Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Excursions, Renewals

To pick up the thread again, the reading described in the last entry proceeded according to plan, the only subtraction being that Penelope Shuttle couldn’t come after all. But the rest of us did our bit and the audience did theirs.

We’ve had mostly sunny weather in London, on the cool side, but then autumn is my favorite of the Vivaldi four. Golden plane-tree leaves spinning through air and ornamenting the pavement like Asian lacquer work. I would have been able to enjoy it more if I hadn’t tripped on an irregular stretch of that pavement, taken a tumble, and cracked a metatarsal in my foot. Which has meant that the unstoppable flâneur has had to call a halt and put at least one of his feet up.

But I do make an occasional excursion. Seeing that the Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum was about to close I hobbled down there this Sunday and went though it at my new pace (snail’s). I admired a portrait bust of the young man from Hispania who would be emperor, seductive with curly sideburns and features reminiscent of Goya portraits. Also striking was a nude statue of him as Mars, once he’d assumed his title. He was the first emperor to have a nude representation of himself as one of deities of the Roman pantheon. As for the building of that name, his renovation thereof was one of the subjects dealt with, and the thesis that the Pantheon dome influenced later buildings like Haghia Sofia and Florence’s Duomo was given an extra boost by referencing the dome of the Round Reading Room of the British Museum itself, under which the exhibition was assembled. Also, it was refreshing that the organizers didn’t flinch about the relationship between Hadrian and Antinous but reported it for what it was. They even included the B.M.’s Warren Cup, a silver wine goblet with representations of male-on-male clinches to substantiate how accepted a part of Roman life homosexuality was. Not that the Romans had a word for it. They didn’t classify themselves according to sexual labels. Desire sometimes brought them to someone of the opposite sex and sometimes to their own, as is the case with all higher mammals, especially the primates. The fuss about this natural phenomenon begins with the advent of Christianity, and not even immediately then. By now the situation has no become almost hysterical, where it seems some men would rather be convicted of murder than become known as having felt desire for another man.

There were portrait busts of Hadrian’s wife Sabina and useful information about her, but she still remains an unfocused figure in my mind. I hadn’t been aware that she was with Hadrian during the journey to Egypt during which Antinous drowned. One of the stunning items in the show is a statue of the mourned youth as Osiris, since his drowning coincided with Egypt’s annual rituals around the death-by-water of Osiris. Eliot specialists: Has anything been made of this in critical analyses of The Waste Land?

A new display at the B.M. was a series of five sculptures under the overall title “Statuephilia,” though the significance eludes me. Perhaps the stateliest was Anthony Gormley’s metal man with an airplane-sized wingspan. And no doubt the most pop was Marc Quinn's solid gold statue of Kate Moss in a pretzel-like yogic posture. If the work turned out not to be important and resaleable, at least you could always melt it down for the gold, which would have appreciated during the interim. I wonder if Quinn took his cue from the Damien Hirst diamond-studded skull exhibited two years ago; the price tag wasn’t so much greater than the value of the component diamonds. Buying it, you'd be hedging your bets; and it was bought. Hirst was also one of the “Statuephilia” sculptors, still hung up on skulls, to judge by his entry, a thoroughly mindless work titled “Cornucopia.” It put numbers and numbers of repro skulls splashed with multicolored acrylic on the shelves of the ground-floor library of the B.M. Clever: but is it really? No, it’s even emptier than his nasty embalmed animal slices of a decade ago. We’ve just seen the banking and mortgage bubbles burst, and perhaps we’re on the eve of something similar with Hirst, a silly artist if there ever was. (Add Tracey Emin to the list, too. Among the YBA’s only Rachel Whiteread really has much to say.) Since the 1990s, contemporary visual art has become besotted with irony, taking it to lengths so enormous they can only be described as sentimental. Jeff Koons has a lot to answer for.

Another excursion your temporarily disabled blogger made was to attend the launch of a new anthology of poems about astronomy and the heavens, edited by Maurice Riordan and the astronomist Jocelyn Bell Burnell). It's called Dark Matter, which is odd, considering that what we most perceive about the night sky is light. But the poetry audience being what it is, a broodingly portentous title would obviously be more of a draw than something to do with radiance and starlit awe. The event was held in the Astronomy Library of Burlington House (home as well to the Royal Academy of Art), a handsome, book-lined room with a spiral staircase up to shelves on the higher level.

The readers for the evening included two astronomists and the poets Kathryn Maris (whom I wrote about here in September) and Jamie McKendrick, an excellent poet who lives in Oxford. The anthology includes poets and old and new and I think can be ordered online. A fringe benefit of attending the event was seeing Maurice Riordan again, whom I first met here in London three years ago. Mimi Khalvati was there, shocked to see me leaning on a crutch, and also Anne-Marie Fyfe, who already knew about it from the Wolf reading on the 20th. A nice surprise, too, was seeing James Fenton, whom I caught sight of across the room in conversation with the poet Nick Laird (included in the anthology with a poem about the concept of the black hole). I went up and, aware this was an unanticipated context, spoke what was probably startling hello, followed by my name. I got to know James several years ago when I spent a month at Wroxton College near Banbury, with almost daily commuting from there to Oxford for library research or raids on Blackstone’s. But I hadn’t seen him for a while, and it was interesting to exchange capsule updates about that interim. He lives on an attractive farm outside Oxford, with one of the most ravishing gardens you’ll ever find anywhere; and travels a good bit to literature festivals worldwide or to New York, where he has a place of his own.

So that brings us up to date.

No comments: