Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Seeing the naked youth

Just as I succumbed to a horror of a cold – combined, inevitably, with a busy period at work – the East Midlands offered a cultural cornucopia of events. I missed too many, some because they clashed with work or other events and some because I feared to interrupt a reading or performance with a hacking cough. At least I made it to a recital by Trevor Pinnock, which included works by Couperin, Bach and Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and to a range of poetry events including a small but well-attended celebration of National Poetry Day in Leicester and the first reading in the Nottingham Poetry Series.

I also attended a reading at the first Beeston International Poetry Festival. I hope it's the first of many. The festival, organised by poet, professor and jazz-man John Lucas, offers bargain-price (£3!) and free events at small venues including shops, libraries and the splendid Flying Goose café which also hosts a series of literary events through the year. I hope to attend further Beeston poetry events and will blog about them later. This paragraph should be seen as a taster and an advertisement for the rest of the festival – details can be found by clicking here.

However the major event of the cultural calendar – at least as far as the national press is concerned – must be the arrival of the British Art Show, In The Days of the Comet. It's a quinquennial event and this year it opened in Nottingham, taking over four venues: Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham Castle, the New Art Exchange and One Thoresby Street. By luck, I found myself invited to the preview and finally well enough to take advantage of the invitation.

Previews are strange events, half party and half excitable tour of art. There are speeches too and, as I walked up the stairs towards the Long Gallery at Nottingham Castle I realised that listening to speeches would be the first part of my duty. At first the combination of microphone and echo so distorted the sound that I was reminded of the opening of Chaplin's City Lights. Perhaps they aren't speeches at all but an installation, I reflected. But they were speeches and, as I moved round the gallery, the sound became clearer. There were several references to the cuts and quite a few to “bonking bunnies”. “In the Days of the Comet” seemed an apt title for the show – if the Comet was a metaphorical reference to George Osborne's hacksaw.

There was something strange about the roughness of the art in the 19th century grandeur of Nottingham Castle. But hints of destruction also seemed apt both for the castle's past - the locals set it alight and watched it burn in the Reform Bill riots of 1831 - and for current anxieties. "It feels like the end of days," a colleague remarked a week or so ago, and her words chimed so well with my own feelings that they have haunted me ever since.

While some works were carefully wrought - sometimes for wealthy patrons - others spoke of change, anger and destruction. I couldn't see all the art clearly for the crowds at the preview and have decided to go back and see the exhibitions again when they were less crowded. I certainly couldn't give the video installations the time they demanded. But I was mesmerised by a mysterious monochrome work with people and peacocks that turned out by a tapestry. And I gazed at what appeared to be a cross between a bombed and deserted house and the kind of cart tugged through battlefields by Mother Courage. It was fragile, dilapidated and strangely beautiful.

Downstairs in the castle café there was free champagne, provided by the exhibition's sponsors, for any visitor with the patience to get through the crush. I met my friend Katie there and we savoured a moment of cool luxury on the castle balcony before returning to look once more at the art.

We were both tired - Katie had come straight from teaching - so decided to leave our visit to the New Art Exchange for another day. Instead we made our way to the Nottingham Contemporary which was also so packed that it was sometimes hard to view the exhibits. I was pleased to find work by the remarkable Alasdair Gray on show - I'm so fond of his fiction that I often forget that he's an artist and designer as well. I hoped to spot him among the hordes but, if he was there, I didn't see him.

Tiredness induced frivolity. Katie looked at what appeared to be a giant teddy-bear's head made out of canvas and wondered if it would be possible to use it for camping. We inspected the guy ropes and looked for tent flaps before sadly concluding that there was no useful entrance to the main space. Then I saw the fire.

It was plainly meant to be there. As I approached I could see that the flame occupied part of a metal park bench. Perched next to it was an extraordinarily accurate life-size model of a bearded young man wearing only a pair of blue y-fronts. As I got closer, I realised that it was not a model at all but a young man, sitting very still and gazing at the flame beside him. There's something strange about being invited to stare at a semi-nude man in an art gallery. I became aware of textures, flesh tones, the unnevenness of toes, softness, imperfection, vulnerability.

Katie and I read the notice together. It informed us that the flame would be lit once a day and that, once a week, it would be tended by "a naked youth." "But he isn't naked," I whispered to Katie. She instantly urged me to complain. But how could I complain to a still youth who was involved in a work of art?

Katie considered other grounds for complaint. He wasn't tending the flame, merely watching it. As if to reinforce her comments, the flame extinguished itself and went out. We wandered back in the direction of the youth, who had started engaging in conversation with visitors. But we were too late. Just as we arrived at his bench, a curator appeared holding a dressing gown which the youth put on before departing round a corner.

We saw the youth later, in the bar. By this time he was wearing a check shirt and looking cheerful. Frivolity was taking over. Katie drew my attention to the visitors' shoes and fashion sense. Then she suggested we were too tired for more art - and indeed we were. We headed, briefly, to a cocktail bar before going home.

It's comforting to know that the exhibitions continue till January. That should give me the opportunity for several visits. I may even attempt a more serious review. In the meantime, the first newspaper reviews are being published, and they're good.


katie said...

I do not need to be tired in order to be frivolous.

Also, I still think that perhaps the flame is regularly tended by a youth in underpants, but that once a week he might take the pants off.

Kathz said...

I feel bound to add that I returned a week later and saw the naked youth again. This time he was not wearing underpants although his approach to tending still left much to be desired. However I am pleased to report that he is making encouraging progress in the role. I wonder how it will appear on his c.v.