I try to do something new in London everyday, but there are a few places that I just can’t seem to stay away from. Here are some of my favorites:
The Institute for Contemporary Arts
The door is tucked away in between the columns on the bottom!
I came across the ICA (Institute for Contemporary Arts) on one of my first free days in London and it has quickly become one of my favorite spots to hang out. Basically what looks like a nonchalant door in central London–just a stones throw away from Buckingham Palace and across the street from St. James park–this super hip arts complex houses two galleries, a small theater, an art house cinema and a stylish cafe. I go there pretty often to do homework and have seen two exhibitions and a show there. My first artistic adventure there was an exploration on the ‘speculative nature of knowledge’ entitled For the Blind Man in the dark room looking for the black Cat that isn’t there. My favorites of this exhibition were Marcel Broodthaer’s 1970 interview with his cat on the art of painting and Bruno Munari’s slideshow Looking for Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair, projected on a tiny screen near propped up on a box on the floor, appropriately requiring you to sit balled up in a nearby corner to view the piece. At ICA’s theater I went to a presentation of the London International Mime Festival called USSR Was Here. This was definitely one of the most avant garde performances I’ve seen in London and while some of the physical aspects of the piece were really amazing, I think it was a little too abstract for me. Still I returned to the ICA last Thursday to see their latest exhibition on the artist Billy Childish. Childish is a contemporary poet, painter, filmmaker and musician and is a leader of the stuckist movement, which rejects conceptual art (the idea that a vacuum cleaner in a gallery is art because someone decides to call it that, not because they created it) and focuses on the notion of authentic and holistic art–art that requires kinetic skill and personal exploration. Childish’s work is interesting and multi-faceted and the ICA’s exhibition of it emphasized his many talents by displaying his Van goghy paintings in the lower gallery and his Bukowski-esque poetry, and anti-authoritarian music and films in the upper gallery.
The Battersea Arts Centre
Words cannot express how much I adore the Battersea Arts Centre. Located in south London, the building was erected to be the borough of Battersea’s town hall in 1893. With a lovely large, open atrium and several small, cozy nooks, it continues to be a social hub for all kinds of get togethers even though the town council is long-gone. I stumbled upon the BAC when a friend on the program invited me to an event hosted by the London Word Festival. The event I attended was a little get together to discuss the project “One Hundred Days to Make a Better Person,” an initiative that challenged people to do one thing every day for a hundred days and keep a blog about it. It was pretty early on in the program and I was still having trouble actually communicating with Londoners (it was WAY harder to get used to peoples accents then I thought, not to mention the fact that most Brits I know talk at an incomprehensible speed), but I felt so comfortable at the BAC that I ended meeting some really interesting people. Afterwords, I was determined to come back for a show. I returned in march to see a piece of performance art called, “Something Very Quiet is About to Happen.” This short little piece actually took place across the street from the BAC in the Battersea Public Library. Basically what it consisted of was the “performer,” in this case famed Canadian fringe artist Deborah Pearson handed me a list of books and gave me instructions to find each one, open it to the bookmark I would find in it and return the book when I was finished. I hunted through the shelves to find: an anthology of poetry by E.E. Cummings, a Batman comic, a trashy romance novel, a catalog of Scottish literature and a very old copy of Jane Eye and within each one was a letter that the book had written about its life. It was oh so nerdy but I really loved it, I wrote a review about it for my Theatre in London class that you can read here.
The Royal Opera House
You can’t be a singer…or a musician….or a human and not fall completely in love with the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. It is not only a beautiful building (recently renovated and updated) but the home to so much music history: Handel’s first season of operas were performed there and Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and every other major opera star have graced the stage. We took a tour of the complex, which retains the lobby and foyer of the theatre built in 1858 but also includes an enormous maze of rehearsal spaces, costume and prop building workshops and set storing warehouses. I also went to see Rake’s Progress and Cosi Fan Tutte there (which Ethan wrote about), but my favorite trip to Covent Garden was for a free lunchtime recital. The ROH’s young artist program hosts these recitals every Monday in a luxurious little chamber called “The Crush Room.” I went to one that was all Russian art songs sung by an incredibly talented young bass and it was completely free!
The majority of London is a haphazard conglomeration of really old buildings (Elizabethan) , semi-old buildings (Victorian) and stark, shiny contemporary buildings. However, The Barbican complex is one area of London that is completely defies this rule of pastiche. This lack of melting-pot architecture is definitely not because of a lack of history (Shakespeare once lived on the edge of the complex) but rather, the Blitz, a WWII operation of the German Luftwaffe that bombed the city for 57 consecutive days. The Barbican, completely destroyed by bombs, became the focus of the post-war optimism that stemmed a number great political and artistic ideas ( like Nationalized Healthcare). Architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were commissioned to redesign the residential areas but decided to include a cinema, concert hall as well. In 1960 the Royal Shakespeare Company and the London Symphony Orchestra joined the planning team.
Now, The Barbican feels like a foreign planet with its super modernist architecture, but it is also an artistic utopia, housing a cinema, world-class concert hall, theatre, gallery and an amazing arts library. I probably go to sit in the Library at least once a week, they have an incredible collection of music recordings and sheet music, and two very nice digital pianos that you can play for as long as you want as long as you reserve the time! It may seem strange to be so excited about that, but really practice space is in very short supply here (actually, all space is in very short supply). I really really miss the nice pianos and practice spaces at Lewis & Clark, so its nice to spend an afternoon at the Barbican sifting through their sheet music collection and fiddling around on the piano. I should also mention that I’ve seen probably the most extraordinary concerts of my life there: The New York Philharmonic, The Vienna Philharmonic, The Brahms Requiem and the War Requiem (which I wrote my senior thesis on) and of course, Ethan’s performance of selected works of Beethoven with the City of London Choir, yes, our own Ethan Allred has shared a stage with some of the finest musicians in the world!