Jazz freestyling, Chinese art, urban greenhouse and The Artist: In praise of the Barbican Centre

Where can you get live improvisation from Soweto Kinch, a Chinese art installation, a tropical garden and The Artist all under one roof? In the Barbican of course.

I’ve been going to The Barbican Centre since before I could walk – literally. On rainy days my parents used to take us to the sprawling concrete complex to let off steam. I’ve seen everything there from Tony Allen to Matthew Herbert and a full choir making percussion with copies of the Daily Mail to interpretive dance. I even performed with school in the foyer once (electric guitar and cello since you ask).

What better place to seek some culture and hide from the pouring rain and howling wind then? Soweto Kinch was first in the foyer – an amazing saxophonist as well as MC and producer. He asked the audience to write words they associate with London onto cards and drop them into a tombola, and he then did a freestyle based on these words. He’s a charismatic performer with a great stage presence, making the audience feel at ease with doing soul claps and shouted backing vocals and incorporating everything from the guy taking pictures (“we’re brothers cos we’ve both got afros”) to a blank card that someone had dropped into the tombola into the piece.

Song Dong’s Waste Not was next up in the Curve Gallery. It’s an exhibition of over 10,000 objects his mother collected over five decades under the Communist regime in China, all neatly arranged into categories – a fleet of empty toothpaste tubes, an army of broken flowerpots, faded stuffed toys leaning against battered boxes; it was all there.

I alternated between amazement at the sheer volume of objects and wanting to go home and throw everything I own away. It seems dismissive to call the objects junk – although many of them are dirty and broken – since the exhibition gets its name from the idea that everything in the collection might come in useful one day. There’s a certain beauty in arranging what must have been bags and bags of stuff into an order, and their very presence in the exhibition gives them a use.

It made for an odd parallel walking into the gift shop – more household objects arranged neatly in categories. Everything was clean and nicely designed but was also more or less unnecessary (how many mugs or notebooks do you really need?). It made me question how materialism differed in a capitalist society instead of one born of necessity. The communist regime scorned acquisition but through controlling it (either through intention or inefficiency) led to a hording that rivals even the most enthusiastic collectors in the West.

Next up the amazing Conservatory:

Unlike Kew Gardens this is a very urban space – concrete walkways covered in tumbling creepers. There was even a man reading his bible high up on the second level… If you look in the top right of the photo you can see the puddles of rain outside the greenhouse!

Finally The Artist.

It seems daft to write too much about the film that’s been talked about constantly for three months. But I found it funny and cleverly shot – without speech the use of other techniques to convey meaning was essential (the Escher-like scene with Valentin’s descent down the staircase as Peppy is going up was highly symbolic).

But – maybe predictably for a film where silence is the crux of the plot – the sound was incredible. Soundtrack aside, we hear what he hears. When he becomes aware of the potential of sound we hear the glass clinking but not before; only when he is ready to accept speech do we hear words. It’s the only time I’ve experience subjective sound in a film and The Artist proves that the second sense is equally powerful and emotive as vision.


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