Tate Britain, London, 2019.
The Pussy Riot case is an affront to humanity, a miserable, dispiriting state-sponsored kicking for three angry free spirits. It’s so depressingly like the kind of relentless, malevolent crucifixion handed out to non-compliant creative people across the decades of Soviet rule it’s as if the country has lost its memory (Hari Kunzru has a post about the absurdity of Pussy Riot’s persecution on his blog).
If they were poets instead of punks, a well-organised international boycott would by now be in place. PEN International would have organised a conference and a letter signed by hundreds – including a dozen Nobel laureates – would already have been delivered to the Kremlin (PEN has already taken up the case, of course).
International musicians should boycott Russia. They shouldn’t go there and they shouldn’t permit Russian releases of their work. They should do this for Pussy Riot and on behalf of their Russian peers who can only provide a cryptic, compromised, Sovietised response to this nastiness.
A letter from every major musician on the planet – from Barenboim to Gaga to Jagger – should already have been lodged with the Russian government. Advertisements in national newspapers should announce the action. There should be a hashtag. Record labels and promoters should join in. Individual musicians are angry about the persecution of Pussy Riot – speaking out, putting on protest gigs and benefits. But does the music business have the guts and imagination to act? Or are they too greedy and venal to take on Putin’s bullies?
Everyone’s going on about curation these days. We’re all curators now. But yesterday I witnessed some of the old-fashioned variety, the kind they do in art galleries, and I was blown away.
I took two of my kids to Tate Britain (four different modes of transport: train, tube, boat and bus – I suspect that’s what they’ll remember about the day). First I dragged them round Patrick Keiller’s ‘Robinson Institute’ which, in truth, was my main reason for schlepping across London (like I said, four modes of transport…). I’m the kind of old git that loves Keiller’s films (although I haven’t seen Robinson in Ruins yet) and I was really excited to see what he’d come up with in an art gallery. It’s really stunning – works from the Tate’s collection are brought together with passages from Keiller’s films, books, film stills and artefacts of his own (over 120 works in all).
This is curation as storytelling as art. The connections Keiller makes are cheeky, funny, poignant. Nineteenth century romantic and picturesque imagery (landscapes, landowner portraits, animal pictures) interleaved with documents of resistance to enclosure, maps, signposts and other inscriptions made by humans on the landscape. Also those Keiller signature images of mysterious and desolate scientific and military establishments and quite a lot of post-war conceptual art. And the persistent Robinson cosmic entrainment stuff is here: meteors, geological patterns, lay-lines and other psycho-geo tropes. It’s magically done. A situationist people’s history. A visual poem.
And the designers have done simple things to parenthesise the content – the works are offset from the gallery walls in a kind of linear zig-zag that gives the choice a kind of scrapbook-feel – for you Tumblr kids. It’s a cheeky, delirious intellectual walkabout.
Next (after the compulsory visit to the cafe for cake, obviously) we walked through to the Clore Gallery and caught what I learn was the second-to-last last day of another beautiful specimen of the curator’s art. David Blayney Brown is the man behind the wonderful ‘Romantics’, a show that mashes up the work of the Clore’s anchor tenant, JMW Turner, with that of his contemporaries to tell the story of Romanticism in a way that was hugely and pleasurably engaging for an art history pygmy like myself (I notice that the broadsheet reviews for the show when it opened nearly two years ago were pretty snooty about the accessible format – I think this kind of curation with a personality will put critics’ noses out of joint – it seems to be straying onto their territory).
This is (was, sorry!) a highly-visible kind of curation – opinionated and full of information about the period and the context. Big, assertive statements about the context and the work are printed in huge type alongside pictures grouped together in ‘pods’. It’s a really vigorous narrative, full of energy and ideas. I came away with a sense of the flow of events and the interaction of personalities that I’d never have got from the mute curation of the old school. Gripping storytelling about art.
And the whole experience (not the cake, obviously, or the boat) was a quite bracing reminder that this curation business is really not about pointing, in a sort of dilatory way, at stuff we like the look of (I called it ‘the curatorial twitch’ in an earlier post), but about the hard graft of assembling artefacts, information, context and inspiration to tell really important stories (see the previous post about Radio 3’s awe-inspiring week of Schubert output for an example of how to do this on the radio).
Everyone says music is getting more physical again. We continue to get our daily sounds from ever more insubstantial sources, floating above us like those glittering landscapes in Neuromancer, but we’re going to more concerts and festivals than ever and buying more stuff while we’re at it (merch, fancy limited editions. Even musical instruments are booming).
Turns out we love schlepping around for some actual, physical experience of music in an actual physical place as much as we love the disembodied bits. But there’s 21st Century physical and there’s 18th Century physical.
I’m reading a terrific book called 1791: Mozart’s Last Year, by H.C. Robbins Landon (who died last year). And it’s essentially a catalogue of grim physical trials – of epic journeys (in horse-drawn carriages quite often bought specially for the trip), of intolerable living conditions and diabolical food provided by hateful grandees who never paid their bills, of mysterious debilitating illnesses and (of course) of lives cut short by service to art (and to miserable patrons). The book’s full of enervating phrases like the one at the top (which is from an account of a dinner performance by Mozart) and:
The mail-coach with four horses left Vienna at eight o’clock in the morning and took three days, with twenty-one post stations, to arrive at Prague in the morning…
(a trip to Prague to perform at a coronation). And here’s a job ad from Vienna in the period:
A musician is wanted, who plays the piano well and can sing too, and is able to give lessons in both. The musician must also perform the duties of a valet-de-chambre…
(My italics). And then, of course, there was the final, ghastly physicality of his early death:
Suddenly he began to vomit – it spat out of him in an arch – it was brown, and he was dead.From a book based on Mozart’s wife’s recollections, quoted by Landon
What I’m left with is an image of the musician as grafter, as under-appreciated, barely-recognised labourer in the fields of art. Sacrifice, privation, hunger, physical collapse – evidently the necessary preconditions for creation in that golden age.
Don’t ask me why I took these photographs. I think they look like a Sol Lewitt photogrid…