Wednesday, 20 September 2017

A right State? A journey into the dark heart of the green birds.

Peter Kosminsky's dilemma in making Channel 4 drama The State was how to show why life under Islamic State tempts some people to leave their comparatively comfortable homes in the West to become part of it while, at the same time, not glamourising it.

If the cold suburban streets, the coaches, the docks, and the airports of Britain look almost stultifyingly familiar the same, of course, could not be said for the backs of vans crossing Turkey or the heavily patrolled Syrian border that our four ISIS recruits view through binoculars before crossing over to pledge their allegiance to the caliphate.

Jalal (Sam Otto, born in Basingstoke) is following in the footsteps of his brother, martyred at the siege of Kobani, and has brought along his friend Ziyaad (Ryan McKen) whilst Shakira (Ony Uhiara) has travelled to ISIS controlled territory with the aim of using her skills as a doctor in Raqqah to help the cause. She's brought her nine year old son Isaac with her. Ushna (Shavani Cameron) seems the most naïve of the four and although there's little background story to shed light on just why she's made this perilous journey she claims she's there to be a lioness for the lions.

On arrival the men and women are, of course, separated. The women are led into a communal house where it's explained to them that they'll pay no bills, they'll have all their food and drink supplied for them, and they'll even be given an allowance. They can have whatever they want from the store just as long as they don't go there themselves. In fact don't go outside full stop. "Leave that to the guys".

They can't be single either. The prophet, himself proudly wed to a six year old, said marriage is half the religion. Umm Salamah (Hiam Abbas), an elder, more matriarchal figure, explains to the girls just how they'll be married and why, unlike in the Kurdish army, they cannot join in the armed fight with the men. 'Brothers' fight and women bear children. That's it.

As the females have their phones confiscated (supposedly so as not to be traced by built in trackers) over in the male house Jalal is asked to delete pictures of his mum from his phone. She's uncovered. Accepting this, and the mass torching of their passports, as the price they have to pay to build this new world Jalal, Ziyad, and other new recruits get straight on with bantering about 'five star Jihad' and telling a German recruit that he might want to get his towel down by the swimming pool straight away.

The deep end they're thrown in is not in the pool though. It's not long at all before they're being taught how they can use their suicide belts to take out as many apostates as possible if it's looking likely they'll be caught. A martyr is always a better thing to be than a prisoner and a martyr who has killed many before making the ultimate sacrifice himself is the best martyr of all. In fact they're informed that it is a brother's greatest wish to be martyred and that very few recruits survive their first year with ISIS.

The men are told that women are the 'adornment' of the world but that, in this life, they are 'defective'. They bleed every month and carry urine in their bodies. Because of these deficiencies the brothers are instructed to ignore 'temporary delights' and wait for the 72 virgins waiting in heaven for them. They're looking down at them now, every minute of every day, with their beautiful eyes.

Biology and diversity classes completed the next lesson kicks off with watching some execution videos. Jalal dips his head so as not to see, maybe he's not cut out for this brutality, maybe he's not the jihadi his brother was after all? But why do ISIS chop people's heads off when the sheer inhumanity of it only serves to make their enemies angrier. An elder is on hand to explain that's exactly the reason they do it. They want to make their enemies angry. They want the Americans to attack, and even defeat, them. They're playing a very long game. The defeat has been prophecised in the hadith and it needs to happen so that the next stage can happen. So that those left can take refuge in Jerusalem where Jesus will appear to them and lead their army to a victory so overwhelming that their enemies will be destroyed for all eternity. Beheading simply has to be done to make this prophecy come true. Making it, potentially, the most diabolical self-fulfilling prophecy in the entire history of self-fulfilling prophecies.

One thing the male and female camps have in common is that, initially, there's a lot of laughter and in both there's a lot of heated debate about Quranic interpretation. But as the boys banter out on their first manoeuvres we're shown a young woman being whipped, across the soles of her feet, in public for talking to a man without a male guardian. Shakira, who had been previously informed that any future employment would be dependent on a future husband's permission, gets a job in a massively understaffed hospital. Despite it elevating exponentially the risk of spreading disease she has to remain covered at work. Health and medicine are unimportant compared to Sharia.

It's not the only danger of working in a hospital. A barrel bomb destroys a ward and the camera tracks past countless dead babies. In any other drama it'd have been the most heartbreaking scene of all but this is Islamic State and they're always raising the stakes.

Ushna, who not long ago was crying because she couldn't ring her parents to tell them where she was, is introduced to 'a brave fighter with a pious heart'. He's much older than her and as he can't speak English and she can't speak Arabic they can't communicate but he asks, via an interpreter, to marry her anyway. It doesn't seem like she has much choice in the matter. When they first go to the bedroom together, in his rather nice house, the subtitles disappear so we can get a sense of Ushna's discomfort. It's a canny trick and one the film makers return to on occasion.

It's impossible to be a true, and faithful, believer in Islam (or any other religion) as so many of the teachings completely contradict each other. Jalal is offered coffee by a friendly pharmacist. The particular set of rules he's following say he can't drink coffee but they also say he can't refuse a gift. He takes it. Is this a sign of Jalal's humanity or does he just really like coffee? He's already made a very risky phone call home to his distraught mum so let's err towards the former.

As Jalal's soft side comes to the fore, young Isaac is being brutalised. He stands in a town square, with other male children and adults, watching a man being beheaded and then he travels on a coach past the railings where these grisly mementoes, people's heads, are displayed as a warning to the locals not to question the authority of ISIS. His mum assures him that as part of 'the first generation to migrate to this blessed land' he will 'never enjoy the fruits of it'.

Isaac doesn't want his mother to get married but as she has to could she at least marry the kindly doctor who works at the hospital and not the bullying soldier who looks like he'll knock them both around a bit? When Shakira visits Dr Rabia (Haaz Sleiman) to propose he, at first, refuses. She susses he's gay and he explains that with a woman in his apartment who isn't his wife being thrown off a tall building (the standard punishment for homosexuality) would be the least of his concerns as he'd have already been beheaded anyway.

Obviously they enter into a marriage of convenience and their mutual respect and inherent kindliness, despite the obvious risks to both of them, seems a better fit than the situation Ushna has found herself in. Despite initially being ecstatic about finally finding a lion and getting to be a lioness, her cooking disappoints her husband. After telling her this, by way of Google Translate, in no uncertain terms he buys a slave for her to help out with domestic duties.

The trip to the Yazidi slave market the boys make is another, predictably, harrowing experience. Gunshots ring out, money changes hands, the men buy slave girls. Jalal, whose bilingual skills have got him the position of translator, is clearly unhappy interpreting to the other men that to sleep with pre-pubescent Yazidi girls is perfectly acceptable under their belief system. Unless, of course, they are already designated as the property of other men.

Jalal buys a mother and a daughter. He's not buying them to rape Islam into them (which, again, it seems would be perfectly acceptable under the rules of ISIS) but to spare them. There's an incredibly touching scene as Jalal cooks and prepares a meal for Ibtasam (Maisa Abd Elhadi) and her daughter Narin (Angelina-Rain Zou'Bi) and then leaves it on the spare bed so as not to wake them from their slumber.

"These ain't Muslims, bruv. They're Shia" Ziyaad tells Jalal as said Shias are beheaded in front of their families whilst attempting to retreat. The logistics of the battle scenes aren't as interesting as how the justification works. How easily people are othered, dehumanised, and ultimately, killed. It doesn't seem to me to be a twisting of religion but simply a reading of it, an interpretation. As honest, or as dishonest, as any other reading. Most of us would choose, and hope others would choose, to read peace into ancient religious texts but they're actually rather bloodthirsty tomes written at a time so different to ours that most of it no longer has any relevance whatsoever.

"You ain't no Muslim, bruv" (a line Kosminsky has cheekily, surely knowingly, adapted for Ziyaad) was an admirable thing to say in the context of the terrorist situation it was originally used in and it served as a useful meme for a while but, really, who decides these things? Who makes that final decision? A non-existent God or someone who has assumed power to speak on behalf of that God? That doesn't sound like the sort of person to put your faith in.

Further insanity, of course, continues. Shakira is ordered to remove both 'halal' kidneys of an injured enemy as the dialysis machines have been destroyed by Russian bombs. She refuses and, as punishment, gets the soles of her feet lashed in front of a gawping crowd and a proudly hoisted ISIS flag. As Shakira, like Jalal, is beginning to think 'fuck this for a game of soldiers' Isaac is turning into the product that the fundamentalist schooling he's been subjected to wants to turn him into. She's rightly horrified but, she seems a bright woman, she probably should've thought of that before dragging him out there. Now they're in Syria, under ISIS rule, the power balance has shifted. Isaac will soon be ten and his mum will have to listen to him, not the other way round.

Newly pregnant Ushna's husband gets the 'reward' he wanted. He gets martyred and goes to 'the heart of the green birds'. Good fucking riddance. Ziyaad's next to go, dying in a battle that sees Jalal injured by a bullet. Is it possible to feel sympathy for these people knowing that they've taken up arms expressly to kill as many innocent men, women, and children as possible? Kosminsky makes a compelling case. The naivety, the stupidity, that sent them to ISIS can't excuse their actions but The State does a good job of, in not much more than three hours, showing how realisation of the evil they've bought in to dawns on both Jalal and Shakira.

A supposed CIA man with a bag over his head who is dragged out of a windowless, and shit stained, cell for his execution is revealed to actually be the affable pharmacist friend of Jalal. They don't kill him though (they just violently whip him in a room full of heavily armed men). They're just making a promo video to hopefully tempt the West to bomb them some more and create more martyrs and more recruits. Kosminsky is making it very explicit that provocation is the point of these exercises, these videos. But that kickabout with dismembered heads that the off duty soldiers partake in looks real enough, and this series was meticulously researched.

Shakira is next to get some 'great reward', a dead husband. Standard. Although it could be said that if you truthfully believe in heaven why should this not be a good thing? Both Islam and Christianity have always seemed to celebrate death more than they do life.

It'd be enough to make you despair of religion in its entirety but in the scenes between Jalal and Ibtasam we're shown enough of the humanity that predates the invention of religion, survives it to this day, and will hopefully outlast it to know that people aren't all no good. Even if, for some reason, they invented something as crazy, and dangerous, as religion.

As their humanity and respect slowly conquers their adherence to religious dogma our 'heroes' are left in a dilemma as to how to get out of this mess without being killed. This can only be done by risking extreme violence, torture, and death. I won't spoil the denouement but it's ISIS so clearly innocent children are shot at close range in the face, men get chained up in cages, and, no fucking shit, not one single person on the planet is better off for it.

This was a wonderful plotted, tightly scripted, utterly fascinating piece of viewing. Sam Otto and Ony Uhiara were wonderful in the two lead roles and the supporting cast were all terrific too. It can't be easy to make the viewer care about a person who willingly joins such a murderous and transgressive organisation but in their fine nuanced acting, and under Kosminsky's skilful direction, they managed to pull it off.

Nobody watching this could say it was enjoyable viewing but it was compelling and shone a light into some of the darkest areas on the planet. In what seemed complete darkness and utter hopelessness the small acts of decency shone as bright as the light of a million candles. Love may not destroy ISIS and other violent, fundamentalist, hate filled bastards but buying into their hatred will only make them stronger. Even they know that.

Perfume (All on You).

I was taking myself out of my comfort zone. Not Somerset House on a sunny midweek afternoon (short of my sofa that's about as in my comfort zone as it gets) but an exhibition about perfume. There weren't a lot of other men there and the ones that were looked like they might be a bit more familiar with fragrances than me (I reek of putrefaction). I knew it was unlikely that Brut 33, Old Spice, or Lynx would be making an appearance but, other than that, I really didn't know quite what to expect.

The first room, a kind of antechamber mapping out the show's intentions, informed me that perfume is changing. The theory, proposed by the curators, is that it's no longer enough to simply smell sophisticated, sexy, or alluring. We, they claim, want perfume to tell us a story. We want to smell of modernity and modernity, we're informed, smells of hot tarmac, cold metal, ink, dust, sweat, saliva, and semen.

Ignoring, briefly, that sweat, saliva, and semen are hardly new 'inventions' let's go back to the final one of these three imposters. Our old friend semen. Do people really want to smell of jizz these days? The only time I would've thought it acceptable to pick up a top note of man muck on someone else's body is when one has just drained one's balls either on to or in to them.

Putting such images aside for a while the exhibition focuses on ten key scents and the perfumers who created them and we're promised a two decade long olfactory journey. Before we start, however, we're given a brief potted history. In 1884 Paul Parquet of Houbigant created Fougere Royal and five years later Aime Guerlan gave us the unfortunately named Jicky but it was Francois Coty, at the turn of the 20th century, who took perfume into the mainstream.

Perfume soon branched into three categories, still in use to this day. Perfume was either floral, oriental, or fruity and there's a table with some of those well known and influential scents for visitors to take a smell of. Back in 1921 Chanel No.5 was crisp for the jazz age, Estee Lauder came out with Youth Dew in 1953, in 1966 Christian Dior's Eau Savage was made so that men didn't have to miss out on the fun, Yves St Laurent's 1977 Opium was, we're informed, controversial on its release but it's not really explained why, and in 1994 Calvin Klein's ck one pioneered the concept of a unisex fragrance and, it being the nineties and all that, was packaged in what looked like a vodka bottle and boasted a 'grunge aesthetic'.

Things were to get far more pretentious though. Both in the timeline of perfume and in the exhibition itself. The deal for the visitor is you take a blank card off the wall, and you walk round ten rooms (broken into two groups of five with a rest room in the middle, presumably to cleanse one's nose and take stock, like having a glass of water halfway through a wine tasting) jotting down your thoughts and impressions of each aroma presented.

They're presented in quite imaginative ways too. From booths of both the confessional and Photo-Me variety to a mock up of an artist's atelier and something that doesn't look too far adrift of a hospital bed for the wounded soldiers of World War I. As you wander from room to room (sniffing things and filling in forms) blurred, indistinct, voices waffle on meaninglessly through a speaker to little or no effect in the background. It's all a bit odd but, actually, a lot more fun than most art exhibitions.

Mark Buxton - Comme des Garcons 2

Geza Schoen - Molecule 01

Olivia Giacobetti - En Passant

Daniel Andrier - Purple Rain
The trouble is I've got a terrible sense of smell and I'm absolutely crap at identifying things so my guesses, my notes, were going to be pretty damned wayward. Not only that but the décor and the colour of the rooms were sure to affect my assessment of the perfume. Even the fact that some rooms had windows opened up to the courtyard clearly had an impact on how I perceived one fragrance.
I was miles off with Mark Buxton's Comme des Garcons 2 (I got alcohol and late nights from this powerful odour but, when the results came in I was informed he was going for a 'swimming pool of ink'), Geza Schoen's Molecolue 01 (I was unable to identify 'cedar like with a hint of black pepper' and mistook that for air, water, and metal), or Antoine Lie's Secretions Magnifiques. Lie's secretion was the one that laid claim to representing sweat, semen, and 'mother's milk'. I assessed it as fruity, weak, clean and distant. Weak sperm! Don't analyse that.
I did a little better when I considered that Olivia Giacobetti's En Passant had something of the east about it, a hint of sex, and a taste of the outdoors but I doubt I'd have ever nailed the specificity of 'Paris in the spring when the lilacs bloom'. Another smell I'd not be able to recognise, quite understandably, would be that of 'deja vu' but it's that, alongside irises and fruity musks that Daniela Andrier makes claim for in her Purple Rain. The four words I'd scribbled down were 'midnight', 'edge', 'boudoir', and 'food'. I was struggling.

David Seth Moltz - El Cosmico

Lyn Harris - Charcoal

Andy Tauer - L'Air du Desert Morocain

Bertrand Duchafour - Avignon

Killian Wells - Dark Ride

But I was also enjoying the silly games, the OTT presentation, and the flowery descriptors far more than I'd expected to. Perhaps I'd improve in the second half, pick up a few birdies on the back nine?

Fat chance. My boring one/two word reviews were knocked into a cocked hat by the sheer imagination, or the sheer gall, of these perfumed ponces. I thought David Seth Moltz's El Cosmico was redolent of straw, running water, hair, and unripe fruit but I was reliably informed that it was 'the skies above Marfa' in Texas, 'dry sand at dawn', and 'creosote' that I'd misidentified.

I fared equally poorly with Andy Tauer's L'Air du Desert Morocain. I got pantsuits, money, and the city but Andy was going for ambergris, cumin, and 'newly baked cookies'. Bertrand Duchafour's Avignon, for me, brought together all the components necessary for one of those erotic novels you used to be able to buy in motorway service stations. I was thinking leather, lace, taxis, and nightclubs but that wasn't what Duchafour had in mind at all. No, he'd gone for the far more innocent sandalwood and 'incense of Catholic mass'.

You'd have thought that in naming her fragrance Charcoal Lyn Harris had given me a massive clue and it was one I jumped at. My 'tasting' notes said cigarettes, embers, cinders, and ash but the fiend had wrongfooted me with one of the oldest tricks in the game. What I'd mistaken for having an ashtray tipped over my head was, in fact, moss, rose, rain, clouds, and, best of all, 'dungarees smelling of sawn wood'.

The dungarees most serious competition in terms of sheer ridiculousness came from Killian Wells. His Dark Ride, apparently, is inspired by 'a log flume ride' and 'Pirates of the Caribbean' (and not sick, urine, stupidity, and vulnerability as I'd peevishly, in the manner of a very bad loser, scrawled across my ever more embarrassing card). Wells notched up the nonsense another level too by providing a Photo-Me booth and a selection of garishly coloured cuddly toys you could have your photo taken with. How could I resist such silliness?

In trying to give perfume, like literature or film, a narrative the curators of Perfume:A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent had not been afraid of making themselves look a bit daft, they'd even provided a working lab as a pinnacle to the whole experience, and, in doing so, they'd made for a fun hour or two in which I smiled far more than I frowned and even learnt a couple of things. So if next time you see me I smell of newly baked cookies, dungarees, log flumes, and nut butter don't be alarmed or think I've lost the plot. Just remember that I'm a thoroughly modern man and I'm telling you a story. Splash it all over.

Monday, 18 September 2017

A walk in the park can become a bad dream.

As two of my favourite things are going to the park and looking round art galleries it's no surprise that I'm fond of sculpture gardens. But I've not actually visited that many. I remember a pleasant one on a visit to Washington DC in 1999 and last year's trip to America involved a lovely, sunny couple of hours browsing round the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle with my friends Gareth and Rebecca.

While the weather in September in London couldn't compare with that gorgeous late flowering summer it was nice enough and, mostly, dry. The Frieze Sculpture Park had been set up in the south east corner of London's large, and quite grand, Regent's Park. For those of you who don't know London it's the one with the zoo in it. I was very familiar with the park having worked nearby for eighteen years and regularly taken picnics in it and jogged through it.

After my visit last Friday, and then again on Saturday with Adam, I posted four photographs to my Paul Klee inspired Facebook photo album 'Taking a line for a walk. Journeys into the art of London' and my friend, and most loyal blog editor, Alex said that FINAL DAYS by KAWS (capital letters - the artist's own) looked big, nasty, and nightmarish. I thought it looked quite fun.

I'm not sure if KAWS (real name Brian Donnelly) is a fan of Deadmau5 or not but his wooden giant certainly reminded me of that artists stagewear and logo. More than that it seemed like just the oversized, slightly silly, thing that'd put the smile on the faces of people out for a stroll in the park. I think sometimes that's enough.


Eduardo Paolozzi - Vulcan (1999)

Eduardo Paolozzi is probably the biggest name of the handful of well known artists showing in Regent's Park. I'd enjoyed a retrospective of his at the Whitechapel back in the spring and this, made six years before the artist's death in 2005, was a welcome addition. As was the pint of Paolozzi lager I discovered in The Holly Bush in Hampstead later Saturday afternoon. My integrity as a researcher meant, of course, I had to sample a pint. It tasted like lager. Strong lager.

Another big, and borderline menacing, piece is Peter Regli's marble snowman. Much like KAWS's work I've no idea what the thinking was behind it but I liked it. I wanted to touch it and thinking that was acceptable I did just that. Turns out it's not acceptable but there's nobody there to stop you so I've no idea how those rules are policed other than on trust alone.
Peter Regli - Reality Hacking No 348 (2017)

Bernar Venet - 17 Acute Unequal Angles (2016)

John Wallbank - Untitled (Seven Cube) (2016)
Those works will delight children big and small but it's hard to see youngsters being particularly enthused by Bernar Venet's mathematical looking steel construction or John Wallbank's resin, fibreglass, pigment, plywood, and rope Sewn Cube. In fact in the case of the latter it was pretty hard for this adult to get excited about it.
Majorcan Miquel Barceló seemed to have grasped that novelty isn't such a bad thing in collections like this. His patinated bronze elephant balancing on its trunk may look, as Alex pointed out, susceptible to high winds but it was rather charming all the same.
Hank Willis Thomas's Endless Column of footballs may not have been endless but neither was Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi's 1938 Endless Column of Targu Jiu on which it's been modelled. Brancusi's work stands in remembrance of the infinite sacrifice of the Romanian soldiers who fought, and died, in World War I. Willis Thomas has replaced Brancusi's rhomboidal modules with footballs and it's hard to see where he's really going with that. Is he trying to say our highly paid and pampered professional footballers are somehow the modern day equivalent of those who once died in service. I hope not.

Miquel Barceló - Gran el fandret (2008)

Hank Willis Thomas - Endless Columns (22 Totems) (2017)

Anthony Caro - Erl King (2009)
Unlike Barceló's elephant I'm sure I saw the resin footballs of Willis Thomas swaying in the wind. My thoughts on the work, too, swayed. I was much more sure about Anthony Caro's Erl King and Magdalena Abakonwicz's Standing Figure with Wheel. Caro's rusted steel is fairly typical of the British artist's large pieces but its unpainted appearance gave it the agricultural quality of American abstract expressionist David Smith.
 Poland's Abakanowicz bronze and iron beauty seemed to hark back to an even earlier era. The wheel wouldn't be out a place in a museum of pre-Industrial Revolution farming equipment and the headless, haunted figure takes on even greater significance in the wake of Abakanowicz's death, aged 86, in Warsaw this April.

Magdalena Abakanowicz - Standing Figure with Wheel (1990)

Joanna Plensa - Tribue to dom Thierry Ruinart (2016)

Michael Craig-Martin - Wheelbarrow (red) (2013)

Gary Hume - Bud (2016)
There was nothing in the park I thought was horrible. Or hated. But some were undeniably, and obviously, better than others. I didn't linger too long in front of Michael Craig-Martin's wheelbarrow, Gary Hume's bud, or Joanna Plensa's tribute to 17c Benedictine monk and wine making enthusiast Thierry Ruinart and I was fairly nonplussed by John Chamberlain's bright pink aluminium knot.
Put simply there were better, more interesting, things there to keep me occupied. Not least Alicja Kwade's Bg Be-Hide. Another Pole, 49 years younger than Abakanowicz, her contribution was simple yet effective. A large boulder, a mirror, and a stainless steel sculpture made to look exactly like the stone but silver. As you moved from one side of the mirror to the other the reflection of either the stone or the sculpture appeared to encroach perfectly on its counterpart. It's just an optical illusion but it's a pretty neat one and it was a joy to witness people sussing it out for the first time. Very much the sort of thing that belongs in a park.

John Chamberlain - FIDDLERSFORTUNE (2010)

Alicja Kwade - Big Be-Hide (2017)

Emily Young - Planet (2012)

Mimmo Paladino - Untitled (1989)
As I suppose are the more earnest sculptures of Emily Young and Mimmo Paladino. Even Reza Aramesh's diabolic goat, Rasheed Araeen's approximation of a climbing frame, and Takuro Kuwata's mushroom like growths didn't look too out of place.

Reza Aramesh - Metamorphosis - a study in liberation (2017)

Rasheed Araeen - Summertime - The Regents Park (2017)

Takuro Kuwata - Untitled and Untitled (2016)

Tony Cragg - Stroke (2014)
Tony Cragg's another of the marquee names on show but his Stroke was completely overshadowed by Ugo Rondinone's pale, ghostly, metallic tree. Surrounded by actual trees it's hard to work out if summer moon is in awe of his green brethren or if he somehow exerts a ghastly control over them.
Turning away from Rondinone's tree the stern faces of Thomas J Price's Numen look out at both the entrance of the park and Urs Fischer's skeleton/fountain/chair combo. Fischer, like Rondinone is Swiss born and lives in New York City. Judging by the available evidence there's something about that particular life trajectory that pushes an artist towards making slightly disturbing, if ultimately quite humorous, work.
So, even if the works of Fischer, Rondinone, and KAWS could be, to some, a bit of a nightmare the actual experience was more the kind of thing that dreams are made of. Next time I think I'll take a picnic.

Ugo Rondinone - summer moon (2011)

Thomas J.Price - Numen (Shifting Votive One, Two and Three) (2016)

Urs Fischer - Invisible Mother (2015)

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Can't Get There From Here:Along Dangerous Borders.

"Peace between countries must rest on the solid foundation of love between individuals" - Mahatma Gandhi.

I'm not sure what to think about the fact that the BBC has decided to mark the 70th anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence with a season that puts all the focus on partition and none on independence itself. It's not that the division of then British India wasn't important. It caused anything up to two millions deaths and displaced over ten million people along religious lines so of course it was important. It's just that the wider picture seems to have been ignored and it's not just so the British can look like the good guys. The British Raj quite often come out of this story looking anything but that.

That, somewhat large, caveat aside all the programmes I've caught have been worth seeing. They've been informative, emotional, and even-handed. The one I enjoyed the most though was, perhaps typically for me, something of a travelogue. A travelogue with a difference though. A two headed one. Dangerous Borders:A Journey across India & Pakistan was a trip along the border between those countries from each side with Adnan Sarwar taking the Pakistani side and Babita Sharma the Indian.

Sarwar, of Pakistani heritage, served with the Royal Engineers during two tours of Iraq and now works as a photographer and filmmaker and speaks in a broad Lancashire accent that reveals his Burnley upbringing. Sharma, like me, was born in Reading, and has worked for BBC Radio Berkshire, South Today, and now reads the news on World News Today. Her family have their roots in India.

So the programme makers have chosen well. Instead of going for big league celebrities they've gone for people of a more intellectual bent but also people with a personal history in the region. They're both young (well, younger than me), attractive, enthusiastic, and they're good communicators too. You can't help liking them. As the viewer flips from one side of the border to the other, from one presenter to the other, and we follow each of them on their two thousand mile trek north there's a small part of me that hopes at the end they'll run across the partition line, embrace each other, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Failing that I'd at least like to be friends with both of them.

It's not that sort of show though and it's not that sort of border either. It's the sort of border Gandhi feared. A dangerous one which, sadly, hatred seems to flow across with much easier passage than love. Sharma, whose Hindu family were forced to move to India, seventy years ago starts her journey in Gujarat. In Adipur, a low rise city of white painted buildings just eighty miles from the border which was created specially for refugees fleeing partition. Gandhi's ashes are laid to rest there and, seemingly because Gandhi met Charlie Chaplin in London in 1931, Adipur hosts a Charlie Chaplin convention which sees hundreds of men and women dancing in the streets dressed up as The Little Tramp.

Karachi, where Sarwar starts his trip, is a much much bigger place. A huge city, the most populous in Pakistan, and the beating heart of the country. As if immediately to disprove Western expectations of Pakistan he meets up with an artist who paints pictures of uncovered woman but then instantly confounds our surprise by admitting that this is done at great personal risk. In 2016 the model, activisit, and social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch, at the age of 26, was murdered by her own brother for 'bringing disrepute' to their family. Her 'crime' had been taking selfies with a religious leader.

Despite this the catwalks of Karachi we visit with Sarwar are freer than I'd expected, even if the main market for the clothes is across the border in India. Over there Sharma's teamed up with an all female, all ages (the youngest is 22, the oldest a fresh faced sexagenarian) biker group in Adipur. As they take their collection of Royal Enfields and dirtbikes on the road we're shown that female freedoms have always had to be fought for.

Quite literally in the case of the women Sarwar meets in all women's boxing gym in a poorer part of Karachi. He meets a teenage boxer so devoted to pugilism she even practises during Eid. Each punch seems to be a gradual chip away at decades, centuries even, of misogyny.

These women are not the only ones who find life tough in Karachi. The city has had a large East African population for as long as anyone can remember and although Islam forbids discrimination and there's no caste system there is still, surprise surprise, racism at play. It doesn't seem to matter how well tended a garden is, the weeds always seems to come through. Here as with almost everywhere else on Earth. Perhaps the racists could be fed to the two hundred plus 'magical' crocodiles that the Sufis keep in the lakes around the tomb of Manghopir instead of the sacrificial meat brought along regularly as offerings by devotees?

India, of course, does have a caste system and although it's illegal to discriminate based on it almost everybody still does. The clues to what caste you come from are not easy to hide. They're in your name. Sharma itself reveals Babita's family to have once belonged to the Brahmin caste, the uppermost caste in all India. Many others see the Brahmin, due to the great privileges bestowed upon them, as oppressors. Babita seems sad about this but it's unlikely that had she been born a Dalit her family would've ever had the opportunity to move abroad or been fortunate enough to experience any of the other opportunities they must've had. There's no two ways about it, the caste system is not a good thing.

We're soon shown how that actually plays out in India when Babita travels on to the Little Rann of Kutch. It's a hostile desert landscape punctuated by mountains of salt where one hundred thousand, low-caste, people work risking blindness, lesions, and tuberculosis in temperatures of forty five degrees for what amounts to an absolute pittance. There's money in this work but they won't see it. Someone's getting rich out of it but it's not them. Such is the fucked up capitalist world most of us now accept living in. Hope for future change isn't great either as we meet kids working there. They can't afford to go to school, they can't get an education, and they can't escape the trap.

In Pakistan's Thar desert Sarwar travels to the Zero Point border crossing. Remarkably it's one of only three crossings along the whole of this enormous border. If any world leader were insane enough to think putting a huge wall up increases safety they might be instructed to take a look at the regular outbreaks of trouble that occur on this border, often costing people their lives. Some fear an incident of large enough magnitude could trigger an all out war between two nations both in possession of nuclear weaponry.

As their car reaches the border the rangers transporting Sarwar order him and his team to stop filming. The camera comes back on for a meeting with a Hindu desert tribe who still live in Pakistan. They stayed on in Pakistan because they feared, as low-caste Hindus, they'd face worse discrimination in India than in Pakistan. It's speculation as to whether or not that would've happened but here they live, work, and even intermarry with the local Muslim population.

If that sounds like a good thing (which it does) prepare to be disappointed by their treatment of women. The women can't mix with men and even have to eat separately from their husbands but judging by the crude jokes they direct at Sarwar perhaps they're just winding him up. They certainly seemed very skilled in the art of the leg-pull.

Both Babita and Adnan have their roots in the lush, verdant Punjab region. 80% of the Punjab is on the Pakistani side (where, of course, Adnan is visiting) and 100,000,000 people (half of Pakistan's total population) live there. They're harvesting sunshine, in the form of solar energy, and, with trade with India not much of an option, the Chinese are backing it. Pakistan needs the money but for China this is of strategic importance. Despite the niceties thrown back and forth between the Pakistanis and the Chinese you can't help feeling that all concerned know that Pakistan is very much the junior partner in this deal.

Over in Indian Punjab Sharma cycles through the tree lined boulevards of Chandigarh. Nehru created it as capital of Indian Punjab when Lahore fell on the Pakistani side of the border and it was designed by Le Corbusier. It doesn't look that much like anything else in India and, despite its many critics, it's an architecturally fascinating place.

Lahore is too. For different reasons. Once seat of the Mughal empire it's now the home of the Pakistani film industry and the country's literary scene. Here, as with most places we're taken, we hear heart rending tales of partition. This show is as much as a history programme as a travelogue.

But who will write the future history? Adnan talks to Salman Ahmed, whose band Vital Signs, in 1987, had such a hit with their song Dil Dil Pakistan it has taken on the status of an unofficial national anthem. Ahmed speaks of accountability and posits that with 70% of Pakistan's population now under twenty years of age what route will these youngsters take? What route will they be allowed to take and with a 60% illiteracy rate what are the dangers they'll be exploited by fundamentalists and demagogues? Pakistan is, after all, a country that spends ten times more on defence than education.

At a Sufi ceremony we learn that Sufis have been rejected by the rampant swing towards conservatism in Pakistan and have also been attacked there. Islamic State and the Taliban take delight in killing them but then again IS and the Taliban take delight in killing just about everyone and everything.

The heroin that flows into the region from Afghanistan has had a huge affect on the Indian side of the border. There are 4,000,000 heroin addicts in Indian Punjab alone, many of them middle aged women. Babita meets some of them in a female rehab centre before a trip to the, very different, Amritsar temple complex, 'the pool of the nectar of immortality'!

During independence/partition the Sikhs never got the homeland of Kalistan some of them wanted and, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, in 1984, following her Operation Blue Star military operation to take control of the Golden Temple, three thousand Sikhs were murdered in reprisal attacks.

It's a gruesome, bloody, episode that only serves to prove that an eye for an eye soon leaves the whole word blind. Far better to follow the example of Adnan Sarwar. He's visiting Jassar where Babita's father was born and as Babita won't be able to visit herself he takes some sand from one of the buildings as a present for her. It's a touching moment and as close to the romance I'd wished for the show ever gets to. His home village, Kharian, is a garrison town and his mum's there to meet him. She tells him he needs to get married soon, that time's running out. It seems I'm not the only one looking for a little romance.

In a world where nationalism has taken hold from Trump to Brexit to Putin and beyond it's no surprise to find it's rampant in both India and Pakistan. It's still depressing though - and jarring if the militarized zone in Jammu and Kashmir, that looks like Switzerland, is anything to go by. The local sweet shop owner displays mortar shells and the charm of the people either side of the border, both sides upset at what their governments (and, historically, the British) have done to divide, and endanger them, sits uneasily along the horrific stories of young newlyweds bleeding to death from shrapnel wounds.

In the mountains of northern Pakistan the Taliban are the threat. As much as they like to kill Sufis the Taliban love to kill tourists too so Adnan is protected by AK-47 wielding guards as he takes a train to the lower Himalayas where they're building a railway bridge higher than the Eiffel Tower. At Gilgit he watches a polo match which seems to act as a metaphor for the whole situation. In a beautiful setting a dangerous game with no clear rules is played out. This time the police win and celebrate by dancing with their Kalashnikovs.

Babita's in Srinagar now where many Kashmiris want independence from both India and Pakistan. It's India's only majority Muslim state and it's violent and dangerous. Protests tend to follow Friday prayer sessions suggesting that religion isn't the solution to their problems but very much the cause of them. Kids still in their school uniforms are subjected to tear gas, bullets, and pellets but if it's what God wants who are we to say it's wrong, eh?

Even while we're there the Indian army slingshot stones into the mosque and there's a scrap. Eventually Babita, her crew, and the cameras are forced to retreat. As more and more lies are propagated, and education denied, the circle of violence is all but guaranteed for future generations. It seems pretty hopeless but flowers can, and do, grow even in the most parched of deserts.

Sixty miles from the border with China in Passu, Adnan meets with some Caucasian looking, Muslim schoolgirls. Amongst this beautiful mountainous scenery there is a 100% literacy rate and there lies hope that if religion can't be abandoned, it can at least be adapted, or directed towards the peace it often pertains to care so much about.

On the terrifying ice roads of the Himalayas at the Zoji La pass we meet with an Indian man who lives 10k from his brother but, because of the 'line of control', it takes him fifteen days to visit him. This is the kind of insanity that these unnatural borders have caused and, other than the religious fundamentalists and nationalistic governments that hold sway over so much of the region, it seems to me that people are sick of it. They don't want it any more. There doesn't seem to be any hope whatsoever of things changing in the foreseeable future but hopefully if more people stick to Gandhi's message and act with love, instead of hate, there'll at least be a chance that things could improve in the future when these huge, and youthful, populations grow to be adults. If they're denied education because of dogmatic or economic circumstances, however, we could end up continuing to travel in the opposite direction and the results of that really don't bear thinking about.