At the turn of the century the imperial porcelain factory in Leningrad furnished aristocrats’s linen-topped tables with art nouveau mermaids and frozen vistas on vases and porcelain easter eggs. By the 1920s, phrases such as “He who doesn’t work doesn’t eat” and “The kingdom of workers and peasants will have no end” appeared etched around the edges of dinner plates by the Russian masters of ceramic art. Even these everyday objects, tea sets, mantel figurines, were infused with the whisperings of the state.
But around the time of the 1917 revolution a new breed of artist and maker, the self-styled “barbarians”, were turning to the folk traditions of their childhood and the exotic wildernesses of the Empire’s Eastern edge to harness a wholly other kind of spiritual kingdom – in paint.
Merchants adventuring beyond the borders of civilised Russia on journeys popularised by Nicholas, future Czar of all the Russians, sought out ethnographical objects and oriental artefacts from Siberia, the Mongolian steppes and the arid deserts of Turkestan. Even further East, the primitive megaliths in steamy tropical climes, and shaministic rituals witnessed under starlit nights formed the basic matter of the New Barbarians’ meanderings.
Pyotr Konchalovsky’s 1937-38 portrait of the Stage Director Vsevolod Meyerkhold.
The prime movers of avant garde art in Russia, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, all members of The Jack of Diamonds group, exhibited their work alongside still life compositions by Cezanne and Matisse but the Russians’ gaze did not stay settled on Europe.
Firmly grounding Eastern experiments in their own soil, inspiration came from painted shop signs, religious icons and children’s art as well as exotic fruit plucked from local fields and tropical ecosystems. Eggs, loaves and fishes pop up beside pineapples and Persian rugs. Amorphous blooms populate plates, Chinoiserie murals and peasant scarves.
Pyotr Konchalovsky’s 1911 Family portrait (against Chinese Panel).
This merging of the familiar and the primitive in new compositions made fresh magic from tired tools and peasant crafts. At the third exhibition of the Golden Fleece Society in 1909, Larionov exhibited Siberian embroidery and textiles, folktale etchings and gingerbread moulds alongside his paintings.
In Still Life with Crayfish, bread lies broken in front of lurid green and pink wallpaper strewn out like a tribal flag. A painted tea tray leans akimbo, a looking glass-like reflection of a romanticised landscape. Like the sacred figurine often housed in the icon corner in village homes, it acts as a totem, presenting a chocolate box view of village life in muted tones. You can imagine the painting itself swinging like a sign, bolted onto the entrance of a fruit farm or a bakers.
Still life with portrait and a white tablecloth, Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962).
Still from Sergei Parajanov’s Soviet film The Colour of Pomegranates (1968).
The staples of the Russian diet, bread, fishes, folkloric fantasies and feast day fripperies are boldly blown up in these images like the heroic fallout of the most fiery battle scene. In fact, Goncharova likens the ancient stone Kammenye baby, a fertility statue found at the entrances of numerous Mongolian burial grounds, to the wooden toys sold at local fairs and positions both these ancient and modern keepsakes at the forefront of her compositions.
Perhaps village architecture, the shape of our kitchens, gardens, grocers, even the casual accoutrements of a wooden table, with its flowers and fruits, really can contain all the wildness and spiritual grandeur of the flora and fauna of the Steppes.
As you’d expect from any other of the out-there acts in Manimal Vinyl’s obscure LA cool pool (Rainbow Arabia, Warpaint, The Polyamorous Affair), Hecuba’s brand of witchy electro-art pop is so hot right now. Another camera-friendly boy/girl duo from Southern California, they’re easy to typecast, harder to pin down.
On the surface, their thing’s sparse trip-hop adorned with didgeridoos, train whistles, boings and purrs and not much else; Paradise either ekes out a carefully crafted eclectic minimalism, or it’s just criminally kitsch. Maybe it’s just the classical referencing of the band name, but not one of these songs would be much out of place in a spoof of sixties B-movie Jason and the Argonauts, alongside The Bangles’ Walk Like an Egyptian. Appropriate then that the pair first worked together on science-fiction musical projects (whatever those are).
That’s not to say they all sound the same. On ‘La Musica’, dark dub grooves peppered with Albuquerque’s clear-voiced chorus mutates into robotic siren song and spacy ska. ‘Extra Connection’’s winsome chorus and emotive synths channel a youthful Madonna, stripped and tied to the stake, while ambient Eastern jazz fusion ‘The Magic’ (‘I wanna watch cartoons with you, merry melodies and loony tunes’) could score any low-budget Manga film or a hotel lift in Tokyo, and haunted castle of a song ‘Humanize’ makes the tango sound gothic – picture Morticia Adams feeling the LA afterhours scene.
Standing alone, the bare bones of these tracks need a bit of fleshing out – they’d be better served soundtracking some cult indie movie. Beasley’s 58-second dirge ‘Everything’ could be a cautionary tale for any Carrie-esque prom queen: ‘She’s only seventeen, but she acts like she’s twenty-four, dressed in her powder blue, out on the dance floor. She’s going to get what she needs – she knows what she’s here for, and that’s everything, and then some more’. Further evidence of Paradise’s filmic potential comes in the form of grimy fifties-style singalong pop song Suffering, which finds its bosom buddy in its sexed-up B-movie-style video, an all-out homage to Californian filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Think leather bombers, shiny bonnets, and a clean-shaven Devendra Banhart as a Grease-style car mechanic (it’s actually him). On the basis of Paradise, Hecuba are another band who sound best on YouTube.
WhenYoshimi P-We, all-girl noise band OOIOO’s formidable frontwoman, isn’t Battling Pink Robots on The Flaming Lips album of the same name, she’s popping up in the unlikeliest of places. You might have heard her skin-shunting in ear-splitting Japanese rock band The Boredoms, or wigging out with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon in New York supergroup Free Kitten. According to Yoshimi, none of the girls could play their instruments before they hooked up for an impromptu photoshoot for Japanese magazine Switch in 1996. A year later they opened for Sonic Youth in Japan, still with stickers on their fretboards.
Given that the title of their sixth record, Armonico Hewa, is a nonsensical melange of Spanish and Swahili loosely translatable as “harmonious air”, you might expect a hotchpotch of influences. Slightly more unexpectedly, and despite staying wonderfully true to their noisy Japanese roots, OOIOO (it’s pronounced ‘oo-oo-aye-oo-oo’) appropriate everything from acid-jazz to Afro-beat, Tangerine Dream-esque Krautrock to Balinese ape hollers, and wrap it up into something both upliftingly other and delightfully apocalyptic.
It’s not so much an album as a collection of free-flying oddly-shaped song fragments, each more culturally disparate than the next, so it’s quite fun to list them. Sparky opener ‘Sol’ moves effortlessly from punky high-pitched feedback to tribal house tune via Pere Ubu circa 1978, while ‘Polacca’ has a peculiar brand of African funk getting its wind chimes stuck in a blender. On ‘Honki Ponki’ extended instrumental indulgences, zany scattershot rhythms, and rhythmic spoken poetry to rival the Tom Tom Club (or the Um Bongo juice drink ad) give way to playground sing-songs and Brazilian beats. And ‘Orokai’, with its fanfare, claps, and chorusing cast of cutesy characters, wouldn’t sound out of place as a Japanese stand-in for The Magic Roundabout theme tune – at the very least it’s one hoot short of a kazoo circus. But from the rocketing trajectory of Nin Na Yama’s spacy guitar to the Californian woozy on ‘Agacim’, it’s all fucking cool.
Symptomatically, in their unbridled wildness, some tracks inevitably lose their way – not too much. surprisingly only three are over six minutes – but like the streets of some alien metropolis, there’re worse places to get lost in. Even if, with our ears ringing, we’re left wondering whether to scream like a baby, mock-up a dance routine, or slip into something more comfortable.
If possible, the notoriously media-shy Montreal collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor have been more elusive than ever before during their seven year hiatus. With a strict ‘no press, no pictures’ policy – except for an unprecedented NME cover on the worst-selling issue of the decade – this politically-minded and slyly subversive group of artists made waves when they struck out with ominous orchestral debut F?A?? in 1997, a spine-tinglingly beautiful composition featuring panoramic instrumentals spliced with live field recordings revealing the uncensored realities of state surveillance and police harassment.
Given that at the time the group were working out of a crumbling loft space called ‘hotel2tango’ and could only be glimpsed at live gigs performing in near darkness alongside provocative visuals of smoking tanks, it’s no wonder that something of a Godspeed mythology has flourished among an extraordinarily devoted fanbase. Danny Boyle cut the whole of apocalyptic thriller 28 days Later to Godspeed playing in his head. You get the picture. And then in 2010, inexplicably, GYBE returned for a series of live dates and to curate ATP’s Nightmare Before Christmas festival and haven’t left us since. Musical salvation is here.
Review: Shirin, dir Abbas Kiarostami at Le Louvre invite Abbas Kiarostami, The Louvre, in connection with the newly opened Islamic Arts department // KultureFlash.net
Shirin is the first feature to focus entirely upon the reception of a film by its audience – specifically a hundred-odd women in a dark cinema in Tehran. Demonstrating the art of 'not showing', what we see is the women’s uninhibited reactions to the film, played out on their faces as they watch. What we don’t see (only hear) is the object of their gaze, a melodramatic adaptation of Persian romance Khosrow and Shirin.
It’s a curious take on objectification. Instead of simply presenting women, Kiarostami shows them reacting. And consequently it’s their mystifying complexities and capacity for emotion which are on show. Not all of us would choose to watch women emoting for 90 minutes, however magnificent they may be. But it's worth noting here that Kiarostami’s one hundred actresses hardly represent everywoman, but more the lip-biting doe-eyed vintage Hollywood type (think Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marian). The question is, how could any woman be so entranced by what sounds like the tackiest kind of filmed reconstruction, complete with horse neighs, dungeon atmos and clanging swords? Shirin constitutes a pared-down fakery, but fakery nonetheless, where the lesser known faces of Iranian cinema only play the parts of sensational women. Even if they play them very well.
Like the sharpened pencil poised above the paper, or the blade cradled by the hand it strikes, Rebecca Horn’s work falls somewhere on the knife edge between acute pain and stabbing tenderness. At once touching and disturbing, often bizarre, it is impossible not to be drawn in and strung out by her unexpected inventions.
Horn’s moveable body sculptures, made from cotton, bandages or feathers, sad specimens in the cases that house them, come to life when worn. In their accompanying films we see a woman engulfed by a white ostrich-like fan, or another walking through fields bearing a giant horn. With each inanimate object, seemingly with a life of its own, it is difficult to determine whether the female subject is wearing it or being worn, whether it becomes her, or she becomes it.
Often taking the shape of masks, the sculptures simultaneously protect and restrain, acting as both shelter and prison. Significantly, as a student Horn became bed-bound having neglected to wear a mask while working with fibreglass. Pencil Mask, a metal headdress with protruding pencils, is a hefty incarnation of the forgotten face-guard she will always remember; her own iron mask.
In the cocoon-like Paradise Widow (1975), a woman is isolated inside a 240cm high black feathered chamber that, as indicated by the title, offers both the sumptuous pleasure of being alone and the sadness of detachment. (We can perhaps all imagine the sorrow and the ecstasy of death by feathery pillow.) A chance for escape is provided by the moveable ‘wings’ that lift up and out, revealing different parts of the woman within. Indeed, many of the sculptures share this ability to extend as well as envelop; the absurdly extended fingers of Finger Gloves try to pick up objects, or to scratch the walls on either side of the room. These menacing ‘extensions’ reach out for human intimacy, frightening the observer away as much as beckoning them closer.
Horn’s later works marry sculpture with intricate working mechanisms to create machines capable of independent movement. Sometimes this is cyclical, sometimes sudden, or hauntingly beautiful; sometimes, comically, it’s simply making a mess. Drunken Beetle (1991-93) is a contraption made of attenuated hinged rods, some holding small liqueur glasses. Every few minutes, the motorized “arms” flail away, banging against the brandy-splattered wall.
Messy self-destruction seems imminent in Pendulum with Emu Egg (1987). A large black egg is balanced a foot from the floor on the point of a sharp metal spike while, just millimetres above it, at regularly timed intervals, a spearlike pendulum swings in a wide arc – almost hitting the egg each time. Despite Horn’s meticulous arrangement, one can’t help thinking that sooner or later, it will. The artist agrees; her machines make mistakes, are transitory, ‘they have a soul because they act, shake, tremble, faint, almost fall apart, and then come back to life again. They are not perfect machines.’
With Horn, it seems, things are always on the edge of falling apart. And as we cover our faces with our hands, and peer out of the gaps between our fingers, we watch, and wait for the shit to hit the fan.
Gainsbourg stars in Lars Von Trier's hotly anticipated new film Nymphomaniac, but she won't be soundtracking it. The star's much lauded 2010 release, IRM, a team effort largely orchestrated by long-time friend Beck, isn't what one might expect from the same sylph-like chanteuse who delivered heartfelt melancholy four years ago with the Jarvis Cocker/Neil Hannon influenced 5:55. Taking her cues from numerous hair-raising rides into the metallic depths of an MRI Scanner after a near-death experience on water skis, Gainsbourg delivers the same sweet swoon-song of sex, fear and claustrophobia — but it's not so very French, or so intimate. Her disconnected autobiographical vocals, half-sung in RP English, are largely surrendered in cool monotone. While Beck's charged material oozes the same understated violence as Lars von Trier's Antichrist — the notoriously sexually violent film whichGainsbourg took time out from recording to film — these palpitating tunes are too cool to be too bleak. An inspired cover of Jean-Pierre Ferland's “Le chat du cafe des artistes” is more Bond theme tune than desperate swansong — if perhaps with some of the love-dungeon sensibility of the controversial 1984 “Lemon Incest” duet with Serge. Deeper, darker revelations might come from a live rendition of her father's “Sorry Angel”, also covered for the Gainsbourg tribute album by mother Jane Birkin — whose influence this intriguing new voice hopefully won't be casting off anytime soon.
Author of Hollywood Babylon, favourite of Jean Cocteau, and lifelong friend of Church of Satan founder, Anton Szandor LaVey. So indistinct are the life, the art, and the sensational claims of this 82-year-old man, it’s hard to know which came first: Anger’s troubling commentary, or the morbid reality. Experimental 1972 film ‘Lucifer Rising’ foreshadows the grisly demise of its big name stars. First up, Donald Cammell, director of cult film ‘Performance’; he committed suicide. Next, Marianne Faithful, legendary party girl and Mick Jagger’s onetime muse. Lastly Bobby Beausoleil, Love guitarist; he was set to star before he befriended Charles Manson, and later composed the film’s score from his prison cell. Wowzer. But black magic aside, Anger’s films still sound fantastic. In ‘Scorpio Rising’ a macho biker pulls on a pair of azure leather pants to the dreamy chorus of Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet (David Lynch anyone?). ‘Rabbit’s Moon’, an uncharacteristically lovely take on a Pierrot story set in a gloriously low-fi silvery Eden, plays out to salubrious sixties pop (including The Capris’ ‘There's A Moon Out Tonight’ and The El Dorados’ ‘Tears On My Pillow’).
Leeds International Film Festival, November 2012 // KultureFlash.net
Believe it or not, before the release of Pierrot le Fou at the height of the New Wave in 1965, director Jean-Luc Godard had become disillusioned with cinema, feeling that “there was nothing left to do.” Afterwards, he had a change of heart: “I no longer feel this” he said, “Everything remains to be done”. With its collaged style, comic-book action, and playful allusions to mainstream Hollywood movies, all in glorious tricolor, Pierrot le fou was explosive proof of cinema’s latent potential – and, for Godard at least, opened up a big can of worms. Plot-wise, TV executive Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) ditches his bourgeois existence for his capricious babysitter Marianne (Anna Karina). Together they hit the road for Tahiti, to hook up with Marianne’s gun-running brother, and live blissfully by the sea a la Robinson Crusoe. It’s a film about film, and Ferdinand and Marianne tirelessly recast themselves as fictional characters – there’s an homage to Renoir's La Chienne, scenes filched from film noir classic The Lady From Shanghai, and even a nod to Laurel and Hardy. Ironically, this “story of the last romantic couple”, as Godard called it, marked the beginning of a new phase in his career, but the end of his marriage to Karina. C’est la vie.