On the night of Nick Griffin, I watch Cosh Omar

Cobbled together an evening out for a few friends – we went to the Theatre Royal Stratford East to see the The Great Extension by Cosh Omar, who wrote The Battle of Green Lanes.

The cast is a refined tranny of Indian origian, a Sufi Turkiish landlord called Hassan, his son, Hassan, who suffers from alcohol-related amnesia, a couple of Bradford Salafi Islamists with an embarrassing Sufi grandad, their sister fugitive from an arranged marriage, their big-minded father, an ex-trade unionist native-Brit racist Conservative voting next-door neighbour, a diversity-trained police officer who is so enraptured by this multicultural tableau that he overlooks the crime scene behind the sofa, and a builder (of the eponymous extension) with something under his hat.

The play was a very enjoyable farce centred on prejudice and bigotry. Meanwhile, life was imitating art on Question Time, where a man leading a party whose constitution illegally excludes non-caucasians from membership got his chance to squirm under public scrutiny.

While Nick Griffin was given a voice, mine fell victim to an unprecedented throat infection and I remained practically mute for the after-show drinks. Now it’s gone completely.

Pavement curating All Tomorrows Parties

I saw Pavement in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in ’96 and I saw them in Brixton Academy days before they split in ’99. Although I find them glib, lacking in warmth, and although I can’t come to terms with their videos, the best way I can put it is that the tempo deep inside of them in the same as the one I have deep in side of me. The lyrics are psychedelic fragments not worth the bother of looking or learning, but they are unreasonably, unfeasibly and acutely mood-inducing. These art rockers are wizards. I can’t be bothered to psychologise but I won’t spare you a pun: acquaintances know that I am after all a confirmed pedestrian.

This is why I’m going to Butlins in Minehead to witness their revival at All Tomorrow’s Parties. Like everybody else – and it’s almost sold out – I decided to go before I even knew the lineup. When I’m there, I’ll wish I was home. Once I’m back home, I’ll think back on it as one of life’s high points.

Gold soundz.

The End of the Line. The ocean is our shared heritage.

Last night Matt and I went to an RSA screening of The End of the Line, an independently-financed documentary about over-fishing.

Fish wonks have had a recent shock. Although it’s long been observed that many fish species are in drastic decline, some reassurance had been derived from statistics about catches year on year: they appeared to be going up. But it turns out that Chinese bureaucrats had been massaging the data for reasons of self-preferment. The catch has been in decline since 1989. We reached ‘peak fish’ 20 years ago.

We are enormously ingenious at netting fish, so much so that we have beaten a number of species to the point of extinction. However, when a predator – tuna or cod, for example – dwindles in numbers its prey burgeons, humans turn their gastronomic attentions to the newly burgeoning species and nobody really notices the loss (I find this very weird, that you could eat something so enthusiastically that it becomes extinct but then miss it so little when it’s gone).

There were many scenes of gasping, struggling, violent deaths which were very upsetting. I wasn’t sure about the function of these scenes, given that the aim of the film was not to provoke outrage against fishermen, nor empathy with fish. I had the slight sense that the film makers were contrasting the cottage fishing against the technical/industrial fishing as if the form of death was important to the fish. But thankfully this wasn’t pushed – the contrast was developed in the direction of illustrating the difference in devastation between the different modes of fishing. And anyway, it’s good to feel disturbed about the death of an animal, if you accepted it before.

The US came out looking like the most responsible and responsive of the developed states, and the most constitutionally equipped to avert the crisis. However, fish move. They migrate from reserves and without a stringently policed international treaty, the US’s restraint is some other state’s economic gain. Without an international treaty, the fish lose either way. In case it needs re-stating, the fish are part of our ecosystem. If we kill them off, there’ll be negative repercussions of an unpredictable nature.

There’s a high degree of consensus that fish are in crisis. There’s some peripheral disagreement over the severity of the crisis, but no expert thinks that it’s OK to allow things to carry on as they are.

The campaign has its poster pin-up: the blue fin tuna. The blue fin tuna is analogous to the white rhino in terms of danger of extinction.

I thought it was a very good film. First rule of thumb with activism is, if you are going to confront somebody – in this case, a viewer – with news of an unfolding disaster, to avoid the onset of fatalistic paralysis you have to give them the information they need to make the change required. As somebody who feels like they are searching in vain for an effective middle ground between cold rage and cold pragmatism, I found this film, and the discussion afterwards with two of its creators offered substantial options to people who eat fish and people, like me, who don’t. Here are some, relating to consumers and governments:

  • Consider the oceans as everybody’s responsibility
  • Buy from Waitrose, because (at time of writing) they care more than other supermarkets about overfishing.
  • Failing that, buy Marine Stewardship Council certified fish. Check regularly because fish populations fluctuate – in fact, I’d say get a web phone so you can check at the point of placing your order or making your purchase.
  • Campaign for a network of policed ocean reserves
  • Campaign for NGOs to have status as litigants in the EU, as they do in the US (have I got that right? I need more info).
  • Contact your MP and MEP to ask them to campaign for lower quotas and an end to subsidised fishing by industrialised fleets in countries like Senegal, depriving the citizens there of livelihood because they can’t compete.
  • In restaurants, always ask about provenance and if you are not completely satisfied with the response (and basically the question to ask is whether it has some kind of certification of sustainability), avoid the fish

Afterwards there were some drinks. As usual, this vegan gulped the wine, but this time with a shifty feeling.  Usually I’m very protective of my booze. It’s the next step in being vegan, just like vegan was the step after becoming vegetarian. It’s on the horizon but I’m not there yet.  Did the wine contain isinglass, the clarifying agent made from the swimbladders of fish? They wouldn’t have served us wine with isinglass of dubious provenance after a film campaigning against fish of dubious provenance. Would they? And I drank it down, a living instantiation of the blind eye.

Matt and I were lucky enough to collar Jeffrey Hutchings, professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, who had featured in the film (I thought I’d be too busy to blog or I would have mentioned it before I started talking with him). I had the impression that he had thought long and hard about the messages he wanted to communicate. The fish and the wider ocean ecosystem, were at the centre of his concern. He was no misanthrope; he wasn’t fire and brimstone; there was no bitterness. He simply cared deeply about cod. He also cared about the people whose livelihood in in fishing; his position is that it should not be left to them to shoulder the burden of reviving ocean life but that ocean life is our common heritage and that we have a collective responsibility. He told us that they choose their mates, that they are far more deliberate in the way they live their lives than we have assumed, that they are not commodities, that they have lives.

Reflecting on the evening on the way home I thought about how I’m naturally inclined towards more whole-system causes, and how I find the practice of single issue campaigning very interesting. Given that fish have lives, why would I – a human who values life – think it was in any way acceptable to kill and eat them? Why draw the line at unsustainable fishing? Why draw the line at fish, above all other animals?  I bristle when somebody talks about fish in commodifying terms of ‘stocks’ and ‘seafood’.  But I was very impressed with Jeffrey Hutching’s focus and restraint. As somebody else we spoke to from Greenpeace said while making a more general point, my kind of opinions are felt to be hostile, bring out the worst in people, make the problem too big to address, are disempowering, are counterproductive. Consumers need to be made aware, persuaded, appealed to, and perhaps the quietly denied the opportunity to buy, say, cod, or blue fin tuna.

I take my hat off to the people who made this film, and the people who are looking out for the fish populations. Also to Jamie Oliver, who seems to eat literally anything, for withdrawing references to blue fin from his programmes and books.

At the end of the film, we learn that Nobu, restaurant frequented by the rich and celebrated, famous for sushi, and for kobi beef from cows which have eaten better than many of the world’s less affluent humans, is still serving up blue fin with the nonsensical caveat: “Bluefin tuna is an environmentally threatened species, please ask your server for an alternative.”

Saying yes to things, watching Duncan Jones’ Moon

On (give or take a month) the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings, Mitch invited us to watch Duncan Jones’ Moon at the Stratford Picture House.

I could feel myself about to say “I think I’ll stay in tonight” when I remembered Matt telling me about a podcast he’d listened to where a bloke had decided to say “Yes” more, so I said “Is it PG”? No, it was Certificate 15. But where violence is concerned I have the viewing-age of an under-twelve.

Sam Bell is an astronaut in charge of a mine works, based alone in a station on the moon without a live communication feed. His sole helper and companion is a robot called GERTY. Two weeks away from the end of a three-year contract he has an accident and when he wakes up, he finds he is not alone any more.

The British Board of Film Classifications explained exactly why it was Certificate 15. I decided to go, because it sounded like a very good film and, as a user of the BBFC’s extended classification information (to me, ‘spoiler’ is a misnomer) I was fairly confident about avoiding the bad bits (but there’s no spoiler in this post). And it’s time to grow up.

I spent the first half hour in a neurotic crash position, two fingers in my ears and four more pressing my eyes shut, my heart beating  “like a little guinea pig” Matt observed unkindly, and as ever astonished by my own pathos.  But the situation was unbelievably claustrophobic, there were sharp implements used by the protagonist, a robot gave a haircut, there was heavy working industrial machinery everywhere, and the noises were menacing. All I could see was sharp or heavy danger, and his impending accident.  I take of my hat to today’s film makers for sheer power over our souls. Watching the old fashioned films this one referenced – 2001, Dark Star – is fine, but modern cinematography penetrates your psyche like a knife into butter.  All the same, there is something a little wrong with my reaction. A film made me jump once and I never got over it.

Then, between the penultimate violent event which caused the 15 certification and the final one (which couldn’t happen because the plot hadn’t sufficiently thickened) I began to watch properly. It was really worth it.

There are some problems with the exposition – for example, it beats me why a company with a monopoly and machinery as sophisticated as GERTY would require a human to staff the station, and why only one human, and why for three years with no vacation? But’s probably best not to ask the plot to carry more weight than it can – there are just some things you have to take for granted in order to get to think about the more interesting stuff.

moon-gertyOne reviewer called Moon “a study of loneliness” but for me it was more of a study of humanity. The way Sam and GERTY (whose voice was Kevin Spacey) related to each other was one of the most interesting things. GERTY’s design was also intriguing – he was not anthropoid but he had a small screen for displaying yellow emoticons. Throughout the film GERTY was confronted with new situations, and the interplay between his range of expressions, the rapid shift between them, and their frequent incongruity were some of the funniest moments. They were some of the most interesting insights into the values of GERTY’s programmer. I think GERTY’s processor would have been some kind of neural network, software which can learn on the job. In an understated way you could see GERTY learning, and this became very important as the plot began to explore what ethical values meant to sophisticated computers, and to the relations between humans and sophisticated computers – what does it mean when GERTY says he exists to keep Sam “safe”? – and relations between managers and their human and non-human staff.

This is no dehumanised technological dystopia flick, and in a really interesting way I can’t go into without giving away the plot, it’s a counter to both technophobia and conspiracy theory films. Watch it.

Then today I regressed; I have just said “No” to something I originally said yes to. There’s a free showing of Joseph Cedar’s Israeli warfilm Beaufort at the Free Word Centre tonight. I had tickets but Matt couldn’t get back in time, and although I had thought, based on the BBFC, it would be alright, one Internet Movie Database reviewer said “I jumped in my seat like I never had before”. So I called them and freed up the tx. I need somebody to hang onto. I need to make the screen go small by looking at it in their spectacles. I’m ashamed.

“The ‘cockney expectation’ of eating with a spoon” and other stories

Over in Wanstead they have discovered pie and mash.

Via Weggis, a New Scientist piece on kettling – why crowds are best left to their own devices.

With Vestas in mind, a great account, by John Cunningham, of the conference between the NUM and environmentalists at Kingsnorth Climate camp last year with a view to making a go of things together – class, coal and climate change, which I came to via the RSA’s Arts and Ecology blog.

And cognisant both of the acute impact of 650 newly unemployed on a small island and the need to meet local energy needs (rather than the US market it has exclusively supplied until now) in sustainable ways – is it actually even the best option, environmentally speaking, to site a factory supplying British needs on the Isle of Wight? Surely you have to know that before you can decide.

George Monbiot and Ed Miliband (both of whom I like) lament (in something I can’t now find) that the silent majority who understand the importance of renewable energy had not been enlisted in support of wind turbines. Short and medium-term pessimism on planning law. More from Renewable Energy Focus.

The Bigger Picture is a festival of creative activities on interdependence designed in response to the economic, environmental, social and resource crises. It’s curated by the New Economics Foundation (nef), who (I’ve heard Andrew Simms) are really shining a light. The titles of their publications promise to propose specific actions to stave off a worsening of current crises.

Despite hopes of improvement with the Government currently working on new planning laws, there is pessimism in the short and medium term. In order to open new plants a turbine manufacturer needs to be confident that they could win around 1GW of orders each year for that plant, reckons the BWEA.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Young Brits at Art competition 2009

The competition was held by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

“Young Brits at Art 2009 is a competition in which 11–19-year-olds are invited to create pictures that express their thoughts and feelings about living in Britain today. The competition encourages young people from all walks of life across England, Scotland and Wales to submit their art work to tell their own unique story: who they are, what they think, their hopes and fears, aims and ambitions”.

A bit more.

The 100 shortlisted entries are on Flickr, including the artists’ commentary.

The first ones I wanted to click on were all exploring national identity.

Then I was seriously excited by this one, not least because I always try to work out the colour of the London sky at night and Michael Kashora has it exactly: sulphur. This made me wonder if his gaze is fresh from other drier, darker skies.

In the shortlist there is a lot of care, a lot of worry, not much taking for granted.

There are feelings of being apart, sequestred.

Almost no exuberance or peace and only a little music.

Engrossing.

Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom’s Foreplay

The Theatre Royal, Stratford East is a theatre not far from home which regularly punches above its weight. ‘Township Tarantino’ Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom‘s collaborative work Township Stories was a punch like that, so when Matt told me that Stratford was getting another of his productions, performed by the South African State Theatre, we decided to go and see it.

Foreplay is a scene by scene adaptation of Schnitzler’s fin-de-siecle play Reigen better known by its French title, La Ronde (tangent – when it was condemned in Vienna as obscene, causing vandalism of shops which stocked the script, Schnitzler was branded not simply “pornographer” but “Jewish pornographer”).

Matt booked for five of us at £5 each but we didn’t know where we were sitting. I wondered whether I was going to be showered in bodily fluids. As it turned out, we were in the front row, me in the middle, and head to head, face to face, with acts of rape, copulation and love-making. I’m not prim (well, not at weekends) – I am, however, overcome by violence, so it was lucky that what we thought was a programme turned out to be a script which I peered at during the sickening parts, instead of the stage.

The production was very good and the cast enormously talented as actors and dancers. There were maybe 10 scenes of dialogue (the production departed a little from the script) with continuity offered by a series of sexual encounters where each character has sex, in adjacent scenes, with two others.

Foreplay is an essay on sex in Pretoria townships. There are chinks through which comment on South Africa is dangled – but just chinks. It’s mostly sex and sexual relations in the townships.

Also carried from scene to scene is HIV, taking form as pink bubblegum and later (incongruously) balloons, which I hope didn’t pun on full-blown aids. Condoms are also like balloons; condoms were entirely absent from this play and this absence, along with the gum, was the masterfully communicative, wordless reference to HIV. By the end of the play, the entire cast of characters is infected, and the instances of mutual love-making no less than the abusive or exploitative sex. HIV, like sex itself, is a great leveller of social groups. La Ronde had a message about class and about pleasure in repressed times – Foreplay communicated to me that HIV and exploitation corrupt sex; sex itself is not corrupting.

The corruption resides in the male characters:

The hypocrite preacher:

“…inappropriate physical involvement outside marriage… People call it moral failure and in turn demand that those preachers step down from moral leadership… but I call it proof of pastoral humaness.”

The self-righteous politician, before anally raping the prostitute as punishment and after killing her Nigerian pimp:

“…because you’re a woman and also – maybe – because you are a citizen of this country, I am willing to look at your transgression as ignorance merely… Because, that’s what you are… like many other women in this country, ignorant… nothing but ignorant… Maybe you don’t understand how important I am… maybe you’re just incapable of understanding that fact… Understanding what my mandate is! Huh?… My mandate is to lead you, you ignorant bitch!!… Do you understand that!?… To LEAD YOU!!… Who will lead you when you bring people like me down?… Huh?… Who will lead you?… … You’re just a capitalist bitch… who sees even her own cunt as a capitalist tool.

Those who are not hypocrites are deep cynics with a little sadistic gratification thrown in: the playwright who instrumentalises personal tragedy; the spoilt young man.

At the beginning, the prostitute makes contemptuous observations about men:

“…they wonder why women, all over, even those who are not prostitutes, end up using their cunts as a bargaining chip… as a weapon”.

The subsequent scenes prove her cynical. The women of this play are worked on to give sex freely to men of whom they are wary but to whom they are attracted, or they sell, or are seduced, or raped. With the exception of the prostitute, any bargaining they do is concerned with affection; there is no empowerment (except perhaps the preacher’s wife, an older, affluent woman). The men are detached after sex. This is a play about women being exploited, men exploiting women, and the spread of HIV.

I don’t know La Ronde, but Grootboom makes a number of references (self-conscious references?) to artists’ instrumentalisation of bad sex. There is a curious scene where nobody has sex with anybody but the tutor-playwright character gratifies himself by pressuring the schoolgirl to divulge her personal tragedy:

“You’re not going to become an actor if you’re not honest…you see, if a part demands you to be a bitch, you have to realise what a slut you are to play it… as an actress you have to recognise what you do or how you once felt like that and use it”

The Stratford East theatre has the kind of bar where you can bump into the cast after the production. Matt found out that we were a good audience – responsive, and we laugh in the right places. Did I mention that it was also a funny play?

The reviews I’ve found are too cursory to bother linking to. Not sure why – this is a very powerful play. Anybody read French?

Catch the London production until Saturday 13th June.

Spring Tunes V.2

The New Centrist says:

“List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to.”

I’ve been delving back, way back, for solace in the past.

King of the Slums – Idolator

Soul II Soul featuring Rose Windross – Fairplay

Speedy J – De-Orbit.

Ellen Allien and Apparat – Jet. Fantastic portrait of skybound aeroplanes. Good for climbing mountains to.

The Cure – Hey you (this is such a great song).

Goldie – Inner City Life. Just got to listening to this again.

Elbow – I’ve Got Your Number. A bitter song of betrayal – favourite in their most recent album.

I’m tagging (with uncertain prospects, but anyway)

Popova and Rodchenko – self-destructive Constructivism

Space Force Construction by Liubov Popova

Space Force Construction by Liubov Popova

I’ve been at the Rodchenko and Popova exhibition at Tate Modern – best I’ve been to in a good while.

Constructivism was the avant-garde art of the Soviet Revolution and the years that followed. It was preceded in Russia by (among other movements) Expressionism and a fusion of Cubism and Futurism, and utlimately overtaken by socialist heroic realism glorifying the proletariat. Because I found the artworks alienating, I would unsympathetically summarise Constructivism as a self-instrumentalising form which, in contrast to contemporaries like Kandinsky, aimed to eradicate all personal expression from the work. As Artist-Constructors, its practitioners viewed themselves as engineers. They yearned to free Constructivist art from their own bourgeois easels and realise it for wider consumption in dimensions largely denied to them by the subsequent decades of failed Soviet ideology which they themselves had helped to shape.

This piece was supposed to be about Liubov Popova, but you’ll have to clamber over Rodchenko, Mayakovsky, and the Tate Modern shop to get to her. Typical woman.

I’d like to forget about Rodchenko as soon as possible because I found him infuriating. Rodchenko investigated the line. He proceeded to eliminate tone, texture and surface as imitative or decorative, and he abandoned free hand drawing as  redunded by the compass, ruler and revolution. During his domination of the interdisciplinary research institute INKhUK, he debated against composition and in favour of the impersonality of Construction. He turned Constructivism in the direction of the end of painting. Constructivists duly began to refer to their paintings as ‘laboratory work’.

Rodchenko struck me as a herald of Stalinism – from his early attempts to eliminate the human from the artwork to his late Workers’ Club designs for the productive (and never solitary) recreation of the proletariat. At the same time as he was eradicating humanity from his art, he was simultaneously celebrating his own break-throughs in jarringly self-congratulatory terms in his writings.

In 1918 he had responded to Malevich’s industrial monochrome black square with his own piece, Black on Black. Preceding Rothko’s experiments with black, he had demonstrated how black can both radiate and kill light. But by 1921, with three monochrome panels, Rodchenko had reasoned himself out of painterly practice altogether. No more figurative representation, he said. Each surface was a plane and must be painted as such:

“I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow. I affirmed: it’s over. Basic colours. Every plane is a plane and there is to be no representation”.

To formalise this close, he co-curated an exhibition of five changing and mostly painted artworks by each of five Constructivist artists – titled 5 X 5 = 25 – to bid a farewell to painting. And so he finally made the logical hop off the canvas and into built construction itself.

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Only he didn’t. Like most Constructivists the resources were not forthcoming for him to make such a transition. Russia was in an extremely bad way in the years after the revolution, people were starving and the economy was wrecked. In 1921 Lenin decided to re-permit limited private enterprise as part of his New Economic Policy (NEP). Rodchenko, along with the Futurist poet and former revolutionary Mayakovsky, formed ‘Advertisement Constructor Mayakovsky Rodchenko’ which made an advertising creative of Rodchenko and a copy-writer of Mayakovsky. Bolsheviks cried Capitalism at the NEP. Mayakovsky responded (comforted himself?) in his manifesto ‘Agitation and Advertising’ by casting his and Rodchenko’s work as political agitation:

“The bourgeoisie knows the power of advertising. Advertising is industrial, commercial agitation. Not a single business, especially not the steadiest, runs without advertising. It is the weapon that mows down the competition … But face to face with the NEP, in order to popularize the state and proletarian organizations, offices and products, we have to put into action the weapons, which the enemy also uses, including advertising”.

Under the New Economic Policy Rodchenko and Mayakovsky collaborated to promote biscuits, cigarettes and shopping centres.

That is a sketch of the rather brilliant, rather chilling, Rodchenko. I’d also like to forget the hammer and sickle merchandise – brooches, headscarfs, aprons – arrayed in the Tate Modern shop. The USSR was a totalitarian regime built on the sacrifice of 15 million lives. Soviet leaders then proceeded to defile these symbols and their vision in much the same way that Hitler defiled the hooked cross and its vision of a purified world. I baulk to see those symbols used stylistically or politically, particularly by intellectual visitors to art galleries. The presence of the hammer and sickle resurrected the appearance of the Soviet flag at the recent Put People First demonstration and made me half wonder, given that Fascism and Communism were both palingenetic responses to similar global phenomena (industrialisation, war, the retreat of God, anomie), whether the reappearance of Soviet trappings meant we would sooner or later see another Fascist moment with swastika brooches at the Tate. Matt and I toyed with the idea of buying a print of a Rodchenko poster proclaiming that Trade Unionists had nothing to fear from Lenin’s New Economic Policy, but we quickly decided that, in common with all Constructivist art, it was no fitting ornament for a home.

Liubov Popova

Liubov Popova

I intended to write this piece about Liubov Popova, but now I realise that less proposes itself. I have to think harder about her – which I must because this, I have a hunch, is precisely how women disappear from history. Unlike Rodchenko, she didn’t spend much time reflecting on her practice for posterity, and there was little sense of her own importance. In order to persuade her brother to part with some of her works on plywood, a latter-day collector had to provide him with alternative weatherproofing for the windows of his dacha. Not that she didn’t design on an epic scale – The Struggle and Victory of the Soviets was a revolutionary spectacle involving 2,000 participants which, given the current famine, would have been Mugabe-ishly indecent to stage. Like Rodchenko her works were cold and impersonal – after typhoid killed her husband and ravaged her own health in 1919, her return to painting reveals nothing of her state of mind.This was the Constructivist way.

What animates her painting is the will to escape the canvas and plywood – it has an energy which Rodchenko’s pedantic ruler-and-compass work with lines lacks, for me. Her early works, first Painterly Architectronics and Painterly Constructions but particularly her Space Force Constructions remind me, in the way they seem to try to free themselves from the flat plane, of geese taking off from water. Prior to her migration into free-standing theatrical sets and textiles, she too tried to escape representational forms and attain for many works the status of object in their own right by experimenting with planes and texturing the surfaces with powdered metal and wood.

Ultimately she took off from the flat into stage sets and textiles. Her fabrics were intended to be affordable and distinctive and in this work she felt she connected with the proletariat:

“…no single artistic success gave me such profound satisfaction as the sight of a peasant woman buying a piece of my fabric for a dress.”

However, Useless as a Church points out that her rational dress designs, strangely androgynous considering they were after all dresses, didn’t take off and she didn’t seem to have worn them herself.

Like Rodchenko, Popova sought the obliteration of the individual from artworks. 1922’s stage production of The Magnanimous Cuckold featured her set design, a stylised mill with working parts, and costumes which recast the human actor as an abstract form in the construction.

I think the exhibition would have depressed Popova and Rodchenko, who wouldn’t have felt the punters reflected well on the work. The gallery setting too would have reminded them of their ultimate failure to actualise their utopia. Rodchenko was strikingly previous when he mused in 1927:

“When I look at the number of paintings I have painted, I sometimes wonder what I shall do with them, there are over ten years work in them. But they are as useless as a church. They serve no purpose whatsoever.”

In fact, they form the bulk of his legacy. And people enjoy visiting churches – for the atmosphere.

But the exhibition kept faith with the emotionlessness of Constructivism in at least one important way – it was exceedingly thin on biographical detail. We find out little of their early life or how they came to associate. Or maybe this is because if biographies had been permitted to intrude, communicative Rodchenko would have overshadowed discreet Popova even more.

I also wondered – knowing little about this time – about the extent to which, prescient of the repressive direction which Soviet socialism, with the individual relegated to the status of a single, dispensable cell in a larger corpus, must take, the self-negation of  the Constructivists was in some way an act of self-preservation. Intellectuals would be thought un-heroic in Soviet Russia – Arthur Koestler (in Arrow In The Blue I think) acutely records the inverted snobbery of the times, his own occupational embarrassment and his disappointment when turned down for farm work and consigned to his customary writing work with a gentle reproach along the lines of “from each according to his ability”. In those times artists could not remain as they had been, and the parameters of their evolution were limited by Soviet totalitarianism. These artists were the heralds of a new civilisation, and that civilisation was supposed to be dominated by the miner, the factory operative, the agricultural labourer. It was a social handicap, in the early days, to have expressed speculative thoughts for a living. The end of artistic speculation was supposed to have arrived.

Artists always ask themselves what they are for. It’s infinitely better if ‘for‘ is in the sense of values, rather than in the instrumental, utilitarian sense of Rodchenko’s and Popova’s investigations. In attracting and accepting the official backing of totalitarians, they largely abrogated their artistic obligations with regards to the establishment. This was not a concern for them – they were happy with the establishment, mistaking it for their utopia incarnate. I hope art doesn’t see the likes of Rodchenko and Popova again.

Pomegranates and Myrrh – the Palestinian struggle for a culture

The assault on Palestinian culture posed by the Israeli occupation is well-recognised, but it is not the only threat.

Najwa Najjar’s Pomegranates and Myrrh is a bitter-sweet Palestinian film, intriguingly described as a crowd-pleaser, a political, and a story of strong women. Something about Palestinians which hasn’t been mediated by Hamas supporters. The Sundance Film Festival synopsis:

“Dancer Kamar’s joyful wedding to Zaid is followed almost immediately by Zaid’s imprisonment in an Israeli jail for refusing to give up his land. Free-spirited Kamar wants to support her husband and be a dutiful wife but struggles with the idea of giving up dance and her own dreams. Matters are complicated when a new dance instructor, Kais, returns to the studio after many years in Lebanon and takes a special interest in Kamar. She struggles to deal with the weight of Kais’s attention, which brings to the surface her attempts to balance her own desires with her duties as the wife of a prisoner.Like the character of Kamar herself, Najwa Najjar’s filmmaking (in her debut feature) is matter-of-fact about Kamar’s situation. Instead of manufacturing melodrama, Najjar stays focused on her protagonist’s insistence on seeing her life, like anyone else’s, as an opportunity for joy. The constant interference of the external conflict—her husband’s arrest, the squatters on her land, and the soldiers filling the streets—is an unavoidable aspect of Kamar’s existence but one that she will not allow to deter her. Najjar’s intimate storytelling and Yasmine Al Massri’s sensitive portrayal of Kamar create a film that addresses honestly the way a woman might face the realities of life in modern-day Palestine while refusing to be defined by them.”

Najjar says:

“I didn’t want my film to be a violent film of the kind you see in cinemas,” explains Najwa Najjar. “Zaid and everything he went through was important for me. We have all seen violence before. And so have the viewers.”

“Take, for example, the scene showing the quiet determination of the settlers who strap machine guns to their bodies and set up tents on the family’s land, or the constant presence of Israeli soldiers, whether it be at checkpoints or in the streets of Ramallah. Anyone who has been in the occupied territories in recent years knows that this is an accurate representation of life there: the omnipresence of the occupying forces, the helplessness of the Palestinians, and their attempts not to spend their lives being full-time victims and not staring at the occupying forces like a frightened rabbit stares at a snake.

“We are not what you see on television,” explains Najjar. “There is a feeling of solidarity, of holding together, among many Palestinians. While there are political problems with Hamas and Fatah and the things that are happening in the country, these political disputes are the result of the fact that there is a lack of vision for the future. Among Palestinians themselves, however, there are not as many conflicts.”

The fact that Qamar does not want to stop dancing and insists on culture in her life while everything around her becomes politicised, is also an expression of the political disillusionment of the young film-maker.

“I think that culture is the soul, the heart-beat of a nation. It is what remains when politics fails. Politics is leading us nowhere. So at least leave us our culture. That, at least, is something we can pass on to future generations.”

The film looks quite steamy – the tempestuous women, the smouldering dance teacher. Hamas inmates of Israeli jails are campaigning to have it banned – this reminds me of working in HMP Bedford (where I was switchboard operator and made particular efforts to put wives through to husbands – although it wasn’t strictly permitted) and how being inside and imagining your other half with another man is terrible for morale. In the case of ideological hate-mongers, perhaps it’s better if morale is low. But then again perhaps it just makes them more hateful.

Daoud Kuttab in The Huffington Post:

“While many welcomed it, some felt that somehow Najjar treaded on forbidden territory when she took the audience inside the head of a liberal prisoner’s wife, and then showed her conflict about going back to dancing and even exchanging special looks with her trainer. Some seemed to think it lunacy, others treason.

A report highlighting the angry statement of a viewer appeared in the media and seems to have made its way inside the Israeli prisons where a campaign began by Hamas prisoners asking for the film to be banned because it negatively portrayed the prisoners’ wives.

The filmmaker’s protagonist couple are patriotic Palestinians from the nationalist liberal wing of Palestinian struggle today, yet this did not stop the campaign. Some see this campaign as a reflection of the overall Palestinian political and social divide. Counter-campaigns, one led by well-respected Palestinian novelist Lina Bader, have also been initiated.”

(Liana Badr?)

“One of the problems facing Palestinian creative talent and intellectuals is that they often give themselves the awesome difficulty of having to carry the entire Palestinian cause on their shoulders. Even paintings have to have the colours of the Palestinian flag, or some kind of embroidery, or cactus, or Handallah, or the map of Palestine in order to pass the test of patriotism. But artists are not obliged to do that.

A Palestinian fiction need not be the official narrative of all Palestinians, neither should any other work of art of culture have that requirement. By attempting to mass everything into every work, Palestinians fall into exactly the stereotypical trap that has been set up for them.”

The trailer: