The Japanese House

I sometimes think the British are doomed to spend the rest of eternity on the horns of a dilemma that leaves them torn between the glories of their history and a determination to be leading lights in the world of the arts and sciences. And then I remember Japan and realise our split personalities are mere child’s play by comparison with their wild swings between emperor-worship and surreal design. A brilliant exhibition at the Barbican called The Japanese House underlines this perfectly. At the heart of the show is a life-size recreation of Ryue Nishizawa’s amazing Moriyama House, a collection of cuboid living spaces, some piled up, others discrete and all linked by small gardens which spread across a plot like a micro-hamlet which both architect and client intended to echo the chaotic layout of the Tokyo suburb in which it stands. The rooms are full of eclectic collections of furniture, including wonderfully witty SANAA rabbit-ear chairs, and any number of examples of electronic music from Japanese industrial to western ambient. It’s a joy. My own favourite building, however, is Sou Fujimoto’s House NA in Tokyo, three staggered storeys which allows floors to double and treble up as chairs and tables, absolutely no internal doors, including on the loo, and external walls made entirely of glass. Bonkers – but beautiful.

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Froso Papadimitriou

The Greek artist is celebrated with a small exhibition at Deptford Lounge this month which is dedicated to the rich cultural history of this part of south-east London – and its size is in inverse proportion to the quality and impact of her pieces. The show, entitled  Invisible… But Omnipotent, is fantastically clever. Many of the artworks, created with white cotton thread on white cartridge paper, are instantly recognisable portraits of key figures from Deptford’s royal dockyard past such as Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Sir Francis Drake. But there’s nothing remotely romantic about this exhibition because it concentrates on the dark side of the area’s history – the mysterious murder here of spy-turned-playwright Kit Marlowe, the appalling legacy of Sir John Hawkins, who set off for Africa from Deptford to invent the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, the treachery of Captain Kidd, who set sail on the Thames as a respectable Royal Navy officer but soon reinvented himself as a notorious pirate, and the pioneering feminist and dyed-in-the-wool anarchist Kate Sharpley, who was arrested and beaten up by local police after she took the posthumous bravery medals awarded to her father and brother and threw them in Queen Mary’s face at a presentation ceremony as the First World War drew to a close. Rarely have I seen such an intense outpouring of outrage in such a confined space. See it while you can…

Isabella Fleming & Melisande Yavuz

Here are two more examples of why Trinity Laban is one of the world’s finest conservatoires… The duo, accompanied by pianist Allessandro Viale, mesmerised their audience in the chapel of the Old Royal Naval College with a programme that covered nearly three centuries of musical genius. They began by playing Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, the second movement of which is surely one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful compositions ever written. Their rendition was pitch-perfect – so much so, in fact, that I felt an involuntary tear start from my eye. They continued with five of Bartok’s 44 Duos before finishing, fabulously, with Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano by Shostakovich. Their rendition of the polka that completed this extraordinary work was nothing less than spellbinding. 

Peter Knight’s Gigspanner 

The world of classical music lost a future superstar when violin virtuoso Peter Knight walked away from the Royal Academy of Music and immersed himself in the folk boom sweeping London in the 60s. He soon found himself invited to join the massively influential and commercially successful Steeleye Span and remained with them until a couple or so years ago, sharing the title of Britain’s favourite fiddler with Fairport legend Dave Swarbrick. In fact, Knight is an even greater player because he can turn his hand to many styles including the toughest – jazz. And his infinite variety was fully on display when his trio Gigspanner played The Cut in Halesworth, revealing his genius in a series of rapid jigs and reels, slow ballads and laments, all of which were conveyed through his extraordinary range of techniques such as double-stopping and harmonics, which were of a skill I have never seen before. The highlight of the evening for me was a reel featuring guitarist Roger Flack playing the top of the violin fingerboard col legno with a pair of sticks while Knight wove his magic lower down to the accompaniment of new drummer Sacha Trochet on beatbox. It was pure wizardry from a man who looks increasingly like Gandalf. Only Knight is real.

Edgar Degas

One of the myriad delights of having a treasure house like the National Gallery on your doorstep is that even after half a century of wandering through its galleries every now and then it’s possible to stumble upon gems you’ve never noticed before. This time, in a room dominated by Corot, Pissarro, Rousseau, Klimt and famous Degas ballerinas, I found two miniature masterpieces by the latter: a glorious caricature-like rendering of his cartoonist friend Carlo Pellegrini and, even better, a stunning 23x9cm scene of two men locked in earnest conversation over drinks in an 1870 painting entitled At The Cafe Chateaudun which positively fizzes with Parisian atmosphere and intellectual intensity. A serendipitous joy.

Gavin Turk

Who What When Where How & Why,  25-year retrospective of the one-time YBA at the Newport Street Gallery, references more artists in its six galleries than you often find in a whole collection, from 20th century giants such as Andy Warhol, Robert Morris, Rene Magritte and Jackson Pollock to masters from the Greek classical age by way of the French Revolution as envisioned by Jacques-Louis David and Marie Tussaud. All these are striking – but not as striking as some of his more recent creations which involve taking an everyday found object such as a polystyrene cup, making a bronze model of it and then painting it to look like the used, discarded item that inspired it in the first place. Turk has done the same with old sleepingbags, plastic rubbish sacks, cardboard boxes and, astonishingly, apple cores and burnt matches. This triple-switch of junk masquerading as art masquerading as junk is a brilliant metaphor for today’s society in which even the coarsest materials and individuals can become transcendent. In this case, Turk is the alchemist who has discovered the secret of turning base metal into gold.

Celebration, Florida

If you’ve ever doubted actors deserve their salaries, let me draw your attention to Katherine Hollinson and Gloria Sanders who starred at the Albany in Greg Wohead’s latest play Celebration, Florida, an exploration of surrogacy and the nature of reality which has particular resonance in a post-truth world. Neither had met, seen a script or rehearsed before taking to the stage in front of an audience. And neither knew what would happen next because they were instructed what to do through headphones. Yet their portrayal of their characters – both alter egos of Wohead – were faultless as they tweaked repeating themes, mimed in slo-mo and sang along to one of the play’s many motifs, the 1961 Ben E King classic Stand By Me. Another repeating motif was a promotional video for the town of Celebration, a Stepford-like real community in Florida created by the Disney corporation – a scary symbol for modern life in which reality is questionable, truth is relative and individuality is anathema. It was an unsettling, cleverly constructed message – but it owed its power in no small measure to the skill of Hollinson and Sanders.

John Sturt/Theo Finkel 

These two 21-year-old Trinity Laban composition students were given world premieres by the conservatoire’s wind ensemble at St Alfege’s Church in a programme that also featured works by Vaughan Williams, Guy Woolfenden and Morten Laurisden. Sturt’s Imperial Guilt throbbed with the anger he felt about British treatment of native peoples in the days when the sun never set on the empire, yet he cleverly managed to create a piece of great melodic and harmonic beauty without losing his sense of outrage. By contrast, Finkel’s creation was an altogether more serene affair, a lovely theme followed by six intriguingly orchestrated variations, one of which featured the mysteriously deep wonders of the contrabassoon. Both works stood up well in comparison with those by the established composers that bookended them. And they were splendidly played by the Trinity ensemble conducted by Andrew Dunn.