Hambling, Wollstonecraft & statues – might it be humour?

Firstly, the thoughts I share here are merely that. I have not seen Hambling’s work that is ‘for’ Wollstonecraft, nor have I seen the Aldeburgh work. I only know them from images. I would not usually comment on works I have not actually seen ‘in the flesh’ so to speak, but on this occasion I am responding to how this work has been (mis?)represented in the press.

Most of the press images we see are only of the nude figure, which is showing it out of context. For this writing it is important you see a picture of the whole thing. There is a full image of the work here on Artnet. In the review of the work, by Sarah Cascone (November 10, 2020), a quote from Twitter is shared, posted by Imogen Hermes Gowar “What I hate is the sexy toned female on top. Nameless, nude, and conventionally attractive is the only way women have ever been acceptable in public sculpture”.

Am not sure I agree with Hermes Gowar’s description of the woman depicted in the sculpture (but the name Hermes did make me smile a little in relation to considering classical sculptures). The first thing I noticed in the images of the the figure is her oddly extended neck, in a conical shape, a bit like a Barbie doll. And the narrow hips, androgenous, unlike the voluptuous hips of any Venus. The thought of Venus took me back to Hambling’s scallop shell, designed to celebrate Benjamin Britten on Aldeburgh sands. One can’t see a scallop shell without thinking of a sexy Venus. One cannot see a documentary about Maggie Hambling without thinking of an androgenous lesbian with a wicked and wry sense of humour (well I can’t). Nor can one see a plinth with a statue without thinking of men.

Hold that thought.

While I’m on perspective, let’s return to the long neck and the anamorphic body – the pert breasts (which from below maybe look more like swollen pecs?) and the narrow hips. When you see the photo of the sculpture in its entirety, you see that the figure is tiny and stands at the very tip of a tall column of what looks like solidified liquid. A snapshot of a wave, or an ejaculation of fluid? This is where I began to wonder whether this is Hambling’s humour rising up (forgive the puns!).

Because on seeing a plinth with a plaque, and an inscription which in most works would describe the heroics of the elevated male statue, I immediately questioned what she was up to. Hambling, now in her 70’s, will be aware of the expanded field theory. In 1979 Rosalind Krauss defined sculpture in the expanded field.

Krauss claims that the traditional logic of sculpture transformed into something different. “Instead of making something pretty “logical” or narrative-based, sculptors are able to express their own personality and convey their voice in their work.”

The premise is that sculpture, from then on, did not need to follow conventions of plinths, columns and elevations, but could be an expression of their own personality. Artists were literally looking at the way sculpture relates to the ground, to the human, as opposed to elevation. I’d like to argue that the Wollstonecraft artwork does exactly that. It is ‘for’ Wollstonecraft but ‘about’ Hambling. It pokes fun at the traditional male statues. It offers a different perspective. And the viewer may not get the joke.

Photo with permission from @DrHannahDawson

Imagine going to visit it (I am trying to do so). You won’t be looking the little woman right in the eye, but be craning your own neck to see her, high above you. From that distance, though not as high as Nelson is in Trafalgar Square) what you see with your eyes will not be the same as what the close up camera shots give you. Surely it will be much more androgenous from  down below?

And that big whooshing wave – is that not mimicry of the columns, the perpendicular phallus’s usually used to elevate the famous men? But it is not hard and rigid, it is soft and flowing.

Apparently Hambling describes this figure as being ‘everywoman’ – a figure women aspire to be. Personally, I don’t, and it’s possible others don’t either. But Hambling is the artist and has her own perspective on that.

And, I suspect, has the last laugh too.

post-postcomment:

I have not made a value judgement on the artwork as I have not seen it myself. I have made that clear. I’m a little alarmed at how many people do make value judgements on ANY creative output without seeing them/reading them/watching them. If we only rely on the critic’s viewpoint, without experiencing something ourselves, we are doing a disservice to the arts, all arts.

1st encounter with live-relay theatre, reflection & comparison of 3 forms of audience experience of The Tempest

My first encounter with live-relay theatre. A personal reflection and comparison of three forms of audience experience when watching a play, in this case The Tempest by Shakespeare, depending on where we view it and the delivery method used.

In recent years, new technology has allowed those living a long way from theatres to experience live performances in real-time, which is a wonderful development. Small venues all over the world now present live-relay theatre into cinemas, making it accessible to bigger audiences than ever before. But how does it compare with other experiences?

Live-relay theatre in a cinema is neither stage-play or film. It resides somewhere in between those things, as I recently found out. Which left me feeling a little discombobulated by my first experience. The acting and content of the production is not under discussion here, but the visitor experience is. This text explores how attending a play is affected by the context in which we view it.

The first production I saw being live-relay screened was The Tempest, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I have been to see The Tempest being performed three times in my life – the first when I was about fifteen, with my school. That was at the Nottingham Playhouse and was incredibly engaging and entertaining. It was a traditional production by a touring group. A very memorable moment was when there was a power cut, creating an excitement amongst a full house of schoolchildren. When the lights went out, both on stage and in the house, we were in complete darkness and told to stay in our chairs. To our delight, the young actor playing Ariel entered the stage, using two torches to highlight his presence. He hung from the tree, he flitted across the stage. It was Jonathan Pryce and was a magical thing to behold, very fitting for the flighty character portrayed. Being in the audience was a group experience, shared and discussed at great length after the show with the actors, and later, on the coach going back to school.

The second was only two years ago, when another travelling troupe performed in a woodland near Bristol, outdoors, using an art installation by Luke Jerram, Withdrawn, as the stage set. Withdrawn comprised of five fishing boats seemingly abandoned amongst the trees, on dry land. The play was a promenade performance, with the audience being drawn through the set by the performers. We were part of the action, not passive onlookers. No elevated stage, unless the script required the actors to clamber onto the boats or climb trees. We were literally on a level with the characters. It was a summer evening and the place was green and lush, the smells of verdant leaves and rich mulch heightening the sense of being outdoors, stepping over brambles, ducking branches.

The most recent was merely two weeks ago and was a live-relay theatre production of The Tempest. It wasn’t screened in a huge multiplex cinema, but in a rural film venue in the Forest of Dean. What a fantastic thing to go and see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform live for a sixth of the ticket price for the stage show, and no long-distance travelling. It was my first experience of a live-relay show and I had no expectation of what it might be like or how it might differ from the other two visitor experiences. All I can say is that it was very peculiar and I’m not sure I enjoyed it. Here’s why.

There are social protocols and dress codes for going to the cinema, as there are for going to the theatre. As children when our father took us to the theatre it was a very special treat. We had to get dressed up and behave, to respect the privilege that one automatically associates with going to the theatre.  Men wearing ties, women wearing dresses. That behaviour has maybe softened a little now, but for many, it is still part of the tradition of being a theatre attender. Gin and tonics and posh chocolates for the adults, with ice-creams for the children, was standard fare, and still is. It’s a grand night out.

Going to the cinema has always been a very different thing. You can wear what you want, no-one will see you and no-one is watching, or evaluating you, in the dark. There’s no posing at the bar, no social niceties to be exchanged. In the dark you can put your feet up on the seats, hold hands, have a snog, guzzle popcorn and sip huge quantities of coca cola through an iceberg of crushed ice in a cardboard bucket.

I mentioned the smells of the woodland during the promenade performance and associate the smell of the theatre with lady’s perfume and men’s aftershave. The first thing I noticed on entering the cinema to see the live-relay was the sweet stench of popcorn. The too-warm air smelled thick with it, making me feel quite nauseous. The seats were half empty, the majority of those occupied well above the half-way-up line, to get a good view. I felt very agitated by the smell and the odd atmosphere. The live relay began with an interview between a presenter and a representative of the company that had created the special stage effects.  Some of the audience continued to chatter, as if the adverts were on for a film. They were shushed by others who were trying to listen. That would have been sacrilege in the theatre.

Gazing at the screen I tried to compute what it was I was watching. The interviews were filmed very close-up, resulting in huge heads on the screen, filling the frame sometimes. The sense of us all being human size was removed, and with it the empathy one has with live actors. That frisson between knowing that we are all alive and present, and at risk of stumbling, or worse, forgetting what to say.

When the play began the stage set looked amazing. The camera shots were managed by the camera operators, disallowing my own eye to travel around the set as it so wanted to do. I became increasingly aware that my choices of viewing were trapped, which is not something I feel when watching a film. On this occasion, the stage provided a fixed frame and the camera moved in and out and around it. We didn’t get to see the theatre interior, or the audiences there. It would have been fun to wave to them like one does in a live-relay conference – to engage in some way. Instead this audience were left in their seats, deprived of the subtle sounds that feet on a stage make, or the smell of the perfume and chocolates. What I am describing is sensory deprivation.

There lies the rub. There was a collision between the live performance and the film not only in the production values, but also in the protocols of cinema and theatre. The promenade performance was fitting for Shakespeare, as many of his plays were designed to be in the round. A film can create a space for the viewer by taking the eye around from place to place. The live relay was almost like a picture hanging on a wall. An aperture into a wider experience that wasn’t on offer. Flat. Or, at its best, two dimensional.

Last summer I experienced virtual reality headsets on several occasions. I think watching The Tempest wearing them would be amazing. I want to control how I look at something, to allow my eyes to dart sideways when I hear footsteps enter the stage, to look up as Ariel swings down from a tree, the scuffing of a shoe on a board. We experience all art through our bodies, our physical presence is part of the overall performance. Immersion in the magic is all and is what keeps us sitting on the edge of our seat in awe.

b6575-tempest_review_hub_1440x1368_v3-tmb-wo-720Mark Quartley as Ariel, RSC website

I would absolutely recommend that people go and see this live if they can – it is avbsolutely wonderful!