Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Art in Bangkok: what do you want to be today?

This, I’m afraid, is what usually passes for high-profile modern art in Bangkok these days. Vague nods to Western notions of culture (tired Christian iconography filtered through an airbrushed posse of probably-Russian models) for the express purpose of selling you an expensive lifestyle. This is about food, but it could have been condos or cars or plastic surgery or whatever. Incidentally, the product it’s shifting is part of CentralWorld, the vast shopping mall that was immolated at the climax of the last bout of urban unrest here, in 2010.

So it was more duty than enthusiasm that propelled me to the clunkily titled Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia. The venue, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, has enjoyed a mixed reputation since it (finally) opened in 2008; it’s an intriguing space, built as a sort of reverse helter-skelter around an atrium with visitors strolling up the spiral slope with pictures on the walls. But the quality of the contents has been patchy at best, its exhibits neither edgy enough to fully win over the city’s small but visible hipster population nor possessing sufficient mainstream appeal to pull in big crowds. Much of the space on the lower levels has been rented out to small retail outlets, so you can pick up an ice cream or a recycled laptop bag or even a mountain bike – Bangkok hipsters love their bikes – which at least gives a vague sense of community to the place. How many of the punters actually trudge their way up the spiral to look at the art isn’t entirely clear.

But I make the effort and am slowly, grudgingly forced to review my prejudices. As the name suggests, this is a group show, including pieces by artists – established and upcoming – from countries across the region. Some of the art is brutally political, such as the Groszesque cartoons of Vietnam’s Nguyen Van Cuong and this even-handed up-yours to the protagonists in Thailand’s current electoral impasse:

Remember, this is a part of the world where, economic and political advances notwithstanding, there’s still a substantial degree of risk in mocking the elites that run the show, even more so in deconstructing the cultural and social taboos that underpin their power. But the real subversion comes not from artists who put their heads above the parapet; it’s the ones who take the spectators with them who are really challenging the status quo. Interactivity is the order of the day, whether analogue (a circular ping pong table on which we’re encouraged to play; the priapic self-portraits of Vasan Sitthiket, bearing placards written by us) or digital – several installations come to life when the viewers stumble in front of cameras, taking a role whether they want to or not.

And you’re actively encouraged to take photos. The reason this is forbidden in many Western art spaces is that the galleries decide what souvenirs you take from them, and monetise that choice; to be fair, the artists do take a meagre cut from sales of the various postcards, tea towels etc, provided they’re still alive to do so. But, despite all the boutiques and cafes at BACC, there is no real gift shop through which we exit. Instead there’s a pin board bearing recommendations for online tracts about the redundancy or otherwise of copyright law when it comes to creative work. And in that spirit, we snap away, our bodies remixing the originals in an act of casual détournement.

Which brings us back to the emaciated poseurs at the top of the page. CentralWorld is a few hundred metres from one of its biggest rivals, the Siam Paragon mall, which was recently dubbed the world’s most shared location for selfies; for any new retail development, the creation of photogenic landmarks that might raise one’s Instagram profile would now appear to be as fundamental as parking spaces and toilets. So it may seem on the face of it that BACC has simply bowed its head to the realities of 21st-century capitalism. But there is a sliver of difference between the two. When people snap themselves gurning within Paragon or CentralWorld, they define themselves as passive consumers; when they do the same at BACC, they immediately become artists, seizing the initiative, another placard that they’ve drawn themselves.

PS: (Jan 15) Rather more focused review that places the art in the context of the current upheavals in Bangkok.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

I turned my face away and dreamed about Christopher Walken

From Wikipedia:
The New York Police Department (NYPD) does not have a choir, but it does have a Pipes and Drums unit that is featured in the video for the song. The NYPD Pipes and Drums did not know “Galway Bay” and so sang and played the Mickey Mouse Club theme tune for the music video instead and the editor put it in slow motion to fit the beat.
I think that sums up the season pretty well for me. Although maybe this is the fairy atop the tree: 

Anyway, Happy Christmas your arse, one and all.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The blog is not dead, it’s just Peter Capaldi

I am informed – via Facebook, of course, because that’s how it works these days – that the blog is dead. Even more dead than when it died a couple of years back. Except of course that it isn’t dead at all; for one thing, the obituary that brings the news appears to be a blog of sorts. Less a death, more a meme thing, or maybe a Who-style regeneration:
So, R.I.P. The Blog, 1997-2013. But this isn’t cause for lament. The Stream might be on the wane but still it dominates. All media on the web and in mobile apps has blog DNA in it and will continue to for a long while. Over the past 16 years, the blog format has evolved, had social grafted onto it, and mutated into Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest and those new species have now taken over. No biggie, that’s how technology and culture work.
I suppose it’s just the same as arguing that the e-book will never really kill the book, because without the book there would never have been e-books. The difference is that none of us were around when books first crept their way into existence but we now see whole technologies – and the cultures they spawn – born and dying within a matter of years, months even. And it feels as if Doctors used to last longer in the old days as well. Well, some of them.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Shia Labeouf and the thin line between postmodernism and being a bit thick

Dull actor Shia Labeouf has suddenly become a teensy-weensy bit more interesting by apparently copying huge chunks of a book by Daniel Clowes into his latest film. Brilliantly or otherwise, he then compounded his crime/mistake by copying his Tweeted apology from a comment on Yahoo Answers; before finally, bathetically acknowledging, “I fucked up.” Which isn’t terribly original either.

Is he brazenly arrogant or utterly clueless? Or is this some weird, counterintuitive method of publicising his movie, like Joaquin Phoenix being strange on Letterman? Of course, Labeouf could have copy-pasted the argument of the German author Helene Hegemann, who – when it was discovered that a noticeable chunk of her novel Axolotl was lifted from someone else’s blog – declared, “There’s no such thing as originality, just authenticity.” I’m sure she wouldn’t have minded. Much.

PS: Further evidence that this is all some sort of bad conceptual joke.

PPS: (Jan 9) And now... this...

Friday, December 13, 2013

Crazy Rich Asians and the irrelevance of getting things right

I’m not certain how accurate the recent story was of one Tao Hsiao, who supposedly killed himself after enduring a five-hour shopping marathon with his girlfriend. I mean, I’m sure the poor guy died, but there’s just something too neat in a narrative that has someone’s last words being “don’t you have enough shoes already?” before he leaps to his demise from the seventh floor of a Xuzhou mall. It encapsulates so much that we feel about consumerism and gender and above all the social and economic changes that have overtaken China in the past few decades that it feels more like an urban myth than a random slice of domestic tragedy.

On one level, I suppose Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan, doesn’t warrant such scrutiny, since it admits to being a work of fiction. (Incidentally, I only came across it because of a review by my dear friend Leyla Sanai, who I’ve never actually met, as is the way of friendships lately, and she’s been a bit poorly lately, so please send her all your love and good vibes.) As the title suggests, it’s a satire about a group of fabulously wealthy ethnic Chinese and there’s good fun to be had in the clash between brash ostentation and what we might once have had the confidence to define as good taste, a battle that’s going on throughout the Sinosphere. As I type this, I’ve got in front of me the menu for a Bangkok restaurant that lists scallops done three ways, incorporating the holy trinity of culinary flash – caviar, truffles and foie gras – on one plate. Maybe it works, maybe it tastes great; but ultimately that doesn’t matter as long as you’re eating something most people can’t afford. There’s a certain degree of richness beyond which you’re allowed to get things totally wrong – factual goofs, not just aesthetic solecisms – and nobody’s going to point it out. This is where I roll out my story about seeing a group of high-rolling Thai-Chinese businessmen ordering the most expensive claret on the list and dropping in ice cubes.

Back to the book. Hey, I understand how irony works and I understand that what characters say and do and think may not reflect the attitudes of the author. As you’re probably only too aware, American Psycho is one of my favourite novels, and I know that when Bateman misattributes songs by the Ronettes and the Rolling Stones we’re meant to be in on the joke. But you can’t always assume that. If one of Kwan’s characters says that a hotel is nine blocks from Piccadilly Circus tube, or that someone’s double-majoring at Oxford, should we chuckle because these silly Asians, no matter how rich they are, don’t know how British cities or British universities work, maybe because they’re too rich to have to care? Or should we hope that for his next book he gets himself a better editor?

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Seeds of Greatness. Or otherwise...

And so I find myself reading Jon Canter’s 2006 novel Seeds of Greatness, for no other reason than it having been there. Actually, that’s not quite true. I picked it out of the pile because something about the author’s name set off a tiny, metaphorical bell. For the briefest of moments I wondered if he might be someone I knew from university, or with whom I’d worked at some point. And then I checked out the spiel inside and, yes, of course, it’s that Jon Canter who writes stuff, for Lenny Henry and Fry and Laurie and Smith and Jones and that lot. There’s a photo of him in the biography of his university contemporary and sometime flatmate Douglas Adams; he co-wrote the latest Liff book, but presumably only because Adams is dead. So that’s it. No, I don’t know him, just the name. He’s hero’s best friend, Joan Cusack meets Beau Bridges, nominee (but never winner) for the supporting actor Oscar, wind beneath various people’s wings, destined to pop up in the biographies of several dead comic writers and performers without ever warranting a biography himself. Of the five plugs on the cover, two are by people he’s worked with. That’s how it works, people. Still, he looks happy, doesn’t he?

Of course you should never read too much of the author’s life into fiction but really, come on. The narrator, David Lewin, was born and brought up in the Jewish bourgeoisie of north London, went to Cambridge and ended up living in Suffolk with an artist, all of which are also true of Canter. It’s not really a roman à clef, though: while Canter went on to a successful, if not showy career in comedy, Lewin ends up working in a bookshop, his only connection to glitz being his childhood friend Jack Harris, who becomes a hugely successful chat-show host. After Harris dies, Lewin is commissioned to write his biography and much of the plot is effectively a flashback as he tries and fails to fulfill his commission. There’s a crucial moment when he has the chance to write material for Harris’s comedy club act but spurns it; could this be an alternative reality, Canter wondering what might have happened had he not seized one particular opportunity?

The inevitable temptation is to try to fit the fictional characters to real faces; for example, is “the ranting Scots stand-up Tam Vietnam” who reinvents himself as legit actor Clive Duncan really Craig Ferguson, formerly Bing Hitler? And while Harris himself comes over as some sort of Jonathan Ross/Chris Evans hybrid, there are also elements of the all-but forgotten Jack Docherty; Harris is eventually usurped by a gobby gay Irishman, just as Docherty’s star was eclipsed by his stand-in Graham Norton. Ah, the days when people cared about Channel 5...

It’s a good but not a great book; it all ends too neatly and there’s a definitely tinge of Nick Hornby/Tony Parsons-style bloke confessional to it (and Parsons himself is responsible for another of the glowing acclamations). But it did make me thing about how we judge our own successes or failures against those of our contemporaries. Does Canter, respected as he may be in his field, that he’s somehow in the shadow of Adams or Stephen Fry or Rowan Atkinson? Maybe, maybe not; more importantly the reader’s response to the characters’ varying fates inevitably refracts into self-contemplation. Yes, I admit to feeling a gentle pang of inadequacy when one of my contemporaries gets his own TV show or wins an Emmy or inhabits a Dalek or fronts a globally successful rock band. But at the same time am I flattering myself to wonder whether my own very modest successes (a few books published, the odd bit of telly, a Wikipedia page even) ever prompt similar pangs in others after some ill-advised nostalgia-Googling. Who is the most successful person I’ve known? And the least? What are the criteria? Who decides? I mean, it’s very nice to write a book, but isn’t it better to have one written about you? Even if you have to die first, of course.

(This is a picture of me in 1989, when I should have been planning my career, or at least revising for my finals. Maybe my books would have sold better if I’d done that. Maybe.)

PS: Two snippets from the book that particularly appealed to me, on a purely solipsistic level. One sums up everything you need to know about restaurant reviewers: the teenaged Jack and David are bunking off from Yom Kippur and nip into a restaurant.
Jack complains to the waiter that his kidneys are ‘overcooked’. He bisects one with his knife, exposing a pinkish tinge. ‘Look, it’s bloody.’
‘You mean “undercooked”, sir.’
Jack, the little big man, stares at the waiter with the full force of his ignorance.
‘What am I, a chef? Take them away and bring them back when they’re different.’
And the second is the description of the discreetly gay father of the narrator’s on-off girlfriend: “a bald man with invisible floppy hair.” I’ll take that.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Elan, Diane, Neetzan, Tom and the truth

1. Man uses Twitter to describe in real time an exchange of passive-aggressive notes with a rather needy-sounding fellow passenger – Diane – on a delayed flight, which all ends in violence. It’s all terribly amusing.

2. A relative of said Diane comes to her defence, explaining that she doesn’t have long to live and the prospect of having to spend her last ever Thanksgiving away from her family may have explained her bahaviour.

3. Original author of exchange admits that he made it all up. Well, except the Diane defence. Somebody else made that up.

4. From a Wall Street Journal piece about Neetzan Zimmerman, an editor at Gawker:
But telling the truth kills virality, reducing traffic. 
5. From a poem written nearly 80 years ago, to which I keep coming back, over and over, hoping against hope that someone will listen:
Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Winter of content

Following on from what I was saying a few days ago about the degree of sincerity and commitment with which some people buy into the pop-cultural tropes of the 1980s, Boris Johnson’s recent hymn to the Bell Curve is apparently another pronouncement from on high that may or may not be ironic. But it does express the political zeitgeist, following David Cameron’s recent admission at the Lord Mayor’s banquet that his government’s whole austerity package is an ideological crusade rather than a pragmatic necessity prompted by economic circumstances.

However, the clearest manifestation of this trend is not political but commercial. In importing the US phenomenon of Black Friday – without also adopting the preceding Thanksgiving festival that gives it a wispy veil of moral justification – British retailers are at the ones at the vanguard of a full-blooded, non-ironic 1980s revival, persuading people that their social value is determined by how much stuff they have. And of course Friday’s bout of acquisitive savagery is just a curtain-raiser for the big event.