand scrawled in a bi-tel across nine pages of A4 foolscap is a terribly poignant autobiography. By individually framing each page, spelling mistakes and all, she has neatly transformed her life into her art--simple but clever. And the laughter for lefties comes with this entry:

'1987-89--went to Royal College of Art--Absolutely amazing--After all that I'd been through. I'd say--these were the worst two years of my life--OH TO COME TO TERMS WITH SUCH HUMBLE BEGGININGS--IN SUCH--A FUCKING UNSYMPATHETIC SHITHOLE.'

And if there were any justice in the world her video exhibit Why I'm Not a Dancer should, for its wit alone, become as much a part of cultural consciousness as the Monty Python parrot sketch. Being working class and from Margate may be part of the reason she never made it to the chorus line, but it's what makes her good. Being able to incorporate Sylvester's one-hit wonder 'You Make Me Feel Mighty Real' so as to make it a rebellion song takes genius!
Carmel Brown


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