Fringe, Day 2

Here’s the thing about Scotland.
As Kj and I walked around both St Andrews and Edinburgh, a frequent exchange was as follows:
Me: “Oooh, a castle! What is it?!”
Kj: “That’s a [chapel/church/bank/hotel/house/grocery store/pub].”
Me: “But…. HOW DOES EVERYTHING LOOK LIKE A CASTLE?!?!”
Then, finally, toward the very end of our stay in Edinburgh, Kj (possibly out of mild exasperation) hauled us to the top of a rise, and said: “Ok, stand here… now look through the trees… over to your left…. do you see it? THAT’S a castle.” To which I responded: “…OHHHHHHH. Ok. I see now. Big, isn’t it…”
Scotland, man. They’ve got castles just lying about the place.
We started our day with a visit to Yankee Candle Scotland, wherein I rediscovered my deep and abiding love for the lawnmower candle (I’m sure it has a more poetic name, but whatever, it smells wonderful) and then went to the Sir Walter Scott monument. It’s a really impressive monument, especially given that it’s to an author, as opposed to, say, a king or whatever. It was built by some unknown semi-amateur architect and fellow freemason of Scott’s (though much his junior), and includes a small museum as well as four balcony levels that you can climb up to, depending on your level of comfort with progressively tinier spiral staircases and dizzying heights. Obviously we went to the very top. One critic said that it looked like someone had plucked the spire off a Gothic cathedral and plunked it down in a park, which is a bit cruel but I must admit, quite accurate. We also saw a fire from the top, or at least a copious amount of smoke from one, so I had fun for a minute pretending to myself that I was a fire lookout in the olden days.
Then we had a bite to eat and went to our first show of the day: Menage a Trois, presented by National Theatre of Scotland at a venue called Paterson’s Land. It was a lovely, lovely piece of dance/ theatre by a dancer choreographer who dances with crutches and who used text (spoken and written) within a dance piece with absolute success. She collaborated with a video artist and that worked quite well. The piece was about a lonely girl on crutches imagining them as her lover, but feeling that she can’t be touched or loved etc, and eventually coming to terms with herself. That’s a fairly trite synopsis, and the show deserves much better… it was really good. The movement was excellent, the story was poignant, and the piece on the whole was, though very accessible, extremely well done.
Afterward I did a tiny bit of souvenir shopping, and then we went to high tea at a charming antique shop/teahouse called ‘Anteaques’ but it was so absolutely adorable that the name didn’t make me want to die. I had an excellent smoky tea that I recently discovered thanks to Brendan’s sweet Indian/Australian aunt Pam, and a scone with violet jelly and clotted cream, and a chocolate-covered earl grey biscuit, and a couple truffles. We drank our tea from an antique tea set amid Victorian furnishings and lamps and fur coats, and it was exquisite.
Then we went exploring a bit, and visited Grayfriars’ Kirk and Kirkyard. It’s an old abbey with the monks’ herb garden still intact (or recreated, I suppose) and a gorgeous cemetery, and a very moving grave for a famous dog that wouldn’t abandon his master’s grave and was buried nearby.
The next show on the books was our most mainstream attempt, from a theatre company called Wet Picnic. The show was a comedic theatre piece about death called ‘Death & Gardening’ though there were no references to gardening as far as we could tell. I think both our feelings on the show can be summed up by Kj’s initial comment, after a bemused silence between us that lasted for about a block after we left the theatre: “Well” she said, “there had to be one.”
Yep. It wasn’t terrible but it felt unfinished, and it came from a company that seems enthusiastic but young and perhaps slightly lacking direction.
Next we headed out to another pub for dinner: The Last Drop on a recommendation from my friend Rich. It was quite good, and I tried my third Islay whisky (the first was amazing, the second was a sweeter variety that I disliked, and this third was very good but not quite as good as the first). I also had my first Yorkshire Pudding (I think — the UK understanding of ‘pudding’ is deeply confusing). It was sort of a beef stew with a flaky pastry lid. It was pretty good but not something I’d eagerly search out again.
Then we went back to our favorite venue, Summerhall, for a third show in the autopsy room. This one was from a quartet of female dancers from all different countries, who had met at the Lecoque institute and began working together. They did a positively brilliant post-feminist (not a term I feel wholly comfortable with, but I think it fits) piece of surreal dance theater. We LOVED it. I’ll be very interested to see what they do next. It was fresh and invigorating and creative and technically excellent and… just great.
After that we had a little time to kill but not enough to venture far, so we sat on a corner of a model viking ship in the courtyard and played a few rounds of Evil Pineapple (a game we created together at The Garrison and that I’d brought with me). It was wonderful.
Finally we went to our last fringe show, also at Summerhall but in a different space — an upstairs room with an old wooden floor. The piece was by a Belgian company called Abattoir Fermé and it was the one I’d been most excited to see. As we walked in, we noticed that the first two rows were taped off and marked ‘reserved.’ Kj mentioned it and I answered, only semi-jokingly, that it probably wasn’t for audience members, but was the blood-spatter zone. I was close.
The performance was my favorite of the Fringe – 90-ish minutes of bizarre Belgian surrealist non-speaking theatre, lots of nudity, a bathtub full of water that, by the end of the piece had been variously colored and liberally sloshed out onto the stage (the fact of the ankle-deep onstage puddle we had to navigate on the way out still makes me shudder for the integrity of the building), and generally lots of weird shit. It reminded me a bit of Jan Fabre and a bit of Hey Girl! at OtB, and I would LOVE to see more work by the company. I got the impression that they’re quite established. IT WAS SO GOOD. Yaaaay Fringe!!!
At the end, we made our way back to the flat, I did my first and only load of actual laundry (as opposed to handwashing clothing in sinks with whatever soap/shampoo was handy) and we got ready for an early start the next day.

 

Fringe, Day 1

Apologies in advance if I get some of this out of order — Kj and I had a wild two days together in Edinburgh that included 4-5 pubs and 7 shows, with other attractions tucked in here and there. It was great!
We got up at a sane hour and went to pick up my “Arts Industry Professional” pass from the festival office, which was pretty awesome but conferred, as far as we could discover, no real benefits other than some street cred and once I was mistaken for another Arts Professional and I guess that’s cool. But still. TOTALLY LEGIT, YO!
We had stopped at an amazing Italian deli for sandwiches on the walk into the city center (our flat was lovely but it was on the outskirts of town), so we ate them in a park before attending our first Fringe show, at Summerhall (which instantly became our favorite venue) by a company called Dudendance. It was an AMAZING way to start our Fringe experience. We picked up our tickets and were directed out back, and told to look for the sign for the queue for the ‘Demonstration Room’. Turns out that was a 19th century autopsy room (though I think primarily for veterinary science as opposed to human dissection). We lined up in an area that looked like, as Kj put it, “the back lot of Sesame Street… I keep expecting Jim Henson to come around the corner.”
We were eventually beckoned into an antechamber with a legit abattoir by a masked figure, where we filed in awkwardly and watched ten minutes or so of dance with weird mutant organic costuming, then were beckoned into the main chamber. THE MAIN CHAMBER OF THE AUTOPSY DEMONSTRATION ROOM. It was rad. The audience was seated in high semi-circular wooden pew-like benches with the back of the pew in front of you serving as a shallow desk for note-taking. Our feet didn’t reach the floor. It was uncomfortable, but brilliantly so. We proceeded to watch 40 minutes or so of a post-apocalyptic dance investigation of the cycle of human violence, and it was VERY good. Then we were beckoned back into the antechamber, where we stood on raised rows and watched a mad scientist-type do a grotesque autopsy on another character. Kj viewed it (correctly, I believe) as the completion of an experiment on violence — the scientist dissecting his still-living subject to see what had happened to it. I, perhaps perversely, also saw a sort of Frankenstein/Pygmalion aspect, and had moments of wondering if he were trying to resurrect his damaged creature… but I tend to look for the positive side of things. Anyway, it was a really good show.
Then we decided to return later in the evening for a second show in the same venue, this time a multimedia puppet show entitled Feral by a company whose name escapes me at the moment. We wandered about a bit in between, I think we visited St Giles Cathedral at that point, which was great. I especially liked the way all the seating faces the center of the cross, rather than the altar, which I think is meant to show that the Word is central to that particular belief system? We also visited a bar where we played a game of Scrabble (she trounced me) and I had my first glass of Islay whisky after sampling a taste the previous night (more on that later).
At some point we also visited the museum (I think maybe the National Museum of Scotland or something), which was in this amazing Victorian building and totally great. It was arranged in sort of a cabinet-of-curiosities style, which worked really well for the time period and made it really fun to explore.
Anyway, then we saw Feral. It was stunningly constructed. Absolutely lovely. A team of four puppeteers, a video artist, and a sound artist (some Foley stuff, yay!) created this incredibly detailed world… they built it before our eyes, all out of paper, lit it expertly, and then filmed it live with two mini cameras which were projected on a screen above and mixed live by the video artist to create this seamless live film, but you could also watch everything happening below, including all the setup for the subsequent shot. It was beautifully, beautifully done. The story left a bit to be desired, which is a common issue I have with puppetry — I just find that, naturally, the best puppeteers aren’t necessarily playwrights, and could really benefit from working with one, or with a dramaturg, as they have a tendency (again, naturally) to get caught up in these incredible worlds they’ve created and show us excerpts from life there, without always forming it into a story that an outsider to the world will especially care about. Sometimes (and I realize this might seem offensive but I don’t mean it that way) it’s a bit like being taken by the hand by a small child and introduced, in great detail, to each one of their dolls. “This is Joey, he’s afraid of the dark so he has to sleep on my pillow, but Jill here gets jealous because then she has to sleep in the toy bin…” Anyway, story aside, it was brilliantly done and I would absolutely love to see more of their work.
Then we went to procure tickets to the last show of the night — I had walked by a poster earlier proclaiming that The Tiger Lilies were performing at the Fringe, so of course I had to go. We first had some food at a pie shop (meat pies, yum! I had a haggis pie with mashed potatoes — it was my first introduction to haggis and I found it to be delicious). Then we went to a pub called Library Bar, which was quite nice, and had a drink. Then we went to see The Tiger Lilies.
I’ve seen them twice before and they weren’t as good this time, unfortunately. The venue was small and mostly empty, and there were maybe five to ten other fans in attendance, plus some randoms who had wandered in for something to do. They also appeared to be working on some new material. It was fun to see them in a small space, though, and I was in the front row! Also when they did their encore they solicited requests from the crowd, and granted mine (“Gin”), which has never happened to me at a concert, so that was super exciting! And afterward I got to meet them and had my picture taken with them, which was fun 🙂
As mentioned earlier, today Kj introduced me to Islay whisky (‘Scotch’). I really dislike whisky and bourbon and brown liquor in general, so I expected to hate it… but, um, it’s AMAZING. It tastes like woodsmoke and campfires and the night on a Scottish moor and history and old leather and magical wardrobes that lead to impossible lands. It’s definitely a thing to take tiny tiny sips of, but the flavour is really quite wonderful.
Then we made our way home and got ready for the next day…

 

Art in Paris

I went to the Pompidou Center, an amazing (and huge!) modern art museum. I checked in my backpack, which felt amazing, and went exploring. I tend to visit museums like I’m on a treasure hunt. I go pretty quickly, waiting for something that will catch me, and hoping to discover something new that will change my world. It’s remarkably successful 🙂
This time I discovered Simon Hantaï. They had a whole special exhibit on him, which was massive. It was chronologically ordered, so his early work was first… I was initially unimpressed. Vaguely surrealist, not particularly interesting.
Then he started using little animal skulls, and I perked up a little, but it still wasn’t earth-shaking.
Then he did a bunch of repetitive-patterned large-scale paintings created over long periods of time. These weren’t great to look at, but some of his process started to interest me. There was this one massive pair of paintings (each about 10-15′ square) being exhibited side-by-side for the first time ever… he had created them both at the same time over a period of months, but one he worked on every morning and the other he worked on every evening. They were somewhat interesting.
Then I turned a corner, and… wow. He had made this total break with his existing process (in the late 60s I think?) and started crumpling up and knotting these massive canvases, and only painting the parts he could see. Then he’d open them up and restretch them. It sounds boring, but it was… amazing. They’re huge, and the colors are incredible, and they maintain some of the crumpled texture so they aren’t flat, and they just sort of… explode off the wall. They look natural, and organic, but also dramatic and very very aesthetically conscious. Some are like looking into a wall of jungle with dappled sunlight between the leaves, some look like sunshine on water, some look like cloudscapes…. in all cases there’s a nagging sense that something has been captured and illuminated, and you just need to look a little bit longer, and the sun will break through and you’ll be able see through the leaves/water/clouds to what’s on the other side. It’s intense.
I didn’t even keep going for awhile. I picked this one painting and sat down in front of it and I think I may have said out loud “You. Hi. We’re going to be friends.” I must have stayed there for close to half an hour, before I finally stood up, shook myself off, and kept going. The rest of his work was equally fascinating, but I didn’t linger as long with any of it. There was a little room that was showing video footage of him working, and I was interested in that but it was so crowded I couldn’t get in. I went through the rest of the exhibit, and then strolled through a big Lichtenstein exhibit they were having. Then I went back to visit my painting friend again, and stayed about fifteen minutes, then went through the rest of the exhibit a second time. There had just been some sort of medical emergency, so most of it had been closed and they were only just reopening it — brilliant, because it meant it was completely empty! I got to be the first one in the video room, so I watched footage of the artist for awhile. It was AWESOME. He’d knot and paint and re-knot and paint, for ages, then he’d flatten them out with this big concrete roller, and then he’d spread them out — lots of them — in his garden/orchard and let them dry in the sun. His darling little blond daughter would run across them as she was picking flowers. It was positively idyllic.
After I finished my second trip through his exhibit I went through part of the next floor down, but at that point I was so exhausted that I couldn’t think straight. I found an outdoor sculpture garden with a reflecting pool up near the roof, so I went and laid down on the concrete in the sun next to the pool for about an hour or so. I dozed a little, and read a little, and looked out over the city. After that I felt so much better that I was able to finish the museum, which had some really great stuff and was arranged beautifully.
Then I went and met the girl who checked me in to the apartment where I was staying. She was so sweet and pleasant! The apartment was great — on the top (6th) floor of an old building just down the street from the Hotel de Ville in the center of town. It was small but cozy (although the elevator was SO small that the other girl and I were practically cuddling), with a skylight over the bed that opened. It was a bit stuffy but when I opened the big front window and the skylight it got a lovely breeze.
The girl who checked me in also walked me to the nearest grocery store, where I bought cheese and wine to go with my bread. It was passable but unexciting — certainly not a cheese shop. Then I went back, relaxed, fell asleep, and woke up early to catch a train to my next stop: Edinburgh!

 

Art!

So after a draining afternoon at Sachsenhausen, I needed art. I went to the Neue Nationalgalerie, which is having a show on modern art from 1945-1968, specifically centered around the East/West divide in Berlin. It’s a good exhibit.
Side note: I’m writing this while eating Döner in East Berlin (thanks to Michael!), and it’s amazing. Imagine super thinly-sliced gyro meat, with every possible delicious fixing, but NOT on a pita. Instead it’s on fantastic Turkish bread and it’s a fucking revelation within the genre. I need this to exist in Seattle, please.
Anyway, art! I had one of the most lovely artistic experiences of my life today. It was so simple but such a great confirmation of the Healing Power of Art and blah blah blah.
If you know me, you know that I have no interest in ‘pretty’ art. You want to make something beautiful? Knock yourself out. But unless it moves me, or tells me something, or changes the way I think or feel, or just stops me dead in my tracks, I’m not going to care. I like my art with lots of meaning and layers and intellectualism and intelligence and talent, but also don’t be too full of yourself or too self-referential, you egotistic bastard.
Of course, any rule I arbitrarily make about my own aesthetics I break every time I enter a museum/gallery/whatever…
“I hate landscapes” hello, El Greco’s View of Toldeo.
“I hate portraits” but two of my very favorite pieces at the Frye are a portrait of this little black-haired girl with the saddest eyes you ever saw, and another portrait of an artist’s family with so much personality and sparkle they look absolutely alive without looking especially lifelike.
“I absolutely fucking hate Picasso” but MoMA in NYC has this early pre-cubist work of a boy and a horse that I totally dig.
“I hate Impressionism” just kidding, Monet is amazing.
Anyway, enough on relative aesthetics. Draining afternoon, concentration camp, needed art. Went to modern art museum. Saw a whole bunch of art, some good, some really good, some meh, but almost all about war, and the aftermath of war, and the fear of war, or a reaction against war. So it was great but not exactly a huge change of subject from the earlier part of the day. I was feeling pretty worn down, and of course I hadn’t eaten much, and I’d been in the sun a lot, and I was thirsty, and my attention was not as full as I like it to be for art. Then I was walking down a hallway, and there was a little side entrance to what would typically be a video installation room, with an angled entrance to keep the light and sound mostly out. I saw a plaque titling it ‘Light Room, I heard a little bit of faint baroque-ish harpsichord music, and I ducked in.
Now, I don’t know if I came in at the beginning. It was on a continuous loop, so there’s no way to know. I decided later that it was the beginning, but that could have been just because that’s when it started for me. I kept wondering where the artist had started it…
Anyway, it was quite dark, and it took my eyes a few seconds to adjust. I was the only person in the room. Just inside the door to my right was a big (3.5′?) cube, slightly raised off the floor, square to the wall and about three feet away from it, super-reflective, covered with regularly-spaced holes, and with a moving light of some sort inside. It was making all these light patterns dance around the walls, sort of like a disco ball only more interesting. There were a few other shadowy shapes in the room, which I started to see as my eyes adjusted and I carefully walked in, trying not to trip over anything. Just then, one of the shadowy shapes in the middle of the room lit up too. It was a very similar cube only about 1/3 smaller and set at a diagonal to the first. They both danced together for a minute while the harpsichord music continued, and then a little baby cube off to the side, with a different pattern, lit up too. They were beautifully choreographed and did some trading, and some duets, and finally a big trio… and then it went dark. Then this big old hulking black thing in the corner (NOT a cube) came on, revved up, and did a little light show of it’s own. Then the first cube joined in, and the big black thing went dark, and we were back to where I came in.
It was… enchanting. It wasn’t particularly deep or meaningful or layered, it wasn’t really making some big social commentary (unless you really felt like talking yourself into it, which yeah, I went to art school so we could discuss the various implications for hours if you really wanted to), it wasn’t intellectually challenging… but it made me so. Damn. Happy.
I must have sat there for a good fifteen minutes. Then I decided to explore the rest of the museum (saw a Joseph Beuys performance piece I’d never seen before called Eurasian Rod I think, pretty good, also lots of other things). After I finished, though, I went back and sat in that little room of light for another 30-40 minutes, just watching that dance. And I felt SO GOOD afterward. Thanks, Otto Piene!
Then I went to Friedrichshain and had a pretzel and döner in East Berlin, which, whoa, it’s like a totally different world over there on that side of the former wall. More on that later, maybe. Also more art!