What do you look for in an exhibition?
A series of vibrant paintings. A multi-media representation of an abstract concept. Or perhaps the rebounding spittle of a hipster dribbling into a plastic cup?
Visits to the White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey are often accompanied by facing something new. Hoards of artists including Gilbert and George, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Anthony Gormley have exhibited there in just the past few years. It’s a dream considering there’s no entrance fee.
The combination of an incredible feat of architecture that means the interior walls can be dismantled and reassembled, and the sheer variety of artists who have used the space, means that it’s often difficult to know what to expect. It can be engineered to suit the exhibitors and present the viewer with an alternative way of looking at their work.
This particular foray was an entirely new experience. My previous knowledge of Christian Marclay was close to none – I like it that way. I like having no idea what I am about to find.
‘Diverse’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. The variety of methods and materials that he uses in his work is vast - paintings, film and graphic installations, musical performances, even a vinyl machine and printing press.
His paintings are what one might expect if Jackson Pollock and Roy Lichtenstein sat down and decided to make a comic book together. Walking down the corridor was like following Marclay on his journey around the east London streets on a Saturday morning, kicking bottles aside, scuffling around broken glass. Projections lined the walls and each one was a different length, so every walk was accompanied by a unique combination of scenes.
One room is filled with screens showing the noises that liquids make in their various forms. I sat down in the middle of the room and watched the walls for longer than I realised. Drawn in by the visually onomatopoeic graphics, it was as if I could hear all the sounds that flashed up around the walls.
It’s even a treat for the nostrils - well, not so much a treat as a test of will. The smells from the vinyl machine and printing press mix and spread throughout the gallery creating something similar to Copydex. Flash back to year four.
The largest room is perhaps the most daunting. The walls are lined with beer glasses. I tried to count them all but was interrupted and lost my number. It was somewhere in the three figures, I’m certain.
I’m glad I left this part of the exhibition until the end.
A young man entered and began lining up glasses on the floor. I believe he is an art student at Central Saint Martins or somewhere similar. He took bottles of prosecco and began to pour it from a great height into one of the row. Kneeling down and taking a drink, he began to simultaneously gargle and knee-shuffle along the ground, holding the thread in front of him, towards the plastic cup. When at last he reached the cup, he stood, stopped gargling and started to dribble very slowly into it. Mingled saliva and prosecco hit the plastic with a sound like a drunk man missing the bowl...I imagine.
My interest in the performance as ‘art’ rapidly transposed into a mixture of sympathy and incredulity for the poor boy and the lengths to which a student will go to get a foot in the door. Fascinating as it was to see, I have to admit that I could not watch him go through each of the glasses.
I’m afraid to say I only made it to three before I needed the loo. I can only imagine how he must have felt by the final glass.
Every young person in the shift between adolescence and adulthood has experienced a feeling of hopelessness at some point. Written by Simon Longman and produced by the Pentabus Rural Theatre Company, Milked expresses the difficulties of this transition in a way that is both moving and relevant. Who would have thought that a play about unemployment, illness and feeling trapped could be so uplifting?
Milked tells the story of Paul and Snowy, two close friends from rural Herefordshire who are trying to find some direction in their lives. Paul just wants a job. Snowy just wants to go for a walk. And both of them want to find a way to save Sandy, a very sick cow.
Paul (Adam Redmore) is desperately searching for a job doing “media stuff” in London but to no avail and with little idea of what this actually entails. His optimism that he’s going places is tested when Snowy (Oliver Mott) finds a cow and insists that he helps him cure it.
As it becomes clear that there is no saving the animal, they frantically try to find a way to put her out of her misery, thinking up ever more elaborate plans involving an air rifle, a JCB and the first train of the day. Snowy’s original desire to become “a f***ing Mother Teresa for cows” and Paul’s inability to find employment are cause for their need to prove themselves when everyone around them is moving on with their lives.
Simon Longman’s play tackles the problems that everyone experiences at some point, dealing with such conventional topics in a wholly unconventional manner. The stress of looking for a job without the necessary qualifications and the feeling of a lack of control at the hands of your parents are addressed with sensitivity and wit. Longman finds humour in the smallest and most commonplace events. His writing is poignant and optimistic, despite the hopelessness of the boys’ situation.
Mott and Redmore have a rapport that is clear from the opening scene, in which a quick fire argument about going for a walk displays excellent comic timing. Mott’s portrayal of Snowy as a simple but well meaning country lad shows great depth, as his positive exterior proves to be a mask for a lack of direction and a difficult relationship with his parents. Redmore acts out Paul’s descent into unhappiness with an intensity that is effective, if not occasionally a little overplayed.
The contrast between the two characters makes you wonder at times why they are even friends given their entirely different perspectives on the world. But the way in which they interact with each other shows the complementary nature of a relationship between two very different people. Their actions speak truths about loyalty and jealousy, and their dialogue shows a true chemistry between the two actors, which makes the unbelievable events that transpire seem almost possible.
The simplicity of the set – fake grass and a few cupboards – and the absence of a full size stuffed cow, which has been present in previous productions, gave director Elizabeth Freestone a challenging backdrop on which to stage a script with so many physical components. However, the rapid scene changes, sound effects and bizarre props give just enough for the audience to create their own mental image of the Herefordshire countryside.
The Pentabus Theatre Company is based in Shropshire and creates only performances set in the countryside. Milked premiered with Pentabus in November 2013 as a co-production with The Courtyard Theatre in Hereford and ran for a few weeks, but made a come back this year due to its popularity. Simon Longman, who won the Channel 4 bursary award for Milked, became playwright in residence following the first run.
Just like a black comedy should, this two-man show finds a balance between the hilarious, the ridiculous and the heart rending. It jumps from laughter to sadness in minutes, but manages to retain an uplifting tone throughout almost all of the performance. With themes to which everyone can relate, Milked is overall a joyful take on an unusual subject.
(picture credit: Pentabus Theatre Company)