Rothko at Tate Modern

I went to the Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern today. The show is of his ‘late series’: the centrepiece is the Seagram Murals (i.e. the group of dark Rothkos which have been in the Tate for years, plus some related works that normally live in Japan), but there are also some other groups of works (the ‘Black-Form’, ‘Brown and Grey’ and ‘Black on Gray’ paintings) as well as related odds and ends.

'Red on Maroon Mural', Mark Rothko, Tate

It’s quite suggestive, I think, that the Seagram murals were commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram building in New York, and that they ‘never reached their original destination, after Rothko decided that a private dining room was an unsuitable environment to experience his paintings.’ Because with these big colour-field paintings there is always going to be a delicate path to tread between art and interior design. And indeed you can see why the restaurant might have wanted them: they would have added a touch of modernity and sophistication without actually challenging the air of hushed pomposity which is so important to an expensive restaurant.

But although they could serve as interior design, they are certainly more than that. They are seductive pieces, and they do reward patient contemplation. Partially that’s because they are much more carefully made than the simplest description of them might suggest: a painting may be, in the most reductive terms, a big maroon blob on a red background, but they have more presence than that. Apparently he painted them with many many layers of very thin paint, and they remind me slightly of fine Japanese lacquer; the way a plain red and black rice bowl can be a deeply desirable object because of the texture and way the light falls on it.

And despite what I said in my last post, and despite the funereal colour-schemes, they aren’t gloomy. They are whatever the antithesis of frivolous is — suolovirf — but half an hour spent in their company was restful rather than depressing. They are beautiful things: big, but subtle in their colours and textures.

Or at least the Seagram murals are; some of the others were less exciting, most notably the ‘Black on Gray’ works, all divided into an area of black at the top and pale grey below. Those ones managed to be exactly as boring as the description suggests.

» The painting is ‘Red on Maroon Mural’, from the Tate. I’ve taken it from the exhibition website, which as usual with the Tate, is very good, so do go and take a look.

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Mood music for the apocalypse

It seems weirdly fitting that the Tate’s two current big exhibitions are Rothko and Bacon. I don’t suppose that the Tate can take any responsibility for the gloomy state of the world’s financial market: I don’t think it’s all because City bankers are popping over in their lunch break and being given the willies.

I wonder, though, if you swamped the world’s financial centres with upbeat, cheerful stimuli, whether it would soothe the savage breasts of the money-men. Plaster New York with huge posters by Thomas Kinkade and Beatrix Potter; have Sesame Street and the Tellytubbies playing on big video screens. And all those glowing, scary tickers: don’t have stock values on them, go for zen koans and dirty limericks.

Podcasts I listen to, part 1

Hardly a day goes past without nobody asking me what podcasts I listen to. So, in defiance of public demand, here goes. This is the first of two posts, in alphabetical order.

Adam & Joe

Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish have a radio show on BBC Radio 6; Radio 6 is a music channel, but because of licensing restrictions, this is their show with all the music taken out so that you’re just left with their chatter. Which is, clearly, a great idea, and I only hope that the BBC never manages to negotiate a version of the podcast with music on it.

Silly and reliably entertaining.

Answer Me This!

Even sillier, and also entertaining. People submit questions, Helen and Olly answer them.

Apple Keynotes

Videos of Steve Jobs doing his bit as the Freddie Mercury of the computer industry. Boom! Probably only one for Apple fanboys like myself.

Armstrong & Miller – Timeghost

Comedians Alex Armstrong and Ben Miller provide culturally-themed chitchat in the personae of art critics Craig Children and Martin Baine-Jones. I’m not really convinced that they’ve worked out how to get enough value from doing it in character, but after a weak start it’s now an entertaining show.

Arts and Ideas R3

A selection of highlights from BBC Radio 3’s arts coverage. Variable but worth a listen.

The Bugle

This is probably the single podcast I would recommend most strongly: John Oliver (that English bloke from The Daily Show) and Andy Zaltzman (English comedian) provide satirical comment on the week’s news. Very very funny.

CERN podcast

An occasional podcast from the nice atom-smashers in Switzerland. It has mostly been (interesting) cheerleading so far; now that the LHC has been turned on and then gone phut, it’ll be interesting to see if they do a podcast about the problems

The Collings and Herrin podcasts

Comedians Andrew Collins and Richard Herring. Funnny enough that I keep listening to it, but every time I find myself thinking that it could usefully be just a bit shorter.

Friday Night Comedy

Depending on the time of year, either The News Quiz or the Now Show, two current-affairs comedy shows on BBC Radio 4. The News Quiz has unsurprisingly lost some of its lustre over the past couple of years since the sad loss of Linda Smith and then Alan Coren — difficult people to replace — but it’s still worth listening to.

Front Row Highlights

Front Row is a daily arts programme on Radio 4; this is a weekly highlights package. 

Global Arts and Entertainment (World Service)

Selected arts coverage from the BBC World Service. Variable but worth subscribing.

Links

  • 'A special program about the housing crisis produced in a special collaboration with NPR News. We explain it all to you.' Superb edition of TAL from 5th of September; there's a follow-up show coming out imminently.
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The return of Mandelson

It was a weird moment to see Peter Mandelson of all people return to the cabinet. Particularly weird, for me, because I had been half-heartedly composing a mental list of the celebrities I would most enjoy seeing on Strictly Come Dancing*, and so far the only people definitely on it were Christiano Ronaldo, Rachel Weisz and Peter Mandelson. He is, one way or another, one of the most intriguing political figures of the last fifteen years.

All the analysis in the papers has been focussed on the electoral logic of it — the need to build bridges within the Labour party seems to be the popular explanation — but I’m not sure I buy that; he’s certainly not someone the voting public have ever warmed to. Perhaps Gordon Brown really does just think that Mandelson is the right person for the job.

Which scares me a bit. Not because I have any doubts about Mandelson’s competence and expertise; on the contrary, because he is associated in the public mind primarily with spin and internal party feuding, I suspect he’s never been given enough credit as a talented politician. No, it’s because if the seriousness of the economic situation was measured in terms of things Gordon Brown is worried enough to do, then ‘cut a fraction of a percent off interest rates’ might be economic DEFCON 4, with ‘nationalise a high-street bank’ as DEFCON 3, and if everything we’ve ever been told about their relationship is true, ‘give Peter a job in my cabinet’ must be about DEFCON ‑27⁑.

* note for Americans: what you call Dancing With the Stars.
⁑ Amusing trivia I learned from the Wikipedia DEFCON article: the British equivalent is called the BIKINI state.

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This financial crisis is a bit of a buzzkill.

I haven’t commented much, because I don’t think my political instincts are that brilliant even for the UK, let alone a country I haven’t visited for over a decade. But I’ve been enjoying the US elections ever since the primaries: the Americans always do democracy on a bigger scale than the rest of us, but this time round it has been more dramatic than ever. Not so much political theatre as political epic. The Cinton vs. Obama storyline alone was more exciting than anything that’s likely to happen in our own next general election; and it kept on getting more remarkable. I mean really: Sarah Palin! You couldn’t make it up. It adds to the fun, of course, that it definitely means the end of Bush and probably a Democrat in the White House.

But since the world’s financial sector apparently started circling the plughole, I’ve been unable to take the same kind of simple pleasure in the whole thing.

This is genuinely scary. When apparently well-informed people start making comparisons with the Great Depression: eep. Even if they’re saying things like ‘with the right government intervention we should be able to prevent this turning into anything like the Great Depression’: still eep. What Sir Alex Ferguson once called ‘squeaky bum time’.

Neither candidate has exactly covered themselves in glory over this issue. McCain’s stunt of ‘suspending’ his campaign and rushing back to Washington was the undoubted low point, but neither of them has said anything that convinces me that they have exceptionally clear insights or solutions to offer. Neither of them has made a strong and unambiguous case either for or against government intervention. I understand that since they are not in office and are in the middle of an election campaign, they are in the worst possible position to be unbiassed and pragmatic; perhaps it’s too much to expect to ask them to rise above the politics of the moment. But they haven’t. Neither of them has managed to step in and fill the leadership void left by the complete disintegration of Bush’s credibility.

When asked in the debate how the crisis would affect their spending plans, both of them fluffed the issue: Obama just restated all the things he wants to spend money on, and McCain came out with some ludicrous crap about cutting earmarks. I’m not expecting them to come up with new plans on the fly, several months in advance and without knowing how the situation will change, but it would have been nice to see them engaging seriously with the question.

And that leads me onto the last point: this is a horrible time to become President. I will be thrilled to see Obama elected, insha’Allah, but I think the job may be a poison chalice. Just to take healthcare: there’s no doubt at all that America can afford a proper healthcare system, since Americans already pay more than everyone else for healthcare as it is. But it is money that will have to come from somewhere, and the state of the economy will not make the politics of it any easier.

Frankly, even if it wasn’t for the economy, the next President would have enough on their plate dealing with Iraq. It may be that there there is no good exit strategy from Iraq, but we who invaded the country have some responsibility for what happens to it. As the shop sign says: you break it, you’ve bought it. I would vote for Obama, if I had a vote, at least partially from a belief that he wouldn’t have invaded Iraq in the first place, and therefore that he is hopefully less likely to get into some new foreign adventure of his own. But I don’t have any faith that he knows how to sort out the mess in Iraq now. Would McCain do any better? I don’t know. I suspect that to do the job properly would take decades, and I don’t think there’s the political will in America to commit to that kind of timescale anyway. The Iraqis might not be thrilled either.

All of which adds up to: It’s a lot harder than it was a few months ago to look forward to the election with a sense of optimism.

» the picture, Last Chance, is © huangjiahui and used under a by-sa licence.

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Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

I was originally considering Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land* as my book from Yemen for the Read The World challenge, but I’ve tracked down a novel by an actual Yemeni writer which is available in English⁑, so I’ll read that at some stage. I still wanted to read Travels in Dictionary Land, though, because I very much enjoyed Mackintosh-Smith’s two books† following in the footsteps of the medieval Arab traveller Ibn Battutah.

Sana'a old city, Yemen

I’m not quite sure how long Mackintosh-Smith had lived in Yemen when this book was published 10 years ago, but he still lives there; he is clearly deeply engaged with Arab culture, history and language generally and Yemen in particular — in fact, living in San’a and chewing qat, I think in the terminology of the Empire they would have said he has gone native — and the book mixes what you might call straight travel writing with historical context and snippets of literature and mythology.

I think it’s easiest to just quote a couple of passages.

Very occasionally they [scorpions] are found in bunches of qat. Once, a baby one walked out of my bundle and across my lap, and disappeared among the leavings in the the middle of the room. I have never seen qat-chewers move faster. Another creature that sometimes pops up in qat is the fukhakh, the hisser — the Yemeni name for the chameleon. Its blood taken externally is a cure for baldness, but its breath makes your teeth fall out.. The gecko too is often killed, as it eats the remains of food from around your mouth as you sleep, pisses and gives you spots. Despite this I have been attached to several that have grown up in my house as they are clever flycatchers and converse, like the Hottentots, in clicks.

Or, in a bar in Aden:

Then the band broke into a sort of Egyptian glam-rock number and, unexpectedly, the floor filled with young men dressed in Paisley pattern shirts and pleated trousers. The number of pleats seemed to reflect their prowess at dancing. One particularly energetic youth — a twenty-pleater — shone out: his pelvis was articulated in extraordinary places, and spurts of sweat shot from his forehead. These were the mutamaykalin, the Michaelesques — the fans of Michael Jackson.

So, generally speaking, enjoyable stuff. Some of the political/history passages are less gripping than the travel anecdotes, but at least I now know a lot more about Yemen.

* sold under the title Yemen: The Unknown Arabia in the US.
The Hostage, by Zayd Mutee‘ Dammaj.
Travels with a Tangerine and The Hall of a Thousand Columns.

» The photo of Sana’a old town in Yemen is © eesti and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Mother’s Beloved by Outhine Bounyavong

Mother’s Beloved is a collection of short stories from Laos; even with an introductory essay and with the Lao printed opposite the English, it’s only 160 pages. BTW, I don’t know a lot about Lao names, but I think that ‘Outhine’ is the surname.

I knew absolutely nothing about Laos except its approximate location (between Thailand and Vietnam). Fortunately this book has an essay about contemporary Lao literature that acted as a quick primer on the country’s modern history, which has been fairly grim: it went from being a Thai colony to a French one, got caught up in the Indochina War and the Vietnam War, when the Americans bombed it extremely heavily, then had about 15 years of communist government. Apparently it has liberalised somewhat since the fall of Russian communism, but there’s still only one legal political party: the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.

The stories themselves are short and simple, both stylistically (as far as I can tell from these translations) and in terms of action. And indeed morality: by which I mean that you could often end each story with ‘and the moral of this story is … [something].’ I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of them were published when Laos was a communist state; I think some of that simplicity that comes from writing in a country where too much ambiguity might be regarded as politically suspicious. And often the ‘morals’ are as much political as moral: ‘every one of us, no matter how humble, can make our own sacrifice in aid of the war effort’, for example.

Still, the very simplicity of the stories has its own appeal, and one or two of them managed to combine that simplicity with just the right emotional note in a way I found effective. I’ve decided that one way I could make these little reviews more useful would be quote some of the books, so here’s the opening of a story called The Eternal Pair of Birds. It’s actually an unusually elaborate passage, but you can see it has a kind of plainness to the language.

It was late February. At the edge of the rice fields grew a flame tree full of red blooms whose colour, when reflecting the setting sun, was so bright it hurt the eyes. Next to it stood a lone palmyra. It stretched so high as if to challenge the rainstorm, the hurricane, and the sunshine. It had stood there, strong and graceful, for ages. To the people in this rural hamlet, it was like a timepiece. When the sun was high above its crown, it was noon. When the sun’s rays struck parallel across the top of its fronds, it was time to herd the cattle back to the stable and for the housewives to prepare dinner.

Mother’s Beloved is my book from Laos for the Read The World challenge. I quite enjoyed it, on balance, and if nothing else, it encouraged me to learn a bit more about the country.

» The picture is from the Plain of Jars, an archeological site in Laos which I hadn’t heard of before but is mentioned in one of the stories. The stone ‘jars’, about 1500-2000 years old, are of unknown purpose but may be funerary urns or for food storage. Apparently it’s now one of the most dangerous archeological sites on earth because of all the left-over American cluster bombs. The photo, from Flickr, is © Kumar Nav and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Dry Store Room No. 1 by Richard Fortey

Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum is about the behind-the-scenes work at the Natural History Museum in London. Whether you find that an appealing subject for a book depends, I suppose, on your feelings about museums and/or natural history; personally I found it irresistible.

The public face of the museum — animatronic dinosaurs and overexcited schoolchildren — gives relatively little sense of the scientific work that goes on behind the scenes, all of which is centred on the museum’s collection of biological specimens: pressed plants, trays of pinned beetles, drawers full of bird skins or fossils, jars of starfish in alcohol. The sheer scale of these collections is hard to comprehend: the museum holds over 70 million specimens. That means every person in the UK could be given one to take home and they’d still have enough left over for everyone in Sweden. 28 million of them are insects.

The collections haven’t been accumulated simply through an excess of acquisitiveness, although there must be some connection between the satisfaction biologists get from collecting beetles and other people’s collections of stamps, obscure soul 45s or golf memorabilia. The point of the collection is that it is a vast reference library: if you find an earwig in Burma and you’re not sure whether it’s a new species, you can start by checking the literature; but if all else fails, the last resort is to go to a museum, open up the drawers full of earwigs, and start peering at them through a microscope.

This kind of taxonomical work — preparing specimens, describing species, working out their relationships, publishing highly technical articles about it — might seem to be complete drudgery to an outsider; it is slow, careful, precise, unglamorous. But it obviously has a hold on people, because the book is full of people who spend decades working on some particular group of organisms, retire, and then keep coming in to the museum to continue their work in retirement. Fortey himself is apparently one of them, retired in 2006 but still working away at his trilobites.

The books combines a history of the museum, examples of the work done there, anecdotes about characters on the staff (not surprisingly, perhaps, there have been a few notable eccentrics) and a passionate defence of taxonomy as a valuable field of study. It’s well-written, entertaining, pitched at the interested amateur, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

» The pictures, from the Bombus pages at the NHM website, are of male bumblebee genitalia. This isn’t a highly specialised branch of pornography; it’s a normal way of identifying them (and quite a few other kinds of insects).

The Wah-Wah Diaries by Richard E. Grant

This is Grant’s account of making Wah-Wah, his first film as director. Grant grew up in Swaziland and the film is about growing up there, so I read it as my book from Swaziland for the Read The World challenge.

For me, the book is mainly interesting for its portrayal of film-making, which is fascinating but sounds very very stressful: complicated, expensive, highly time-sensitive, and requiring the juggling of dozens of cast and crew, all of whom have other work commitments.

The film was a French co-production, for the sake of getting the right funding and tax breaks; and Grant had an exceptionally bad relationship with his French producer, who comes across in the book as startlingly incompetent and badly-suited to her job. In fact I suspect her first reaction on reading it was probably to call her lawyer.

It was slightly odd to be reading a making-of book for a film I haven’t seen, but it was an engaging read. I’ll keep an eye out for the film.

(and by the way, is it me or does Julie Walters look really weird in the poster?)

Maiba by Russell Soaba

Maiba: A Novel of Papua New Guinea* is, you won’t be surprised to hear, my book from PNG for the Read The World challenge. I ordered it second-hand and was surprised to find when it came that it was a print-on-demand edition (I’m sure it’s a second-hand copy rather than one printed for me, btw). Of course POD services — or indeed e-books — are perfect for this kind of niche literature. Because of the challenge, I’ve been browsing around for second-hand copies of obscure books from around the world, and they don’t normally come cheap.

The print quality, for the moment, is noticeably weaker; my Maiba is perfectly adequate but a bit cheaper-looking and more generic than a normal mass-market paperback. But if POD helps keep books available at reasonable prices, then a slight compromise on print quality seems a good trade-off.

I imagine that most of the people ordering copies of Maiba are teaching or studying post-colonial literature, and it does fit fairly neatly into that niche. If I had to identify a central theme I’d say it was about the conflict between traditional Papuan culture and modernity — or change, anyway. The agents of change aren’t actually particularly strongly present in the book; the action takes place in a somewhat remote coastal village where the lifestyle is still fairly traditional (as far as I can judge from my complete lack of knowledge), but the relevance and authority of that tradition is oozing away.

I imagine that tradition vs. change is going to be a frequently recurring theme in the course of this challenge; but then I suppose rapid societal change has been the experience of most of the world’s population for the past century or so. Perhaps it’s just more obvious to me when I’m reading a novel set in PNG than one set in Surrey.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of it, as a novel. It’s short — only 115 pages — and rather open-ended. But it is well-suited to literary tourism; it has plenty of local detail about landscape, food, local buildings, bits of folklore and custom. And it’s well written. Perhaps my only real problem with it is that I’m not a big fan of short forms of fiction.

* Or at least that’s the title on the cover; inside it’s called Maiba: A Papuan Novel.

Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťanek

Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťanek (pronounced pishtyanek, apparently) is a caustic satirical novel set in a big hotel in Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia but then in Czechoslovakia, at the time of the collapse of the communist government. It has a cast of prostitutes, black-market money changers, former secret policemen and sex tourists.

The anti-hero of the novel is Rácz, who starts out stoking the boilers the hotel, but ruthlessly fights his way up the food chain. The introduction suggests that ‘Rácz will prove as immortal a rogue as Fielding’s Jonathan Wild, Gogol’s Chichikov or Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull’. I’d only add that ‘rogue’ seems too mild a word for a character as brutal as Rácz.

The comparison that sprang to mind for me (and I should probably be more careful of these comparisons to half-remembered books I read more than a decade ago) was A Confederacy of Dunces. It has something of the extravagantly grotesque quality that I remember Toole’s book having. Rivers of Babylon was published in 1991, so it was absolutely topical at the time, and it has the real edge of satire written in response to dramatic current events.

This translation by Peter Petro was published in 2007 by Garnett Press, a small press set up by the Russian Department at Queen Mary, University of London. Rivers of Babylon is the first book in a trilogy, and apparently they hope to publish the other two books ‘soon’. I imagine that it’s an uncertain business trying to publish on that scale, but I for one would certainly pick up the sequel if I got the chance.

Rivers of Babylon is my book for Slovakia for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo, Square in Bratislava, is © Rob & Lisa Meehan, and used under a CC Attribution licence.

My Father’s Notebook by Kader Abdolah

Kader Abdolah left Iran as a political refugee, having been part of a leftist political party that opposed first the Shah and then the ayatollahs. He has lived in the Netherlands since 1988 and My Father’s Notebook is actually a translation (by Susan Massotty) from Dutch. Despite that, I’m counting it for Iran for the Read The World challenge.

The story is narrated by a Iranian political refugee living in the Netherlands, who tells the story of his father, a deaf-mute carpet mender, over the period that includes the coming of the Shahs and the Islamic revolution. I guess we have to assume that there is an element of autobiography here, but I have no idea how much. The book combines a nostalgia for an apparently simpler time, before the politics of Iran got so messy, with a portrayal of a family, and particularly a father-son relationship, caught up in dangerous politics.

I found it weirdly insubstantial. I whipped through it in a couple of days, and found it likeable enough, but not much more than that. Easy to read, easy to forget. It has a kind of sub-magical realism thing going on: not much actual magic, but a certain dwelling on the colourful and peculiar. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t particularly grab me. Or perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood.

» The image, ‘Some Iranian patterns…’, is © François Bouchet and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.