The arts are my passion: drama, music, opera, dance, sculpture, painting, art history, architecture, film, literature... old and new... national and international... and after a period living, writing & performing in Australia and Italy this passion has brought me back to London. 'Blog Julie Arts' is a spin-off after success with 'There's Always A Story' at blogjulie.com

Friday, 31 May 2013

The Permanent Present

Rainbows are popular.  Young or old a rainbow symbolises hope and new beginnings.  You may think it an over-used symbol, verging perhaps on cliché, yet even the most famous song about leaving behind the rain and going over the rainbow is covered by jazz, pop and rap musicians alike.   And there’s a reason for that: the need for rainbows, the need to look forward and hope for improvement and healing in life is fundamentally and universally human. 

So I admire Mark Garry, a sculptor, who has created for Belfast’s Metropolitan Arts Centre, a work of art of lasting resonance.  This rainbow, made of hundreds of metal threads, hangs with dramatic and ethereal beauty over the MAC’s modern and friendly foyer, its long rays of light causing every visitor to look up, literally and metaphorically.

Photo by Jordan Hutchings

The work, called The Permanent Present, was commissioned by The Thomas Devlin Fund and the MAC after Thomas’s parents happened to hear about the community’s plans for a new theatre in the Cathedral District of Belfast – a space to accommodate plays, exhibitions, small to medium-sized musicals, fringe groups, and the much-loved social focus of it’s predecessor, the smaller OMAC.  Now that the MAC is open and bursting with business, artists and audiences, this vision, as created, seems particularly fitting. 

I think the radiance which emanates from The Permanent Present is a tribute to the artist, to those who commissioned and funded it (including the Arts Council of Northern Ireland), and to the young lad, Thomas Devlin, whose premature death has become a rallying cry against futile violence and the harbouring of hatred.  It is sadly ironic I should be writing this now, the week after Lee Rigby’s awfully tragic death in Woolwich, yet if there is comfort to be found in the parallel it is that this Irish work of art, and the very fact of the MAC, symbolises the social, spiritual, political and artistic regeneration which is palpably happening across Belfast and Northern Ireland at the moment. 
It is no mean feat to escape the weight of one’s past.  This is ever more difficult when a city and state has been plagued by generations of history and conflict.  But since the Peace Treaty, and partly because of generous funds committed for capital and social investment, what you find now in Belfast is a city bursting with hope and energy.  The young can’t even much remember ‘the troubles’, thank God, and with them society is moving relentlessly forward – every which way you look something new and impressive, validating Mark Garry’s belief in the promise of rainbows.
If you don’t believe Belfast is as vibrant as I suggest, then go yourself and find out.  There’s even a project going called Test Drive where residents can apply for free tickets to any venue they haven’t attended for (at least) three years.  That’s clever Audience Development.  The general population is growing steadily.  New museums and art centres are springing up right across the six counties, and ‘old’ ones are thriving.  Music pumps in bars of style and diversity; universities, such as Queens, are getting famous for being safe and proud of multi-cultural student enrolments; and fewer and fewer people are controlled by the prejudices that still exist amongst a few on both sides of the community.  That’s not to say the suffering has not been real or division still evident – how can it completely disappear when wounds over centuries have run deep - but positive attitudes and symbols like the rainbow foster belief you can climb up and out; especially in young people.
After watching a thoroughly entertaining and youthful production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – written by a favourite of mine, William Finn, and co-produced by the MAC and a local production-house, Bruiser – I was sitting at one of the comfortable side tables, affectionately known as “the bitching booths”; so called because typically that’s where actors and audiences go, Chardonnay in hand, to hungrily dissect the productions.  Happily I was joined by the MAC’s engaging CEO, Anne McReynolds, and we got to talking about the drivers behind the centre’s construction.  Several things stand out from our conversation.
The MAC’s many performance, exhibition, meeting and social spaces are all designed for flexibility and, if desired, filled with light.  The design of these spaces has at its heart “total commitment to the arts” and respect for the needs of the local community.  If not, you wouldn’t have fabulously diverse spaces ear-marked as The Writers Room, The Works, The Hub, The Lab, The Factory and the Galleries – and that’s before you get into the Upstairs or Downstairs Theatres!  This building has really been designed to live in: to take walls down between artists and audiences; to create artistic and social bridges between those-with and those-without, between multicultural communities and, please God, in time, between the pain which was felt on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland.
I don’t just say that as an impressed visitor – enjoying for a while the benefits of a modern arts centre when in London one is more often immersed in theatrical spaces of a different style – but because the MAC is marking itself out as a genuine centre of excellence committed to activities which “positively change people’s lives”.  
Talk to anyone on the staff or in the audience, in the bar, restaurant, gallery or toilet (yeah, Aussies like a chat), and you’ll see the pride they have in the place. There is ambience and buzz in every cute corner of a building packed with cute corners.  Three hundred thousand people have visited the MAC in its first year, the mailing list has grown quickly from 1,500 to 35,000, and everyone seems to be operating within the principles of a Permanent Present… where you learn you can’t do anything about the past… you can only live and thrive in the present twenty-four hours… in the hours and days ahead. 
Call it Spiritual.  Call it Artistic.  But every actor knows that believable characterisation and successful portrayal is all about ‘being in the moment’.  So I dare you to look up at the MAC’s rainbow and not believe that what is right for us as artists is also right for us as people: “Breathe in the rich blessings of each new day – forget all that lies behind you.” 
And in this, the MAC throws down a challenge and a comfort. 

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiU0mFnkHCo (Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) 


Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Andy Warhol: Arrogance or Truth

In Art there can be a fine line between arrogance and truthful self-expression.

In fact when fighting to get a project up, or create an artistic product, the drivers of creative projects have to resist all temptation to lose faith and plough on regardless of doomsayers and critics.  The director, the writer, the producer, the actor, the designer, the arts administrator, the architect, the artists of many genres must believe in their work and keep believing… for, if not, the work will never be realized… or their idiosyncratic interpretation and vision will be watered down until it’s unrecognizable. 

This is what jumped out at me when watching a film about Andy Warhol at the MAC in Belfast last month.  The interviewer lent in urging the eccentric artist to reveal more of himself, while with barely concealed provocation he said: “What do you say to people who criticize you (for this and that and the other)… can you answer them?”  With only a moment’s thought and no hint of irony Andy simply replied: “No. I can’t.  They’re right.”  

This left the interviewer speechless.  He expected a defensive response.  Later he threw down the baton further with: “So are you going to keep doing this commercial art?”  “Yes” Warhol replied matter-of-factly.  “But don’t you think it’s finished?” the interviewer challenged quickly. “Yes”.   That was it.  No other reply.   

If that wasn’t sufficiently brilliant to put the interviewer on the back foot, when asked one inane question Warhol simply stared for a long moment before pleading: “Can I just answer blah, blah, blah, blah, blah….?”

Talk about funny.  Of course it wasn’t exactly ‘blah, blah, blah’ but a sound far more enigmatic and childlike.  Warhol simply didn’t care to explain himself, even if he’d known how.  And you can call it arrogance, but there’s more to it than that:

Warhol was born to create and create he did, settled in and unbreakable from his artistic perspective of the world.  And as I watched this film, and then the wonderful exhibition across several rooms in Belfast's glorious new Metropolitan Arts Centre known as the MAC, I couldn’t decide whether to keep laughing aloud or shout BRAVO! 

For this exhibition (part of a well-conceived programme called Artist Rooms On Tour) and the message which Warhol leaves us with is vital: artists must not be afraid… artists must dare and keep daring to express their view… shaping and interpreting until they get closer to the essence of their own (or their collective) idiosyncratic artistic truth. 

For God knows, wouldn’t the world be boring without the Andy Warhols?   

And if a little arrogance is the price to pay for artistic clarity and conviction, then so be it!




[Watch this space for a few posts on the rich and vibrant artistic and social strides currently being made in the capital of Northern Ireland; the city in the UK which is currently enjoying the benefits of generous arts funding.]