Posts Tagged 'edinburgh festival fringe'

The art of the beholder

By accident rather than design several of the shows I saw at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe dealt in one way or another with the way art acquires monetary value and bestows fortunes on some and misfortune on others.  Tom Wainright’s ‘Banksy – This Looks  a Bit Like An Elephant ‘ narrates the impact on a homeless man living in a disused water tank in the Hollywood Hills of having his home transformed into an art object courtesy of a few words spray painted by living legend Bansky.  However whereas the urinal that Marcel Duchamp transformed into one of his first ‘ready-mades’ was uninhabited, Banksy’s act of transubstantiation allegedly (the facts are disputed see here for example resulted in the water tank’s resident, Tachowa Covington, finding himself turfed out of his makeshift home when the lawyers move in to realise the art work’s instantly acquired value.

‘Banksy…’ deals with the (we must assume) inadvertent destruction of a man’s home due to the midas touch of an artist who takes delight in poking fun at the mechanics of the art market but thereby further serves, intentionally or otherwise, to increase his own market value.  Meanwhile Long Live the Little Knife at the Traverse told the story of two con artists who are forced by circumstance (or so it seems) to turn their skill at dissembling to the world of forged art, relishing the opportunity to seemingly get away with the equivalent of insider dealing and systematic price manipulation without committing a crime.  A witty commentary on the concentric circles of greed that encompass the upright denizens of the art world, oligarchs and petty criminals alike, Long live… is a deft reminder that in the Peter Pan world of contemporary art, just as in global finance, the belief that something is valuable means that it is valuable, but only as long as there is someone who continues to believe enough to keep the price balloon inflated.

David Harrower’s Ciara, also at the Traverse, turns the art/money relationship on its head as the narrator, brilliantly played by Blythe Duff, unfolds her back story, one that has brought her into the world of dealing art to the legitimate, and not so legitimate, newly wealthy. She shows people who know they want art but don’t know what to buy, what they should want and the price tag provides the assurance that it truly is art.

All three shows deploy, to a lesser or greater extent, the familiar notion (e.g. as developed by the great french anthro/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) that the ascription of value to artworks is a social practice that can’t be derived from either the content or the uniqueness of the art work itself.  Why does the forgery that no-one but the most diligent curator can spot suddenly lose its value to the person who bought it?  While it may retain its pleasingness as a work of art it has lost its exchange value, its confirmed value to others.   Long live… explicitly references this 9less than straightforward question, sometimes called the Van Meegeren problem. The irony, as Banksy… tells it, of Tachowa Covington losing the home which, until the artist spray painted it, had only use value to him and practically zero value to anyone else, is that in an instant it acquired tremendous monetary value simply because of who spray painted it.  That the imaginary values of traded art can, like the complex derivatives whose unraveling forced tens of thousands out of their homes, impact on the all too real lives of people without the tools to magic up value from a spray can is a very modern parable.

Edinburgh Festival theatre celebrates the power of cinema

By sheer coincidence both my first and last Edinburgh festival shows this year yoked the power of the moving image to live theatre.  From an impressive display of physical dance-theatre in Leoa one man show on the Fringe, to the exuberant spectacle of Les Naufrages du Fol Espoir in the converted Lowland Hall of the Royal Highland Centre at Ingilston, the impact of cinema on the 20th century was clearly in evidence.  Leo took a very simple premise – projection of a 90 degree rotated image of the performer in a bare set, whose walls are shaded different colours -and exploited it to the fullest extent imaginable.  Every sight gag possible with gravity running side to side rather than up and down was employed – recalling the early days of cinema when exactly such ‘trick’ photography played an important part in the medium’s early forms entertained admiring theatre and sideshow audiences.  But the climax of the show introduced a second element of cinema-magic with the performer drawing chalk ‘furniture’ and props on the bare walls which then, through superimposed animations, came to life, the goldfish swimming off as the room ‘filled’ with water and Leo ‘swam’ through the waves.  A superbly physical piece of theatre which danced with the magic of 19th century cinema by the simple device of a 21st century high-definition video camera.

Théâtre du Soleil’s magnificent Les Naufrages du Fol Espoir also delved into cinema history, but on a much grander scale with nearly forty performers in an epic (four hour) tale of the pre-Great War hopes of socialist transformation.  It re-enacts the making of a filmic tribute to socialist values by a troop of cinema workers who have left the Pathe studios to go it alone and wound up in the attic of a restaurant  thanks to its starry-eyed owner.  The show synthesises the magic of theatre’s mechanical operations – swift scene changes, lighting, smoke and sound effects etc. – with the illusionist power of the early cinema to recreate exotic worlds with a dash of painted background and a seagull on a stick.  It’s a show which tackles the difficulty of telling complex stories and history through the medium of entertainment, whether on stage or screen, and the difficulty of realizing visionary states of human society amidst the seemingly irrepressible lust for land, power and domination that besets humankind.

In very different ways both shows remind us of the theatrical origins of cinema and the shared techniques and tropes that make both capable of transforming a darkened space into a window on another world and a crucible for considering other ideas.

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