The Friday arts diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Design

Valentino: Master of Couture, Somerset House, London WC2, 29 November 2012 – 3 March 2013

Recently described by Decca Aitkenhead as looking like "a mafia boss who has been confined under a sunbed for the past 20 years, then dressed as an Edwardian dandy", Valentino is arguably most iconic fashion designer of the last century. Somerset House is currently showing 130 of his most delightfully impractical creations in a retrospective exhibition. If you’re able to screen out the sycophantic fawning over "the life of the master" which constitutes the first part of the show, it’s worth persevering for the chance to admire close-up the hand-stitched masterpiece that is Princess Marie Chantal of Greece’s wedding dress. This Saturday there is also a screening of the outstanding Storyville documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor– indispensible for anyone seeking to properly appreciate the craftsmanship of the clothes and the eccentricity of their designer. Best of all, this show offers all the guilty pleasure you get from flicking through the latest issue of Vogue, with the smug satisfaction that what you’re looking at is culturally credible. Hey, it’s in an art gallery, after all.

Music

Sharon Van Etten,  Shepherds Bush Empire, London W12, 3 December

Yes, we're just as sick of hearing about trendy new "Brooklyn-based singer-songwriters" as you are, but Sharon Von Etten, though she resides in the aforementioned New York borough, is a cut above your average hipster. Her 2012 album Tramp has slowly but steadily been gaining international acclaim, and she has developed a near-fanatical following for her hauntingly mournful music. This show at the Shepherds Bush Empire is the only chance to catch her in the UK this year, so grab tickets while you still can.

Film

Nordic Film Festival, various locations, London, until 5 December

Nordic television has swept these shores and it seems film-makers want a slice of their success with the first Nordic film festival in the UK. A range of independent films from Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden will be shown. Tonight’s opening film is Love is all you need at the Ciné Lumière. The Danish feature film is a romantic comedy and was part of the official festival selections at the Venice Film Festival 2012 and Toronto International Film Festival 2012

Theatre

A Clockwork Orange, Soho Theatre, London W!, until 5 January 2013

This all-male adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s controversial dystopian novel has been widely praised. Alexandra Spencer-Jones’s testosterone-filled production has Martin McCreadie take on the role of Alex, the charismatic yet terrifying young man hellbent on enjoying some "ultraviolence" with his friends.

Set in Manchester the play seems apt following the riots, according to the Independent review, and the fury and anger unleashed by the characters is not too dissimilar from the scenes we saw in August 2011, only violence in this ‘horrorshow’ is directed at citizens of the same society.

Art

Antony Gormley, White Cube, Bermondsey,London SE1, 28 November - 10 February 2013

Antony Gormley claims that his latest exhibition has been three decades in the conception. The artist who brought us the Angel of the North has never lacked ambition, so we shouldn't be be surprised to discover that what he has created this time is a cross between an art work and a climbing frame.

Gormley has filled Britain’s biggest commercial space – the White Cube Bermondsey - with an overwhelming maze-like sculpture, created from more than 100 tonnes of steel welded together. Viewers are invited to walk, climb, crawl through it -  “whatever they want really,” the artist saqys airily. 

Valentino with model Natalia Vodianova (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
John MacDougall/Getty
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Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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