Victoria’s Week in the Arts: Once Upon a Time in the East, Katharina Grosse and Sex with Robots

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Any publisher that markets a new book as “the next Wild Swans” (or indeed “the next [insert title of any great book here]”) always runs a gauntlet. Sure, you’re grabbing that established audience and immediately conveying the subject and tone of the book but, oh, you’re playing with fire. That’s a huge pressure to place on any writer and so I approached Once Upon a Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo with both excitement and a little trepidation.

I needn’t have feared though as I enjoyed every single minute reading this fantastic memoir. Like Jung Chang, Xiaolu’s writing of her life in Communist China covers her grandmother and her mother, as well as herself. However, this is a shorter book and it focuses only on Xiaolu’s own experiences – her mother too closed and distant to share her memories of the trauma of the Mao years, and her grandmother too poor to have any idea of her ancestry and her literacy non-existent, making any historical analysis of Imperial China impossible.

Yet what this book brings instead is an invigorated contemporary take on the experiences of, and challenges facing, a modern Chinese woman – China a country where women have often been less than second-class citizens, where endemic sexual abuse and domestic violence belies Communist portrayals of equality, and where a woman must fight for love and freedom in a society that seeks to crush individuality and promote censorship. An insightful and fascinating read.

Art-wise it was all about Katharina Grosse at Gagosian in King’s Cross for me this week. Katharina is German and, in common with her compatriot Anselm Kiefer, her artworks are HUGE. Massive, in fact. So much so that her pieces absolutely dwarf the vast white galleries of the Gagosian. And, of course, they dominate the visitor too, which is very much the point.

The collision of colour is an assault on the senses, for sure, but Katharina is also examining and poking at that effect of transformation because she is very much trying to distort our view. What are we meant to be looking at? Where is the focus? And all of this comes together in the zenith that is her vast 20m x 6m abstract painting on cloth that is fixed firmly to the ceiling in the main gallery.

Blues and greens swirl and blend without focus, flashes of bare canvas catch the attention, the canvas ripples out over the floor… There is no singular focus possible on these; it’s all about the wall of colour and chaos – the colours bleeding into each other, the paint seeping all over the canvas. Let it hit you, let it overwhelm you, let the colours stimulate you… The show is all about the emotional change the works provoke in you.

Sex with Robots and Other Devices also opened this week at the Kings Head Theatre in Islington. Its subject matter of an exploration of the dark side of human nature and human desire through our utilisation of advanced technology is becoming a popular talking point in wider society but it’s not unfamiliar ground in theatre. An easy (and possibly lazy) comparison could be drawn with Instructions on Correct Assembly, which is just finishing at the Royal Court, but a more pertinent parallel is with The Nether, which also ran at the Court a few years back.

For The Nether it was how we could use VR; here, the vehicle is synthetics with significantly high levels of artificial intelligence. In Sex with Robots, writer Nessah Muthy depicts a near-future where robots have been developed to such a degree that they can mimic, imitate, and learn from the humans they interact with. But they are also programmed to obey. And immediate and unquestioning availability for sex is what they have been programmed with.

In the play, we catch snatched glimpses, brief scenes, with various singles and couples to consider how humans would use such technology, and what would drive them to consider doing so.

At first, the intention seems generous – a robot is bought to make up for cracks in a relationship – but with themes of identity theft, abuse and consent, the play does not avoid the darker areas it needs to explore. This I very much enjoyed – but I also wanted the play to push itself even further.

The issue of abuse is explored in much the same way as The Nether some years before – the key provocation being. is it better for an abuser to use a robot to inflict their desires upon thus sparing a human? It’s an interesting quandary; in such a world, would we be giving abusers the opportunity to avoid accountability?

But, like I said, we’ve considered this before and, critically, AI has moved on so much since The Nether already.  So much so that, as Yuval Noah Harari highlights in his bestseller, Homo Deus, the question now isn’t so much the morality of the move to AI and what it allows us (humans) to do, rather the fears should be over what is our response will be when it becomes clear that humans and AI are the same thing?

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