Saturday, August 25, 2007

Ancient China at the British Museum

Three years ago, the British Museum put on a fascinating exhibit containing several artifacts on loan from Khartoum's National Museum and detailing the rich, long and complex cultural history of Africa's largest country. It should be mentioned that the accompanying forum involved one Professor Wendy James, Sudan expert, anthropologist and mother to Amiable Dunce. The following year, the Museum opened an exhibition devoted to the objects of the ancient Persian Empire, which I wrote about at the time on Dcat's blog (I did go, and it was incredible). Next month, the British Museum will offer up its latest installment in its apparent series of exhibitions about dodgy nations with overlooked and extraordinary histories: The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army opens on September 13.

The exhibition contains a fractional selection of pieces unearthed from the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, the most important archaeological discovery of the twentieth century (perhaps the most important ever). Shi Huangdi is credited with the unification of the lands that have since made up China (the name, in fact, descends from him). Such a task unsurprisingly involved many years of brutal expansion and violent control and resulted in an immense power which is reflected in the size and magnificence of his resting place. It is a vast and only partially explored underground city inhabited by treasure and artworks including over eight thousand lifesize terracotta soldiers and dancers, twenty of which have made the trip to London. They are so large that the doors of the museum's delightful Reading Room had to be removed.

My knowledge of ancient Chinese history has largely been gleaned from the work of Larry Gonick, and I doubt that many can claim much more. The exhibition will be undoubtedly enlightening for the many tens of thousands who visit. The story of China's birth will be understood, however, through knowledge of the current state, its increasing global power and the continuing atrocious treatment of its citizens. In the next year, as the momentum of the Beijing Olympics increases interest in and scrutiny of the Chinese state, we can expect growing efforts by the Chinese government to improve its image in the eyes of the world. This exhibition, which could not happen without at the very least the permission of the Chinese state authority, must be read in that context. The same, indeed, can be said for the previous collaborations by the British Museum with Iran and Sudan. Does this mean that one of Britain's greatest cultural institutions has become a mouthpiece for the propaganda of despicable regimes? I don't think so. For a start, it would be a lunatic director who would turn turn down, or even not seek out, the opportunity to display some of the rarest, most exquisite treasures of global history. While politics may dabble in cultural exchange, politics should not stop it. These exhibitions represent more than political gestures, but the cooperation of British curators, archaeologists and scholars with their perhaps relatively isolated counterparts, and not to mention the rich, once-in-a-lifetime experience open to any who wish to stop by.

Scanning the programme of events accompanying the exhibition, it is clear that this will not be a myopic affair, sheltered from the contemporary context. It will be delicately handled, to be sure, like the ancient objects themselves, and primarily a cultural and artistic exploration, but it seems quite conscious of the reality of modern China. Lectures include an examination of Mao Zedongs' own Mausoleum, and a discussion which directly addresses the historical and contemporary 'rise of China.' While these terracotta soldiers may be the new Pandas for the Chinese state, they certainly represent a coup for the British Museum and for the rest of us. Not to be missed.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Close Reagan Aide Dies

"My obit will probably say 'Close Reagan Aide Dies,'" predicted Michael Deaver in 1988, "that doesn't bother me a bit. That's my life." Perhaps an easy call, and proved correct this week in the responses to his death on Saturday at 69 - Reagan's age when he won the presidency. Scanning the obituaries, the focus is on Deaver's role in Reagan's circle, from Sacramento to Washington, as his publicist and image-maker - his "director." Along with the above, most quoted is his modest and intriguing claim that "the only thing I did was light him well. My job was filling up the space around the head. I didn’t make Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan made me.” Deaver's talent was not to manipulate or to pull the strings of the Reagan puppet, but to compliment and magnify Reagan's own gift for the visual and the emotive.

It is modest of Deaver to reduce his position to that of stagehand, his influence in the administration was considerable, steady and helpful. It was apparently Deaver's stance that at least in part solidified Reagan's reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and prompted the President's private recrimination of Begin, halting the attack. Deaver also worked (with Jim Baker) to minimise the influence of the militant Al Haig upon the President, perhaps softening US foreign policy as a whole, and effectively ending Haig's political career. It certainly seems true that had the White House remained under Deaver's, and Baker's, scrutiny into the second term, the Iran initiative may never have gotten off the ground, certainly wouldn't have been left in the hands of fanatics like Oliver North, and would never have emerged as such a threatening scandal. Deaver's influence on such areas, while perhaps disproportionate considering his lack of expertise in foreign policy, could at least be described as level headed and decent.

It was the symbolic packaging and presentation of Reagan that was his job, however, and for better or worse, he will be remembered as an early master of the image-centred politics that is so prevalent today.

Monday, August 20, 2007

David Cameron Kills Art

The Campaign to Protect Rural England's recent fundraising campaign involved asking sixty of Britain's artists and noted figures to commit to a postcard a creative effort that expressed "their love, hopes and fears for England’s countryside." The results will be auctioned this week at Bonham's, and can be viewed here.The collection is a mixture of the image and the written word (as all best postcards are) and contains some interesting stuff, such as Timothy West's Old Great Western Rialway, and some quite striking landscapes, such as John Emanuel's Cumbrian Fells.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, media attention has homed in on the efforts of David Cameron, the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Tory pretender to Downing Street.

Rather than offer an original sketch, compose a few lines, or promote a specific issue, Dave has simply cut out a copy of his Party's logo and pasted it onto the postcard. In one way, this does rather sum up Cameron's hopes for the English Countryside - that its inhabitants will vote Conservative at the next general election.

This is the latest shot in Cameron's media blitz to promote his clumsy rebranding of the Tory party as something fresh, modern and conceptually bite-size. Like the rest of his efforts, it will no doubt enthrall, embarrass and enrage his base in equal measures. Artistically, this is only "modern" in the most superficial sense; the French have been doing this sort of stuff for a nearly a century, and nowadays only the most perversely "traditional" see the abstract or conceptual as outside the norm. What it is is a bland and bleak response to the richness of rural England. The logo itself is only a year or so old, designed to emphasise the newness, greenness and oak-tree-ness of Cameron's party. It carries no weighty symbolism, and brings to mind not the ancient patterns of the English landscape, but the stark and airy, skyscraping London office in which (I presume) it was designed - by (I presume again) young city-bred graphic designers who had never seen an oak tree until they checked google image. Surrounded by a blank margin, the image offers no detail, no thought, and all the charm of a rubber stamp.

England's landscape is vital to its identity and culture, something which the CPRE clearly depends upon, has grown out of, and seeks to promote. Images of the landscape can contain a tapestry of emotive ideas. Looking at a Constable, for example, the viewer can find in it the brilliance and dynamism of a cutting-edge artistic style, the comfort of pastoral tradition and the picturesque, or a social concern for depleted rural industry. In his vague gesture, Cameron has avoided all this potential in favour of a probably lazy, possibly jokey attempt at self-promotion. Ann Widdecombe's is much nicer:

I believe I have just out-Toried the Tory leader. Alarm bells should be ringing for at least one of us.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Poindexter wins in 50% landslide!

Despite an horrific level of voter apathy, Admiral John Poindexter has been chosen as Amiable Dunce's favourite Reagan Administration National Security Adviser, winning a full two of the four votes cast. That is twice as many as each of his closest rivals, Bud McFarlane and Colin Powell. Poindexter advised Reagan from 1985-6 before becoming a casualty of the Iran-Contra affair, for which he was convicted on multiple felony counts in 1990, reversed in 1991.

I would like to think that the admiral gained the respect of Dunce readers through his noble displays of loyalty his chief. "The buck stops here with me," Poindexter declared as the scandal mounted, hoping to protect the President from incrimination - to take a bullet for him, I'd say, like a good soldier. Unfortunately, this position instead contributed hugely to the impression that Reagan was not in control of his administration, an impression that brought Reagan closer to impeachment than any implication of his involvement in selling arms to Iran.

However, I doubt that Dunce readers are really concerned with such things as the virtue of self-sacrifice, he probably only got so many votes because he has a funny name.

Here's to you, Admiral Poindexter!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Mercenary Song

This is a clip from the extras of Heartworn Highways, the film in which the Townes van Zandt song I posted earlier originally appeared. It is an excellent documentary which I heartily reccomend, many thanks to honky tonk musical font DJ Shamblin' Sexton for the lend.

In it, a tired and emotional, and surprisingly pretty Steve Earle sings a song about mercenaries in the early Twentieth Century. I've always found the historical war song genre strangley irresistable; examples I can think of include "Waltzing Matilda" by the Pogues, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by the Band, "Houses on the Hill" by Whiskeytown, and "Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin, why not? Please offer your own suggestions for a compilation.

(ps. I am on an iBook, and can't figure out how to do hyperlinks or italics - this may get sorted out eventually.)

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

You Won't Have Nixon To Kick Around Anymore!

Just to give a taster of Hopkins' performance, for those who haven't seen it.

Also, it's worth pointing to Stone's likely future projects: a film documenting the Bush administration's handling of the aftermath of 9/11, and another one about My Lai. Sounds like he is back on track.

Oliver Stone and History.

In the past two days I have submitted myself to two lengthy, ambitious films by Oliver Stone, each dealing with formative and critical events of recent American history: yesterday, World Trade Centre (2006); this afternoon, Nixon (1995). Beyond sharing an author and seeking to truthfully depict the important past, however, they are hugely dissimilar movies.

WTC portrays an event in extreme close up through the experiences of a handful of characters: two policemen trapped beneath the rubble, their families, and their rescuers. It is confined physically by the large portion of scenes which take place within the collapsed trap of the towers, or the smoke-shrouded, hulking rubble above. It is confined thematically by its limited focus. We get little sense of the broad political impact and intent of the attack, much less its consequences in the years to follow. We do not get a complete impression of the immediate response in New York, nor do we even see the attacks themselves (as if we really need to); the main characters are buried by the first tower with only the barest knowledge of what is going on. The film discards a broad scope in favour of an intensified portrayal of the responses and experiences of a few individuals. In this, it is something of a failure, particularly in comparison to the incredible United 93. It feels hackneyed and dull, rather than harrowing and inspiring.

Nixon has a much more expansive narrative, being both a biography and a portrait of an era. It is certainly not either hackneyed or dull, but is rich, deep, involving and completely mad. It may even have earned a position amongst my favourite films, but that might just be because it has the brilliant Bob Hoskins camping it up as J. Edgar Hoover. History is a central theme to the story, and not just in that it recollects events and people which reverberate in American memory (and will always do so). History is a deep concern of Hopkin's caricature of Nixon, his own impact on it, and what he can learn from it.

As he descends into the consuming mire of power, he seeks solace from his peers. In the corporeal world, these are Mao and Brezhnev. On meeting, the former urges Nixon - suddenly uncomfortable - to recognise what he is: " You're too modest, Nixon. You're as evil as I am. We are the new emperors....Why are you so interested in peace? The real war is in us. History is a symptom of our disease." Later, Brezhnev laments the tragedy of a great man felled by petty circumstance. When he recognises his fate, it is not how he will be remembered by his own people that initially concerns him, but how he will figure in the memories of his two contemporary equals in power as they continue their reigns and he drifts, small and criminalised, into obscurity. Nixon also turns to the only others who can match him - his predecessors, the former presidents whose ghostly portraits coldly observe his apparent mania. It is Lincoln who haunts Nixon the most (though neither can he escape the spectre of Kennedy). In the president who fought a bloody civil war, ruled over a divided America, and wielded an unprecedented imperial power, Nixon seems to find a kindred spirit, perhaps imagining that he too will one day be carved reverentially in marble, at last loved by his people. Nixon is epic, dramatic, illusionary history, shot with with an hallucinatory style that weaves together the emblematic images of the sixties and Nixon's own memories, and evokes a paranoia that may belong to author, or subject or both. Stone presents a dark, apocalyptic tale of America's past - cautionary, revolted and delightful.

Nixon's burden is to represent a divided, darkened, and savage America - not politically, but as a reflecting symbol. WTC also serves to represent America through symbolic characters and historic events, but here Stone exonerates his country. The theme is bravery, and hope. Nic Cage tells us that in 9/11 we remember not the evil that is possible in man, but the good that arises in response to it. America is not about plotting in gloomy White House offices, or the heady weirdness of international politics, but, if the first few pre-attack scenes are anything to go by, local democracy, baseball, country music and the daily work of ordinary citizens. Post attack, America is about recovery, family and community. There is also an interesting religious aspect to it - the ex-marine who finds our trapped heroes is told by God to go to New York and help; he ignores the organised rescue effort and goes on alone into the night, as if with the vague knowledge of the part he is destined to play. As he approaches, one of the trapped men sees a momentary image of Christ within the flames above. God, we feel, is protecting and inspiring America in it's time of crisis. Not so in Nixon, where religion, like everything else, comes across as distorted and weird. In one great despairing moment, Nixon pleads and harangues Lincoln's portrait in the Oval Office: "What is it about death, Abe? Who's helping us, is it God, or is it death?" At the end, the president bleakly describes himself as America's blood sacrifice to its Gods of war.

Stone can certainly make some strange movies. Perhaps more on this, when I finally get around to watching The Day Reagan Was Shot, produced by Stone, starring Richard Dreyfuss as Al Haig.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Virtue and the Cityscape.

While the reign of George VII will undoubtedly be definitive, glorious and highly enjoyable, the heir to the throne can certainly be wrong about things - in particular, the London skyline. "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe," quipped Charles in 1987, "when it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that." He has since voiced his unhappiness with the corruption of Christopher Wren's cityscape by certain fantastic towering edifices such as the Gherkin and Renzo Piano's Shard of Glass (as yet unstarted, due for completion in 2011). Without going into too much detail, and without giving too much consideration to the Prince's reasonable points about the role of architecture and the public space, I will say that I disagree and think that these buildings are fucking aces.

The issue was brought to mind yesterday when I was flicking through a book about the artist John Virtue, and his London Paintings. Until now, Virtue has been unknown to me (hoho), and I was struck by the grimy brilliance of the images, which were created while he was artist in residence of the National Gallery two years ago. I was also struck, not for the first time, by the greatness of the subject as I saw the Gherkin lurch in fine synchrony with the shadow of St. Paul's, and the Thames shine beneath the the heavy beauty of London City. Despite the modern intrusions, there is an unsurprising timelessness to the images, recalling a tradition of London landscapes including those of Turner, Monet and Canaletto, and the ingrained mythic idea of the smoky, grim and monumental city. Interestingly, Virtue apparently edited out the Millennium Wheel from his view, ignoring its flimsy lightness in favour of the stone and steel around it. Perhaps with London, and with any city, you see what you choose, and take beauty where you find it. Unfortunately, the exhibition has been over for two years so I'm not sure where I will get to see his paintings in the flesh - apparently, they're massive. Any guidance or enlightenment on this matter will be much appreciated.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The blogroll unfurls an inch.

Just to draw everyone's attention to the fact that I'm about make my first link to a blog that is not written by a friend of mine (facebook friend, anyway!). Jack Brougham has drawn my attention to The Fate of the Artist, the blog of Eddie Campbell, who drew Alan Moore's From Hell. Congratulations Mr. Campbell! Jack was motivated by this post (scroll down a bit) about George Herriman, the creator of the marvellous Krazy Kat. Eventually I'll write about Herriman, the Kat and Ignatz, but I realise that this site has been getting a bit comics heavy recently, so I'll leave it for a bit.

I'll also link to Stripper's Guide, by Alan Holtz, which looks pretty interesting, and, what the hey, Harry Hutton's funny stuff. Congratulations Mr. Holtz and Mr. Hutton!

One day I will categorise everything nice and neatly.