Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Pina and the stereoscope

I decided to give myself an Easter treat. Having found suitable eggs for my parents, who like milk chocolate; my son, who is a vegan and my daughter, who doesn't like chocolate very much, it seemed time to give myself a present. I determined on an Easter Day trip to the cinema and resolutely ignored the demands of house, garden and work.

My first idea was to see the film Oranges and Sunshine by Jim Loach. I still hope to see that some time. The scandal of children shipped from Britain to Australia, where many were abused and exploited, has particular resonance in the East Midlands, where the story was first brought to public attention. Jim Loach's film, which tells that story, is well-cast and has received excellent reviews. But I wasn't sure I wanted to be distressed on Easter Sunday, which is supposed to be a day of rejoicing.

A glimpse of a good review turned my attention to Wim Wenders' film, Pina. My daughter studied Pina Bausch's work at university and her views shifted from mild dislike to enthusiastic appreciation. It isn't easy to shift my daughter's views and I thought I would like to learn more about the choreographer who achieved that. While dance isn't one of my greatest interests, every so often a dance work does excite me and Pina Bausch, who used the term Tanztheater (dance-theatre) for her work, seemed the kind of creator who would at least be interesting. And when I heard of Wim Wenders' enthusiasm for 3D, my choice was settled.

I've never taken 3D cinema seriously before. I've enjoyed a couple of 3D cinema experiences – at least, I think I have – but while they were probably exciting at the time they had the quality of theme-park rides: intense at the time but ultimately unmemorable. Yet 3D is a logical development of cinema which includes the stereoscope among its origins.

I like stereoscopes. I've peered through them in museums and seen two similar, apparently-faded sepia prints spring into something resembling solidity. They recapture an unalterable past and give it a brief air of tangibility. The images shimmer into solidity before my uncertain gaze. I wasn't sure how 3D would work for dance but it seemed an appropriately elegaic mode for this subject – Pina Bausch died just as Wenders was starting work on a film about her.

The film Wenders has made is an elegy. Dancers' words recalling Pina are heard as they gaze silently into camera. There are also clips which show Pina dancing. These are, of course, in 2D but the stereoscopic effect is achieved by the use of an on-screen audience, reminding us that what we watch belongs to the past and cannot be recreated. The inclusion of 2D footage also has the effect of ensuring that the 3D effects remain vivid and startling – the brain isn't allowed to become acclimatised to the novelty of the experience.

I'm not sure I understand Pina Bausch's work. Even if I did, it resists being put into words. As she says during the film (so far as I can recollect), dance is an ideal medium for things which can be hinted but not spoken directly. Once I start describing what the dancers do and how they move, I know I'm diminishing their work. More than for most art-forms, the meaning of dance is unsayable.

Moreover the dances Pina Bausch created work, like most dance, by repetition of movement. A sequence which is initially startling – often because of the skill employed by the dancers – ceases to astonish and appeals to the emotions as it is performed again and again. My brain can't unscramble the effects but I can feel them.

At times, of course, my concentration flagged. Sometimes all I saw were the startling 3D effects as dancers moved towards me and away. That may have been because I was tired, because I'm insufficiently familiar with the vocabulary of dance or even because Wim Wenders is not yet sufficiently in command of 3D cinema and its effects. But my interest never fell away and I emerged from the darkened cinema feeling that I'd seen something that isn't usually available away from the screen.

“After all,” I reflected on the train home, “3D is never quite so intensive and exciting in the real world. The 3D of reality is flatter than that.” And then, when I left the station, I looked up and was suddenly aware of distance – between sky, houses, trees, road and lamp-posts. It seems that the film has re-educated my brain. The world I see now has sprung back into its real, 3D perspective.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Enduring freedom

I took another look at the peace-camp on Saturday. It's been shifted to the pavement in Parliament Square while the grass, which London mayor Boris Johnson said he wanted to preserve for the people of London, is closed off with tall fences and patrolled by security guards.

The peace-campers' tents are neat and there's plenty of space for pedestrians on the pavement. I was one of many people visiting to read the banners. But it's still hard to reach the traffic island – I've yet to find a set of traffic lights that enable the public to reach the island. I had to employ my usual technique of a quick dash as the third lane of traffic slowed.

I suspect there will be an attempt, on some pretext or other, to remove the peace-campers before Friday's Royal Wedding, even though they offer no more risk than a fairly quiet protest on a range of issues, most – but not all – related to war. One man's banners announce that he is undertaking a hunger strike because he has been unjustly imprisoned. If he were in Tripoli the British press would probably declare him a hero. As it was, none of the campers even offered me a leaflet. I read their hand-made banners without interruption. Theirs is a quiet, enduring protest.

If the peace-camp is cleared, it will make the streets more home-like and welcoming for the despots and their representatives who are attending Prince William's wedding. The Crown Prince of Bahrain has finally pulled out, citing troubles at home – these could include the brutality his own and Saudi troops are showing to unarmed demonstrators and the doctors who treat them. But London and the Royal Family will still welcome representatives of Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland.

Looking at summaries of the Guantanamo files, I can't help thinking that these tyrants have much in common with our other allies – and perhaps with our own, more secretive activities elsewhere in the world. Apparently the United States military didn't just take people to Guantanamo because they thought they were terrorists. They also kidnapped and imprisoned people who they thought might have useful information. A taxi-driver, for instance, was reckoned to have good knowledge of a particular region because his work took him through it. One man – a British citizen – was held because he had been imprisoned by the Taliban and was therefore likely to have good knowledge of their interrogation techniques. A 14-year-old who had been kidnapped and was known to be innocent of all terrorist activities was kidnapped again – this time by the Americans – because he might have knowledge of the Taliban and local leaders.

As for evidence of terrorist activities – the U.S. military didn't need much ground for arrest, deportation and torture. Visiting Afghanistan after 9/11 was enough. So was possession of a Casio watch, although the models the U.S. found suspicious are cheap and widely available.

I expect the United States ambassador will be at the Royal Wedding. After all, the North Korean ambassador has been invited – as have kings, queens, princes and princesses from several countries that have been republics for a long time. I hope that none of them – and none of the “ordinary” people invited – are wearing Casio watches. That could set off some serious security alarms.

More than that, I hope the peace-camp survives Will and Kate's special day. It would be good to think there's still a small patch of pavement in London where freedom survives, despite the actions of the state.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Harrods of the ancient world

How could something so fragile last so long?

I gazed at the remains of brittle gold bowls and goblets. I could see where the stem of the goblet should be. The amazing thing is not that it has vanished but the thin, ridged bowl should have survived. I peered closer to make out the outlines of bulls on part of a bowl. A craftsman scored them gently into the gold around four thousand years ago. They are evidence of a vanished civilization of which little else is known. They come from Afghanistan.

I was hesitant about visiting the Afghan Treasures exhibition at the British Museum. I thought uncomfortably of conquerors, loot and triumphal processions. Exhibitions often arrive with an agenda, especially when they have been negotiated by diplomats. But this exhibition seems to have a gentler and more laudable cause. The British Museum has been restoring ivories that were stolen in the looting of Kabul Museum and recovered by an unnamed philanthropists. The British Museum staff have been working with the staff of Kabul Museum and the exhibition, however dependent on diplomatic goodwill and corporate sponsors, comes out of their joint work. The exhibition tells another story too – of museum staff who hid the treasures so that the history of their country could be preserved.

The history of Afghanistan is not well known. There is much that has not yet been recovered or understood. Western history books have tended to simplify the region as a place of romantic barbarism which briefly encountered civilization with the arrival of Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great, who married an Afghan wife and adopted local customs, may have viewed it differently.

So far as I can gather and recollect, the region had two reasons for importance in the world. It was a source of lapis lazuli, which was rare and much in demand. And although its terrain is difficult by contemporary vehicles, it stood on major trade routes, bordering India, China and the Persian Empire. Traders went as far as Greece and Rome, although the journey each way would have taken a year. The treasures they brought back, particularly to Begram, are protected in glass cases in the exhibition.

Captions show the uncertainty of the curators about the exhibits on view. There is a head of Silenus, clearly recognizable, but did the Afghans really know who Silenus was? Its unclear whether the owners of valuable items purchased deities or just attractive statues – rather as a modern mantlepiece may bear statues of Ganesh or the Buddha without necessarily demonstrating any religious allegiance or knowledge.

There's glass, too – Roman glass most probably or perhaps made in Egypt - the curators cannot be sure how it reached Begram from Rome since the way was blocked by war with Parthia. One piece is enamelled with full-length figures which even I can see are Roman in style. Another's delicately ornamented with vines made from the glass itself. But beside these are statues carved in turned ivory – chair-legs, the inscription suggests – each with a swaying female figure in what seems to me an Indian style. There are glass fish, a face that resembles a Greek or Chinese theatrical mask. There are Corinthian columns and finials. Some items must have been made in Afghanistan by craftsmen who had learnt skills from crafts practised elsewhere. But many items are imports, suggesting a place like Britain today where beautiful objects from all over the world can be prized and owned.

Half-way round the exhibition, I realised something else that was troubling me, though it's not unusual. I had little sense of the lives of the people who owned these objects, other than that they were very rich and could afford goods imported from far-off places. It was as if, one day far in the future, someone were to excavate Harrods and, finding only a few of the goods on show, tried to understand life today on that basis. Perhaps that is what has survived. Perhaps these expensive, traded goods represent the Harrods of the ancient world.

As I wandered through the exhibition, the past seemed both more distant and more familiar. I couldn't grasp past Afghan cultures but then, if asked, I couldn't give a simple account that took in the whole of west European culture today. Artefacts left by Afghan trading centres, which drew goods and influence from across the world, speak of a complex, varied society. This shouldn't be surprising or unusual. But I began to realise that many exhibitions treat the past as a collection of small, separate societies. They don't just assume that societies are culturally pure – they often treat cultural purity as something good in itself. The textbooks I studied at school were wary of cultural mixing. Rome's interest in things Greek was regarded with disdain although the Renaissance interest in Greek art and sculpture was excused as a means of regaining artistic purity after the confused muddle of the Middle Ages.

Looking at the wide range of objects on display and marvelling at their variety, I realised how much ancient history has been filtered through subjective and questionable value judgements. I suppose curators have to simplify – just as their displays provide the kind of neat, comforting pattern humans are trained to prefer. But in real life I like variety and complexity – and am glad that human existence resists a neatly moral narrative arc.

At last I neared the object I recognized from the posters for the exhibition: the gold crown once worn, so the captions assured me, by a nomad princess. I expected something bright and golden but I hadn't realised the tiny golden discs would tremble continuously, as though there were a breeze or breath inside the glass case. I read that the crown could be packed away and folded – and that all the nomad treasures, buried two thousand years ago, could be carried easily on horseback. In my imagination an Afghan princess rode through wild landscapes, the trembling crown on her head and a gold-studded cloak behind her. It's an improbable fantasy. I have no idea what the concept “princess” means in terms of nomadic people two thousand years ago - I wonder if the women were princesses in any way we can understand.

Little seems to be known of Afghan nomadic life beyond the six graves in Tilya Tepe. But the adornments found in the tombs of five women and one man link the items closely to the humans who wore them. It's not just the photos showing how the bodies lay when the tombs were opened or the glass case where the golden items mark out the shape of a human form. It's more to do with the sense that these items once touched living flesh and the the gold was caught on wisps of cloth the tombs were found. I peered as directed to see that the bracelets show signs of wear – in contact with an arm over time, gold diminishes.

The exhibition isn't big or cheap (I got in for half price – £5 – with my Art Fund membership). Space inside is limited because items are small and, when I visited on Saturday, that meant queuing briefly before reaching most cabinets. I haven't carried away a neat package of knowledge about an obscure culture. Instead I have grounds for wonder and wondering – more than enough.