Articles - 15th April 2019

Looking Backwards, Moving Forwards

Words by Elinor Potts
Illustration by Oscar Price

Creating art which cleverly orchestrates nostalgic figures can be a multivalent project. Their citation may be unifying for the generation to which the icons hold symbolic value, but more fascinatingly, they can be used to critically reexamine our contemporary cultural attitudes. This week’s cultural picks are charged with the spirit of memory and nostalgia, with one foot in the past and a firm gaze on tomorrow.

In her recently Man Booker International shortlisted memoir The Years, translated by Alison Strayer and published by Fitzcaraldo Editions, Annie Ernaux invokes a Proustian ghost, sculpting her biographical remembrances into the complex fabric of her personal narrative whilst using second person pronouns, ‘we’, to forge a communal and collaborative experience, departing from the conventional privileging of individualistic experiences.

Ernaux harnesses the power of the mass individual, across both time and language and, as her American publishers rightly boast, this is “a new kind of autobiography […] at once subjective and impersonal, private and collective.”

Hybridising the biography form and deftly interlocking the wisdom of her lived experience of performing in a band and the wisdom learnt from her teenage musical icons, Ryann Donnelly’s Justify My Love (Repeater) examines the transformative and identity-shaping power of music and music videos.

There’s an honest clarity to Donnelly’s writing which contains rich cultural analysis on sexually subversive music videos; from their MTV genesis to millennial iterations; citing Peaches, Sleater-Kinney, Frank Ocean, Mykki Blanco, Beyonce and, no prizes for guessing, Madonna. “I undertook the project of understanding my unbidden ardour by trying to do what they did,” Donnelly writes, “It leads to this.”

As William Morris penned, “The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.” Suffused with the philosophies of the renowned designer, poet and activist, Rough Trade Books’ new series, in collaboration with William Morris Galleries, commemorates the writer’s socialist principles in a shiny new neon quartet for the future.n

The series includes Germ Songs (by Will Burns and Jess White) Tracks (by Luke Turner and Eva Vermandel), Things To Use, Things To Love (by Lola Lely and Nina Chakrabarti) and Rafal’s Saga, by Will Ashon and storyteller Michal Novosad. The latter is the most overtly political of the quartet, exploring modern homelessness in London. It’s timelessly prescient, faithfully grounded in Novosad’s own experiences of homeless living in the capital. 

Carving out a calendar of culturally nostalgic events, I spent my Wednesday evening in a feathery vortex of grievances and 80s domesticity in Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feather at the Barbican, adapted for the stage and directed by Enda Walsh. Cillian Murphy presents a heart-shattering portrait of a reclusive Father in the throes of manic mourning, existentially untethered and hopelessly picking apart the absurdity of tragedy with the cruel and canny companionship of Crow.

“Grief felt four-dimensional,” he mumbles, before flashes of Crow’s scratchy writings bloom across the walls like mould. The deceased Mother returns in flickering Super 8 shorts, before a reel of 80s women, perms and all, are projected to the wide eyes of the Motherless children, desperate for a substitute female figure. Stylings aside, this is a timeless story of male anguish and the repercussions thereof, which undoubtedly deserves a place in the canon of contemporary literature.

On Friday evening, in the first of her two-night run of gigs at Alexandra Palace, a silver booted and red(lace)breasted Robyn served a bounty of Dance-Pop classics to a sea of clear-framed hipsters. Dressed in a space-age mini dress, before switching into a Blitz Kid-inspired pillar box red ensemble, the pixie-sized Popstress was joined by the elegant bounds of movement artist, Theo Canham-Spence.

Against a warmly lit backdrop of Grecian drapes and white resin sculptures, Robyn presented her chart-topping discography of mid 90’s and 00’s singles with swashbuckling showmanship and a bright smile.

Setlist staples Dancing On My Own, Call Your Girlfriend, Every Heartbeat were balanced with numbers from Robyn’s 2018 album, Honey, co-produced by Metronomy’s Joseph Mount. I made a slow retreat to the peripheral loitering fringes of the crowd during the show’s encore- anticipating the stampede of homecoming fans, before brushing shoulders with a blue-haired Detox of Ru Paul’s Drag Race Season 5 fame.

We left as grinning disciples to the church of Robyn, bursting with those tender heart-pangs that only the best Pop music can ever inspire.  

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