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Yayoi Kusama at The Tate and beyond

In art on June 6, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Exhibition Review by Philip Ginsberg

The current travelling retrospective of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama – after it leaves Tate Modern, catch it in Paris, Madrid or New York – literally sparkles with engaging and diverse art. The show lays out the whole career of the 83-year old artist before us, showing us both her own trajectory, as well as how she engaged with some of the most important artists and art movements of the century after her arrival in the United States as an artworld outsider in 1957. From painting to photography to whole-room installations filled with twinkling lights and infinity mirrors, there are more than enough stimuli for us to contemplate, interpret and chase for themes and connections.

Yet frustratingly, Kusama’s art is normally never discussed on its own terms. Instead, the critics’ common consensus has been to speak about Kusama herself first, and then filter her art through the character they have created. More specifically, writers and broadcasters like to explain Kusama’s work in terms of the mental health issues for which she has been treated full-time since the 1970s. They take care to mention that she lives and works in a mental hospital. They emphasise that making art is simply her way of dealing with her illness. Apparently, they say, she has even “nurtured” her own “insanity” (The Guardian) in order to create her works. In this way, they reduce Kusama’s art to a mere expression of her so-called madness.

Thus the critics rehearse the well-known journalistic trope of the deranged genius, on this occasion in the form of a visual artist. This cliché is one that our (self-styled) popular thought-leaders might have expected to have overcome in the 21st Century, now that science has robustly complicated the idea of what it means to be ‘mad’. Unsurprisingly then, their angle is superficial and unhelpful – which becomes especially clear when we manage to ignore their interpretations and tune into the art itself.

This is particularly important to do in Yayoi Kusama’s case because, when we interpret the art before we construct the person – and therefore arrive at a version of Kusama that is anchored in her works, instead of anchored in her life – we not only begin to challenge the idea of what it means to be a mad artist, but an artist as such. In its sweeping and eclectic overview of one artist’s career, Tate Modern’s exhibition thus enables us to question what it really means to classify any creator and what, if anything, might be suspicious about the processes of (high-) cultural acceptance, genre-building in cultural production and canonisation.

Two works in particular exemplify these questions.

The full-room installation Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show from 1963 is one of the most striking works on display in the show. It consists of a found wooden rowing boat that is painted completely in white. Its surface is completely covered with stuffed cotton phalluses that are twice as large as cucumbers and also white, bending and jutting out in all directions. There is a pair of white high heels in the vessel, too. The room itself is covered in a total of 999 black-and-white posters of the same boat.

Given its simple manufacture and disturbingly clear imagery, Aggregation thus invites us to ask what qualifies it as art instead of as outsider art. Analogously, the overwhelming amount of phalluses and images of the boat encourage us to interrogate the theme of obsessiveness in art. Is their repetition enough reason to diagnose Kusama as a mad artist? As the exhibition brochure dutifully tells us, Aggregation’s serial posters could be compared to those of Andy Warhol, who may have been eccentric, but who was also an ingenious analyst of the Zeitgeist and a shrewd businessman.

The final piece in the retrospective, Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life, from 2011, is an even more immersive installation. In contrast with Aggregation, it is clinically precise and technically sophisticated, a three metre high, six metre long cube with an entrance at one end and an exit at the other. Its walls, ceiling and most of its floor are completely covered in mirrors, except for the meandering path that leads viewers through the room. The darkness is broken only by what seem to be thousands of tiny, floating lights at various heights, reflected endlessly by the mirrors. The lights all glow in the same rich colours, such as purple, red or yellow, which they change in unison at varying intervals.

Overall, the smooth glass and electronics of Mirrored Room seem calculative and post-minimalist in their restrained emotionality. The installation would fit well into a commercial contemporary art gallery. Unlike Aggregation, it does not hint at obsessiveness. Viewed alongside Aggregation and the rest of the varied works in the show, it not only proves that there are more sides to Yayoi Kusama than arbiters of culture would have us believe, but more variety to art itself than they might feel comfortable with.


New Cross Fine Dining

In Food, New Cross on April 27, 2012 at 10:35 am

Restaurant review by Sophie Fuggle

Kung Fu Kitchen, New Cross Road, SE13

In the first of a series of features on the many culinary wonders of New Cross, NXRB samples the wares of the latest addition to the gastronomic centre of South East London. With its name taking full advantage of both alliteration and affectionate cultural stereotype, Kung Fu Kitchen, suggests a veritable assault on the tastebuds. It should also be noted that by name alone, the establishment sets itself apart from the less imaginatively named establishments adorning Lewisham Way which range from the feebly metonymic Noodle and Rice to the ironically grandiose The Thailand.

Emerging from the ruins of a former pie shop, known only (at least to this reviewer) for its distinct lack of pies, Kung Fu Kitchen appears to offer all the staples of the average high street Chinese takeaway. While the only real benchmark of both taste and quality can be discerned by way of their Singapore noodles and accompanying chilli oil, on this occasion, the reviewer opted for the hot and sour soup, the salt and pepper chicken wings with a side of prawn crackers.

After Singapore noodles, hot and sour soup tends to offer the most insight into the inner workings of a Chinese takeaway. The ability to create a soup which is both hot and sour in equal measure is no mean feat. It is also important that individual ingredients do not overwhelm the dish. A common error is to bombard the soup with either carrot or tofu. This is where otherwise perfectly respectable establishments lose all credibility along with the patronage of this reviewer. In the case of Kung Fu Kitchen, the hot and sour soup had an unorthodox prawn focus. While this did not result in any imbalance to the overall flavour of the dish, it was clearly intended to compensate for an aporia of pork and the limited and lacklustre presence of some weary chicken. However, at around 50p cheaper than Go-Sing and other local competitors, these minor shortcomings shouldn’t obscure the good work Kung Fu Kitchen are doing in bringing a passable hot and sour soup to the masses during a recession.

The salt and pepper chicken embodied a similar paradox. The outer coating was a joy to behold and eat – perfectly combining crispy, greasy and spicy in accordance with this reviewer’s personal predilection. The meat itself, however, was an unwholesome shade of pink. Although it may be safely assumed that the quality and cookedness of the chicken itself is not at stake here, for reasons of objectivity, it seems important to make note of this.

Where the prawn crackers did not cause any particular offence, being neither overcooked, too thick or too thin, they were also not a major source of inspiration. More importantly, perhaps, was the dearth of appropriate reading material available for patrons awaiting their orders. Besides a Cantonese version of LOOT, there was nothing in the way of the two week old Tv Choices that adorn the tables of Go-Sing. Given the Baltic winds blowing in through the open door, this made waiting even 5 minutes something of an ordeal.

Thus, while this review must remain inconclusive given the lack of data on the Singapore noodles, the quest for the ultimate hot and sour soup continues…

Different Drummers Review

In Munro on April 21, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Review by Jennifer Otter

Martin Munro, Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas (University of California Press, 2010)

Race is one of the most talked about and taboo topics.  Few writers have the chutzpah to openly question racial stereotypes, let alone trace the historical roots, which may provide insight into the origins, or, dare it be said, search for any truth behind assumed ideas of race still prevalent today.  In his book, Different Drummers:  Rhythm and Race in the Americas, author Martin Munro confronts the notion of innate rhythm being a trait attached historically to black culture.  Using this framework of rhythm as the common thread stitching together the struggles and triumphs of black culture over several centuries in the Americas, Munro successfully demonstrates how “rhythm is a contested concept that is sometimes vilified and repressed, sometimes glorified and valorized” (23).

Munro begins the journey exploring the perceived connection between blackness and rhythm in 1800’s Haiti.  The theme of tension between the perceived “threat” of black music and dance to white culture with the paralleling allure and pull to blackness has a legacy in the region.  Slaves were “prohibited” from “drum playing and singing other than when engaged in field labor” (27).  Celebration, religious rituals and practices such as Vodou, “incorporated dance and music…music was less of a social entertainment than a link to metaphysics and an identity that had their roots in Africa, but were inevitably mutating and being translated into their new context” (28).   Munro describes how “…African-derived music and dance were potent tools for insurrection, both in reality and in the white, European imagination” (38), as “some of the principal means of spreading news among New World slaves about [any] uprising[s] and of disseminating the “idea of Haiti,” were music, song and dance”  (38).  This allowed for “informal networks, oral communication and traveling songs” as a vehicle to convey information, “news of the revolt across the Caribbean, to Virginia and Louisiana in the north and to Brazil in the south” (38).

Munro then brings the reader to Trinidad, where “the history of creolized Trinidadian music” is the “classic case of colonial fear and repression of rhythm” (78).  He begins the voyage with Christopher Columbus’s first encounter of the area in 1498.  In an early example of wrongly interpreted meaning, the explorer’s crew attempted to show their “good intentions” to the islanders with dancing, and playing “fife-and-drum music” (79).  The natives responded “by paddling back to shore and raining arrows on the ship” (79).  This illustrates Munro’s idea of “music [holding different meaning] to different social groups,” and the way that “meaning [can] change according to context and…audience” (80).  He traces these varied meanings through Trinidad’s history of “planters- white and colored- and their slaves,” as they “transform not only…society and economy but also its culture and its rhythms” (83).  Munro pays close attention to Carnival, where white and black both participated in “transracial parodies,” demonstrating that “categories of race and class…were far more fluid and far less entrenched” than previously believed.  As Munro points out, “for all their purported disdain for “uncivilized” black culture, the white elites and especially the French Creoles reveled in this kind of interracial parody” (88).

In a seeming foreshadowing to the rise of hip-hop in the 20th Century, “Trinidad’s white elite seems to echo the reactions of contemporary white audiences in the United States to minstrel shows.  Whites in both countries tended to view black culture with a mixture of disdain and envy:  disdain for blacks’ perceived crude manners and primitive culture, and envy of their supposed expressive and sexual freedom” (110).  This infrastructure was further underpinned by “the commitment of Trinidadian music to disc” which “seemed to increase its acceptability to the rich elite, those who could afford gramophones and records…thus a subtle chasm was opened up between the people, who were always the source of innovation (and also the most reliable reminders of tradition), and the music” (118).

In the third and fourth chapters, Munro establishes the connection between poetry and rhythm, as well as rhythm used in the black power movement.  Centering his argument on the French island of Martinique, he focuses on the legacy of key players in the areas “Negritude…literary movement” (132).   Munro then moves onto early representations of James Brown, showing the performer’s “Africanization…was largely brought about by the demands of the contemporary political context” (194).  While the thread of repression and expression is continued from the previous areas of discussion, the last two chapters do not contain the continuity of rhythm as a power leveraging access as the first part of the text.


In film on April 16, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Film review by Sophie Fuggle

In Time (2011, written and directed by Andrew Niccol)

A film which obviously got short schrift when it came out last year but despite a somewhat bland performance from Justin Timberlake and his instantly forgettable leading lady, Amanda Seyfried, offers an interesting take on the accumulation of capital in a world where the cliché time is money gains a whole new currency (sigh).

Set in a dystopian future where everyone is genetically engineered to stop ageing at 25, time is now the only form of currency. On their 25th birthday, every individual is given a year which will count down to zero unless they earn more time either through their own labour or by transferring the time of others onto their own clock – the digits of which are embedded onto their arm. Everything is measured in time – a cup of coffee costs three minutes, a bus ride, two hours. Society is carved up into time zones. This is less a question of geography and more a division of wealth. But isn’t this already the case in contemporary Europe and North America? Those who have accumulated decades and centuries of wealth live in New Greenwich (see what they did there?). Trapped in the same bodies for eternity, the time-rich elite live in perpetual fear of dying by some careless mishap without getting to spend their time since time cannot be transferred postmortem. The poor live in the ghetto – anyone in possession of more than a month worth of time is at risk of having it stolen by time bandits or confiscated as suspicious by time keepers, the police force, led by the unrelenting Cillian Murphy. Hence, those in the ghetto live from day to day, hand to mouth, forced to work increasingly harder to survive until the next day.  Here, we are confronted with Žižek’s question about life and death – who is really alive today? No one, it seems. Those in the ghetto have no time to live let alone reproduce (the overpopulation in the ghetto seems unlikely given there is no time for the shameless depravity that was the scourge of the nineteenth century working class although there is still plenty of time for alcohol abuse). Those living in New Greenwich are sick to death of living but feel compelled to proceed with their tedious quest for immortality.

Thus, a 19th century model of labour achieves its apotheosis in Deleuze’s society of control. Individuals are reduced to the digital clocks on their arms. Ageing has stopped and so, therefore, has the reification of youth. Of course, we are encouraged to appreciate the obvious milf and even grilf references here. There is also some cursory exploration of the concept of speed, riffing on Paul Virilio’s notion of dromology. How quickly one does something identifies one’s social class. The rich have time to waste, the poor don’t.

The film posits the idea of what might happen if time was redistributed – a very thinly veiled attempt at critiquing the power and inequalities of today’s global financial markets. So the obvious criticisms are posed by both the time magnates and the time keepers. The system must be maintained at all costs. The stakes are upped here since there is now a direct link between the wealth one possesses and one’s mortality – ‘for a few to be immortal, many must die’ – a link often obfuscated in debates about the global economy. Yet, unsurprisingly the film doesn’t go far enough. There is the token emancipatory moment where the inhabitants of the ghetto awaken to a bright new dawn where there is enough time for everyone. But that’s as far as it goes. Timberlake and Seyfried assume the roles of Bonnie and Clyde posing as Robin Hoods, stealing time through a series of bank heists – a somewhat archaic form of robbery for a society which has dispensed with money altogether. We’re not given a glimpse of what a society in which wealth is fairly distributed might look like – just one in which fear has been (temporarily) transferred from poor to rich.

Still, a different perspective on timebanking (currently championed as preferable form of exchange to money). Where money functions precisely because it has no real value behind it, In Time inspires some (albeit superficial) reflection on the social reconfigurations – which are really only intensifications of existing social hierarchies and divisions – that would inevitably occur if alternative modes of exchange were to acquire primacy following widespread depletion of resources, environmental disaster and overpopulation. No longer a question of biopolitics but temporo-politics.

Heard the one about the Jewish rock star?

In Billig, Melnick on April 10, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Review article by Les Back (2002)

Michael Billig Rock’n’roll Jews (Five Leaves, 2000)

Jeffrey Melnick A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews and American Popular Song (Harvard University Press, 2001)

The cheroot smoking ‘fat cat’ businessman, raking in cash on the backs of gifted jazz, blues and soul musicians is the dominant stereotype of Jewish involvement in music.  This portrait can be found in an alarmingly diverse range of settings: from beer commercials to the movies of Spike Lee.  Implicit in this is the charge that Jewish media moguls merely profitted from the creativity of others and in particular that of African Americans.  The thought that Jews contributed to the making of the music itself is viewed as almost laughable. Michael Billig begins his beautiful new book Rock’n’Roll Jews by recalling a scene in the spoof movie Airplane. A passenger asks for some light reading and is given ‘The Complete Guide to Jewish Sporting Stars.’  Every page in the book is blank.  Billig comments that “one can imagine the joke being applied to Jewish rock’n’roll stars” (p. 3).

Beneath such stereotypes is a hidden history of fraught alliances and enduring divisions – a story of creativity and exploitation. It is the complexities in this history that Michael Billig and Jeffrey Melnick seek to explicate.  Melnick’s book A Right to Sing the Blues focuses on the first decades of the twentieth century, particularly the involvement of Jewish composers and publishers in popular music and jazz.  His prime concern is the relationship between figures like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and African American performers and artists.  He is interested not only to seek evidence about the quality of ‘Black-Jewish relations’, but also to examine critically the narrative construction of this discrepant association.

For Melnick what is crucial is the work that the talk about Black-Jewish affinity does.  In this field of representation hopes are licensed, aspirations expressed and racial alignments defined.  For him, the ambivalent racial status of Jews in America was navigated through their role as intermediaries within culture and music. He argues that Jewish composers like Gershwin and Berlin and singers like Al Jolson were able to portray their gift for writing and performing ‘black music’ as  a product of their Jewishness.  Paradoxically, it was their skill as intercessionary figures, adept in black forms, that provided them with a passport to whiteness. As cultural intermediaries, Jews could figure themselves in a privileged position to preside over the blending of the American cultural ‘melting pot.’  Gershwin told his first biographer that he aspired to “write an opera of the melting pot, of New York City itself, which is symbolic and the actual blend of native and immingrant strains” (p.77). Irving Berlin, who was less confortable with his nascent Americanness than Gershwin, wrote the enduring patriotic homage God Bless America.  The prize was that Jews became central in the work of nation building and Jewishness itself could be cast as a stable white identity.   The power of Melnick’s insight here is considerable, indeed this is the main contribution of his book.

Prominent African American figures like writer James Weldon Johnson spoke positively of Jewish involvement in jazz.   In Melnick’s view there was mutual interest at play here because Johnson’s support of Jewish musicians furthered the cause of the music and meant that African American culture was taken seriously as an art form.  However, the down side of this was that Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess  competed directly with the black artists of the Harlem Renaissance over the definition of Blackness and the African American experience.

This powerful line of critique is picked up by Michael Billig in Rock’n’ Roll Jews. For those Jews who made America their refuge, the impulse was strong to show that they belonged to this new land and it’s dominant Christian culture.  As a result some of America’s key seasonal hymns were written by Jews.  Irving Berlin penned ‘White Christmas’ and Jewish songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote ‘Santa Claus is Back in Town’ for Elvis Presley.  The high point in this assimilationist irony was in 1963 when Phil Spector recorded an entire album of yuletide hits called A Christmas Gift for You.  Billig draws a parallel between the Christmas music written by Jews in America and a comment made by Walter Benjamin on the public festivity made by the Jewish bourgeoisie in pre-Nazi Germany. Benjamin, a German Jewish Philosopher who committed suicide after failing to escape the Nazis, complained that affluent Jews in Germany not only had Christmas tree but also bought large visible ones as effigies of their assimilation.  Billig, making a direct connection between Benjamin’s observation and Jewish dreams of belonging to America, concluded that “A Christmas Gift for You was Spector’s enormous, public Christmas tree” (p. 107).

There is more to the story of the involvement of Jews in American twentieth century popular music than assimilation and compromise.  Melnick’s moral commitment to argue that Jews manipulated ‘black sounds’ for their own ends, blinds him to some of the ambivalences in the lives of those who followed Gershwin and Berlin. In particular, he treates Jewish jazz musicians like Mezz Mezzrow and Artie Shaw as sociopaths. He reduces them to little more than absurd ‘white Negroes’ recalling Norman Mailer’s famous phrase.  There is little attempt to understand how the complicated lives of Mezzrow and Shaw challenged assumptions about  race and culture.  They breached the colour-line in a time when to do so posed serious risks.  Melnick has little time for these acts of transgression and reduces them to ‘authenticity mongering’ and cultural ‘one-upmanship.’ It is perhaps easy to dismiss the likes of Mezzrow and Shaw as such now, but this kind of presentism misses the palpable dangers involved and there is something close to bad faith in Melnick’s denuciation.

He foregrounds Mezzrow’s comment that he felt he came to look “physically black” in his autobiography… continue reading Rocknroll Jews

Review Article: Luce Irigaray’s Conversations and Hélène Cixous’ White Ink

In Cixous on March 8, 2012 at 8:55 am

Reviewed by Sophie Fuggle.

Conversations by Luce Irigarary (London and New York, NY, Continuum, 2008).

White Ink: Interviews on sex, text, politics by Hélène Cixous, edited by Susan Sellers (Stocksfield, Acumen, 2008).

There is something paradoxical and slightly disingenuous about publishing a collection of interviews. Whether the exchange is, in the first instance, oral or written, the intimacy and immediacy of the dialogue along with the specific circumstances which sparked the encounter must inevitably give way to an editorial process aimed at producing a publishable text of interest to a wider audience. Where the primary interlocutor is heavily involved in this process there is the increased danger that the rough edges of a dialogue, in which he or she is called to account for the aporias, discrepancies or contradictions in his or her work, will be smoothed down until nothing remains but empty repetition of existing themes and concepts. This is sadly the case in Conversations, a collection of recent interviews between Luce Irigaray and a number of scholars engaging directly with her writing and thought, including Judith Still and Elizabeth Grosz as well as those such as Michael Stone, Andrea Wheeler, Margaret R. Miles and Laine M. Harrington who are working in fields as diverse as architecture, yoga and theology. Despite the potential for a rich and exciting selection of discussions, Irigaray’s overwhelming desire to control her material, as well as all those with whom she enters into conversation, shuts down any genuine dialogue or interchange of ideas. The outcome is a largely stale reiteration of key aspects of her thought, most notably her insistence on ‘sexuate’ as opposed to ‘sexual’ difference and the notion of ‘breath’ as mediator between oneself and the other. Thus, while the collection will no doubt be of interest to those Irigaray completists eager to consume her every last utterance, those seeking a way in to her work may find it somewhat limiting and frustrating, as will those looking for greater clarification and development of certain aspects of her thought. Conversely, where Irigaray introduces her collection with an affirmation of the importance of open-dialogue and exchange between scholars yet fails to deliver a genuine openness during the conversations themselves, Cixous admits, in the prefacing interview to White Ink, her suspicion and discomfort with the spoken word, candidly expressing her preference for the written text and the complex play it allows her. Nevertheless, in the various oral interviews thoughtfully selected for the collection by Susan Sellers and which date from the late Seventies to the present, Cixous amply demonstrates her dexterity in verbal expression, not least in the breathtaking semantic acrobatics of her 2004 discussion with Jacques Derrida translated into English as ‘From the word to life.’ Although a wide variety of subjects are dealt with, including Cixous’s Jewish heritage and her childhood spent in Algeria, the collection’s subtitle; ‘Interviews on sex, text and politics’ is slightly misleading since what emerges first and foremost from these interviews is her passion for language, literature and theatre. This passion is brought to life with both enthusiasm and humility as Cixous refuses to focus solely on her own writing, often opting to discuss those writers who have most influenced her including, among others, Shakespeare, Joyce and Kafka. Although much of the insight proffered in these interviews is biographical rather than theoretical, the collection provides a useful backdrop to Cixous’s literary and theatrical works and would be of value to both newcomers to her writing and those already familiar with her texts. The translation of both sets of interviews into the English language demonstrates the widespread significance of both Irigaray and Cixous’s work for non-French speaking audiences. However, both acknowledge the inherent risk of decontextualisation and alienation which can result from a translation which fails to appreciate the intricate linguistic play at work in the original French. Consequently, Cixous’s interviews are frequently annotated with the original French in brackets in order to highlight such complexity. Irigaray, on the other hand, often translates her work herself as a means of maintaining its vitality. While these approaches are intended to assist the reader, the awkward syntax of Irigaray’s translations can lead to some confusion whereas the annotations explaining Cixous’s wordplay tend to attest to the primacy of the French language for her thought and the necessary exclusion of those unable to read it.

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