Monday, 31 July 2006

The Last Supper

The Last Supper
Damien Hirst's series The Last Supper (produced in 1999) will be on show next month at 100 Tonson in Bangkok, as part of a British Council exhibition called Monologue/Dialogue (throughout August). The Last Supper is a group of thirteen screenprints, designed to resemble the labels and boxes of pharmaceutical products though given the names of traditional British foods (steak and kidney pie, chips, Cornish pasty, etc.).

Several of the images include a clearly phallic fake company logo, suggesting that, on one level at least, Hirst's combination of pills and pub grub can be taken as a wry joke. They also suggest the 'space food' eaten - or presumed to be eaten - by astronauts, and the futuristic food in pill form which has been predicted for decades yet has not yet materialised. More seriously, they comment on the increasing amount of artificial additives found in processed foods.

With its emphasis on product packaging, The Last Supper has a superficial connection to Pop Art, though Hirst's images are more muted and clinical than Andy Warhol's bright, garish Brillo boxes and Campbell's screenprints. The Last Supper was produced in an edition of 150, an unusually high quantity for Hirst, echoing Warhol's love of multiple copies.

The thirteen images of The Last Supper signify Christ and the disciples, originally represented in the Gospels and, of course, in Leonardo da Vinci's Milan mural. Hirst himself has also represented Jesus and the disciples in other forms: in Twelve Disciples (1994), the twelve followers were each represented by cows' heads in tanks, with Jesus represented by an empty tank; in The Apostles (2003), each disciple was symbolised by a medicine cabinet filled with found objects, with Jesus represented by an empty cabinet. Most recently, in The Stations Of The Cross (2004, a photographic series by Hirst and David Bailey), Jesus was depicted as a nude woman with a cow's head.

The Apostles, part of Hirst's fascinating exhibition Romance In The Age Of Uncertainty, emphasised the suffering and deaths of the disciples, the cabinets - stained with blood and containing skulls, bones, and weapons - becoming physical manifestations of the bodies of the apostles themselves. The Last Supper is also a reference to death, though the theological element is less explicit.

Although there are thirteen screenprints in The Last Supper, representing the thirteen people at the Biblical last supper, each image does not stand explicitly for a specific person in the way that the cabinets and cows' heads do. Rather, the Last Supper of the title can be seen as a comment on our own reliance on pills to prolong our lives, the implication being that each tablet, or each meal, could be our last.

Science, medication, and pharmaceuticals are recurring themes in Hirst's work. He has produced a series of medicine cabinets filled with pill boxes (Modern Medicine, 1989-1993), and his long-running geometric 'spot paintings' all illustrate chemical compounds. He created a full-scale replica of a chemist's shop, Pharmacy (1992). His restaurant, Pharmacy, was in business from 1997-2003, and one of his companies is called Science Ltd. His epic monograph I Want To Spend The Rest Of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One To One, Always, Forever, Now (1997) takes science as its design theme, and the catalogue of Hirst's work from the Saatchi collection (2001) itself imitates the typography of The Last Supper.

Ultimately, Hirst's installations (the animals in formaldehyde, the medical cabinets, etc.) are more substantial than these screenprints. Also, for a more contemplative contemporary last supper, we can turn to Chris Ofili's The Upper Room (1992), a stunning group of thirteen paintings, each depicting a rhesus monkey, installed in a beautiful walnut-panelled room with soft lighting. However, Hirst is one of the most significant of all contemporary artists, so any exhibition of his work is an important artistic event in Bangkok.

Sunday, 23 July 2006

The Suspended Moment

The Suspended Moment
The Suspended Moment is a touring exhibition of works from the collection of Han Nefkens, currently on show in Bangkok from 6th-30th July. In her catalogue introduction, curator Hilde Teerlinck interprets the title as an instant frozen in time ("A Split Second"), which she describes as "the instantaneousness and transience of a moment". This recalls the 'decisive moment' philosophy of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Teerlinck doesn't cite Cartier-Bresson, though she does mention another interesting parallel. She notes a thematic correlation between the novel Girlfriend In A Coma - specifically its chapter titled "Dreaming even though you're wide awake" - and Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.

The concept of the exhibition is explored most literally in Blast, Naoya Hatakeyama's series of dramatic rock explosion photographs, in which the enormous energy of the blasts is eternally frozen. Otto Berchem's installation, Deadheading - a vase of stalks on a pedestal, with the flower heads scattered on the floor below - demonstrates the fragility of time, and the transience of perfection. Highly acclaimed Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook's video Conversation, in which she speaks to a group of shrouded corpses, takes Berchem's concept to its logical conclusion.

More than the artworks themselves, however, the most important thing about The Suspended Moment is the very fact that it is on show in Bangkok. Such international group exhibitions of contemporary, conceptual art, in such diverse media (video, installation, painting, photography, and sculpture), are rare indeed in this city. The exhibition has been split into three venues (PSG, Tadu, and 100 Tonson), some of which are better organised than others, though when the forthcoming contemporary culture building is finished Bangkok will have a truly modern space large enough to accommodate such exhibitions, and will hopefully attract or even produce many more of them.

Tuesday, 18 July 2006

50 Films To See Before You Die

Channel 4's film channel, Film4, has produced a list of 50 Films To See Before You Die, as follows:

1. Apocalypse Now
2. The Apartment
3. City Of God
4. Chinatown
5. Sexy Beast
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
7. North By Northwest
8. Breathless
9. Donnie Darko
10. Manhattan
11. Alien
12. Lost In Translation
13. The Shawshank Redemption
14. Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India
15. Pulp Fiction
16. Touch Of Evil
17. Walkabout
18. Black Narcissus
19. Boyz 'n The Hood
20. The Player
21. Come & See
22. Heavenly Creatures
23. A Night At The Opera
24. Erin Brockovich
25. Trainspotting
26. The Breakfast Club
27. Hero
28. Fanny & Alexander
29. Pink Flamingos
30. All About Eve
31. Scarface
32. Terminator II
33. Three Colours: Blue
34. The Royal Tenenbaums
35. The Ladykillers
36. Fight Club
37. The Searchers
38. Mulholland Drive
39. The Ipcress File
40. The King of Comedy
41. Manhunter
42. Dawn Of The Dead
43. Princess Mononoke
44. Raising Arizona
45. Cabaret
46. This Sporting Life
47. Brazil
48. Aguirre: The Wrath Of God
49. Secrets & Lies
50. Badlands

This list was selected by a committee including David Puttnam, Jason Solomons, Karen Krizanovich, Tessa Ross, and Menhaj Huda. Like the recent list by Andrew Collins, The Godfather and Citizen Kane are inexplicably omitted. Scarface is the remake rather than the Howard Hawks original.

How To Be A Film Buff

Andrew Collins, film critic for Radio Times magazine, has produced a list of twenty-five essential films, called How To Be A Film Buff. Each entry also has an alternative, making a total of fifty films. The full list is as follows:
  • Casablanca (or Citizen Kane)
  • The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (or Nosferatu)
  • Blade Runner (or 2001: A Space Odyssey)
  • A Matter Of Life & Death (or The Red Shoes)
  • Out Of The Past (or The Big Sleep)
  • La Dolce Vita (or Bicycle Thieves)
  • High Noon (or The Searchers)
  • Rear Window (or Psycho)
  • The Hidden Fortress (or Rashomon)
  • Bonnie & Clyde (or Easy Rider)
  • Bringing Up Baby (or His Girl Friday)
  • The Hills Have Eyes (or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre)
  • Un Chien Andalou (or L'Age d'Or)
  • Armageddon (or Con Air)
  • Heaven's Gate (or Dances With Wolves)
  • Annie Hall (or Manhattan)
  • Singin' In The Rain (or An American In Paris)
  • Paths Of Glory (or A Few Good Men)
  • Performance (or Blow-Up)
  • Bride Of Frankenstein (or Dracula)
  • Blackboards (or The Apple)
  • The Day The Earth Stood Still (or Invasion Of The Body-Snatchers)
  • Pulp Fiction (or Reservoir Dogs)
  • Shoah (or Night & Fog)
  • Winter Light (or The Silence)
Mostly, the alternate choices are films of equal quality to their main counterparts, though not in all cases. Bride Of Frankenstein, for example, is paired with the much weaker Dracula. (Paths Of Glory has A Few Good Men as its alternate choice, but I think we all know that, in this case, no alternative is necessary, least of all A Few Good Men.) It's strange that La Dolce Vita and Bicycle Thieves are paired, as they seem more like opposites. There is a choice between Armageddon or Con Air - how about a third choice of 'neither'?

There is a distinct lack of epics here: no Gone With The Wind, no Metropolis, no Apocalypse Now, and no Lawrence Of Arabia. Unusual, and certainly regrettable, is the lack of The Godfather. The biggest surprise, though, is that Citizen Kane is one of the alternative choices and not on the main list: it's an essential film, especially in a list titled How To Be A Film Buff.

An Encyclopedia Of Swearing

An Encyclopedia Of Swearing
Geoffrey Hughes's 1991 book Swearing is still the only serious academic text on the subject, though it's quite thin and its sources are now outdated. So his new book, the much expanded (though not significantly updated) An Encyclopedia Of Swearing, is a milestone in the field.

The Encyclopedia includes entries for key historical periods (such as medieval, Renaissance, and Restoration), significant writers and texts (including William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Lady Chatterley's Lover), and swearwords themselves. Of course, I turned first to one entry in particular. The entry for this word discusses medieval usage, a brief (Germanic and Latin) etymology, the Earl of Rochester, and two outdated variants. There is no mention of feminist reappropriation, though, and no discussion of contemporary usage.

In his introduction, Hughes explains that the book is not a dictionary - it does not include a comprehensive list of all known swear words. (For a better analysis of offensive words, see Hugh Rawson's Dictionary Of Invective; for a definitive list of terms, see Jonathon Green's Cassell Dictionary Of Slang.) As an encyclopedia, however, this new book is valuable for its account of the history of swearing - a history often summarised, though rarely described in as much detail as found in Hughes's Encyclopedia.

There are brief repetitions throughout the book, with several anecdotes and quotations duplicated in different entries. Also, he writes that Mary Whitehouse personally influenced Kubrick's decision to withdraw A Clockwork Orange from the UK: "Her objection... led to the director withdrawing the film from showings in Britain", though in reality Kubrick's action was a result of death threats his family received.

The Encyclopedia provides a necessary historical account of swearing, though its sources don't seem sufficiently up-to-date. There are a couple of token references to HBO, though Hughes appears much more comfortable when quoting from medieval manuscripts than from contemporary popular culture.

Friday, 14 July 2006

Solo

Solo
Bangkok's annual French arts festival, La Fete, ended yesterday with Solo, a modern dance performance by Philippe Decoufle (first performed in 2004).

The performance began with Decoufle explaining that dance is essentially autobiographical, prompting him to sit at a desk and show us snapshots of his friends and family. This may have demonstrated his charm, though it had nothing whatsoever to do with modern dance.

After this quirky introduction, the performance developed into a multi-media spectacle. Using video cameras and projectors, Decoufle was able to interact with a reversed projection of his own image. With another camera, he could infinitely replicate his every movement on a large screen behind him, in a tribute to Busby Berkeley's musical choreography.

It was the Berkeley tribute section that was the most impressive in the show. Somehow, the multiplied images of himself spiralled into the distance, and each one was delayed by a split second, so that, when Decoufle moved, he was followed by a virtual chorus line of his own reflections. (A live video version of the mirrored corridors in Citizen Kane, The Lady From Shanghai, and Enter The Dragon.) Further camera tricks produced a video kaleidoscope of Decoufle's multiplied body.

Decoufle has worked as a clown, a mime, and a film-maker, and these skills were all central to Solo. Only at the end of the performance did the cameras and screens disappear, leaving the performer isolated (truly solo) and actually dancing.

Overall, Solo was amusing though a bit too whimsical, with tricks and jokes in place of substance.