Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Dystopia in Toyland

  In one pixelated news-image of the aftermath of the recent Paris shootings, Bataclan concert-hall is shown as a charnel-house of bloody corpses wrapped in body-bags, a venue dedicated to the hedonistic enjoyment of music transformed into a nightmarish vision from Dante’s Inferno. While we all share a common revulsion at the perpetrators of this massacre (who apparently may have been less hardline religious fanatics than disaffected young chomeurs high on drugs), is there not a sense in which our culture has become increasingly habituated to such imagery and that in the 24/7 media-feed which saturates our imaginations horror and hedonism, bloodshed and consumerism are surreally interfused, as though they exist as two sides of the same greedily-grasped coin?
    Equally, fact and fiction have imploded and (as Norman Mailer wrote many years ago), “Reality is no longer realistic”. The scenes at Bataclan are the savage end-product of the gun-violence regularly celebrated in thrillers and action-movies but never shown in all its gory, unglamorous brutality. Turn on the Breakfast Show and our warped morality, all but numbed to genuine empathy, regards juxtaposed features on novelty Xmas jumpers and female genital mutilation with the same complacent engrossment.
   Garth Bowden’s new paintings address this conflicted visual-field by asking us to reassess our position as innocent or privileged bystanders, instead plunging us dizzily into the ethical dilemmas that surround us all today. While superficially referencing a mash-up of artistic sources – neo-Pop, the messy Abstract Expressionism of de Kooning and Pollock, even the visceral impact of early Francis Bacon – these large canvases immediately draw the eye in with their bright, hectic colour-patterns and apparently playful, half-comical imagery. However, this bricolage of cartoon whimsy belies a darker subtext, its characters compressed uncomfortably into each other so that they merge and mutate into distorted chimera. What’s more, red spatterings criss-cross the paintings and undercut the frivolity of the faces crowding in on us, as though the horror-mannequin Chucky has gone on a knife-spree through the cast of Fantasia.
   These bold and bizarre works, effectively capturing the paradoxes of a culture adrift between disneyfied banality and murderous dehumanisation, were created as a response to the Paris shootings by an artist with strong links both to the city and his adoptive homeland of France. If “artists are the antennae of their race” (as Ezra Pound suggested) they could be said to be both emotionally timely and – as a warning against perpetuating the cycle of violence through retaliatory bombings – politically resonant.  They build on themes and strategies that Bowden has obsessively returned to throughout his career and represent a new resolve to explore broader events through the lens of his ambitious personal vision.
  Exhibition Notes for The Silent Crowd, new paintings by Garth Bowden which were shown at Brick Lane Gallery in December 

Monday, 7 December 2015

Omeros: Drama and Form

 If we agree that both phonetic immediacy and formal cohesion are both key elements of the poem in how it strikes the listener when read aloud, should technical devices such as rhyme and metre be conspicuous to the ear and be active components in oral meaning? Or should they be implicit in the speech-act of the performance, "ghosts behind the arras" which register on a largely subconscious level? Perhaps many poems hover between these two "zones of proximal development"(Vygotsky) - especially if we already have knowledge of them on the page - and thrive both as static texts drawing attention to their own artifice through particular lineation and as mutable voicings following the momentum of speech-rhythms we hear around us all the time.
  What about the even more liminal form of poetic drama, with its added variables of character, stage-craft and fictive setting? Cleanth Brooks suggests that “all poetry, even short lyrics or descriptive pieces, involve a dramatic organization. This is clear when we reflect that every poem implies a speaker of the poem, either the poet writing in his own person or someone into whose mouth the poem is put, and that the poem represents the reaction of such a person to a situation, a scene, or an idea. In this sense every poem can be–and in fact must be–regarded as a little drama.”
   I went to see Derek Walcott's own dramatisation of his long poem Omeros at the Globe recently, having not previously read this book-length epic. My experience was that I was so drawn into the vivid spectacle of watching the two actors elaborate the coastal St Lucia of Walcott's beautifully evocative, sensuously alive poem and its mock-Homeric narrative-thread that I didn't take too much conscious account of its form. The actors wove between different characters and used the small, almost bare stage to remarkable imaginative effect, the "little drama" of Achille, Philoctete and Helen quite spellbinding in its potent universality.
     Yet when I opened the volume a few days later I was astonished to discover the whole 300-page work is composed in much the same tight metre and rhyme-scheme, a version of terza rima used probably in reference to the form of Dante's great epic but without the tripartite interlocking quality (itself a nested microcosm of the three-part structure of the Divina Commedia). Instead, like the all too human projects of its characters and in spite of the three-line stanzas which promise more, the lines of Omeros fall short into double-rhymes (usually ababcdcdefef etc), ultimately allowing a greater fluency and fidelity to speech-rhythms than terza rima and carrying forward the narrative with the propulsion of its rapid echoings, the oral resonance of its linked sound-patterns.