The Artist Fights Back..?
Being a long-time fan of the music of Karine Polwart and finding her performing a solo show at the Lyceum, Edinburgh, a literal stone’s throw from Vanishing Point’s Tabula Rasa at the Traverse, the decision of how to spend Saturday afternoon in Scotland’s capital was easy.
First things first – Wind Resistance is a great show: moving, beautiful and thought-provoking. I hadn’t intended to blog about it but the similarities with Tabula Rasa from the night before were too great not to start wondering some things.
Wind Resistance is more than a singer-songwriter in concert. Instead, Karine Polwart weaves together various strands of song and story-telling to create a wide-ranging piece that includes reference to things as disparate as what Alex Ferguson said to Ryan Giggs on the training pitch, how an old school friend died in labour in 1999 and the migration routes of swallows. And I wasn’t going to blog about it, but very soon it became clear that very similar thoughts have been possessing Karine Polwart and Matt Lenton’s Vanishing Point company. And me.
Tabula Rasa brings together three things; the music of Arvo Pärt, a story of how we care for the dying (both as individuals and through the National Health Service) and the natural ‘element’ of snow.
Wind Resistance also brings together three things; Karine Polwart’s music, her thoughts about how we care for mothers during childbirth (both as individuals and through our universal health care system), and the natural elements of the moor landscape where she lives: migrating geese and sphagnum mosses, endangered skylarks and peat bogs.
Underneath all their story-telling beauty and musical invention, both shows drop small acid bombs into the mind of the audience. Both make explicit, if brief, reference to the systematic assault on the NHS, for example, and there are less obvious passing references to similarly political thoughts: facts such as the one that it’s a European piece of legislation that protects the moorland around Polwart’s home. The sequence during Tabula Rasa in which a small crowd of walking nurses is whittled away by one is reflected in Polwart’s anecdote about how Ferguson told Giggs to stop playing football on the training pitch one day as a v-shaped skein of geese flew overhead. Explaining that they fly in that formation to create slipstreams for the geese behind, each taking their turn at the front, Ferguson says to Giggs, “look at that. That’s teamwork.”
“I fear we won’t get through the weather that’s to come,” Polwart says, more than once during the show. Not on our own. ‘Wee socialists in the sky’ is how she describes the geese, another fleeting reference, and it’s gone but the message lingers on.
We are living in times of polarisation. In these times, as we witness the continual push towards the glorification of individualism, the pursuit of self becomes the only ideal, the notion that making rich people richer will somehow help the poor, we can clearly see artists pushing back.
I feel it myself, in how my work is changing in recent years, and as we drift deeper into times of conflict, of culture war, or societal breakdown, it behooves the artist to respond. And the artist can make a difference, often maybe not on his or her own, but as a multiplicity of individual voices of dissent which come together to make a chorus that offers another view from the right-wards lurch we’re taking worldwide at the moment.
As Percy Shelley said, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”