Monday, 2 July 2018

Review - Lek and the Dogs, Electric Palace Hastings

I saw Lek and the Dogs at the Electric Palace Cinema in Hastings on Friday evening. It is based on the true story of Ivan Mishukov, who left his abusive home at four and lived with street dogs for two years before being picked up and put into children's homes. His transition into adulthood seemed to work for a while but he could not maintain it. 

The film was quite an experience. A friend of mine, who had seen it in London, asked me on Facebook what my review of the film was. My immediate Facebook reply was:

“Great apart from a tad too much not entirely convincing crying from Lek, and the tiresome, smugly dogmatic (no pun intended) philosophising. The film would have been much more effective by cutting out that guy entirely.... that's my review! :)

As a pithy and amusing comment it works but the film bugged me and kept bugging me. So I looked at the published reviews to see if any of them reflected what my own reaction had been.

I found a lot of reviews. All of them stuck to pretty much the same format but not always in the same order: a plot synopsis, varying degrees of sycophancy and a focus on cinematic form and reference, literary and philosophical influences and assessing where the body of work fits in director Andrew Kötting’s oeuvre. There was a fair range of opinion on these things and not everybody enjoyed the experience. The BBC’s film critic Mark Kermode obviously did. This film is right up his street. He was obviously going to find several avenues of pleasure in this movie and he did. So far, so predictable.  To be fair, however, he did also say (as did others) that what people took from this film would be entirely personal. That is absolutely the case but then again is that not the case with any film or work of art?  

There seemed to be very little about the actual content - the emotional content I mean - and surely it is the story and the trauma and the emotions that are the whole point here.  Introducing the film at the Electric Palace, Andrew Kötting said that he wanted people to feel these things. That is commendable enough but it makes an assumption that the audience are strangers to such feelings and the director is therefore providing a service to allow them to understand trauma at a safe distance.  Often it seemed as if the director was ‘bludgeoning’ his audience (a word used in more than one review) to emote, and to feel pain. In that respect the film is very much of its time. Public displays of trauma: parents of murdered children, victims of violence, abuse, terror - trauma as spectacle seems to be a news requirement these days.

A couple of the reviews mentioned the word ‘emotional’. The problem was that none of them really communicated any of that emotion.  Perhaps it is in the nature of ‘educated’ reviewers to not go there. There is still that vague sense of contempt for public expression of emotion but it’s fine if it’s either fiction, or cinematised ‘truth’ that can be glossed over in an analysis of the form in which it is presented. The reality of the story becomes secondary to the package in which it comes. Mainstream film reviewers are obviously not keeping up. I wanted to know how the film made them feel and what they thought of the subject. 

I could not access the pay to read reviews but the available quotes suggested they were much the same content-wise, if more critical of the film overall. The most succinct and effective review was probably Eye for Film’s, Amber Wilkinson who avoided the verbiage and managed to tell you everything you needed to know without actually losing sight of Lek - the film’s subject.

What I found most strange and disturbing is what appears to be the complete disconnect between telling and reviewing a tale of childhood trauma, without understanding just how triggering that can be for audience members who have suffered childhood trauma. The director joked that walkouts had previously occurred perhaps because people thought they were coming to see Show Dogs or Isle of Dogs. The muted ripple of laughter in the room was muted I suspect because half of this audience didn’t have a clue what either of these films were.

I am sure that some of the walkouts from showings of this film have been because the rawness of it has been too overwhelming for those who don’t have the luxury of understanding trauma at a distance. In fact I am not sure it is possible to understand trauma at a distance.

The audio-visual noise may be another reason people walk out. It was phenomenally loud, intense and often distorted. For people who do not find peace at the centre listening to industrial noisecore, I can see why the soundtrack could present not only emotional challenges, but physical, aural discomfort as well.  

The difficult thing for me to take in this film, however, was the philosophising drone that effectively concluded you’re fucked. Your trauma will inform your actions in endless repetitive cycles and there’s no escape. Such a message is potentially devastating. People who have been traumatised are painfully aware that it is still informing their actions.  They have been forced to understand it and forced to find ways to alleviate that cycle in order to survive both emotionally and physically. The glibness of this single, simplistic philosophical overdub, threatened to reduce a complex and quite remarkable piece of cinema to a smug, undergraduate observation. Because of this I couldn’t help feeling that Lek/Ivan had actually been a bit dissed by having his story and his trauma used to conveniently park a philosophy that does neither Lek, nor actually the film, justice. However, I am seeing this film as a standalone piece. In the context of the trilogy perhaps there is a wider angle. At least the humour kicked in as the (cruelly) paraphrased drone continued …  yer’ all gonna die, the planet’s gonna die ….. no shit Sherlock!  

We live in an age of anxiety, dystopia and fear masked by increasingly absurd levels of pretence that we are all unique and heroic individuals who can make a difference. We are simultaneously more empathetic and quicker to shut down. We are all one of Lek’s crowd on the street desperate for recognition. With no certainty about what we are supposed to be recognised for, or who is supposed to be doing the recognising, we are constantly recalibrating our identities just to feel comfortable. Going underground is not an option we have.

It is an exhausting time in which to live. The film communicates this, at times in a profoundly beautiful way but it is the beauty of Lek himself that you should be taking home with you. 


BFI Interview with Andrew Kotting

Hattie Naylor
First dramatisation of Ivan Mishukov's story, which formed the foundation of this film, was Hattie Naylor's play 'Ivan and the Dogs'. 

Xavier Tchili 
Actor - Lek (hard to find info and this is out of date but has some biographical content).

Lek and the Dogs twitter feed

'Rotten Tomatoes' review list

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

And finally. .

This is the front lawn of our motel in Havelock. There are two US military facilities in this town and just up the road is a newer and snazzier fighter jet also presented as a public artwork. You see a lot of this. In 2009 we stayed in a tiny town motel in Utah that was opposite a recreation ground with a 20 foot missile standing on a plinth. Bit like North Korea.

There's no escaping just how huge a domestic deal the US military is. Expressions of support are evident everywhere. On T-shirts, baseball caps, bumper stickers, billboards, radio and TV ads and in lots of named memorial highways.

Since the advent of Trump's caricature presidency, coverage of the US has become all about him which inevitably ends up negatively caricaturing the whole nation and its people as well. This a shame because the people aren't the president. I like Americans. I love the fact that I get a chorus of good mornings and big smiles when I walk into a diner for breakfast in the morning feeling like shit after a shit night's sleep. That huge shot of positive has rescued me several times on this trip and I really appreciate it. 

It is inevitable that I am comparing how I am now to the person I was on the last road trip in 2009. It has not been a comfortable reflection on time and getting older but a realisation (for both of us) of the impact of events over the past 5 years on our mental health and on our relationship. Just to recap that includes the suicide of two, close family members, a reactive relocation to a tiny village after more than three decades of a life and career in international cities and finally, caring for my mother until her death 3 months ago. That's quite a lot of stuff and there's actually more in the backstories..... but that'll do for now!

Anyway, the upshot is a cycle of mutually reinforcing anxiety that at times, makes us each feel we are constantly under attack from the other. It's exhausting and can turn even the simplest decisions into a minefield. The most crushing part is that being aware of it doesn't actually help that much. Still we have managed to get to the final day of the trip without killing each other and the serendipity of finding a vacant room in Smithfield, Virginia with a balcony and this view has been pretty amazing. Especially sitting here last night watching the lightning show that preceded a tropical southern downpour.

The original plan for this trip was to go North to the lakes and mountains of the Adirondacks in upstate New York.  Despite the occasionally unbearable heat, humidity and mosquitoes,  I am very happy that we had a last minute shift and decided to come South. That laid back, positive and hospitable southern vibe has been very calmimg when the tension has been as high as the humidity. Saturday was particularly good. We ended up in the 'original Washington' - a North Carolina coastal town - on their festival night.  This meant we spent the evening in a waterfront park listening to a great band called the Embers and watching what seemed like the entire town, country line-dancing to pretty much anything the band played. This was a lot of fun and hugely enjoyable to unexpectedly be part of such a local experience.

However, before I get too carried away on the US feelgood factor that I appreciate so much, I have to acknowledge that it can go a little over the top. Not from the generosity and openess of the people but certainly from motel publicity executives. Having to look at this every time I sat on the toilet in the Hampton Inn, knowing there was a fighter jet parked on the front lawn, did make me consider random acts of violence....

Friday, 8 June 2018

Nowhere.. middle of..

It's not really the middle of nowhere but this tiny strip of land off the North Carolina coast has the Atlantic pretty much on both sides. A lot of it is national wildlife reserve and there are coastal forests in the mix as well. Here's a slightly blurry map.

We spent 3 nights in Avon at a classic, old motel that looked a bit shabby on the outside but was clean, comfortable and pretty much right on the beach. Swimming in the Atlantic can be quite challenging. People surf here so the waves can be pretty fierce but it's a really exhilarating way to start the day and the only thing I would ever consider doing before coffee. 

Great walk around Pea Island Wildlife Reserve lake. Not much there ....

... apart from birds, turtles and otters.

We left Avon and headed down the strip then took 2 seperate ferries back onto the mainland. The ferry rides were great. Three hours looking at this ...

... and an occasional pelican.

Since then it's been pretty much this.....


Lots of these...

And the pretty awesome experience of watching the comings and goings of an osprey's nest in my new favourite place which is the Croatan National Forest.

It all sure beats this..

Monday, 4 June 2018

Tappahannock, Suffolk and Dismal Elizabeth

Drove out of Washington to Tappahannock via lunch and a bookshop in Fredericksburg. Then via a vinyl store to Suffolk where we got an unusually good view for a roadside motel.

Up and out to the Great Dismal Swamp for a hike which was supposed to be 4 miles to the huge mid-swamp Drummond Lake and then 4 miles back. But.... we only managed 2.5 miles and had to turn around. The heat and humidity were just too much. Our previous experience of this southern climate was Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas in July 2002. This was much tougher than that even tho North Carolina is further north and we are only just into June so it's a bit crazy. However...... the walk we did manage was pretty amazing.

The air was buzzing with swampy bird and insect sounds and there were basking turtles, jumping frogs, zebra swallowtails and other really big butterflies all around.

So the Great Dismal Swamp was anything but dismal ... unlike that night's motel in Elizabeth City which was totally shit. Still, it's never dull with bikers next door, a posse of drunks stumbling back at around 1.00am and then a massive girl-boy fight kicking off in the car park at  3.30am.  Thank god for earplugs.

Here's a couple of typical US town pics taken near the motel. It wasn't all dismal - the IHOP restaurant breakfast was awesome.

Like road trips we've done before, we're avoiding big highways so you get to see backroads, small towns and interesting garden design.

In the rural areas of North Carolina you see mile upon mile of crop fields framed by swamp-edge forests and isolated farmhouses under vast skies.

You rarely see any people but you see a lot of buzzards!

Saturday, 2 June 2018

On the road again...

We have the rental car. We have the US roadmap. We have almost 3 weeks and are on the road again. This is our first proper holiday since June 2013. We can hardly believe it. I can also hardly believe I'm blogging about it but what the hell. Blogging about the 2 month trip from NYC to San Francisco back in 2009 was one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done.

We kicked off in Washington DC but that involved a bit of work so holiday really started yesterday.  DC was interesting though. Instead of staying in a downtown hotel we had a great airbnb apartment in a district called Bloomingdale. You get such a different impression of a city when you stay in a residential area. A friend raised his eyebrows when we said where we were staying. His impression was that the neighbourhood wasn't exactly salubrious. If that was the case then things have changed. There are signs of gentrification which makes it really interesting because it means that the atmosphere can change massively in a few blocks. But a lot of the houses look like they were always mighty fine with beautiful gardens and porches and balconies.

As always the most interesting street art and street life are in the parts that have longstanding communities and there is a strong sense of things having developed with them rather than forcing the kind of displacement that has happened so much in London. The Shaw-Howard university area is buzzing with confidence and life. Have to say I winced at housing development slogan 'A Life Supreme' tho.

Downtown I spent a day at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The garden is wonderful - even the trees seemed sculptural - and the range of exhibitions as well as some of the permanent collections  were excellent.

I enjoyed Barbara Kruger's, Belief + Doubt room but The Message: New Media Works featuring  film and video by Camille Henrot, C.T. Jasper, Joanna Malinowska, Frances Stark, Hito Steyerl, and Arthur Jafa was brilliant. Diverse, engaging and at times profoundly moving. Can't remember the last time I came out of an art museum so totally buzzing. Mind you... I don't get out much these days.

Next stop the Great Dismal Swamp. Hope it lives up to its name.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Festival 15 - Colden Drystone

Don't forget the performance and film screening of Colden Drystone’s ‘Believing in Time Travel (Moors)’ 2014 at the Forum oSaturday May 12th from 18.30 to 21.15. 
In 2014 during a residency with Cambridge University Colden Drystone undertook a trip back to the landscape of his childhood in West Yorkshire. Over a period of 24 hours he documented the journey from a small cottage on the edges of Oxenhope up onto the moors and eventually to the mythical setting of ‘Wuthering Heights’ – a dilapidated farm house on the very tops of a wild moor where it is said Emily Brontë took inspiration for her famous novel.
Colden spent the night filming and writing under the moonlight and witnessing the rising sun at dawn before heading back to Cambridge to edit the footage and compose a piece that he will be performing this evening alongside the original film.
Profound, funny and at times even absurd ‘Believing in Time Travel (Moors)’ is a heartfelt homage to landscape and childhood and a tribute to the creative force of the imagination that is encouraged and nurtured in the wild places of both.

Interview- Colden Drystone

Can you tell us something about your work in this show and something about how your work has developed over the years.

My work 'Significant Other' is an abstract gold painting that uses gold pigment, greys and whites and the natural light to create a surface that is constantly reimagining itself. In this respect it is about light, space and time. In one way or another all my current work is concerned with these three fundamentals of living but with a specific interest in the role creativity has in helping us experience them better.

What you find most enjoyable and/or difficult about the process of creating art?

The joy comes from the doing. Making something happen is unquestionably a life affirming thing. This can be anything; from covering an entire building in clay to drawing a pencil line 4cm long. The most difficult thing is always in making something that can keep that sense of excitement and originality within it, making it something worth sharing with the world.

What would you like to see the Hastings Arts Forum do in the future?

More live art would be good and a hands on engagement with the studio process for artists working in the area - can the space reflect the liveliness of the artists experience, not just the finished works?

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Festival 15 - Rachel Glittenberg

I’m Not Afraid, I Was Born To Do This
(oil on canvas, 90 x 90cm 2018).

Can you tell us something about your work in this show and something about how your work has developed over the years. 
Using a mix of my imagination, life drawing and photographic references, I borrow elements from history and folklore to explore aspects of the human condition; love, death, sadness, happiness, relationships, and more specifically, how it feels to be a woman in the 21st Century. 

What you find most enjoyable and/or difficult about the process of creating art? 
I find so many enjoyable aspects to painting.  Being in the flow and waiting for the next piece of the jigsaw to be revealed. My paintings are created in stages and I am never quite sure where I am going to be led next. I also love it when I surprise myself with what appears and I can see my work changing.  The challenge of trying something out of my comfort zone, that I wouldn’t normally do. I love the research process and being exposed to new ideas, people, places, things.   The feeling I get when the paint is flowing and it feels like I can’t do a thing wrong. Anything I paint will turn out fine and ideas are abundant.  The difficult part is the opposite of all that. Work doesn’t flow, I get stuck for ideas and can’t seem to get going. It’s at times like that when I will take a break from painting and do some chores, take a walk or look at other artists who’s work I admire, to start filling that creative well back up.

Introspection, oil on canvas
(220 x 140cms, 2018.)

What would you like to see the Hastings Arts Forum do in the future? 
It would be great to see the HAF have more workshops and talks. I have really enjoyed those happening around Festival 15. And possibly partnering up with other visual arts venues, developing an ever widening audience. How about having artists in residence? I think that would be fabulous way of supporting local artists and bring in a new perspective.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

FESTIVAL 15 - Andrzej Jackowski

The Work 

The work of Andrzej Jackowski (born 1947, North Wales) is largely autobiographical, based on his early childhood memories, recollections of a family history in Poland and the feeling of alienation and enclosure that these experiences roused. Using powerful, insistent images from his past he explores ideas of human memory and psyche, both on a personal and more collective level.
Time of the Dream - 7, which features in this show, came out of a Paupers Press commission to produce a book of 52 lithographs - one a week for a year. A sense of this project is in the following quote: 

"..a place of life and death,of disembodiment and sex; a place of things breaking up and being put together again. It is a subconscious land which distils the essence of the self."
Rachel Campbell-Johnston

The Process

Seamus Heaney wrote that for him,writing a poem; "was like dropping a bucket down a well of yourself", most of the time you bring up air, but with patience,trust and hard work you eventually fill the bucket with water. This process (for writing poems or making images) is difficult but when you finally bring up a bucket of water rather then air; there is a feeling that you have come up with something intriguing,haunting; there is some clarity and occasionally great joy.


For more see the two videos below. 

This is an excerpt from Andrzej Jackowski's video commentary for the exhibition Dreams of Here, shown at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery in 2012. It was a collective exhibition in collaboration with Tom Hammick and Julian Bell.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Festival 15 - Tom Hammick

Painting is a messy, seat of your pants and nebulous kind of thing.
Tom Hammick

Violetta and Alfredo's Retreat, 2015, Oil on linen ©Tom Hammick 
Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York 
all rights reserved Bridgeman Images 2018

Can you tell us something about your work in this show and something about how your work has developed over the years.
Waiting for Time was painted fast, in one night. When the paintings are this quick, and they work, they are just the best, and the way they click together makes the hell of painting worthwhile. It's a miracle when this happens. And the advantages of resolving something so lickety spit is a sort of freshness, despite painting wet on wet, that never happens when a painting takes forever over many revisits in the studio.

I like the way the figures in this painting, while marooned away from the banalities of everyday life are so wrapped up in themselves, despite their shared island paradise, that they don't seem they need each other at all. Or perhaps she needs him less that he needs her as she reads her Neruda and he tries ineffectually to gather supper?

My work has slowly become more painterly over the years. I hope my paintings are less prescriptive, where imagery and titles have become more open ended. This way they have more chance of conjuring up individual aspects of what it is like to be human,  and any personal narratives they might touch on are completed by the viewer. 

Fallout, 2014, Oil on canvas ©Tom Hammick 
Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York
all rights reserved Bridgeman Images 2018

What you find most enjoyable and/or difficult about the process of creating art?
This is a big question. How long have you got?
I am free (sort of) to use my imagination and roam around in my paintings and prints. What bliss that can be. It's a sort of visual equivalent for me of writing a poem. When it works. But it never really works, and the lag and gap between what I see in my imagination and what I end up making is cavernous. But when you get to the point where the painting tells you what to do- that is exciting too. You can end up, if you trust it, in a place where the painting is an equivalent of the intended and imagined image which I am trying to make and to resolve and explore. But painting is a messy, seat of your pants and nebulous kind of thing. Nothing much makes sense, and when you think you have grasped it it slips away.  And much of the time you are responding to an intuition and a feeling so primordial, it's too far from the light of the everyday. 

What would you like to see the Hastings Arts Forum do in the future?
Celebrate seriously good painting and drawing and sculpture and film and music. And leave 'issue based' work and 'anthropological art making' to other drier institutions. 

Smoke II, 2014, Oil on canvas, ©Tom Hammick
Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York
all rights reserved Bridgeman Images 2018

More about Tom and his work 

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Festival 15 - Robin Holtom

This show is a game changer for the Forum.
Robin Holtom

After gaining a Diploma in Art & Design at Chelsea School of Art in 1966, Robin Holtom went to The Royal College of Art and gained an MA in Film and Television. His painting teachers included Patrick Caulfield, John Hoyland and Ken Kiff.  Robin then worked for ten years as an Art Therapist in London and was a Council Member of the British Association of Art Therapists. Whilst there, Robin edited their journal called 'Inscape' for two years. In 1980 Robin moved to Wales and concentrated on painting and sculpture while running residential courses in Wales, Italy and Spain. In 1999 he was elected Associate of the Royal Society of British Sculptors. In 2000 he moved to Hastings where he founded the SoCo Arts Group and was a trustee of the Hastings Arts Forum for three years.

Robin is presently a Board Member of Hastings Creative Ltd, a non profit company whose purpose is to transform a convent in St. Leonard's-on-sea into a School for the Arts.

One of the three curators  of the Festival 15 show (with Charlotte Snook and Matthew Burrows), Robin Holtom gives us a quick precis of his involvement with HAF and how the Festival 15 show came together.  

I have been involved with the Arts Forum as a member and trustee for nearly 15 years before which I was chair of SoCo. This show is a game changer for the Forum. Matthew and Charlotte were rigorous in their selection and hanging and it was an eye opener for me how such different artists could be shown together in such a way that they all look their best. The less is more mantra that is often spoken at Forum shows but not so often practised, has been demonstrated with conviction by this show. Also the fact that so many distinguished artists are willing to show here testifies to the regard the organisation is held in. A voluntary organisation that has been going for 15 years without any government arts funding is almost unique and is a model other towns envy. It depends of course on the generosity of volunteers some of whom devote hundreds of hours a year to the project. I think there is an opportunity to build on this show with more carefully curated shows.