Friday, 11 June 2010

The Life And Times Of Milton Keynes Gallery

Mark Leckey, Untitled (MK:G model with green screen), 2010 (detail)
Image courtesy the artist, Cabinet Gallery and Milton Keynes Gallery
Photo (c) Andy Keate

First off, let me say that I don't 'appreciate' art. I see things I like, and like them because I like them; I don't necessarily see what a piece of art might be trying to portray, convey or otherwise, and so I don't attempt to understand it or explain what I see. That said, I still like art and visiting galleries, but for me to enjoy something I have to feel a principally visual, rather than visceral, connection to what I see.

I took Daughters #1 and 2 to Milton Keynes Gallery on Saturday to see The Life And Times Of Milton Keynes Gallery. I'd resolved earlier this year to take them to each new exhibition here, mainly because they do seem to enjoy galleries and looking at pictures and the like, but also because I think trying to culturally enrich their minds is important from as early an age as possible. Plus I think having their imagination stimulated by means other than the TV is even more of a requirement of parents in the modern age. Daughter#1 loved the linear images of the last exhibition we went to see, of Nasreen Mohamedi's works, and both girls were really excited about visiting again.

The current exhibition, organised by artist Mark Leckey and director of London's Cabinet Gallery Martin McGeown spreads across the four principal ground-floor spaces and is intended to act as a celebration of Milton Keynes Gallery's tenth birthday, an event which you'll be forgiven for having missed given that a far better known gallery, Tate Modern, is celebrating the same auspicious anniversary this year.

The clinical, large concrete spaces should have provided ample room for a major retrospective or something more weighty than the slightly tongue in cheek line-drawn renderings of cubes, ears and animals drawn on large curved hanging sheets of paper by Viz cartoonist Lee Healey. These were to be seen in the Cube Gallery either side of what was supposed to be a projection of the revolving pink scale model of Milton Keynes Gallery being filmed in real-time against a green screen; on the projection, images of hypothetical architectural concepts were supposed to appear behind the moving pink gallery image. Except that the camera seemed to be out of tape, leaving just a static blurred image on the wall.

The Middle Gallery featured more Healey images and a video of what could be a computer-generated rendition of the interior of the gallery (From The Long Via The Link To The Middle To The Cube by Tim Bacon). The organic monochrome line drawings and the fast-moving video seemed incongruous together, and like so often with art I couldn't see the point. The room just felt clinical – and not in a good way – and sparse.

Probably the best part of the exhibition was the display of miniaturised excerpts of exhibitions past stuck to the wall in a messy mosaic style in the space known as the Link Gallery. Here was colour, variety, interesting and arresting images. I asked Daughter#1 which was her favourite. 'This one,' she said, pointing at a skull. It was that sort of morning.

The Long Gallery contained a video projection with rapid jump-cut imagery and a booming, computerised voice, all of which felt like a Burroughsian nightmare or a scary wartime propaganda educational film. If it wasn't for the girls getting slightly freaked out, I'd probably have enjoyed it.

So, once again, I've probably totally missed the point of this exhibition, but in my limited frame of reference all I will say is that it felt a bit narrowly-focussed and could have been much, much more than it was. But what do I know? I buy frames from Ikea after all.

The Life And Times Of Milton Keynes Gallery runs until 27 June 2010.

Monday, 7 June 2010

A Farewell to Stratford-upon-Avon

Former technical college, Stratford-upon-Avon
Source: MJA Smith

I was born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon and I called it home until I was nineteen, though I didn’t realise until three years later that I’d actually moved away forever. I left the quaint market town in Warwickshire for the concrete topography of the University of Essex in Colchester, not fully aware that I wouldn’t be moving back to the town of my birth once my degree had finished.

But that’s exactly what happened. I met a girl, got a job on a bank's management trainee scheme that needed me to based somewhere that wasn’t either Stratford or Colchester and quietly, almost without me realising, I moved out of the family home. It’s probably only in the last few years, with the introduction of children and the putting down of definite roots, that I’ve finally stopped calling Stratford ‘home‘. It’s only taken 14 years.

A home, of sorts, it remained until recently, upon the occasion of my parents selling up the house they moved into in 1983, the house where I lived out my pre-teens and teenage years and all the essential experiences and rites of passage that coming of age brings. I know for them it was an emotional departure, as it would have been for me also were it not for the fact that they have moved to Milton Keynes and are consequently just a few minutes’ drive away from us (as is pretty much everyone and everything in Milton Keynes come to think of it).

We went to Stratford last at the end of their residency, toward the end of September last year, and it was a predictably moving experience. Wandering slowly round the town, all of a sudden I grasped how little detail I had actually taken in over the years. All of a sudden the buildings I thought I knew had features I'd never before recognised and buildings that I'd never even taken any notice of before jumped out at me for the first time and seemed to scream for my attention. The feeling was dismaying, almost as if the town itself was telling me that I'd neglected its nuances my entire life.

I came away from the town perplexed at how I could have been so blind to Stratford's subtleties all those years. I'd never visited any of the principal tourist haunts, with the notable exception of Holy Trinity Church, out of principle. Like many residents, I'd elected to ignore the things so obviously important to the town's fabric but so crassly touristy, if not forever then certainly until an unspecified point in the future. Now I have no idea when I might visit those places. It's now, at nine months, the longest I've ever gone without visiting the town of my birth.

Like most towns, Stratford is undergoing changes, some of which remove some of the things I remember from childhood, forcing those memories to become like a sepia-tinted dream. The most significant of these is the remodelling of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on Waterside, a building which seemed unassailable, far too precious and historic – despite being, at less than one hundred years' old, one of the town's more modern structures – to be tampered with. The new design, retaining features from Elizabeth Scott's original Art Deco design with new elements was intended to appease actors who find the theatre's backstage area cramped and dated, but also to offer a more appealing vision to tourists. One can only imagine how divisive the 1930s design was at the time. Improved it may well come to be, but it's not the theatre I will remember.

Bernadette's Restaurant, Stratford-upon-Avon, site of the Island Cafe
Source: MJA Smith

Another change which caught me off-guard in September was the conversion of the Island Café at the junction of the Birmingham Road, Henley Street and Windsor Street. The café was empty for the entire time I lived in Stratford, falling slowly into a greater and greater sense of disrepair. Its prime location at the main entry point for coaches of tourists entering the town should have made it opportune premises for any business looking to cream foreign visitor spending, but in spite of this, one day the owners locked the doors and it stayed closed, with movement occasionally visible behind the grime-encrusted windows with their crumbling frames and moth-eaten curtains. (In one of the short stories I began writing for a creative writing class, I imagined the interior of the café from the perspective of a dusty old glass left behind on one of the cafe's shelves; perhaps I'll get around to completing that some time.)

The last time we were there I was amazed to see that the café was no longer in a dilapidated state but that it had been renovated and converted into a smart restaurant called Bernadette's. All my life I'd wanted to see inside that building; I'd even had a teenage daydream where I tried to buy it with my sister and converted it into a swish vegetarian eatery where I'd also DJ an eclectic mix into the small hours. And yet here, on my last trip to Stratford was a completed altered Island Café. I was gob-smacked. I went inside, ostensibly to collect a business card, but also just to say I'd been inside. I think a small part of me rather preferred the ruined state it was in before having seen such a seismic change in a relatively short space of time. I just hope Bernadette's stays open long enough in these straitened times for me to get to visit properly, whenever that might turn out to be.

I did finally get to the bottom of one Stratford puzzle that had bothered me for years – the purpose of the building, pictured at the start of this post, sandwiched between the library and what is now the abomination on Henley Street that is Subway. For years I've walked past this building, a slender Victorian construction done out, in keeping with much of restored Stratford, in a mock-Tudor, half-timbered style. The solid, imposing wooden door to this building was perpetually closed and the diagonally-leaded windows were cloudy and revealed nothing of what secrets might be behind.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that I'd spent a long time imagining what this building might be, but suffice to say that thanks to a childhood diet of reading wizard-and-goblin fantasy books I became convinced it must be a shady meeting place for a secret Masonic guild in the town, possibly dating back to Shakespearian times or even further still. Something about the antiquated door and lack of signage or numbering seemed to lend itself to the remote, and slightly sinister, possibility. The air of dark mystery I'd afforded this reasonably inconsequential, comparatively hidden building over the years has made it my favourite building in the entire town.

Sadly, as is often the case with the truth, the reality was far more mundane. Thanks to the support of the Stratford Society (of which I am a paid-up member), I was put in touch with town historian Robert Bearman, whose book Stratford-upon-Avon: A History Of Its Streets And Buildings had sat, unread, on my shelves for about two years. The answer was squirrelled away in his text all along. It transpires that the building was designed by Arthur Flowers – of the local Flowers' Brewery family – as a technical college with the very laudable aim of providing Stratford boys with vocational skills to help their employment prospects. The college later moved premises, finally settling on the Alcester Road, adjacent to what used to be my High School, itself having since been demolished and replaced. I'm just glad I finally found out what it was originally for. The building is now nothing more than part of the library next door, but in my imagination still the place of illicit guild meetings.

Stratford's historic nature means that it is considerably better preserved than other towns in this country, and the scope for needless and excessive modernisation can thus, hopefully, be avoided. That said, in a town not renowned for changing – because of its historical heart – any small change is therefore likely to feel much larger than it might otherwise be elsewhere. I only hope I recognise the place when I go back, whenever that might be.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Romantic Movies

Keira Knightley and Andrew Lincoln in Love Actually

I have two favourite slushy, romantic comedy movies (I can't bring myself to write 'romcom'; it just doesn't feel right).

The first is Serendipity, starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale. Set principally in Manhattan, the film concerns itself with Beckinsale's firm belief in fate and Cusack's intensifying quest – prompted by his impending marriage to someone else – to track down the woman he met briefly, for a single night, but who left him with no details of who she was and where he could find her. To test her belief that, if they were supposed to be together, then, come what may, they would be, Beckinsale's character writes her name in the inside of a book at a stall, and Cusack writes his name on a dollar bill. The test is that if those objects worked their way back into the other's possession, they are meant to be together. The name of the film clearly refers to the fatalistic theme of the story, but also the patisserie on East 60th Street with the same name, where the two characters share ice cream. It's frustrating, and ludicrously far-fetched, but I love it. The fact that it has New York as a backdrop is just a bonus, frankly. It was also an influence on the name we chose for Daughter#1.

The other is the significantly more successful Richard Curtis movie, Love Actually. It's a favourite, not for the over-exposed Hugh Grant-dancing-to-Girls-Aloud scenes; nor for the cringeworthy Bill Nighy / Rab C Nesbitt relationship; nor the crushing effect Alan Rickman's affair has on wife Emma Thompson; nor the ridiculously far-fetched notion that the hapless guy from the BT ads is able to bed not one, not two, but three hot girls in the States; in fact I can't stand most of the characters or the attempts at clever, casually interwoven plot lines.

My love of this film applies solely to the relationship between Andrew Lincoln and Keira Knightley. Their story, for me, is the only reason to watch this film, and is all the more interesting given that they hardly feature in the plot at all; for me it is perhaps the most moving aspect of the whole film. And it's not because I had a crush on Knightley; her character, yes, but not Knightley herself. Okay, maybe a little, but I'm over it now.

Lincoln is the best friend of a character who gets wed, to Knightley, early on in the film. Throughout the wedding, Lincoln films the proceedings avidly and grimly; we sense some jealousy on his part, and we assume it is directed toward the girl who has stolen his best friend, and possibly the object of his affections, from him.

Later in the film, Knightley arrives at Lincoln's studios unannounced, claiming that he has been ignoring her calls; he is dismissive, casual, and off-handed; she asks to see his wedding video which he tries to prevent her from doing, and it is only when she begins watching the close-up shots of herself that Lincoln has captured on film does she – and we – understand that it is actually Knightley who is the object of his desires.

As a portrayal of unrequited love, I regard it as second to none, particularly in the strained, knowingly hopeless way that Lincoln silently attempts to convey his love for her toward the end of the film.

And it's for those two characters, and these three small segments of this ponderous film, that I regard it as being one of my two favourite romantic comedies of all time. Call me a thwarted romantic or a desperate fool if you will, but you won't change my mind.