July 25th, 2008

operesque

Evil childgeist

From Glasgow -- where we've been staying at Joe Howe's place near the Necropolis -- to Newcastle, where I play a show at the charming Star and Shadow cinema, run by an 80-year-old Geordie communist who used to take his didactic drama unit round the local mines and factories, raising class consciousness. My show takes the format of a Michael Parkinson interview programme -- Parky and I (he's a showroom dummy) sit on an Ikea sofa chatting about each of the songs I play. Sample dialogue: "This was from my Bataille / De Sade / Mishima period, Michael, I'm sure you went through one too -- around the time of your short-lived Channel 4 show, maybe."



The following day we leave Byker Wall, the award-winning 70s housing scheme where promoter Craig Wilson lives with Krista, his girlfriend (a Finn, Krista is the woman you see strapped naked to a trolley during "Trust Me, I'm A Doctor" in the Man of Letters DVD!) and head down to the Tyne, the Millenium Bridge, and Baltic Mills, the vast Tate-Modern-like arts centre perched on the Gateshead side of the river. The facade is dominated by one of Yoshitomo Nara's sulky toddlers. The shows inside are predominantly Japanese at the moment: Nara and Graf, Mariko Mori.



Mori I think has gone from being a 90s show-off to a 00s spiritual charlatan -- I don't have much time for her pseudo-spiritual dribs and drabs, and the 80 year-old Geordie communist in me can't forgive her for belonging to a rich family who own half of Roppongi. As for Nara, although I've been rather over-exposed to his work -- I've seen variants of this Graf show in Osaka and Berlin already, although it's localised each time -- I continue to find it interesting.



Yes, his little girls are twee as hell -- but they're spooky too. Yes, the puritan dollhouses Graf build around Nara's imagery turn the gallery into a theme park (the local element this time was a huge glitterball built into one of the facades, based on something Nara and Graf found in a local bar). But they give the encounter with Nara's imagery a whole new dimension, one which saves the whole project as far as I'm concerned. Nara and Graf continue to create magic -- contemplative spaces from an episode of Little House on the Prairie set on Mars. It would be a sour old man indeed who didn't find his inner child while negotiating the rickety walkways that connect one ramshackle hut, one disturbingly alien little girl, to another.



After the Nara show Hisae and I explored the relaxation / education centre on the first floor, a place of tactically mismatched chairs, plasma screen TVs showing interviews with the artists, toys and tiny tables for children. It felt really good to be there, and to watch the pedestrian bridge outside winched up and down for the ships to pass through. Sure, the dominant tone of Baltic at the moment is an infantilizing one, and the development smacks of a bid to use culture (friendly, reassuring, childish culture) as an engine for redevelopment. But at the same time, when you see the new electric buses with their organically-shaped windscreens dropping new visitors outside the impressive building, you can't stay cynical.

Talking of cynical, I picked up the latest edition of Modern Painters in the Baltic giftshop. The magazine has got even thinner -- fewer ads -- and sports a new look which might as well be a demonstration that style-mismatching as often leads to visual disaster as the distinguished eclecticism seen amongst the chairs upstairs. Diarist Matthew Collings seems more dyspeptic than ever, somewhat less enchanted by the contemporary art scene than even Brian Sewell.

Under the heading "Evil Zeitgeist", Collings (who's in New York) begins: "Art today is understood as a series of moves that you have to comprehend and absorb, in order to position and advance yourself in a game for a group of people whose creativity has become repellent without their realizing it. That is, if you're an artist. Your whole role in society has become weirdly hateful. What on earth happened? The shows roll by, feeding the art industry, not feeding anything else, just seeming like object versions of shouting, or someone reading familiar, acceptable meanings off a list, or idiotically droning or mumbling in a childish attempt to come across as a mystical genius or someone highly educated. It's very rare to see a contemporary art show that isn't like toys for children."

While I have to say that "childish attempts at mystical genius" and "toys for children" are absolutely perfect descriptions of what was on show at Baltic, I don't share Collings' despair. Sure, we read that kind of blanket statement and recognize something generally true -- there is a lot of toxic jockeying, especially in cities like New York where everything is all about money. But the encounter with art still takes us to places we can't reach any other way.

I'm not sure if the "evil" part of Collings' picture enters because artists are pretending to be childlike themselves, or treating their audiences like children, or whether it's the combination of that with the world of money, or the combination of all this with Modern Painters' decreasing advertising revenue. But being reconnected with your inner child isn't such a bad thing to have happen, in a huge post-industrial building full of tiny wooden huts, after a journey across a pedestrian bridge or via a blobby green electric bus.