“Quote” of No Confidence: “Inconvenient Objects” at Aberystwyth University

After
Before

Like most professionals – secret agents excepting – I talk about my work at the slightest provocation.  Besides, academics are expected to drop their names freely in the hope that it may take root in a crowded field scattered with formidable grey matter and fragile egos.  There is a reason I have not yet mentioned one of my latest projects – the exhibition “Inconvenient Objects.”  For a while, it was my blood pressure monitor that had to do most of the talking, delivering clinical statements geared toward a strictly limited audience listening out for official pronouncements that can be made to serve as quantifiable substitutes for my, to my mind, tell-tale cries of anger and frustration. 

The power of words is at once affirmed and eroded in the act of our being rendered speechless, be it by way of silencing or sheer incredulity.  There is no irony in the fact that, in this case of speech free and curtailed, seemingly innocuous curls of quotation marks are at the heart of the matter. 

And just what was – or is – that matter you may well ask after reading this abstract and oblique preamble?

Since 2012, I have been involved in staging exhibitions in the galleries of the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, where I also teach art history and exhibition curating, as well as serving as Director of Research.  Most of those exhibitions – Queer TastesUgly, and Alternative Facts among them – are projects that I, with the assistance of the School’s senior curator, create for and realize with groups of undergraduate students each year.  All of those shows draw entirely from the School’s collections of some 25,000 objects of visual and material culture.

The School of Art at Aberystwyth has the distinction of being one of only two art schools in the United Kingdom that also operate as accredited museums.  I try to make use of that nearly unique status in all my teaching, and curating – in which many prospective students express an interest in their applications – provides me with an opportunity to link art history, theory and praxis in practical, public-oriented and creative ways.

I have long regarded the School of Art’s museum collections and public galleries as a mother lode for staff and students alike, as it enables them to generate and showcase their research.  The project for the current show, with which the galleries reopen to the public after over a year during which our collections lingered in the Pandora’s box that is the pandemic of which the previous project, Seeing Red, had been a casualty, was for students to investigate and interpret objects that might pose challenges to cultural institutions due to their subject matter or the politics and ideologies they bespeak.

The selected works range from Third Reich photography to a bust of a Congolese pygmy chief, but also feature groups of female nudes executed by male artists, graphic images of starvation in 1970s Ethiopia, unauthorised sketches of patients in a mental institution and scenes of bullfighting.  However rewarding the digging, the mother lode, in this instance, turned out to be a minefield.

The mining metaphor is borrowed from and alludes to one of the best-known examples of institutional critique, a practice of interrogating collections and museum spaces that artist-curators have employed since the 1970s.  Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum was one such landmark project in which the legacies of colonialism were made transparent through the juxtapositional display of objects as outwardly disparate but intimately related as silverware and slave shackles to remind us how and on whose backs the wealth of the United States was built.

“Inconvenient Objects” was conceived to create awareness about the responsibility of contemporary museums such as ours and the role that exhibition curators play in making artifacts and their at times problematic histories accessible to the public.

The centerpiece of the exhibition, an early twentieth-century bust ostensibly created in the service of science and not intended as a portrait of the subject, Chief Bokani, was previously shown as an ethnographic “specimen” in the University’s geography department.  In the context of the exhibition, the plaster bust – created by one of Wales’ foremost sculptors – encourages debates about ethics and ethnicity in art and science. 

Wilson, unearthing a similar bust at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire in 2005, had asked: ‘[Can we] extricate ourselves from the violence involved in acquiring these objects?’ The question remains whether “we” – as cultural institutions – can fulfil our civic mission by removing ourselves from the public discourse of reckoning? “We” have a lot to answer for if we don’t ask.

“Inconvenient Objects” so fully lived up to its title that it was ordered shut and hidden from view.  The word “inconvenient” was apparently central to the university management’s claim that the show posed a reputational risk.  I say “apparently” because what issues the university had with the show was never clearly – let alone directly – communicated to the curatorial team.*

Being that I also serve as the School’s “Equality Champion,” I had envisioned “Inconvenient Objects” as an opportunity to demonstrate that our University is committed to participating in the debate surrounding Black Lives Matter and the legacies of colonialism and empire in which sculptural objects such as our bust of Bokani are enmeshed.  Some three thousand words of gallery texts were in place to clarify those objectives.

After nearly two months behind closed doors – a hiding away that is now part of its story – the show was once again opened to the public, and it is scheduled to remain so until 1 October 2021.  With the addition of a single label, and a sign advising “viewer discretion” at the entrance, nothing has been altered.  And yet, everything has changed.

Our senior curator, who designed the poster, was obliged to place the title of the exhibition in quotation marks, indicating that we do not really mean what we say or else that that “we” does not refer to representatives of our institution.  In effect, the museum has been disabled from reflecting upon itself because such a critique – widely practiced elsewhere – might reflect poorly on the academic institution under which it is subsumed.

Minor adjustments though they may seem – a concession that allowed us to hold on to the title of the show – those quotation marks signal a disavowal, a lack of commitment and self-confidence.  They undermine the common endeavor to mine our public museums, instead of simply minding the store, an engagement with history and civics that should be all of our business.

*Curatorial team: Audrey Corbelli, Ciara Donnellan, Eve King, Orla Mai-Riley, Farrah Nicholson, Lucia Paone-Michael, Katie Rodge and Katarzyna Rynkowska, with contributions from Cara Cullen and Sarai David, and support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design)

Tickets for this free exhibition can be booked via Eventbrite.

“Nance” Encounter: Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival (1965) as a Bad Date

This curated window at the Oxfam Bookstore, Aberystwyth, drew me in.

The themed window of our local Oxfam bookshop here in Aberystwyth was something to behold on that bright July afternoon.  A row of handsome, second-hand but well-preserved copies of once popular fiction beckoned, reminding me of the tag I had chosen for this blog devoted to unpopular culture upon its inception back in 2005: “Keeping up with the out-of-date.”

A novelist friend and avid reader, who had come from London for a visit, treated me to a volume of my choice.  Three of them, in fact, as the £5-for-three deal made it unnecessary to be quite so discriminating.  I passed up on erstwhile bestsellers by A. J. Cronin and Pearl S. Buck, both of whom had vanished from the display a day later, when I returned for another three titles (all six are pictured above).  My first choice, however, had been Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival (1965).

I remember picking up Wouk’s tome Youngblood Hawke (1962), in a German translation, from my parent’s sparse bookshelves.  My grandfather, likewise, was a Wouk reader, even though his chief interest lay in the writer’s Second World War subjects, to which Opa Heinrich, a former POW, could relate.  In my late teens, desultory though my readings were, I enjoyed Wouk’s earlier City Boy (1948) and Marjorie Morningstar (1955).

Volumes I recent additions to my bookshelf

My next encounter with Wouk’s writings dates from my years of graduate studies in New York.  I had decided to ditch Thomas Carlyle as a subject and instead write a PhD study on US radio plays.  Wouk, as I discussed here previously, had started as a radio writer or gagman.  He satirized the industry in Aurora Dawn (1947) and reflected on his experience it in his autobiographical novel Inside, Outside (1985).  From the latter I snatched the phrases “Hawkers of feces? Costermongers of shit?” – a reference to laxative commercials on the air – for the title of one of the chapters of Immaterial Culture to capture the dismissal of commercial radio as a legitimate literary forum by those who had written for broadcasting during the 1930s and 1940s but who gained prominence later as published writers and dramatists.

Long story short, I have a kind of casual relationship with Wouk as a writer, a relationship that at one point turned serious (or academic) due to my interest in radio.  So, when I spotted that copy of Don’t Stop the Carnival, an old book new to me, I felt inclined to get reacquainted.  It turned out to be a bad date.

Don’t Stop the Carnival is a story of middle age.  The action, of which there is plenty, is mainly set on an imaginary island in the Caribbean, anno 1959.  The novel relates the misadventures of a New Yorker – Norman Paperman – who falls in love with what strikes him as a tropical paradise and decides to take over a hotel, having had no prior experience either with the business or with life on a tropical island.  Complications abound, some less comical than others.

Paperman is a Mr. Blandings of sorts, a familiar figure in American fiction.  He’d rather lay an egg elsewhere than suffer his ‘disenchantment with Manhattan’ a day longer:

the climbing prices, the increasing crowds and dirt, the gloomy weather, the slow bad transportation, the growing hoodlumism, the political corruption, the mushrooming of office buildings that were rectilinear atrocities of glass, the hideous jams in the few good restaurants, the collapse of decent service even in the luxury hotels, the extortionist prices of tickets to hit shows and the staleness of those hits, and the unutterably narrow weary repetitiousness of the New York life in general, and above all the life of a minor parasite like a press agent.

Perhaps, as his name suggests, Norman is not to be looked at as man but as a page – scribbled on, rather than blank, over the course of nearly fifty years.  He may feel like turning over a new leaf – but his life is already scripted in ink that is indelible.  Don’t Stop the Carnival sets us up for its conservative moral: stick with what you know, stop kvetching, and don’t even think that the grass could be greener than in Central Park in May.

While it responds to the modernity of its day – to the threat of nuclear war and the growing doubt in the progress narrative of the 1950s – the novel nonetheless shelters in the makeshift of retrospection: it looks back at the end of the Eisenhower years from the vantage point of the violent end of the Kennedy presidency to reflect on the so-called modern liberalism of the early to mid-1960s.  

Was this choice of dating the action meant to suggest the datedness of the views expressed by the characters? What were the attitudes of the author toward race relations, civil rights and liberalism? In other words, what comments on the turmoil of the 1960s did Wouk make – or avoid making – by transporting back the readers of his day and dropping them off on an island that, for all its remoteness is nonetheless US territory, and that is about to be developed and exploited for its exoticism and natural resources?

The titular carnival is both figurative and metaphoric – an extended topsy-turvydom (or chaos) in which black mix and mate with white, queer live along straight folks, and Jews like Wouk’s protagonist Norman Paperman mingle with Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, pagans and atheists.  He encounters bad infrastructure, worse bureaucracy, and political corruption.  This island ain’t that different from Manhattan – which argues getting away from his former life to be futile and pointless.

The Carnival is not only shown to be a dead end but a deadly one.  In the final pages of the novel, two characters are killed in quick succession – one central to the narrative, the other – the decidedly other – being marginal.  The central one is Norman’s island fling, Iris Tramm, whom he knew as a celebrated actress two decades earlier and is surprised or reencounter, washed up but still alluring, as one of the guests in the hotel he decides to buy.  

The island carnival is exposed as a tropical fever that means either death or cure – a cure for an uncommon warmth of non-traditional bonds and realized desires.  Paperman recovers, and his understanding wife takes him “home.”  His lover, meanwhile, must first lose the companionship of her dog, and then, trashing Paperman’s car while trying to reunite with her wounded pet at a veterinarian’s, her life.  Was this the only out Wouk could conceive for a white woman who was the mistress of a black official who dared not to marry her?

It is the treatment of the marginal character of Hassim and his swift, unceremonious and unlamented disposal that lays bare Wouk’s fear of change: the antique dealer Hassim, introduced as a “rotund bald man” with a “bottom swaying like a woman’s,” who openly flirts with young men.  In fact, the island is awash with middle-class homosexuals of all ages.  Even Paperman’s hotel is pre-owned by a gay couple. And although he must have come across some of them in his former job as a Broadway press agent, Paperman is uneasy in their presence when he and Iris, his illicit love, visit an establishment frequented by gays:

Norman found the proprietor amusing, and he was enjoying the songs of his youth. But the Casa Encantada made him uneasy. Men were flirting with each other all around him; some were cuddling like teen-agers in a movie balcony. The boy in the pink shirt, biting his nails and constantly looking around in a scared way, sat at a small table with one of the rich pederasts from Signal Mountain, a pipe-smoking gray-haired man in tailored olive shirt and shorts, with young tan features carved by plastic surgery, and false teeth. Norman was glad when the proprietor finished a run of Noel Coward songs and left the piano, so that he and Iris could politely get out of the place.

Hassim is shot dead by a policeman, despite posing no risk and committing no crimes.  The killing, which occurs in Paperman’s hotel and bar, the Gull Reef, is described in few words and elicits less of a response than the stabbing of a dog a few pages before this incident near the close of the novel.

“As a matter of fact, […] I feel sorry for the poor bugger,” is the response to the death of  Hassim by one character, “munching on his thick-piled hamburger” not long after the killing.

“I’ve known thousands of those guys, and there’s no harm in ninety-nine out of a hundred of them. It’s just a sickness and it’s their own business.  Though gosh knows, when I was a kid working backstage, I sure got some surprises.  Yes ma’am, it was dam near worth my life to bend over and tie my shoelace, I tell you.” He laughed salaciously.  His once green face was burning to an odd bronze color like an American Indian’s, and he looked very relaxed and happy.  “Actually, Henny [who is Paperman’s wife], I almost hate to say this, but I think this thing’s going to prove a break for the Club.  I bet the nances stop coming to Gull Reef after this.”

Such views are unchallenged by the narrator and the main character, who decides to sell his business – to the man expressing those views, no less – and return to New York.  “People thought that this [his death] was a bit hard on Hassim,” the narrator sums, “but that the cop after all had only been doing his duty, and that one queer the less in the world was no grievous loss.”  Case closed. Business open as usual.

Clearly, queers like me were not considered by Wouk to be among his readers.  Targets, yes, but not target audiences.  Even the academic treatment of homosexuality – the suggestion that famous writers of the past, too, might have been homosexuals – is ridiculed in the novel, with one PhD student, the lover of Paperman’s teenage daughter, nearly drowning in the sea.  

Wouk, who died shortly before his 104th birthday in May 2019, lived beyond the middle age of Don’t Stop the Carnival for more than half a century.  I doubt that I shall make him a companion again on whatever is left of my journey.

Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies

Travelling Through, installation view
As a frustrated writer, or, rather, as someone who is disenchanted with the business of publishing and of ending up not reaching an audience, I have come to embrace exhibition curating as an alternative to churning out words for pages rarely turned. I teach curating for the same reason.
Staging an exhibition reminds students of the purpose of research and writing as an act of communication.  Seeing an audience in walking into the gallery – or knowing that anyone could stop by and find their research on display – is motivating students to value their studies differently.

As someone who teaches art history, and landscape art in particular, to students whose degree is in art practice, curating also enables me to bridge what they experience as a gap or disconnect between practice and so-called theory, between their lives as artist and art history at large.

It also gives me a chance to make what I do and who I am feel more connected.

Angus McBean’s personal album of travel photographs featuring McBean and his gay companions (1966)

In my latest interactive and evolving exhibition, Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies (on show at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, Wales until 8 February 2019), I bring together landscape paintings, ceramics, fine art prints, travel posters and luggage labels, which are displayed alongside personal photographs, both by a famous photographer (Angus McBean) and by myself.

Here is how I tried to describe the display of those never before publicly displayed images from my personal photo albums:

Plinth display of NYC, Travelling Through Me (1985 – 2018), digital and digitised photographs
Before the age of digital photography, smart phones and social media, snapshots were generally reserved for special occasions.  Travelling was such an occasion.

For this collage, I rummaged through old photo albums and recent digital photographs. When I lived in New York, from 1990 to 2004, I very rarely photographed the city.  All of these images either predate that period or were produced after it. The historic event of 11 September 2001 can be inferred from the presence and absence of a single landmark.

The World Trade Center is prominent in many of my early tourist pictures.  Now, aware of my gradual estrangement from Manhattan, I tend to capture the vanishing of places I knew.
Lost New York City landmarks: Twin Towers and Gay Pier, 1987

Back in the 1980s, New York was not the glamorous metropolis I expected to find as a tourist. My early photographs reflect this experience.  Most are generic views of the cityscape.  Others show that I tentatively developed an alternative vision I now call ‘gothic.’  Yet unlike Rigby Graham, whose responses to landscape are displayed elsewhere in this gallery, I could never quite resist the sights so obviously signposted as attractions.

Like the personal photo album of the queer Welsh-born photographer Angus McBean, also on show in this exhibition, these pages were not produced with public display in mind.  McBean’s album was made at a time when homosexuality was criminalised.  It is a private record of his identity as a gay man.


I came out during my first visit to New York.  The comparative freedom I enjoyed and the liberation I experienced were curtailed by anxiety at the height of the AIDS crisis.

Being away from home can be an opportunity to explore our true selves.  Travelling back with that knowledge can be long and challenging journey.

Harry Heuser, exhibition curator
Pennant Tour of Wales featuring illustrations by Rigby Graham, with one of my photo albums and a collage of luggage labels beneath it

Sea Change at Aberystwyth University

Poster by Neil Holland, based on a design by Lauren Evans

Once a year, I stage an exhibition with undergraduate students of my module “Curating an Exhibition” at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University.  The student curators choose objects from the School’s collection, which, over a period of about three months, they research, interpret and narratively arrange in relation to a given theme. The theme for the 2018 exhibition (on show from 21 May until 28 September) is “Sea Change.”  The idea for it came to me watching CNN, where the phrase is frequently heard in promotional spots for Fareed Zakaria’s program.  What, I thought, would happen if we considered the literal meanings of each part of the phrase to examine how life along the coast is transformed and transforming as a result of environmental and socio-political developments.

Installation view showing John Roberts’s large painting Fond Farewell (1973)

As always, the narrative evolved gradually, shaped by the objects selected by the exhibition curators.  This is the text panel introducing the exhibition:

‘Sea change’ is one of the many expressions introduced to the English language by Shakespeare. It appears in The Tempest as a reference to death – and transformation – by drowning.

This exhibition of works from the School of Art collection explores both the metaphorical and the literal meanings of the phrase.

Today, ‘sea change’ is widely used to suggest moments of upheaval and reorientation. It may denote the end of a personal relationship or a geopolitical shift affecting the lives of millions. Whatever its measurable repercussions, ‘sea change’ is always felt to be profound.

Change may be dreaded or desired. It can mean at once breakdown and a chance for renewal. The storm that wrecks a ship and lays waste to dreams brings firewood to the beachcomber. The engines that turned villages into mill towns also transported workers to holidays by the sea.

Plate, from the series Cumbrian Blue(s) (1998) by Paul Scott

Many aspects of modern society were shaped in the Victorian era. Seaside towns like Aberystwyth owed their transformation to the Industrial Revolution. Since then, our coastal communities have continued to adapt. New challenges, from Global Warming to Brexit, lie ahead as Wales is celebrating the ‘Year of the Sea.’

The prints, paintings, photographs and ceramics on display encourage us to consider what we gain or lose through stability and change.

Works by Keith Vaughan feature prominently in the exhibition

Artists whose works are featured in this exhibition include Jean-Antoine Théodore Gudin (1802–1880), Honoré Daumier (1808–1879), Wilhelm Kümpel (1822–1880), Hans Saebens (1895 – 1969), Carlo Bevilacqua (1900 – 1988), Gertrude Hermes (1901–1983), Keith Vaughan (1912 – 1977), Robert Tavener (1920–2004), Gwyn Martin (1921 – 2001), John Vivian Roberts (1923–2003), Bernard Cheese (1925–2013), Terry Bell-Hughes (b. 1939), Chris Penn (1943–2014), Alistair Crawford (b. 1945), Paul Scott (b. 1953), and Kate Malone (b. 1959).

Curators: Lauren Evans, Gerry McGandy, Mike Kirton, Clodagh Metcalfe, Sophie Mockett, Ivy Napp, John Roberts, and Michelle Seifert; with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design).  Additional assistance by Karen Westendorf

Worth a Shot? Photography as Matter of Life and Death

How do we measure the importance of a life? Who or what is worth remembering? These are some of the questions raised by photographs such as the ones on display in Matter of Life and Death, an exhibition on view from 16 May to 9 September 2016 in the gallery of the School of Art at Aberystwyth University in Wales.

Today it is easier than ever to produce and share photographs.  Subjects diversify.  Perspectives broaden.  We no longer have to deal with precious materials or finite rolls of film when determining who or what is worth a shot.  Yet images are also more readily manipulated.  Realities are filtered and faked.  The black-and-white photographs in Matter of Life and Death predate our digital age.  Fragile and bold, these infinitely multipliable images of singular moments and individual lives were intended to live and matter as prints.
Looking at images of people and places can make us aware of our cultural differences.  But it is not difficult to find universals in photographs produced worlds apart.  Struggling farm workers in 1930s Alabama are shown alongside striking miners in 1980s Sardinia and South Wales.  The town of Aberystwyth, where the exhibition is staged, is featured next to Palermo and Bangkok.  Visitors to our gallery will see the faces of children.  But they will also face the aged, the dying and the dead. 
All of the photographs are from the University’s collection.  They were chosen by School of Art students who then debated how to exhibit them and create a narrative.  Only the medium and the title had been decided beforehand by me, the instructor of Staging an Exhibition, a course in curating that each year culminates in a show like this one.   Previous exhibitions include Queer Tastes, Untitled by Unknown, and Face Value.

The selections students made for Matter of Life and Death are journalistic and surrealist, propagandistic and personal, mass marketed and private.  Some photographers – Walker Evans, Mario Giacomelli and Angus McBean among them – are famous.  Others are unknown.  Learning about the identity of a photographer may well influence the way we look at the work that photographer has produced.  A child may look less innocent once we know that the man behind the camera was Erich Retzlaff, a photographer who supported and propagated fascist ideals.

There is no particular order in which these photographs should be experienced.  Themes such as dying traditions or endangered environments are suggested, but there are no conclusions.  As in life, material circumstances limit our choices.  The paths we forge are our own.

Matter of Life and Death is open to the public until 9 September 2016.  Admission is free.

Curators: Megan Evans, Rebecca Fletcher, Suzanne Fortey, Emma Game, Emily Griffin, Elizabeth Kay, Kirils Kirijs, Michael Kirton, Maria Lystrup, Kate Osborne, Amy Preece, Georgia Record, Emma Roberts, Samantha Robinson, Emily Smyth, Bethany Williams,  Gemma Woolley; with support from Harry Heuser (text) and Neil Holland (design)

The Pink Standard: Legally Blonde at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Okay, I am blond, gay and European. So it isn’t all that difficult for me to relate to this year’s summer season offering at the Arts Centre here in Aberystwyth. “Positive” and “Omigod You Guys,” it’s Legally Blonde: The Musical. Ever since I relocated, for love and legal reasons, to this little Welsh town – from an island, no less, that has Broadway running through it – I have not missed a single one of these seasonal spectaculars. After all, they are often the only indication that summer actually takes place here. And since that very first show – which was Oliver! back in 2005 – I have been coming back to the scene it would be a crime to miss.
I’ve also seen the summer season grow up over the years, and the characters along with it, from a criminally mistreated but dutifully hoofing and oh-so-adorable Victorian orphan to a stylish, twenty-first-century Harvard Law graduate who seems to be fighting a lost cause but ends up winning her first case and her true love besides. 
In Legally Blonde, justice is served as in Dickensian days, except that what you deserve is no longer dished out as a helping of destiny. I won’t say that either way is “So Much Better” than the other – for entertainment purposes, at least – but it sure is about time to have, at the heart of it all, three persevering females who don’t have to suffer Nancy’s fate so that the Olivers of this world can enjoy the twist of their own.
Legally Blonde does its part to “Bend” if not quite “Snap” the long string of boy-meets-girl plots of theatrical yesteryear; at the same time, it cheekily pays tribute to the ancient laws of Western drama, right down to its cheerleading Greek Chorus. The conventions are not discarded here but effectively “Whipped Into Shape.” And what it all shapes up to be is an updated fairytale of boy meets girl in which girl ditches boy since boy doesn’t meet the standards girl learns to set for herself.
The lads, meanwhile, perform parts traditionally forced upon the ladies: they are the chosen or discarded partners of the women taking charge. Unless they are objectionable representatives of their sex, like the opportunistic Warner Huntington III (convincingly played by Barnaby Hughes), the men of Legally Blonde are mainly paraded as sex objects, flesh or fantasy.  Exhibit A: stuff-strutting Kyle (inhabited by a delivering Wade Lewin).  Exhibit B: gaydar-testing Nikos (gleefully typecast Ricardo Castro, returning to Aberystwyth after last year’s turn as Pablo in the divine Sister Act).  Come to think of it, even the two dogs in the show are male – and how well behaved these pets are in the hands, or handbags, of the women who keep them.
Not that it looks at first like the women have a clue or a fighting chance. I mean, how can a gal be oblivious for so long to the connubially desirable qualities of gentle, reliable if fashion-unconscious Emmett Forrest (played by David Barrett, who was unmissable as Mr. Cellophane in the Aberystwyth production of Chicago)? That Elle Woods ultimately finds her way and gets to sings about it is the so not gender-blind justice of Legally Blonde.
And that we side with the spoiled, seemingly besotted sorority sister is to a considerable degree owing to Rebecca Stenhouse’s ability to make Elle mature in front of our eyes, from bouncily naïve and misguided to fiercely determined yet morally upright. And, as her character gets to prove, a valedictorian is not just Malibu Ken’s girlfriend in a different outfit. Legally Blonde demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt that you can be pretty and “Serious” in pink, even though I, personally, have failed on both accounts.
Depending on Elle’s success in getting her act together is the life and career of Brooke Wyndham (energetically played by endorphin-level raising Helena Petrovna), a celebrity on trial whose fitness empire is endangered by a dirty secret of a potential alibi. And if you are a cynic out for a hanging, just wait and see what Brooke (and Petrovna) can do with a piece of rope.
As it turns out, Brooke does not have to make a case for orange being the new pink, which of course was the old black. Ultimately, not wardrobe but a serious case of TTP saves the day, for which the production hairdresser can take some credit. Follicles play nearly as big a part in Legally Blonde as in Hairspray, to name another property Aberystwyth Arts Centre has laid its skilled hands on in recent years. And if that production had a showstopper in “big, blonde and beautiful” Motormouth Maybelle, Legally Blonde has down-but-not-out stylist Paulette Bonafonte, a role Kiara Jay makes her own with warmth, knowing and extensions in her voice that reach from here to “Ireland.”
Legally Blonde is not without its share of injustices. It takes a seasoned professional like Peter Karrie to accept a plea bargain of a part that allows him to be the villain of the piece but denies him the moment his Phantom-adoring followers may have been hoping for. It was Karrie I saw in that memorable Oliver! production, and he is back here as Professor Callahan, a suave shark with a nose for “Blood in the Water.” Like Fagin, he is a law unto himself; but unlike Fagan, the professor is ill served by a book that bars him from tunefully “Reviewing the Situation” once he gets his just deserts. Not that you won’t be gasping at the scene that constitutes his downfall.
Now, had I a Manhattan-sized “Chip on My Shoulder,” I could object that, if “What You Want” to produce is a musical, you might consider putting a few instruments back into the pit. I mean, with sets as swanky as Acapulco, why should the singing be practically a cappella? The overture out of the way, any such objections are largely overruled, given the plain evidence that these troupers hardly depend on orchestral crutches. “Break a leg” to all of them – dancing, skipping and rollerskating – for keeping the pace brisk and making Legally Blonde such an infectiously high-spirited show.
This was the first season I attended as a legally married blond, gay European – and I think it is no overstatement to say that, for all their heterosexual pairings, shows like Legally Blonde have helped to take on patriarchal bullies, to rethink masculinity and what means to “Take It Like a Man.” It’s not the American flag alone that is prominently on display here. Whatever your angle, I can bear witness to the fact that, by any standard – gold, platinum blonde, or otherwise – the Aberystwyth Summer Season is in the pink.

Queer Tastes: Works from the George Powell Bequest

George Powell
Poster design by Neil Holland

Queer Tastes is an exhibition I curated with students of my undergraduate module Staging an Exhibition at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. Each year, the module culminates in a student-curated show on a given theme. 


This year’s exhibition, which is open to the public from 18 May to 11 September, explores the identity of the Welsh-English dilettante George Ernest John Powell (1842 – 1882) through the collection that he bequeathed to Aberystwyth University. The objects were selected by students of the School of Art, which holds part of Powell’s bequest.  

The exhibition includes works by Simeon Solomon, Rebecca Solomon, Edward Burne-Jones, Richard Westall and Hubert von Herkomer as well as artefacts and curios ranging from a plaster cast of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s hand and a glass casket that allegedly once contained a splinter from Robert Schumann’s coffin.

The Powell family owned the Nant-Eos estate a few miles inland from Aberystwyth. Educated at Eton and Oxford, George Powell spent little time at Nant-Eos, which he would inherit in 1878. It was an unhappy place for him. His parents were estranged. His mother and younger sister died when Powell was a teenager.

Powell was a dreamer, much to his father’s disappointment. Instead of going hunting, the boy wrote poems about death, loss and betrayed love. Eager to get away, Powell travelled to Europe, Russia, North Africa and Iceland. In the company of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, Powell spent summers on the Normandy coast. There, he entertained writers and artists in a cottage he named after a bisexually promiscuous character in de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom.

Powell has been called ‘eccentric’, ‘sinister’ and ‘sad’. He has also been labelled ‘homosexual’, a term not used in his day. ‘Queer’ suggests something – or someone – strange or at odds with our views. It asks that we trace our responses to otherness in ourselves.

A man of the world, Powell wanted to be remembered back in Wales as a patron and benefactor. He offered parts of his collection to Aberystwyth Town Council, on provision that a public gallery be created for their display. When the deal fell through, Powell gave the objects you see here to the University of his ‘dear but benighted town’.


Making our possessions public is in a way a ‘coming out’. It invites others to wonder about our past. It also means saying ‘I matter’. Collections like Powell’s encourage us to question how a person’s worth is determined.

Curators: Danielle Harrison, Kayla McInnes, Alice Morshead, Jenny Skemp, Valerija Zudro, with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design).

Powell’s life and collection are the subject of my essay “‘Please don’t whip me this time’: The Passions of George Powell of Nant-Eos” in the forthcoming anthology Queer Wales (University of Wales Press).

Nuns Ablazing: Sister Act at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

“Farrah Fawcett as thou art in heaven!” This is a good time to dust off your “F. M. boots” and shake your groove thing right on down to our local Arts Centre here in Aberystwyth. You know, F as in Funky and M as in, well, Mary, Mother of Grace.  Or, FM as in radio, tuned to the station that gives you Diana, Donna and … Deloris.  Deloris Van Cartier, honey, the diva that dreamed of a wearing white fur and ended up in a nun’s habit.  Yes, it’s Sister Act, the musical. The one about the convent where the mother’s superior and the sisters supreme.
In this production, Mother Superior is played by Lori Haley Fox, whom I previously saw perform here in Chess and Hairspray.  There is a bit of Velma Von Tussle in Mother Superior—but her Sister Act character has some depth, which comes across in Fox’s rendition of “Here Within These Walls.” You don’t just get to hiss and laugh at her, but get to understand her struggle to restore the order that wasn’t meant to be a reformed one. It’s a fight against the trivialization and exploitation of her beliefs.  To be sure, it’s a tall order to deliver such conviction in a play so invested in that very trivialization. But if there are false notes in this musical, they are not coming out of Fox’s mouth.  Nor out of Jenny Fitzpatrick’s, for that matter, who is great in the wear-your-Jackal-and-hide part of Deloris “Sister Mary Clarence” Van Cartier, a diamonds craving tramp with the proverbial heart of gold.  Or a golden larynx, anyway. And Fitzpatrick sure got that, and soul besides. Make that Philly soul.  After all, the scene is set in Philadelphia, the town to which the bastard of Disco can trace some of its heritage.

My great aunt was a nun, so
I fancy myself an authority.

I’ve been attending the Aberystwyth Arts Centre productions ever since I arrived in this town after fifteen years of life in Manhattan.  I had a bad attitude in my suitcase and thought that nothing could match Broadway, that this was just the sticks.  Well, shows like Chicago and Hairspray proved me wrong.  Actually, the very first show I saw here, Oliver!, did that.  And it was great to see Mr. Bumble again, right there in that convent.  Gary Davis, I mean, who plays Monsignor O’Hara. Indeed, there were a number of familiar faces in the cast, among them David Barrett and Robert O’Malley.

Brother, it must be tough for any man to assert himself in a place where all those rapping and von Trapping sisters are doing it pretty much for themselves (and the Almighty); but Robert Grose as Curtis Jackson and Aaron Lee Lambert as Eddie Souther are giving it their best shot—and I’m using the metaphor advisedly.  Grose is at his smarmiest best singing “When I Find My Baby,” a creepy number worthy of Sweeney Todd and likely to give you the heebie-Bee Gees. Meanwhile, in “I Could Be That Guy,” Lambert makes a transition that rivals the costume change endured by Deloris – albeit from plain to fabulous, so that the twain can meet somewhere in between—and he doesn’t get a phone booth or even a Hong Kong Phooey filing cabinet to do it in. So, props to him! Then again, why call props when Velcro and virtuosity will do?
There are echoes of Kiss Me, Kate in the trio of thugs—The Three Degrees of separation from the baboon—who are making apes of themselves for our amusement in “Lady in the Long Black Dress.” Never mind Earth and Fire; these guys are pretty much all Wind. That said, Andrew Gallo as Joey has more moves in his eyebrows than most wannabe Travoltas have in their polyester-clad hips. George Ray as TJ does four-eyed cute as well as Rick “Suddenly Seymour” Moranis ever did. And Ricardo Castro is just bueno as Pablo in a Brüno kind of way.  Meanwhile, for those who prefer their eye candy unwrapped, there are a couple of highly distracting boy dancers, competing though they were, temporarily, with an audience member in front of me who insisted on noisily unpacking her own treats. Sure, Toffifee is retro, but a flask is more discreet.
Dancing boys and their legs apart, this is still a play in which the sisters have the upper hand; and glorious Jodie Jacobs as Sister Mary Robert and fierce Andrea Miller as Sister Mary Lazarus prove that “It’s Good to Be a Nun.” So what if Sister Act’s pastiche.  Why reinvent the Disco Ball? I, for one, am glad to be having the sisters “Here Within These Walls” of Aberystwyth Arts Centre to “Spread the Love.”  I’ll be back for another audience with them—and that adorable Pope—just as soon as I get the platforms redone on the F. M. boots I wore out tapping along. “Fabulous[,] Baby”!

"Untitled by Unknown"

Every spring, the students of my “Staging an Exhibition” class are doing just what the title suggests: they curate a show at Aberystwyth University’s School of Art galleries. And every summer, I have to come up with another idea for another spring. This year’s exhibition, on show now until 12 September, poses a particular challenge. As stated on introductory panel, most of the works on displayed “have no official title. The identity of their creators remains unconfirmed.” This opens the debate as to their value and relevance: “Do their uncertain origins mean that these objects are unworthy of our time and attention?”
Untitled by Unknown: Curating ‘Hidden’ works from the School of Art Collection investigates the effects of doubt and mystery on our estimation of visual culture. The thirteen curators not only researched the objects but also needed to think of ways to interpret in the absence of verifiable facts.
Viewers are “encouraged to reflect on the ‘hidden’ lives” of the objects chosen by students: they include photographs, watercolours, prints and miniature paintings. Each work is identified only by the number by which it is filed and can be accessed in the School of Art collection’s online database.
The idea was to let visitors of our exhibition in on the curatorial task, to suggest that while a “lack of facts can be an obstacle,” it “can also be an opportunity for personal engagement.” Visitors may well question our interpretations and uncover alternative stories. Perhaps, they know more than we do about some of the mystery objects in our collection.
Untitled art works by unknown or anonymous artists often have no chance of being displayed—at least not until their mysteries are solved. Still, public museum and galleries have a responsibility of sharing the works in their collection.
Untitled by Unknown is not intended to show astounding works from exceptional artists. It is here to open a debate about what should be on display and how it may be shared.
My thanks to the students involved in making the show – and my class – possible: Jessie Davis, Karolina Hyży, Justyna Jurzyk, Kate Largan, Charlotte Raftery, Laura Roll, Elizabeth Salmon, Melissa Sarson, Belinda Smith, Julia Steiner, Stephanie Troye, Veera Vienola, and Eleri Wood.
Our thanks also to curator Neil Holland for all his help and expertise.

Future [S]ense? The Lost Found Objects of David Garner

Discarded copy
Look! There are objects, people, and situations that compel me to do just that.  It takes some effort, though, to make me look longer than a moment, that blink of an eye Germans call “Augenblick.”  It is an effort and commitment that I have to bring myself to make, and whatever or whoever it is that commands me to look must warrant my sustained attention, must conquer my resistance, must provoke, charm, or seduce me to engage me in an exchange.
 
 
“Look!” is a command that rarely fails; but, apart from performances that define the intended or desired duration of that look, few sites dictate, implore or recommend just how long I am to keep looking.  Do I circle once around this sculpture? Do I give that landscape the once-over, the twice-over or the over-and-over? How long do I need to look until I see something that rewards me for not looking away sooner? Not every instance of looking turns into a spell of lingering, loitering and longing for more; and nothing is more effective in making me avert my gaze than being told what to look out for and how to see things.  This is the reaction I had looking at David Garner’s exhibition Future Tense, currently on display at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre.
 
Garner uses found objects to make more or less—and mostly less—compelling statements about a grab bag of social and political issues: production and consumption, education, unemployment, and postcolonialism.  His work hinges on a pairing of visual and verbal puns (such as “Wooly Learning/Dysgu Gwlanog,” a school blackboard with felted wool surface and wool text) or clichés (like “Beware when the gloves are off,” a row of ten Porcelain glove moulds mounted on an oak panel and suggesting a fascist salute); most of these pairings are too obvious in their single-minded double-meaning to startle, let alone enliven a discourse.  Often, as in “Sheep in Sheep’s Clothing”—a taxidermied sheep wearing a coat knitted from its own fleece—the found object is stripped of its mysteries, its woolliness—its indeterminacies and ambiguities—spun instead into a readily solvable and as such instantly dissolvable puzzle.
 
Cattelan’s All left me wanting more
Unlike Duchamp’s perennially stimulating Fountain, Garner’s found objects are given a final resting place in a self-contained junkyard of a performance that rewards only those who are content to discover an artist’s meaning and who, unlike me, accept that meaning as final; such hermetic hermeneutics leave no room to respond other than “Got it.  Next!” There is none of the wonder, the awe—the sheer thrill of looking—that I experienced staring at Maurizio Cattelan’s Allat the Guggenheim Museum earlier this year.
 
The only truly gripping sight in Garner’s Future Tense is not a sight at all but a sound: the sound of a large clock loudly ticking away.  I resisted looking at the caption and let that sound transport, envelop, and alarm me; listening, I was, for once, unaware of the time I had wasted looking here but reminded instead of the potentialities of art to move us to the point that we cannot but invest it with our life experience, our anxieties and desires—a potential that is largely unfulfilled by Future Tense, a configuration of readymades whose presence is so much circumscribed by the artist’s foregone conclusions that they have little chance of a future in our imaginings . . .