London has the trick of making its past, its long indelible past, always a part of its present.
Anna Quindlen, Imagined London: a tour of the world’s greatest fictional city.
The new heir to the British throne, Prince George, was born two days ago. Last night, along with millions of others, I watched on television as his parents showed him to the world outside St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, which is not very far at all from where I am staying. The event has been building momentum for the entire week I have been in London, and now, I suppose, everyone can relax, especially the media who have been camped outside that hospital in the searing heat for days and days. It reinforces the British obsession with the monarchy and the feeling that everything in London revolves around the royal family and its history in some way or another.
Although I have been here for a week, I am only just emerging from a bad bout of jet lag. I’ve crossed five time zones, and I’ve travelled east, both factors that make it more difficult for the body’s circadian rhythm to adjust. Added to that, I was feeling rather sad when I arrived – I wasn’t quite ready to leave New York and was missing it intensely – in fact, I think that subconsciously I almost resented being here. But now, and in particular after yesterday, I feel as though I have awoken from a strange foggy dream, and all the things I love about London are suddenly emerging from behind a misty veil. I love the architecture, the mix of incredibly old and incredibly new, the sense of history steeped into almost everything, the English accents that range from posh to almost unintelligible, and the staidness and properness in dress and manners that is always counterpointed by wildness and defiance. I also don’t mind trudging through the seemingly endless tunnels of the tube and the voice with the lilt that tells me to be careful in the heat and to let passengers off the train before embarking (you don’t hear ‘Mind the gap’ very often now). And I think I can pinpoint when the resentment turned to love – it was yesterday, as I strolled along the Thames between the Tate Britain and Embankment, past the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and St Mary’s where the bells were ringing for three and a half hours (!) to celebrate the birth of the new prince – it was then that I saw London in a different light and it revealed its essential London-ness to me. It is corny, I know, but it does feel symbolic that this moment coincided with the royal birth.
In the week I’ve been here, I’ve been ticking off visits to a long list of galleries. So far, I’ve been to The Serpentine, The Victoria and Albert Museum, The British Museum, The National Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery, The Tate Modern, The Tate Britain, the ICA (the Institute of Contemporary Art) and the Galleries at Buckingham Palace (but I won’t talk about all of them in this post!). I’ve also been to the theatre to see a Punch Drunk Production called The Drowned Man, which is performed in the old Temple Film Studios right next to Paddington Station, very close to St Mary’s where Prince George was born. I am feeling overwhelmed, as I was in New York, but I keep pressing on to see more and more art because, of course, too much art is never enough … It is also my job to visit these galleries – when I see art work in person, it truly comes alive for me and I am able to discuss it and include it in lectures with an authority that is pathetically absent when I have only seen the work in reproduction.
I can’t possibly describe everything I have seen so I will focus on those works that have had the greatest impact on me. And I’ll start with The Drowned Man, because it was such a unique experience. I felt incredibly lucky to get a ticket because the production had only just started and many of the sessions were fully booked. What made it particularly special is that I missed a work by the same company which is currently showing in New York. Called Sleep no more, it had been highly recommended by a friend in Hobart and I deeply regretted not going, so I was delighted to be able to see this brand new work here in London.
The Drowned Man is an extraordinary theatre experience, unlike any I have ever had. It is like being in a movie and an installation all at once. The production takes over the old Temple film studios and the audience gets the run of the almost the entire building. After queuing for about forty minutes with hundreds of other people, we are given masks to wear, told not to speak, and led through a series of dark corridors into an old lift, operated by woman dressed as a 1950s starlet. She tells us about the various movies that are in production in the studios and provides background information about some of the stars, then lets about 4 people off on one floor and the rest of us onto another. We emerge, a masked mob, into a huge old dimly lit studio set which looks like something from a 1950s cowboy movie – there is a bar, a series of old shops, two caravans, some private rooms, a little chapel, sawdust everywhere…
At first, the set feels empty with the exception of the masked audience, but gradually, actors start appearing and we come across performances scattered throughout the space: a scene in a café between a young woman and a doctor, a cowboy who preens himself and later dresses in drag in a tiny dressing room, a bar where the cowboy in drag sings a seductive song… If you like a particular scenario, you can stay with it and follow the actors as they move to other parts of the set, or to different floors of the building. You are also free to wander off and explore the seemingly endless rooms and corridors, sometimes coming across a lone performance where you are the only viewer. I think I visited four different floors, but it is highly likely there were more and I missed the others in the confusion of finding my way around the building. As well as the initial cowboy scenes I find a science lab where someone who looks like a psychiatrist treats a woman in a sparkly red dress; a surreal minimal space with a black and white tiled floor where a man is taken through a brutal initiation ceremony; a fight between lovers in a kitchen; a man in a tent who drinks magic potions given to him by a gypsy woman; a costume designer who applies dramatic makeup to the face of an actress; a disturbed starlet in a Dickensian dressing room who reads a devastating letter; a murder on a white sandy hill … and these are just some of the scenarios I witnessed. I am unable to piece together a logical narrative – if there is one – but that doesn’t matter, because I don’t think it is the point of the performance to tell a traditional story.
I have heard that there is a secret club somewhere in the labyrinth of sets, and that certain members of the audience are secretly invited to go there. There were a couple of instances where a group of people were watching a little scenario in one of the smaller rooms and an actor took a member of the audience with them into a room, locked the door and left everyone else, including the person’s partner, standing outside, never to return (well, not during the production, anyway).
The whole experience lasts for about two and a half hours and when it is time for the finale, I am one of the last to find it. I wander about floors and sets that are getting emptier and emptier but guides with black masks gently point me in the direction I need to follow. I end up in a room where hundreds of masked people are facing a stage and I realised I have to walk across, past all the actors who took part in the production and who are in the first stages of ending the show.
After the show has finished I want to go back and see everything I missed – because surely I missed a lot – but despite my desire to revisit the work, I also agree with some of the reviews which describe The Drowned Man as a tad dissatisfying. The sets are magical and there is the marvelous tension of not quite knowing what will happen next, but ultimately, I felt that something was lacking. Of course, I have not seen any other Punch Drunk productions, but I feel very sad now that I didn’t see the one in New York.
On my first proper day in London, I walk through Hyde Park to the Serpentine Gallery. It’s a hot day with blue skies and lots of people strolling along the complex network of paths and others paddling in boats on the water.
The Serpentine is housed in a beautiful old building near the Kensington Gardens end of the Park. The current show is a solo exhibition of work by Elaine Sturtevent, an American artist based in Paris who is known for making work entirely by appropriating the works of others, in particular the pop artists. There is a lot of repetition and bright colour, tv screens stacked in neat patterns on top of each other that repeat images over and over, blow-up sex dolls lined up in the window, a lone black and white circular video projection in one room, and one of a dog running towards you in another. I appreciate the compositional qualities of the work and am mesmermised for a few minutes by the flashing tv screens, but overall, I am not moved by this exhibition.
Much more exciting is the Serpentine Pavillion, designed by Sou Fujimoto, who has created a stunning latticed structure made from thousands of white steel rods. It is a sculpture, a piece of architecture, a café, and also a meeting place. On Friday, I am going to hear Paul Holdengraber interview the psychoanalayst Adam Phillips in the pavillion, where they will be discussing the concept of ‘the unlived life’, based on Phillip’s recently published book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. Holdengraber himself runs the New York Public Library LIVE program, which I went to twice when I was there (and wrote about in previous postings). I became a fan almost instantly. It is such a special coincidence that Holdengraber will be here while I am here, allowing me to continue my enjoyment of his engaging style of interviewing.
I also love the sculpture by the Swiss artists, Fishli/Weiss, Rock on top of another, which is commissioned by the Serpentine and sits in the grounds next to the gallery like an object out of a Magritte painting come to life.
On that first day, I also visit the Victoria and Albert Museum where I love the plaster casts, the intricate tapestries and the Medieval rooms. I come across a sculpture of a crucified Jesus in bandages in one of the plaster cast rooms – an extraordinarily poignant image – and I also find a replica of a baptismal font supported by twelve oxen, just as used by the Mormons. I first saw a model of one in Temple Square when I visited Salt Lake City back in April, and it is a great surprise to see this strange structure in reality. I also debate about whether on not to see the David Bowie exhibition and am so glad I decide to see it because it is simply wonderful. It conveys Bowie’s unique personality and attitude towards life and gender through an arresting display of costume, song and interviews.
On my second day, I continue walking around London rather than taking the tube. I’m staying at the Victory Services Club in Marble Arch, which has such a central location it is easy to walk to a number of the key sites I want to visit. I head straight down Oxford Street to the British Museum and go directly to my favourite things – the Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Assyrian sections, and in particular, the Elgin Marbles. But all of these galleries are so crowded that it is almost impossible to engage with any of the work and I end up taking photos of the crowds trying to view the art instead. The Rosetta stone is impossible to see at all because it is permanently encircled by a crowd that is at least three deep. I am also sorely disappointed to find that the magnificently restored circular reading room, which was once the heart of the old British Library that was also housed in this building, is no longer open to the public as a reading room. Since I was last here it has been transformed into an exhibition space and is currently being used for a show about Pompeii for which all the tickets are sold out until some time in August. The Enlightenment Gallery, however, which features a collection of wonderful books, art works and objects associated with the age of Enlightenment, is just wonderful.
My visit to the National Gallery is much more satisfying. There is a certain sense of comfort in seeing the same works I see every time I come here –Titian, Boticelli, Ingres, Gainsborough, Velasquez, Constable, the Rembrandts and other Dutch paintings, the remarkable Stubbs painting of a horse, the Ambassadors, the early Renaissance works in the Sainsbury wing, the Paula Rego mural in the café … But while I am seeing these works for the nth time, they never fail to fascinate me. Unfortunately, I can’t show any images because photography is not allowed inside the gallery.
But the most exciting thing I see in the National Gallery is a newly commissioned work by Michael Landy called Saints Alive, which he created as the Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist in response to images of saints in the museum’s collection. Landy, who is perhaps best know for his work Breakdown (2001) in which he catalogued and then destroyed all of his possessions, has created two wonderful bodies of work – a series of large collages created from cut out photographic images of Renaissance paintings of the saints which are combined with drawing, and a fantastic series of huge, rather grotesque interactive sculptures. A foot pedal on Saint Jerome makes him beat his breast with a stone, one on Saint Apollononia makes her pull a tooth from her mouth with a pair of pliers, and when you turn a huge crank handle on Saint Catherine’s wheel, your destiny is spelled out in gold lettering. It is a noisy, crazy, remarkable show, and everyone in the gallery smiles. It is such a shame that a couple of the mechanisms are not working.
Just around the corner from the National Gallery is the National Portrait Gallery, another of my favourite places to visit. I love wandering about the galleries, trying to recognise the subjects and trace the development of portraiture from the Tudors to the present day. I am particularly drawn to the Tudor paintings, especially one of Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, completed in 1592, which is haunting in its power. The Queen stands tall and magnificent on a globe of the world, her feet resting on Oxfordshire. Behind her, the sky is blue and cloudy on the left and dark and stormy on the right, and her eyes stare straight ahead at some point beyond the viewer. There is Latin text on the image which translates as:
She gives and does not expect
She can but does not take revenge
In giving back she increases.
It is an incredibly striking image of a Queen who seems almost superhuman.
I also see the BP Portrait Prize and three self-portraits by Landy – neat, tight, very fine pencil drawings of only his face that hover spookily against a white background.
In this first week I also catch up with family and spend a day with Gerard’s niece, Jeanette, and her very charming family – her partner Grant and their two boys, Sean and Richard. We catch a clipper from Embankment that takes us to Greenwich and watch London go by from the water. At Greenwich we look at the Cutty Sark, visit the market, buy lunch from the hectic food stalls and have a picnic in the park under the shade of a huge tree. It’s a fabulously relaxing day.