Swans Commentary » swans.com March 8, 2010  



Orientalism In London


by Peter Byrne





"The word Orient fell into disrepute after the word Orientalism was coined with the publication of Said's book."



(Swans - March 8, 2010)   Edward Said dirtied the West's face when he threw the accusation of Orientalism at it. The term has now left the universities and got on to the streets where it denotes an interest in the faraway for reasons of commerce, fashion, or pure snobbery. Under the commercial heading, Charles Saatchi, the advertising executive recycled as an art dealer, fits neatly. This glossy magician managed his vocational transition without ever leaving his adman's office. His fortune had come from manipulation of the general public through his advertising agency. He then narrowed his sights to the art world, specializing in the manipulation of artists and their work.

Saatchi squeezed profits from Britart (sometimes YBAs, Young British Artists) until even the consumers of contemporary art -- Barnum's born-to-be-duped -- started to yawn. The investment wizard then cast his glance beyond the Sceptred Isle and went global. He did not tarry in whistle stops like Zanzibar or Turkmenistan. He went straight to the top, to the People's Republic of China, where the money and the future were -- money and the future being pretty much the same thing for Saatchi.

New Art From China in 2009 not only showcased the Chinese artists he'd invested in but also signaled a property coup of sorts. After a history of using public-funded galleries as showrooms for his merchandise, in 2008 Saatchi succeeded in taking over a national landmark for his personal gallery. The Duke of York's Headquarters building, Kings Road, Chelsea, is 70,000 square feet of prime real estate. Saatchi now controls it in a "corporate partnership" with the leading contemporary art auction house of Phillips de Pury. (A Phillips de Pury man presides over the exhibition rooms. His smile would do honor to a carpet seller on the threshold of his shop in the Damascus bazaar.)

The hoisting of the corporate Saatchi flag over the Duke of York's can be seen as the lowest blow yet to public patronage of the arts in Britain. The huckster had entered the citadel and taken command. The noble cycle that began in London under the blitz draws to an end. Then, in a surge of solidarity in shared peril, the taste for the arts took on new life. Office workers passed their lunch hour at the National Gallery and the British Museum. The roots of the post-war revival of the dance were planted. Concerts seemed to multiply as fast as traditional venues were turned to rubble. The original Penguin Editions -- commercial with a small c and cultural with a large one -- added cheap paperbacks to the fresh cultural mix.

The victory of the private over the public could be read on the backs of the Duke of York's Gallery personnel. At the supermarket display of Saatchi's Chinese acquisitions, their shirts bore the corporation-speak: The Revolution Continues. (1) The backs of the shirts ought to say Business as Usual in the next turn of the screw that is Saatchi's present show, The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today. This hurries into contemporary Indian art before the artists get too much bargaining power. The commercial logic is as always blunt and brutal. India like China is rising on the glamour meter. There's money, not only poverty, in them there populous hills. The novelty of a painting by an Indian will have a good run in the West. A cagey dealer's urgent task is to select the artists he intends to promote and get control over their work.

The nature of that work doesn't matter much to an astute manipulator. A chosen artist, if he keeps in line, is said to be "made." (Curiously, a Mafioso who obtains tenure is also called a "made man.") The striking back of the Empire is only a languid gesture here. Much of the show resembles London, Paris, and New York work of the last quarter century that has been absentmindedly put together again with half the energy. There's even a preserved cow stuck in a sewer pipe in homage to Saatchi's best investment ever, the made-man Damien Hirst. The rest of this lame show goes the other way and has at once a too emphatic and a too superficial Indian flavor. Typical are one artist's mediocre portraits stamped with a map of Kashmir. This is neither political art nor art-art. It's souvenir art -- vulgar orientalism.

A look at the artists' biographies can startle. Five may be of Indian descent but they were born and work in the USA. Two are Pakistani and one is British. The whole show turns out to be nothing more than a glint in the adman's eye, a PR conjuring trick. And nevertheless there would be room for an investigative exhibition into some of the problems stumbled into at the Saatchi Gallery. What exactly is the relationship between a Chinese, Indian, or for that matter a Turkish or Iranian contemporary artist and the modernist tradition of the West? The lure of an international market would incline him to come over. But wouldn't there be a measure of loss? It would be enlightening to see an exhibition set up to show with rigor the pros and cons of each stance.

This could be as revealing as the present Tate Modern retrospective of the Armenian-American painter known as Arshile Gorky. Born on remote Lake Van, Gorky arrived as a youth in America where he haunted museums and played the assiduous ape to the key modernists Cezanne and Picasso. He was soon in the vanguard, saluted by the Surrealists as a fellow traveler, and moving toward Abstract Expressionism with his friend Willem De Kooning. Yet in his great modern canvases of the 1940s we can now make out the presence of his Armenian childhood. His work is too delicate and serious to fall under the heading of any orientalism.

Peter Brook is a magician too, but of the theater, not finance. (2) (3) His orientalism was never commercial. As a brilliant young director with London's West End and Stratford-Upon-Avon at his feet, he wandered off away from the money. For a while this looked like a stroll through the orientalism of fashion and high-end trends. Brook had been influenced since 1951 by G. I. Gurdjieff, the Greek-Armenian who retailed the "ancient wisdom of the East" to a Western elite and whom many considered a charlatan.

But Brook took no single answer as definitive. Questing, never static, he turned his back on the bright lights and moved to Paris in 1970 where he founded the International Centre for Theatre Research. Operating from the unpretentious Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord he set out on a long course of refining his orientalism. He began by transforming the Indian epic poem the Mahabharata into a stage play. It made for a formidable theatrical experience although some Indian scholars found that the real sense of the work had not come across. Brook absorbed the criticism and went ahead. He and his troupe -- then including Helen Murren -- toured rural Africa with his adaptation of The Conference of the Birds, which was based on a Persian Sufi epic. They went from the Sahara to the Niger Delta; then to India, Afghanistan, and Iran. As an orientalist Brook passed beyond the dilettante stage. What he learned traveling would change Western theater.

Brook relentlessly honed his approach to the great texts of the world, opening doors for his public that without him they would never have passed through. He learnt not to treat these works from the outside, as picturesque. Nor would he pretend to render them from the inside as if he belonged to the culture that produced them. He sought their essence and presented it with respect and sometimes awe. His multicultural company demonstrated that he wasn't after surface realism. A Palestinian could play an African, a Pole an Arab. A play set in Mali is accompanied by traditional Japanese music. It's the deep correspondences that matter.

A host of plays from forgotten places were brought to Europe: The work, for instance, of the Senegalese Birago Diop and the South African Can Themba. As early as 2004, Brook presented in French Tierno Bokar d'après Vie et enseignement de Tierno Bokar-Le Sage de Bandiagara d'Amadou Hampaté Bâ. (4) Tierno Bokar was a Sufi sage born in Mali in 1875. A Muslim spiritual teacher, he spent his whole life in a small West African town.

Hampaté Bâ had been entrusted to Tierno when a child. As an adult he became a prominent diplomat and celebrated writer. Since Tierno's teaching had been entirely oral, Hampaté Bâ set to preserving it in a book he wrote in French. This furnished the material for the play of 2004. Marie-Hélène Estienne, who did the adaptation, explains; "We all read his book The Life and Teachings of Tierno Bokar. We saw a line that led directly from the Persian poet Attar [writer of The Conference of the Birds] across the centuries to Tierno Bokar's hut. However far apart in space and time, their language, their love of men, their thirst for tolerance was the same, the same as the great Sufi poets of the past."

From the French performance of 2004 to that in English, presently at the Barbican in London, Brook never stopped reworking the play. An unhurried perfectionist, he spent twenty years tinkering with the Mahabharata before leaving it to fend for itself. Eleven and Twelve, the present look at Tierno Bokar's life, sprang in fact from Brook's chance meeting with Hampaté Bâ in the 1950s.

Sufis seek oneness with God and nature. But they proceed by rituals. The story is factual. Once, in late 19th century West Africa, a master arrived late for prayers. The same form of words was always repeated eleven times. But to save the master embarrassment the disciples repeated the prayer a twelfth time. From this trifling beginning a theological controversy would ensue as to how many times the prayer should be said. Passions erupted; then violence and death. The French colonial authorities pitted one side against the other. Tierno's own people took one side. When he, their respected sage, insisted that a prayer more or less didn't matter, they ostracized him. Tolerance, it seems, always demands a sacrifice.

Given that the play centers on the words of a master it inevitably unfolds as didactic storytelling. But Brook's attention to the whole person of the actor means that the spectator learns as much from the posture and movement of the people portrayed as from what they say. The French colonial officers whom we see with African eyes indicate their domination and incomprehension with the very tilt of their chins and flicker of jaw muscles. The teaching of Tierno is less in his pronouncements than in the way his disciples put their hand on his shoulder or walk with him in conversation. The way he stands before someone who is full of anger tells us what Tierno thinks of violence. His death as he lies down with his bare toes pointing upward like a bird fallen from a branch lets us know how he lived.

From the early days of his Royal Shakespeare Company triumphs, Brook has always given much attention to Shakespeare. Last year Love is My Sin put the sonnets on stage. At 84 he prizes more the whispering side of the Bard than his flamboyance. Eleven and Twelve has added a final scene to the 2004 French version. It takes place in a graveyard and inevitably recalls a similar scene in Hamlet. There's humor, but it's quieter. No dramatic trigger prepares further action and violent death as in Shakespeare's play. It's as if Tierno Bokar from his grave -- which is pictured on stage -- has conquered anger for all of us. He certainly has done so for his disciple Peter Brook who said recently, "To be violent is the ultimate laziness. War always seems a great effort, but it is the easy way."


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About the Author

Peter Byrne on Swans -- with bio.   (back)


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1.  See Peter Byrne, "Money In The Picture: London Art," Swans, January 12, 2009.  (back)

2.  See Charles Marowitz, "Peter Brook At Eighty," Swans, June 6, 2005.  (back)

3.  See Peter Byrne, "Peter Brook's Sober Magic And The Dower of Giorgio Strehler," Swans, February 26, 2007.  (back)

4.  Amadou Hampaté Bâ's book, published by Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1980, has been translated as A Spirit of Tolerance, The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar, 2008, World Wisdom, Bloomington, Indiana. ISBN 978-1-933316-47-5, 236 pages, photographs, $19.95 US.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 8, 2010