Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Knights erroneous and gulag dentists

[This essay accompanied the first solo exhibition of the artist whose work it details. It’s unrelated to the blog topic—no because-charade—but it’s thematically related to my previous post. The next post will be on topic again, probably on the fiction of the judeo-christian ethic, at last.]

The knights that fill Andro Semeiko-Antelidze’s imaginings are paradoxical: deeply foreign yet quintessentially quotidian. They are precise, minute vagrants in landscapes of lush and giant vagueness. The expert detail of their execution contrasts with extravagant simplicity of a world ready to engulf them. And yet, the activities that occupy them seem oblivious to these disparities. They are the humdrum details of our own daily existence: lighting, cleaning, grooming, … But these paradoxes, though fanciful and comical, reflect something deep and unique that only Semeiko-Antelidze could bring to his artistry.

Every culture that has forged its existence in battle against neighbours and invaders reveres the warrior. Russian and Georgian literature, like the Homeric and Anglo-Saxon traditions, begin with poetic epics, from the twelfth century, in which heroes battle forces of evil in quests that are simultaneously personal, spiritual, and, from a modern perspective, national. Both epics—the anonymous Lay of the Host of Igor, from which stems Borodin’s Prince Igor, and Shota Rustaveli’s In A Panther’s Skin—are texts with which the Russian or Georgian schoolchild—and Semeiko-Antelidze, as his name suggests, was both—becomes familiar.

And where there are epics, there is knightly travailing and knightly prevailing, honourable deeds and righteous creeds. Indeed, Rustaveli’s epic is often translated under the title of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, though the Georgian title itself is more laconic. And, following in the tracks of two centuries’ crusades—one of the definitive acts of the knights of Europe—Rustaveli pilgrimaged to Jerusalem, where his visit is recorded on a (very recently defaced) pillar of the Monastery of the Cross.

Yet, it would be a mistake to see Semeiko-Antelidze’s knights as stemming from the—to him—familiar childhood characters of Prince Igor and his brothers, or Prince Tariel and the nobleman Avtandil, for these are not knights in our sense.

On the one hand, our knights are far more ancient. Whereas the English word is so deeply embedded in the language that half of its letters have fallen silent as its pronunciation has evolved, the abundance of “equivalents” that Russian dictionaries offer shows that this is an alien concept filled by borrowed words. First, from the north, came vityaz, harking back to marauding hoards of Vikings. Then, from the east, came various forms of the Altaic bagadur, consolidating into Russian bogatyr. And last, from the west, came German Ritter, manhandled by the Poles into rycerz, and arriving in Russian as rytsar. The same word yields Georgian raindi, which enters the language five centuries after Rustaveli, with the humble meaning of horse-trainer, only later acquiring is nobler connotations. The concept, then, like the word, is borrowed, not indigenous.

On the other hand, our knights are far more modern and actual than their Russian and Georgian “equivalents”. As children, we are enchanted by fairy tales recounting their daring and romances. As teenagers, we are excited by films and television depicting their bravery and gallantry. And as adults, we greet with delight, outrage, or indifference the regular bestowing of knighthoods of those—scientists, artists, sportsmen, politicians, businessmen—whose personal quests for excellence (or personal connections to power) have materially affected the nonmaterial wealth of the nation.

To the Russo-Georgian Semeiko-Antelidze, resident now in England, knights have moved from foreign and fictitious to part of the cultural furniture of daily life. Small wonder, then, his knights are so curiously quotidian in a landscape that it so deeply foreign.

But that is only part of the story. In earlier work, Semeiko-Antelidze created micromorphologically accurate portraits of solitary, ordinary objects. Those that played with light were a particular favourite: a headlight, a spoon, a well-glazed chocolate cake, a woman’s boot or businessman’s shoe. Then, from somewhere in the vaults of the Royal Academy, a medieval knight’s helmet with visor, bearing an accidental resemblance to Mickey Mouse. And, in its wake, another helmet, then full suits of armour, then models, then knights farming, knights surfing, knights gingerly entering Hockneyesque swimming pools, knights formally posed for Van Dyckesque portraiture. Where does this fascination come from?

Semeiko-Antelidze grew up at a pivotal moment in Georgian history. Communism was waning and the country was beginning to look westwards again. For him, this westward gaze took a very particular form. Part of his childhood was spent in his grandparents’ house, in the mountains of Guria, where the dangerous Agi Dzaghla river emerges from the forests, dragging the more than occasional tree trunk, boulder, or as its name suggests, drowned man with it.

There, he saw how his grandfather would frequently treat for free the teeth of the local poor. And, when he asked how his grandfather had become a dentist, he was told the story of the onetime Minister of Justice, anonymously denounced, who become a gulag inmate. A death sentence for many, he was fortunate in advancing, eventually, to gulag dentist.

Gulag dentist. Few juxtapositions of words can sound so gruesome. But the position ensured both survival and reunion with his family.

Many lives inflict unimaginable suffering, but for such suffering to arise as a result of striving for justice in a movement purportedly dedicated to social equity and human betterment ought to be particularly embittering. Yet some people—and Semeiko-Antelidze’s grandfather was clearly one of them—emerge from the crucible of their suffering with a generosity and goodness that one can barely comprehend except, perhaps, as an act of defiance.

This was the background that Semeiko-Antelidze brought to his adolescent discovery of the art of Aubrey Beardsley. One hardly needs to explain the appeal of Beardsley’s work to anyone, let alone a young artist. Nonetheless, Beardsley proves to have been a potent particular influence—beyond the obvious parallels in Beardsley’s curves and Semeiko’s swirls.

First, his work was western and, so, of the moment. More important, though, is the prominent place it afforded to Arthurian legend, to kings and knights and nobles, to quests and perils and prizes.

The mountains, forests and rivers of his childhood gave Semeiko-Antelidze the perfect landscape with which to vivify these images. And the dangers and trials that the world had hurled at his grandfather, and the implacable magnanimity with which he responded, afforded him an ideal model of knightly virtues. What was missing, though, was the knightly code. If communism’s treatment of his family had not been enough to debunk that code, its systematic collapse in his childhood would have been. And the mere wish to be more western was not particularly contentful: freedoms of thought, association, and expression are fine, but what thoughts and associations does one use those freedoms to express?

This codelessness is key to the foreignness of Semeiko-Antelidze’s knights. In a landscape in which they are deeply alien, where, oblivious, they carry on with quotidian activities and strange rites, what they lack is purpose and direction. Their quest is to find a quest itself.

When Tunisia’s recent election mustered a turn out of 80%, whereas ours are barely quorate, when Libya’s population fight for freedom, whereas ours riot and go loot, one cannot help but think that questless foreignness of Semeiko-Antelidze’s knights depicts something that is very close to home.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Opening night of Anatomy of an Afternoon: Nice dance, shame about the title

Anatomy of an Afternoon—Paul White’s hour of solo dance, choreographed by Martin del Amo—had me thinking throughout, not of its titular inspiration, Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun, but of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed…” Except, here, the transformation is not from human into “horrible vermin” but from reptile into human.

An hour of uninterrupted movement has to be well paced, for the dancer’s sake, and Anatomy opens with gesture rather than dance: deliberately awkward placement of limbs, and then torso, then hips, then finally feet and legs. The positions are interesting enough, and lend themselves to various interpretations, garish angles that evoke birds or lizards, but could equally be the choreographer’s musings on what one might look like if dropped from buildings of various heights—from which you’ll guess that I was rather indifferent about the performance at this early stage: admirable technique, but little emotional effect.

The piece picks up as the choreography becomes more generous, leading the dancer across the stage on all fours, his body close to the ground, one leg outstretched, the other bunched near his hip; arms likewise. Evocation of a lizard is clear, well crafted and well executed. In retrospect, the opening makes more sense, evoking the inching, rippling spread of mobility from “finger” to “toe” as a cold-blooded reptile awakes. But we are still in the scene-setting phase of performance and everything veers on mime and imitation. A “plot” has yet to develop, or anything to affect the watcher (or, at least, this watcher).

This changes soon enough in what is one of the most striking moments of the performance. White is seated V-shaped, his torso and limbs floating in effortless suspension, like a sleeping child being carried to its bed. Then gradually he relaxes towards horizontal, and, as if the invisible person carrying him worries he might fall, the grip is tightened and he returns to his original, closely clutched V. This opening and closing repeats several times (“as when the heart of this flower imagines the snow carefully everywhere descending”) and delivers the very feeling of intimacy that holding a sleeping child creates.

But then, suddenly, the lizard is awake again and aware of some danger, searching, checking, alert. The dancer strips almost naked and—to my mind—the reptile has shed its skin. But what emerges from the ill-fitting shell—loose trousers and t-shirt—is a human suddenly aware of himself and the world. In the exploration of self and surrounds that follows, the disjointed angularity of the opening sequence returns as lithe force and lissom fluidity, and, in a fugue-like sequence, is even inverted, with the dancer on his head—this ought to be gimmicky, but is so naturally excrescent from, and complementary to, the dancer’s exploration of his metamorphosed body, that it creates a similar sensation to the sleeping child sequence.

Intimacy, and, indeed, tenderness and vulnerability, recur throughout Anatomy. In another sequence, reminiscent of the sleeping child, White transitions repeatedly from prone to supine, again with limbs and torso in apparent weightless. His shapes alternate between a child stretching in the womb, encapsulated and suspended, and a person falling unconscious through air or floating in water.

In places, the choreography interferes with the artistry. When the lizard is crawling across the stage, it opens its mouth and sticks out its tongue. This tipped things from mime (which I wasn’t crazy about) into pantomime. A muffled titter from the audience. Later, the newly transformed human explores his body by smelling the fingers he had just stuck in his crack. Titters, tuts, and a few guffaws, and then two couples make a dash for the door. These moments break the connection between audience and performer. White’s phenomenal artistry and physical self-mastery are able quickly to repair the rift, but removal of these moments would be an improvement.

(The early exit incident was inadvertently amusing. Just after the first couple left, White pulled down his pants completely and bent over so his arse was facing the door they’d used. He may have been executing preplanned choreography, but, by a coincidence of timing and location, he managed to moon the people who’d just given his performance the finger. Honestly, who leaves a performance because of five seconds of arse? Well, probably people who get put off by the first five minutes of micromovements and who find their excuse to quit sandwiched between White’s buttocks.)

My only real gripe is with the title. Anatomy of an Afternoon is neither anatomical nor postmeridian. You could call it Composition of a Morning or Reductive Evening without impacting on the experience at all. Which means that the title misses the mark. What it does instead is record where the choreography draws its inspiration from. Such facts about process belong with the creators’ bibliography in the program notes. The title should reflect something of where the audience is transported to, not where the artists departed from.

Precisely where the audience is transported will vary, of course, from member to member. The juxtaposition of lizard and human inevitably reminds me, a cognitive scientist, of our own reptilian brain. So a dance shared between lizard and human—sometimes angular, sometimes inverted, at other times, liquid and powerful, or floating and fragile—looks like a musing on shared inheritance, an imagining of what our natural movement might have been, if only we had evolved or developed differently. White is the perfect vehicle for the exploration and the compelling, engaging, touching result left me both humbled and uplifted.