Sunday, 22 November 2015

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

Like many people, my first introduction to Ai Weiwei was his sunflower seeds installation at the Tate Modern; I remember looking out over the huge space of the Turbine Hall and thinking that the combination of painstaking detail and sheer scale produced a perspective shift that was almost meditative, like looking out over the sea. In his new exhibition at the Royal Academy, Ai Weiwei again delivers work that masters its impressive surroundings and grabs your attention - even before you enter the building, in the case of his courtyard installation 'Trees'. (photo courtesy of the Royal Academy) 

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and political activist, son of a dissident poet and sent along with his family into exile in labour camps as a result of his father's work, not returning to Beijing until Mao's death. I usually like to go round an exhibition once without any form of guide just so that I can come to it without any preconceptions but in this case the historical and political background is so intrinsic that I did take advantage of the audio guide included in the ticket price and I recommend that you do the same.

At every turn there is something beautiful, thought-provoking and challenging. Ai's signature large-scale work, coupled with wonderful curating which allows you to walk around, through and under the installations, means that you can really immerse yourself in the exhibition. You can find one-metre cube versions of much smaller precious objects made of crystal, tea, or intricately-carved wood, or disparate items such as sex toys and human remains reworked in different materials.

In 'Marble Stroller', the worker-bee-like segments of marble grass evoke his famous sunflower seeds, all similar but individual. The stroller, and the petrified surveillance camera, represent a chilling encounter when Ai Weiwei was out with his young son and challenged a man photographing them. Weiwei took the memory card from the man, who claimed to be a tourist; checking it later at his studio, he found hundreds of images of his child.

'Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn' is here, along with 'Coloured Vases', a group of Neolithic vases (or are they?) destroyed/transformed by industrial paint. This, for me, was perhaps the least engaging part of a magnificent exhibition - possibly because the rest is so raw and visceral, this paled by comparison. The questions of value, authenticity and art are interesting but they are ongoing and I feel if they had been exhibited separately they may not have been immediately identifiable as his work; I didn't feel powerfully drawn to these in the same way as the rest of the rooms.

The opposite is true of 'Straight'. This is my absolute favourite section of the exhibition; by which I mean, it brought me close to tears. 'Straight' is a response to the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 in which over 5,000 children died as a result of shoddily-built schools collapsing; film footage shows distraught parents attempting to resuscitate their lifeless children amid the wreckage.

The names of the dead - originally not released by the Chinese authorities - line the walls in bare chart form along with their dates of birth, while in the centre of the room a huge undulating row of rusted metal rods echoing the seismic activity graph of an earthquake, or the wave itself. These are the cheap rebars used to reinforce the concrete in the schools (there is a suggestion that the money intended for rods of a suitable strength may have been diverted to line official pockets) collected by Ai Weiwei and his volunteers and then hammered straight again. It is incredibly moving.

Ai Weiwei started a blog at the end of 2005, stating 'If to express oneself needs a reason, let me say that to express oneself is the reason.' This was shut down by the Chinese authorities after it started getting 100.000 hits a day and he used it to call for freedom of information so now he spends hours a day on Twitter. For me, one of the most elegantly powerful statements about this came in his 2012 Guardian interview: 'The Internet is uncontrollable. And if the Internet is uncontrollable, freedom will win. It's as simple as that.'

S.A.C.R.E.D is set of six large, rusting industrial tanks containing half life-size dioramas of scenes from his illegal incarceration on the vague grounds of alleged 'financial irregularities'. The works show Ai Weiwei eating, showering, sleeping and using the toilet whilst two impassive uniformed guards stand feet away, watching. Disturbing enough, you have to view the scenes by standing on a step to look in a small gap at the top of the tank, or stooping to peer through a narrow window along the side, forcing you to become part of the intrusive voyeurism of the work.

You leave the exhibition under the twinkling glamour of an extravagantly huge chandelier, constructed using thousands of crystals and the humble Forever bicycle, ubiquitous in China.

The Royal Academy have extended their opening hours for the last few weekends, including an unprecedented 56-hour marathon for the final one. So don't miss this; it has gone straight into my top five exhibitions ever and will stay in your mind long after you leave.

Yours, newly thankful for the ability to write and post this at all,

Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Breaking Bad pop-up bar

Yo bitches! As a fan of Breaking Bad I was very happy to get my hands on tickets to ABQ's themed pop-up bar in Hackney last week - and it didn't disappoint. I'll try not to give away any spoilers for those who haven't seen the series but if you are in the know you will recognise some key features. . .

There are three time slots per evening and despite taking time out to admire the street art on the way from Hackney Wick station (East London for me is still the best place for this) we arrived early for ours and so had time for a couple of pre-drinks. There are some nice details: the menu is in a copy of Walt  Whitman's Leaves of Grass, cocktails are served in beakers and blue is the colour of choice. You can even buy a charred pink bear with one eye and round off the evening with fried chicken and chips from Los Pollos Hackney, which clearly had to be done. 

The main event happens in an RV; you are hustled in by a DEA agent but, once your credentials have been established, it's time to get cooking. You get to make two different cocktails in teams of six, using an impressive array of equipment straight from a high school chemistry lab and assisted by guides in yellow overalls, all under the steely gaze of a huge backlit Heisenberg. Tread lightly.

Once you have done your thing with dry ice and nitrous oxide, the cocktails are served up for you to enjoy. It's dark, a bit cramped and lots of fun; you bond with your fellow meth cooks over the tasks and recounting your favourite characters (Jesse, obviously, and Mike - and as a character, Gus is fab) and quotes from the show (I am the one who knocks!).

Win the competition for the best version of cocktail two and your team is rewarded by a test tube rack of violently blue shots. Do you even have to ask, of course we won! Yeah bitch! 

Tumbling back out of the RV into the night, I was slightly envious of the next group as they got rounded up by the DEA. If you're missing your Walter White fix, or you fell for the new season prank and got your hopes up (really??), then get on the ABQ website now and grab yourself a reservation. Show them some love; rumour has it that they might make it a permanent bar, and I think I need this in my life.

Yours, cookin' some blue, bitch!

London Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Kaspar's at the Savoy

Kaspar's is the reincarnation of the old River Restaurant, reborn with some style. I actually arrived at the Savoy by way of a very pleasant amble through Victoria Embankment gardens, so the simplest thing would have been to nip in the hotel's understated River Entrance and straight in to the restaurant. Simple maybe, but there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to stroll along Savoy Court and make a grand entrance beneath the famous glittering steel frontage, passing a pristine pearlescent Rolls valet-parked at the side - as you do.

Just before we go in, let me take you on a small detour along the aforementioned Savoy Court; it is a much-loved and oft-quoted piece of London trivia that this is the only road in London where vehicles must drive on the right. According to the Savoy's press officer this is because traditionally, when travelling in a horse-drawn carriage, ladies would sit behind the driver and so would exit on the right hand side; this system enabled a decorous and less muddy descent straight into the hotel. The Londonist, a wonderful and authoritative site on all things London (if you're not already following them, do so immediately on or @londonist), has pointed out that Hammersmith bus station employs the same rule, though presumably not for the same reasons. I have since heard the 'fact' re-quoted as the only named road in London where traffic drives on the right. Either way it's a rarity and still a nice little nugget of London randomness.

Meanwhile, back to the Savoy itself. Graciously greeted by numerous members of staff (all, inevitably, far more elegantly dressed than I was) I made my way through the lobby, past the shop and through the tea room to Kaspar's. The sheer sumptuousness of the hotel is reassuringly impressive; chequerboard marble floors, glittering chandeliers, cascades of vibrant orchids and gleaming polished wood. Entering Kaspar's itself is like stepping back into the 1920s, with dramatic Murano glass lighting above the circular bar, huge mirrors and stylish Art Deco detailing.

Before we get to the meal itself, for those of you who don't know the story of Kaspar, let me give you a little background; are you sitting comfortably? One evening in 1898 Woolf Joel, a South African mining millionaire, hosted a dinner for fourteen at the Savoy. One of the diners cried off at short notice and an anxious guest suggested cancelling the entire evening; superstition has it that, if thirteen people sit down to dine, the first one to leave the table will die within the year. Joel reassured his guests by ensuring that he himself was the first person to get up from the table; weeks later, he was murdered in his office. 

Erring on the side of caution the Savoy began providing tables of thirteen with a member of staff as a quatorzieme, but this meant diners could not always speak freely. The problem was solved in 1926 when Kaspar was sculpted by Basil Ionides; to this day he sits before a full place setting as the elegant fourteenth guest when required, napkin around his neck, silent and utterly discreet. 
 However, as our booking was for two, sadly there was no need for Kaspar to make a personal appearance. Settling down at the table we decided to look through the menu over a glass of champagne; dithering over the crispy duck salad to start, I eventually went for the garden pea soup, which was served poured over an asian-style prawn and salmon dumpling. The soup was excellent and the pairing with the dumpling worked much better than I expected, the different sweetnesses complementing each other really well. My companion (an effortlessly chic friend who could very plausibly have been 'in residence') chose the beautifully presented wild garlic pannacotta with white and green asparagus and sauce gribiche, a kind of tartare/aioli sauce I usually think of pairing with fish but it was delicious with the asparagus.

For our main course we had the pan-seared fillet of pollock with escalivada (a wonderful Catalan roasted vegetable dish with punchy, smoky flavours) fennel and shellfish nage, and a perfectly-textured sun-dried tomato and goat cheese risotto with basil oil. We had considered ordering extra sides but the portions were actually more than sufficient for lunch (not always the case in set meals), particularly after the very more-ish freshly-baked bread on arrival. 

None of which meant, of course, that we were going to miss out on the dessert options. We opted for the delicious but incredibly rich dark chocolate and black sesame tart, served with chocolate ganache and a delicate milk tea ice cream, and the homely artisan cheese selection with chutney. The service throughout was very good; attentive without ever hovering, and friendly without being too informal - not something I generally mind (within reason) but somehow the glamour of the surroundings requires a certain poise and professionalism on the part of the staff to round off the experience; this is lunch at the Savoy, after all. The only, tiny cloud on the blue sky of the day was the off-menu drinks prices; we had considered treating ourselves to a glass of pink fizz, but as that started at a slightly eye-watering £23 per glass, we thought better of it. But, as I say, this is the Savoy, and it did feel like a special treat.

Another little strange London fact for you, before we go; Carting Lane, that runs alongside the Savoy, was allegedly known as 'Farting Lane' in the late nineteenth century. This was due to the Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamp installed there, which both burned off the unpleasant and potentially dangerous gases from London's sewers and used them to provide 24-hour lighting. Even the combined donations of the Savoy's guests were not sufficient to power the lamp alone but the methane did supplement the more standard gas supply; it does, however, give a whole new meaning to the term 'gas lamps'.
The original was all but destroyed by a careless delivery driver reversing in to it, but has been restored and there it still stands; you can see the difference in design compared to the lamp at the front of the hotel.

Yours, officially a lady who lunches,
Girl About Town xx

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Savage Beauty at the V&A

Savage Beauty is a retrospective of the late designer Alexander McQueen's work, from his MA graduate collection through to the A/W 2010 collection he began before his suicide at the age of forty. It is a jaw-dropping, utterly beautiful sensory overload of an exhibition which dramatically captures and reflects the designer's own complex vision and inspirations; I left awed by his talent and desperately saddened by his loss.

The exhibition has been fabulously curated like one of McQueen's catwalk shows, with dramatic staging and serious theatrical flair. Works are shown by theme and inspiration rather than as a timeline, which highlights how central these influences were as well as their return in reworked form as his experience grew. 

McQueen was, in many ways, a true Romantic. It is vital here to distinguish this from romantic with a small 'r'; I'm not talking hearts and flowers and kittens in baskets, but the Romantics of the late eighteenth century onwards - nature as a force of creation and destruction, inspirational and inescapable, the nature of Keats's nightingale and Shelley's Frankenstein. 

Seeing McQueen's original creations up close is not only visually breathtaking but shows his genius in recreating a creative vision in intricate, delicate and precise construction. McQueen began his career as an apprentice tailor in Savile Row and even his earliest work is clearly craftsmanlike. 

The Cabinet of Curiosities is the heart of the exhibition, in every sense of the word. Inspired by the gentleman explorers' drawing rooms displaying exotic finds from their travels, this circular section is crammed floor to double-height ceiling with treasures. Stop and take a look at your fellow visitors, necks craned, fascinated and spellbound. On the way out, there is a stunning Kate Moss video installation that is so ethereally beautiful that you just stand transfixed.

So - go, wander, wonder, be amazed. This is an unmissable event. Oh, and if you join the V&A on the day, they refund the ticket price - meaning I got guest plus one membership, including free entry into exhibitions and access to the Members' room, for another forty pounds or so. You'd be mad not to.

Yours, dazzled,
Girl About Town xx