Some of the many places I wish I had taken photos and didn’t.
- The Garden Terrace Cafe just off Istaklal Caddesi in Istanbul where we had an entirely memorable meal. (Just didn’t. Too engaged with trying to make myself understood.)
- The jewellers in Kusadasi where we bought the fake Zultanite ring which changes colours according to the light source. A photo would have been so appropriate … and threatening. (Too busy doing the deal. The room was very artfully poorly lit.)
- A first night in Thessaloniki. (Grumpy.)
- The National Theatre in Belgrade where we saw the opera ‘Nabucco’. It was so photogenic. (Didn’t take my pack. Would have had to carry my camera. Not quite cool …)
- The forecourt of Hampton Court Palace with Jules Holland and his big band. A knockout concert but the lighting effects made the visuals simply extraordinary. (See Nabucco above.)
- The Almeida Theatre in Islington where we saw the ‘Oresteia’, a sharply defined curate’s egg: reflecting the plays themselves as it happens — 2/3 scintillatingly good; 1/3 lingeringly bad. I wanted to get pics of the crowd. (Not cool.)
I regret these absences, however excusable. They leave big holes in my visual memory. (Some people have phones …)
But their equal, equal worst, and worse in some important ways — I could have, it would have made sense, I would have been joining in, I could have put my camera in my pocket — was the failure to take my camera to Zeichen, Erscheinungen, Deutungen [Drawings, Appearances, Meanings] upstairs in the Galerie Konzett in Vienna.
I wasn’t that keen to go. The day had begun in Zagreb at 5.30am which for some people is not early. For me, coupled with departure from one of the cosiest hotels in the Balkans, it was challenging. This was followed by an 8-hour train ride which had left us on the outskirts of Vienna where taxis did not roam freely. To get to our meeting point we walked past the Staatsoper which was offering tickets to Romeo and Juliet for 50 Euros a throw. Very tempting. But we tottered off down Spiegelgasse to dive into a lucky dip where we found Jo. She was playing. She introduced us to her friends as ‘her brother’s parents’. Near enough. Just missed the ‘in-law’ part. She thought we’d like it.
The gallery upstairs was filled with extras from The Third Man. The craggy aged and the bright young things full of well-modulated certainty. Self-containment could have been a keynote. The expressive gestures had been reserved for appearance. Big scarves, greatcoats. Big and great carvings of hair. Hats: a fedora, a fez, several berets, yarmulkas, a beanie, several beanies and beanie derivatives in fact. Belts as a feature. As for myself, I was wearing Australian neat casual (think low end Henry Buck’s) which sort of set me apart from the crowd. Not unpleasantly. I felt that my unusual choice of dress was appreciated. Lots of leather, some silk, and a young woman who looked a lot like Marilyn Monroe at the divine zenith of her career. She may have been making a formal contribution to the event, or it might just have turned out that way. Later she was revealed as the girlfriend of one of the singers. I was gradually edged off my bit of bench by someone amiably drunk who could have been a Romanian countess, hair dyed an assertive pink.
So. We have three rooms full of paintings curated by our host Mr Konzett with a strong mittel-European flavour. Dark. Complex. Confronting.
We have a string quartet (Jo second violin), a recorder, a theorbo (see pic), and a harpsichord played by the conceptualist/ concert master, Michael Mautner. We have three singers.
We have a man intermittently reading selections from Goethe. We have a woman recording it all carefully on video.
Myrna’s fuzzy phone pic captures some of this. There were several dozen other people you can’t see.
I’m not sure if the paintings lining the walls of the gallery had been chosen for the event. Well … of course they were.
Dieter Roth’s ‘When signs are painted on the bed cover of words’ was the conceptual axis. (This is my sorry photo of a folded postcard collected on the night.) My translation of the notes for the occasion says:
Like flames, red letters appear on a patterned fabric. Words and word fragments lose themselves in signs and symbols. “If on a bed cover … of words, characters … painted …”. (sic) What captures us in Dieter Roth’s painting are the insights, the intertextual symbolic references, the puzzles. Roth’s drawing and typeface send us on a search for interpretation. The work dates from the 1990s and is one of the central works of the event concept and the exhibition.
Among the others was a portrait of Josef Beuys, one of my favourite artists, covered in gold leaf. As explained elsewhere on the net, ‘This image shows Beuys during his famous 1965 action How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf). For three hours Beuys, his head covered in gold leaf and honey, held a dead hare against his chest and murmured into its ear. The action, which was only visible from outside, through the art gallery windows, was meant as a reflection on the limits of language and human intuition.’
The dominant display though is photographic records of Otto Meuhl’s Materialaktionen, of which this is a more cheery example. They provide ‘motifs that seem to illustrate these moments, “ghosting – trance”, especially the prophecy itself, according to which Saul falls with his son in battle.’
From memory the event began with the spoken word which was followed immediately by Henry Purcell’s ‘Fantasia on one note’. More Goethe which of course I couldn’t follow at all. Then Terry Riley’s ‘In C.’
This is the score. Except that I looked over the shoulder of one of the string players and she was working off what looked like a page of simplified guitar chord charts and a stop watch. But it was somehow utterly captivating. The person playing C gets a good go.
This was followed by John Cage’s ‘Five’ (for any five instruments or voices, and lasting five minutes), similarly atonal, similarly challenging.
For the crowd these two pieces were the highlight of the night. They broke into delighted applause at the end of each, as though they had just broken into the heart of a Faschingskrapfen filled with perfect custard.
More Goethe extracts and finally Purcell’s ‘In Guilty Nights’, and this my friends was a show-stopper. (Listen to Julita Mirosławska and friends perform it here.) It was also the case that several members of the audience had fallen asleep and the bloke in front of me was checking the price of white goods on his phone. But there we were, just in this room — standing up, tired, hungry, people packed around the musicians, pictures of cadavers and tortured bodies peering over our shoulders — this collection of eccentric bits and pieces … an aural wunderkammer.
What do you make of all that then? Pretentious bullshit? High brow rubbish? A waste of two hours?
The notes conclude: ‘Whoever thinks of these pictures when listening to [this?] music, whoever thinks of this music when looking at these pictures, will discover something new: this is one of the main options [characteristics? aspirations? products?] of our concept concerts.’ Maybe not. I couldn’t make the connections that Michael Mautner wanted me to make. I won’t think of Deiter Roth when I hear some Purcell. For me Otto Meuhl’s horrorscapes are unlikely to generate a productive interaction with Terry Reilly’s insistent insistence.
If you came to the occasion with an open mind and hadn’t already decided the whole thing was a Euro-existentialist wank, the real threat would be boredom. That didn’t happen. I was highly engaged by it all. The features of the context — the exotic crowd, the foreign setting, the unusual ambience — helped no doubt. The musicians, drawn from the very rich cream of the Viennese music world, were several rungs above excellent. I don’t listen to Cage or Reilly for pleasure but that night I could. Some at least of any experience of art is peering into the contents of someone else’s head, and I could understand Mautner’s intentions and respect his ambition. One could never doubt and, that night, share the seriousness of his purpose. I was entertained. Two years later it remains utterly memorable.
Same city a few days later. (Fans. Aussie fans.)
It was a considered decision to go. It’s not the sort of thing where you’re sitting at home on a Friday night noodling away looking through the Green Guide and thinking, hmm tonight: Bris v. Melb. Bloody hell. She’s not that into you. Urk. A really old Midsomer Murders that you’ve seen a couple of times. … How about we go out? That Eurovision-y thing, that’s on tonight isn’t it? How about that? Where’s it on? Vienna. Uh huh. … Where did you say?
There was some planning involved.
These are sordid confessions, but after searching for a source that would get me two guaranteed tickets and failing, I registered as a potential buyer (a prerequisite) six months before the tickets went on sale. On the morning at the requisite time I sat with my finger on the mouse and slammed it down at one second after the ‘go’ moment arrived and slowly proceeded through the digital labyrinth before stalling absolutely. What’s happened? Has the computer frozen? Has the ISP gone down? Has the copper line got wet again? Panic!! Back quick and start again — and thus lost my place in the queue — and after 80,000 tickets (there’s lots of bits of Eurovision, semis, shows for kids, shows of kids, etc etc) were sold in 12 minutes, I found nothing left that was of interest. In the sort of frenzy that grips one in such circumstances I dug digital holes in the internet and found a broker who in exchange for the deed to our house would provide two suitable tickets. Oh, and they had to be delivered to an address in Europe where I could physically pick them up and they wouldn’t be available until after we had started travelling, and so on and so on.
For years we’ve been big fans of the Eurovision Song Contest, an event when far far too much is not enough. Hear me sing: ‘We believe, we believe, we believe in the dream. We can shine. Shiiiiiiiiiiine. Woo-oooh woo-ooooh. Loove loove loooooooove. People if you can feel the love raise your hands up in the air. A million voices join in. Join innnn!!!’ Sam Peng and Julia Zamiro make it fun but we needed to see for ourselves, and on the 22nd May we found ourselves walking up Josefstadter Strasse to a station which would take us to the Stadhalle with two tickets to hand.
The city was hardly overwhelmed but knew what was happening.
The main interest was still Conchita Wurst (‘sausage’? Yes) who had won with ‘Rise like a Phoenix’ the year before. Austrian President Heinz Fischer declared her victory ‘not just a victory for Austria but for all diversity and tolerance in Europe’. Conchita may now be dead with Tom Neuwirth instead being the phoenix rising from the ashes, but at the time she wasn’t just promoting diversity and tolerance, but banking as well. [‘Austria won with Conchita. You’ll win with CashBack.’]
We got there in time to enjoy the crowd, to be thoroughly body searched and to surrender our umbrellas.
Our seats overlooked the ‘green room’ where the artists and their teams were preparing.
Conchita descended from on high singing as she came.
And it was on.
The candidates: Albania, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, FYR Macedonia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom — 20 percent of the countries in the world.
The ‘Big Five’ (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK) automatically get in the final in this case with 21 others, along with that well known European country, on debut — Australia. This is explained thus: In honour of the 60th anniversary of Eurovision, the governing body had invited Australia to participate in the finals of the contest, represented by SBS. SBS has been a long-time broadcaster of the event which has a large following in Australia.
Now it is important to say here that we were at the Grand Final Jury Rehearsal. With the rest of the sellout crowd we saw what the jury cast its votes on, a carbon copy of the Grand Grand Final with full country voting and announcement of the winners the next night. Albania, Hungary and Poland were obviously affected by nerves, but the performances were if anything slightly better than the Grand Grand which we watched from the safety of our hotel room.
It stood up to its billing. Fast, furious, enthralling. Paced by big, no huge ballads (Greece, oh yes, ‘One last breath…’ wind machine turned up to 11, Germany ‘You said you’d never go’, comparatively feeble, Italy, three tenors belting out ‘grande amore’). And oddities. A tree trunk of a Serbian in 40 metres of evening gown howling at the camera, Spain with a half-naked man over-enthusiastically wrestling the barely dressed singer. The Makemakes (Austria) set their piano on fire, the best part of their act really. Guy Sebastian (nice hat) came on and bopped his way through a surprisingly engaging song ‘Tonight again’. Australians will be glad to know he was terrific. It didn’t matter that he sang in Australian because most other people do as well.
Monika Kuszynska (Poland) sang from a wheelchair.
It was all decorated with scarcely believable light shows and underpinned by a superb orchestra. Staging staging staging. Simply astonishing. The eventual winner Mans Zelmerlow (Sweden, ‘We are the heroes of our time, but we are dancing with the demons in our minds’) was partnered with animation. Watch it. It’s worth it. Like everything else at Eurovision, except the voting, it only goes for three minutes.
Sometime around here we paid a visit to the Leopold Art Museum and among the displays was one by Tex Rubinowitz. Tex ‘has followed the Eurovision Song Contest for decades with great enthusiasm, has experienced it live many times and has often been able to predict the winners. His main interest however lies with the losers of the world’s largest music contest.’ And Tex had given us drawings with stories of all those who had received ‘nul points’, no points, no votes at all, not from anyone, zero. One can usually assume that Austria and Germany will pump up each other’s tyres, but this night: Germany (pictured, just below us): Nul Points; and for the host nation, Austria, and its pyromaniacs, a well-deserved: Nul Points.
It’s political. That’s one of its attractions. The Scandinavian countries will probably vote en bloc. Azerbaijan, Serbia, Georgia, Moldova and Belarus will vote for Russia. Latvia and Estonia won’t. Turkey and Bulgaria might come or they might decide they are not really in Europe. Could go either way. Israel? Why not Palestine; even Lebanon? No one will vote for the UK or France, often because they’re rubbish. (Bucks Fizz anyone?) It’s a bit like living out the current geopolitical disposition of Europe. That makes it interesting.
But you don’t watch the Eurovision for substance or enlightenment. For a tutorial on how to win you could check this out. Everyone knows. It’s crazy. It’s spectacle. It’s kitsch*, high kitsch but nonetheless kitsch. The basis of the jury’s judgement is utterly mysterious. To explain the vicissitudes of the popular vote see above — but only partly. Partly, who knows? You can’t take it seriously, and yet, and yet, it’s peace and love, we’re all together (but not really), woooo ooh. And the winner is, well, the winner and at some atavistic level it seems to matter. Entertainment? Oh yes, and in so many ways.
A side note, during the 2015 results loud boos erupted whenever Russia was mentioned. Russian entrant Polina Gagarina was seen crying in the highly exposed green room. The organisers had anticipated such reactions from the crowd, and had prepared and installed ‘anti-booing technology’ cutting out these sounds from transmission. That night this gear was used for the first time in Eurovision broadcast history.
Somewhat undercutting the 60th anniversary explanation, in 2017 Australia will be represented again. (Guy came fifth, last year Dami Im came second. Will the final ever be held in Canberra I wonder.) The contest will be staged in the capital of Ukraine, Kiev. There is every chance that the anti-booing technology may be required again. 13th May. Save the date.
A backyard in Warrnambool which is in fact a stage. The show: ‘Hairy black spider looking at the moon’. It is occurring as we look. This is one of the striding sections. It lasts about six minutes and it has a number of stanzas, variations perhaps. The aural component is a melange of words collected from favourite songs ‘… sexy, yes the spider is sexy, and are you going to love me, love me now, forever, I’m looking at the moon ….’ Visually we have a range of moves collected from dance class, from videos, from practice at home, from ideas provided by her parents. The artist is fully engaged, totally immersed without necessarily knowing what might come next. Extempore. Ad libitum. But a mind bubbling over with ideas which substitute for Olympic-grade lighting, an 80-piece orchestra or a theorbo and which fill and transform this unlovely bit of western Victoria.
It does go on a bit, but it’s a show, and we love it because we love her. That is also entertainment.
What you’re hearing is something we can call organicism. A vision of culture not as a loose assemblage of disparate fragments but as an organic unity, each component, like the organs in a body, carefully adapted to occupy a particular place, each part essential to the functioning of the whole. The Eurovision song contest, the cutouts of Matisse, the dialogues of Plato are all parts of a larger whole. As such, each is a holding in your cultural library, so to speak, even if you have never personally checked it out. Even if it isn’t your jam, it is still your heritage and possession. Organicism explains how our everyday selves can be dusted with gold.
— Kwame Anthony Appiah (read it all here) British-born, Ghanaian-American philosopher and cultural theorist
* Kitsch (loanword from German) is art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way. [Exactly.]