Friday, April 26, 2013

Tino Sehgal at IMMA

Boiled Newspapers at IMMA
On my way to the John Doherty (Taylor Galleries) and Patrick O'Reilly (Oliver Sears Gallery) openings yesterday I dropped into IMMA to check out what was happening.  On the ground floor there was some mild bemusement provided by Kirsten Pieroth who came up with notion of boiling newspapers (The New York Times on various dates) and bottling the resulting liquid.  Why bother I thought.  I suppose it's an improvement on the canned shit that Italian artist did.

I knew Tino Sehgal's show was somewhere but the signage in IMMA wasn't revealing much.  Having exhausted the dubious delights of the ground floor I followed a sign for Further Exhibitions pointing upstairs.  I toiled up to the 3rd floor where an attractive blonde woman with an American accent pointed me in the right direction and added a caution about using cameras or recorders.  There were sounds of a discussion coming from a door to my left so I walked in to a bright airy room with seven people spread around the perimeter in a variety of poses. A couple were standing, a couple sitting, and one kind of lying.  As they talked the non-talkers would occasionally essay vaguely balletic poses  with their hands, or take up new positions in an elaborately stylised manner.  One of the seven I determined after a short while was a fellow punter.  His discomfited look said it all.  A few moments after I arrived the whole troupe rose up, made some kind of group exhalation and chorused "welcome", they then changed positions and began a discussion on a new topic.  The topics included the role of Zen Bhuddism in the modern world, the predjudice against physical labour, and the decline in employment brought about by automation.  Each of those involved (3 men and 3 women) seemed fluent and at ease with whatever subject arose.  Marx was quoted and a wide range of literary and cultural references were thrown in.  All of the troupe were of mature years, the youngest perhaps 35 and the oldest around 55.  They looked like comfortable minor academics except for one girl who could have been an art gallery assistant and was the least vocal.  The accents were mixed, some Irish some American.

There was little engagement with the small audience although at one stage one of the troupe admired a pair of blue shoes worn by one of our number. I stayed for about 30 minutes but didn't find an opportunity to engage mainly because I hadn't a strong opinion on any of the subjects.  Speaking afterwards to the American woman on the door I gathered that they welcome involvement and will deviate from their script when the occasion presents itself.  She told me that Sehgal likes to keep things low key - hence the absence of signage.  He relies on word of mouth and social media to get people in and doesn't relish crowds.  He absents himself as well. I found the whole experience engaging in a weird way.  The topics were interesting and the intimacy of the encounter lent them an immediacy that drew you in.  Not a bad way to spend an afternoon..

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Richard II at the Peacock - Rehearsals

Mowbray and Bolingbroke Duel

I fetched up at the rehearsals for the Ouroboros production of Richard II (starts in the Peacock on 23rd April) a couple of weeks ago.  As a failed old thespian I was looking forward to  enjoying vicariously the atmosphere at rehearsals as the opening looms.  The tightening noose, the tension and the delicious anticipation.  The company were using a hall across the road from the Peacock - a good big bright space with a curious curved ceiling - well heated.  I arrived at an auspicious time as they were just beginning Act IV Scene 1, where the "plume plucked" Richard is brought before Bolingbroke. The latter haughty and entitled, the former rueful at his downfall.

It was my first view of the cast and there were a few familiar faces.  Grizzled veteran Des Nealon certainly, Jonathan White and Frank McCusker, and a slimmer Denis Conway.  Patrick Moy had been in the Ouroboros production of Amadeus but mostly performs in England these days so he was new to me.  A young and good-looking Richard then - one for the girls (and of of course the boys).

When I arrived Moy was sitting alone in a quiet corner of the room - either acting out Richard's incarceration or, more likely, getting himself into the right place for his entry.  As the scene progressed it became clear that we are not getting a 16th century version of the play.  I suppose the gun tucked special branch style into the back of Michael Powers' (Northumberland) trousers should have been an early clue.  Power struggles and political intrigue are universal themes and can be set in any period.  These days crowns sit particularly uneasily as the likes of Ghadaffi and Mubarak would attest.

The choreography is still fluid and so there were discussions about whether Richard should be in chains or not, where various barons should stand and the like.  The director Michael Caven seems less a tyrant than an amiable consensus builder in this regard as he listened patiently to various suggestions and even adopted some. Many of the cast are playing multiple parts so I had to get a script to follow the action.  The lines are pretty well learned off at this stage so there was only the occasional involvement of the prompter/stage manager.  Frank McCusker has real star presence, even in this low-key environment. I suppose you must have a strong and charismatic actor for the key role of Bolingbroke.  You can't have the king deposed by a nonentity.

After the cast ran through Act IV Scene 1 a few times there was a brief break before they brought in a fight choreographer to orchestrate the duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray.  For those like me who wonder how more people don't get injured during stage fights, this is how.  They carefully plan every move.  Considering Jonathan White (Mowbray) was wielding an axe and McCusker (Bolingbroke) a knife (seemed unfair that), they'd want to get it right.  Watching them practice their moves it struck me how physically demanding a lot of acting is.  I was exhausted at the end of it.

There was a surprising lack of conflict or acrimony.  Not one squabble, not one hissy fit. The cast and director all seemed relaxed and professional as they went about their business.  Disappointing that.  I remember many years ago acting with the Everyman in Cork (Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead) and we had a well-known professional actor from Dublin in the cast.  At regular intervals he'd stop the rehearsals and scream "I can't work with these amateurs".  Everyone one would look embarrassed, then there'd be a bit of giggling, the director (Mick McCarthy) would mollify the afflicted star and off we'd go again.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Traces of Peter Rice edited by Kevin Barry

Rices's Pyramid Inversee
An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 14 April:

Peter Rice can hardly be described as a prophet without honour in his own country, after all he was made an Honorary Fellow by the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland. However, despite an international reputation as one of the most distinguished structural engineers of the 20th Century, he's relatively unknown here.  He has left his mark on a number of the world's most architecturally significant buildings including the Sydney Opera House and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.  His particular genius was for marrying his formidable analytical skills to a highly-developed aesthetic sensibility.  He was only the second engineer ever to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture by the Royal Institute of British Architects (the first was Ove Arup).

Rice was born in Dundalk in 1935 and studied engineering at Queen's University, Belfast,  an unusual move for a southern Catholic at that time.  Although it probably made sense to go to a city still clinging to an engineering tradition that was lacking in Dublin.  After a post-graduate stint at Imperial College, Rice joined Arup in London and thereafter his talents were mainly used abroad, especially France and the UK but also as far afield as Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the Menil Collection museum in Houston, USA, and, significantly for him, Australia.  For an example of his virtuosity take a look at the Pyramide Inversée du Louvre (illustrated).

A seminal moment in the life of Peter Rice was his encounter with Jørn Utzon, the legendary architect of the Sydney Opera House.  The Opera House was Rice's first major project.  He worked on it for seven years including three years as engineer on site for Arup.  When walking around the site with the resident building team Utzon spoke of his vision of colour, light, and texture in a way that made an indelible impression on the young engineer. The encounter encouraged him to get involved creatively in subsequent projects. He discovered the nascent designer within the engineer and put this discovery to good use in a series of signature projects around the world.

His next major building was the controversial Pompidou Centre.  The architect Richard Rogers with whom he worked on the project subsequently described him as "an artist, a poet, a sculptor engineer, a Brunelleschi of recent times".  The key to the design of the Centre was  carrying the weight of the floors to the outside of the building - allowing large areas of unencumbered floor space inside.  This was achieved by Rice coming up with the idea of cast-steel gerberettes, or cantilivered beams, each of which weighed almost 10 tons.  Apart from doing their technical job these devices played a substantial aesthetic role in the finished building.  His brilliant decision to use cast steel was a  harkening back to the exuberance of Victorian engineering.  After the Pompidou success he founded his own company Rice, Francis & Richie (RFR) to pursue further work in France while still continuing his association with Arup.

The the 11 essays and 7 cameos (shorter pieces) are written by an international cast of colleagues, scholars, family and friends.  They form a compelling and multi-faceted portrait of a brilliant and attractive man.  As befits its subject matter it's a beautifully designed book with plentiful illustrations.  Its replete with illuminating anecdotes. The Italian architect Renzo Piano recounts a dinner in Houston where he mentioned a curious ferro-cement boat he'd seen.   Rice immediately saw how this material could be used to solve an intractable roof problem for the Menil Collection museum.  One of the most interesting pieces, by architect Sean O' Laoire, embraces Joyce, Kavanagh and the Roman architect Vitruvius.  He saw Rice following Vitruvian principles where Firmness and Commodity were the servants of Delight.  O'Laoire shows Rice's influence in this country in the collaboration between RFR and Michael Collins Associates in the restoration of Stack A at the Custom House Quay.  RFR also collaborated in the design of county halls in Limerick, Mullingar and Fingal.  Traces of Rice are all around us.

Thanks to the example of Rice and his like-minded colleagues, architecture and engineering practice in this country have come a long way from the days when our Department of Health (the irony) found acceptable the monstrous, looming, ugliness that is Hawkins House.  Our architects are winning prestigious commissions abroad such as the London School of Economics (O'Donnell + Tuomey) and the University of Toulouse (Grafton Architects).  Grafton also picked up the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale for Architecture 2012.  At home building such as the Aviva Stadium, the Samuel Beckett bridge and the Bord Gais theatre confirm a growing demand that we should marry the functional and the aesthetic.

Rice was diagnosed with an untreatable brain tumour in 1991 and given only  a year to live.  He immediately set to work on writing a memoir and a summary of his engineering philosophy.  The result was Imagining Engineering, a passionate espousal of his beliefs.  A well-read man, he was aware of Auden's claim that Iago, the villain in Othello, was the prototype of the Scientific Man.  He was determined to escape that slur by ensuring that every project on which he worked brought delight to the beholder.  One of his final achievements was a low budget engagement with the Full Moon Theatre in the Languedoc.  This was  a labour of love where he married high tech and low tech to stunning effect in the development of a lighting system that used lunar power.

These essays, edited by Kevin Barry, Professor Emeritus, NUI, Galway, introduces a fascinating creative genius who could truly be said to have added to the gaiety of nations.  And it's not a dry technical tome.  Those who can't tell a gerbil from a gerberette can still enjoy the story of a remarkable Irishman.

Traces of Peter Rice
Ed. Kevin Barry
pp 135
eBook Version available


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Red and the Black

Headed down to Cork for a family birthday celebration last weekend - a few pints, a dinner, and back to Dublin the next day. I packed a wash bag only. My old faithful Saab estate had been misbehaving lately but I'd taken it to the garage for remedial work and reckoned it would do the business. North of Cashel it started to lurch and lose power so I stopped for a while at the Cashel Palace to watch the annual bookies benefit - the Grand National. (Sue Smith has a good record at the Aintree course and I had looked at her horse's form - but his age (11) and a recent fall put me off. So a little sick with the result.)

Back on the road I nursed the car towards Cork, or rather my brother's house in Cuskinny outside Cobh. On arrival I reversed the car into a tidy parking spot. When I got out I spotted two lines of freshly spilled thick black oil tracing the path I had reversed. An ominous portent. Getting in to check it out I found it was stone dead. It had got me there and died. I had abused the poor thing. I called the AA immediately. They came with admirable alacrity and the mechanic, a dead ringer for Pat Kenny, didn't take long to get to the heart of the matter. I had a major transmission problem and the car was going nowhere except via tow truck. I know little about car mechanics but I know transmission problems translate into a right royal financial rogering.

The dinner was a pleasant interlude. Given my family's propensity for back-biting, gossip, conflicting recollections, flagrant lying and gratuitous dogmatism, it was unusually relaxed and conflict free. The food wasn't bad either (Farmgate in Midleton). We finished off the night in The High Chaperal - a pub in Ballymore that is beyond bucolic but serves perfect pints of Murphy's. And so to bed.

Up next day for a leisurely morning before settling down to the Munster Harlequins match. Shortly after half time in noticed my nose was beginning to drip. I grabbed a tissue to wipe it and when I took it away is was soaked through with blood. Shit a nose bleed - something I rarely get. I escalate from tissue to towel but the blood keeps flowing so I abandon the match and go upstairs to lie down. The blood continues to flow from my nose and, more alarmingly, down my throat. Worried wife hovers sympathetically. The steady flow is clearly not going to stop. But fate smiles on me. In our group is my amiable brother-in-law who happens to be a consultant in a Cork hospital. He makes a few phone calls and I find myself heading in to the ENT emergency hospital - the South Infirmary. A bearded Aussie doctor takes over and after much exploring up my snout with various probes and cameras announced that I had an "arterial tear". A bit frightening that. Horrible things happen then - but I will draw a veil. Anyway I end up with a baloon being inserted and inflated - to compress the tear. And then I'm carted off to a finely appointed room to sit tight for a few days. Time to catch up on my reading.