Show Hide image

Contemporary Art: Missing in action

Thomas Calvocoressi talks to Patrick Keiller about his elusive protagonist.

Speaking to Patrick Keiller is like spending time with his fictional creation Robinson (Baudelaire meets Defoe with a sexually anarchic dash of Joe Orton). In the artist's film trilogy, the eccentric academic's roamings are narrated to us by "researchers" (Paul Scofield, then Vanessa Redgrave) but the reports of his quests around England are tinged with absurdism. Describing his commission for Tate Britain, Keiller's conversation is full of fascinating tangents, political reference and literary allusion - ranging from the 16th-century Oxfordshire rising to today's Chipping Norton set - and is similarly surrealist: "There's a picture in Robinson in Ruins of an oil pipeline marker, near Didcot Power Station. It's an extremely beautiful pipeline marker and one of the reasons I wanted to film it is because it reminded me very strongly of Gainsborough's painting Mr and Mrs Andrews . . ."

That picture's not in the show because it's up the road in the National Gallery. What Keiller can reveal about his commission is that it is, in essence, a three-dimensional extension of his 2010 film, Robinson in Ruins, a psycho-geographic dissection of the English countryside in the dying days of Labour. It uses art from the Tate's collection (which was his brief) to rework Robinson's journey in the film: "It's styled as the inaugural exhibition of the Robinson Institute, which I first thought about in 1999. It's a place of resort for scholarly and cultural activities - a physical installation, like a piece of sculpture, but one that incorporates many works." The show spans 16th-century to postwar art. "I spent last year looking at the whole of Tate's collection online - I still haven't quite recovered."

So what of the rebellious Robinson, elusive in the last film, having been released from a stretch in jail after loitering around RAF Spadeadam and - we're told by Redgrave - "made his way to the nearest city and looked for somewhere to haunt"; is he still absent in the show? Yes, says Keiller, though he's mentioned. Robinson in Ruins begins by explaining how his lost footage has been discovered in a box in a derelict caravan in the corner of a field and ends with a milestone pointing towards London, or Aberystwyth. "One of the things I hoped people would infer is that perhaps he'd gone back to London," says Keiller, "but also that he might have turned into lichen - or, indeed, the milestone."

At Tate Britain from 27 March until 14 October

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible

Youtube Screengrab
Show Hide image

Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis