As usual, London seems to go into over-drive before putting on the brakes for the long, inevitably cool English summer. I’ve had an inspiring past week, from seeing Akram Khan’s Bahok, with dancers from the National Ballet of China, to the brutally moving documentary on torture in Afghanistan, Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Darkside. In between there was the opening of the brilliant Cy Twombly retrospective at the Tate Modern (that reminds me of a successful Italian gallerist I met the other day who seemed to think retrospectives are only for dead artists – “shame on you” to borrow la Clinton’s words) and the extraordinary play, The Pitmen Painters, at the National. And here’s the sleek Tate Modern exit just to whet your appetite…
The Pitmen Painters was written by Lee Hall of Billy Elliot fame, based on a book by the art-critic William Feaver who knew the characters in question. It is a true and very moving story of a group of English coal-miners in the 1930s (the pitmen of the title) who chose to take art-classes with a young teacher. From here they gradually evolved into a flourishing movement depicting scenes from their working-class lives. The play brilliantly shows this transition from uneducated ‘working class’ to knowledgeable commentators on anyone from Picasso to Henry Moore. And on top of that they painted spirited, slightly naif works, straight from the heart. It’s an unusual play in that it deals with the immense class divide of pre-war Britain but also shows how pure self-expression can open up completely new perspectives and lives. With plenty of incisive commentary on social issues, humour and even art-critical commentary, it was a very unusual evening.
In a far more postmodern mode, Akram Khan’s Bahok (bengali for ‘carrier’) was a dance performance about waiting in limbo – or airports, about communication problems and today’s transient (lost?) society. Premiered in Beijing last January, it has already done the rounds and came to Sadler’s Wells late in the tour. There were moments of bravura, particularly towards the end when the dance really took off, showcasing the technical virtuosity of the Chinese dancers (above all Zhang Zhenxin), in tandem with a sole European (Eulalia Ayguade Farro), a Korean, a Keralan, a Slovak etc. But there was way too much speech. This seems to be a growing tendency among young dance groups – a little, fine, but we come to see dance and movement, not listen to words. The last performance I saw at Sadler’s Wells, just a few weeks ago, was the fantastic combination of choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, sculptor Anthony Gormley and the Shaolin monks – far more focussed, inventive and intense, an extraordinary piece.
It’s pretty hard to describe the horrors that Gibney’s documentary, Taxi to the Darkside, revealed. We know a tiny bit about the torture sessions of Abu Ghraib, but here there was more, far more. Cheney and Rumsfeld come out completely blackened (as if we didn’t know that already) but a few American servicemen speak out bravely, some obviously full of contrition, at the mercy of their superiors. There are repeated images of the 22-year old taxi-driver, Dilawar, referred to in the title, an innocent trying to make a living, who ended up being tortured to death by American interrogators. A ‘war on terror’ indeed. But why is this Oscar-winning film only showing at one London cinema, the ICA?
Finally, on a lighter note and scribble, Cy Twombly, in a much deserved and long overdue exhibition starting in the early 1950s and ending with huge, vigorous canvases painted almost yesterday. Curated by Nick Serota himself (big chief of the Tates), it gives an enlightening overview of the development and obsessions of this 80-year old American abstract expressionist, from his Rilke quotes to blackboard graffiti. His reflections of life in Rome, particularly, stayed with me. It’s all masterful and inspiring. In contrast, here’s a nice touristy pic from the Tate Modern balcony where we were being plied with wine and asparagus. Adios for now.