gil scott-heron; redone

I’m New Here is a great one; not just a new one but a riverrunning reconnection with the cool and conscious coming poet. Music stripped back to and built from words, no over-production of the moment [80s reggae sauce] but yet a 110 st 70s flavour. One which vies with all and everything before.

There’s the broken home of 125th and Lenox and ‘B-Movie’ ghetto get outs, a fine version of ‘I’ll Take Care of You’, which Mark Lanegan ‘owns’ as far as I’m concerned, even the title track’s perfectly tempered cover of a Bill Callahan song [if only it were ‘Dress Sexy at My Funeral’ -but heh?].

I don’t know about you, but I had all that right bang mid-horizon… Anyway, this is good but no longer hot news.

Then I noticed this:

A ‘secret’ collection of Angus [Fairhurst]’s very earliest work from the 1970s! I’d never realised it before, nor asked him about it… Peace go with you brother, from now on.

From South Africa to South Carolina here includes ‘Johannesburg’ on it -amongst  a range of gotta move on lovely days. For the first time I actually read the lyrics, heard often in the open-air and in tighter, warmer corners, Clapham Common [was it?!] to Portobello Road, being earnest, not being earnest:

I know that their strugglin’ over there
ain’t gonna free me,
but we all need to be strugglin’
if we’re gonna be free
Don’t you wanna be free?

One long day boycotts are laughed at, rejected, not noticed and seem peculiarly futile, the next day every one is suddenly on their weeping knees, wearing the t-shirt for a TV special.

‘Soft water vanquishes the mighty stone’; cup hands, pour!

mohan rana; more and less

Mohan Rana gave a reading recently as part of the Where Three Dreams Cross ‘season’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. He’s been working with The Poetry Translation Centre to render a selection from his several Hindi collections into English, most closely with Lucy Rosenstein and the poet Bernard O’Donoghue.

The latter read the poems in English after Mohan read in Hindi; his soft clear voice offering lilting repetitions and arhythmic developments alluringly. The English versions seemed pretty faithful to those tones; light, concrete, quotidian and yet also exploring loops of time, philosophical and metaphysical notions, specific Indian circularities and continuities as well as things irreducible and universal.

A Standard Shirt

by Mohan Rana

Between midday and nightfall
there comes a time
when the day’s noise and actions
are already done with,

just as now,
all desires quenched,
I am ready to sit down
on any chair.

A boy in a yellow shirt
has just passed by
and made me think
of a shirt of mine
in those old ordinary days.

So it was possible.
Yes, this life was possible.
And here I am, still wearing
a shirt just like that.

From Jagah, Dwelling

I went partly because so little writing is ever translated from the various Indian languages into English that the UK seems stuck in a self-satisfied Slumdog circuit, fantastically incurious about the subcontinent beyond  visible/legible hoardings. It is the British disease; we like people from other places to come and tell us about -‘translate’/dilute- it in our terms and then leave it at that. Convenient, complacent, dumb.

So I walked the walk and was handsomely rewarded, because Mohan is a very fine poet who grew up in Old Delhi but has been a resident of Bath for 20 years. His poems conjure familiar images, times and places to me; habitual dawn and dusk walks through great cities, Delhi and Ahmedabad, old and new, very remote villages in the western extremities of India, riding through heavy monsoon rains beside the Narmada river. The poems are a portal to the interior world of boys with skateboards or green shirts in the gallery, for example, and to more universal places and times, real and imagined, within and beyond memory.

Larger elements shape the everyday in India with thousands of years of rehearsal and concretion. After Mohan’s reading there was a well-meaning question about influences, the answer to which is found throughout a written [spoken and sung] legacy that long predates northern Europe’s. In some puzzlement about where to begin, Mohan mentioned the Upanishads; a repository of songful teachings riddled with poetry and philosophical wisdom dating from some 2750 years ago.

The preceding Vedas are more like hymnals, of course, but I’m peculiarly fond of the Upanishads. I know, I can remember, how dauntingly monumental they seem before you trust yourself enough to read them like you would anything else. I’d recommend two very different versions in English, Juan Mascaro [whose Gita is my favourite version of that part of the Mahabarata, and whose Dhammapada is essential reading] made a peculiar but accessible thing out of them. Penguin UK published them first in 1965, a very slim and very Sixties version that is a perfectly good place to start.

However, Valerie Roebuck’s much fuller and exact translations which were first published by Penguin India in 2000 [2004 edition at 592 pages available here] is a far better, clearer and work-withable volume. Poetry and paradox [wordplay and pun, too, as she says] are elemental to these invaluable verses and I think help make them and subcontinental culture open and more transparent as a result. The verses or aural ‘teachings’ come with clear and authoritative explicatory notes too.

Against the context of AK Mehrotra obtaining a large number of votes in an apparently hopeless race for the Oxford professorship last year [which he ought to have got by default], I look forward to Mohan’s selection of poems being available to us all to buy and read tantalised/ingly on trains, under trees, to each other [in the rain]. Until then, you can visit his website, blog or this page of poems which includes those I’ve borrowed. There is a podcast of the reading here.

After Midnight

by Mohan Rana

I saw the stars far off –

as far as I from them:
in this moment I saw them –
in moments of the twinkling past.
In the boundless depths of darkness,
these hours
hunt the morning through the night.

And I can’t make up my mind:
am I living this life for the first time?
Or repeating it, forgetting as I live
the first moment of breath every time?

Does the fish too drink water?
Does the sun feel the heat?
Does the light see the dark?
Does the rain too get wet?
Do dreams ask questions about sleep as I do?

I walked a long, long way
and when I saw, I saw the stars close by.
Today it rained all day long and the words were washed away
from your face.


susan sontag ‘in america’ 2000; revisited/residue

Susan Sontag‘s brand of earnest enthusiasm is completely redundant, right? The idea that you might live with a body of work [ha!] -especially written work [ha! ha!]- for a long time and then find a way to articulate what it means to you and perhaps us/we too is obviously ridiculous. Isn’t it?

I don’t think these things stand or fall around Sontag and I don’t think that it’s any easier to do the work of exception now; to stand back, up or out enough to be willing and able to celebrate, polemicise, passionately engage, act commitedly, work with words, difficult though they ought to be. No easier, no harder, no more necessary. No less.

Sontag is not the tool or resource I reach for either; she was historicised/historical, boringly everywhere and thus to be avoided as well as out of sync with some of what she was celebrating when I first encountered her ‘great’ essays on the ‘great’. I didn’t start with Sontag, but if you did, my only question was where you went afterwards? -because you did go ‘on’, no?

Then there are all the obvious ways in which she does incarnate American culture’s definitive civilisational moment, which I’m not going to call by any name or term, but which she surfed and was flooded with. Commodity/celebrity. You know, if you endlessly tell everyone every day that you are greatly detained with greatness, difficulty and authority, the wise will only listen awry. If you do it in the literally shiny pages of Vanity Fair, the wise become a little deaf. And yet. Flooded and surfing means that it is not contradictory. It is what it is.

So, I tried to critique Sontag’s In America honestly and for what it’s worth this little review called it right. I don’t mean to be dismissive, though, which is partly why I’m re-archiving it here and now. Nor do I mean to be seen to be right! [agents on the Estate Express don’t make ‘right’ either, nor my critique wrong, obviously.] Sontag’s novel may well be so bad in a way that it exemplifies the badness that is also its subject; American commodity/celebrity, in a perfectly condensed single volume.

Sontag worshipped books as possessions, brains as fetishes, writers and thinkers as gods/goddesses. There are admirable aspirations in there, residue beyond the packaging. All I can now recall about her going to Sarajevo and putting on Waiting for Godot in the late stages of a brutal siege is that she did it. It’s irreducible. While western powers contorted themselves to look the other way for year after year and so-called radicals corrupted themselves to ignore the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims before the world, she was there. She was there, being there, doing being there. I don’t care exactly why, or exactly what measurable impact it made, but I note that she went, stayed, knew what it was like. Just another person, not just another person.

There is something similar about the way her critical writing could work; the breathless intensity of baptismal enthusiasm for a book or a writer felt convincing [or not] while reading, generated an appetite for her object or a sugary rush and desire for more Sontag. It’s true that nothing of hers materially altered or even impacted on [made Sontagian] its object or my lasting understanding of it. Rather it enacted Sontag’s urgent appetite for it [of course], was a convincing herald for the work, took it so seriously that it could butterfly it all over again. The residue is urgency and appetite.

I was caught up by this when reading one of her last pieces; Loving Dostoevsky, in At The Same Time 2007. It recounts her accidental discovery of Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden and in essence her passionate admiration for the book [as well as “the incomparable” Dostoevsky, a sentiment I claim as my own]. I don’t want to say anything about Tsypkin, his book, or her critique, only to recall how affective her voice was within the first and last line of her piece. It excited me, I panicked about what else I didn’t know, whether I knew the author or not who now sounded so different, relished the sheer thrill of it all -as she presented it- and felt more alive and clarified in all I thought during those minutes of reading.

It’s easy to sneer about Godot resistance in Sarajevo -even if raised to the challenge of Camp Gaza today- easy to sneer about bursts of enthusiasm and gushing celebration of [dead] writers. Is anything much easier than such a sneer? In fact, it’s notably hard to articulate an agility of intellect or thirst in place of being merely academic and especially difficult to keep the words alive, generative.

The problem is legacy, or residue: if I can appreciate Sontag’s championing of under-recognised figures at one cultural moment, their subsequent ubiquity -or just belated recognition- belittles her effort. It’s forgotten/forgettable and, fatally, it’s polemical need to foreshorten makes it less critically robust after its assimilation too.

Did she know or realise this? Did she hope that the passion might out live the historicising correction? I know it isn’t that she didn’t care! Then again, it’s Calvino’s celebration of Fourier that lingers with me more than all the rest. Zizek’s introductory interpretation in English of Badiou too [yes!]. Then de Quincey’s short text on Kant is a tattoo of truth almost as lasting as Joseph Frank’s staggeringly good five volumes on Dostoevsky. Yet again, look at her perspectival acuity with regard to the Twin Towers and Abu Ghraib…

NB; Speaking of Dostoevsky and Frank, I missed the abridged version of his light-footed monument Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, published by Princeton UP in December 2009. The publisher has a good page here, including contents and a pdf of the first chapter. There is an interview with 91 year old Frank here in which he says of Dostoevsky that “He poses questions in such a way that, whether you agree or not, it makes you think about them.”

Which reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s acute, urgently honest and revealing review of Frank’s Dostoevsky [orig. Feodor’s Guide VV 1996] in which the big questions asked by Dostoevsky of his world and of writing clearly formed a big brick in the wall that DFW must have hit at about that time*, finding himself perhaps on the wrong side of the only question/line that matters. Which reminds me, in contrast, of William Gaddis…

*It’s not online now, so I quote: “… we have abandoned the field … who is to blame for the philosophical passionlessness of our own Dostoevskys? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t–could not–laugh if a piece of passionately serious ideological contemporary fiction was also ingenious and radiantly transcendent fiction. But how to do that–how even, for a writer, even a very talented writer, to get up the guts to even try?”


Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.30.56

Famous for 35 years

In America by Susan Sontag (Jonathan Cape, £16.99, 387pp)

Saturday, 27 May 2000

As a literary brand the name, Sontag is a synonym for serious. So the phrase “Susan Sontag’s new book” is a promise of significance. The writer has long grown accustomed to a state of “perma-profile” involving, on the one hand, recent battles with her good conscience in Sarejevo and against traumatic injury, as well as a second brush with the cancer she famously defeated in the 1970s. On the other is the dubious realm of critical sanctification and the Vanity Fair puff.

Sontag, born in 1933, earned a reputation in her thirties with the essay collections Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will. Her writing influenced what we think about camp, photography and illness, and helped make icons of European men such as Barthes, Canetti, Artaud, and the saturnine Walter Benjamin. She has long been “the most intelligent woman in America”, and countless column inches have been spent on the miles of book-shelves that line her Manhattan apartment.

She returned to fiction in 1992 with a well-received historical romance, The Volcano Lover: a novel invested with the matured intellectual vigour that fuelled her reputation. It was a gamble, and it revealed a problem: not the predictable cynicism of the intellectual, but the way that Sontag’s profile precedes, envelopes and smothers her work. It does so in the sense not just that In America is “Susan Sontag’s new book”, but also by her presence, which is felt on almost every page – sometimes deliberately, but rarely appropriately.

In America is the story of an actress and her successes in her native Poland and adopted America. In between, Maryna Zalewska, with an entourage that includes her husband the Count and another close admirer, gives up acting to found a utopian community in California – a brief experience of failure. The novel is set during the 1870s and is “inspired by” a historical figure. The actual actress’s exhaustingly researched biography has spurred on Sontag’s fascination with artistic celebrity, which she treats as an American story.

Marina’s stage genius is unrivalled in America, and Sontag writes at devoted length about her Shakespearean cameos, her fizzing fame and its endorsements – from fans and of products. At the end of her previous novel, the volcano lover himself, Sir William Hamilton, was judged against Sontag’s criteria of originality, discipline, invention and zeal. Hamilton was found wanting, but these are Marina’s possessions. Sontag celebrates them with this novel about one woman’s specialness.

In America is a bold attempt to inhabit the experience of success. The problem is that Sontag is rarely able to animate the past or, in particular, her characters. Sontag is essentially a collector, the figure she has so often written about, and her novels are the product of fascinations. The result here is inventive non-fiction awkwardly parading as a novel. Sontag’s appetites, perspectives and exactitudes would sparkle in almost any other form.

In The Volcano Lover, Sontag produced a vivid portrait of late-18th-century Naples. Her fascination with Neapolitan society in the age of Nelson and Napoleon was so effective that it compensated for the absence of a pumping heart in her story of Nelson and Emma Hamilton’s love affair. For In America, the equivalent object of fascination is the actress’s mobile world of veils, feints and flaming egotism. When the book is over, this leaves almost no residue. Further, Sontag has attempted to re-jig the 19th-century novel, which must teem with life, but cannot sustain the required imaginative autonomy.

Marina wonders whether “she had used up the allotted number of impossible feats her will could make possible”. Sontag writes often and well of American “willing”, the knowledge “that I can triumph by sheer stubbornness, by applying myself harder than anyone else”. Which is laudable – until the rigid fruit of such stubborn labouring is before you.

So few writers will risk their intellectual ambitions in the form of a story now that it’s tempting to minimise the failings of this attempt. But Sontag, aiming for absolute achievements, deserves more than tempered praise. The way that In America re-stages the American dream speaks urgently to the present; combined with Sontag’s abilities, it could be a triumph. Yet it fails because of her limitations as a fictionaliser, as she proves unable to free her narrative voices from authorial echo and prod – and, dare I suggest, a blinding self-regard.

Copyright 2009 Independent News and Media Limited

nasreen mohamedi; to basel 7 feb – 5 april

Nasreen’s Notes – Reflections on Indian Modernism [Pt 1] has now settled at the Kunsthalle Basel until the 5th of April.

More on the show is here. More on Nasreen Mohamedi is in an earlier post here and the current issue of Bidoun. Catch her work live if you possibly can.

The Estate of Nasreen Mohamedi is represented by Talwar Gallery NY here.

Where next? What next!

This image is one of several in the show, in which she has reframed high contrast photographs of the street, backyard and classroom furniture at Baroda where she taught. No direct link to her drawing, plenty of indirection…

subcon survey two/ whitechapel’s where three dreams cross & dayanita singh

The Whitechapel Gallery’s Where Three Dreams Cross [more info/artist list here] is another attempt to make up for long neglect. It’s sweepingly broad, with photographs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh ranging across 150 years and grouped thematically; Family, Portrait, Body Politic, etc. These bundle together anonymous studio portraits, family snaps, publicity cards and photojournalism; images historic and incidental, urban and rural, plus work from artists born in 1870 through to the 1970s -including Bani Abidi for example.

I have as many curatorial queries if not criticisms as there are images and they thematise around the question of who this is aimed at? But Where Three Dreams Cross is essential viewing. It’s a pay show, but admission is free for under 18s and all on Sunday mornings from 11-1 a.m. You’ll need hours or more than one visit and can’t rely on the catalogue which has useful texts but is a frustratingly incomplete record.

Quartet & Doppleganger [Two Amritas] fromRe-Take of Amrita 2001 Vivan Sundaram

Amongst the multitudes are famous people and princes, rare images of poets and musicians, familiar ones by the A.S.I., Lala Deen Dayal, Raghubir Singh and Ragu Rai, for example. What makes it work are the glimpsed treasures; a set of hand-tinted [or miniaturised, popular-style, peacocks and all] family portraits staged before temples, another of Sufi Pir Baba by Tapu Zaveri, selections from Jyoti Bhatt, Gauri Gill [see Bidoun’s Noise] and Aasim Akhtar, as well as the brilliant Unknown and Anonymous.

Then there are the peculiarly subcontinental linkages/lineages; Umrao Singh Sher-Gil’s mesmerising self-portraits downstairs, as well as Vivan Sundaram‘s photo-montages of Umrao and his daughter Amrita Sher-Gil [aunt of VS, who is married to art critic Geeta Kapur who supplies a catalogue essay] upstairs. Then there are Nony Singh’s photographs of her family, including ‘Nixi’s’ young life up until she leaves for college in Ahmedabad, Gujarat…

Dayanita Singh: Nixi on Foot at the Dream Villa

Dream Villa 16 2007-08 Dayanita Singh

‘Nixi’ is Dayanita Singh, represented here by recent Dream Villa photographs in colour and her project of 7 fold-out booklets, Sent a Letter, which include Nony’s photographs with her own of Allahabad, Calcutta, Varanasi, etc. I’m torn between choosing one of DS’s poems -as she calls them- from Dream Villa and one of her mother’s family snaps.

Nony took photographs of her family obsessively, some of the evidence is on the wall, more of it is on Nixi’s face here. In the exhibition this image comes with vital additional notes; “Nixi on her way to study at the National Institute of Design. I just knew she was talented as an artist and fought with my protective husband to let her go. It was expensive. I had no idea what she would become one day”.

I was admiring too but a bit sceptical of what DS did in her early [intimate, ambivalent] tableaux of variously located privilege and desolate or evacuated grandeur. However, in parallel with her brilliant Myself Mona Ahmed [Scalo 2001] project -published with emails from subject to publisher- they promised much and have arrived at something very special. A few pages of MMA and Privacy [Steidl 2004] occupy a vitrine here.

Dream Villa‘s images of nocturnal street lights exemplify this specialness for me [see current Delhi show]; the familiarly angled, bolted-onto-anything lights of urban back streets and the edges of connected-up villages. I loved them when she showed them first in London [2008], recognising their airs -the times and spaces they illuminate- but wondered momentarily if that recognition was necessary for them to ‘work’. In fact, Dream Villa represents a clarified art that needs no referent -even if they can be found. It is what it is.

Nony’s image of Nixi about to set foot free is quietly exquisite. It reminds me of a letter of Emily Dickinson’s which asks; “How is your little Byron? Hope he gains his foot without losing his genius. Have heard it ably argued that the poet’s genius lay in his foot -as the bee’s prong and song are concomitant.” Nony’s image is of her own Byron gaining her foot, impatiently patient in shades of possessive release.

Where Three Dreams Cross is full of little moments of this kind. Little moments of layered resonance. Here Nixi in the eyes of Nony echoes the work of Vivan with his aunt and grandfather -minus self-consciousness and compelling perversity. Moments that insist upon further exploratory exhibitions of  depth, substance, context and celebration beyond this prefatory survey.

mc is … [michael clark sadlers wells 2001]

Michael Clark Before and After: The Fall

Sadlers Wells 2001

‘mc is …’ was a specially commissioned publication sold in place of a programme during the performances at Sadlers Wells. It included the text that follows, a ‘poster’ of images/stills by Tom Gidley and was designed by hyperkit.

mc is …

by Guy Mannes-Abbott


mc is.

mc is not.

mc is contrary.

mc has “the quirk that makes him innovate,” as Mark E. Smith once said.

mc is alive!

mc is a soft and muscular, polite and prankish, economical but very present presence in person. He’s calm, still, focused, good humoured and yet at the mercy of temperamental appetites.

mc is an utterly mesmerising dancer with a unique physical presence on stage. For two decades, dancing solo or leading his various companies, he’s done things like no one else and like no-one else can. Surrounded by the exceptional dancers of his own companies -boy friends and good friends- he’s all on his own: a singular and therefore solitary figure.

mc is consistent/inconsistent.

mc is a dancer whose earliest choreography famously mixed elements from his schooling in classical and contemporary ballet with traditional Scottish dancing, as well as the pogo -punk’s incarnation. I see untrained gestures like the sashay and other camp elements in his work from the mid 1980s. I see traces of voguing and break dancing in his work from the late 1980s and early 1990s. All the work bears an enabling influence from visual art, both in terms of the languages of installation and performance art as well as in terms of licence. But there is spirit in his dance and it’s something more, something other than all these things.

mc is a choreographer.

mc can be astonishing.

mc sits close to Jean Cocteau in my mind. I was reading Francis Steegmuller’s biography of the director of Orphee and Blood of the Poet in the summer of 1986. It tells a story of the precocious but unformed Cocteau and his pursuit of Diaghilev, the charismatic impresario behind the Russian Ballet, in 1912. Diaghilev repelled Cocteau in a Parisian street with two politely chosen words: “Astound me!”

mc performed No Fire Escape in Hell at Sadlers Wells in September 1986, dancing to music by The Fall and with Laibach performing on stage. It was a stunning performance that met the command to “astound me” head on and is one of the most remarkable artistic events I have witnessed. It was a privilege to be there then.

mc is sashaying.

mc is perfectly poised, turning dance inside-out with immaculate precision.

mc is getting away with it.

mc can be disappointing. In 1986, he also performed in Mark E. Smith’s drama, Hey Luciani, along with Leigh Bowery and friends. Here mc explored the other end of the same spectrum as brilliance: getting away with it.

mc was pushing into, creating, new territory and discovering how much he could achieve and how little he needed to wing it. One is the obverse of the other; they are the twin-products of creative necessity at its most ambitious. It’s about creating space that becomes uniquely yours to maneuver in with complete freedom.

mc was a peculiarly pretty young man.

mc is a peculiarly pretty middle aged man, whose face retains a kind of angelic innocence even though age has leveled back its striking features, in particular that kissed-ripe mouth.

mc possesses a miraculous smile. It cracks open his pretty head with a dash of ear to ear bliss. It seems to express an ecstatic beatitude. It is a remarkable thing: if it also conferred love it would melt you on the spot.

mc is no angel but he retains a complex and necessary innocence that generates and protects the faith in him required to do what he must.

mc is a Sex Pistol.

mc is no longer wearing the big nappy pin in the top of his right ear that he wore through the 1990s, his 4th decade. Good with journalists, he told one that it was a reminder of his punk roots. This is obviously not simply true nor simply a joke but a sassy remark that ricochets off the truth, giving it angles. This is why, at an age when some people start wearing leather trousers, he could get away with it.

mc is a Sex Pistol. Bored but quick-witted he’s responding to a question posed, safety-pin-in-cheek, by The Face. It’s the summer of 1992 and Michael Clark’s Modern Masterpiece [Mmm], including a dance choreographed around ‘Submission’, hits London. Asked which Sex Pistol he would want to be, he said “Myself. I am a Sex Pistol.” It’s a more telling response than it appears. Rather than accepting a likeness, he’s insistent on taking the place of the original.

mc looks like a punk ballerina in Charles Atlas’ film, Hail the New Puritans [1985]. In a sweetly funny scene, his friends Leigh Bowery and Trojan are dressing to go out with fantastic flare and mc appears in his bleeched mohican, Destroy t-shirt and leather jacket, kilt and big DMs and says “I feel under-dressed”. Amidst friendly flurries of angular, multi-dimensional bitching Trojan says in a voice oozing camp: “Punk’s dead Mi-chael!”

mc is routinely described in boxing’s tabloid terms. So, he’s not The Dark Destroyer or The Louisville Lip but endlessly and forever The Punk Ballerina, etcetera, ad nauseum. It’s a one-dimensional, laughably reductive approach.

mc is not a Sex Pistol.

mc is an original.

mc is a choreographer.

mc’s originality is visible in his movements, his rhythms, his use of space as well as time. It’s there in the coming together and his taking apart, the explosive vitality and negative moves, shapes and forms he conjures.

mc’s originality is embodied in the elegant awkwardness, the creative undoing, that is his dance. It’s in the anti-gestures and movements and the way they amass to form something affirmative of life lived dangerously. It’s there in the attitude it projects though not in the way that critics identify with such knowing certainty: loving it, hating it. To the extent to which there is attitude in his dance, it’s an attitude that refuses distinctions between dance and life, ugly and beautiful, etc. A strategic, side-stepping attitude that rejects the obvious and so should make you suspicious of signals, especially anything overt.

mc is, for example, a wanker.

mc is a wanker. Penises, phalluses: painted onto costumes, held tauntingly in the hand or taking the form of glittering Leigh Bowery costume teapots [in Because We Must 1987], abound in his work. In New Puritan from 1984, which forms the first part of Before and After: The Fall, and in the new work for which Sarah Lucas has made a huge cast of mc’s fisted hand, there is -to be precise- choreographed masturbation. This is the kind of thing that people describe as attitude, but that expresses a certain blindness. These in-your-face signals are meant as distractions, but rather than diverting from a lack of seriousness, they achieve the opposite and allow mc to indulge his serious commitment to making art. The diversion is really a psychological sleight of hand. So, the badges of attitude do signal a kind of insecurity but not in the way that is commonly presumed.

mc has got unusually strong, extending feet. They are the enablers and foundations of his athleticism, grace and control. They give him singular elegance and height on stage. Without them, off stage, he is much smaller.

mc is brilliantly reptilian as a gobbing Caliban in Peter Greenaway’s deadening pratfall of a film, Prospero’s Books [1991].

mc moves in time and space like no one else -even confined to a fake rock in a movie.

mc is, you see, a choreographer.

mc says: “Stop there, you should stop there before you move on … You have to go down, you have to go up, you have to go down … I’m not convinced you’ve got the rhythm … Look! Did you see that? I want you to do more there … There ought to be someone else with you there to get the rhythm right, ba dum … ba dum … ba dum.”

mc says these things warmly, sharing hearty laughter and staccato giggles with his dancers.

mc says these things very precisely, totally committed to solving flaws in movements -in terms of the body and the stage- and rhythm in particular. It’s a matter of finding a way to do something that has not been done before and to do it perfectly.

mc says these things about choreography that is exceptionally difficult and which has been danced with impeccable sublimity before. You wouldn’t want to fail him.

mc’s voice is soft and yet it’s the sound of him stripping everything to the bone of something particular which it is seeking. Something irreducible. So, it’s soft and hard. It’s also just there, it doesn’t project or thrust itself over distances. It’s a voice used to intimacy, shaped for close quarters and indulged by listeners. In that way it’s quite indistinct. It does contain notable emphases but they’re softening ones: o’s are elongated into black holes, words like “doin’” are marshmallowed. The accent is mostly urbanised, apart from a gentle Scottish burr on the r’s and very occasional intrusions of non-urban sound-slips.

mc is and always was a choreographer.

mc is anxious.

mc is probably, possibly, evidently, certainly entitled to be, anxious. For the first time the Michael Clark Dance Company is going to perform without him on stage. For a temperamental risk-taker this is a supremely risky, up-for-auction, moment of truth. Previously mc has pushed the bounds knowing that his own dancing is so startling that it can rescue a performance, if necessary.

mc is not dancing.

mc is no longer dancing. Now we will all see if there is an imprint left after his own feet have been removed from the performance.

mc will not be dancing. For Before and After the 5 female dancers that make up his new company are performing the Before work from New Puritan. New Puritan uses music by The Fall from the early 1980s from Dragnet, through Slates to Hip Priest and Kamerads. At the time, mc and company performed for the band on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and these dances are the centrepiece of Hail the New Puritans.

mc explodes with startling energy in these dances. Aged 22 and with his newly founded company mc has everything to play for, nothing to lose, complete faith in what he’s doing and good fortune is his ally. There are loopy sets designed by his intimate friend Trojan, also the inspiration behind faces painted with misplaced noses and mouths. There are Taboo-era costumes by Leigh Bowery. mc is all glitter boots, green vinyl hat, proto-Madonna tits, and assless trousers. He’s surrounded by wigs and lipstick, y-fronts and Sue Barker tennis knickers, mohicans and more bare-assed cheek.

mc says about The Fall and his choreography: “I enjoy the simplicity of the actual music of The Fall, because it gives me a broader canvas as it were, to make whatever I want to on.”

mc dances butt-naked -to be precise- before fried egg tree-plants, half a lemon and huge hanging y-fronts.

mc is unarsed, not arsed.

mc displays his ambition before us and we see all the stretch marks of making. These dances captured an extraordinary promise.

mc doesn’t care and cares very much. Mark E. Smith squeaks “unclean! unclean!” ‘Spectre vs Rector’ is a circus display of nerve and confidence; graceful set pieces are cut against mc and partner dancing wildly together, the entire company wear gorgeously excessive costumes. Scratching his own arse, licking and biting his dance partner’s, mc sashays in catwalk, dance floor style.

mc is bare-arsed, pirouetting slowly just so’s you know. So’s you know what?

mc is signaling something beyond the critic-blinding arse to other dimensions. And the signal is the thing that is absent, the critical hole in the trousers, where everything beyond dance is. It tells us that there is more to dance than mere dance itself. Sometimes it takes brazen nakedness and club-couture to do it. This is a performance-event that contains dance as well as something else, and the something else is extremely important. It is life -with things beyond the sealed world of dance, elements that exceed the strict execution of technique- that is being staged here. Those improper, contingently intrusive elements circle out and around, returning to reinvigorate the dance itself.

mc is, in a complex and convoluted sense, “tarrying with the negative” as Slavoj Zizek describes it.

mc is dancing along the pavement which becomes a beachy stage. I’ve seen it myself.

mc is dancing the street onto a staged beach. Seen that too.

mc dances solo, bare-arsed again in a short wide frilly apron, blond wig and make-up. It’s ‘Prole Art Threat’ and movements are fast, frantic, with backward jerks and characteristic reversals. It starts to look like tape played backwards, and in the film of it, it is. It’s ‘Gramme Friday’ and movements are stiff, twirling, sober and finally resolved in symmetrical formations. They’re interrupted by mc doing The Candid Camera, with a bowl of goldfish carrots, plucked, wiggled and swallowed, with a shimmying wink.

mc is dancing to The Fall, of all the music ever produced in the world. Their trademark is jerky, jagged, awkward, refusing, deliberately discomforting, belligerent, pissed-off music. Music by the man whose head expanded, who is sticking to a gang of one, will cut a hole in the rain for you and likes people who live in kitchens and halls.

mc develops these qualities into movements that are jagged and broken, sudden and quotidian, as well as very difficult to do. He choreographs dance listening to the rhythms in his own head. He does it because he can: one of the many subtexts is that if you can dance to this you can dance to anything. And you can!

mc is alive!

mc is dancing to life, expressing an appetite for living it dangerously.

mc is dancing to live, to feel alive and because it’s what being alive is for him.

mc approaches life with dance, it’s all he has to say about it, to it, of it.

mc is a choreographer. When he danced these pieces there was a perfect naturalness to his movements, an amazing poise amidst the perversity. In the more complex dances, for ‘Ludd Gang’ and ‘Copped It’ in which the whole company dances, your eye begins and ends on mc. Other dancers are exceptional, other dancers can perform these awkward moves, other dancers can do attitude. But there is and was something else about mc’s performance.

mc has unique presence on stage.

mc is a choreographer and the ‘something else’ is partly in the dance, the natural awkward brilliance of it is embedded in the choreography. If you subtract mc from his choreography you lose his unique physical presence but you’re left with his thinking, his rhythms, his approach to space and appetite for newness.

mc is in rehearsal with dancers who are about the age he was when he formed his first company in 1982. They’re serious, committed, ambitious and eager to prove it but they’re about to dance mc’s role and seminal early work. They’re all in this together, huddled around a video playback monitor, laughing and joshing. It’s an endearing sight.

mc has swum oceans of publicity.

mc often talks football to journalists. Talking about Mmm and the pivoting of much of the dance on the pelvis he compares the severe angles and speed achieved to the footwork of Maradonna. He’s often talked of dancing at Ibrox stadium at half-time.

mc can be candid about his self abusing usage of drugs, in particular. He says; “I don’t know how much choice there was involved,” during his years of addiction. “I mean; it was beyond my control.” Candid too, about falling through the floor after Leigh Bowery’s death in 1994. About the years living incognito with his mother back home in Scotland. About losing people and things. About being broke. About surviving.

mc reminds me of a Will Oldham song, ‘I am a cinematographer’, performed by Palace Brothers on Days in the Wake from 1994. Will sings “I was a big old bear once … I walked away from everything that shone … only to find that everything had gone. Now I am a cinematographer.”

mc talks often about Bessie Clark, their closeness, her spunky solidity. He’s proud of the central importance of their relationship. She’s there in the films, and on one occasion -in Mmm– he literally pulled her into his work.

mc often talks of self destructiveness: that of his alcoholic father and of artists compelled to explore new horizons in their work. Everything is at stake in that compulsion to innovate.

mc’s own words contain elemental truths and consistent claims for his work. No-one else’s words get very close to conjuring what he does, what is witnessed in his dance, what it is.

mc says quite often that he wants to remind himself why he needed to dance in the first place. Every new piece is built from this recovered need.

mc says that he and Bowery would egg-on each other to over extend themselves in various ways. This odd English construction: ‘egging-on’, is a key note in his work and was bound up with the great friendship which ended at the time of Mmm.

mc believes dance involves a language that can’t be reduced to black and white. Hence the difficulty in finding words for his dance’s awkward shapes, turned-inwards back-to-front movements and promiscuousness. He talks of the challenge this poses and of wanting to recover the first human impulses to dance.

mc believes in the necessity of dance.

mc believes it’s the artist’s job to report back from those dangerous regions of life: the outer limits.

mc lives his dance fully, adventurously, recklessly.

mc is an artist. This is the highest compliment I could pay him as a dancer and I’ve thought hard and long about it.

mc admires Nijinsky and in particular the way he rejected what he knew as a dancer to choreograph Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring in 1913.

mc takes risks and a typically bold one was his remodeling of Nijinsky in Mmm. In particular, he remade the ‘dance to the death’, the choreography for which drew critical praise for the show. For mc this was a dance of life, of change, seasonal and otherwise. Cocteau was obsessed with Nijinsky who was the star of Diaghilev’s company, and it was on hearing Stravinsky’s original music for The Rite of Spring that he said he understood the “state of surprise” that Diaghilev must have meant when he instructed him to “Astound me!”

mc generated that same state of surprise in me when I saw Mmm at the Kings Cross Depot in 1992. It thrilled me with its possibilities, potency and sheer vigour as well as the difficult precision of the dance. It was a gorgeous event. There are other criteria for excellence of course, but this was again astounding, exciting, exhilarating to witness and to feed from.

mc is a choreographer. His choreography has become cleaner, more concentrated, stripped back and more to do with the body itself. This was particularly evident in current/SEE [1999] in which he performed to the music of Big Bottom, a 5-piece band of bass guitarists. In much of that work it seemed that the dance had come home to mc’s body, and he had come home to his most elemental appetite for dancing.

mc’s work is about being alive.

mc’s work is the work of an artist. However, of course, dance work has its own very particular rigours and disciplines. To work hard at dance is to mean something very specific. It’s almost unique in its combination of ancient disciplines -mountains that have to be climbed- and a chronologically early cut off point that is more the domain of the pop singer or the model. An old dancer is no longer a dancer. They are, if they’re lucky or brilliant, a choreographer.

mc is a choreographer.

mc is choreographing new work.

mc is in uncharted territory: choreographing work that he will not dance. It may prove a liberation. Now that complex accumulated style, rhythmic intelligence and innovating appetite can focus on the thing in front of it, as opposed to things around it. It can shape the material it has before it, force it to do the highly particular thing that it wants. Find solutions for difficult movements, rhythms and sequences.

mc is choreographing new work around old musical favourites.

mc is making work which has expanded away from the body again while still evincing new concentrations and clarities.

mc is cheating probability with this new work. He still feels the necessity to make dance. He’s facing forwards and has things to prove, challenges to meet, solutions to find in the form of other people’s perfectly-tuned bodies.

mc is a choreographer.

mc is not dancing.

mc is alive in the imprint of his feet that have left the stage.

mc lives in the shapes, the rhythms before you. They are many things, including unmistakable. This is mc’s leap into the future. This is his new horizon, to be approached with sashaying, awkward, difficult, funny brilliance.

mc is not.

mc is.

mc was.

mc is.

© The Author. 2000.

subcon survey one/ saatchi’s the empire strikes back & yamini nayar

I don’t like survey shows -especially of the squeeze a culture or a continent into one building in London type- but The Empire Strikes Back at the Saatchi Gallery is a must-see. It’s an elegantly curated glimpse of subcontinental art weighted, of course, towards Big Statement and Painting -most of the latter of which could date from any of the last five decades.

Of the bigger names here -Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Jitish Kallat, Rashid Rana- I’m happiest to see Atul Dodiya’s scandalously neglected work in London and now hope for a dedicated exhibition of it. The ‘blame’ for such seasoned indifference and the real limitations on this particular show are contextual; British incuriosity about the actuality of India [and beyond] despite its renewed global status.

Admission to Saatchi’s ’empire’ is free; no complaints, no excuses!

Yamini Nayar: What is Essential

I’d not come across Yamini Nayar or her work before. Born in Detroit, resident in New York, claimed by art criticism as one of the upcoming stars of new Indian art, her work  explores ambiguities of exactly this kind. Saatchi is showing 4 photographs dating from 2006-08; table-top constructions of mostly interior spaces, assembled from scraps/found objects before being photographed and discarded. Her own website [which includes her Studies; potential buildings rendered in lines drawn on photos of derelict sites] is here, and her gallery is here.

What is Essential 2006 51 x 61 cm Yamini Nayar

One way of entering this image is through David Lynch and the uncanny, but why use the back door? These highly ambiguous spaces are more potent with now: the world as it is and might be. What is Essential is surprisingly but appropriately small in actuality. It’s also one of the most close-up and two-dimensional of her constructions and thereby unrepresentative, but it contains all that intrigues me in her work.

At first glance What is Essential is a room, oddly but recognisably decorated. It could be anywhere but then again it must have been approached via the subcontinent; the simultaneity of four textures, the unlikeliness of those bird sculptures, the glittering objects on floor, table and wall. At the same time it’s an image about the u-topic quality of space in 2010; everywhere and nowhere, spontaneously generated as place, a kind of archival utopian vision.

But it is the coppery ‘gold’ button with its ambitious thread that engages me, granting the possibility that the parachutist might be on his way up rather than falling, captured in flight like the birds. This element is more typical of her other work too; the use of objects with ambiguous scale, or of objects as synonym or metaphor, stand ins for other things which are also approximate. The catalogue describes these objects as ready mades, which is reasonable, but then their readymadeness requires specific referents or context. What is their context?

In this model of a suggestively real interior, the button -if that’s what it ‘is’- is an open signifier. Nayar’s art is located here; the other photographs in the show and beyond build from this and this is why they are so potently suggestive. Suggestive of architectural, cinematic, religious, domestic, crime scene, student bedroom, sufi retreat, miniature painting, spooky/site-specific art installation as well as many equally improvised rooms that I’ve stood in in big cities, mountainsides or on desert fringes in the subcontinent itself.

I want to insist that these are not stills or single frames but movies, dense poems, potent visions, proper ‘utopias’ for our age; broken down but also cobbled together, existing, even if only in this moment now. The task is to extend the moment and build in it…