There is a line in Im Alright Jack (the early 60s satire of the unions) where the Peter Sellars character gets misty eyed about what he imagines to be the Soviet way of life with its “ballet in the evenings”. The joke is about ideological blinkers that allow someone like him to romanticise the pursuits of the haut-bourgeois. It is cynical and dismissive of ballet, attitudes which I had shared until I actually went along and saw it for myself at the Merchant City Festival. The Scottish Ballet were performing some edgy, modern suites and I found myself captivated by the mastery of the body, the possibilities of the flesh, the harmony and the grace. Then we saw Matthew Bournes update of Swan Lake, which was so dramatic that my horripilations were commented upon by the people behind. Last night, we saw Angel Correlland the New York City Ballet perform a cocktail of Balanchine/Gerschwin, a classical piece set to Mozart, a contemporary suite choreographed by Christopher Wheedon with music by Arvo Part, and The Corsair.
All four were beautiful in their own way, but the best by far was the Wheedon/Part dance. The other pieces (partcularly the last one) were too virtuoso to be enjoyed, just as it is difficult to enjoy rock guitar when played by talented fretwankers like Vai or Satriani. Everything in the Part piece was necessary and it was clear that stillness can be just as affecting as movement. The music was integrated with the dance, not just being part of the background. Best of all, though, was the fact that the music left no room for the excessive amount of clapping that blighted the other pieces.
Clapping – what is the psychology behind it? On the surface, it regiusters approval for a performance. Socially, it is much more complex. The Big Other tells you when to clap, for how long and how hardApplause has a lot to do with expectation. I remember seeing mediocre indie band called Smaller (who gained notoreity after their singer was immortalised as the Digsy in Oasiss Digsys Dinner) at the Princess Charlotte and lethargically clapping after each number. Then they played their single – God, I Hate This Town – astonishingly, they were brilliant. So shocked was the audience that we forgot to clap, leaving Digsy to say: “You can fookin cheer that one.”.. Clapping is part of a crowd mentality that is somehow connected to vanity. By clapping excessively, the audience becomes more prominent, almost collaborators in the piece. Also, the more I clap, the more I show how cultured I am to the people around me, how appreciative I am. Either way, it was rather tiresome to have the dance interrupted every two minutes by these human seals.
For the pleasure of dance is the pleasure of flow, of losing yourself in the movement. 40 minutes can feel like 10 when the dancing is really good. Apparently, when people watch sport on television their neural activity shows similar patterns to those who are actually playing the game. The same thing surely happens with dance. The bottom may be glued to the seat, but the mind is light and nimble.
Watching Pelota Vasca on TV the other day lead to a brief conversation about Spanish/Basque TV in general. Its notable that in every house and bar Ive been in, it has always been on and that for old people and people in remote villages TV is virtually the sole source of culture. For such a hardy indomitable culture as that of the Basques who have seen Romans, Visigoths and Spanish attempt to assimilate them without success, TV has proved a strong opponent. Events like “racing the oxen that carries a stone” and poetry recital are still very important in the social calendar, but what are you supposed to do in the evenings? Watch TV and read magazines, of course. Never has TV felt more important.
And so, what is actually on TV in the Basque Country? Well, there are about 10 terrestrial channels, including two devoted to Basqueness, which show football without subscription. The most notable difference (though my survey has been rather brief) is the amount of shows that act as TV versions of Heat and Hello magazine. Journalists sit around discussing who is marrying who, which celebrity died and who has won what award. Oh, and the adverts between each half go on for about 12 minutes. Perhaps this combination of adverts and celebrity obsession is what makes Spanish women so neat and image conscious.
To BBK (a Basque bank) for a Lee Miller exhibition. Ive never seen an exhibition in a bank before, but why not? Why go to the trouble of sponsoring an exhibition when you can have your own gallery?
Millers photos are richly detailed, with striking portraits and interesting angles. She isnt so much an auteur as Man Ray but in those works from the 30s there is a definite intelligence. Her later works, the war photos in Paris and London for instance, reveal an eye for beautiful harmonious disorder.
Later still, pictures of concentration camp crematoria, people discussing the war, a suicide and prisoners she is utterly confident about the sanctity of her art, not worrying a jot about being temporarily rude or invasive. Also, the posed portraits of Magritte, Ronald Pearson and a Milliner are beautifully exact with a fearless eye.
My body is starting to feel the effects of the constant stream of alcohol and rich food that has entered it these last few days. My mind is wearied as it assimilates half-digested Spanish sentences. Michel Thomas, the genius whose Spanish CDs have given me so much confidence, didnt mention quite how fast the people speak. Overall, I feel distinctly fragile. If I was jolted I might just flake away. Another factor is that the fashion for drinking gallons of water doesnt appear to have caught on here. In Britain, people carry around barrels of the stuff – it gives models their clear skin and longevity to all, apparently. In Spain, where most everyones skin is clear, they drink not a drop. The occasional coke, maybe. Coffee, beer, wine, sure. But for a hot country they hardly ever drink water.
Fortunately, we were off to Lauras Grandparents farm, set deep within the Vizcayan mountains, where apart from an attention seeking puppy, it was extremely peaceful. The food was still rich and the drink still alcoholic, but it did my nerves no end of good.
After dinner, we watched the final of a Pelota Vasca (Basque Ball) tournament. Pelota is very much like squash, except it only has 3 walls not 4, is always played in teams and the ball is hit with either the hand, a paddle or a basket rather than a racquet. The game we watched was played with the hand (which is better because you can actually see the ball) and was first to 22. The opening points were very closely matched, but it was clear that the reds were going to win when Patxi (the blue closest to the front wall) got angry at himself for missing a point. Ive been reading Martin Seligmans Learned Optimism, which explains how pessimism, blame and perspective affect experience. Every time Patxi cursed himself, his self-esteem ebbed away and thus, from being 7-7, the final score was 22-9.
Talking to Fernando Villena – a Basque artist who lives a jetset lifestyle in New York and Puerto Rico – about quality of life, particularly with reference to the kind of relaxed and contented existence enjoyed in Spain, which I have been extolling recently. To him, such a life is bovine and just because a cow is happy doesnt mean that you would want to be one.
These comments momentarily threw me. Long repressed romanticist attitudes about the stupidity of the masses floated into my mind. I recalled my teenage self asking the question – if you were an animal, what animal would you be? – and disdaining any reply that lacked danger and excitement. Villena was right, cows are stupid: chewing at grass all day, never leaving their field unless prodded to do so, lollopping around without grace. What a pathetic existence!
But then I asked myself what the alternatives were. Would he, I wondered, rather be a lion or a tiger, spending 18 hours a day sleeping before going out for a kill and a fuck. Quite vulgar, no? Or what about an eagle, swooping hither and thither in solitude? It would soon get dull. Perhaps hed be a swan or a peacock, elegant, aesthetical and faithful? Or would he prefer to be a bonobo chimpanzee, a peaceful animal whose disputes are resolved with an endless orgy of guilt-free sex. It soon becomes clear that in most every animal, contentment reigns supreme. Only the human animal values dissatisfaction and unnecessary danger. We are like dogs (tightrope) walking on their hinder legs: unsteady yet amusing.
To differentiate yourself from the supposedly bovine masses is to display your feathers, showing them to be more colourful than the others. And this, in the same way that the peacock sacrifices its survival ability for sexual selection, is why humans sacrifice quality of life.
One thing that does ruffle my feathers is the Spanish habit of eating late. As a child, I would eat at 5.35pm, just in time for Neighbours. Last night, we went to an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant at 10.30pm!
Every time I go to the beach, I am reminded of the fact that the longevity of your writing is determined by its relationship to the tideline of history. Build your sandcastle too close to the sea and itll be washed away. Build it too far away and the sand is too friable to make an adequate construction. Writing needs the moisture of contemporary reality to take shape, but too much and it wont survive.
For example, logical philosophy is nearly always unbearably abstract, yet Wittgensteins Tractatus (famously written in the trenches) has a certain vitality. At the other extreme, yesterdays newspaper is soon washed away. Perhaps all literature could be judged according to where it sites on the tideline and how moist or dry its materials are. Valis by Philip K. Dick (which I just read) is by far the worst book of his Ive read, being concerned with dusty theology, yet built on the sludgey minutiae of his own life. Watt by Samuel Beckett (which Ive just started) appears at first blush to be the exact opposite.
My own efforts, I fear, are about as effective as the sandcastles I made on the beach today. The first dissolved to nothing after being blown by a strong wind. The second was washed away by a freakish wave before it had really started. And the third, am impressively tall mountainous Gaudi-esque thing, was destroyed by a group of South American children. Destruction by self-consciousness, my age and my critics.
The Cantabrian sea was red flagged today and bathers were restricted to 30 sq metres. Beyond that, the waves were too huge and violent for safety. I strayed too far only once and it felt like being picked up by an angry god and being slammed into the surf. I half thought I was going to die, so powerless did I feel. And yet, afterwards I felt a real purity, my conscience clear … making my way back to the towel in order to bury Laura in the sand.
In Glasgow, my supermarket of choice is Lidl. I love how there is only one of everything – one type of baked beans, one type of toilet paper, as though they were Platonic archetypes. I love how Continental it feels with its black bread and numerous cold meats. I love the bizarre promotions they have of things like Horse Riding equipment. So when the opportunity arose to visit a Basque Lidl I jumped at it.
The building is situated inside a warehouse in Erandio, facing a vast steelworks on the other side of the Nervion. Inside, subtle differences made uncanny what was a familiar experience. In Time Out of Joint, Philip K. Dicks character realises that something is wrong when he reaches for a light switch that isnt there. He understands then that the people who have recreated this reality have slipped up. Shopping in Spanish Lidl was a bit like that.
Our actual desitnation was to Portugalete, a small twon distinguished by having the highest population density in Europe and the worlds first Transporter Bridge (which ferries people and cars across the river via a suspended gondola). In recent years, Puente Colgante (which is the name of the bridge), has been refurbished so that you can walk across the top, offering panoramic views of Bilbao and the coast. For those of us that suffer vertigo this was a stiff prospect. Thankfully, a few tips from TVs Paul McKenna helped and I almost enjoyed the experience.
Once on the other side we walked up steep, narrow streets which resembled a vertical Venice but with more bars, stopping for tapas and kas limon, watching immaculately turned out middle aged women gossiping in the street. August is fiesta month in the Basque country and Portugalete boasted a superbly inauthentic Medieval Market. I attempted to get some herbs for my psoriasis from the apothecary, but the 40 Euro price tag made this peasant blanche.
In the evening to Guernica – or rather Gernika, it being very Basque – for a fiesta which resembled nothing less than Bakhtins descriptions of Bartholemew Fair with its transvestite fancy dress, street theatre and joyful atmosphere. I almost lost my wallet on the rides, almost won a prize on the darts competition and almost got drunk. Almost.
Following on from day one, perhaps the best inducement to thinking “it doesnt have to be like this” is to visit other countries. For who can criticize their nations mores without studying the mores of others.
Being in Bilbao, I feel transported to a completely different world, a better world, maybe. A world where urban living doesnt mean anomie, where sociality isnt restricted to a drink-fuelled search for oblivion, where idleness and flaneurism are mass participatory activities rather than the indulgence of a few. There is no litter here, hardly any graffitti, it is quieter, healthier and more relaxed.
Walking along the Nervion and through the DoÃ±a Casilda, I pondered these difference, concluding that the Spanish dont aspire towards separation as the British do. In other words, there is a Spanish culture whereas Im not sure if there is a British culture. Even Scottish culture (consisting of hard drinking and eating badly) seems a paltry force beside the rhythms and activities of Spain.
Day two was spent trudging around the Bilbao Museum (far superior to the strangely discoloured Guggenheim), enjoying an exhibition of art from Bacon to Hyperrealism, a massive Malevich retrospective and a collection of John Martin prints and drawings. The latter is the 19th Century equivalent of James Cameron or Cecil B. DeMille, creating huge apocalyptic set-pieces containing lots of ham actors writhing.
According to Martin Amis one of the prerequisites for being a novelist is to think that the world doesnt have to be this way. To think: why roads? why cars? why discomfort and noise? why striplighting? The novelist, says Amis, thinks that nothing is inevitable, everything is contingent.Perhaps this is why science is conservative: always confirming how we got to this point.
Now, I am no novelist and nor do I have much time for Martin Amis these days, but as a tourist on his way to Bilbao for a much needed holiday, I ask myself: does it have to be like this? So uncomfortable, so harried and inhospitable. We left the flat at 10, dragging 19.5kg of luggageWhat, dear reader, is the origin of the the suffix “-gage”? I noticed that “hand luggage” (which has been restricted to a briefcase sized bag) has been renamed “hand baggage”. Is this because you dont lug it around? I need to know. and didnt arrive in Bilbao until 2000 (Spanish time). My experience of those nine hours was of encroaching desolation, freezing my spirit as the air conditioning froze my feet. Marc Auge has described the lineaments of the non-spaces surround us as we make our way from A to B: the airports, supermarkets, car parks, and shopping centres. Sanitized places for passing through, devoid of individuality. Efficient spaces for getting thousands of people conveyor belted to their destinations. Worse still, we were doing it twice, and a few days after a “severe” terrorist threat caused massive disruption.
Some people said that the amount of continued disruption meant that the terrorists had “won”, but surely the real victory was for all those health and safety and risk assessment wonks who managed to induce BAA into believing that even carrying a book could be hazardous. Fortunately, a relaxation in the regulations (ignored by many who carried only their essentials in a clear plastic bag) meant that this inhuman measure was lifted. I shudder at the idea travelling by plane without a book.
And thus, I spent my time wearing ear plugs, shivering and reading all 400 pages of David Peaces Nineteen Eighty Three, the final part of his fantastic Red Riding Quartet. Nineteen Eighty, which I had read a few days before, had dunked me into a profound depression. His universe is so caustic, bitter and noirish. Geeks have a phrase “Garbage in, Garbage out” to describe how bad code makes bad software. I wonder whether reading such dark material makes ones reality darker and more pessimistic by colouring your perspective. Certainly Ive noticed that all the people who come into the library stinking of alcohol always seem to read crime books. Or maybe not. This morning I awoke refreshed and optimistic, ready to explore the city.
The opening of a new block of flats on my street was heralded with a series of posters depicting hip bobos wearing plastic bags on their feet. One, featuring a yuppie drinking white wine, had the word ‘cunt’ written on it in austere black marker pen. This was an addition by a member of the public, I assume, rather than a guerilla marketing ploy.
Needless to say, those posters have now been taken down, replaced by a series of photos by Vaughan Judge, an American artist who is also head of photography at the Glasgow School of Art. The series, which can be seen here, depicts callow students in vaguely mythological scenes. Aesthetically, they are sub-fashion mag fodder, neither as well-composed nor featuring as interesting models as those in Tank or Amelia’s (which I browsed in Borders earlier).
What mystifies me is why there are works of art on my road in the first place. The reflective plastic used to protect it from the rain makes it difficult to see the whole picture clearly. And doesn’t the noise of the traffic not distract from the work? I’m not saying that art should be confined to white walls, but I can understand why most curators might think it the easiest way for people to engage with the art.
A couple of years ago, Charles Saatchi railed against the white cubes used to display modern art, branding them “antiseptic”, out-of-date and “worryingly” old-fashioned and cliched. Karen Wright, the editor of Modern Painters agreed: “Museums are in danger of becoming cathedrals to art – joyless and reverential”. Neither of them wanted to take art out of the gallery, of course, but that is the next logical step.
The philosophy of the white space is based on the fallacy that the less noise there is, the more you’ll be able to focus on the object. Flock wallpaper and elaborate frames have been abandoned so that you can commune with the work. At Tate Modern, you can sit in the gloomy grey space of the Rothko room and “vibrate” (as Roger Fry described the aesthetic experience) with the emotions those dull daubs inspire. The modern cliche tells us that, as a visual experience, art affects one’s ganglions in abstract, irrational ways. Removing distractions means a purer experience, apparently (though if that were true, surely the first thing you’d ban would be all those bourgeois women working up an appetite with inane chatter).
As I say, it is a fallacy:- Art desperately needs context. One of the best things in the refurbished Kelvingrove is the Italian Renaissance room where a painting Boticelli is surrounded by illuminating contextual objects. There’s a display showing how egg tempera was a made, an earlier painting that was painted before the invention of perspective, and a suit of armour from the same period. None of these are strictly necessary but all of them add to the user experience. Art is a mirror: if an ass looks in, you can’t expect an angel to look out. We all quickly find our own level, to expect neophytes to become cultured by osmosis is the height of arrogance.
The fewer filters there are between the art and the viewer, the less there is to think about. This doesn’t mean show loads of text explaining the work, but it does mean allowing it to breathe.
I’ve now seen Vaughan Judge’s photos at night (they are backlit) and they look stunning. The rest of my point remains, though.