COLOSSAL Alps rise up behind a bright yellow house. The mountains are chalky blue with pink icing. A lime green sky is a pale reflection of the grassy foreground. Gabriele Münter painted “Das Glebe Haus” in 1908, depicting a house she had recently bought in the charming Bavarian town of Murnau, south of Munich. The 31-year-old artist (pictured below) shared this country retreat with Wassily Kandinsky (pictured below), a Russian painter, who was then 42. (He was married but promised they’d wed as soon as he divorced.)
Today, Münter House is an engaging museum. Rooms are furnished with small paintings by both artists and displays from their folk-art collection (which served as models in many still lifes). Kandinsky’s frieze of male and female riders gallops up the stairs. It feels like a happy place. Certainly it was buzzing. Many Münter photographs (she was a keen and good photographer) record visits of the emerging Blue Rider group, among them Franz Marc, Alexei Jawlensky, Marianne Werefkin and August Macke (see our article in this week’s paper). These radical visionaries created art that embraced all styles, techniques and subject matter. Their expansive approach has inspired artists ever since (see slideshow at bottom).
The Blue Rider group was full of creative duos: Lily Klee was a musician; Maria Marc and Elisabeth Macke were painters. Today, however, Münter alone is internationally renowned, largely for her paintings from those early years. At a Sotheby’s auction in New York earlier this month her yellow-house oil sold for a hammer price of $600,000.
Kandinsky finally divorced in 1911, but he did not marry Münter. They continued to live together until Germany declared war on Russia in August 1914. Kandinsky, now an enemy alien, was given three days to leave the country. He was able to take only a few paintings and possessions, the rest he entrusted to Münter’s care. The couple rushed to Switzerland; from there he would go to Moscow. While in Zurich, Kandinsky broke with Münter. For two years she urged a reunion. It took place in neutral Scandinavia in 1916 and failed. Gabriele Münter never saw Wassily Kandinsky again. It was years before she recovered from the disappointment. She painted fitfully and without her earlier concentration and conviction. She travelled restlessly.
In 1920 Münter was back in Murnau. Soon after, Kandisky asked for the return of his things, which included nearly his entire output in the decade before the war. She refused and sued. She demanded compensation, shamed and humiliated by his failure to honour his promise to make her Mrs Kandinsky. When the case was finally settled in 1926, much was returned to Kandinsky, but Münter kept almost a thousand of his works—perhaps 100 oils but also watercolours, drawings and wood cuts—among them some of his greatest masterpieces.
Münter and Johannes Eichner, an art historian, began living together in 1929. He wrote about her art and organised shows. She became more engaged with her work. During the rise of National Socialism, Eichner advised her to paint the pictures they liked. It didn’t help; the Nazi press attacked an exhibition of her works in 1937, when she was 60. The Nazis also declared Kandinsky a degenerate artist and threatened to seize his work. Munich was also under threat of being bombed. Seeking safety, Münter moved her entire collection to Murnau.
She and Eichner lived quietly in the yellow house. To locals she was an obscure old lady painter. Yet in her basement, behind false walls, Münter hid her treasured Kandinskys. No one outside ever knew. In 1957, to celebrate her 80th birthday, Münter gave almost everything to Munich for display at Lenbachhaus museum. Art historians were staggered when they discovered the nature of the gift. This stupendous benefaction encouraged others. Lenbachhaus now holds the largest Blue Rider collection in the world.
Kandinsky was the love of Münter’s life. The charismatic leader of the Blue Rider movement, Kandinsky is also its star, in market terms. An “Improvisation” from 1909 sold recently at Christie’s New York for $20.5m. His reputation has been helped by Münter’s preservation of many of his best works. Yet she too has gained. Interest in him raises demand for works by other Blue Riders, and that means her, too.
In a photograph taken at the time of her donation, a handsome, dignified, white-haired Münter has a thoughtful, somewhat resigned expression. Behind her hangs a powerful, small portrait of Kandinsky painted by her all those years before. She died in 1962, aged 85.
THE Hong Kong art market is strong and prosperous, buoyed by low taxes and free of the censorship that inhibits much of the art on the mainland. But the local scene has long felt overshadowed by the big-name Chinese contemporary artists. So many were jittery at the opening today of the inaugural Art Basel Hong Kong, concerned that an influx of big galleries from New York, London and Paris would crowd out the booths peddling home-grown talent.
There was little need to worry. “Competition drives up the standards. It already has after five years,” said Magnus Renfrew, the Asia Director for Art Basel Hong Kong. He is well placed to know, having spent years running Hong Kong’s art fair when it was an independent, scrappy event. Art Basel bought the fair last year, and its first Hong Kong incarnation runs until May 26th.
Of the 245 galleries showing at the Hong Kong Convention Centre, over half are Asian. Of these, 26 are from Hong Kong, the strongest showing for any city except New York. This week Hong Kong is filled with art events, talks and the usual high-flying parties. To expose Hong Kong’s contemporary art scene to international buyers, Art Basel invited its top dealers and collectors to a special tour of the Wong Chuk Hang area on the waterfront of Aberdeen, where old warehouses have been renovated into new galleries.
Some of Hong Kong’s most venerable art galleries have been decamping to Aberdeen to escape the exorbitant rents of the central district and to inhabit a livelier, younger area. Among those with branches there are Alisan Fine Arts, the first professional gallery in Hong Kong to show contemporary art, and Pekin Fine Arts from Beijing.
So what are Hong Kong artists producing? Mostly art that feels very Chinese.
The booth of Schoeni Art Gallery is dominated by a video installation by Hung Keung (pictured). Trained at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, Mr Hung also studied art in London, Germany and Switzerland. Yet his piece “Dao x Microcosmic Play and Appreciation” feels rooted in Chinese culture. It features three round tables topped with black glass arranged a few feet apart. Tiny cameras circulate around the tables, their images projected on white screens. One table holds a black Buddha, small but his presence looms. Another is scattered with black toy-like tanks, helicopters and jet fighters. The third features a solitary small stone. This work is about peace and calm in an era of violence, explains Mr Hung. Traditional Chinese art views the white colour of rice paper as “an infinity surface,” he adds. “Now I am saying the screen represents white paper. The black toys on black glass give the feeling of black ink.”
The booth of Gallery EXIT, a local gallery based in the Wong Chuk Hang neighbourhood, features the work of Ivy Ma, a Hong Kong-based artist. Her piece “Mother” is a large, hanging portrait of her mother carved in plywood. Measuring one meter by two meters, the image is from a photograph taken in the early 1950s, when Ms Ivy’s mother arrived from southern China as part of a wave of immigrants escaping the Communist revolution. “Mother” smiles pleasantly at passers-by, her face brimming with hope, her hair fashionably styled in a ‘50s bob. The work feels quintessentially Chinese, but with a wider contemporary appeal.
Artists from Guangdong province in southern China have long influenced art in Hong Kong. At the Pekin Fine Art space, works on paper by Chen Shaoxiong capture images of protests, such as democracy advocates who oppose Beijing’s efforts to restrict political freedoms in Hong Kong. His sweeping brush strokes on white paper give these pieces an unusual intensity, though they are not much larger than a legal pad. “He is making ink relevant to contemporary society,” said Meg Maggio, the founder of Pekin Fine Art. “Not many can do that.”
In the confines of the exclusive VIP room run by Deutsche Bank at the fair, a large wall length work by one of Hong Kong’s best-known painters, Tsang Kin-Wah, is the star piece. The artist is known for painting words in English and Chinese in patterns that evoke wallpaper. In this piece, the phrase “Making Art, Making Money” is easily discernable in grey against white. Like a growing number of Hong Kong artists, Mr Tsang is happy to embrace the creed.]]>
LYDIA DAVIS makes for an inspiring choice for the Man Booker International prize, awarded last night in London*. Though she is hardly a household name, her work has been disproportionately influential and enjoys a devoted following. She is best known for her short stories, which are crisp, spare, incisive and slyly funny. They tend to be very short—a couple of lines or a couple of pages—which has the effect of distilling their power. This makes her collections easy to dip into and seductive to copycats. But efforts to replicate her stylishly compact storytelling tend to be humbling. I'm reminded of a Picasso drawing of a woman's behind, created with four lines: its evocative simplicity is all the more frustrating for the way it is impossible to recreate.
A good example is the story “Almost Over: Separate Bedrooms” from her collection “Samuel Johnson is Indignant” from 2001. This is it, in full: “They have moved into separate bedrooms now. That night she dreams she is holding him in her arms. He dreams he is having dinner with Ben Jonson.”
The effect is funny, poignant, with enough subtlety to save it from being a literary punchline. For this reason it would be a mistake to call her a "writer's writer", as this implies a lofty fussiness, more worthy of respect than affection. Rather, her stories win readers over instantaneously, if they are capable of resonating at all.
Back in 2009, when her American publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux published “The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis”, I had the opportunity to profile Ms Davis for Intelligent Life magazine, in which I praised her "almost clinical way of handling the knots and frayed edges of an over-active mind". I enjoyed probing her own over-active mind in a cute coffee shop in upstate New York; the piece can be found here.
As it happens, Ms Davis beat out nine other nominees to take home the £60,000 ($90,000) award, including Marilynne Robinson, an American author and another personal favourite (run, don't walk, to read both "Gilead" and "Housekeeping"; both reward patience). Ms Robinson also made time to meet with me for a profile for Intelligent Life, in which I praise the way her "work is heavy with yearning, full of the beauties and sorrows of the everyday, and the odd existential glimpse of something much lighter or darker".
Ms Davis will be publishing another story collection with FSG, called "Can’t and Won’t", in spring 2014. Past winners of the prize include Ismail Kadaré, Chinua Achebe, Alice Munro and Philip Roth.
*Disclaimer: these views about Ms Davis are my own, though it bears mentioning that the award this year was administered by Fiammetta Rocco, the literary editor of The Economist, with whom I share an office.]]>
THE insistent groan of an industrial cherry-picker made for an odd siren song at the Royal Academy of Art over the weekend. Casual strollers wandered into the plaza, their curiosity piqued by the small army of construction workers unfurling and hanging a tapestry-like artwork across the façade of the RA’s Burlington House. “It reminds me of Klimt,” said one bystander to his friend.
Indeed, the piece—called “TSIATSIA – searching for a connection”—is luminous. Made especially for the RA and on view through August 18th, the 15 x 23 metre work is one of the largest ever created by El Anatsui, a contemporary artist based in Nigeria. In those fleeting moments when the sun emerges over London, the work looks as though it has been switched on. Yet closer inspection of the woven panels reveals that they are made entirely of rubbish. Sections that look like stones are made from used printing plates announcing births, deaths and weddings. Squares of vibrant colours come from discarded roofing material. What glitters like gold from a distance is actually a chain-mail of flattened aluminium bottle-tops advertising cheap African liquor: Romatex, Castello, First Lady Brandy.
“It’s almost alchemical,” observed Elizabeth Lalouschek of October Gallery, which represents Mr Anatsui. “He transforms ordinary objects into something extraordinary.” This is what makes Mr Anatsui’s work remarkable, even shocking: that something so beautiful can be made from the junk most people throw away, each object carrying the weight of a past life. This play on materials can feel loaded with cultural commentary, yet Mr Anatsui, who was born in Ghana in 1944, dislikes being pigeon-holed as an “African artist”. “People are free to have their own ideas,” he explained.
Amid the mild anxiety of the artwork's two-day installation process—the droning cherry-pickers; the craned necks and folded arms of nervous gallerists and architects; the intrigued spectators, snapping photos on their phones—Mr Anatsui exuded a rare calm. A modest presence in jeans, trainers and a black windbreaker, he spent much of the time seated quietly on a chair in the middle of the plaza, occasionally taking pictures with his iPad. Ms Lalouschek was on hand to do his bidding, armed with a walkie-talkie. “Just push the material!” she told two men atop a cherry-picker. “Don’t worry, it’s strong.”
Mr Anatsui explained that his moment of fear came in the studio, when he was figuring out how the piece would work at this scale. Any concerns about the logistics of the installation evaporated Saturday morning, he said, when he saw two of the nine panels already up. He barely looked over when someone tripped over a swathe of the sculpted “fabric”, bending it out of shape. (“It’s really very robust,” reassured Gerard Houghton of the October Gallery.)
A glittering tapestry made from bottle-tops? It was this jolt of disbelief that made Mr Anatsui the darling of the 2007 Venice Biennale, when he draped the front of the Palazzo Fortuny with his first large-scale outdoor sculpture. “Every year [at the Biennale] the art world is talking about something. That year it was his piece,” recalled Edith Devaney of the Royal Academy. Since then Mr Anatsui’s rise has been meteoric, with large-scale outdoor installations in Berlin, Paris and New York (along the High Line), and a solo show now on at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Observing the crowd gathered at the RA, Zbyszek Plocki, an architect and old friend, slapped Mr Anatsui’s back. “You’ve grown up in the world, sweetheart,” he said and laughed.
The piece fronting the RA (“a dream come true,” said Ms Devaney) has been a year in the making, with not a few technical hurdles. The work itself arrived at the RA on Friday, the nine panels folded into unimpressive bundles weighing a surprisingly light 50 kilos each. “When I first saw it I thought ‘what is this?’” said a grizzled construction worker to Mr Anatsui. “But I really like it,” he added and shook the artist’s hand. Mr Anatsui smiled graciously.
After a Saturday spent hanging the piece, Sunday was devoted to creating a texture of ripples and folds. This, Mr Anatsui explained, adds an extra dimension to the work because the texture can never be replicated. "It's like life," he said, "it's not a fixed thing, but a matter of trial and error. You don't want a static form that stays flat. You want it to change each time."
"TSIATSIA — searching for connection" will hang from the balustrade of Burlington House for the duration of the Royal Academy of Art's 245th Summer Exhibition, until August 18th 2013. The October Gallery in London is displaying two of El Anatsui's artworks as part of "Masters of the Transvangarde", a new exhibition that runs from May 23rd to August 3rd 2013. El Anatsui was profiled in Intelligent Life magazine in Winter 2009.]]>
STATE propaganda is easy to spot. From leaflets dropped behind enemy lines to other bald appeals to flag and country, government attempts to sway public opinion often seem laughably obvious—at least in hindsight. Yet quite a lot of national pride-mongering is a bit more subtle—and more effective, and perhaps more troubling—than we like to admit. This at least is the claim of “Propaganda: Power and Persuasion”, a provocative new exhibition at the British Library in London.
In an age of social media and “spin”, propaganda permeates communication as much as ever, argue the show's curators. The lavish opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games in London was a classic exercise in national branding, for example. Similarly, last month's ceremonial pomp for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral served to reinforce enduring symbols of British authority. The most re-tweeted tweet in history, “Four more years” (celebrating Barack Obama’s re-election as America's president), illustrates mass dissemination of a particular point of view.
“When people think of propaganda, they often think it’s only done by the bad guys,” explains Ian Cooke, who co-curated the exhibition. In fact propaganda is “everyday and insidious”, produced everywhere and by everyone. By offering contemporary examples of this age-old practice, this show pushes visitors to reflect on their own susceptibility to manipulation.
The word “propaganda” first appeared in print in 1622. The Roman Catholic treatise urging “propagation” of the faith is displayed in the show's opening section. But the practice predates popes and Martin Luther, beginning with Greek coins imprinted with the guises of rulers. It was not until the early 20th century, however, that propaganda as we know it flourished. Rare historical objects from this period alone make this show essential viewing. These include Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book”, Josef Goebbels’s cheap radios sold for Nazi broadcasts (known as “Volksempfänger”), posters of Hitler as a national saviour (“Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer”), and “Mao Goes to Anyan” (pictured right)—the most reproduced image in history, printed 900m times. Building national loyalty is especially vital in wartime, when enemies must be demonised and loyal citizens alternately comforted, alarmed and exhorted to sacrifice. Such aims are plain in propaganda developed during the 2003 Iraq war.
One of the show's highlights is a mint-condition set of Norman Rockwell posters entitled “The Four Freedoms”, on loan from a London gallerist. Designed to persuade Americans to buy war bonds during the second world war, these 1943 posters raised $130m by depicting the national values of family, prayer and the nobility of the workingman. A similar note is struck by a 1942 scarf with a map pinpointing bomb strikes, printed with the slogan “London Can Take It” and part of Winston Churchill’s famous “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech.
Methods of fear-mongering and intimidation, like those of reassurance, do not change much over time, Mr Cooke says. On view are the renowned Iraq playing cards distributed by the American military, which bore photographs of most-wanted Iraqis and featured Saddam Hussein as the ace of spades. The purpose of the cards was two-fold, he says: first as an aid to capture, and second to demonstrate power and control, “to say ‘we know who you are’.” The show also includes a notorious example of false propaganda: a front page of London’s Daily Express with the headline “Saddam Can Strike in 45 Minutes”. Based on deceptive government statements, the scare tactic helped propel Britain to war in 2003.
It is the difficulty of separating truth from propaganda in the volume of today’s communications that worries the experts. The final piece in the show is an electronic wall that displays Twitter traffic from the London Olympics, Obama’s re-election, and the recent mass shooting at a school in Connecticut. “In a global, social-media world, do we know who these people are? They’re all talking,” reflects Jude England, the library’s head of social science. The tweets parade by, spiking and subsiding; at home, our Facebook feeds crawl with marketing pitches; book reviews on Amazon are penned by paid guns. Individuals, paid lobbyists, corporations, activists: “It’s not entirely clear who’s behind these things,” Ms England observes.
“Propaganda at its most potent has always been something we don’t recognise as propaganda,” says John Pilger, a documentary filmmaker and journalist. As this absorbing exhibition makes clear, it is time we got better at reading between the lines.
IT WAS bound to be a disaster. For weeks New York society had been working itself into a tizzy about the theme for the 2013 Met Ball: punk. Designed to draw attention to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new exhibition “Punk: Chaos to Couture”, the Met's annual sartorial gala promised a frothy mess of leather and lace concoctions on pilates-toned living mannequins. Indeed the red-carpet result, on May 6th, was duly irksome.
It was a silly idea to begin with. Doing punk through the clothes is like trying to do hippiedom with peace symbols. Punk was never about the threads. The clothes, the hair, the makeup, the sewn-on patches and the badges conveyed a message about who you were and what you stood for. For those who were not interested in punk's message, the clothes served as a warning. But punk was always more than a fashion statement.
Its ideology was varied, to be sure, but at its roots were an honest set of anti-establishment ideas, rather like the Occupy movement of today. Punk raged against various parts of the machine, with views that were radical at the time. Before it became trendy, punks were anti-corporate, vegan, anti-nuke, eco-friendly, anti-homophobe and feminist. Indeed for many female punks the clothing was a way of escaping society's rules about how women were supposed to behave and look.
I'm no expert in fashion, but I remember the period well. I grew up around punks. My father owned a small independent recording studio and distribution company in London, which he ran from our home. Boxes of albums waiting to be shipped were stacked in our hall, and it was perfectly normal for me to arrive home wearing my uniform from my nice fee-paying school and find a bleary-eyed punk, with full Mohawk, piercings and ripped clothing, standing in my kitchen. As likely as not he would be helping himself to a bowl of my breakfast cereal.
To look at punk viewed only through the attire, rather than the beliefs, is to make a cultural error. Punk wasn't "chaotic", as the title of the Met's new fashion exhibit suggests. Some punks were anarchists, but anarchy and chaos are not synonyms. The anarcho-punks believed that an absence of government would produce harmony. They were libertarians who believed in personal freedom and individualism—a bit like Texans, but unwashed and smelling of petunia oil. An exhibition that juxtaposes the idea of chaos and punk makes it appear that punk was about nothing. The establishment often undermines youth movements this way. Dismissing them as incoherent is easier than answering angry questions.
With only a hazy memory of shocking hair and studded leather jackets, it is easy to forget that punk varied in its styles, too. The British anarcho-punks preferred dark military-style clothing and Dr Martens boots. American hardcore punks preferred T-shirts and jeans. More recent punks, such as the band Pussy Riot, went for shocking colours and balaclavas. But the point, always, is to flout convention. It is a way to tell the world what you think of it without ever saying a single word.
So how on earth were A-list celebrities ever expected to pull off the "fuck you" look? Although it may seem possible to dress up as almost anything these days, punk was never going to work at a society bash because the women couldn't bring themselves to make the necessary departures from style. Punk girls were about as far removed from today's ideals of manufactured, conformist beauty—with its boob jobs, bleached teeth and botox—as one can be.
Immaculate hair, cover-girl makeup and mani-pedis just isn't punk. How can a slavish attention to fashion ideals be counter-cultural? How do fabulous jewels and ludicrously expensive accessories express the ideology of the angry and dispossessed? If the assembled celebs had donned rubbish sacks and asked a three-year old to apply their make-up they would have been more authentically punk than what turned up that night.
Mostly the poor celebs and their overtaxed stylists tried to channel bits of punk fashion. But that was made all the more difficult by the fact that most of punk's best fashion ideas had, long ago, been stolen by stylists and fashionistas and integrated into the mainstream. Tattoos, extreme eyeliner, black nail varnish and lipstick, body piercings, exposed flesh, back-combed and dyed hair, ludicrously high heels and bondage attire: done, done and still being done. Watching mainstream clothes horses attempt to re-regurgitate punk style was embarrassing.
To be fair, expecting celebrities to deconstruct their carefully manufactured (and financially valuable) images and remake them in the spirit of punk was never going to happen. So the other way of doing punk would be to channel some kind of counter-cultural doctrine; even if one must wear the fabulous gear and comply with industry-set standards of beauty. But that would require someone's celebrity stylist to have an original thought or idea. Clearly ludicrous. Vivienne Westwood, doyenne of the punk era, hadn't forgotten what punk was about. Ms Westwood's pink coat was pinned with a picture of Bradley Manning and the word "Truth". She had something to say at least.]]>
WHEN a trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” was released last year, aficionados of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece wasted no time in complaining about how fast, flashy and altogether Baz-Luhrmann-ish it was. Such sceptics won’t be placated by the film itself. As we might have expected from the director of “Strictly Ballroom” and “Moulin Rouge”, his “Gatsby” is a garish sensory assault with more juddering hip-hop than jazz and more CGI than real scenery. The camera whooshes around as if it is jet-propelled, and the whirling, bacchanalian parties would put the Rio Carnival to shame. The piano played by Klipspringer in the novel has been transformed into a colossal gilded pipe organ—an emblem of a film in which every last element is amplified to fantastic heights.
What we might not have expected, however, is that even while “The Great Gatsby” resembles an unholy 3D hybrid of a rap video and a perfume advertisement, its fundamental weakness is not that it treats the novel with too little reverence, but with too much. Mr Luhrmann views Fitzgerald’s slender fable as the grandest and most operatic of tragedies, and he’s determined that we view it that way, too.
He lops off most of the final chapter, but otherwise all of Fitzgerald’s text is up there on screen. We see a young bond salesman named Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) renting a small house on Long Island in the early 1920s, next door to the palatial mansion of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). And we learn that Gatsby is carrying a torch for Carraway’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who lives unhappily with her bullying patrician husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton). But in most cases we don’t just watch events unfolding, we also hear Carraway’s voice-over describing them to us. And on several occasions Fitzgerald’s actual words float towards us as 3D subtitles. Just in case we still have any doubts about what’s going on, Mr Luhrmann has written extra dialogue in which the characters articulate exactly how they feel, and extra narration in which Carraway lectures us about the economy of the period.
The director comes across as an over-eager student, so desperate for us to appreciate the book that he can’t stop grabbing us by the lapels and shouting about what it all means and how significant it all is. The resulting two-and-a-half-hour film will be a boon to schoolchildren studying the book, in that it answers every question and fills in every blank. But Fitzgerald’s ambiguity and subtlety are obliterated. “The Great Gatsby” isn’t just an adaptation of the novel, but of the footnotes, too.
It’s a shame that Mr Luhrmann didn’t have more faith in his audience and his actors, because when he calms down and lets the story play out, a lot of it is just right. Mr DiCaprio, in particular, is a touching and amusing Gatsby, dazzling everyone with his golden-boy charm, but always keeping his jaw clenched and his narrow eyes flicking around him as if he’s afraid of being found out. Ms Mulligan is beguilingly pale and fragile as Daisy, and Mr Edgerton has the King-Kong physicality of Tom Buchanan. But the audience is never allowed to spend much time with the characters themselves before Mr Luhrmann steps in to check that we’re still paying attention.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that he has the same awestruck, mythologising love for the novel that Gatsby has for Daisy. But a dash of Carraway’s disapproving detachment might have turned a besotted homage into a very good film in its own right.]]>
EXACTLY 23 years ago today Joshua Prager was in a road accident that changed his life. When the day began he was a 19-year-old in rude health, racing to catch a minibus during a visit to Israel. But a collision with a runaway truck broke his neck, leaving him paralysed and wondering if he would die.
Months in the hospital were followed by years in a wheelchair and then a life with a cane. Dreams of becoming a doctor were traded for the more reflective work of a journalist (largely with the Wall Street Journal), as he found people readily confided in him. Questions of whether he would walk again were replaced with more existential ones: in what way did his accident change his fundamental self? How much of identity is informed by circumstance? What continuity links the robust young man who loved playing baseball and the trumpet with the hemiplegic who writes for a living?
After grappling with these questions for years, Mr Prager was finally able to commit some answers to paper. His book, "Half-Life", has been released as an "e-short" from Byliner, a company that publishes long-form stories designed to be read in a sitting or two. (On the subject of digital literature, the author is amusingly ambivalent—grateful to his editor and publisher, and yet squeamish about a book about a spinal-cord injury that lacks a spine.) The result is an impressive work of self-scrutiny, occasionally mournful but often funny, rich with insight about what it means move forward as a divided self. Mr Prager's refreshing mix of self-awareness and humour can also be seen in this recent TED talk, in which he describes the oddity of meeting the man whose reckless driving broke his neck.
In an e-mail exchange with The Economist, Mr Prager considers the way time shaped his story, describes some misconceptions people have about disability and marvels at the wisdom of Herman Melville.
The catalyst for this book is what you call your "half-life", when you lived exactly as long after your neck broke as before. Can you talk about the significance of this moment?
It was comforting to me, in the years after the crash, that my body had been whole for longer than it had been divided. That simple fact somehow recalled what I had lost, testified, in the words of Robert Frost, "that I once pitched a baseball with distinction." And so, as my "half-life" approached—the moment when I would have lived exactly 19 years and 35 days both before and after the crash—I determined to live it pertinently.
But even now, having lived four more years disabled than not, the pre-crash me remains in me. And I use the term "half-life" to indicate this fact too, borrowing the scientific meaning of the term which measures disintegration. And because such disintegration is asymptotic—forever dividing by half, never fully disappearing—I know that what was in me before the crash will never fully disappear.
You admit that this is a story you tried to write for years. What had to happen for you to be able to tell your story? How did time help shape this experience?
Writing has always helped me to make sense of difficult things. In the days after the crash, even before I could lift a pen, my impulse was to write of it. But my lot resisted understanding. And so, for years, I wrote only what I could—laments of a lost body, recapitulations of the crash and my hospitalisation. When I tried to do more, I failed.
But I had at least gotten down the facts. And when, having lived as many years after the crash as before it, I found that I possessed what could only be described as a philosophy—beliefs about unfairness and happiness and divinity and disability and identity—I knew that I was ready to write. I simply needed a framework. I found one in Jerusalem and wrote my book in 130 days. A great relief!
The 19-year-old who ran on to that bus in 1990 loved playing baseball and the trumpet and aspired to become a doctor. How do you relate to this former self, frozen forever in a state of idealised potential?
For years it was painful to look back, to remember not only my muscled arms and chest but also the feeling of invulnerability that the crash took from me forever. A simple realisation helped to lessen that pain. It occurred to me that even if my neck had not been broken, I would have had to reconcile to new realities eventually. I would have had to evolve, eventually. Eventually, we all must. The great shame was simply that I had not had more time to enjoy the body and ego that I had only just come to possess.
Herman Melville features prominently in "Half-Life". You seem to identify with his sense of life's "blackest gorges" and "sunny spaces". How has he influenced you as a writer?
When I first read "Moby Dick" ten years ago, I found in it the perfect articulation of so much of what I had come to believe about life. I agreed with Melville that there was suffering in this world and no hereafter, that this natural world had many glories nonetheless, and that one could dwell in them if one knew how. Melville did know how; the whole of his great work is a prescription for "attainable felicity." I was aloft in his perfect writing, and liberally sprinkled its wisdom through my writing.
I don't know that Melville has influenced the way I write or even what I write. But it is owing to Melville that I am able to leave be what I do write. For it was he who asserted that true books are but drafts that "leave the copestone to posterity." This has been enormously helpful to me.
You seem to have a somewhat complicated relationship with your disability—in part, perhaps, because there are so many misconceptions about what it means to walk with a cane. What do you feel most people don't quite understand about living with disability?
Happily, my disability and I came to terms years ago. My cane is now of me. I want it by my side. And I always will, even if one strange day I no longer need its support.
But yes, there were years when our relationship was strained, when I wished to be apart from my cane, though I leaned upon it. And yes, part of that difficulty likely did owe to misconceptions that I (like so many others) once carried—chief among them that to be physically disabled is to be unhappy. This is simply untrue. But I knew it to be untrue only once I was comfortably disabled because people tend not to know how they will react to a situation until they are in it.
Further, to be hemiplegic, to be divided vertically as I am, is to not only teeter physically but between worlds too. I am not the paraplegic seated permanently in his chair or the able-bodied person on her feet. Identity for a hemiplegic is a shifty thing.
Can you talk a little about how the experiences of your life nudged you towards a life in journalism?
I had just decided to become a doctor when my neck broke. When I left the hospital, four months later, I wondered how the hell I could practice medicine with a body that no longer moved or felt as it should.
Soon after, I wrote an article for my college paper lamenting the sad fact that my university was not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In short order, Columbia stepped to and I settled on a career. I saw that journalism suited me, rewarding my good traits and bad ones too. (What my dad called stubbornness, journalism calls stick-to-itiveness. Ha!) Still, as with everything post-crash, I needed to tease out what of my career was me and what of it the crash. (Why, for example, did everyone seem to tell me everything?) And along the way, my job helped me to process the crash as few professions could. It was no coincidence that I found myself, over and again, writing long stories about lives changed in an instant.
With this book, you return to the site of the crash in order to consider its impact on your life. It seems like you are telling this story in order to put it away. But are you actually able to put away thoughts of the crash?
My return to Jerusalem most definitely did help me to write about the crash. So too did my return to the actual bend in the highway where truck hit bus.
I remember the crash well—the great bang, the bobbing of my head, the struggle to breathe. But no, I have never wanted to put away these memories. I have always preferred to know than not to know. And that I do know, that I remember, is a great comfort.
I can however report a related nuisance. If my memory of the crash does not upset me, imagined visions of other unpleasant things befalling me—say, a bad fall on a sidewalk—make me wince from time to time. But they are fleeting and hold no sway over me. Besides, it is a great relief to know now that even if I do one day get thwacked, my thoughts are safely down on paper.
"Half-Life" by Joshua Prager is published by Byliner]]>
AN AIRLINER circles above central Spain. Technical problems have left the plane doomed, destined for a crash-landing. Frantic with nerves, passengers and crew-members descend into an orgy of alcohol, drugs and sex. Thus Pedro Almodóvar, the prince of modern Spanish cinema, allegorises the state of his country in his latest film, “Los amantes pasajeros” (released as “I'm So Excited” in the English-speaking world).
Reviewers have lingered on the not-so-subtle allusions to the country's calamitous economy. The film includes scenes in one of Spain’s empty white-elephant airports, built during the pre-crisis boom years. “We have a few little problems,” a flight attendant tells a concerned passenger: “Very serious ones, to be honest: we're drinking to forget.”
The plane serves as a microcosm of Spaniards' current plight, but also as a time capsule. At every turn “Los amantes pasajeros” evokes the Movida Madrileña: the post-Franco explosion of colour, culture and hedonism in 1980s Madrid. The décor of the cabin-turned-fleshpot is lurid. Hair-flicking flight attendants serve passengers mescaline-laced glasses of “agua de Valencia”, the favourite cocktail of the 1980s clubbing crowd. Inhibitions dissolve. (Not coincidentally, the film also recalls the arch, risqué films of Mr Almodóvar’s early career; particularly “Laberinto de pasiones” from 1982, two of whose stars—Cecilia Roth and Antonio Banderas—make appearances.)
For all the film's raucousness, there is some nostalgia here. The 1980s inaugurated a feverish, optimistic, 30-year spell in Spain. Led by the centre-left Socialists, the country emerged from the grey years of dictatorship to become (by some measures) one of the most liberal countries in Europe. The last Socialist government, from 2004 to 2011, saw Spain legalise gay marriage, liberalise abortion and regularise immigrants. Gleaming new bridges, trains, airports and housing developments became infrastructural symbols of the country’s race towards the future. Yet this neophilia also precipitated the current malaise by nearly bankrupting regional governments and inflating a massive, unsustainable construction bubble.
Like the “agua de Valencia”-swilling passengers on Mr Almodóvar's plane, Spain has woken up with a crashing hangover. The economic crisis has swept the socio-political debates from the agenda. Young people are in the streets, “indignados” (furious) at a youth unemployment rate of 55%. Support for both the Socialists and the ruling centre-right Popular Party has tumbled since the 2011 election. Two different parties, both detached from the policies of the past 30 years, have filled the gap: Izquierda Unida, a traditional hard-left party, and the Union, Progress and Democracy party, a sober, centrist outfit with no ideological baggage from the post-Franco transition (it was founded in 2007). Mr Almódovar has renounced his long-time support for the Socialists (both he and Mr Banderas once fronted the party’s adverts).
In “Los amantes pasajeros”, as in real life, the Spain of the past 30 years falls to earth. Indeed, the original Spanish title contains wordplay lost in the English version: it refers both to the plane's passengers (pasajeros) and to the fleeting (pasajeros) nature of their flings. The country is changing, Mr Almodóvar is saying in this riotous, bittersweet goodbye to the post-Franco pre-crisis era. Dull debates about debt, jobs and wages are replacing the vibrant identity politics that emerged from the Movida. The party is over, in more ways than one.
IN 2000 Tate Britain scandalised the art world by rearranging its unrivalled collection of British art. Instead of grouping works by schools and movements, the London museum chose to display the art by theme (eg, "war" or "city life"). Now it has decided to upend convention once again by rehanging its permanent collection chronologically. The happy result of this unorthodox approach is an electrifying ramble through 500 years of British art.
Through long enfilades of galleries, the new “BP Walk Through British Art” sweeps visitors from 1545 to the present. This purely chronological circuit radically refuses to impose any kind of interpretive narrative, says Penelope Curtis, who arrived to direct the museum in 2010. The rehang is part of a £45m renovation, to be completed in November, which includes new spaces for the collection's luminaries (J.M.W. Turner, William Blake and Henry Moore) and streamlined galleries to accommodate the 60% boom in visitors over the past decade.
Dispensing with curators’ interpretations has several advantages, Ms Curtis says. Viewers are not overwhelmed by panels of text, but can experience the artworks more visually. The arrangement also allows curators to include lesser-known works and aesthetic outliers. This encourages more art to be displayed and gives a better “sense of the breadth of art being created at any given time,” notes Chris Stephens, the gallery’s head of displays. The effect is fresh and varied, offering a welcome respite from the tedium of rooms full of Tudor portraiture or 19th-century landscapes. More statuary is also on view, to stimulate more “conversations between the paintings and sculpture,” Ms Curtis says.
The conversations between different artists working at the same time is what makes the rehanging so vital. Academic works rub shoulders with the avant-garde, and visual contrasts and analogies abound. James Whistler's "Nocturne" of 1871, for example, is a subdued and semi-abstract wash of blue and grey, representing the Thames by moonlight. It hangs near "The Golden Stairs", a highly decorative 1880 painting by Edward Burne-Jones, which features dozens of pre-Raphaelite maidens tripping down the eponymous stairs.
Such juxtapositions do not feel artificial, a frequent criticism of thematic pairings at modern-art museums (and one that is often levelled at the Tate Modern across the river). Instead they reveal artists doing radically different things at the same historical moment. For example, Winifred Knight’s intensely geometric “The Deluge” (pictured above) hangs beside Sir Alfred Manning’s pastoral “Their Majesties’ Return from Ascot” (pictured below), as both were painted in the 1920s. The two would seem to have nothing to do with each other: one depicts terror in the face of the Biblical flood, the other is a quietly refined royal scene. Yet for all the stark contrast in style, the paintings are connected by a strong sense of movement, the fleeing bodies echoed in the whirring wheels of the royal landau. Observing them together is illuminating.
A national collection, too, must predictably display iconic works to which visitors can return. In this regard, the new hanging does not disappoint. Scores of masterpieces are on display, particularly in the modern and contemporary galleries. These are brimming with the who’s who of British 20th-century art, from Hepworth to Bacon, Freud to Whiteread to Hirst. Traditionalists will salute the return of the Turner suite of galleries and two magical rooms dedicated to Blake; a new gallery devoted to Moore’s monumental sculpture is an uplifting day-lit space at the museum’s heart.
It was not easy for curators to turn their backs on the “art historical meta-narrative,” Mr Stephens says. But this decision helped free Tate Britain from a canon that excluded many artists, especially women. Historical context is provided here and there by small wall plaques, but the emphasis is decidedly on the variety of art itself. Such a chronological approach makes sense for collections of national art, he says. The recently reopened Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Louvre’s satellite in northern France have hung their collections in a similar fashion. A more neutral presentation may also be more in keeping with a digital world. Visitors, accustomed to seeking out their own information, can pull in whatever background they desire from guided tours, a companion catalogue and their own devices using the museum’s Wi-Fi network.
Visitors may care little for such questions of motivation and methodology, but they will certainly benefit from the result. By offering a fresh new way to appreciate British art, Tate Britain has secured its place among the finest museums.]]>
PUNK, a counterculture movement defined by its anti-consumerist “do-it-yourself” ethos and rebellious style, may be nearly gone in its original form. But after four decades its legacy lives on in music, design and most notably in fashion. Vivienne Westwood, a British fashion designer, built her career on it; John Galliano and Martin Margiela embraced its hard edges; and a new generation of designers such as Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte and Gareth Pugh continue to draw from it. “Everybody loves a rebel,” explains Andrew Bolton, the curator of “Punk: Chaos to Couture”, a new exhibition about the role of punk in fashion, now on view at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Economic uncertainty and political discontentment in the 1970s helped spur the anti-establishment aesthetic of punk, which flourished in London and New York. In downtown New York crowds gathered at the now-legendary music club CBGB to see the likes of Patti Smith, Blondie and The Ramones perform. Meanwhile on Kings Road in London Ms Westwood and Malcolm McLaren ran a boutique called Seditionaries (formerly SEX), which sold everything from anarchy T-shirts to bondage wear.
Replicas of these two epicentres of punk open this exhibition. Visitors can peer into CBGB’s vile graffiti-covered bathroom and survey Seditionaries’s racks of T-shirts. Six more sections contain ensembles of punk fashion displayed on mannequins with spiked wigs (designed by Guido Palau, a British hair stylist). Most of the show is dedicated to punk’s DIY ingenuity: “Hardware” concentrates on the studs, zippers, chains, spikes and other metal adornments; "Bricolage" features creations made with found items; "Graffiti & Agitprop" uses English punk-rockers The Clash to consider the movement's approach to provocation and confrontation; and "Destroy" looks at the rips and shreds that became punk fashion statements. “We wanted every gallery to have a very different feel to it,” says Mr Bolton.
The most memorable pieces include the Seditionaries’ infamous “God Save the Queen” T-shirt; Mr Pugh’s garbage-bag couture; Riccardo Tisci’s decadently embellished jackets for Givenchy; Junya Watanabe and Rodarte’s cobweb-like sweaters; and Christopher Bailey’s heavily spiked leather jacket for Burberry. (The punk-influenced designs of Jean Paul Gaultier and Rick Owens are curiously absent.) Mr Bolton refrained from using the actual costumes of punk icons, such as Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, Patti Smith and Debbie Harry, preferring instead to feature videos of their performances (edited by Nick Knight, a fashion photographer and film-maker). This was good move: it is far more exciting to watch a performer writhe than to consider the merits of a mannequin draped in a limp old T-shirt and jeans.
Yet for a movement that was largely defined by its music, it feels odd that only one gallery blares the extreme and energetic sounds of The New York Dolls, Richard Hell, The Slits, The Damned and others. This feels like a concession to the typical Met patron, and is a good example of the problem with this exhibition: the anti-establishment story of the punk movement cannot properly be told in the hallowed costume section of the Met. Visitors to this show should expect eye-catching displays, not a coherent narrative. The presentation is vivid and often fun, but anyone hoping for depth will be left with a proper punk sneer.
“Punk: Chaos to Couture” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until August 14th 2013]]>
THE original vampires of medieval Slavic myths were described as mindless and decaying, almost pitiable sufferers of the curse they must endure. The popular image of the brooding, seductive and sartorial undead charmer was created in the name of entertainment. Over a century of cinema, this image has been revamped (as it were) many times: the hideous monster of F.W. Murnau's “Nosferatu”, still considered the gold standard by many despite being made in 1922; the sophisticated aristocrat of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula in 1931, followed by Christopher Lee’s dashing count in the Hammer Horror films of the 1950s and 60s; then a brief period in the 1970s when the vampire legend lurched from pastiche to parody.
Over the last 25 years, vampire films have become more stylish and hard-hitting, pushing the boundaries of the genre. In “Byzantium”, a new film directed by Neil Jordan, the bloodsuckers are a mother (Gemma Arterton, pictured above) and daughter (Saoirse Ronan) who have been on the run for centuries from a male brotherhood from whom the mother stole her vampire “gift”. Set in a crumbling seaside resort where they both kill to protect their secret, and struggle to maintain it, “Byzantium” takes the rotting grandeur of the aristocratic vampire legend and places it in an austerity-ravaged British coastal town. The story is as much about the struggles of a single-parent family (albeit one that survives on human blood rather than state benefits) as it is about the curse of the undead.
The turning-point towards the modern vampire flick was Joel Schumacher's stylish teen horror “The Lost Boys”, in 1987, which targeted a new audience by portraying vampires as good-looking, wise-cracking and street-savvy. Along with Kathryn Bigelow's visceral “Near Dark”, released the same year, vampire films became more violent and gory.
In the early 1990s the pendulum swung back to gothic decadence again, with Mr Jordan's “Interview with the Vampire” and Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Bram Stoker's “Dracula”. Both combined the aristocratic elegance of the 19th century vampire with the sex-appeal and savagery of more modern variants. “Francis made this sprawling romantic epic with Gary Oldman playing this tragic figure rather than a remorseless monster.” said Mr Jordan at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival in April. It was followed by “Interview with the Vampire”, “which is full of catholic guilt and forbidden sexual urges and that was something cool and different too,” he added.
This new wave of vampire films was attracting the big budgets usually reserved for action movies, and the result was box-office success on a scale no vampire film had enjoyed before. Mr Coppola's epic was the ninth-biggest grossing film worldwide in 1992, making over $215m. Mr Jordan's film raked in more than $223m in 1994. Vampires were back—and suddenly bankable.
Some experiments with the genre worked—the “Blade” trilogy, starring Wesley Snipes as a tooled-up martial artist and vamp hunter, combined the action and horror genres to great effect. But, in a rush to bleed the genre dry, some outlandish concepts increasingly favoured style over substance. Computer-generated messes such as “Van Helsing” and the vamps-versus-werewolves mash-up of the “Underworld” series threatened to undo vampires’ credibility.
“I think all vampire movies are, by their nature, silly,” says Mr Jordan “The whole idea lends itself to ridiculousness. But without a strong hand or vision, they can become overblown and dire.” In “Byzantium”, Mr Jordan manages to combine the classic with the modern, telling the story of the characters’ corpse-strewn flight across the centuries while incorporating period-drama opulence and gritty, blood-soaked action.
The most successful vampire film franchise in recent years is the “Twilight” series, adapted from Stephenie Meyer’s teen romance books. Some purists have accused Ms Meyer of damaging the legend by “de-fanging” her vampires and subjugating her female characters. Mr Jordan is more optimistic: “So what if Stephenie Meyer has turned the vampire story into a metaphor for chaste adolescent relationships, that's okay, you can do that. I think the myth can handle it.” The numbers agree—individually, the saga's five films are the highest-grossing vampire movies of all time with a combined taking of more than $3 billion at the box office.
There is no doubt that “Twilight” has taken bloodsuckers to a new commercial level. Many fear that this success may lead to an even greater dilution of the legend. “Byzantium”, for example, shakes up a male-dominated order by placing two strong, independent female characters at its centre. And it has a more subtle and nuanced approach than previous CGI-heavy efforts to reboot the genre. But there is an inescapable feeling that film-makers are just prolonging the inevitable. Maybe vampire films have run their course? “I think it's time for a new monster,” Mr Jordan concludes, somewhat lamentably. “We've got vampires and we've got zombies—come on, we need something different. When you have vampires fighting werewolves, which in my opinion is a really bad idea, you know that the vampire legend is running on empty.” But isn’t he forgetting that vampires live forever?
"Byzantium" will be released in Britain on May 31st and in America on June 28th]]>
BEHIND the Louvre, on a busy thoroughfare lined with international retailers, sits 59 Rivoli, a former squat that has been converted into a legitimate artistic centre. Once a branch of Crédit Lyonnais, 59 rue de Rivoli had been abandoned for 15 years before squatters took it over in 1999 and began using it for exhibitions and performances. Pressure grew on the city to evict them. But when a ministry of culture study found that it drew some 40,000 visitors per year, the city decided to take over the building and legalise it, rather than quashing its creativity.
59 Rivoli was the first such conversion, but this is an ongoing project for the City of Paris. A dozen such venues now exist in the capital. In March, a group of artists from the La Main Jaune squat moved from an abandoned nightclub into a city-renovated space. “Places of collective creation are an important part of the artistic vitality of Paris,” reads a city hall statement announcing that agreement. “They offer artists creative spaces and shared work; allow the emergence of new art forms; new talents; and undoubtedly contribute to the cultural vitality of Paris.” The scheme enables artists to rent cheap studio space and sell their artworks as long as they do not use the building as a residence. The city cleans up often derelict buildings and in return generates income to offset renovation costs, while nurturing cultural hubs throughout the city.
59 Rivoli is certainly thriving. “I came for two weeks and that was eight months ago,” says Vera Makina Csaszar, a 33-year-old from Budapest. She pays €130 ($170) a month for her space. Manuel Antonio Rodriguez, a 31-year-old Cuban painter, also rents space. A man of few words, he said he moved from a studio in the city’s Belleville district, an area still rife with squats. When asked if his former domicile was legal he wobbled his head, as if to say “so-so”. Artists are drawn to these semi-gentrified studios for numerous reasons: functional plumbing, heating and electricity; no fear of eviction; and frequent visits from potential buyers. Moving into such studios often coincides with a move into a more mainstream artists' marketplace. Rents are below market rate, and increased sales of artworks can cover the expense.
A colourful spiral staircase rises through six floors of studios at 59 Rivoli. It is open for visitors to wander among the artworks and converse directly with the artists. The art is diverse—paintings, sculpture, conceptual works and even electronic art is on display. On a recent Saturday evening, a concert was held on the ground floor. Pedestrians looking in through its large window could see plastic cups of red wine being passed around in exchange for voluntary donations. Similar scenes play out at other squats-turned-art collectives, such as Les Frigos, a former storage depot that manufactured ice, and Le Laboratoire de Création on the smart rue St-Honoré.
A significant function of a squat, however, is providing a place to live. Housing prices in France are the most overvalued in Europe, and Paris ranks among the world’s most expensive cities in cost of living. Rental agreements on legitimate apartments often require a French guarantor for foreigners, but many cannot find a native to fill this role. Such red tape leads to a disproportionate number of foreigners seeking alternatives to legitimate leases, such as squatting. The city’s legitimisation program is attracting criticism from housing groups and local councils for doing nothing to alleviate an affordable housing shortage. Some allege it makes the problem worse as people already unable to afford rent are further displaced by additional gentrification.
“Paris is ridiculously expensive and is not fun because it is so expensive,” said one 30-year-old female artist and squatter in eastern Paris (who asked not to be named for fear of attracting the authorities who have shut down other nearby squats). Her home is an apartment building that fell into disrepair when the owners encountered tax problems. “There were pigeons living there for years,” she says of her flat. Now the building is not managed or maintained by anyone, but some elderly residents remain, alongside young, arty squatters who have arrived from Mali, Colombia, America and elsewhere. The 30-year-old woman said legitimisation would deprive her of a home and studio, while going against her independent squatting ethos.
Paris has long attracted itinerant artists. Picasso once lived in the Le Bateau-Lavoir squat in the Montmartre district, as did compatriots Apollonaire, Cocteau, Matisse, Modigliani and Gertrude Stein. Squatter motivations vary: a need for cheap housing, a pioneering spirit or perhaps a desire to drop off the map. In a city notable for the Commune of 1871, some have political, even anarchistic motivations. But mostly it is about keeping a roof over one’s head.
Lengthy court proceedings required to evict illegal squatters mean some building owners opt not to take action. As these unmaintained buildings deteriorate, negotiated compromise solutions (such as legitimisation) become attractive for the city, and often squatters too. For their part, city officials say the legitimisation program has little to do with housing, and that it is instead focused on gaining control of these illegal enclaves, cleaning up the capital and fomenting culture that benefits the community as a whole.
One prominent squat, La Miroiterie, has been subject to speculation for years as rumours alternate between imminent eviction and legitimisation by the city. For now, the former mirror factory remains a traditional squat offering cultural fare like punk-music concerts. While a squatter losing their home may not agree, the vibrancy of 59 Rivoli suggests that being converted and legalised is hardly the worst fate a squat can suffer.]]>
GREAT expectations in the theatre can become a burden. When they are not met, audiences quickly turn sour. During Sir Nicholas Hytner’s 10 years as director of the National Theatre in London, expectations have rarely been higher than for his “Othello”, which opened on April 23rd. He directs Adrian Lester, who is black and one of the finest actors of his time, as the Moor; and Rory Kinnear, who played a distinguished Hamlet in Sir Nicholas’s 2010 production, as Iago (both pictured above). The play’s initial run was sold out before the curtain rose on the first night.
The expectations were met, and even surpassed. The critics like “Othello” extravagantly, and audiences sit rapt through the three-hour performance. This production is fast-paced, provocative, and clear. And it is not, as is often the case, simply about black and white. Only one character is openly racist, and that is Senator Brabantio, who finds he has no allies. References to the Moor’s negritude appear in the text, but Mr Lester’s poetic Othello is so authoritative that he shrugs off prejudice. Instead, this is a play about two professional soldiers: Mr Lester is a handsome, energetic general who incurs the hatred of his ensign, Iago, when he promotes Cassio over him; Mr Kinnear’s balding Iago, with a hint of North-London vowels, is an edgy, chain-smoking manipulator, intent on revenge.
The tragedy is normally set in Venetian palazzi and solid Cypriot fortifications, with the characters clothed in the gorgeous costumes of the Venetian Republic. But that is not Sir Nicholas’s way. His production is set in our time. A war cabinet in an underground bunker orders Othello to go to Cyprus and defend it against a Turkish invasion. Wearing a stylish dark suit, Othello captivates them with the story of his flamboyant life, and of how he has attracted the passions of Desdemona, Brabantio’s sexy young daughter. The pair have married in secret, and Desdemona persuades the senators to allow her to accompany Othello to Cyprus.
Dressed in army fatigues, Othello arrives in Cyprus to the sound of helicopters. Being a modern army, his troops include black soldiers and women on parade. Vicki Mortimer, the set designer, has positioned prefabricated huts around a parade ground lit by orange sodium lamps. Hut walls draw back to reveal interior scenes: a squaddies’ mess, Othello’s bleak office, and the motel-style marital bedroom. IKEA furnishings are entirely credible, and quick scene-changes keep the plot moving briskly.
Focusing on the business of soldiery, Sir Nicholas co-opted Jonathan Shaw, a recently retired British general, to analyse the plot and the behaviour of the leading characters. For a start, says the general in a programme note, Othello should not have taken Desdemona to Cyprus—sex and violence are a combustible mix on an army base. And no “proper officer” (such as Cassio) would join a boisterous squaddies’ booze-up in the mess. Only by staying away could Cassio have avoided the brawl that leads to his instant dismissal by Othello.
Olivia Vinall’s wilful Desdemona looks as if she is not long out of school. She is a carefree, naïve girl of simple loyalties, not above kicking a football with off-duty soldiers; and having got her way over her marriage and the move the Cyprus, she is confident that she can successfully plead for Cassio’s reinstatement. Since treacherous Iago is pouring poison into Othello’s ear, it is a fatal error.
The climactic scene in which Iago finally convinces Othello that Cassio is indeed Desdemona’s lover is set in a men’s lavatory on the base. In the electrifying confrontation Othello is driven by Iago into a jealous frenzy, and falls to the ground in an epileptic fit. Contemptuously, Iago kicks his fallen general in the back.
Othello is now in thrall to his tormentor. Having humiliated Desdemona in public, he strangles her in private as she lies in their wedding-night sheets. The only flaw in Mr Lester’s memorable performance is in his final speech, when his sobs obscure some of the finest poetry in the play. At the end, Mr Kinnear is left alone on stage, staring expressionless at the dead bodies with no hint of remorse.
Sir Nicholas has announced that he will retire from the National in 2015. This dazzling “Othello” is one of the productions his directorship will be remembered for.
The run has been extended from mid-August until the autumn. “Othello” will be shown live in cinemas in Britain and abroad on September 26th 2013.]]>
“IT IS my urgent desire that the growing partnership between government and the arts continue to be developed to the benefit of both.” These are not the words of a left-wing cultural elitist from New York, but of President Richard Nixon in an intergovernmental memo from 1971. In this memo Nixon demanded that the heads of departments and agencies ask themselves how each “can most vigorously assist the arts and artists” and think on how “arts and artists can be of help to your agency and to its programs.”
One of the most enthusiastic responses to Nixon’s appeal was from Arthur Burns, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board who created the Fed’s Fine Arts Program in 1975. Nearly forty years on, the Fed’s art collection—with over 1,400 paintings, photographs and sculptures spread throughout its three buildings—is one of the best-kept secrets in Washington, DC.
The Fine Arts Program does not use government money to buy art. Instead artworks are amassed through donations, or bought with monies donated for the explicit purpose of buying art. This sets it apart from other governmental art programs (such as the state department’s Art in Embassies program) which rely on appropriated or budgeted funds. Aside from this parsimonious quirk, Stephen Bennett Phillips, the program’s director, suggests it is best to “think of it as a museum.” Indeed, its advisory panel includes the sort of society doyennes, art dealers, lawyers and industrialists that any major museum would be proud of. But who would donate to the Fed when they could donate to, say, the National Gallery of Art down the road? “If you donate to a large museum, probably 99% of the time your work is going to be in storage,” says Mr Phillips. “What we can provide is the opportunity for the works to be seen and appreciated on a daily basis.” It is an opportunity that seems to be increasingly popular.
Since 2007, the year of Mr Phillips’ arrival, the collection has more than doubled in size. This reflects the high-wheeling connections the director brought with him from his former job as a curator at the nearby Phillips Collection, a well-funded private museum. But it also seems, in part, to be a side-effect of the burgeoning art market of the last decade. Since capital-gains tax on the sale of art and collectibles is taxed at a higher rate than that of stocks and bonds, the benefits of donating art and claiming a tax deduction, have never been more attractive. (The Fed does not accept gifts from individuals or organisations that it regulates).
The Fed does not sell any of its art. But like any other museum it loans out its collection and puts on three special exhibitions a year that can be viewed by the public (by appointment only). But Mr Phillips stresses that its main mission is to enrich the working environment at the Fed. Behind the grand classical exterior of the Paul Philippe Cret-designed main building, the Fed is much like any other office—endless white corridors, monolithic brown filing cabinets and rows of photocopiers. So it is something of a delight to find a colourful Robert Rauschenberg assemblage, “Sling-Shots Lit #3” (1985), floating opposite the lifts. With its multiple layers of transparencies depicting an Indian god, a motorcycle engine, a store calendar and soda bottles, it seems to suggest interconnectedness between people, the divine and the material. It is a fitting piece for an institution whose economic proclamations are often treated with holy reverence. Similarly a strip-lit lobby with a worn chartreuse carpet is enlivened by a temporary exhibition of colourful floral micro-photography by Bert G.F. Shankman. Since Mr Phillips’ arrival the Fed’s collection of photography has grown and now includes works by Weegee, Alfred Stieglitz, Robert Frank and William Eggleston.
The main venue for temporary exhibitions is grander. In the two-storey marble atrium, with dual staircases and Art Moderne details, hangs two enormous gems from the collection: Helen Frankenthaler’s colourful abstract, “Three Color Space” (1966), which was donated by Nelson Rockefeller and may be the most valuable artwork in the collection; and Robert Kushner’s “American Tapestry” (2008, pictured above right), which is a diptych of native grass and flowers embellished with gold leaf and mica that emits a restrained but knowing opulence.
The collection is not without humour. Outside the board of governor’s boardroom hangs a small trompe l’oeil painting by Victor Dubreuil entitled “Barrels of Money” (c.1897). Indeed paintings of currency are one of the few cogent themes in what is, by virtue of the program’s acquisition protocols, a remarkably eclectic selection.
And what of the chairman’s own art tastes? Whereas Alan Greenspan and Paul Volcker decorated their offices with traditional landscapes, Ben Bernanke prefers the abstract. “Samarkand Stitches #IV” (1988), a large vibrant textile assemblage of silks by Robert Rauschenberg, hangs above his fireplace. Would Nixon have approved? Probably not. Despite his call to assist the arts he was not in step with them. In a private memo written the year before his art directive, Nixon called modern architecture “decadent”, referred to artworks loaned by the Museum of Modern Art as “little uglies”, and railed against what he termed, “the incredibly atrocious modern art.”
“Eric Aho: In the Landscape” and “American Life”, a selection of recent gifts to the board's photograph collection, will be exhibited from May 20th to November 15th 2013. Reservations are required at least five business days in advance.
IT IS a truism that governments are usually bad at picking economic winners and losers. But, as with any man-made rule, there can be exceptions. The story of the Cape Dorset artist collective in the Canadian Arctic is one of them.
In the late 1950s James Houston, a Canadian federal government administrator, first encouraged the Inuit community in the area to take up printmaking. As Cape Dorset, a town of just 1,200 people, lies far above the northern tree line, printmaking was not previously a popular form of art. Houston, who was also an artist, imported supplies, set up a printmaking shop and taught the Inuit techniques he had learnt while briefly studying in Japan with Un’ichi Hiratsuka, a woodcut printmaker.
From 1959 the collective of Cape Dorset artists began releasing annual catalogued collections. Their works have since built up a small but international market. The first portfolio of 39 works—21 stone-cut, 18 sealskin stencil and two stone “rubbings”—earned the collective C$20,000. The only remaining complete first portfolio of these works has been publicly exhibited once since then, at the National Gallery of Canada in 2010 on loan from a private Canadian collector. On May 6th, the portfolio will be auctioned by Waddington’s, an auction house in Toronto which specialises in Inuit art. It is expected to fetch C$450,000.
The Inuit artists drew inspiration from their Arctic world—polar bears swimming among ice floes, a hunter poised over a hole in the ice waiting for a seal to emerge, caribou in the dim winter light. In these early prints, the forms are simple but elegant and the colour palette is almost primary. The publicity garnered by the 1959 catalogue helped launch Inuit art as a new artistic form in Canada.
The government support for these artists was not altruistic. Following the second world war it was government policy to relocate the nomadic Inuit to settlements, usually near one of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trading posts that the fur trader had built across the country. But having deprived the Inuit of their ability to live off the land, the government needed to find them something to do. Although Inuktitut, the local Inuit language, has no word for art—it is translated as “isumanivi”, which means “your own thoughts”, or “sanaugaq”, meaning “things made by hand”—they had a tradition of carving small stone figures as toys and decorating clothing with sealskin appliqués. It was the gift of a small carving from an Inuit in 1948 that first persuaded Houston that an art industry could be a fruitful northern venture.
The enthusiasm for making art, including prints, continues today, not just in Cape Dorset but also in the wider territory of Nunavut, which has a population of 34,000. Currently, more than 10% of the population make some or all of their living from making art. The most recent government GDP figures put the art industry just behind mining (although that might say more about the current weakness of the mining industry). Houston’s printmaking introduced a strong contemporary-art scene but stone carving, the most popular form of art, is also the oldest. The land claims agreement, which established Nunavut as a territory in 1999 and is akin to its constitution, even gives an individual Inuk the right to remove up to 50 cubic yards of carving stone per year from Crown lands without a permit.
The government played an important role in the development of the art industry in Nunavut even after Houston and those of his ilk had left. But it could do more. Unlike the European Union or Australia, Canada does not have artist’s resale rights, which require that the original artist or their estate get a small percentage of the price when works are resold by dealers or at auction. Part of Australia’s motivation was to ensure that aboriginal artists benefited when their art was resold. Canadian Artists Representation, a group that represents visual artists, has made the same case to the federal government. But it has yet to be convinced.]]>
CORALIE COLMEZ was raised in Paris and studied maths at Cambridge University. She is now a maths tutor in London and belongs to the Bayes in Law Research Consortium, an international team who work to improve the use of probability and statistics in criminal trials. She recently co-authored “Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom” with her mother, Leila Schneps.
How does maths come into forensics?
One example is DNA analysis—not an exact science at all. If you do find a perfect sample, and it’s a perfect match, then it is exact. But that’s not what normally happens. A DNA profile looks like a graph that is fairly flat apart from 13 pairs of peaks—these are the pairs of genes that scientists have found are the most different from person to person. The probability that the samples will match on all 13 pairs is 1 in several hundred billion, which is why it is considered to be exact.
But normally you will have a degraded, small or mixed sample, so that even if you do find a match you are not 100% sure you have the right person. There is a case in our book where a defendant matches on 5 peaks, meaning there is 1 in a million chance that this is the wrong person. But, if you think about it, 1 in a million isn’t such a damning probability if you consider the whole world [around 7 billion].
Suggested Reading: “Double Helix and the Law of Evidence” by David Kaye (2010)
But I suppose the chance that more than one or two of these people were near the scene of the crime must be quite low.
If you are considering other evidence, then yes. But if you have no other evidence and you’re considering the whole world it isn’t such a small number.
And this was a source of confusion?
Yes. The example is a Californian “cold hit” case from before DNA analysis, but they had a sample on file. Thirty years later they ran the sample through a machine and compared it to a database of known criminals in California and found one match. The chances of a match on 5 peaks being accurate is 1 in a million. The defence argued that as the size of the database was 300,000 people, 1 in a million actually translated to a 1 in 3 chance of an accurate match. However, the person they found was a man over 65, the right age to have committed the murder, and he corresponded to a description, so the 1 in 3 defence that the defence’s argument hinged on was not convincing.
It must be hard for a jury of non-mathematicians to grasp this stuff.
There is actually a mathematician called Laurence Tribe who argues that maths shouldn’t be brought into the court room. Probability is very complicated. People think that a 1 in a million chance of finding a match means there is a 1 in a million chance that this person is innocent, which is not what it means at all.
Suggested Reading: “Trial by Mathematics: Precision and Ritual in the Legal Process” by Laurence Tribe (1970)
So, what does it mean?
For example, if you are in a city of 10m people and there is a 1 in a million chance of a DNA match, that means there are 10 people in that city who would match. So, if you arrest someone whose DNA matches the crime scene, then that person is one of 10 possibly guilty people. Here, 1 in a million chance of innocence actually translates into a 1 in 10 chance of guilt.
One of the most common problems is the chance of something happening randomly. If someone says there is a 1 in a million chance that something might happen naturally you actually need more information to understand it.
How does that crop up in court?
The simplest error is multiplying probabilities of events that aren’t independent. The best example of this is Sally Clark, two of whose children died of cot death. It’s very important to have actual experts give the figures but Roy Meadow, a paediatrician, was the expert witness and he is not a probability expert. He calculated the probability that two cot deaths would happen in the same family by chance by taking the probability of one cot death happening in an affluent non-smoking family (1 in 7000) and squaring it to get a probability of 1 in several million. If that were correct there would be no chance that these deaths happened naturally, but, in fact, cot deaths are not independent of one another at all.
If you have already had a child die of cot death, the chances of it happening again are higher rather than lower?
Yes. There are lots of studies that prove this. Clark went to prison for four years but the whole medical and mathematical community started a campaign to free her and ultimately many of the women Meadow testified against were freed. Maths can be dangerous because it’s so powerful and people are a bit in awe of it, but if you use maths correctly it can bring information that we wouldn’t be able to understand intuitively.
Suggested Reading: “Applying Statistics in the Courtroom: A New Approach for Attorneys and Expert Witnesses” by Philip Good (2001)
You’re saying that maths can be counter-intuitive?
Yes. There is Simpson’s Paradox—the best example of this was at Berkeley in 1973. The university was accused of sexism because only 30% of women who applied were getting in but 50% of men were getting in. They decided there must be discrimination going on, but then when they looked more closely they saw that what was actually happening was that more women were being admitted than men. The women were applying to the more heavily subscribed subjects, the arts, and the men were applying to physics and mathematics where it is easier to get in.
How can that be true? If more women were getting in over all then percentages would surely show that more women got in?
It’s interesting because it’s so counter-intuitive—looking at the same figures you can come to completely different conclusions. But more women were applying so a smaller percentage of female applicants got in.
Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom. By Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez. Basic Books; 272 pages; $26.99 and £17.99]]>
ALL theatre requires some form of collaboration. For nearly ten years, Katie Mitchell, a British theatre director, and Leo Warner, a video designer, have been working together on genre-defying operas and plays. Their productions are characterised by the use of cameras, multimedia projections, and the sound techniques of early silent cinema (where every creak of a door or pad of footsteps is created by technicians) on stage, with actors scurrying about filming their colleagues and swapping roles with one another.
“Fraulein Julie” (pictured above), a production of August Strindberg’s 1888 play, takes this collaboration one step further. It is the first that Ms Mitchell and Mr Warner have co-directed together. The production premiered at the Schaubühne theatre in Berlin in 2010. Now it is on at the Barbican in London. Strindberg’s play centres on an affair between a rich woman, Miss Julie, and a valet, Jean. Strindberg wrote “Fraulein Julie” in reaction to the mannered dramas of the 19th century, calling it a “naturalistic” play where the focus is on small, domestic details. Ms Mitchell and Mr Warner’s version strips it down even further so that it focuses on the character of Christine, a maid and Jean’s fiancée. It is an innovative and dream-like interpretation. Few lines from Strindberg’s original text remain; instead the actors flit in and out of the enclosed structure of the household kitchen, which is never open to the audience but glimpsed through camera shots projected onto the sliding walls of the set.
So what brings the duo together? “We do have a shared aesthetic,” Ms Mitchell explains, “Which is the reason why we continue to work together. The chance that if Leo says ‘Look at this’, I’m going to like it, and vice versa.” They first worked together on a production of “Waves” in 2005, an adaption of Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name. Their method—having their actors or opera singers use hand-held cameras to frame and shoot the scene which plays above the stage—developed out of Woolf’s own experiments with literary form. “Virginia Woolf’s writing created the idea,” says Ms Mitchell, “It generated the technique. We owe it to her exquisite writing. And since then, novels have been a better source of inspiration for us.”
Their multimedia approach to theatre has not always been well-received. Although “Waves” was lauded for its innovative use of hand-held cameras, certain critics—particularly British ones—found subsequent productions, which used the same method, slightly derivative. “What a lot of critics felt with ‘Waves’ was: that was really interesting, well done, and now move on,” says Ms Mitchell. “But what we were interested in was exploring that further.” So they went to Europe, where there are “so many job offers for this work, so that we could just do it solidly for years.”
Such inventive theatre is perhaps better-received in Europe than in Britain, or at least has a longer track-record of it happening there. At the Schaubühne, Thomas Ostermeier, the artistic director, often uses video projects in his plays (such as a production of “Hamlet”, which also played at the Barbican in 2011), while in the Netherlands Ivo van Hove and his Toneelgroep ensemble have created a six-hour back-to-back production of Shakespeare’s “Roman Tragedies”, where a dozen screens appear on stage. But it has an appeal with British audiences too: Michel van der Aa’s “film opera”, “Sunken Garden”, did well at the English National Opera last month, and Toneelgroep productions sell-out at the Barbican.
It’s tough work. Ms Mitchell and Mr Warner are effectively shooting a live film on stage with ambitions to make it of a cinematic standard. “But you don’t have any of the luxuries of film—a second take, or an extendable deadline. Your show will open. And that’s pretty gruelling,” Ms Mitchell says. Such an intense process requires trust between designer (Mr Warner) and director (Ms Mitchell), but also means that these roles are not always clearly defined, leading to a shared role in “Fraulein Julie”. “Ultimately,” says Mr Warner, “we are responsible for different things. But we still don’t know what to call it. The problem is the process is so opaque from the outside anyway.” Ms Mitchell interjects: “But it’s also because we’re pushing what theatre is and what technology can do—we’re pushing both to their limits, and so to some extent it is a miracle that it actually happens each time.”
“Fraulein Julie” is at the Barbican in London until May 4th 2013
Read more: Katie Mitchell's "Written on Skin" at the Royal Opera House in London]]>
Questions of Travel. By Michelle de Kretser. Little, Brown; 519 pages; $26. Allen and Unwin; £12.99
THIS fourth novel by Michelle de Kretser, an Australian author, is what publishers like to call a “breakthrough book”. “Questions of Travel” is an ambitious and entertaining history of modern life about how individuals are shaped by political turmoil and personal desires. In alternate sections it follows two main characters from the 1970s to 2004—Ravi Mendis, a Sri Lankan seeking asylum in Australia, and Laura Fraser, a footloose travel writer from Sydney who tours the resorts of Europe and the Far East. Their paths finally cross in Australia. Idle dreams of escape from a city routine to a paradise of sun, sea and ancient monuments provide an ironic counterpoint to tragic flights to safety.
Following Ravi and Laura and the lovers, friends, neighbours, colleagues, landlords and officials with whom they become briefly entangled, we become intimately acquainted with their lives, past and present. An ocean-side bungalow near Colombo, a grand house in Belsize Park, London, a modern penthouse in Darling Point, Sydney; each home has a particular atmosphere and its own collection of mementos, trinkets and love tokens, evidence of the universal urge to record.
The movements of refugees, tourists and travellers are drawn against the steady global creep of new forms of communication. The telephone gives way to the internet; the Discman is replaced by the iPod; and letters, postcards and souvenirs become things of the past. The fall of the Berlin Wall is seen through the window of a television showroom. The death of Princess Diana is a headline on a newsstand. 9/11 is communicated via email.
In a cemetery in Australia, Ravi has his picture taken on a camera-phone beside the grave of an Irish immigrant with a time-worn photograph on its headstone. In London, Laura falls in love with a man who every year commemorates the moment of his mother’s death by filming the scene outside the window of the room in which she died. Ms de Kretser’s fine descriptive writing evokes the grandeur of beaches and forests, as well as the constriction of suburban streets and gardens. There are glimpses of ordinary lives in cramped Naples, sharply funny scenes in the offices of a Sydney publisher and a sympathetic recreation of afternoons in a retirement home staffed by foreign workers.
These vivid episodes form a multi-layered travelogue but they also dovetail into a narrative, each linking to the novel’s themes of nostalgia and displacement. Ms de Kretser is unflinching in her account of murderous and terrible happenings, gleeful in her choreographing of sexual encounters and mild in her noting of small acts of kindness and failures to connect. The fate of Laura and Ravi is revealed in a dramatic final chapter which has echoes of the ending of “The Mill on the Floss". After the early success of Ms de Kretser’s previous novels, “Questions of Travel” should ensure her place as a serious international novelist of the first rank.]]>
MIRA NAIR, an Indian film director, is no stranger to controversy. Over four decades she has made documentaries and feature films that tackle subjects such as India’s patriarchal society, forbidden love and femininity. An inquisitive nature and a social conscience combined with a healthy appetite for storytelling has proved to be a potent mixture on screen.
Her latest film, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, based on the best-selling novel by Moshin Hamid, is both compelling and unsettling to watch. Set in America, Istanbul and Pakistan the film charts the journey of Changez, an erudite and successful young Pakistani man who lives a high-achieving life as a business analyst in New York. Following a doomed love affair with an American woman and the September 11th terrorist attacks, his enthusiasm for his adoptive country falters. Changez returns to his homeland alienated, angry and despairing and soon turns from capitalist to fundamentalist, eagerly spreading anti-American sentiment. A complex man at odds with himself and the world, he cuts a startlingly sympathetic figure in spite of his antagonistic opinions.
Ms Nair spoke to The Economist about the challenges of making a controversial film, what she hopes audiences will take away from it, and how her Indian roots have informed her work.
The film is adapted from a successful novel. What did you feel you could offer audiences cinematically?
It was the most difficult adaptation I have done because the book is a monologue in which two characters are talking to each other but only one speaks. I wanted the film very much to be a dialogue and for both the characters to be as nuanced, as complex and as human as each other.
What I wanted to offer was a real knowledge of two portraits of different sides of the world. Two sides of the world which have stopped understanding each other, or never did. You never understand the pain of a woman from Baghdad where bombs have rained on her family and killed her home and the society she knew. You only understand the pain of those who dropped those bombs and returned home in body bags who fought for freedom. That is how I have seen the world interpreted in the last ten years. For me to make “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” was very much a way to seek a portrait of both sides with the same love, anguish and questioning.
What did you find most challenging about making the film?
It was pretty challenging adapting the screenplay. It took us three years. Not only because the novel was a monologue but also because the world kept changing as we were writing it. We wanted the film to feel absolutely topical and not dated in a time and place. It was also the hardest film in my career to get finance for—finance which would give me creative freedom.
I knew from the beginning that if I went to the Hollywood studios or anything similar, that the censorship for this film would water it down or make it something other than it is. In the end it was singularly, kindly supported by The Doha Institute which seeks to do exactly what this film does; to create a bridge of understanding between one part of the world and another.
Did you encounter any difficulties during film production?
No. We kept a low profile and got full support from both the Indian government and the Pakistani government. We couldn’t film in Pakistan, as I would have liked, because of security issues and not getting insurance for actors. But I went there on my own without actors. We steered clear of controversy during the making of it.
How have your Indian roots and heritage informed your work?
I feel it is because I am rooted that I can fly and be a citizen of many places. My family is vital to me—just the sense of being surrounded by no pretension. India somehow constantly rivets and inspires me and I feel very relieved to have come from this country which has a very “lifeist” approach to living fully, no matter what one has or doesn’t have.
Given the politics, do you think your film will spark outrage?
What I am seeing the film do is spark real discussion and debate, and that is the reason I made it; to open windows, to seek to question what is handed to us as truth and to know the defence of the other side. We do not preach to the converted or make it reductive because that is what I am railing against; the sort of simplistic reductiveness of how the world sees each other.
The political views of the novel’s protagonist are likely to anger many in the West. How difficult is it to address such controversial views in a film?
What we are saying in the film is that the world is a complicated place. We are trying to be unflinching about the fact that it is a complicated time. Here is a man who is in love with America, who is in love with an American woman and who really wants his future to be there. But he is put in a place and situation which makes him begin to question that world.
Do you think Western audiences are ready to listen to Changez’s anti-American, anti-Western views not much more than a decade after September 11th?
I liked a reviewer who said, “It is a pro-American film that dares to voice anti-American thoughts”, which I agree with. It is not an indictment of America. A lot of us feel that we are against the war; we are against profiling and are against what is happening. We are tired of war in every manifestation. American people do not all believe in what the government has been doing.
The film keeps winning the audience awards in festivals in America. I certainly didn’t expect that. I love that because it gives me a sign that people want to hear the truth, or want to hear more than the side that they are being presented with.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
I hope that, first of all, audiences will be transported or entertained in a way that they can’t resist it. However, I also hope they will take away something that is thought-provoking which will make them think and question what we are given to believe is the other side but actually isn’t, as it is just as human as we are. I would also like them to take away a sense of being immersed in another culture and perhaps a feeling that if it had been another time, another era, these two people—the American and the Pakistani—would definitely have been mates because they are similar in many ways.
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is out in America now and will be released in Britain on May 10th]]>
TRADITIONALLY, business associates would get to know each other over a round of golf. But road cycling is fast catching up as the preferred way of networking for the modern professional. A growing number of corporate-sponsored charity bike rides and city cycle clubs are providing an ideal opportunity to talk shop with like-minded colleagues and clients while discussing different bike frames and tricky headwinds. Many believe cycling is better than golf for building lasting working relationships, or landing a new job, because it is less competitive.
“When you play golf with somebody you have to decide if you’re going to beat them, or let them beat you,” says Peter Murray, a former architect, journalist and chairman of the NLA centre dedicated to London’s built environment. “If they’re a client and you don’t want to beat them you have to sort of cheat in order to lose. That seems to me not a good way of doing things.”
In 2005 Mr Murray, who is a keen long-distance rider, founded the annual Cycle to Cannes bike ride. This six-day charity event brings together architects and developers who want to cycle 1,500km from London to the MIPIM property fair in southern France each March. It now attracts around 90 riders and has raised £1.5m for a range of charities in Britain and abroad. This year Mr Murray has also founded a more ambitious ride called Portland to Portland. A team will depart Portland Oregon on April 27th and they are due to arrive in Portland Place, London, 76 days and 6575km later. Along the way they will visit cities to discuss the benefits of urban cycling and raise money for several architectural charities.
Group cycling, and especially long-distance riding, is a shared experience, Mr Murray says. Riders often collaborate and help each other out, taking turns to be at the front so that the riders in their slipstream can save almost a third of the effort needed to travel at the same speed. Some riders selflessly volunteer to stay in the front earning them the awe and gratitude of the entire group.
How someone rides a bike can give you a real insight into what a person is like, says Jean-Jacques Lorraine, founding director of Morrow+Lorraine, a young architecture practice in London, and a regular participant of Cycle to Cannes. “Some riders are very single-minded, others more collaborative; some are tactical, others an open book. Some don’t mind being soloists whilst others prefer alliance and allegiance.” A day in the saddle, racing uphill and downhill, creates a bonding experience that endures. “If I walk into a meeting and somebody says ‘I’ve done Cycle to Cannes’ it’s a done deal really,” says Mr Murray.
Mr Lorraine estimates that as much as 75% of the practice’s workload (around 45 projects) has come directly or indirectly from contacts made on the road while cycling, in particular on the Cycle to Cannes ride. Why does he think cycle rides lend themselves so well to networking and making professional contacts? “Grabbing a quick lunch or drink after work, whilst great for different reasons doesn’t give you long enough to get to know someone,” he says. Mr Murray believes long rides break down conventional hierarchical barriers. “A younger rider can be cycling along with a chief executive and take their wind or help them in some way and you get a reversal of the relationship. This changes the relationship when they are off the ride too.”
Many long-distance bike riders say cycling, especially over long distances, simply makes them feel good; it lifts their mood and concentrates things down to the essentials. “The pattern of fuelling, riding, fuelling, arriving, celebrating, sleeping and fuelling again puts all the focus on riding and the company of your fellow riders,” says Simon Mottram, chief executive of Rapha, a premium cycling-clothes brand. The simple repetitiveness eases the stresses and pressures of normal life, making it a powerful counterpoint to our sedentary lives, he adds.
Mr Mottram believes it is easier to get to know people while cycling than in other situations. “There is an easy rhythm about conversations on a bike.” Mr Lorraine makes the point even more strongly: “The adrenaline rushes, the serotonin pulses and the surges of endorphin create a kind of high, a sense of euphoria. I feel open, honest and generous to others. I often find I’m saying things on a bike which I wouldn’t normally say, and equally I’ve been confided in when I wasn’t expecting it.”
Perhaps the most compelling reason why cycling is a good way to network is because, for many professionals, it’s a passion and a way of life. “Getting out on the bike is what we’re all dreaming of doing whilst we’re sitting at our computers,” says Mr Mottram. And a shared passion is a fantastic way to start any relationship.
“Cycle to Cannes” happens each March. “Portland to Portland” leaves Portland, Oregon, on April 27th 2013]]>