Sunday 24 September 2017

State of the art: flawed film about the gallery we can all take pride in

NGI Director Sean Rainbird. Photo: Matthew Thompson
NGI Director Sean Rainbird. Photo: Matthew Thompson

John Boland

The other morning, I dropped into the National Gallery of Ireland, partly for the current Vermeer exhibition, but mainly to see how the institution looked after six years of refurbishment had kept most of it closed to the public.

That was the subject of the following night's 90-minute documentary, Portrait of a Gallery (RTÉ1), but I'm glad I saw the place first, if only because it caused me to wonder how I'd taken it for granted for so long.

I've been in and out of the gallery nearly all my life and I still cherish those teenage evenings when the RTÉ String Quartet gave a series of recitals there that introduced me to the live-performance glories of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Dvorák.

There was the permanent art collection too, of course, but it's only now that I realise how good it is, both in range and depth (the Irish collection is unmissable), and how lucky we are to have such riches in such a beautiful setting - a setting enhanced by the recent refurbishment and now featuring an airy glass-topped atrium that contains a wonderful sculpture carved out of ash by Joseph Walsh.

Oh, and the Vermeer exhibition is exhilarating, too, not to mention a doddle to access - I queued for a mere three minutes.

A pity, then, that the RTÉ documentary was such a slog and often so uninformative. Due attention was given to those directly involved in the refurbishment, with good contributions from gallery director Sean Rainbird, head of collections Adriaan Waiboer and project architect Kasia Turza-Rachwal, who was a striking presence throughout, but the film raised more issues than it satisfactorily addressed.

We heard of the arduous and time-consuming subterranean "underpinnings" that were needed to provide the institution's basic "services", but I never quite understood what these services entailed. And I remained unclear about what exactly, if anything, had been done to all those old rooms in the Dargan wing that had been closed for so long.

Come to that, I'd have liked to learn something about the curators, conservationists and other staff who were interviewed - where they had come from, how they had achieved their expertise. Producer/director Adrian McCarthy might argue that such considerations belonged to another programme, but I don't see why it couldn't have been this one.

When you visit the refurbished place itself, though, you'll feel proud that it's in our capital city. Sometimes we do get things right.

Netflix has clearly got it right with Glow, an exuberant 10-episode comedy that you can binge-watch if you so desire. I rationed myself this week to the first four episodes, but I can see why it's already built up such a fanbase, even if it's not quite as brilliant as critics are suggesting.

Glow is an acronym for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and if that sounds sexist, well, we're in the San Fernando valley in the 1980s and a group of wannabe actresses have been lured into playing stereotypes for a new television show. They're a motley crew but they all have quirky personalities, not least Ruth (Alison Brie), who has unbearably lofty theatrical ambitions and is derisively called Strindberg by male director Sam.

He's a sleazebag with a string of trashy B movies to his name, but when you get past the foul-mouthed, abrasive exterior lurks a heart of gold, or at least some non-toxic alloy.

The writing is smart, the interactions are intriguing and even if the show itself doesn't always avoid stereotype, or indeed sentimentality, it's very engaging in its rowdy way. Much less engaging is Bull (Fox), which apparently takes its inspiration from the early career of therapy guru Dr Phil, who used to advise legal defendants on how to deal with judges, juries and prosecuting attorneys.

Here he's reincarnated as Jason Bull, who boasts of his three PhDs in psychology and who's played by Michael Weatherly with the same know-all smirkiness that he brought to his insufferable role in the naval crime series N.C.I.S. He's just as insufferable here as he announces what jury members are secretly thinking and bosses his subordinates around. Bull, indeed.

If Dr James Fox has three PhDs, he certainly doesn't brag about them, and he's been a quietly engrossing host of The Art of Japanese Life (BBC4), which concluded this week with a consideration of what makes Japanese homes unique.

Like art expert Andrew Graham-Dixon, Fox is more interested in imparting information and insights than in preening for the camera, and here he talked of domestic rituals that were so "informed by aesthetics" that their minimalist influence has extended to how houses are designed throughout the western world.

Japan now has a population of 127 million people, most of whom live in cramped urban apartments - unlike a century ago when 85pc lived in rural areas. Fox visited these rural houses, notable for their modest practicality - indeed, while European monarchs were insisting on lavish palaces to celebrate their divinely-ordained greatness, Japanese emperors were content with unshowy single-storey abodes made largely from wood and other natural elements.

And while Japanese cities now had "vast swathes of awful architecture and some really horrible homes", the tiny spaces in which most people are compelled to live had led to a blend of Zen and minimalism ("Zenimalism") that is now being imitated in other countries - even if "the real Japan is anything but Zen".

Along the way I learned much about the Japanese arts of flower-arranging and of calligraphy.

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