Friday, January 20, 2012

That horrible moment when...

You know the drill. You've submitted your thesis to the examiners, or your essay or book has gone through final proof stage when ... you discover a book published ten years ago on exactly your topic that for some reason you never came across and have taken no account of.

Resigned to the worst, I trudge over to the library to find the offending, newly discovered volume, and turned with foreboding to the index. Sure enough, lots of ominous entries for "Garter, Order of the." I turn resignedly to the most substantial looking, but wait: Caroline Shenton can't possibly have written TWO articles on Edward III's collection of leopards in the Tower of London? Hooray, it's a book (Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England, ed. Peter Coss and Maurice Keen), which I read in St Louis in 2005. And yes, it's in my bibliography.

This is not to say I won't yet discover something I should have read. It's inevitable, really. But today, this Friday afternoon, I feel I have definitely dodged a bullet.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Audio, video, Wagner: face, dream, Melancholia [SPOILER ALERT]

Last week, three immersion experiences: painting, experimental video-audio art, and cinema.

I am sitting for (I learn that "to" is also acceptable, though somewhat precious) a painter friend who is returning to portraiture after a few years painting in other genres. I sat for Kristin many years ago, and am once more enjoying the afternoons in her studio. We used to be neighbours and regular walking companions though we have fallen out of the habit somewhat in recent years. But we still are comfortable chatting away. I sit with my back to the garden.  Kristin alternates sitting and standing before her easel on the first day, which produces three drawings which I really like. The next day she starts with the oils, and things don't go so well. The third day is more promising, though I haven't yet looked to the other side of the easel to observe progress. I went back yesterday, and she thinks she will be done with one more sitting. Here are a few links to websites featuring her work: here and here. And at this site you can see what Kristin sees when she looks past me into her garden. It's a difficult, difficult art, moving and layering the paint so it produces ... not just a face, but my face. In previous years, when doing portraits, Kristin has used photographs, and indeed much of her recent work has been directly from or about photographs. But this time there is nothing mediating between her eye and the paint. It's never boring. I feel a bit like a cat, sitting still and watching someone working. It's actually rather lovely to sit still (or chat, or listen to the blackbirds in the garden — the Beresfords, they are called). And when there is nothing to say, there is always that still point behind Kristin's ear to look at, and to try and imagine what my face looks like, when I'm holding it still, without a mirror.

On Thursday, I went to another friend's collaborative video-audio installation/performance. A series of meditative video- and soundscapes: Alternate. A small group met in the foyer of the old Commonwealth Bank in Bourke St. Built in 1941, its stern marble was forbidding. Jessie came down to meet us, wearing her blue flannel dressing gown and carrying a little candle/lamp. Quietly she led us into the lift and up six floors, and then down four flights of stairs. We sensed the moving up and down, but also the ritual form of the journey, the stilling of the mind, even while our bodies were still moving. We removed shoes and bags, and then spent an hour in various rooms in the large studio, lying, or sitting, and watching, dreaming and meditating about the space and the sound of a dream. Or the idea of a dream represented in sound. We collected fragments of text from other people's dreams on tiny cards, and wove them into our own silent dreamings, as we puzzled over Alice's extraordinary vocal performances coming from the next room. In one room we watched a slowly-moving face, its features re-organised so the mouth sat above the eyes, which just ... was. Not speaking, just breathing slowly, rather like me being painted by Kristin, I suspect.

Then on Monday, Kristin and I went to see . Warned to sit at the back, in case of motion sickness produced by lots of handheld camera action, we didn't suffer, or feel too bad, or have to leave, as I have heard many have to. The first sequence is, as everyone agrees, mesmeric. One of the most astonishing cinematic sequences imaginable. Probably this is pirated but there is a clip on YouTube: (
[don't watch if you are going to see the movie: it would be so much better on big screen and with big speakers].



Kristin pointed out immediately the two sets of shadows in the formal garden shot, early in the film: the sun and the newly discovered planet Melancholia, seemingly on collision course with the earth, casting opposite shadows. It was strange sitting next to her, when I remembered she had painted a series of paintings of brides in formal gardens: white tulle and satin against rich dark green trees. Melancholia had the same strong visual quality. But as a two-part narrative, it also juxtaposed the stories of the two sisters, held together around the themes of depression, melancholia, ritual, and the proper way of doing things. There were also family narratives.

I loved the movie. The wedding gone wrong; the frustrations of a difficult family member; the relations of sisters; the portrait of depression and the character unable to simply snap out of it; the desire for appropriate ritual practice, whether for a wedding or the end of the world. The visual imagery is superb: the crush of a wedding gown in the car; the candlelit balloons floating up into the night sky; the small boy peering through a handmade loop of metal to measure the approach of the blue planet. Traumatic glimpses of family life: the disenchanted mother; the helplessly libidinous father; the resentful, wealthy husband. The tantalising absence of "the world", with only brief allusions to the village, the internet. The music. Wagner's Tristan overture is probably a cliche; but it is so fitting here I cannot imagine any other orchestral score could suffice.

And of course, the big blue planet, Melancholia. Luminous, lustrous, inexorable. From a distance, burning red. As it comes closer, it's moonlike: compelling, and mostly seen in full. It's not revolving around us, but heading towards us. Its light is soft and blue. Why would you not want to lie naked in its light?

The blue planet haunts most people who see this movie. Its devastating final moments are telling, in terms of the narrative development of the main characters. And then, stillness. No more Wagner. No more art. No more.

Broader, deeper meanings? Some will be frustrated by the film's blithe disregard of the usual disaster movie psychodramas; and of course, by its disregard of realist conventions. Some by its refusal to talk about what it is doing. But it is, all the same, bristling with communications. The endless filling up of a day, a life, with ... stuff: rituals, eating, drinking, bathing, and ceremony of various kinds. In such a world, a blue planet both gives meaning, and takes meaning away.

Is it a medievalist film? Clare and Louise on facebook are suggesting that, perhaps. There is the medievalism of Wagner, the apocalypticism, the Breughel painting; perhaps the medievalism of the great house's architecture. For me, though, the film is little concerned with time, or historicity or periodisation, or the kind of dialogism I associate with medievalism. It is more about the frailty of almost all human projections.