Saturday, July 6, 2013

'Totemic Festival Opening Night' at the Freud Museum, 5th July 2013

Sigmund Freud was a odd chap with a lot of very strange ideas.  Last night I was standing in his lounge peering at his desk.  The room is carefully constructed to give the impression that the man himself has just stood up and left the room for a contemplative walk around his garden.  The chair was pushed away with papers scattered across the desk and resting on top of them was a pair of small, thin round-rimmed glasses.  It's rather poignant: the room is haunted by his absence.

Slightly less poignant is the wide variety of merchandise available in the gift shop emblazoned with Freud's bearded, spectacled visage.  These include Freud rubber ducks, cuddly plush Freud dolls and, my favourite, a pair of novelty  'Freudian Slippers'.  I love a product that exists only because of a pun, and the slippers muppetise the man quite brilliantly.  Funny as all this is, it does somewhat undercut the solemn academic atmosphere present elsewhere.  I can't really blame the museum though, you've got to raise funds where you can these days. 

But I'm not only here to nose around Freud's office, this is the opening night of the Totemic Festival.  2013 is the centenary of Freud's - Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics.  This collection of essays examines, among other things, the cultural phenomenon of Totemism.  This work covers the beliefs of remote groups of Pacific Islanders, hunter/gatherer African tribes and remote groups of Australian Aboriginals.  The thrust of the work is to demonstrate that his theories of psychoanalysis can be usefully applied in a wider context.

The opening night of this festival of performance focused on the idea of examining taboos consisted of a drinks party in Freud's garden.  This was a beautiful summer's evening in a beautiful garden jampacked full of beautiful and interesting people.  There were two large tubs stuffed full of iced beer and white wine.  'Auntie Maureen'  was standing to one side playing vintage records on a genuine gramophone.  It was nice.  It was really nice - about as relaxed and chilled out as you could possible imagine.  Lying on a blanket with an icy Corona in my hand, chatting away to artists is just about my idea of heaven.

There were two performances last night, from David Blandy and Sarah Grainger-Jones, though over the next two days there's a vast range of artists that will be familiar to those of you that read my LUPA reviews.  But I'll get to them when I see them.

David Blandy
First up was David Blandy.  I hadn't met him before, although he's previously left a message on my answerphone where he rapped down the phone at me.  Cards on the table here folks, from just hearing this I assumed Blandy was black.  He's not - he's a rather studious-looking skinny white guy with long hair and glasses.  Ordinarily the ethnicity of a performer would be neither here nor there, but with Blandy's work it feels like a crucial component.  Blandy's performance was a recitation of the Wu-Tang Clan's 'C.R.E.A.M.', (and possibly also some parts of a Ghostface Killah song) which is about growing up as an poor black kid in New York City.  Blandy transplants this experience from the mean streets to the culturally rarefied atmosphere of Sigmund Freud's garden - and in the process makes my skin crawl!

But I suspect that might be the point.  I vacillated between appreciating it and feeling intensely uncomfortable at about 30 second intervals.  Blandy inserts what I think are theatrical moments where he pretends to forget the lyrics, creating an awkward periods of silence where the audience feels intensely uncomfortable, trying to work out whether he's even going to carry on.  It's as if the angry macho spirit of the song is a consciousness in its own right, the words themselves don't want to be spoken by this performer.  He's like a man wearing a three-piece suit that doesn't quite fit.  There's no real way to look comfortable or elegant, no matter how you contort yourself.  Being made to feel this awkward as an audience member is great as far as I'm concerned, though I'm a sucker for any kind of involuntary emotional response.

Pleasure in feeling uncomfortable only takes me so far though, and there comes a point where a white English guy rapping lyrics that speak of about New York "niggas" to a 99% white audience in an incredibly posh North London neighbourhood is intensely problematic.  I can just about see the argument that confronting this audience like this is a great way to induce some kind of system jolting disconnection, a way to get them to re-evaluate their lifestyles and process these great songs that ordinarily you lump in with the vast mass of boneheaded socially unconscious radio-friendly hip-hop.  But even if this is the case Blandy is still appropriating the experiences of poor young black men to induce a reaction in a rich white audience. 

So, ultimately, I don't know quite what to make of it all. There's a lot to chew on here, and it's going to take more space than I have here to digest it and come up with a firm conclusion.  It certainly whacks my 'taboo' button in a big way, so I guess at least on that front it fits in perfectly.

Sarah Grainger-Jones, wrapped in Strawberry Laces

Soon after this, Sarah Grainger-Jones began her piece.  This started unannounced and without fanfare: the only reason I even knew it was happening at all was that she politely moved me on when I sat on the grass in her performance space.  The piece consisted of her sitting on the floor, tying Strawberry Laces together and placing them in a kidney dish.  After she’d finished this, she began wrapping them around her feet, working her way up over her legs before eventually draping them around her shoulders.  Finally, she leaned forward and began to munch through her self-imposed, sugary bondage, before busting free and walking away.

The last time I saw Grainger-Jones perform she was using sweets as a communication tool, so I guess this medium must be significant to her.  But though I enjoyed her sticking chewing gum to photographs on the wall of a a garage, this piece left me cold. No matter how I pick it over I can’t get any kind of satisfying message from it.  There’s a simple metaphor here at being restrained by cheap, sugary snacks, but if this was the point, it’s a rather obvious one and there are infinitely more effective ways to convey it.  If there’s some other level of meaning here, it passed me by and I wasn't particularly inspired by the performance to spend the time digging for it.  I can't really see what it has to do with totems or taboos either.

As I walked away someone asked me if they’d missed anything, the people on the opposite side of the rose garden not even aware that this was happening.  I said “don’t worry, you didn’t miss much.

One half-baked performance is not enough to spoil a great evening though.  The Freud Museum is a wonderful place to explore, poking around the upstairs rooms and seeing the various knick-knacks scattered about the place mixed with art pieces from the great Apestraction exhibition they have on there at the moment.  

But just hanging out in this sun-dappled garden, listening to old-timey music and sipping a cold beer is pleasure enough for me. Sure, Freud may have been wrong about a hell of a lot of things and wrote a mountain of misogynistic literature, but dammit, the man knows how to throw a garden party.  Head along this weekend - you won't regret it!

Second day review here.

Third day review here.

The Totemic Festival is on this weekend, the 5th and 6th of July, from 12-8.30.  Tickets £15/£10 concessions.  Many thanks to Kate Mahony for inviting me.

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