Everything about American life is physical, including religion. Even the American notion of heaven (usually a golden field where angels winnow while they sing) is a place you can get to only through hard work. Long before televangelism, American religious movements were linking prosperity with salvation, arguing that the amount of money you earned was a good indication of your spiritual value as well. Americans expect even their culture to be functional, and to provide something sensible to sit on, wear or use to brighten up that drab office space. Otherwise you might as well chuck it in the gleaming trash compactor and forget about it.
It's appropriate, then, that the coming year-long interdisciplinary survey of American culture at the Barbican starts off with some Bible-thumping furniture makers, and a thunderous roar of motorcycle exhaust. Beginning next week, Inventing America: a Year of American Culture at the Barbican is eccentric, varied, and enthusiastic, and it's hard to think of a performance space more appropriate to the beautiful rush and discord of American culture. With its multi-tiered structure and weird, Escher-like staircases that never seem to take you where you think you're going, the Barbican has fine theatre and opera stages, concert halls, cinemas, and even an art gallery and library. Like America itself, it sometimes feels like a hard place to find your way into. But once you're there, you usually have so much fun that you don't want to leave.
The programme begins with a tribute to one of America's most notorious cultural icons - the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. This show focuses primarily on the garish customising practices of America's outlaw aesthetes (though these days most Harley owners look a lot like orthodontists), but it will also include some historical exhibits, such as the "Captain America" Harley, which probably left a more lasting impression on viewers of Easy Rider than either of the film's stars, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Car and motorcycle customising is the American equivalent of self-art, and in many ways it embodies one of the strangest contradictions of the American character. In a nation where everyone seems in a hurry to tell you who they are and how they feel, it's not always easy to understand what anyone is talking about.
Also beginning on January 22 and continuing until late April is "Shaker: the Art of Craftsmanship". This promises to be an intriguing exhibition of some beautiful handiworks which, like many things religious in America, display keen utilitarian values linked to religious idealism. ("Put our hands to work," declared Mother Ann, the 18th-century Manchester-born founder of Shakerism, "and our hearts to God.") The Shakers were originally know as the "Shaking Quakers" for their spasmodic behaviour whenever the Holy Spirit grabbed them, and these days their numbers have diminished to fewer than a dozen devout members, mainly because they shun anything carnal, especially sex. And while they are often mistaken for those technophobic, bearded reactionaries that Harrison Ford hid out with in Witness (those were the Amish, by the way), the Shakers are progressive people (they even have their own home page on the Internet). Americans, at their best, are not just peculiar; they're also willing to move - or shake - with the times.
The Barbican season promises to cover all the significant bases. A spring showing of a new Andy Warhol exhibition (currently at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York) includes a lot of recently released archive material. And the still-to-be-finalised musical programme offers just about every conceivable variety of American tune and twang, from gospel and bluegrass to jazz and soft rock. James Taylor appears from January 31 to February 1; jazz drummer Maz Roach on January 30; and blues singer Pigmeat Pete Smith on January 28.
At least two American institutions of contemporary dance are also scheduled: the Twyla Tharp Dance Company (July 28 to August 8) and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (October 6-10). Classical programmes feature both American music and American artists - everyone from the 200-year-old Emerson String Quartet, to the "multimedia theatre event", Monsters of Grace, composed by Robert Wilson and avant-garde music maverick Philip Glass, which makes its UK premire in April.
A series of readings and film screenings offers an excellent sampling of those modern commercial genres that are as American as basketball, apple pie, and serial killers on the highway. Readings include eminent exponents of American crime fiction and Fifties Beat poetry. And the "Rebels on Wheels" weekend, along with a simultaneous season of "Wednesday Westerns", will be followed by selections of "Black American Cinema", "Hollywood Musicals" and "Attack of the Bs". There aren't many film reps in town offering a programme wide enough to encompass Fritz Lang's The Big Heat, David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, and Roger Corman's Attack of the Crab Monsters.
One function of the celebrations is to remind people of what the Barbican is already doing. From May to October, its theatre programme will be more international. In late July, for example, the Steppenwolf Theater Company from Chicago will stage its production of Kaufman and Hart's screwball comedy The Man Who Came To Dinner, starring John Mahoney of Channel 4's Frasier. Other plans include a set of original one-act plays written by talents as diverse as Eric Bogosian, John Guare and Ntozake Shange.
There are times when America seems to offer an embarrassment of riches, and other times when it all seems too much. To its credit, the Barbican is offering both this year.
Inventing America: a Year of American Culture at the Barbican runs from January 22 to November 1998.
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