Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Jewish Renaissance

Posters all over town had been announcing it for weeks, and this Tuesday it finally happened: The permanent exhibition of Warsaw's Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened its doors. The Israeli Prime Minister came to visit, crowds flogged to the square in the former Jewish Ghetto and there was an outdoor concert by Jon Krakauer and jazz legend Tomasz Stańko.

Warsaw on Tuesday night, preparing for the opening

But it was a prematurely cold night and I stayed home. What is worse, tickets for the exhibition had been sold out for days, and only today - 5 days later - did I manage to see it. It felt like a huge deal.

The wooden Gwoźdiec synagogue reconstructed 

I'm really not one of those people who can stay in museums very long, hence the shock when I came out and it was dark outside. I asked for the time and realised I'd been inside for 4 hours. The show is so engaging, so rich and varied, that you feel like you're time-travelling, from the early Middle-Ages through to the Industrial Revolution and beyond.

Workers in Izrael Poznański's textile factory in Łódź, 1890. 

A lot of it was new to me. The Holocaust is a small and potent part, but maybe more shocking are the sections about progroms in Polish towns after the war. The museum has done an amazing job of reconstructing post-war Poland, including an interactive study of how Polish Jews felt about Israel and their split identities, and interview with sculptor Alina Szapocznikow (who survived several death camps) and much much more. 

Alina Szapocznikow
Bizarrely, I didn't cry once - that wasn't the intention of this show. It ended on a note of hope, with videos about the revival of Poland's Jewish community. The only moment when tears welled up was when, towards the very end, I was watching a film made by an American director who returned to Poland in 1981. He visited the Polish woman who had saved him and the Catholic nuns who had looked after him until the war was over. They recognized him, kissed him on both cheeks, and welcomed him back. Now this is cause for celebration. 

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Why James Franco Should Finally Come Out

I didn't know James Franco had written a book until the bright yellow cover of Palo Alto fell into my hands in an Oxfam bookshop. I immediately wanted to dismiss it as another self-conscious project of the painfully prolific brand that is Franco the actor-director-painter (did you see his exhibition at the Parisian concept store Colette last year? terrible). But then curiosity got the better of me.

And I'm glad it did. Not because Palo Alto taught me anything new about James Franco, but because it confirmed my prejudices (this is a very petty pleasure, yes.). Especially this: James Franco is gay. I can hardly believe some people still refuse to accept this fact (including James). Reading the stories of trashy 90's teenagehood (think Larry Clark, but awkward) I was struck by the number of homoerotic/queer sections that I really really wanted to read out loud to someone and say "SEE?!". I ended up marking the pages.

Palo Alto's Origami of Queerness
Basically, Franco is obsessed with good-looking boys and penises. Every story contains at least one 'handsome' dude and a description of cocks, while girls are usually used and abused. From the story "Camp": 

"Rain had the biggest dick of all of his friends...[he] broke all the basketball records in high school and had sex with tons of ugly girls.

On watching a Holocaust film: "...bodies being bulldozed. Penises on the man and vaginas and breasts on the women. They didn't seem like real penises. I looked close. Some were big." 

I am not saying a writer cannot write about penises without being branded gay (think John Updike), but Palo Alto impresses with its queerness, that is much more vulnerable than heterosexual phallomania. 

Pale Alto the Film, out soon

More revealingly, Franco uses the stories to indirectly directly deal with growing up gay in 90's California. From the story Killing Animals: 

"I wasn't friends with Jerry or Dan anymore. They played on the school sports team, and started calling me a fag after I quit the football team. They said Ed and I were gay together.

And in another story: 

"They each had one testicle sticking out...I looked up and saw their faces and I knew that I was not supposed to be looking at those balls, that that was what they wanted. "Faggot looked!" said someone...they screamed that I was a faggot as two held me down." 

This very much echoes Franco's ridiculously gay short film The Feast of Stephen, about a boy who is bullied slash fantasy-fucked by a group of handsome basketball players. 

The Feast of Stephen (2011), Short film by James Franco

Many people will not have seen this film (in fact it only has 100,000 views on Youtube - compared to Franco's 2.5 million Twitter followers) but it provides a very intimate insight into Franco's psyche. No straight guy is that interested in gay people (or cock).

Why do I care? Because I'm gay, and because it's important to say it, especially when one is asked directly. Because we don't yet live in a post-gender post-sexual orientation world, and discrimination continues. And because that gay teenager who is being bullied right now would really appreciate to know that you can be handsome and masculine and talented and gay and out. You just need to grow a pair of balls.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Becoming an Object

On a sunny day in Tbilisi the other week I saw a tree stump in front of my friend's house. Lo and behold! Something made me climb onto it. And stand on it. Still. This felt great for 2 reasons:

photo: Veronika Spierenburg, a.k.a. Die Vroni

1. Sometimes it is good to know exactly where to be and what to do.

2. Becoming a sculpture attracts attention and makes you feel surprisingly powerful. Now I can empathise with the men chiselled by Stephan Balkenhol.

Stephan Balkenhol, at the Stephen Friedman gallery in London, 2011


Voilà. This wood man of Balkenhol's isn't half-bad either. 

Maybe next time. 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Warsaw Tillmans

Tomorrow I am travelling to Georgia and Armenia for a little while. As a mini-goodbye to Warsaw and to you, here some shots Wolfgang Tillmans made for his 2011 show at the Zachęta Gallery.

Soldier at the only arch left of the Saxon Palace

Inside Zachęta, with some more abstract photography

Tillmans' boy fetish juxtaposed with anti-gay signs ("Gaying prohibited")

Enjoy September everyone. 

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Please Disobey

Of all places in London the venerable Victoria & Albert Museum in Kensington might seem the least likely place for a show about revolt. And yet, "Disobedient Objects" at the V&A is not only free, but also freeing.

The exhibition introduces a range of items that were instrumental in social, political and economic protest movements in the last 40 years. These include the Egyptian revolution, Polish Solidarność and Occupy. Of course Queer Liberation was present too, with some great objects of empowerment. 

Protest flag, New York, 2011
Picture from Charlie Porter

Badge from the Act Up AIDS protests of New York 1986-87

Poster designed for Act Up AIDS by Keith Haring, 1989 (not in the show, but almost)

Bust Card for arrested gays, Scottish Homosexual Rights Group, 1979

Fierce Pink power - Queers against authority. Protest banner, USA, ca. 2012

Toy Terrorism: 
Barbie Liberation Organization, 1991 

Overall, a mind-opening and strangely optimistic exhibition. Walking out of the V&A I already saw myself smashing the shopfronts of Kensington in protest against 21st century consumerism. But then I changed my mind, and went to Harrods instead. 

Sunday, 17 August 2014


Remember Sex? Madonna's scandalous book came out in 1992. I was seven then, and whatever I heard about it at the time probably scared me. But last week I rediscovered some of its images in the murky depths of the world wide web. And I cried out: How have I not seen this before? How is this not part of our basic visual vocabulary?

Threesome with Naomi

Frolicking with Isabella

Dragging it up

Bowing to Udo Kier 


The answer is probably a mix of 20th century prudery and the censorial power of the pre-internet age. Can you imagine Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus making a similar book today and it not being seen by every being with a screen?

Racy, huh? These days most singers use sex to sell, but no one does it with so much omni-sexual conviction. Of course Madonna wanted attention, but she fought back against criticism of the book and spoke out against misogyny and heteronormativity:

"There are guys who say 'I have never fantasized about being with a man.' They are lying. And the least offensive men I've been with in terms of their sexual politics and how they view me as a woman, have been men who have either slept with men, or at least kissed or held a man once. It opens up your thinking. You don't think that women are less-than you are."

"Deeper and Deeper" 1992

True speak, Madge. And to see that she doesn't cease to surprise, check out this clip for 'Deeper and Deeper', featuring hot n'creepy Udo Kier and an extremely unexpected cameo by Sophia Coppola. Damn, 1992 was a good year.