I don’t normally bother with RTE’s culture series The Works but I did look at the programme about visual artist Jesse Jones, having read that she had been selected as Ireland’s entrant for the Venice Biennale, the ‘art Olympics.’ Back I sat waiting for my mind to be broadened and, in fairness, the show was a real eye-opener, just not in a good way. Let me explain by discussing her back catalogue as touched on by the show via film clips and chat, along with details I tracked down myself, online.
I’ll start with the recreation of an American drive-in movie theatre, which was shown as laid out in the derelict vicinity of Dublin’s Pidgeon House. I saw it and thought, ok, you first thought of doing a sculpture, then realised you could upscale it, and express an interest in cinema-so what? Where’s the actual art here- I mean, I have an interest in classical Rome, and might decide to reshape the garden round a copy of a mosaic from that time and place, hell, I could replace the whole house with a full-scale replica of a tribune’s villa, but that wouldn’t be an artistic statement, just a display of personal taste. And the same goes for Jesse Jones and her drive-in; it didn’t ask a single question or make any statements about film and its role in a wider context, nor use the setting to say something about the decrepitude of reality compared to the glamour of celluloid, for example, in fact it didn’t say anything, at all, other than Jesse Jones likes films. She could have stuck an outsized 39 Steps or Jaws poster on the power station wall and communicated as much, so the drive-in went nowhere for me. In fact it irritated, especially when I dug deeper and found a claim that ‘through re-staging and re-appropriating the drive-in, the artist Jessie Jones created a collective social and political space’-no she didn’t; surely it was the promise of the actual movies, specifically the dozen ‘made by and about workers and activists’ as part of the overall presentation, 12 Angry Films, by Fire Station Artists’ Studios, that brought the crowd in, if there was one; she just decorated the physical area through which they entered and left, and if that counts as social and political activation then the Carlton got there nearly a century before her. I do now know that FSAS, along with Dublin Dockland Development Authority, commissioned her to ‘produce’ the project, but nobody, including Jones herself, claims she actually made 12 separate movies about workers and activists- made by them is explicit remember, so I don’t care what they called her, the commissioning bodies paid for and got a project manager/festival organiser, not an artist, at least on this occasion. And not even a particularly competent one, because her work was hardly conducive to the content of that produced by those marginalised people, if it truly was angry in tone as well as name. I imagine it must have been like stumbling on a picket line in the midst of an Oscars-theme party; I wonder was there popcorn to go with the consciousness-raising?
Likewise a portrait of the artist as poseur came to mind as I saw a group of musicians play Leonard Bernstein’s score for the 1954 film On The Waterfront in a snippet from Jones’ 2005 production of the same name, obviously another ‘re-staging’ or ‘re-appropriation,’ and play it quite well too. The location for the shot we saw was plainly a piece of Northside Dublin’s urban squalor, and I must say it matched the pallet of Boris Kaufman’s original cinematography effectively enough, but everything else was off- I mean, where was the waterfront itself?- it’s not as if Dublin didn’t have any, suitably seedy, even at the height of bubblemania. And again, what was the point of the whole exercise, why was 1950s New Jersey juxtaposed symbolically with Dublin in the ‘noughties, what resonance was she trying to evoke, what bells was she ringing? I didn’t catch anything. So for creative content I’d award 10/10 to Leonard Bernstein, 7/10 for musicianship to the lads, while Jones gets a mediocre 2/10 as location manager, and a big round zero for artistic merit. But at least Waterfront didn’t assault the ears, like.The Specter and The Sphere.
This 2008 film, commissioned by a certain Tessa Giblin of Project Arts, features a lady called Lydia Kavina playing The Internationale on an obscure musical instrument called the Theremin, just a few notes of which immediately explains the obscurity. I should point out that player and instrument are described as individual ‘characters,’ with a physical space filmed for the soundtrack, the Veruit in Ghent, described as the third ‘cast member’- why? ‘Cos, you know, art, innit! Anyway, Jones’ self-proclaimed Marxism apparently inspired this piece, and is supposed to be obvious because (a) Lenin purportedly admired Theremin music, (b) the instrument was oft-used on Hollywood B movie soundtracks of the cold war era and (c) the Veruit was proclaimed a ‘socialist castle,’ at least by Jesse Jones. Having heard and seen these elements we are invited to now recognise how they ‘collectively evoke the specters of ideology’ and amplify ‘the residual voices that haunt the cultural vessels of history.’ Where do I begin with this nonsense? Perhaps by pointing out that, Hollywood movies aside, nothing implied by The Specter and The Sphere even is a ‘cultural vessel’ for the audience Jesse Jones (and Tessa Giblin) were serving; how many Irish people know or care enough about an obscure piece of Belgian architecture and Lenin’s musical taste to grant them that status, let alone feel a vibe, spectral or otherwise, once those subjects are connected? And surely The Internationale is itself a ‘residual voice’ without need of further elaboration? So, as is becoming usual with Jones’ work, I’m asking why, what was the point? All I can assume is it provided a pretext for continental travel, or a chance to show off her profound knowledge of Lenin’s biography, Ghent’s building stock, and less recognisable Hollywood tropes- an opportunity to metaphorically place her academic footnotes before us as things of self-evident beauty. In other words, The Specter and The Sphere is a classic example of the vanity project, that ugliest of intellectual creations. Subsequent projects highlighted by RTE do little or nothing to improve this view.
To take The Other North as an example, the very premise-the translation/transposition of northern Irish narratives for recital by Korean performers- is too ridiculous for serious discussion. I mean we might suspect residents of Seoul could, if pushed, find Belfast on a map, but could any put a finger on the pulse of life in Ulster at any time, troubled or not? Brecht could surprise an audience and subvert theatrical conventions only because all concerned shared basic codes, unwritten rules of the traditional workspace beforehand- giving him something residual against which to leverage his ‘anarchy’, preconceptions to subvert. Jessie Jones in contrast gives a Korean audience stuff which must be, for them, white noise culturally and psychologically- so they have no preconceptions to shift; it is anything but ‘Brechtian,’ though I suspect she might make such a claim. Which leaves The Other North as not a serious work at all, just a game, mind game maybe, Jones is playing. It thus belittles the audience and demeans the original interviewees, who have their words distorted and commodified in Jessie Jones’ professional interest, for her personal gratification. Which is not to say she is totally without merit, for there are promising germs in the remaining works, Mahogany, The Touching Contract and No More Fun and Games, if only they weren’t so soon buried beneath layers of self-regard. And finally, coming to two of Jones’ overtly feminist projects, The Touching Contract and No More Fun and Games we again find sound instincts led astray by an overbearing ego. For I have no quarrel with ‘understanding the political gesture of touch through an immersive performance work’ as The Touching Contract proposes; or revisiting the historic injustice done to female painters by galleries, as No More Fun and Games does. I just wish Jessie Jones would learn when enough is enough. Let’s deal with them in turn.
The Rotunda Lying-In Hospital Dublin, one of Europe’s oldest maternity hospitals is, by definition, the site of countless historic abuses and indignities. It could not be anything else given the Irish religious context and the male professional ethos. So inviting a contemporary, primarily female audience, to and into an explicitly tactile performance there, as a form of emotional response and spatial reclamation, seems a wholly laudable act by Jones and her collaborators. Furthermore, I can entirely see how getting that audience to sign up to their own participation, via an actual contract, further overwrites a long history of unsanctioned male interference, medical as it was, to reassert rights of female agency and self-possession. But why does Jesse Jones have to abuse this contractual privilege, as I think she does. I’m specifically thinking here of the clause described by one of the participants thus; ‘there was the option to refuse consent [for man- sorry woman-handling] and instead to act as ‘witness,’ in which case one’s senses would be impeded with a blindfold and earplugs.’ Again, Jesse Jones-WTF! Was this supposed to be clever/’arty’? -if so it just sounds ridiculous. Was it meant to clearly identify those withholding consent, so the performers didn’t inadvertently touch them?- surely reserved floor space would have sufficed. Was it an ironic reference to those who, in earlier times, chose not to bear witness when women were abused on the premises?- why wasn’t such a point made explicit, and couldn’t a performer or two have taken on this rather demeaning role, to greater effect? No, I can think of no explanation that fits better than the simplest one- when it comes to her art, her art, Jesse Jones can’t see any free-flowing, interactive situation without imposing authority, however arbitrary, and sod anyone else or their autonomy!
This same sense of collectivism subverted by egoism is evoked by descriptions of No More Fun and Games. Like Touching it starts from a premise all right-thinking people would support, that of giving female artists of old the wall space they were wrongfully denied by past curators, dragging them, literally, from dusty storage rooms to public view. So why oh why did Jesse Jones then inflict her overblown cinematic signifier, a middle-aged woman’s arm on a sort of curtain- sorry, ‘screen’- on the proceedings? I sense she would claim a ‘Brechtian’ impulse to subvert the conventions of the gallery space, or some such codswallop, as an explanation, but codswallop that would be. She did it because she could, because the idea occurred to her, and all her ideas are, de facto, delightful insights. I wonder did she run this one past her grassroots collaborators before figuratively, and actually, dragging it across their faces and, with telling irony, the very pictures that had been so long obscured by the tastes of the patriarchy. Weren’t those artists, not Jesse Jones, supposed to be at the heart of the project? Not for her, I’m afraid, and I say that not to be personal but because I’ve looked at her work in some depth by now, more depth than elite selectors for international art jamborees, I suspect. Then again, who am I to judge, right- a layman, not a parchment-carrying initiate? Here’s who I am, a citizen and a taxpayer who, like all the other plebs, helps to underwrite work by people like Jesse Jones and her ilk. That means I have a say, and I’m going to give my two cents worth now- enjoy Venice Ms. Jones, but afterwards, get a real job; no more fun and games, not at my expense!
Come on ye Spurs!’- Four words that feel so odd to type I’m wondering what I’ll be coming out with next; ‘Eastenders-made me laugh,’ ‘Elvis-he was good,’ maybe even ‘Enda-balls of steel.’ But no, for unlike the worlds of television drama, popular music or politics, only football has forced me to think the unthinkable, thanks to the emergence of a malign new force- Leicester City! And it’s a particular blight on all coverage of the sport that commentators and pundits are now contractually obliged to refer to ‘the fairytale’ of their possible premiership title, when it’s actually more of a black comedy. And I’m not writing this out of any longstanding hatred for folk at the Kingpower, or the Walkers or whatever it is now, of the sort I rightly feel towards Sunderland (hacks from back-of-throat and spits.) Because Leicester City, like Wolves, Notts County or Newcastle, have always been an irrelevency, not just losers, but losers that weren’t worth hating unlike, again, Sunderland (hacks from…etc.) And it’s not jealousy of a successful team reflecting on the inadequacies of those I root for, and have this season delivered a damp squib at Elland Road, a tragicomedy at Villa Park and a farce at Stamford Bridge, no, that’s what Liverpool FC are for, with their exhilerating play on the field, genuine class in the manager’s office, and scum in the replica jerseys on the Luas. So what is it?
To be precise, it’s not that I begrudge these bit-players their long awaited moment in the limelight, I just don’t like the way they’ve gotten there. Because I’m not averse to a bit of catenaccio, in moderation, but Sunday’s game, at home, was typical of a season where they’ve made the Inter of the ’60s look like the Holland of ’74, and like a Healey-Rae wedding, it’s not just ugly to look at, it smells distinctly iffy too. I said, back in October, that they’d fall away once the injuries hit, except…they never did! Now, call me a cynic, but that may happen (though never has) with a Barca or a Bayern, who believe the ball is the workhorse and the men merely artistic directors but Leicester- a team not just built on running but built from runners?! Granted, they have a couple of class players, namely Kante and Mahrez, but even Stoke and Palace have some class acts, and West Ham, as they showed, have a lot more, and they won’t be playing Champions League come the Autumn. And I don’t want to hear about Drinkwater’s 60-yard diagonals and Vardy’s sublime first-touch and dead-eyed finishing; all are admirable in their way but ultimately just result from constant repetition of an intially difficult action until it becomes muscle memory, like a Fianna Fail-er lying without laughing, or Michael Noonan using the loo. And even as I write I’m recalling a 10-year old self, reading back issues of Match Magazine describing the beloved Leeds United ‘shutting up shop’ on the Arsenal to land our first trophy in the 1968 League Cup Final, and how the criticism echoed mine today, but Leicester now lack the innate qualities Super Leeds perfected by the early ’70s, the gossamer that was added to the beesting as they floated above opponents, not just Southampton on the famous 7-0 day but Chelsea two years earlier, and both Manchester sides, plus Arsenal (in style) that same glorious ’72 season. And that at a time when ‘sport science’ meant a sponge, a halftime jaffacake and a bottle of vaporub, at a pinch, whereas the current league leaders, I fear, can never break free of a darker chemistry, more to do with Walter White than Walter Winterbottom.
For it’s how Vardy can constantly sprint beyond defenders, many years younger than he, in order for Drinkwater to hit, that’s what bothers me, that, and the absence of the strains and pulls mere mortals, not wearing a jersey with a smug fox face on it, are prey too. It just doesn’t make sense, and therefor it’s nonsense. And then there’s the rest, like their talent for ‘the dark arts’ as a commentator gushingly described the other day- (one may no longer ‘commentate’ on them, only gush) meaning time wasting, fouling and diving or, to use the old fashioned word, cheating. Everybody does it, I know, just not with such brazen abandon, and apparent impunity. They are to the arts of darkness what Monet was to those of the light. If it goes on like this, if they steal the title this way, where will it end? Will Chris Coleman and the two O’Neills use them as the template for an unfashionable title challenge later this summer, with centrehalfs training alongside the packs at The Arms Park, Ravenhill and Thomond respectively to become, like Huth and Fuchs, adept at keeping a grip of a forward? Or will attackers from both Irish and the Welsh teams warm up for France by studying tapes of Vardy and co. before heading out to practice, equipped with a springboard and landing mat? And if they did, and Wales, Norn Irn’ or The Republic kept shocking better teams until the trophy was in sight, a la Leicester, would that be a fairy tale?- no, it would be a nightmare. Come on ye Spurs!
When in the home of another it’s bad form to impose, so yesterday I was forced to endure, without complaint, almost an entire Elvis Presley movie, for the first time in my life. It was called ‘Clambake’ and I couldn’t help thinking it must be the worst film he was ever in, ‘cos Jesus it stank. I don’t mean like Jaws 3 or any of the poorer Hammer offerings or a sequel/prequel type of franchise-squeezer, all of which can unwittingly supply a perverse type of pleasure through their shamelessness/incompetence, I mean it just stank, stank, stank! I actually went on the web to see if it was his worst, thinking it must be, it just must be- no; a half-dozen or more are consistently ranked below it, and CIA torturers must surely have bought the rights to one called ‘Harem Holiday’ which is unanimously called his worst. How bad is THAT one?!
But to get back to sticking the knife in this Clambake thing, rather than the heads of everyone involved in making it, which would be the preferred option, it involved a bunchy of drippy ski-boat operators in Florida and an apparent race (I got out before the end, but I’m going to hazard a guess that ‘our hero’ won.) Presley wasn’t just a waterski bum sort though, he was also a part-time industrial chemist- and no, that last statement wasn’t a typo. And all as an excuse for third-rate performances of fifth-rate songs, with children incongruously shoehorned into the plot to, presumably, invoke an ‘aaah’ reaction which, in my own case, was more of a stomach wrench. Granted, being a product of the late ’60s with a beach-type setting it did at least have a plentiful supply of girls in bikinis of that era, surely the most erotic fashion ever, while the leading lady (Shelley Fabares) was, in any language, a fine thing, but hell, they were all still in an Elvis Presley movie called Clambake! Plus Miss Fabares was, alas, no actress, except when standing next to Presley, when she took on the qualities of a Streep, but only in comparison, ‘cos that Elvis dude couldn’t act to save his life, even in the most basic scene. I mean that literally; there’s one shot which lingers on him and which, from the context (Christ, I’m talking ‘context’ in an Elvis movie!) seems to demand he look jealous/upset/heartbroken but no, he just looks off camera and waits for the call of “cut,” possibly while wondering if the studio firebuckets contain real fire. ‘Cos let’s face it, he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer!
And I know I’m being nasty here, but it’s overdue, believe me. As I said, I’ve never watched a whole Presley film because, being an enforced consumer of RTE as a child I had plenty of opportunities to watch the first 20/30 minutes of many examples, time enough for anyone, even a kid, to decide ‘this is shite,’ and leave the room for more worthwhile pursuits, like staring at wallpaper or seeing how long you can hold your breath or stand on one leg, all activities which benefit from an absence of aural toothache, or the Elvis repertoire, as it sometimes called. And I could have left it at that, quite happily; after all, there are a handful of his recordings I can actually listen to without screaming (Moody Blue, In The Ghetto, Suspicious Minds or A little Less Conversations,) only the other 700 or so I passionately hate, so I could have said ‘me and Elvis, a bad mix, let’s move on in our separate directions and leave it at that’ but no, I wasn’t allowed! I had to be in frequent contact with folks who actually liked this tuneless dope, worshipped him in fact. This was the case with one particular individual who tried to convince me, in a hectoring manner (I was 13, he nearly 30) that “Elvis is worth a million Beatles!” (My photos of the Abbey Road pedestrian crossing from last week are a particular comfort when I think of this.)
And so far I’m only talking about Presley’s ‘talents’ as a singer/actor, I haven’t even started on his failings as a human being, which are widely known. By this I don’t mean the unhealthy relationship with food which we all, myself included, share in our own ways, but I do mean the creepy mother-worship, the exploitation of women offscreen/stage, the boorish crowd he hung with, and the substandard psychopaths like Parker and J.Edgar Hoover he licked up to. I would include his politics, but I don’t think he had even the limited intelligence needed to be an extreme right wing Republican like John Wayne. So I’ll just put his offer to ‘spy’ on the Beatles during their American tour down to immaturity and sycophancy (he was in Hoover’s office at the time.) Unfortunately those ‘qualities’ are common among his fans I’ve found, and I long ago decided that any such individual was likely to also be a fan of Manchester United or Liverpool, and easily-drawn to all in life that’s glamourous, superficial and ultimately worthless, words that might usefully be deployed when the Graceland sign is next down for maintenance. So there, I’ve said it, I’ve got a half-century of simmering resentment off my chest and yes, it’s petty, it’s spiteful, it’s nothing to be proud of, but it is a natural reaction to an extreme provocation. After all. I had to watch almost an entire Elvis Presley movie. It was called Clambake!
“I wouldn’t second guess a decision of a chief superintendent” says Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan about how a subordinate, Chief Supt. Orla McPartlin, is again denying us the right to make door-to-door collections. Well I will second guess it because, unlike the commissioner, I’m interested in justice. I won’t rehash the story of how this jumped up McPartlin person has been and still is using a relatively obscure statute, The Street and House to House Collection Act 1962 in an effort to choke the life out of the AAA in the Tallaght/Jobstown area, perhaps the most blatant piece of political policing in the history of the state, except to say there can be no other interpretation of her actions, once the relevant part of the act, section 9 (c) is examined. This states a “chief superintendent shall not grant a collection permit for any collection in respect of which (s)he is of the opinion that ….proceeds of the collection or any portion thereof would be used in such a manner as to encourage, directly or indirectly, the commission of an unlawful act.” What unlawful act? McPartlin refers to ‘arrests’ that have taken place during protests, but arrests are not the same as convictions. As Paul Murphy says “innocent until proven guilty,” and no police officer, of any rank, can act as judge and jury, or decide whether the acts leading to arrest where actually unlawful. Not in a true democracy anyway. Of course The Law And Order Brigade within the Irish establishment/media, the crowd who tut-tut about ‘due process’ and ‘a person’s right to their good name’ when corrupt politicians, bankers and businessmen rob the Irish people blind and walk away smirking (didn’t Fingers Fingleton look cocky last week) can claim that the democratic will expressed through the oireachtas 53 years ago confers legality and legitimacy on McPartlin’s behaviour today, but the key to the matter lies in the fact that the act was passed 53 years ago. 1962 was the immediate aftermath of the IRA’s failed ‘border campaign,’ a moment when it was still unclear whether that campaign might recommence, a time when subversion of the state by an anti democratic faction, using money collected from misguided patriots, was a real possibility. Nobody who framed or voted through legislation in those circumstances could possibly have foreseen its use, six decades later, against those trying to prevent subversion of the republic by an anti democratic faction, the neoliberal elite. If that’s what this state has come to, if that’s what the Irish establishment are willing to try, if that’s what the media will countenance without breathing the words due process, if that’s what Sinn Fein supporters will crow about, then it’s time to say Up The Rebels- the real ones!
I’m as pro-conservation as anyone, in fact I have (genuinely) lain awake at night worrying about bees, given how their decline threatens human survival. I fret about shrinking icecaps, rising sea levels, invasive species and any number of burning issues which are bringing rampant human want. But when I hear how water is a ‘precious resource’ I think, why, exactly, in Ireland of all places, right now? Don’t get me wrong, it has the potential to be a money-spinner for the people of these islands down the road, especially if pipelines are used to supply the parching mediterranean regions, but for now that’s literally a pipe-dream. In the meantime our problem is too much water, at least in particular places at inconvenient times (see FLOODING!) Harnessing this blessing, and the rest of the world knows it’s a blessing, in an efficient manner, now, THAT’S the issue, and what’s that got to do with you, me, or anyone of our neighbours supposedly leaving taps running, just for the hell of it? (By the way, when did YOU last leave a tap running wantonly- EXACTLY!) You, Kenny, Burton, Varadkar etc. want water conserved? Fix The Fucking Infrastructure, NOW! And use whatever tidy sum has been put by for (oh, I can’t think of anything useless and exorbitantly priced, wait- WATER METERS!) to do it. Don’t come to us, the people you’ve already repeatedly screwed, looking for yet another king’s ransom to be divvied up with your princely friends, that’s a well that IS dry!