Category Archives: Art

Creativity in the lines – Directing children’s theatre in Beijing.

Standard

I’ve been racking my brains, daunted by the task of just how I can put into words my time in Beijing. How would I describe such a place, such an experience, such a feeling? I’ve still not worked it out so I’m trying to split it up into more manageable parts. Whilst thinking about this I realised that I very rarely write about my work on this blog so I thought that might be a nice place to start.

So, this year I’ve been teaching theatre and acting at a drama academy in Beijing, China. I work solely in English, teaching students who range from about seven to twelve years old. They tend to have pretty good to excellent English and those who are of a lower level bring so much enthusiasm and dedication to my classes that it’s anything but an obstacle. Throughout the year my students demonstrated extraordinary talent and such a mature, almost intense work ethic which never failed to impress.

blur6.jpg

 

We split our year into two semesters, one was our ‘training’ semester in which we taught various aspects of drama and English. The second is the ‘production’ semester where we directed shows. We also, during summer and winter, ran five day camps where we would direct a full show in the week. So, as you can see, the majority of the work focused on directing.

I think the process of directing a show for a group of children is always difficult and complicated, but doing it in Beijing carries its own set of very specific considerations and requires a lot of technical juggling to make all the parts fit together.

blur4

Firstly, a large part of the job becomes about parent management. Chinese parents are very involved in their children’s upbringing and education, desperate to make sure their child is learning to the best of their ability and being given the opportunity to challenge and push themselves. It’s touching to see the level of involvement and care but it can also manifest itself in an ugly tendency to compete. Some parents, in wanting their child to do the best they can, also want them to be the best in the class and so be given the most attention. Managing this becomes an art that starts with the script.

Many of the scripts we were given (no, we didn’t choose them ourselves) were quite awful. Many were badly written and those which weren’t were often inappropriate in terms of language level, cultural applicability and designation of lines. The first thing on the agenda is to cut the script to ribbons. Most of them (but not all, to be fair) are not designed to be given to classes of kids who should all have roughly the same number of lines. This means that we have to be quite liberal in the way we reallocate lines. Anything that can be spoken in unison is, anything that can be split between multiple actors is, anything too reliant on cultural foreknowledge is cut and many sentences are simplified in a big way. Already, I know we’re going to have problems with some of the parents not understanding why one character’s lines suddenly belong to five others, but that is my burden to bear. This first draft is all about mathematics, not about the story, my students skill or level and certainly not about making a well written show. More will change as we go, but this is our first draft, cut down from the usually bloated and inappropriate original.

The funny thing about juggling the lines is that despite their insistence that the lines be reallocated with mathematical precision my student’s parents do not often share their children’s English abilities. More often than not we’re performing to an audience who don’t understand what we’re saying either way. This changes the way we direct and deliver the dialogue. Lines now need to sound impressive rather than actually being perfectly articulated. Tone, pitch and rhythm of the dialogue becomes of utmost importance as we cut and rewrite along the way, making sure everything carries a kind of singsong quality. Jokes are built up with rising tone and punchlines are delivered to sound like a drumbeat. At the same time our actors have to reiterate all this with their movements, undulating like waves with the rhythm of their speech and punctuating their meaning with gesture and pose. During rehearsal, it can sometimes look like some sort of bizarre Meyerhold etude before being pared down to something more manageable later.

blur3

This rhythm also informs the overall structure of the show. Again keeping in mind the fact the audience won’t be following us it’s important to keep the show flowing whilst putting an emphasis on visual action. Logical story telling tends to take a backseat to movement and action and this is, admittedly, exacerbated by the fact I tend not to prioritise linear narrative in theatre at the best of times; a product of having studied experimental theatre arts.

When working with young students it becomes very important to keep everyone as active as possible so whenever I can put everyone on stage, I will. This is a matter of logistics but also a hangover from a lot of my own theatre work which included large scale casts. A lot of the work becomes about the placement of students on the stage. I go to bed dreaming of geometric patterns formed of Chinese children dressed as sheep or broccoli. When successful the result of this is beautiful. A Kaleidoscope of action and sound which can be mesmerising and impressive in its simplicity. I often worked with ideas adapted and simplified from Greek chorus or, more often, from the way Kantor used procession and group postures. As often as possible I would have actors appear from and vanish into the collective in order to create a sense of ensemble which, as I discovered early on, was not typical of Chinese drama education which tends to focus on ‘star mentality’.

blur1

Something else I played with, especially towards the end of the year, was the actor’s journey rather than the character’s. Most of the audience were made up of friends and parents so the actor’s story became just as, if not more, important than that of the character. This culminated with a moment in my last show where one of my Witches jumped into the role of Lady Macduff in all of one second. My co-teachers were desperately telling me she needed a costume change which I didn’t want to make time for, knowing the rhythm would be thrown off. I was sure that the audience were more invested in the actress than the character so that even if our simple signifier demonstrating the change wasn’t clear enough (which it would never have been considering not all the audience would even understand who Lady Macduff is or why there are witches hanging around everywhere) it didn’t matter. The audience won’t care if she’s the Witch or Lady Macduff, I said, because she’s Connie. They would be following her journey as a performer from one scene and character to the next over the technicalities of the story. This was one of our most successful scenes in the end.

There’s a lot more to it, of course, but these are some of the ideas I’ve been playing with throughout the year.

blur5

Almost every decision made during the direction of these shows is underpinned by a logistic, mathematical need. Lines are counted and made equal as is the placement of performers on the stage (we can’t have certain actors downstage more often than others for example). The actor’s presence on the stage is checked so that if someone has been in the ensemble for a while they must (damned be the story) feature prominently in the next part. Delivery is designed in a non-naturalistic, descriptive way partially to help the audience understand and partially to entertain without them needing to. The funny thing is that fitting all these sliding parts together and trying to keep everyone happy actually sort of forces you to adopt a more expressive, less linear mode of performance which can be understood and enjoyed by all. I found many creative doors opening before us in part because of this focus on technical direction.

My year in this job has certainly taught me a lot of tricks when it comes to the directing (and writing) of plays. These are tricks that I’ll be taking with me whether I continue to work with children or with adults. It’s taught me to embrace and explore inside a forced structure and that creativity sometimes lies in the lines of a page rather than just between them.

blur2.jpg

 

Advertisements

Wonder Woman’s God Complex

Standard

chk_jschl

Recently, I went to go and see the new Wonder Woman film in one of the better cinemas I’ve visited in Beijing. In comparison to most the other superhero films I’ve seen in the last few years Wonder Woman is pretty darn good, but I couldn’t help but feel as though there was a particularly large issue with the themes of the film and the fact that Hollywood doesn’t seem capable of dealing with those themes.

Full spoilers below…

Diana is the only child on a magic island hidden from the rest of the world and populated by Amazonian women. When wondering where such a child came from we’re told that her mother Hypolita wished for her so much that she moulded her from clay and asked the god Zues to give her life. This is something that Diana never questions despite the fact that she does admit the knowledge that men are ‘essential for procreation’.

We also learn that for some reason the God of War, Ares, chose to defy the rest of the gods, fighting and killing them. To combat Ares, Zues bestowed upon the Amazons the ‘God Killer’ which they used to vanquish (but not kill) Ares. The God Killer, Hypolita tells her daughter, is a grand sword which Diana, as a child, looks at with an almost forlorn gaze and asks her mother who would ever be able to wield such a weapon. Her disappointment when Hypolita tells her that it wont be her is palpable and the scene ends in such a way that I was left wondering whether or not it was the film-maker’s intentions that the young Diana display an almost psychopathic urge to kill a god one day.

As the film progresses we watch Diana grow up, conditioned by her mother’s obvious lies and her warrior aunt’s tutelage, becoming stronger, more badass but certainly not any wiser. Although Diana is brought up to be naive and unaware the audience hasn’t been, and anyone with a healthy upbringing on superhero movies will have already guessed that Diana is likely to be the daughter of Zues and that the God Killer is in fact her and not the sword at all. To the film’s credit these two revelations are never really treated as any great twist and so their obviousness doesn’t really hurt the story. They do however set the tone for what is to come during the rest of the run time and these two plot points feed into what seems to be the film’s main themes:

Firstly that Diana is a God. Invincible and supreme in her abilities. Secondly, she’s naive. Unaware of the nature of man and the nature of violence. It’s when addressing these ideas that Wonder Woman shows the most potential but also uncovers some of the downsides of the superhero genre as a whole.

C-hDyO-XYAAmmBi.jpg

There’s a good action scene about halfway through the film where Diana has had enough of watching the horrors of WWI unfold around her and decides to take matters into her own hands. Despite the German machine guns pointing at her she runs across no-man’s land to liberate a small French village. It’s in this scene we have the first full reveal of her iconic uniform, we hear the pulse pounding drums that have become her theme for these DC movies and we witness the extent of her badassery as she flips armoured vehicles with her bare hands, kicks people through walls and literally punches the catholic church so hard it collapses. It’s all good stuff but it’s also where my skepticism of the film’s intentions began. It’s very handy having a bullet-proof supergod on your side, I thought, as her actions inspired her companions to join the fight.

Their victory over the village is short lived however and the Germans soon drop a chemical weapon on it, killing everyone. Diana runs into the orange cloud, not even wrinkling her nose against the gas, to see first hand the nature of man’s hate. It’s the first time that we see Diana completely as ‘other’ to us. Where any man, woman or child faces certain death in the cloud, Diana isn’t affected in the least. The film states, in no uncertain terms, that Diana is not human and she is not in any danger from us or our weapons. She is, however, applaud by our actions.

Instead of readdressing her preconceived notions about men and war though, she carries on with greater resolve to end the war in her own way. Diana, brought up on stories of gods, thinks that the only way to end the war is to defeat Ares, the god of war, who she assumes is causing the fighting in the first place. For some reason she has decided that Ares is actually personified by Ludendorf, the German general who along with the fabulously named ‘Doctor Poison’ is manufacturing the terrible chemical weapons that mark the film’s biggest threat. She confronts Ludendorf who, for no other reason than ‘it’s a movie’ has some kind of magic drug that gives him super strength. Still, Diana kicks him through a wall (watching Wonder Woman kick people through walls never gets old) and impales him to the floor with her God Killer sword. Ares is dead, she thinks, and yet the war continues.

wonderwomantrailer213-470x310@2xAgain we wonder if she’ll finally have to confront her misguided views of the war, but no. Right on cue, the real Ares turns up; a Brit nonetheless. He reveals the minor twists that everyone already knew and sums up the films ideology very clearly. War is a man-made invention. Although he admits to whispering inspirations to the likes of Doctor Poison he tells us that men are the real threat to the world and that no interference from gods can change that. He’s echoing something Chris Pine said earlier when he admits ‘maybe it’s us’; maybe man is to blame for all the horror.

This is the moment the whole film has led up to, where Wonder Woman has seen first hand that war is not a fantasy or a fiction, men’s minds are not twisted by any supernatural being and that war can not be ended by just fly kicking one man in the face. It’s also the moment the film betrays itself.

Wonder Woman decides to kick the crap out of Ares anyway, it is her nature as a weapon, after all. While she’s fighting him her comrades are fighting against the German chemical weapon and loosing. In a moment of weakness she watches Chris Pine commit suicide, taking the weapon with him and this gives her the strength to fight back again. There’s lots of fire, punching each other through buildings, lighting shot from fingertips; it’s everything we’ve come to expect from a DC movie’s final act, and just as empty.

The problem is that we’ve already learnt that Ares has no hold over this war. Killing him will not save the world and yet Wonder Woman fights anyway, ignoring the suffering of her comrades and with such drive that brings back the image of a child coveting a sword she prays to one day use. It’s her singular vision that means Chris Pine has no help from her when he flies off to his death, a gesture that could have easily been prevented by the supergod. It’s all something that could have meaning if it wasn’t for the film’s climax.

Wonder Woman harnesses her power as a god-made weapon, kills Ares and the war ends.

The take away from this final conflict is that actually Wonder Woman was right all along. Killing one supreme bad guy did end the war which must also mean that the war was the fault of this one god and not man at all. None of the men’s struggles or sacrifices mean anything in the face of this revelation and we are all absolved of any responsibility we might have otherwise had to have claimed for the cruelties of war. The film has betrayed its own convictions and through doing so has undermined itself.

Right from the first line of dialogue Diana is being lied to. Her world view is twisted and distorted to the extent that when she enters our world she can’t distinguish reality from fiction. Likewise however, her presence and her actions show her comrades that there is more to the world than they knew. In the end it’s Diana’s world view that wins out. A world of gods and monsters and where the evil of man is actually the fault of someone else. If this was actually the intention of the film then I would argue that WWI was perhaps not the right backdrop for the story. War, chemical weapons, hate and violence are, without a doubt, not god-created issues. They are caused by man, inflicted upon man and no amount of supergod stories can change this sad fact. By sticking to her original intent Diana shows no growth as a character. She’s as confused and misguided as she was as a child and still views the world in black and white terms, what’s worse is that the film makers seem to share this world view.

As much as I love superhero films I can’t help but think they are loosing their relevance in our society. The story of one man or woman saving humanity by punching a single baddie in the face is an outdated concept. It’s an issue that Wonder Woman almost addresses but gives into at the end, more than likely just because this is an American film and needs to end in a predetermined way. It’s a shame that the trapping of the genre force Wonder Woman to betray and undermine itself in the last moments because there is a more interesting story than Diana vs Ares fighting to be told. I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if in those last moments Diana decided to cease her meaningless battle with Ares and go instead to help her new found friends in their struggle against their own kind. What if it was shown that Ares actually didn’t have much power over man and wasn’t causing the war? What if, because of this revelation, Diana showed us that the true power of a god is to inspire mankind to better itself rather than give into its basest instincts?

At the end of the film Diana, in the present day US, sums up her journey for us by saying that ‘only love can save the world’. However this is not what we’ve seen just moments before. Diana did not save the day by putting aside her outdated and ill-informed ideology and helping the war resolve in a peaceful way, she won through violence, just as the men of the film sought to do and in so doing proved that she really is, much like the German’s terrible gas, nothing more than the weapon she was designed to be. Unfortunately the film never addresses this parallel itself.

There’s a moment towards the end of Diana’s fight with Ares where the camera focuses on her, silhouetted in the air behind a red and gold sky. Her arms are outstretched and one leg slightly raised. It’s an image of Christ on the cross. Except here, Diana does not die to save mankind, she kills to save mankind. If love is the only thing that can save the world then perhaps superhero films need to find a gesture other than violence to bring their final acts to a close.

Wonder-Woman-Trailer-Diana-Flying.jpg

Sandwiches and cigarettes with Hayao Miyazaki

Standard

A few weeks ago I wrote a post detailing my first few days in Tokyo, with the promise that I’d follow it up with more details at a later point. A promise that I abruptly failed to deliver on. So, now I’ll try to fill in a bit on something cool which happened.

After our first show in the AiiA Theatre, we had a small meet and greet with members of our sponsors and other interested parties. During the night, we were told that our schedule was being suspended on a certain day because we were to be taken to the actual Studio Ghibli for a small tour. Now this, it may not be commonly known, is relatively rare. Rare enough that they have resorted to placing a very obvious piece of paper on the front door which states; ‘Studio Ghibli is a closed studio. We do not offer tours’.197758_10200499802631282_529193703_n

The studio is a collection of buildings in Koganei, Tokyo. It’s a lovely area and pretty perfect for the studio. It’s very green, very peaceful and very pretty. Jeff (who was showing us around and also happens to be the producer of the English dub of the upcoming From Up On Poppy Hill) told us that for some reason the local area was really badly planned, resulting in oddly laid out properties and lots of space in between them, filled with trees and other greenery. It really is the perfect place for the studio and gives the impression that these people are living the ideal ‘artist’ lifestyles.

It might also be interesting to note that Gainax have their studios there too. Unfortunately despite desperately wanting to meet Hiroyuki Yamaga (director of Wings of Honneamise (which I wrote a blog about here) and writer of Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket) I didn’t get the chance to see them.

On the way to the studio we were shown a beautiful building which was designed by Hayao Miyazaki himself and where all the Ghibli employee’s children stay during the day. As soon as they saw us, all the kids began running wild, shouting and jumping around, whilst their poor carer chased them desperately trying to calm them down. Next we walked passed, if I remember correctly, Studio 5, which is where the background art is done. And a few other studio buildings, but for the life of me, I can’t recall what happened where.

197659_10200499802791286_1564707247_n

Studio 5

The one place I do remember pretty well, is Miyazaki-san’s private studio. Stopping outside the building, we were shown where Miyazaki’s car was parked and told how he spends his day before being invited inside. After an appropriate period of suspense had played out, the man himself appeared in all his prolific, fantastically bearded glory.

I guess it comes with being one of the most important artists currently working, but when such a man enters the room, the effect is profound. An excited (and almost fearful) hush falls over the room and you can almost hear the collective hearts in the room skip a beat. I must admit, I’m not the sort of person to get star struck and I had to laugh a bit looking around the room at all the faces filled with so much admiration that they’d lost all control. It was a beautiful moment which I’m so glad I could be a part of.

Info130502c (1)

That is me in the stripy shirt and spotty trousers.

After he kindly signed and personalised pictures for us all, he thanked us for all our work and cracked out some sandwiches. Saying; ‘please smoke if you like – I’m going to’, he sparked up and we all dug in.

And let me tell you, these sandwiches were completely excellent! I took the box mine came in, but I think it got lost in transit. It’s a shame, that was a memory I’d cherish.

Info130502a

Cast and crew of Princess Mononoke with Miyazaki and Suzuki.

We had a lovely time speaking to various people around the room and basking in the glory of the situation. Our Asitaka (the lead in the show) showed off riding Yakul (his trusty elk, played by another actor) and we all mingled most effectively.

After a wonderful time we were all hustled out and Toshio Suzuki took us into one of the other studios and showed us around a bit. Unfortunately I have to be a bit secretive about anything we may or may not have seen inside the studio, so I’ll stop there.

It was a wonderful, dreamlike time. We were told that we had somehow reminded Miyazaki and Suzuki of their younger selves and we had inspired them, just as they had us. Hearing that from some of our most respected figures was amazing and people cried and I laughed at them and a great time was had by all.

The next evening Suzuki took us all to dinner and I spent the evening talking about Ultraman G with Seiji Okuda, the executive producer of Death Note.

picture177

My autograph. The umbrella was added because the character I play carries one around in both our show and in the film.

This day really made me reflect on the last few years. I’ve done some amazing things in the past year or two, and this was just one of many. I’ve trained under Gennady Bogdanov, heir to the Meyerhold legacy. I’ve made a show with Andrzej and Teresa Welminski, lead actors from Tadeusz Kantor’s Cricot2 company and wonderful artists in their own right. I’ve performed at a whole bunch of international venues including the legendary Moscow Arts Theatre. And now I’ve met Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki.

All these things attribute to a rather bizarre feeling; the feeling that I actually exist. I’m not getting weird here, I’ve not had some grand existential breakthrough, but it is a real feeling. Not that I exist on a molecular level and not even that I’m someone worth knowing about. But, just that I’m managing to exist in this world that I’ve chosen to be a part of. When I decided that I would be an artist, I sort of meant I’d write in my room and perform to my friends and family. But now, I feel like slowly, slowly I’m actually beginning to exist within the art world.

Obviously it doesn’t actually make a difference to my art no matter who I might have shared sandwiches with. But it does encourage me that I’m on the right track, that I really do exist in the same world as these great things and people, and that I might actually consider myself a real artist sometime soon…As opposed to a pretend one, that it.

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K.

Standard

About a day ago, I arrived in Moscow to perform as part of the ‘Open Class: Stanislavski Continues’ festival with my show Pages from the Book of…

The festival is a congregation of international drama schools, in which we are the British contingency. It’s all very very exciting, and I’ll make sure to do a long post on it when I return to sunny England (I highly doubt I’m going to have time to do it here).

In the meantime, here is a post I wrote about a week ago, after I finished reading Franz Kafka’s The Trial and never got round to posting.

It’s interesting that the final chapter of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, is the shortest and most abrupt. Before now, the book had carried on in long-winded and excruciatingly eventless chapters. That’s not to say it’s boring or without meaning! No, no, no! Each chapter is carefully constructed to emulate the slow, or in fact motionless nature of the court which has accused Joseph K. At the same time, they supply just enough information and present enough intrigue to explain K.’s insistence to take his case into his own hands, and to keep the reader, at all times, on tender hooks.

The Trial is the most famous, and often regarded as the greatest of Kafka’s works. It’s a masterpiece of literature, and as such, I don’t need to tell you how beautiful the writing is, how profound the philosophy or engaging the story is. I also don’t have to recommend that you read it, instead I need only inform you that it should be read without need of recommendation.

So, instead of all these things, I’m just going to share some of my thoughts on the book, and specifically, on the final chapter. It goes without saying that there are SPOILERS AHEAD, so you have been warned. It should also be obvious that there will have been hundreds and hundreds of people, most of whom are smarter, or at least better educated than me, who have interpreted the book, so these are just my ideas.

The Trial, like much of Kafka’s work, remains unfinished. But this is merely a detail, and it doesn’t change the fact that the story does end. In an afterwards by Max Brod, a friend of Kafka, he explains that Joseph K.’s case would never have made it to the high-court spoken of in the book, and though Kafka planned to explore the later stages of the trial and the workings of the mysterious court, the case, in many ways, would go no further, and so the book could in fact ‘stretch on to infinity’. But, it doesn’t. The book ends, and the trial of Joseph K. is abruptly and violently closed, and this, is a very important thing. I think an interesting question, is why the book came to an end the way it did.

At an early stage in the book, I guessed thatJoseph K.’s case would come to a bad end, although, the dismal and somewhat cold conditions in which he was dispatched, did come as a surprise. The reasoning for this end, is highlighted in the final chapter. In fact, I think that the final chapter stands as a summery and parable for the entire book. It calls to mind another moment earlier in the story. In the chapter called ‘The Cathedral’ a priest, who is also the Prison Chaplin for the court tells K. a parable from the Court Scriptures. This parable is then deconstructed by both characters in so many ways that the meaning of it becomes completely lost and they take from it what they will. The final chapter acts as a similar parable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the unfortunate downfall of Joseph K. finds its way into the Court Scriptures.

After fighting his case for over a year, two men arrive at K.’s house to execute him. The arrival of these two men obviously mirrors the first chapter, in which two warders arrive to inform K. of his arrest. The difference, is in tone. Here, K. is not caught unawares, but he half expected the men to arrive and he resigns himself to his fate. The men do not try to appease him, hardly engaging him in conversation at all. Instead, they remain solemnly quiet. It is very important, that at no point do they explain the reason for their appearance to K. He asks them if they were appointed for him, and they merely bow. From here, K. collects his hat and coat and leaves with the men. When they try to hold him, he insists that he remain free until they are outside. So, when they do restrain K. outside, it means that he has not only presumed their mission, but he has begun the journey towards his death on his own free will, and he has also given himself over to their hold. I can’t help but wonder what would have been if he had refused to go with the men, or at least if he had insisted to remain unrestrained. But even when held by the two men, it is still K. who leads the way. The two men represent the court both literally, and abstractly. From the very beginning of the trial, K. has been in the courts grasp, but it has not physically moved him. Instead, he has remained under its shadow, but has been independent in his choice of where to go and what to do.

As they walk, the following passage follows; “Under the street lamps, K. tried time and time again to see his companions more clearly than he had in the dusk of his room.” But, trying as he might, he can only catch brief glimpses of them. Again, this passage exists as a metaphor for the entire situation with the court. K. is always attempting as hard as he can, to learn more about the workings of the court, but with every step he takes, the whole thing becomes more mysterious and unknown.

Put out by the sort of people the court has sent to collect him, and in this, the whole way in which the court conducts its workings, K. comes to a stop, and so do the two wardens. It is in this moment of defiance that K. sees Fraulein Buchner, or someone who reminds him of her. The two warders are said to “try to repel K. from the spot; but he resisted them.” In this chapter, there is at all times, both the literal reading and the metaphoric meaning. So taking it literally, I must conclude that the two warders were simply prompting K. forward, because I can’t see how the two large men could be resisted so easily.  In the abstract then, it could speak about the way that the court often prompted K. into action with small tidbits of information and glimmers of hope.

When Fraulein Buchner appears, we are reminded of K,’s tendency to become distracted from his case by women. In this moment, he realises that resistance is futile and so, carries on his way, again of his own accord and again condemned by no other than himself. He resolves to go to the end of his case dignified, and at peace with himself.

“In complete harmony all three made their way across a bridge in the moonlight…”

So we come to the third section of their journey. If the first step of the journey is K. leading the court, as he did in the first few chapters of the book, and the second step is K.’s forced stop of the warders. The third step, is when K. and the warders all move in unison, and work together to reach the final verdict. The next break, comes when the trio stop in unison, and K. actually prompts the warders to move on himself by stating “I did not mean to stop completely.” So we come full circle and when K. and the court come to a standstill, it is K. himself who restarts the solemn death march.

Police line the way and soon the group is approached by a policeman on account of looking suspicious. The two wardens stop, but as the Policeman is about to speak K. drags the wardens onward and forces them to flee the Policeman. I have a few ideas about this bit. My first, and most immediate thought is that this scene represents K.’s tendency to refuse help from others. The Policeman, depending on how you look at it, could be seen as a representation of the court (as the court is of the law, as is the Policeman) in which case he could represent characters like the Prison Chaplin, or the Advocate who K. dismissed, against all advice. Or he could be seen as representing those outside the court (because the court certainly doesn’t hold up the traditional law of the policeman) and he could represent figures like K.’s Uncle or the artist Titorreli who could have helped K. had he not run away. K.’s act of running from the Policeman could also be because simply at any time someone has interfered with K.’s case it has somehow become more convoluted and unachievable.

So it is K. who leads the court, running out of the town and to the place of his execution. Here, the roles change a bit and the court finally takes the lead. The warders undress K. and find a suitable place to carry out the sentence. They lay him awkwardly over a rock and present a manner of execution which is as unconventional as I would expect from this bizarre and cruel trial. They produce a large, double-edged butchers knife and begin passing it over K. to one another, unable to decide who should carry out the sentence. It is written; “K. now perceived that he was supposed to seize the knife and plunge it into his own breast. But he did not do so…”

The act of taking the knife and killing himself would affirm the idea, here, that all the events leading up to and including the execution were entirely in his own hands. What’s important, is that he doesn’t do it. It wouldn’t be unreasonable now, to imagine that his death be postponed indefinitely and that the wardens might pass the knife back and forth over K.’s head for the rest of eternity.

But this is not to be. Looking around he sees a figure, or figures, in a window. A sudden burst of hope ignites inside K. as he wonders who, or what it might be. “Who was it? A friend? A good man? Or were they all there? Were there some arguments in his favour that had been overlooked? Of course there must be.” And just as quickly as this hope sets in, it is forcibly extinguished as he is struck through the heart (and it’s too late).

And so the trial of Joseph K. comes to its melancholic end.

As I said, the last chapter basically sums up the whole book, through its various implied elements. But it does one other thing; it ends the story, and in doing so, changes the whole book. From the start, it is clear that Joseph K. will be the architect of his own demise. The only action of the court, is to inform K. of his arrest. After this a first hearing is held, which K. dominates and leads the discussion. From here, K. is advised not to take action and wait for developments. After this, almost nothing is heard from the court, and K. is not really worried about his case. But in time, and specifically after the visit of his uncle, he becomes increasingly frustrated and begins to make inquiries, etc, of his own accord. We are given every reason to believe that this is the incorrect course of action, and that through ignoring advise to allow the case move along on its own accord, K. is actually moving it forward, and it is through this, that the case becomes less likely to succeed. We can see this in characters like Block who, after taking things into his own hands by hiring a number of ‘hedge-advocates’ found that his case is going badly. Obviously, the best course of action would have been to take no action at all after the first hearing. However, as K. stands still with his two wardens, it is he, not they, that moves the case forward.

But a contradiction occurs at the end when he refuses to snatch the knife and stab himself. The wardens (the court) are the ones who do it. Therefore, at the end, it is not K. who condemns himself, but the court after all. K. may have helped arrive at this point, but it is the court who do the final executing. In this moment, K. is absolved of his many mistakes and again becomes a victim of the court, not a self destructive fool. The fact that the end of the trial mirrors the beginning makes one think that the outcome of the case was always inevitable, and that K. never had any sway over it whatsoever.

It’s also important that K. dies just as new hope is kindled in him, and that in his dying breath, he sees the faces of the two wardens watching him die. This reaffirms the cruelty of the court and calls into question its operation. Does it operate by feeding K. false hope and then taking it away? Does it trick K. into moving the case forward just so that it can watch him slowly destroy himself, and ultimately watch the life drain from his eyes?

Like the Prison Chaplin’s parable, this last chapter (and of course the whole book) could have a number of possible interpretations, and probably after much discussion would render the whole thing meaningless – maybe that’s the point. But for me, I felt that the parable was violently and interestingly changed in this last chapter with the untimely death of Joseph K.

All the ideas above are sort my first impressions and if I let myself I could quite happily sit here thinking about it for several more hours.

I’ve really enjoyed this book, and I’ll make sure to read Kafka’s other works at some point soon.

Merzbilder – A brief account of Kurt Schwitters’ life and work

Standard

A quick update on myself – I’ve been quite busy lately. I graduated last Friday, and I’m now trying to sort out moving home, which if all goes to plan should be done by Monday…Let’s rephrase, this has to be done by Monday. Other than this, I have actually been working on my book (which was the original point of this blog). I am fast approaching the completion of the first draft of what I’m considering to be Part One (even though I wont be making these divides in the text). It means I’m about a third the way through, I’ll soon start seeing what people think of it. The second part needs a lot of research though, so that’ll be slow going for a while. It’s beginning to look like the book will be far shorter than I first envisioned. This is because, firstly, I’ve learnt more about what is appropriate length for a children’s novel, and secondly, because I don’t want to drag the story out at all. In October, I will be travelling to Moscow to perform our show Pages from the Book of… in the Moscow Arts Theatre, which I’m super excited about. I’m also trying to arrange a couple of other bits for the show. On top of this I’ve been writing the odd article on WhatCulture. So, if this post seems a bit rushed. It is! I really want to keep this blog up to date, and I’m trying to split up my time efficiently.

Well, without further ado – Kurt Schwitters and Merz.

A modern day Merz image and tribute to Schwitters – 2006

Kurt Schwitters (1887 – 1948) gave the name Merz to his particular style and genre of art. Schwitters is generally considered to be the master of collage, and his works, at the time of creation, would not fit into any pre-existing brackets such as expressionism, futurism, etc.

The term MERZbilder (later just Merz), came from a specific work of Schwitters in which he cut out the syllable ‘merz’ from a magazine called Kommerz- und Privatbank. Merz became the label under which he presented his works. He even started to go by the title himself after 1922.

So, what is Merz? As I said, Schwitters concentrated on, and excelled in collage. He was especially keen on found objects and would often simply collect things on his journeys, to include in his art. There were two reasons why he chose recycled materials for his work. One, was that he sought to create something from the wastes of a war ravished state – or as he says far more skilfully than I could:

 “…when this racket to which men give the name of war, ended…I felt free, and I felt the need to proclaim my joy throughout the world. For economic reasons I took what I found, because we were a people that had fallen into misery. One can also yell using garbage, and that is what I did gluing and nailing. That was called Merz. It was my prayer at having survived the war, once peace had triumphed. In any case, everything was ruined, and it was a matter of building new things from debris.”

The Holy Night by Antoni Allegri, known as Correggio… – 1947

Another reason, was purely aesthetic. Schwitters, in taking found objects (or Merz objects, we can call them), wanted to remove any previous use or connotations they may have had. He made a point that whatever a material meant before he found and incorporated it into his art, was not important. Obviously, this is easy to say, and perhaps, not difficult to do when you’re the author of a work. But, it’s not easy to convince a spectator of this. It’s very difficult for us not to make assumptions on a piece, if a political logo or an image with religious connotations makes its way into a work. To combat this, Schwitters put into effect a process of ‘dematerialization’. Firstly, we ‘distribute’ the materials onto the canvas, then, we ‘deform’ them by covering, transforming or otherwise changing the material. In this way, the materials become, simply that; materials. Colours, lines and other bits. I guess you have to judge for yourself if it works.

I don’t think it would be necessarily wrong to look at the works in this way though, as all the objects were collected from specific places, at a specific time. So, of course the works carry with them a sort of wider context. I think, it’s almost impossible to escape this when using found objects, and I’m sure Schwitters would have known, and accepted that.

Through his early life, Schwitters was a quiet, insecure person and suffered from Epilepsy. He was an only child, living with his parents Edward and Henriette. The family owned a small business selling ladies’ clothes, which they sold in 1898. With the money from this they bought five properties in Hanover which they rented out, allowing them to live comfortably.

Mountain Graveyard – 1919

Schwitters studied at the Royal Academy of Art in Dresden, between 1909 and 1914 and apparently, didn’t prove to be anything special. Moving back home he began his career as a painter, being increasingly influenced by the expressionism movement.

Schwitters married Helma Fischer, his cousin. Unfortuantly, their first son died after a week of being born. But their second son, Ernst, lived and he and Schwitters were very close. A year later, in 1917 he was drafted into the military, but was discharged later that year because his epilepsy rendered him unfit for duty. It was during this time, he became fascinated with machines and the image of the wheel. He says that he “recognized that machines are abstractions of the human spirit.”

Schwitters big break came in 1918, when he was invited to exhibit some of his work in the Sturm gallery in Berlin. The Sturm, was run by Herwarth Walden, who was a very famous German expressionist artist. Primarily a pianist, Waldon expressed his love for the arts through his writing and the galleries he owned. The Sturm gallery was considered ground-breaking, because it displayed work from some of the most cutting-edge European artists. It was in this time that Schwitters started on his collages, and of course the beginning of the Merz brand. Whilst exhibiting his art in Sturm, opinions were divided. Some, thought his work was great, others deemed him insane. Although, as we’ve said his work didn’t necessarily have any political references, he was often viewed as being a threat to ‘traditional German values’.

Revolving – 1919

In 1919, he approached Tristan Tzara, who was the spokeman for the Zurich Dadaists. The group was very interested in Schwitters’ work, even though it differed from their own. Schwitters rejected some of the ideas put forth by the Dadaists, choosing to continue referring to himself as a painter, albeit one who nailed his painting together. I’m not exactly sure why, but Schwitters and Richard Huelsenbeck, the leader of the Dadaists, fell out in 1920. Between 1919 and 1923 he created some of his most well known works. He was also working on much larger pieces called Merzbau. These were big constructions made from Merz materials, which were then incorporated into a sculptural interior. It was probably about 6 rooms large, but we’re not sure. Unfortunately the Merzbau was destroyed in a raid on Hanover in 1943, and all other attempts to build new Merbau were also unsuccessful.

In time, Schwitters found himself at the forefront of the avent-garde. He began holding his own Merz exhibitions, and allied himself with the Bauhaus group. From here on, Schwitters experimented with various mediums, including theatre, literature, music, photography and more. He tended to be pretty good at everything he attempted. He published his own arts journal, unsurprisingly called Merz, between 1923 and 1932 and at some point created Ursonate, his sound poem masterpiece.

The Star Picture – 1920

Unfortunately, with the rise of National Socialism in Germany, things became rather difficult. The avant-garde community fell apart and the Nazis strongly opposed his work, publicly ridiculing it. In 1937, Schwitters moved to Norway, after the Gestapo ‘requested his presence for a interview’…I’d probably run as far as I could too.

Following this, Schwitters’ life becomes a bit sporadic, and he doesn’t settle for a while. In 1940, he fled to Scotland with his son. He moved between internment camps in Scotland and England. He came to rest for a year and a half, in a internment camp on the Isle of Man where he staged a fair number of Merz recitals. In 1941, he was released and stayed in London until 1945 before moving to the Lake District, where he began work on his final Merzbau, the Merzbarn. Apparently, you can still see the shell of the Merzbarn now, although it’s completely dilapidated.

His wife died in 1944 and Schwitters started seeing a woman called Edith Thomas. Together they moved to the Lake District in 1945, where Schwitters would walk for hours collecting objects from the beach, to use in his new art projects.

In 1948 Schwitters himself died, poor, but confident that has work would one day be acknowledged in the way he knew it deserved to be.

Some years after his death, a stone was put near his grave in England (though his remains were transported to Hanover) with the inscription ‘Kurt Schwitters – Creator of Merz’.

Vincent van Gogh

Standard

In the last post I was looking for an artist who’s life story wasn’t morbid or even mildly upsetting. I found it in ‘Cash’ Coolidge, or Kash Koolidge as he sometimes spelt it (apparently that’s a 19th century literary joke. I was showing off by quoting it…but I don’t really get it. It’s probably the 19th century equivalent of him calling himself Cash COOLidge. I once toyed with the idea of changing my name Jack Gyll to Jack Thryll. I decided it wasn’t a good idea).

Anyway, this post, I thought I’d swing the other way and look at a horribly depressing story.

Right, who’s heard of Vincent van Gogh? Yeah, I thought you might have.

Thoroughly depressed, mentally damaged and utterly brilliant, Van Gogh has had a long lasting influence over artists and indeed the entire art world. Still today, people are taking inspiration, mimicking and trying to emulate his work. For some artists, just to recapture whatever it was that made his art great, is a worthy life goal.

Born in 1853 in Groot-Zundert in Holland, Van Gogh was the son of Anna Cornelia Carbentus and the protestant Reverend Theodorus van Gogh. (Great names these Dutch).

I think Van Gogh lived a reasonably quiet life during his early years. It was when he was 16,  that his interest in art started proper and he began to work for the Hague gallery. After about 3 years working for them, he was transferred to London, and then to Paris 2 years later. All this moving caused stress to Van Gogh, who had become disillusioned with art dealing. He quit deciding instead, to spend his time preaching the gospel to the poor. After a very short spell of education, Van Gogh left to work as a minister with the miners of Borinage.

He felt a draw to the miners and their families and was able to identify with them. During this time Van Gogh developed the feeling that he had to also make his mark on the world, as the miner were. That he had to contribute something meaningful to the world. It was his brother, Theo, who saw his potential and convinced him to become an artist. He also supported him financially so that he could do so. Van Gogh of course, didn’t believe he could become a good artist due to his lack of natural talent or training. His parents didn’t really help either, doubting his ability as they did. Regardless, he moved back in with them and started practising. He had a deep interest in figure drawing and a fascination with peasant life (possibly because of his stay with the miners). Soon, he decided to work to become a figure artist of critical acclaim.

Skull with Burning Cigarette – One of my personal favourites.

At the end of 1881 he moved out again, and began taking lessons from the realist painter, Anton Mauve. Mauve was a member of the Hague School, and was Van Gogh’s cousin through marriage. Unfortunately, this partnership didn’t last long.

Van Gogh continued to study figures and often used a prostitute called Sien Hoomik as a model. Soon, Van Gogh and Hoomik started a relationship. Hoomik was pregnant (not with Van Gogh’s baby) and already had one child. Mauve disapproved of the relationship and broke off all friendship with Van Gogh.

At the time (about 1883), a lot of reputable artist like Mauve were moving to Drenthe, a province in the North-East of the Netherlands. Van Gogh decided to follow them, as he was becoming discontent with his work. So he broke up with Hoomik and moved away. This was about as close to love as he ever got unfortunately, and he spent many hours longing for it. In fact, this caused him to suffer from bad depression.

He didn’t stay in Drenthe for long – about 2 months only. He suffered from a lack of inspiration and missed his model. So he moved back home again.

He continued to practice. Now modelling his style on Jean-Franqois Millet, a French artist. Millet also depicted peasant life in his paintings, and was becoming quite famous at the time.

When he was 29, Van Gogh moved into a little studio room that he rented from the church. He really started to study anatomy and details such as hands. His plan was to make a big painting with multiple figures that would make his name. This is what he came up with.

The Potato Easters

Van Gogh had planned out this painting meticulously. As he did, his confidence that it would be a success grew and he began advertising it before it was even finished. Unfortunately, the painting that is now considered to be his first major masterpiece, flopped.

Well, thought Van Gogh, I’d better actually go to art school…

He enrolled in an academy in Antwerp. Here, he discovered a number of influential artists and was greatly affected by a number of Japanese artists. After this, in 1886, he went to Paris and moved in with his brother. Here, he came into contact with the Impressionists. He was greatly taken with this movement, and quickly adopted the new, brightly colourful pallet and started to practice the techniques the Impressionists were using. He combined these with some of the ideas he’d seen in Japanese art and developed a new style of his own.
In Paris he made a new group of like-minded friends and became very inspired. In 1888 he moved to Arles where he planned to open an art school/community. One of his friends, Paul Gauguin, went with him. Van Gogh decorated Gauguin’s room with his own paintings. Paintings like this:

This series of sunflower paintings, is now sort of a signature of Van Gogh. For many people, you mention Van Gogh, and they think of these paintings. The sunflower paintings have become incredibly important in the art world, with their mix of vibrant colour and simple design. The subtle nuances of life and death. Interestingly, Van Gogh drank a lot of Absinthe. Absinthe contains a toxin called Thujone, which apparently, if taken in large doses can cause you to see objects in yellow. This might have had something to do with why Van Gogh had such a passion for the colour. It’s also possible that the Thujone aggravated his already present epilepsy and manic depression. Either way, late 1888 is where it all goes to shit.

His epileptic attacks started to become more frequent and he became delusional. This got worse and worse, eventually causing Gauguin to leave. Van Gogh had chased Gauguin around with a knife, before slicing off part of his own ear and giving it to a prostitute. As a present.

At the end of the year, Van Gogh committed himself to an asylum. Here he drew The Starry Night, one of his most famous paintings. Apparently, one of the effects of lead poisoning is the dilation of the retinas, which causes you to see lights with with their own halos. It’s possible, seeing that Van Gogh used lead based tools, and tried to kill himself at least once by drinking paint, that this picture is a portrayal of the effects of lead poisoning.

He came out of the asylum in 1890, clearly not healed. He drew manically for a while, churning out a painting a day. He then shot himself in the chest. Unfortunately, he didn’t die for a whole 2 days.

Starry Night over the Rhone – My other favourite.

It might be hard to believe now, considering he was one of the most important artists of the 19th century (and still now even), but Van Gogh died thinking that his life had been wasted. He only ever sold one painting. He had cut away his dream of an art school along with his ear lobe. He had failed as an artist.

Now, he is widely considered to be THE definition of a tortured artist. His paintings sell for hundreds of pounds. No, thousands. No wait, millions. Hundreds of millions even. Apparently, just 5 years ago one of his sunflower paintings sold for $39.7 million. Between 1987 and 1998, 7 of his paintings racked up over seven hundred million dollars, collectivity.

More important than money though, Van Gogh has genuinely effected art and the way we think about it. He has inspired countless generations of artists and has fascinated audiences over the entire globe. Despite the mental hardships, the depression and his gruesome suicide, Van Gogh’s life was certainly not wasted and he was certainly no failure. It’s just very, very sad that he didn’t realise that.

Poker Playing Dogs

Standard

Last time, I said I wanted to find an artist with a relatively happy life story. Well, I didn’t have to look too far to find one. Well, actually, I did have to go far – across the Atlantic to that far away land of the… [insert desired synonym here]. Luckily for me, the world is now a much smaller place and I was able to visit America without actually getting out of bed.

Meet Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, or ‘Cash’ to his friends… This guy was a proper jack of all trades, and I think gave a pretty successful crack at the whole land of opportunity thing.

Farm boy, Cash, was born in 1844, into an abolitionist family who lived between the towns Philadelphia and Antwerp in New York. Most of his youth was spend wandering between the two towns, and in time he’d make a nice (if not modest) mark on the towns. He studied in the Antwerp Liberal Literary Institute, although what he studied I’m not sure, and at some point after this he also took courses at Eastmans College. At Eastmans he learned a bit about banking and maths, whilst keeping books for the local bank. Along with some additional self tutoring, he gained the necessary skills to found the very first bank in Antwerp in 1871/2. The same sort of time he also founded a newspaper, called the Antwerp News. He also bought a drug store with his brother in New York. Most of these little ventures were ill fated though, as both the shop and the newspaper went out of business relatively quickly. It’s also interesting to know, that this wasn’t the first drug store that he owned – in 1865/6 he worked at one which he bought and again, quickly lost.

During this time, he also did a mass of other handyman jobs before going away to Europe in 1873. After his return, he moved to Rochester in New York and began writing columns based on his travel for the Watertown Times. It’s very likely that he illustrated these articles also.
It’s in the mid 1870’s that he began to work as an illustrator for local tobacco companies. And guess what he was drawing? Doggys! Hooray!! He was also commissioned by Harper’s Weekly to draw this:

Injured Innocence

Cash managed to make a good living drawing caricatures of people quickly, back when this was a new thing. He also created those pictures with holes for the heads in! You know the ones we’re all ashamed to admit we love. Anyway, that was Cash’s idea, and they’re actually called Comic Foregrounds. He was patented for these and Comic Foregrounds went into production.

In 1889 the bank that Cash had set up in Antwerp sold to a certain John D. Ellis (who also commissioned Cash to do a self portrait). The bank changed its name to the Jefferson Bank, but otherwise stayed put.

A few years later was when Cash’s artistic career really paid off. He was hired by the company Brown & Bigelow for his dog pictures. Apparently in the early 1900’s he was paid $10,000 for 2 paintings. Another 14 paintings followed this.

A friend in need

The paintings themselves depict (albeit in an abstracted manner) the social life of the middle classes in 1900’s America. Many people have commented on the lack of female dogs in his pictures (or the fact they’re mostly serving the males when they do appear), saying that Cash was depicting a male centric world. Perhaps by doing this and using dogs rather than people Cash was satirising society of the time? It’s possible, but perhaps not excessively likely, as most people seem to think that he was simply portraying the sort of activities (poker, drinking,smoking, swearing, talking about boobs, etc) that girls don’t like to get involved with. Even his daughter is quoted as having said; ‘girls don’t like things like that. It was for boys and men.’

So, I guess the 1900’s America were pretty different to 2012 Britain, but I think most of my girl friends would be rather put out if I didn’t invite them to play poker, drink beer and talk about boobs… Maybe I just hang out with the wrong type of girls…or the right kind!

Anyway, other fun things cash did was illustrating two books for his cousin. Writing, producing and designing an opera! (I know, right?) and writing a few comedies.

Comic foregrounds

At the tender age of 64 he married a 29 year old called Gertrude (who he’d previously employed as a letter painter on his Comic Foregrounds business), and had a daughter. He moved to Brooklyn where he tried to raise Chickens, but soon gave up. He also fell out of a window and injured his knee. The injury stayed with him for the rest of his life.

in about 1916, people realised that caricatures are a bit rubbish, so the demand for these fell. To keep the money coming in Gertrude went to work. Cash, then stayed at home and did chores (which was very rare, because most men at the time just played poker, drank beer and talked about… you get the idea). In 1928 they built a new house on Staten Island.

In 1934 at the age of about 90 Cash died and was buried in his old home town Antwerp. Later, in 1977 Gertrude was buried next to him.

There, isn’t that nice. A proper American tale of commercial success and the American dream come true. Sure, Cash’s art isn’t something I would describe as pivotal, intellectual or even particularly good. But it is something that everyone recognises and enjoys. It’s also something he did without any formal training, simply to earn his living.

Next time on Sketches, Scratches and Scattered Thoughts: Van Gogh