What They Have To Say Is Really Worth Listening To

OCEANIA, Royal Academy of Arts, Main Galleries 29 September - 10 December 2018

Only when you see all these things, artefacts, art objects, in this odd, high status, sort of ultra-important (glass cases, spot lights, what-have-you), presentation, these things, this stuff, which has collectively formed a kind of background hum to your entire life (my life that is) that it really hits you (me): out of context, out of place, set up as one thing when they are all really something else entirely, silently screaming ‘let me out!’, it really, really hits you (me again) the way in which decades, centuries of disregard have so utterly leached out their real meaning, that in their own place, their own context, they have been considered (by the representatives of the conquering culture) as no more than so much junk, evidence of a lack of sophistication, a lack of civilisation, something to be moved on from, to be replaced (with what exactly?), to be reduced to oddities in museums, detritus of our (Western Civilisation’s) progress, evolution.

A little incoherent with rage, maybe? I am a colonial. I grew up in North Queensland and went to boarding school in Cairns, which sort of qualifies as a part of Oceania. Lot of students at my school were from Papua New Guinea and the surrounding islands. I’ve been to New Guinea and seen where some of these artefacts come from. I’ve been to Vanuatu and seen what people making films for Western audiences hungry for exotic locations will sink to. I’ve had first hand experience of Australian aborigines living as fringe dwellers and in reservations.

But the imprimatur of the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly, London is something to be conjured with. Surely this kind of notice from those who matter can make a difference? Such a solid gold trademark can elevate the construction of any old feathers and bark to the rarified level of Art, worthy of the attention of the great and good, worthy even of the sale of facsimiles in the gift shop? Elevated even to the level of diplomatic soft power?

Art, art galleries, the art world, have raised the idea of the unique artistic expression, the unique art object, to the level of a fetish, an obsession, an unhealthy quasi-religious ecstasy. We are surrounded, almost to the point of being drowning by, inundated by, manufactured stuff, identical items produced and consumed in their millions and billions, and yet advertised, sold, as unique, special, differentiated, individual. That car is exactly the same as every other car of its type and yet, when it’s yours, it will be special, unique, an expression of you. Western art has become the rarified pinnacle of this nonsense.

Self-expression, the expression of self, the individual, unassailable self: this is Western art. It’s a travesty.

The reality of arriving, as the original inhabitants of these islands did, at a strange place full of strange plants and animals, and having to somehow survive, was incredibly difficult. To survive, and thrive, over millennia, is extraordinary, heroic, spectacular. This is obvious. And as romantic an idea as Robinson Crusoe is, no individual would have made it. It would have taken a whole boat-load of Man Fridays.

This art, these artefacts, represent interaction, working together to ensure survival in harsh conditions. ‘So what?’ you say. Everyone knows that. It’s obvious. They were backward. They were incapable of coming up with modern life, modern inventions, modern stuff. Art has moved on too. Self-expression is the next level. Art is now spectacularly valuable. What’s wrong with that?

One item in the exhibition stands out: the statue of the god known as A’a. A male deity, about the size of a small child, carved from wood, with a head like a large plate, and, notably, his features, eyes, nose, mouth, nipples, belly button, etc, are small people, tiny figures, which gives the whole thing a kind of surreal effect, a conundrum, cognitive dissonance. It’s impossible to hold both the larger person and the tiny people in your head at the same time. It’s one or the other. At the simplest level the small people are the deity’s eyes, ears and so on, and the larger figure is the context for the smaller, but beyond that there is the suggestion that both larger and smaller are contained within each other, that they are interchangeable in some fundamental way, just as were Classical Greek gods at once human and divine, and yet A’a manages to express this in a way which seem to defy logic. It is a visual representation of an utterly different way of looking at people and their interaction, their relationships.

Something similar applies to the simple patterns made up of strips of wood and mother-of-pearl which represent ocean maps, the way that people could traverse the almost infinite Pacific in relative safety. The wooden strips represent interaction, currents, wind direction, people, time, all in an aesthetically beautiful but simple (and portable) representation.

The paradox of this kind of art, is that each piece is truly unique, but is an expression of interaction and pattern. What they represent is the opposite of self-expression, of any kind of cult of the individual. They represent an utterly different way of conceiving what constitutes a person and what a society and culture.

Western civilisation, underwritten in a way by Western art, is busy changing the climate and thus acting to inundate numerous Pacific islands, to effectively drown whole civilisations, the ones they haven’t already destroyed that is, that the hubris of ‘we know best’ is utterly overwhelming and unstoppable, that until we look on this kind of art as different from what is normally hung in these galleries, different in a way that is important and instructive, that what they have to say is really worth listening to, the islands will continue to drown, aborigines will continue to die in prison and our own art will retreat deeper and deeper inside its destructive cult of the self.

Paul Corcoran

Anything is Possible

Queens Row, written and directed by Richard Maxwell, with Nazira Hanna, Soraya Naipour, Antonia Summer, Institute of Contemporary Art, Friday 28th September, 7pm

The great thing about theatre in an art gallery is that anything is possible, and permittable, this at a time when theatre, pretty much the English-speaking world over, has manoeuvred itself into a cul-de-sac of variously Shakespeare, post-Stanislavsky method acting which is sort of the same as saying ‘feeling is truth and truth is feeling, because, like, I feel it’ and tourist flim-flam. Theatre in an art gallery is also fairly certain to be serious, in the sense of having something serious to say, though it can perhaps also be a little unfunny, given that maybe theatre itself is just a little too inclined toward the description ‘giggle factory’.

Queens Row takes a reductive, and serious, approach, breaking the presentation into its constituent parts, speaking without movement, movement without speaking, lighting which fulfils a symbolic role, as well as illuminating the action. To the extent that the audience is involved, it is as listeners, concerned, concentrating, amazed (my response) by the sheer ability of the performers to remember the words, or non-words, the broken sentences, the non-sequiturs, the stories which didn’t really flow, broken into parts, into bits and pieces.

This presentation reminded me of another show, almost 2 years ago, at the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts in Brighton, Can I Start Again, Please by Sue MacLaine, in which two women, ticked out as to be suggestive of beached mermaids (so without legs), alternately speak and sign (in a kind of sitting dance) what the other is speaking, though in this case the story is clearer and, though unresolved, has a specific flow.

Richard Maxwell is even braver, making the speakers more mysterious, less the vehicle for a specific story, more abstract, more about words for their own sake, words as an end in themselves.

But the thing with abstraction is, it’s all about being abstracted from the particular. If the person speaking the words isn’t abstracted, that even though it’s just words, if the words come from them, then it isn’t abstract. It’s particular, if you know what I mean. This is a conundrum, and perhaps a problem with theatre in general, in that speaking, or signing, or dancing, if expressive of a particular person, is limited to that person. Theatre, and theatre as art, can’t break free in that way that an objective, abstract piece of physical art can.

There has to be a way out of this problem, though Queens Row perhaps isn’t it. The performers aren’t necessarily acting, nor are they separate from the words they speak.

Luckily, there are other aspects to theatre that this production doesn’t essay. Actors can create collective rhythm, movement, meaning which is separate from each individual and potentially abstract in effect. It would be very interesting to see these devices given the same kind of focus as Maxwell here gives to the spoken word.

Paul Corcoran

Don’t Tell

Eastern Star, written and directed by Guy Slater, with David Yip, Michael Lumsden, Julie Cheung-Inhin and Patrick Pearson, Tara Arts, Wednesday 12th September, 7.30pm

Events have somewhat overtaken this play, given that it recounts, or deals with, an encounter from 2013 during which is discussed an event which occurred in 1988 (confused?), and though a couple of its characters are in the news currently it’s for entirely different, though no less controversial, reasons, so if theatre, by definition, exists unequivocally in the now (the now of the play that is), old news needs a pretty good excuse, a powerful case for its presence, if it wants to grab you by the throat. It’s not an accident that news is new. 

What’s more, this is a tele-play, (or radio play even, given that the original news reports on the BBC World Service were spoken word only) that’s been squeezed, or crow-barred, onto the stage, complete with beds, tables, soup, wine, chairs, stools, tears, histrionics, all completely superfluous really. What it actually lacks is what television is best at - the replay of footage from the time, vision of the brutal fact of a military dictatorship in full flow.

And given that we’ve all become very used to the idea that bits of television showing violence and bombing, or the results of such actions, can represent actual news, just as since the time of David Lean (filmmaker of note) we’ve all accepted very happily the concept of one or maybe two characters can stand for an entire social, political, artistic, philosophical situation which may unfold over years, it’s not really a surprise that this play should take the form it does. What I’m trying to say is that whatever is onstage, it is totally overwhelmed by the current situation in Myanmar involving as it does genocide, Aung San Suu Kyi, jailed journalists, not to mention that Christopher Gunness, one of the plays central characters, is now the head of a United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees which has just had its funding removed by Donald Trump.

I am in no way qualified to hold forth in print on any of these situations, the Palestinian right of return, the Rohingya people, the popularity or otherwise in Myanmar of Aung San Suu Kyi (who makes an appearance of sorts), what I’m actually here to do is talk about a theatre piece which does what I guess everyone expects the theatre to do, ie. give a platform to some self-expression; shed a few tears, shout a bit, talk about feelings, show some emotion, get it off your chest, spread a bit of empathy or sympathy; whatever; be about the individual, a particular person or two.

In the play, Christopher Gunness, Oxford graduate and real person is a green but enthusiastic young BBC reporter (Clark Kent anyone?) sent out to Burma now Myanmar because there were rumours that something might be happening. The BBC World Service (radio) is listened to widely in Burma, so young Chris has an influence he perhaps doesn’t entirely appreciate. He enters the country ‘under cover’, pretending to be a tourist, a backpacker, and stays in a fleapit hotel where he files his stories to the BBC (I assume on a public telephone) at the top of his voice and for the amusement of all listening military dictatorship spies and others. He is contacted clandestinely by the ‘others’ ultimately by U Nay Min, also a character in the play, a local human rights lawyer, who, along with the leaders of what would become a student-led uprising, feed Christopher various titbits, effectively using the BBC World Service as their very own communications network. You can imagine how this goes down with the military. (Sounds like a Graham Greene novel you may say.)

All so interesting. The uprising happens. The crackdown happens. There is bloodshed, prison. Myanmar is an international pariah for more that twenty years. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the uprising, in 2013, Christopher Gunness goes back to Myanmar for the first time since the uprising. And he meets U Nay Min, again for the first time since 1988. U Nay Min has been in prison for 16 years, 8 years of those for attempting to contact Christopher. Chris knew about the attempted contact but was advised by the Foreign Office not to reply. So Chris feels a little guilt. Feels. Eight more years in prison for his friend, being tortured. Pretty heavy. Lots of night sweats and bad dreams.

Worse is to come. Much worse. Spoilers. What I will say is that the play is about one character’s guilt and the other character’s anger and resentment. But emotion butters no parsnips. Emotion isn’t performative. Emotion, no matter how intense, isn’t the basis for drama. There is no real interaction. Each is locked in his own emotional situation. The most interesting thing about their relationship, that the young reporter was manipulated by the older lawyer, just as he manipulated the students and the wider situation, as he worked to keep out of the front line of the revolution, to keep anonymous, to stay out of prison and then wasted his life blaming his dupe for his misfortune. This is almost ignored, or at best, simply talked about.

Paul Corcoran