Birmingham Royal Ballet: Beauty and the Beast

If you follow Birmingham Hippodrome on Twitter, you may have seen some beastly antics around town this week. And that is, of course, because the Birmingham Royal Ballet are performing Beauty and the Beast.

Bull and the Beast... Courtesy of @brumhippodrome

Bull and the Beast… Courtesy of @brumhippodrome

If you head to this ballet expecting the happy, funny, charming Disney version that many of us have learnt to recognise, you will find this ballet surprisingly dark. Indeed, like most ballet adaptations of fairytales, Beauty and the Beast is intense the whole way through, apart from a few light-hearted scenes offering some comic relief.

With brilliant costumes and clever, effective set design, this ballet is definitely worth seeing. From large group dances, to duets, to solos, the choreography is stunning, gripping and is excellently executed by the large cast.

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The choreography and costumes work brilliantly together, as the dancers perform animal-like movements, echoing their wild clothing. A particular standout moment is during the first act when a group of birds take Belle to the Beast’s castle. They move in a constantly rotating triangle formation, with lighting illuminating just the dancers’ faces and hands, carrying Belle towards the Beast. Dark and beautiful, this moment is exceptional.

In fact the lighting throughout the production really gives it a magical edge, highlighting and complementing the excellent performers.

If there are any parents out there worrying if this ballet lacks the cheer needed for your children, don’t worry (*spoiler alert*): we witness a stunning, happy, Disney-like ending!

Beauty and the Beast is only on for one more day. Catch it while you can!

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Lee Bul at Ikon

Entering this first UK solo exhibition by Korean artist, Lee Bul, is (for want of a more grown-up word), magical. Confronted by a new commission, After Bruno Taut (Devotion to Drift) (2013), a piece suspended from the ceiling, comprised of chains and glass beads, the visitor is launched into this exhibition with a feast for the eyes. The exhibition continues with more beauty, lights, mirrors and trickery, making this a must-see show at the Ikon.

At the centre of 'Via Negativa' (2012)

At the centre of ‘Via Negativa’ (2012)

Playful and child-like, beautiful and crazy, experimental and chilling, this exhibition is bursting at the seams with creativity, fun and imagination. The curatorial decision to not display information about the pieces plays to the strengths of this show, allowing the visitor the freedom to engage his/her imagination with Bul’s works. And what a treat that is with such a collection of intriguing and immersive installations and sketches.

Inside Lee Bul's 'Bunker (M. Bakhtin)' (2007/2012)

Inside Lee Bul’s ‘Bunker (M. Bakhtin)’ (2007/2012)

Lee Bul’s dystopian installations, sculptures and sketches fill the first and second floor galleries of Ikon, taking the visitor to what almost seems like another world. Mirrored corridors distort reality, while eerie sounds playing through headphones in Bunker (M. Bakhtin) confuse the senses.

Optical-illusions galore, this exhibition is interactive and fun, while being thought-provoking and at times a little scary. The maze of mirrors, Via Negativa, confuses the visitor’s sense of space as you cautiously walk through it, narrowly missing walking into reflections of yourself at every turn.

At the centre of 'Via Negativa' (2012)

At the centre of ‘Via Negativa’ (2012)

What makes this exhibition really special is that the visitor can see Bul’s creative processes. Sculptures are displayed alongside their moquettes and sketches, and material exploration is expertly shown in a series of wolf sculptures, all identical in shape and size, but made from a huge variety of materials. It is exciting and refreshing to be invited into the creative process behind this collection.

'Untitled ("Infinity wall")' (2008)

‘Untitled (“Infinity wall”)’ (2008)

Allow plenty of time to see this exhibition. It is full to the brim of exciting works, with a section of the second floor gallery reminiscent of the crowded walls at the RA Summer Exhibitions. The installations and sculptures will set your imaginations rolling, taking you back to younger years and your eyes and mind will be tricked over and over again.

Lee Bul’s work is shown at Ikon until 9th November 2014.

Symmetry in Sculpture: Recent Work by Zarah Hussain

Simple yet complicated, sculptural yet 2D-looking, clean yet vibrant. This is an exhibition of opposites.

This beautifully spaced room of work by Zarah Hussain is stunning. With simple shapes and patterns that look complicated, and 3D sculptures that when stood head-on look flat, this body of work is a treat (or trick) for the eye.

'SuperSymmetry' Image from zarahhussain.co.uk

‘SuperSymmetry’ Image from zarahhussain.co.uk

Like the past craftsmen of the Islamic World, Hussain employs traditional yet complex mathematical principles to build beautiful, repeating pattern from individual symmetrical shapes.

With the gallery full of shapes based on hexagons and equilateral triangles, one would think this exhibition would be rather repetitive. However Hussain manages to give each shape, each colour its own character and identity. Perhaps this is because each sculpture is created and painted by hand. Hussain describes this exhibition as a ‘marriage between painting and sculpture’ and this is an experiment for her in moving her expertise in painting on into 3D sculpture.

And this is an element of the sculptures that is noticeable, although not initially tangible. Indeed, while Hussain has managed to achieve clean lines and symmetry, the pieces just stop short of being clinical, maintaining a sense creativity and expression that cannot immediately be grasped.

Hussain talks beautifully about the exhibition in this clip:

My favourite thing about this body of work is that these are not static sculptures. They interact with light and shadow such that as you move, they move with you. This exhibition is understatedly active and playful, interacting with the viewer as you stroll through it.

There are also two large paintings amongst the sculptures that draw on geometric ideas. In fact friends that I went to the exhibition with said that the canvases reminded them of drawing using spiral kits when they were children. That is the beautiful opposition that these works hold: vibrant and energetic, yet structured, systematic and mathematical.

This beautiful exhibition of contemporary sculpture has been around at BMAG for quite a while, but it is only showing for a few more weeks! Make sure you grab a visit before it closes!

True to Life? New Photography from the Middle East

From Morocco to Afghanistan, photography has become an increasingly important medium in today’s Middle East. It allows artists from this vast and diverse region to project an accessible, engaging and often deeply personal voice.

This exhibition is one of the most interesting collections I have seen for a while. Not only does it present beautiful and sometimes difficult images, it also asks the viewer to question the integrity of the very images they are seeing: ‘Do these photographs reflect real life, or are they merely versions of reality created by the photographers?’

With the Middle East frequently discussed and represented in the media, this question posed in True to Life? is a welcome one. The viewer enters the exhibition reminded that photography does not present the facts. We are immediately invited to step into this space with a critical eye, leaving our prejudices and indeed our faith in a camera lens at the door.

Spread across two galleries in BMAG, the first room of this free exhibition is haunting. A series of six portraits from Shadi Ghadirian’s series Qajar span one of the four walls. These images, staged and photographed like traditional Iranian portraits include women with modern objects that are forbidden in Iran. The mixture between old and new, forbidden and expected is particularly striking.

'Qajar #1' Image from shadighadirian.com

Shadi Ghadirian: ‘Qajar #1’ Image from shadighadirian.com

In the next room, Hassan Hajjij’s two pieces are displayed side-by-side. Saida in Green, the face of the exhibition sits alongside Jama Fna Angels. Both of these works depict Moroccan women wearing versions of traditional dress that are covered in symbols of western consumerism. The frame of Jama Fna Angels is decorated with aluminium cans, aerosol cans and glass bottles with famous, western branding on them. The repetitive nature of this piece gives a nod to pop art, creating an interesting, typically Moroccan, yet Warhol-like image.

Hassan Hajjij: 'Saida in Green' Image from bmag.org.uk

Hassan Hajjij: ‘Saida in Green’ Image from bmag.org.uk

The standout works for me were the poignant images from Amirali Ghasemi’s 2006 series, Party. In these photographs of young people enjoying a house party, any visible flesh is blocked in white, while any hair is blocked in black, creating cartoon-like, featureless young adults. These party-goers are having their anonymity and safety preserved but are consequently covering up their identity and even their race.

Before reading in the supporting information that this was a work based on the underground youth culture of Tehran, images of the secret parties in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (graphic novel and 2007 French animation film) came to mind. Perhaps Ghasemi was aware of Satrapi’s work. For me, the association deepened and enriched my understanding of the photographs and added an extra element of youth rebellion to the images.

Such was my fascination with True to Life? that I made notes on almost every work featured. However, I must leave some space for surprise for any future visitors. This exhibition has been brilliantly crafted and presented and it is certainly one to leave you thinking. Go to it with an open mind, leave your previous convictions at the door and question everything you see. You will not be disappointed.

 

True to Life? is in galleries 12 & 13 of the Birmingham Museum until 2nd November 2014. Entry is free.

Disobedient Objects at the V&A

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‘Many of the rights and freedoms we enjoy today were won by disobedience’

So says one of the information texts as you walk into this small, packed, free exhibition.

As a person frequently moved by issues of social justice, I was fired up, excited and ready to get angry about issues of the world when I went into this exhibition. But sadly, Disobedient Objects failed to bring out the activist side of me that I had expected it might.

From 26th July 2014 – 1st February 2015, The Porter Gallery of the V&A will be jam-packed with a vast and varied assortment of objects that have been used for social change. From placards to blockades, paintings to mobile apps, this exhibition is bursting at the seams with objects that have been used to make a stand from the late 1970s to present day.

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While the objects in the exhibition present a refreshing splurge of passion, particularly from young people, its extensiveness is probably its biggest downfall. Packing so many different protests, causes and debates in object form into one small (and very hot when I visited) room makes for a tiring viewing.

Perhaps it was the neutrality of the gallery that prevented this exhibition from stirring excitement from the visitor. In a room full of protests, you would imagine that after a few hours viewing, reading and experiencing the passion of others, you might feel some passion brewing inside.

But with such a vast array of causes, and a lack of sufficient contextual information in which to place them, the exhibition sadly failed to stir many emotions or feelings of alliance at all.

One friend that I went to the exhibition with succinctly said afterwards: ‘I’ve just come out of an exhibition about activism and I just feel really drowsy.’

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However the exhibition did note at the beginning that it was not a complete study into the world of political art, and there were a lot of interesting objects to look at.

Perhaps it is just a fact that these objects, removed from their context and taken away from the passionate mass of people championing their cause, cannot stir the same emotions and bring about the policy-changing mindset when displayed in the plain, white, neutral space of the gallery.

What do you think? Have you been to see Disobedient Objects? Did you have a different experience?

The Library of Birmingham

The Library of Birmingham

The Library of Birmingham

It’s not often that you walk through the centre of Birmingham and overhear families and friends greeting each other asking: ‘Are you going to the library?’ In fact I am sure that is not a phrase often heard anywhere in modern Britain. Perhaps the new £189m, nine-story Library of Birmingham will change this.

Sixteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai gave an inspirational talk at the opening of the library on Tuesday 3rd September, urging the public to remember and speak out for the 57 million children around the world that do not have an education. Her speech was followed by a performance by dhol drummers and a big queue to enter the building.

Looking down on the children's area

Looking down on part of the children’s area

Once inside, the emphasis on learning is evident. With a vast children’s section including a soft-play-type area for children to read comfortably, the library provides a fun and relaxed space to engage with books, far from old notions of a library being a silent, somewhat stagnant place.

'A Midsummer Night's Dream', Su Blackwell

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Su Blackwell

What makes the venue stand out for me is that it is more like an arts centre than a library. Interspersed with gardens, cafés, an art gallery, music practice rooms, an amphitheatre, lecture rooms, artworks, a BFI Mediatheque and so much more, the space looks set to cater to a whole range of people and tastes.

The Rotunda

The Rotunda

‘Amazing’ was a word that echoed throughout the building: never before have I seen or felt such excitement for a library. The beautifully designed rotunda gives the interior a prestigious feel and on the opening day, it was lined with volunteer brass players who presented Together We Breathe’, a piece by Super Critical Mass.

A view down to the amphitheatre from one of the terraces

A view down to the amphitheatre from one of the terraces

What I realised as I was walking around the beautiful building is that people are not just excited about a new library. We are excited about what this structure symbolises. It shows investment in Birmingham, despite the financial crisis. It shows that the public are cared and provided for by their city and that Birmingham is in fact a place that is growing and alive. Indeed as Malala stated in her speech, a city without a library is like a graveyard.

Library interior

Library interior

My only hope is that the library continues to excite and amaze and that it truly becomes a place where a diverse community can learn and enjoy the arts together.

‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’ at the British Library

Inside the British Library

Inside the British Library

Sincere or deceptive, shocking or amusing.

The British Library’s extensive and thorough exhibition, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion focuses on different definitions of propaganda and seeks to distance the viewer from the often negative connotations associated with the word.

'This poster, titled 'Freedom American-Style' subverts the traditional symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, by B. Prorokov.' (Photograph of exhibition postcard)

‘This poster, titled ‘Freedom American-Style’ subverts the traditional symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, by B. Prorokov.’ (Photograph of exhibition postcard)

It starts with early forms of propaganda, explaining the way in which the Romans used pictures on coins to reach the illiterate public. The exhibition explains how authorities have continued to manipulate the arts, using currency, monuments, national anthems, comic books and even board games to reach the masses.

A hugely comprehensive and information-heavy exhibition, I would advise allowing a good few hours at the British Library if you want to see everything in detail!

South African board game. Picture of postcard

South African board game. (Photograph of exhibition postcard)

Films

The exhibition offers thorough contextual information that is vital to understanding propaganda which is often carefully tailored to best suit specific cultures, societies and eras. While there is a lot to read, present-day academics and media people have also been filmed talking about various aspects of propaganda. Clips of these films are shown throughout the exhibition.

I also particularly enjoyed some short black and white films from the World Wars that were almost like black comedy in their satire of enemy nations. One film ridiculing Hitler used video footage of Nazi marches and salutes. The footage was cut up, sped up, slowed down, mashed together and put to comical music in an attempt to undermine the enemy.

Wartime

Another highlight was an audio clip from a 1941 radio show in which two women discuss saving money at Christmas by serving mutton instead of turkey. The comical episode follows their discussion as they discuss ways of eating mutton as turkey and decide to name it ‘murkey’.

Health

Health propaganda poster (Photo of exhibition postcard)

Health propaganda poster (Photo of exhibition postcard)

The exhibition also showed the ways in which propaganda is used by the state for other issues such as health. A series of screens displayed the BFI collection of public health films. Some used shock tactics, while others were funny. I wonder which method is found to be most effective.

Today

The last section of the exhibition asks the visitor to reflect on who the propagandists are today: the state or the media? The last exhibit is an entire wall taken up with the projections of a live twitter debate on #BLPROPAGANDA

Beautifully ironic poster for 'Propaganda: Power and Persuasion'

Beautifully ironic poster for ‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’

This blog post has only vaguely touched on the absolutely huge content of ‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’. It is a fascinating exhibition for anyone, particularly in the way it encourages deeper thoughts about what is pulling and pushing us today.

‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’ is only on for a few more weeks until 17th September. Catch it while you can!