Shame (Dir: Steve McQueen)

Steve McQueen Shame

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Steve McQueen’s second feature is a visually arresting, thematically dense piece of cinema, that may, and probably will, prove to be an important film in years to come. That is, if enough people get to see it. Having been cursed with a NC-17 rating in the US and a limited release in the UK, it seems those it may have been intended for will be largely unaware of its arrival.

From the opening frames it becomes clear there is again, after Hunger (2008), a meticulous method at work, both in front and behind the camera; McQueen’s fine arts training fixes every image immaculately, as if leafing through a glossy (yet depraved) coffee table book, a look which works as irony for its subject matter, and the extension of McQueen’s intention to interrogate his audience.

Then there is Fassbender as Brandon, a long-time sex-addicted New Yorker running the hamster wheel of untameable urges and the subsequent self-loathing, his demeanour and quiet menace recalling fellow-pointy-face Christian Bale in American Psycho, only less cartoonish and more sinister.

Brandon’s condition worsens when his younger, ever-vulnerable and needy lounge-singing sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to visit. The pressure of her presence and her constant encroachments on his territory adds to the strain he already feels. Her re-appearance twists him in new ways, not helped by her dalliances with his boss, Dave (James Badge Dale). Brandon gradually crumbles into himself.

And there is much to admire in its telling. Shame is something of an orchestral symphony, all of the components coming together to form a cohesive and remarkable whole, made from the music, and the visuals, and (most of) the acting. One notable sore spot, however, is the mildly irritating dinner scene, in which Sissy performs a heart-wrenching number in front of her brother and Dave. The camera trained on Mulligan’s quivering face, the film’s flow is interrupted. A long long shot of just too much supplicatory ‘acting’. We are made fully aware that what we are witnessing is an actor’s attempt to state her claim as being ‘the brightest young thing’, the scene far too drawn-out to leave any sympathy remaining in this particular instance. That is not to say Mulligan won’t be praised. She surely will be; it is the kind of thing that critics go for, this false attempt at intensity behind a look of painful worldliness.

Despite this, what co-screenwriters McQueen and Abi Morgan have managed is to make real, living, breathing humans of Brandon and Sissy. You may not like them; one is an arrogant bully, the other a needy liberty-taker, but somehow you reach some state of empathy.

Of course, as you may have heard, a lot of the film is sex. That almost goes without saying. (It is like the filmed memoirs of Dan Fante.) But the way McQueen has worked it disconnects the viewer from the sex, even from the sex in other films, this sex for gratification, the cold relief sold as ‘love’. It is the same with Brandon, and we arrive again at empathy. He cannot resist his urges to abominate himself, using hookers, masturbating at work, spending the in-between watching internet pornography, sat with a beer as if looking at a football game, completely on automatic. While, at work, his computer is confiscated as a result of the material found on it.

As he goes on, Brandon has more and more emotionally numbing sex, his pursuit leading him eventually to physical injury and homosexuality (with an odd and subtle implication that homosexuality is rock bottom, if we are to go by the music and intended drama. But it is little trips like these* that make you realise this film was actually ‘made’, that it didn’t just fabricate to teach our society a lesson.)

Shame seems not only about sex addiction as a distancing affliction, but also about alienation in general, though it does too hint at familial problems, sexual or otherwise, as the root cause of the siblings’ troubles. But McQueen is less interested in working the psychological aspects, opting instead to document, not explain: Here is a man who is of no value to himself. He has lost touch with any sense of worthiness, any purpose, other than fleeting and momentary gratification. What is he worth, if he is nothing even to himself? This is why it seems as if this is an “important” film (in quotation marks as how important a film can get has its obvious limitations), and completely of this era of commodified sex. An issue of the times.

Quickly the glossy sex becomes abhorrent to watch, because we are with Brandon, and it’s as equally degrading to the viewer as the participant, made most obvious in the clips of porn flickering on Brandon’s screen. McQueen merely shows this to the audience, does not tell it, by taking us from our awareness of his commercial-like images, which open the story, to the grimy opposite, but filmed in the same style, while simultaneously the world that Brandon inhabits becomes as glossed over and false as the sex and pornography that clouds him.

“These days it is not realistic to limit yourself to one partner”, Brandon says at one point during a date with a girl from work in which he also expresses his pessimistic view of long-term relationships, that one becomes bored with the other. It is clear that he is constantly reaching for the now, the instant gratification. This is what makes this film of our time. It sounds like social commentary, and it probably is. Fassbender’s Brandon is an icon of modern man, a symbol, while the final effect of Shame has some kind of reverb with Tarkovsky’s (disappearing) idea of having a film hopefully make the viewer turn to ‘good’. Shame is the sound and sight of an artist speaking and moving, yet without didacticism or lame solutions. And by the end, we are given a sense of hope, of man resisting himself, gaining control. Shame that a lot of people probably won’t even get a chance to experience it.

[*How many times can the distorted reflection of a protagonist be used as a metaphor in film, without someone piping up and saying something?]

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 7: Hyde Park

The final photo-essay by Dr Nick Maroudas on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

Epstein lived at no. 18 Hyde Park Gate, and it says much for the civic pride of this ultra-respectable neighbourhood that he was twice commissioned to make a sculpture for the Park. Both of them have a “green” theme. But here I must confess, they often tempted me to an ecological peccadillo: on a drive between north and south London, I would cut through the park solely to get out and admire them on the way.

In a little bird sanctuary one can see the memorial to W.H. Hudson, author of Green Mansions and a founder of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In the 60s Notting Hill was still the unfashionable side of Hyde Park, tainted by genteel prejudice against the Irish navvies who had built Paddington station. “No Irish” was a familiar notice on rooms to let in London. But time has fulfilled Peter Rachman’s prophetic vision of a Notting Hill with real estate value added: it has proved entirely feasible to drive out the poor and bring in a better class of tenant to the north side of the park. Coming back from the past on a visit to London in the 21st century and walking down from Paddington, I was startled by the apparition of a well dressed lady leading two very clean infants toward the park in fresh cotton frocks – all magically transported from Kensington. But recalling that I had read about a movie starring a new and fashionable “Notting Hill”, I hastily collected my wits and asked directions; because the bird sanctuary is rather small and easily missed among the surrounding trees . Mention of a bird sanctuary drew blank looks, so I explained that I was looking for: “a small statue of a bird lady with a puffin on her shoulder”. I used this childish language because I was beginning to suspect that I might get more out of the children than out of the adult. The lady seemed pained, and the little girl began to tug urgently at the grownup’s skirt so, not wishing to embarrass them further (“To the Irish every stranger is a potential conversation, to the English every stranger is a potential bore”). I crossed the Bayswater Road as soon as the lights changed (but no sooner, lest the children be set a bad example). Hardly were we inside the park when the lady kindly came up to me and said, with that stiff embarrassed expression which the English well-bred assume when obliged to address somebody to whom they have not been properly introduced, “My daughter tells me it is near the Lido”. I thanked them and went on with joy in my heart; because that little girl had not been taught about W.H. Hudson and the founding of the RSPB: she had been taken to the Serpentine by her nanny, or in a school crocodile – and the wild bird lady had become part of her consciousness.

Which is as it should be.

I would have liked to tell the child that the bird lady’s name was Rima, and that she comes from a book called Green Mansions because birds live in green mansions – but I was too shy.

Epstein Hyde Park
figures 48 and 49

Here is the Hudson memorial “the size of a postage stamp” inside its fenced sanctuary (figure 48). And here is Rima in a flurry of wing and beak (figure 49). They are wild birds and, according to an ornithologist friend, symbolic rather than exact. The larger are two species of typical hooked-beak raptor; the eagle is well worked-out, with feathers finely chiselled and massive wings folded to power dive “like a thunder-bolt”. The softer raptor is more hawk like. The small birds may be a species (or two) of crow with general-purpose Swiss-army-knife slightly-curved beaks. There is no puffin, ignoramus that I am.

As a boy, I read Green Mansions in the same week with Pride and Prejudice. These books, swallowed together and too soon, left a vague impression of two remote exotic lands at opposite poles, equally distant from my urban working-class world. But however vague my recollection of those heroines, long joined with ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘The Princess on the Pea’ in the swirling mists of fable, I am absolute that Rima in her green mansions was closer to Epstein than Miss Bennet in her entailed estate. No Jane Austen Society followed the RSPB to commission Epstein. Rima probably scared them off because she “ain’t got no panties”. Rima is a wild thing among the wild birds; and Epstein created her stark naked like Botticelli’s Venus because, as Botticelli remarked (in the play Poor Little Nelly Machiavelli) “it increases her pathos, poor dear”.

Epstein Bowater
figures 50 and 51

Epstein’s sculpture for Bowater House (figure 50) was entitled The Rush of Green. Fluid bronze depicts a family and their dog rushing forward towards the park to enjoy clean air and green spaces (figures 50 to 56). “Pan charms them and nature pulls them away from the offices, shops, and dwellings behind”. It stands as Epstein’s last testament, and a cheerful one. Like Beethoven in his final phase, “he had more to carry, and he carried it more lightly” (J.W.N. Sullivan).

Epstein Bowater
figures 52 and 53

I like the boy with the dog. Epstein sculpted his own dog Frisky as an adorable little spaniel; but the Green’s dog is a large hound of indeterminate breed with a long clumsy muzzle, half wild, half comical as it looks back toward the family in its bounding dogginess. The father appears resolute, long suffering – a typical Epstein look (figure 54); perhaps he is worrying how to pay the rent yet spend time with his family. Behind him comes Pan, keeping a wary eye open for a change in the weather. The active bodies of husband and wife express a good contrast between rugged maleness and smooth femininity (figure 52). But the woman with a beseeching gesture leads them all onward (figures 52, 55 and 56) – her body elongated into a strong fluid line of bronze, like the barrel of a big gun, like the keel of a ship, like a rocket:

Das ewig-weibliche zieht uns hinan.

In this last work, Epstein found yet another solution to the problem that he had long pondered: how to reconcile the big public statement with the joys and sorrows of ordinary life. In size and finesse of architectural setting, this is very much in his grand manner; but in depiction of personality it is very much in the manner of his portrait busts. And in gaiety it joins with other cheerful statues of London’s open space: Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Girl with Dolphin at Tower Bridge.

The old Bowater House was built in Mies van der Rohe style; one of those neat modular boxes in which most of the work of the world gets done. It has since been demolished. The sculpture and its gate have been displaced to make way for the most expensive apartments in the world: four fussy concrete-and-glass blocks, twice the volume of Bowater House.

Epstein Bowater
figures 54 and 55

I liked Bowater House. It ought to have been listed Grade I for preservation, because its dark-suit-white-shirt office anonymity provided a perfect foil to Rush of Green (figure 50). Alas, that is only my opinion. Here is an authoritative voice:

The one piece of enlightened thinking [by Bowater] was the later (1959-61) inclusion of an Epstein sculpture of a family group with the god Pan, facing the park. Had it been at the Knightsbridge side, this sculpture might have provided some sort of sense of a public realm at the buildings base. As it was, it was largely ignored.

Against which, I present photographic evidence, figures 50 to 56. To at least one former Londoner, Bowater House provided a definite “sense of public realm at the building’s base”; and this magnificent piece of sculpture was by no means “largely ignored”; quite the contrary, I used drive in from Knightsbridge through Bowater’s ample portal over the old Edinburgh gate, just so that I could spend a few moments drinking in that glorious rush of green. You can see them now as I saw them then (figure 56) bathed in early sunlight and rushing to green in “the joy of the morning”.

As with a previous Epstein setting (see TUC House), one can only hope that colour photos of the Rush-Greens at their original address survive, so that another piece of official vandalism might stand a slight chance of being corrected in some remote enlightened future.

Bowater Epstein
figures 56 and 57

On August 19th, 1959, Epstein completed The Bowater House Group. He died later that day in his home at 18 Hyde Park Gate, of heart failure. A quick, clean death at a good age and on a good occasion, attended by people who loved him; I should like to go like that.

In Loughton, where he lived for many years and where his second house, at no. 50 Baldwin Hill, bears a blue plaque:

… he was remembered by many local residents who saw and chatted to him, as a man of kindly and compassionate disposition though impatient of anyone lacking humility…

He possessed a gracious and courteous manner. His conversation was cultivated and, on the subject of art, very learned.

He never lost his Brooklyn accent.

Epilogue

Googling from abroad I learn that Rush of Green, coyly renamed the Pan Statue, now stands in a displaced Edinburgh Gate, “much narrower than the one lost in 2007” (Evening Standard) and “with slightly meagre pavements” (The Guardian) – not surprising on a site where any square metre clawed from public space into private hands might gain the seller £50,000. At their new address the bronze group remain mercifully intact, albeit more cramped and perched on a zippy new plinth against the intrusive buzz of visual distraction from 1HP. Here is the opinion of Oliver Wainwright; I think his words apply equally well to Epstein’s bronze family. Wainwright is preferring some plain buildings from the 60s: [which are] “to be hugged like the family’s big woolly dog. In comparison to their rugged confidence, One Hyde Park seems more like a prissy Siamese cat: all grilles, flaps and mannered articulation. It would probably scratch you if you tried to hug it.”

As far as I can judge from the web, where they stand on South Carriage Drive new “street furniture” in aggressively safe Elfin fluorescent yellow, adds to the uneasy feeling of edginess and scratchiness. All that jazz diminishes Epstein’s carefully planned contrast with a plain neutral office building, and hence diminishes the original impetus of Rush of Green. But, being a resilient family, the Rush-Greens will no doubt adapt to their straitened circumstances and their pushy new neighbour, and continue to work some of their old magic on unsuspecting passers-by.

Money trickles upward, population increases, people grow taller yet ceilings grow lower, especially in your multi-million pound apartment on Hyde Park. Green space and public space get eaten away: there in a big gulp, here only a little nibble. Hyde Park still has 350 acres. Rush to the Green!

The great god Pan pipes them on, but keeps a weather-eye open on his tough old face.

Debaters use words and make generalizations. A developer promises “good design” and “high-quality public space”, leading to “vibrant” cities”. Pericles probably talked like that. So, what is the difference between the Parthenon and 1HP? Look and see, don’t rely on words. There are lavish words of praise for 1HP; there are even a few words of dispraise for the Parthenon: “misuse of public funds” and “filling Athens with buildings when they ought to have been filling it with justice and temperance” – the latter from high-minded Plato. There were even some words of denunciation for the Elgin Marbles, from the English Press in heavy italics: “The people need bread and you give them stones. We cannot eat stones!”.

But visual artists do not use words; they open your eyes.

Art survives words of praise or blame, can survive surprisingly long, be surprisingly resilient. Great art is like the Sybilline books: the complete set, worth all the public coffers of Rome; half destroyed, the remaining half still worth all the coffers; and so on, down to the last page. Art is like a hologram: break it and each piece will contain the image of the whole, though in lower resolution. Random spores of great art sleep for centuries, get picked up and inoculate susceptible people far away, to start a culture – like the yeast in the sourdough.

Having nearly completed this essay, I happened to re-read C.M. Bowra’s account of ancient Greek art: its love of the physical as a sign of truth beyond appearance, its deification of the human and its humanisation of the gods; its vigor; its respect for architectural and environmental setting. I think Bowra’s words and concepts equally applicable to the Epstein sculptures of modern London. (C.M. Bowra, The Greek Experience, chapter on ‘The Plastic Vision’; part of the series, History of Civilisation).

The most interesting fact that turned up from my googling for background to this essay was, that Jacob Epstein and Thomas Stearns Eliot were on friendly terms. The two avant garde Yanks lived near one another in respectable Kensington, sowing artistic revolt, and Epstein lit the candles on Eliot’s 70th birthday cake. Personal affinity is a strange chemistry, beyond classification by religion or politics: a right-wing intense Christian can share his world-view with a left-wing intense Jew. There is much of Epstein in these lines of Eliot:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle,
Infinitely suffering thing.

I think Epstein is a great artist because he helped open my eyes to something that mathematical physics cannot explain and the currency cannot control: “flesh touched by God.”
Migrating here and there, along some dying eddies of the far flung British Empire, I remain grateful for the traces of culture that I picked up from London – its Epstein sculptures among other wonderful things in that great and grotty city.

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 6: Portrait Busts and Elemental Carvings

The sixth of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

These little works are scattered round the world, but I happened to snap them on exhibition in the West End. The Epstein centenary exhibition of 1980 was not your modern blockbuster, with a glossy colour catalogue and punters who plod their weary way through crowded time-slots. The Ben Uri Gallery in Dean Street was small and friendly; nobody told you not to photograph and not to view too close. I have their catalogue still: only 24 pages of plain paper, folded and stapled in the middle like a school exercise book; black-and-white photographs. But the devoted presenters were a powerhouse of British art.

Henry Moore wrote: “Jacob Epstein was a great sculptor … particularly in England. It was through him that sculpture became important to a large number of people who otherwise never thought of it. … he took the brickbats and made things easier for people like me, coming after him.”

Lord Clark: “He started as a master of style, he ended as a master of truth.”

Anthony Caro: “The bronze portrait heads he made, particularly of the men, have been unsurpassed since his death. They have life and generosity of spirit, and these are indeed great gifts in the making of art.”

Epstein busts
figures 26 to 28

Figure 26 shows the front rank of the company, with Epstein himself leading the charge in wedge formation. Under a cavalry-style sturm-cap his eagle eye scours the field ahead, his bladed nose cleaves the air (figure 27). On his left flank rides Einstein, with Vaughan Williams covering the rear “like an eighteenth century admiral whose word was law”. Epstein’s back line looks strong, with Chaim Weizmann and Sunita, “a big woman who liked pepper in her whiskey.”

Figure 28 sounds a gentler note, unexpectedly delicate and refined – almost decadent. On the wall are Epstein’s illustrations for Les Fleurs du Mal. Little Piccaninny gazes with a knowing innocence, like the negro page in a rococo boudoir. Someone has thoughtfully brought two bunches of marguerites in a wicker basket to soften the stark environment of a modern art gallery. In front of the flowers, Esther wears a single bloom on her corsage. Her left breast is bare, her shoulders are delicate (figure 29). I would have liked to add more, but googling to identity the sitter, found that Esther Garman was Epstein’s daughter who committed suicide. Enough.

Epstein busts
figures 29 to 32

The head of Paul Robeson (figure 30) was reconstructed in bronze from sketches of the sitter. Epstein has assembled a complex personality into an equilibrium that looks both powerful and fragile. Robeson was a college graduate, a renowned US football player from 1917 to the early 1920s, an All-American athlete and the singer-actor who immortalized ‘Old Man River’. He played Othello to Peggy Ashcroft’s Desdemona at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon – one of the high points of my years in England. And yet there is a look of “The Insulted and Injured” in Robeson’s face, like that of a child on the verge of tears. The head is strangely poised on a V shaped neck, with a Λ shaped tuft of hair at the top, slightly off balance with the base. The humble aspiration in his uplifted eyes and the determination in his powerful jaw are unforgettable. Epstein recognized a συμμαχον , a fellow fighter. In that period – the 20s and 30s – when fascism was fashionable and ethnic prejudice was the social norm, a Jew or a Negro often needed to struggle for the simple right to be regarded as human; moreover for a creative or a performing artist there is also the perpetual struggle to achieve αρετε : the best from one’s potential.

Areté is evident in Epstein’s iconic bust of Einstein (figure 32). I have included a view from Einstein’s right (figure 31) and from his left (figure 33); because my sainted-mother-in-law of-blessed-memory, when we took her round the Tate, remarked that the right side of the face was racked with cloud compelling thought while the left was … and here she used an Austrian word which I do not remember but which sounded very gemuetlich vaeterlich. Epstein described him thus: “His glance contained a mixture of the humane, the humorous and the profound. This was a combination that delighted me. He resembled the ageing Rembrandt.”

Chaim Weizmann (figure 34) recruited Einstein for a fund-raising trip to the USA; the dynamic duo raised a couple of million dollars for the Hebrew University. However, in Epstein’s busts one can see the difference between these two very eminent Jewish scientists: the one a seeker after knowledge as the way to wisdom (figure 32), the other a seeker after knowledge as the path to power (figure 34).

More Epstein busts
figures 33 to 35

The Weizmann bust (figure 34) always reminds me of Lenin (figure 35). At first I thought it was because both men were Russians of similar phenotype (Tartar cheekbones, rounded skull) and both of them chose to sport their beards in the Imperial style; but seeing the two of them side-by-side by Einstein, I feel sure that Epstein’s Weizmann (figure 34) resembles Andreev’s Lenin (figure 35) in psychology as well as in physiognomy. They confront the world with the same domineering attitude: the cocky stance, the “sneer of cold command” (that is, when such people are not trying their winning ways by being utterly charming).

Andreev has skilfully caught a likeness in Lenin; Epstein has caught Weizmann with equal skill – but Epstein’s modeling digs beneath the skin. Somehow, all those wrinkles on the bronze surface mount up to expose unbearable inner tension. Weizmann complained that he was “the Prisoner of Rehovot”: sidelined on the political chessboard, restricted to building the finest research institute in the Middle East – a mere bagatelle for his powerful intellect. Verbally equivalent (to what Epstein is telling me in bronze) would be Solzhenitsyn’s opinion on this type of world betterer: his short story about Lenin, “the brain which could take the world apart and put it together again”, seething with frustration in peaceful Zurich.

Epstein busts
figures 36 to 39

Sunita (figure 36) was the model for Madonna and Child in Cavendish Square; so was her son. Having rashly described the son as Hindu-looking without knowing who the models were (figure 15) I was relieved to find a Hindu phenotype confirmed in this portrait of his mother (figure 36). (The Madonna of course is not only Hindu: Sunita said that Epstein had made Her far more beautiful than Sunita looked). The next three figures show how subtly Epstein could morph Sunita’s features, playing theme-and-variations on the phenotype. In figure 37 he has shifted Sunita to the European side of Indo-European, keeping her big straight nose (“bignose” the Chinese called their first Dutch sailors) and her big chin; but toning down her high cheekbones, slightly receding her forehead and softening the firm delineation around her own heavy-lidded eyes (figure 36).

In figure 38 he composes a really busty bust, drawing attention to the bosom by elongating her neck, throwing back her head and further receding her forehead. In Sunita’s final morph (figure 39) only the catalogue told me this was still the same model. Sunita has morphed into Israfel – who in turn will morph into Lucifer. In preparation for her eventual metamorphosis into a male angel, her breasts have been suppressed by tight banding (figure 39). The face has become more oval, and her hair has curled away from cold-climate Indo-Euro-Sino straight hair with relatively shallow waves (figure 36; hair that lies flat and keeps you warm) towards a hot-climate springy Afro-Arabian bush (figure 39; hair that spreads out and lets the breeze through). This is in step with her/his name-change, from the Indo-European sounding Sunita to the Semitic sounding Israfel.

“Great is Diana of Ephesus”. Huntress and protectress of wild creatures, protectress of women in childbirth, Diana Artemis Cybele, the Great Mother, Mother of the Gods, plays theme-and-variations on all her creatures. She creates a chimpanzee and, with a few deft touches of DNA, composes an Einstein. People and other animals, adults and children, cats and dogs and wild birds; Epstein showed great skill in depicting the nature of many different creatures, but behind all his variations lay one underlying theme. In his own words: “Man touched by God”.

Annabel Freud (figure 40) is wearing her baby bonnet, the youngest grandchild of Jacob Epstein and Kathleen Garman. This is another example of Epstein’s superb skill in portraying children.

Epstein busts
figures 40 to 42

I cannot identify the woman in figure 41; she does not look famous nor spiritual nor exotic nor tormented (although there is a touch of ancient grief bravely borne in the ringed eye-sockets and the upturned corners of a mouth fixed halfway between smile and sob). A remarkably plain Jane with a lumpy hairdo, parted down the middle, pulled back in a bunch and cut straight across the nape at a safe length: neither sophisticatedly short nor glamourously long. A very unusual face for Epstein; so ordinary and dumpy, he must have liked her quite a lot.

Mrs Godfrey Phillips (figure 42) was the wife of an industrialist. She was a great patron of the arts. Epstein has paid tribute to a delicate-featured woman of great sensitivity, modesty and attentiveness, with fine eyes ever-open in their search for areté.

The Elemental Carvings

I snapped these two carvings (both of them originally named Elemental) while they were on show in the Anthony d’Offay gallery before being shipped out to the South Pacific (figures 43 to 47). The attendant courteously allowed me to photograph these works, rarely seen in London, and I gave him my best slides as a token of thanks. The one is a female (figures 43) arching her back, perhaps in sexual ecstasy (figures 44 and 45).

Epstein's Elemental carvings
figures 43 and 44

Woman Possessed (figure 44) is now in the National Gallery of Australia, and this description is from their website:

The woman, who seems to be consummating her union with a god, lies back clenching her fists, with body arched upward in pose reminiscent of Lydia Sokolova at the climax of Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps … Sokolova [who in middle age coached Margot Fonteyn] described the final moments of her dance… “I dropped to the ground and lay backwards, raising my body in a taut arch…” Epstein attended the London performance of this ballet and made sketches…

Woman Possessed (originally called Elemental) is carved from Hoptonwood stone, a marble introduced by the young Henry Moore, who said he liked it because it was an English stone and he was English.

Epstein's Elemental carvings
figures 45 to 47

The title Elemental was transferred to a carving in alabaster (figure 46). According to the sculptor, it was the product of his “primitive woodland surroundings” (number 49 Baldwins Hill on the edge of Epping forest, 250 yards from Loughton bus stop opposite Homebase; good info from this Loughton website).

An apelike creature, squatting and hugging its knees (figure 46). What is it – hominid or hominoid?

Despite its 30s-style perfection of ovoid form, this translucent lump of stone brings to mind Darwin’s unforgettable account of some living conditions that really were elemental: “Tierra del Fuegans … naked and uncovered from the wind, rain and snow … sleep on the ground coiled up like animals … I can scarcely imagine that there is any spectacle more interesting and worthy of reflection, than one of these unbroken savages” (Voyage of the Beagle).

To my mind Elemental resembles a squatting baboon even though it does not have the doglike muzzle of a baboon. So my last photograph of an Epstein sculpture in London was this elemental creature curved into itself, squatting in a far corner of a Mayfair art gallery (figure 47) self-sufficient and self-contained like a real baboon keeping watch on some lonely krantz in the Karroo.

Read the last of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in and around Hyde Park

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 5: Parliament Square

The fifth of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

“The finest body of mounted riflemen in the world”. Generous tribute to a former foe of the British Empire, from Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples – a history of the greatest body of armed robbers the world has yet seen, and written by its great Imperialist leader (“I have set three kings upon their throne”). Churchill was admiring the Afrikaner guerilla resistance to British occupation of the Free Afrikaner Republics, a resistance formidably led by the same Afrikaner general whom Parliament now honours. Well, Parliament has a sensible tradition of putting up statues to those who improved it by opposing it. And Parliament also has a profitable tradition of pirating the wealth of a small country after demonising its people as fanatical and its leader as corrupt. (Profitable for a handful of leading wolves; but their woolly flock of lobby fodder must remain content with salary, pension and what they can wangle from expenses).

The fate of the Afrikaner Free Republics and their President Kruger was sealed as soon as they began to mine gold and diamonds, and build modern cities with electric vehicles running on broad streets. Said my Afrikaner brother-in-law: “The British don’t bring progress; they just wait till they see something is working, and take over”. The smaller the better. Says the Afrikaans popular song DelaRey: “a handful of us ‘gainst a whole great might”.

Africa is crucified North to South, East to West. At its suffering centre writhes the Congo – the heart of darkness. Behind the armies sit politicians scheming how to deploy the army and “become filthy rich”; behind the politicians sit financiers scheming how to deploy Parliament and “control the currency”. It was not by chance that Joseph Conrad had the narrator of the Heart of Darkness begin and end his story on the shining Thames where Parliament sits and The City squats. And at the darkest centre of the Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s narrator needed only a brief glance to tell us: “the flabby devil was running that show … in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, weak-eyed, pretending devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly”.

Epstein in Parliament Square
figures 21 and 22

So what is the most famous Afrikaner resistance leader doing on a plinth next the most famous British prime minister? There they stand (figure 21): the shambling romantic genius Churchill, “two hundred percent fit” on his regime of cigars, brandy and pudding; and the abstemious philosopher Field Marshall Jan Christiaan Smuts, striding with upright head and body leaning forward, just as he used to walk on top of windy Table Mountain when I was a boy. In those days, Smuts was recruiting my young uncles (hardly more than boys themselves) to go “up north” and fight for the British Empire against the German Reich. But neither the Irish nor the Afrikaners wanted any part in that war:

The English occupied our country, starved us, shot us, dispossessed us – and then laughed at us. What harm have the Germans ever done to us?

A Resistance leader who sides with the Occupying Power is a quisling, and Smuts lost the support of his Afrikaners. But Slim Jannie (Smart Johnny) although a warrior by necessity was a conciliator by nature, and his philosophy was Holistic. Here is a more objective assessment, from Encyc.Britt 1967:

His greatness lay in his continuous pursuit of Anglo-Afrikaner unity, his contribution to international order and his vigorous leadership in World Wars 1 and 2.

At Christ’s College Cambridge, Smuts stood out as a student of great ability, with a mind that was both broad and deep. He wrote a psychological study on Walt Whitman, and he was the top first in both parts of the law tripos. He later published a book on Holism and Evolution.

But Joseph Chamberlain [Liberal businessman] and Sir Alfred Milner [of Midland Bank, trustee of Cecil Rhodes backed by Lord Rothschild of many banks] were impatient to assert British supremacy over the whole of Southern Africa. Smuts became a guerilla fighter. The experience demonstrated his leadership ability and won him the lifelong allegiance of those that served under him. After the fall of Pretoria, Smuts’s conciliatory work for political union and his draft constitution became the basis for the Union of South Africa.

In World War 1 Smuts became a member of the British war cabinet performing many valuable services for the British government and the allies. In 1918 he wrote a project for a League of Nations, which was a major contribution to the origin of that body. He opposed the imposition of severe reparations on Germany, and was extremely reluctant to sign the treaty of Versailles.

In 1921 he persuaded Irish leaders to enter into negotiations that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State.

In World War 2 Smuts, sensitive to the broader implications of Nazi expansion overcame political neutralism, and under his leadership the South African war effort was impressive. Winston Churchill set a high value on his judgment. In 1945 Smuts played a major part in drafting the United Nations charter.

I quote Smuts’s objective qualifications at length, because none of them are written on his plinth. All you see is an old soldier in a sam-brown. His face is careworn but his gaze is keen (figure 23). He is not your usual pompous person on a plinth. “Sit we never so high”, says Montaigne, “we can only sit on our own rear end”.

Epstein has preserved for posterity not his honours but the man himself. What we see today is exactly what future onlookers would admire, if that statue were to be dug up after a decay of civilization in which all records had been lost: the lively portrait of a man who walks firmly but lightly on his own two feet.

Hitler’s thousand year Reich lasted 12 years. As for Churchill’s British Empire (“…if the British Empire were to survive for a thousand years…”) it collapsed within ten years of Churchill’s greatest speech. However, the same Anglo-American finance that bankrolled Rhodes and Milner continues to pull the strings in post-imperial Britain and post-colonial Africa: “I care not who rules a country, so long as I can control its currency”. The United Nations has followed the League of Nations by subsiding slowly into the same slough of ineffectual infamy: “I help the stronger nations reduce weaker nations to impotence”. The Union of South Africa survives, but it is a predominantly Bantu republic now, and not part of a White Commonwealth with the British monarch at its head as envisaged by Smuts and Churchill. Little is left today from Smuts’s holistic philosophy of unity, and his politics of reconciliation.

What will be left for the remote future? Perhaps only the image on this plinth: a man of action and a thinker, who looks upward and looks ahead, who near the end of a long life is still walking briskly. A man who does the best he can, who tries to stay upright and master the devils in himself, as well as the flabby devil who is “running that show” over there in Parliament (figures 21 and 24). The flabby devil is very strong: it is made up of millions of people, and it will never be exorcised until all those millions learn to think for themselves – which is very hard work.

History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors…
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.”

As regards style: for this official portrait Epstein reverted to the classical realism of his academic training; but it was the Realism of a master who had tried many things and held on to what proved good. He learned the Modernist trick of letting the forms speak for themselves: the sharp cusps of the lapels and the pocket-flap (figure 23), the flapping skirts of the riding jacket (figure 24), the intricate lacing on the puttees (figure 25), the exaggeratedly squared-off heel on the right boot; and its curved sole which is unrealistic but adds an impression of lift to the heel. However, Epstein was not “modern”: he respected the individuality of his sitters; his portraits caught a likeness and often expressed their soul – what neurologists used to call “their psyche” and nowadays call “their bundle of qualities” (says neurologist Oliver Sacks).

Epstein in Parliament Square
figures 23, 24 and 25

Once, in the 70s or 80s, I opened a book called Modern British Sculpture, and sought in vain for the name Epstein. Those days have passed, along with Modernism. The Smuts statue is timeless. However, it looks different from the timeless ideal that Michelangelo aimed at in his tomb for Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici: “A thousand years from now, who will care what those two really looked like?” Epstein cared deeply what people really looked like, insofar as he tried to show an outward reality that expressed the sitter’s inward reality: our timelessness lies within ourselves.

Smuts died in 1950, so the sculptor was obliged to work from photographs, aided by recent memory of the man. However, compared with El Greco’s portrait of cardinal Juan de Tavera 30 years dead, Epstein was in a much better position than Greco – and it shows. El Greco, with only the death mask to go by, portrays a pallid cadaver with its eyes propped open. Epstein’s statue strides with life abounding; all the more lively (without losing dignity) because of its tilt against the stiff verticality of Big Ben.

As usual Epstein carefully (and cunningly and craftily – German: kenning, knowledge; kraft, force) placed the work in its setting. By the time he conceived the Smuts statue Epstein had finally reconciled two hitherto disparate elements of his art: the large impersonal monument and the small personal portrait. He made good his early criticism of Rodin; it is not enough to create a monument that is beautiful or striking, as Rodin undoubtedly did: but the work must also harmonise with its surroundings. Epstein has daringly harmonised his work by setting it “against the beat” in Parliament Square.

So there they stand, Churchill with Smuts, both of them “leaning at a slight angle to the universe”; especially leaning at a slight angle to Parliament – as anybody must, who wants to get something done. They stand together because they pushed their respective Parliaments to resist a great force for evil at a crucial time. In the lost decades before Hitler’s war, a visitor to Britain remarked that he could not decide which was the greater wonder: a Parliament that possessed so great a man as Churchill, or a Parliament that could find no use for him. In the second world war Churchill, with sober Attlee at his side to turn inspiration into workable reality, gave British democracy its finest hour. And although modern South Africa is not the white commonwealth that Smuts represented, his holistic spirit can be seen in its extraordinary bloodless revolution which formed the present “rainbow nation”. Both men overcame appeasement at home and defeatism abroad, at a time when their countries stood alone against the fascist menace. They gave the “irresistible armed might” of fascism its first bloody nose, so that the beast backed off to turn on the Russian bear instead – and got its back broken. The holistic spirit of Smuts pervaded the postwar era (except for US paranoia over Communism), and gave a united Europe 50 years of peace and prosperity.

Now Blair and Clinton have unchained the flabby devil again, getting NATO to dismember Serbia to clear the way for a pipeline for an oil consortium and a base for the US Army: the first bombs to be dropped on a European country since Hitler. That is where we are now; the NATO devil is still rampaging, and I do not see anybody on the political horizon who can be even remotely described as “having a mind both broad and deep” or “devoted to reconciliation”.

If the Smuts portrait were to survive a couple of thousand years (a few old bronze sculptures, equally fine, have already survived that long) will historical record still identify the man? All I know is that I have lived to enjoy most of the unity and reconciliation that Smuts worked and fought for, both in wartime South Africa and in postwar Europe. And, as a South African born Britisher, I am grateful to Epstein for presenting “the bundle of good qualities” of the man, and leaving the rest to history.

Read the sixth of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s portrait busts and Elemental carvings

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 4: Victoria and Battersea Park

The fourth of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

Victoria – For London Transport

Transport House at 55 Broadway, over St James Park tube station, was the tallest building in the London of 1929. Fascism was in the air, Signor Mussolini (as the Press politely styled him) was securely in power, Herr Hitler and Secretary Stalin were gaining ground, and gigantic corporatism was well on its modern way. The Palais de Chaillot in Paris, built a few years later, reflects the same cold-faced grandiosity that will mark the Nuremberg rallies. Corporate gigantism is supported by billions of docile people worming through tubes underground, filing through lines at airports and now, nicely softened up by a constant barrage of terrorist alarms (as Miles Kington brilliantly predicted 50 years ago) patiently waiting for their turn to be passed through insecurity clearance.

Says the textbook on Statistical Methods, “one is not a statistical sample, it counts as zero”; the individual counts for next to nothing. There is a Law of Large Numbers; and it rules in mathematical physics, in economics and in politics. I do not like calculated grandiosity, and I cannot warm to Epstein’s essay in that impersonal style; so here is an extract of greater objectivity, from the London Transport Museum website:

Frank Pick, assistant managing director of the London Underground Group, commissioned the architect Charles Holden of the firm Adams Holden and Pearson to design the building. The modern and assertive design was considered an architectural masterpiece. It was awarded the London Architectural Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1929. The Underground Group’s desire to make a bold architectural statement in keeping with the ideals of the company had been realised. Holden commissioned some of the most famous sculptors of the day to carve large figurative reliefs, depicting the four winds, directly onto the stonework. These are high up each side of the four wings. The sculptors were Eric Gill, Henry Moore, Eric Aumonier, Samuel Rabinovitch, Allan Wyon and Alfred Gerrard.

Holden commissioned Jacob Epstein to create two groups over the entrances called Day and Night. Their primitive, vital style and the figures’ nudity created a furore. Both Pick and Holden stood by the sculptor, Pick even tendering his resignation in support of Epstein. His resignation was not accepted and the sculptures stayed. However an inch and a half had to be removed from the penis of the figure in Day, as the original size offended contemporary sensibilities.

Epstein’s sculptures were not universally slated. One contemporary commentator wrote, ‘When one looks at them one hardly likes them, but they make such a powerful impression on the mind that when one has left the building they stand out in the memory…’ The same commentator went on to say ‘one would be happier if all buildings were as good as this’. 55 Broadway is now a Grade II listed building.

My only comment is to note how far Epstein had developed away from the academic Classical Greek style which he had already mastered so brilliantly in his previous commission from Charles Holden, for the Strand. The giants here represent his ethnological interests, although there are also deliberate echoes of Michelangelo in the marmoreal smoothness of Night (figure 17), and in the virile roughness of Day (figure 18). Curiously enough, the Michelangelo commissions for that powerful banking house (the Lorenzo & Giuliano tombs, the Medici palace, the Lorenzo Library, San Lorenzo) are tinged with remarkable coldness: their curves “flow like frozen lava”. I suspect the Hollywood effect: paralysis of art by Big Money. The Medici entered historical record as a family of cut-throat bandits, then they became bankers. As a family of bankers they spawned popes and princes, a French princess and a good king of France – even founded the Bank of England (Banca e Compagnia was written on the old Libra £ notes).

Epstein for London Transport
figures 17 and 18

As usual, Epstein has placed his sculptures well. If one looks up from Night, one sees an ingenious groove cut into the building by the architect, to let more daylight into the vast mass; like a sunlit valley carved in the side of some dark mountain by a glacier. A cascade of windows recede floor after floor as far as the eye can see, like “hanging valleys” across the groove of the main valley. It is a fine piece of sculpture of its kind, set well into a fine building of its kind; and its kind of giant-unit-with-an-emphatic-public-statement is needed to perform the work of the world. However, there is a grave problem of corporate scale, as against the scale of the individual human body, which became acute in the 30s and 40s, and which is becoming even more acute today.

In his work for Transport House in 1938, Epstein went with the corporate spirit of the age and he mastered its forms. But already his 1913 work, Rock Drill, was a protest against the mechanized monstrosity of modern life. After Hitler’s war, he had pondered the problem and come up with new concepts that reconciled individual sensibility with corporate mass (see TUC and the final essay on Bowater).

The writer for Transport House (above) notes that Epstein’s penis fetish was well to the fore in Day and Son (figure 18). Even with one-and-a-half inches lopped off Sonny, it is still very much “in yer face”: if Sonny had been there to perform the same function as Manneken Pis, passers-by would have had to put up their umbrellas. But I like the kindly glint in his tough old dad’s eye.

The Transport House carving has a pre-Columbian flavour, an insensitive heaviness in keeping with the heavy insensitive style of the age – an age that fostered megalomania, ethnic suprematism and disastrous war. George Orwell cried out in despair: “there are no longer any Tories, there are only liberals, fascists and the accomplices of fascists”. Insert “economic” before liberals, and “corporate” before fascists, and you find an age remarkably like the present. Right now, huge economic and political structures are systematically crushing small countries with giant insensitivity. Posing on a NATO tank in Serbia after that little country has been bombed, occupied and dismembered, a British minister crows: “No-one can resist our armed might!”. Yes, 7 million people could not withstand our flabby corporate devil one hundred times its size: our 700 million strong NATO giant. Blair and Clinton dispatched the first bombers to break the peace of Europe since Goering flew his own “irresistible armed might” over Guernica. Megalomania opts for disastrous war; especially the megalomania of a servile piece of lobby fodder like that British minister and his ilk, in a Parliament of sheep led by wolves.

Battersea Park (and Coventry Cathedral)

Ecce Homo! I have only one picture, taken on a rather grey day, when even the Fun Fair looked cheerless (figure 19a). Vaguely remembering from his auto-biography that the sole customer for one of Epstein’s biblical statues had been a freak show, I rashly assumed that Ecce Homo belonged to Battersea Fun Fair; but no! The one in the freak show was an Adam with penis as long and heavy as a bull’s pizzle. (And God said to Adam, “Increase and multiply!”). As for Ecce Homo, Epstein could not find even a freak show to buy his new biblical sculpture (not so sexy as the old Adam). Ecce Homo became Eccy Homeless, aimlessly hanging around the Epstein apartment. To get Eccy out of the house, the Epsteins put him on floating loan to Battersea Park for an annual exhibition of sculpture. When I snapped him there, the other statues must have already gone home because Eccy was standing in a lonely corner of the lawn like Eeyore in his field, and looking rather glum (figure 19a).

Epstein's Ecce Homo
figures 19 and 19a

There is a happy ending to this sad episode. After Epstein’s decease his widow, the remarkable Kathleen Garman, had the bright idea of donating Ecce Homo to Coventry Cathedral. Then someone at Coventry must have had a brainwave because Eccy now stands by a pillar of the old bombed cathedral, where his suffering is appreciated at its true worth. Eccy is at home at last among those hallowed pillars. Like him, they have absorbed much punishment; and like him, they have come through.

Ecce Homo can now be appreciated by a new generation of amateur photographers, who post digital photos on the world wide web; one, uploaded by bressons-puddle, was chosen for Google World. The photo used here (figure 19) was uploaded by oxyman with Author Jim from London. They generously include a high resolution download for free, under Creative Commons.

The march of progress – and of freedom, as in Free Software, free lunch and free beer. Freedoms that annoy the high priests of Free Enterprise, because a really free lunch (one that is not just a tempting bit of bait, a loss-leader) upsets control through the currency. In the holy book of Free Enterprise it is written: “He who cannot pay, neither shall he eat. Nothing moves in this world until some money has changed hands”.

Eccy was a free gift to the cathedral; he was not bought and paid for. He is not to be valued against numbers large or small; he is an individual human being who suffers: Ecce Homo!. The man who drove the money-changers from the temple thereby signed his own death warrant, set for the last day of that very same week – and was resurrected on the very first day of the next!.

This is heartening. From the bombed ruins of two Christian institutions, a Jewish sculptor presents the Christian message of Incarnation (Convent of the Holy Child) and Redemption of Suffering (Coventry cathedral). The Nazis had a word “zu Koventrieren” – to Coventry a town, meaning to destroy it entirely. (As nowadays the US Army might say “to Fallujah” a town). And this very site, by a pillar of the Old Cathedral of Coventry, is where the ruggedness of Ecce Homo rises to its full religious dimension; where it can express a steadfastness unto death and beyond; of the man who was scourged at the pillar and of a faith that transcends the all-too-human, all-too-common brutality of man to man.

This figure is massively, even crudely, carved – partly for technical reasons (see below). But this crudeness is not a sign of insensitivity: the blunt features and scarified skin reflect an extremity of physical and emotional punishment. And yet! A dogged expression on the freshly bruised face (yet with eyes uplifted!) and those powerful yet amazingly reposeful hands! (figure 20) It reminds me of some imprisoned political leaders in two countries where I have lived. Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela and Marwan Barghouti projected this same image: a massive capacity to soak up punishment, and the serene courage to outface their persecutors. Luthuli died in captivity (“collided with a train”, I read) but I can recall his smile; Mandela was set free to share a smile with the world; Barghouti is still in the limbo of political captivity, neither snuffed out nor set free. Ecce Homo!

Coventry cathedral has another Epstein sculpture on its front wall, St Michael and the Devil. I saw it at the Tate, but London museums unlike those in Paris did not allow photography, so my comment is from memory. With Hitler’s war and a hard struggle against the brave, highly competent and totally misguided German army still in mind, I thought Epstein’s Devil looked unconvincingly flabby and Michael’s pose unrealistically nonbelligerent despite his spear. Since then, having found the flabby devil in other places (see the essay on Parliament Square) and pondering what it takes to exorcise him, Epstein’s concept begins to germinate. The flabby devil is strong only because he is so big: fifty million heads in the Nazi devil, seven hundred million in the NATO devil. He does not understand the harm he does, because he is too big and too stupid. Among the tens or hundreds of millions of heads in his flaccid body there must be millions of heads that can think for themselves and feel compassion for others; but the whole lot, acting in the lump, do not add up to even half a brain. “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do”.

The law of large numbers is not valid here: a billion flabby bodies add up to a giant in physical strength, but a billion flabby, insensitive souls do not add up to a strong, sensitive soul. Neither does the law of large numbers hold for the individuals who suffer. Fifty million dead in Hitler’s war, a million in Blair’s wars, a mere thousand in Cameron’s little crucifixion of Libya; but in “the scales of justice where Zeus weighs the harvest of lives reaped by pitiless bronze, the profit and loss of war” – what do they weigh? The scales of justice cannot register more than the terror and suffering of a single child with its limbs blown off by one of our cluster bombs; nor of a single British soldier dying dulce et decorum pro BP. Neither can larger numbers exceed the suffering of a lone man “renditioned” to the Romans for crucifixion: “the cruellest form of death that perverse human ingenuity has ever devised.”

Ecce Homo!

The flabby devil can be chained: it was chained for 50 years in Europe. But I think it will never be exorcised until every one of its heads cares to feel the pain of a single victim crushed under our flabby devil – which is not a pleasant thing to feel. Much nicer to triumph with that British minister gloating from a NATO tank: “No-one can resist our armed might!”

Saturation bombing of German towns was the natural unchristian revenge for Coventry. What will the revenge be for Fallujah? For Belgrade, Beirut, Baghdad, Kabul, Tripoli and many more towns Coventried by our armed forces in ongoing “surgical operations” to enforce enduring freedom? You think there can be no revenge because no-one can resist our armed might? Here is C.M. Bowra on the proud founding fathers of democracy in their own Home of the Brave, Land of the Free:

The sense of unique powers easily became a sense of mission … and if Athenian civilization was not accepted voluntarily it was sometimes imposed by brutal compulsion. The Athenian empire brought many benefits to its members, but its policy, which was a result of self-confidence and belief in democratic ideals, could only breed distrust, fear and hatred among those to whom such ideals were abhorrent. … For the Athenians final defeat was a disaster which they had never thought possible. … In 454 their [five year long] expedition to Egypt had failed catastrophically. … in 413 BC the Athenian army was annihilated in Syracuse … The skill and luck which had guided and guarded Athens now failed her, and she had no protection against her enemies. …When in the summer of 405 BC Athens lost her [hitherto irresistible armed] fleet at Aegospotami, there was no more hope of resistance. … the recognition of it brought guilty fear for brutalities committed in the past. … They wept for their dead [soldiers] but far more for themselves, thinking that [now] they would suffer what they had done to the people of Melos, … of Histiaea and Scione and Torone and Aegina and many more … The inconceivable had happened, and the Athenians felt that they were deserted by the gods and hated by men clamouring for vengeance and able to exact it.

The Crucifixion of course implies the Resurrection; Good Friday implies Easter Monday: the paradox of the Christian synthesis. Fathers and mothers of the early Church, digging deep below the Classical foundations of the Graeco-Roman world, recovered primitive myths of birth, death and regeneration, of sin and atonement; and grafted them onto a new transcendental view of the world – of humanity’s place in a temporal universe which, vast though it may be, had a beginning and must have an end. Ecce Homo!

The dripping blood our only drink
The bloody flesh our only food
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood
In spite of which again we call this Friday Good.

Ecce Homo was hewn out of a block of Subiaco marble from Italy, and Epstein records his brutal struggle with the stubborn recalcitrance of that stone in Let There Be Sculpture. Look at Eccy’s hands, from the hi-res photo (figure 20). They are a worker’s hands (carpenter’s hands?) with rough skin, and fingernails worn down square to the ends of his broad fingers; they might be the hands of Jacob Epstein.

Epstein close-up
figure 20

Read the fifth of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in Parliament Square

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 3: Cavendish Square – For The Convent of the Holy Child

The third of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

One side of John Lewis’s (“never knowingly undersold”) fronts bustling Oxford Street with its rabbits that dart on and off the buses to do their shopping. The other side of John Lewis backs onto a little oasis of calm, a green park in Wigmore Street. Cavendish Square is open (unlike the private squares of Bloomsbury) but mercifully it is spared a pounding from multitudinous feet. There some nuns set up a free school for poor children, which they financed by setting up a paying school for well-off children. The convent was bombed during WW2; after the war, architect Louis Osman was called in to restore No.12 and create a linked bridge with No.13. Osman had an idea for the facade of the bridge: a statue of the Holy Child would “levitate” against the facade, and it would have to be cast in lead – the roofing from the bombed building. He assigned this commission to Jacob Epstein. Naturally the prospect of a Jew creating a Christian icon raised some opposition, but Louis Osman backed his man. So, with great fair-mindedess, the Mother Superior interviewed Epstein about his views on a religious work. The happy resolution of this “clash of cultures” reminds me of the tribute, from a Hindu lady physician to Mother Theresa of Calcutta: “We may have differed on principles but when it came to the health of the child, Mother was right there”. The Convent of the Holy Child found that, when it came to doing a religious work, Jacob Epstein was right there. Their Mother Superior requested only that the face be changed to give the Virgin a more serene expression. And quite right too, a most happy suggestion. Artists have mannerisms, and Epstein’s mannerism is to lay it on a bit thick: “a look of suffering is the badge of all my works” .

So there they stand, Virgin Mother and Holy Child – three tons of lead suspended against a brick wall; you can see them through the archway (figures 12 to 16). The slanting shadow of the moving sun accentuates their placing. Epstein took great care with the architectural relation of his projected works to their environment. In this respect he was continuing the tradition of the ancient Greeks who, as an expression of civic pride, took great care in the placing of a temple in relation to the city, the hills and the sea; and took equal care over harmonious relations between the temple and the statues within it.

Epstein Cavendish Square
figures 12 to 14

Technically, Epstein has come up with a brilliant solution to his architect’s demands that the statue should (a) seem to “levitate” and (b) be made of lead – an absurd contradiction at first sight. He has made the figures very flat: this reduces their weight as viewed, and makes them seem to flit over the surface like the shadow (figure 12). Artistically, he accentuates their flatness by conceiving the figures in a hieratic style which has not been seen in Western Europe since 1300, when Dante noted that his realistic painter friend, Giotto, had supplanted Cimabue, painter of icons, in fame. The early Christian painters, it has ofter been remarked, were not ignorant of perspective – they rejected it deliberately, because they were using appearance to denote a reality beyond appearance. Strangely enough, Michelangelo also began to reject perspective in his final religious paintings: the Last Judgment, the crucifixion of Saint Peter and the conversion of Saint Paul.

“Time and Space may be illusions”, says one mathematical physicist. The little boy’s outstretched arms form a perfect cross, and his eyes with their deeply drilled pupils exercise an hypnotic intensity inside their perfectly circular sockets; intensified to the second degree by a perfectly flat halo – a halo with a cross inside, like a gunsight. His hair radiates like flames in the sun’s corona; this little genius born to be the Light of the World; this baby cradled in a manger who, like science, came into the world so quietly and then shook it.

Over her child broods the mother. Her face is quiet but watchful. What genotype, what phenotype is she? Her boy looks Hindu. There is a touch of Bantu in her thick lips, a touch of the Sahel in her long triangular chin, a touch of Indo-European in her big straight nose, a touch of the Semite in her receding forehead, a touch of the Tartar in her high cheek-bones and her broad temples. And here did she get those large, heavy-lidded eyes? She is the universal Mother of the Christian god, of its Church which calls itself Catholic because its founder instructed His disciples to go out into the whole world (kata holos) and bring the good news to “all sorts and conditions of men”.

Epstein Cavendish Square
figures 15 and 16

Epstein must have found an extraordinary model for this face; or else, I guess, he extracted a synthesis from his unusually large vocabulary of forms. He used to haunt the museums of London and Paris, and he assembled the largest collection of African art in Britain. Yet his Virgin is no mere composite nor generalised symbol; she is an ordinary young mother, you can meet her in any market place, she has a child to look after, there is a determined set around her mouth.

Time and Space might be an illusion to mystics and mathematical physicists, but they are no illusion to the flesh that is born to move to its destined end. The little boy is not yet ready for his bar-mitzvah, when he will go to Jerusalem and astound the rabbis in the great temple with his learning. He radiates an unusual power, and his mother is a little in awe of her wonderful child; but neither of them dream that a day will come when he will go down to the Sea of Galilee and train fishers of men, and preach the most revolutionary manifesto ever; that a time will come when and people will journey from afar to hear him and be healed, even from Jerusalem, even from Lebanon across the border. “Time in the mercy of its means” leaves them blissfully unaware of all that will follow. All is still.

May the bombs not fall again on this blessed spot.

Read the fourth of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in Victoria and Battersea Park

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 2: The Strand – For The British Medical Association

The second of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The first is here

“Let’s all / Go down the Strand”. Walking along the Strand is always a pleasure because of its variety and the nearness of the river. “Hear the little German band / Ach du liebe Augustin”. Entertainments abound on all sides: on the east the University and the Law Courts; on the west Parliament, Admiralty House and the War Office. The comic spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan pipes its airy way into the Strand from both ends and down to its very centre, the Savoy. Somehow even the huge iron ribs of Behemoth at Charing Cross Station merely adds to the charm of the Strand: like a big dog lying down in your living room, at home among the knicknacks. It was at 142 Strand that young Marian Evans, a “loveable great horsefaced bluestocking” powered the wheels of Progress through her Westminster Review, and prepared herself for metamorphosis: not into some loathsome Kafkaesque insect but into that grave, sound, sane George Eliot who wrote “the only Victorian novel which can still be read by a grown-up”. Intellect and lightness meet in the Strand. So, all things considered, it was not unreasonable for a professional body like the Medical Association to build their BMA House at 429 Strand. With this act they set the scene for a tragic Whitehall farce. In 1908 their architect, Charles Holden, chose a promising young man to carve a Medical Frieze for the new building. It was a noble act, because that relative unknown would grow into the greatest sculptor of the 20th century, a pillar in an architectural tradition that spans more than 2,600 years: the tradition of putting a human form and a human face on public buildings. This tradition goes back from modern Europe, through the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages to the great temples of Periclean Athens and beyond, to the great temples of Ancient Egypt.

Epstein on the Strand
figure 6

At first sight, what remains of that Whitehall farce does not look like tragedy. In all my years of strolling or hurrying up and down the Strand, I never even noticed the Medical Frieze until, having become interested in photographing London’s Epstein sculptures, I set out one day to look for it. The figures were so high up and so defaced that I obtained only two shots of acceptable quality (figures 6 and 7; there are better shots on the web). Sour grapes whispered consolingly, “they were probably not very good anyway” and I thought no more about them.

It takes only two steps to erase a cultural memory. The first generation begins to forget; then the next generation forgets that there ever was anything worth remembering. I belonged to that second generation in London of the 60s, 70s and 80s. But decades later, while I was googling information for this essay, a few black-and-white photos of the original plaster casts flashed onto the screen – from an exhibition staged by the Henry Moore Institute (figures 8, 9 and 10). Fortunately for us, Henry Moore had remained ever mindful of Jacob Epstein (see forthcoming article on Epstein’s busts).

figures 7, 8 and 9
figures 7, 8 and 9

Henry Moore had seen the originals, and being himself a sculptor of genius (lucky Britain with Moore, Epstein and Hepworth!) knew that the Medical Frieze was a precious cultural artefact; he simply would not let modern Vandals sweep it into oblivion. Moore died in 1986 but his campaign persisted. The Courtauld Collection had preserved photos of the original plaster casts, and the Henry Moore Foundation mounted an exhibition of those photos. Moore made a vow never to exhibit at the Royal Academy, because the president of the RA, that hearty philistine Sir Alfred Munnings (“became the life and soul of any party as soon as he entered”) used to pop in to Rhodesia House to cheer on the demolition crew. For a good précis of Scandal in the Strand, see SU3A News and The Courtauld’s Art and Architecture.

The casus belli had already been neatly defined by Samuel Butler in verse; Butler once asked a Canadian museum if he could see their copy of Myron’s Discobolus, and was told:

“We keeps him in the cellar ‘cos he aint got no pants”.

So, this was the issue: ought not the BMA statues to be relegated to the cellar because they aint got no pants? The Press readily understood the threat to morality in 1908 (just as it understood in 21C that Milosevic was a genocide, that Sadam was about to destroy us en masse, that Gadaffy was a tyrant to be toppled…); and they went for him with a will. The Medical Association kept its nerve and held the line against a relentless campaign for years; but when BMA House becomes Rhodesia House in 1935, insanity rules – official.

The bureaucrats at Whitehall invoked Elfin Safety and his magic invisible eyewash (see TUC. Protruding front bits might fall on passers by; they must be hacked off lest man-in-the-street be bonked by a bouncing stone bust, or passing woman pierced by a flying stone penis. The hacking was vindictive and excessive. I can’t be bothered to look up the names of those old Rhodesia House officials, but the same type of Foreign & Colonial Jacks-in-Office, blessed by egregious narcissist Foreign Secretary David Owen, would later promote Robert Mugabe over Bishop Muzorewa as a suitable person to run Rhodesia; because Mugabe was obviously one of their own kind: glibly articulate and cold-bloodedly arrogant.

So far, with panic over dropped trousers and the resultant mayhem, it seems to be merely a routine Whitehall farce.

But with the rise of a new generation, 25 years after Moore’s death and 75 years after all that vandalism, the Royal Academy made some amends for the sins of Sir Alfred by hosting the HMI exhibition in January 2011; and their poster was what Google flashed onto my screen, months after the event. To my eye those few photos, in chalky white and greasy black, vindicate Epstein’s concept and execution alike (figures 8, 9 and 10). As far as I can judge, this artist has understood what a Medical Association ought to represent. The plaster casts express a collective atmosphere of science and calm objectivity, coupled with a warm humanity and, above all, a love of abounding health (“rude health” as it used to be called). Prudery has no place in medical science; neither has pornography.

Not since the ancient Greeks has a sculptor depicted the human body with such a zest for life. I wonder where Epstein found his models, because modern city dwellers do not enjoy the advantage of ancient Greek citizens: they are deprived of many physical tasks (including hand to hand combat) that are needed on a daily basis to develop all the muscles naturally. Compare this modern photographic nude by Ed Weston (figure 11): it is an elegantly simple composition because Weston was a genius of the genre; but the flesh is flabby, as are most nudes since the time of Classical Greece. Even nudes by Michelangelo, for all their bulging biceps, show a certain unctuous “morbidezza” in the curve. So on what broad back did Epstein see such hard, crisp muscle; did he dream it up?

Epstein’s general concept can be inferred from figure 10. The figures are nude because it is an “academic” work suited to the grave purpose of an Academy of Medicine. But the motive of this nudity is not what George Brassens had in mind when he sang to the callipyginous lady: “Madame! Je voudrai voir votre academe, et mourir”.

Epstein sculptures
figures 10 and 11

On the contrary, the word that springs to mind for this style of execution is “chaste”. I like the grandfather carrying his grandchild at his shoulder; I know how it feels. There are quotations because the statues are the work of a young man: the aged lady on the left has a touch of Rodin’s Belle Heaulmiere; and the man who stands square but looks sideways and upward, with arm curved over his pelvis, echoes Adam standing at the right hand of Christ in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. But the echoes are faint, and the mood is new.

Look at that great-grandmother (or aged midwife) holding a newborn child (figure 9). I call it l’Heritance because it catches the fulfilment of the old, when they see young life springing out of their own old life; a newborn springing across the gulf of time, while they themselves are sinking back into the gulf of time.

Consider that reverend professor who gives the Anatomy Lesson (figure 8). Although advanced in years he is in the prime of health. He is holding what looks to me like the cross-section of a pregnant womb; to right and left of him are figures holding fruits of the womb: infants whose health and wellbeing he has sworn by the Hippocratic oath to promote. Compared to Epstein’s concept, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp is mere grand-guignol: Rembrandt is simply telling us, “I wants ter make yer flesh creep”.

Leonardo also drew a pregnant womb in cross-section, but it was only an embryological sketch in a notebook, tersely annotated “much here is mysterious”. By comparison, Epstein’s anatomy lesson can be seen as a thoroughly worked-out pictorial tract about life-giving activity in a sane human environment.

This is where farce begins to approach tragedy: Henry Moore having opened our eyes to the magnitude of the loss, mental pangs begin to stir. Though it might not seem appropriate to apply the word “tragedy” where there has been no loss of life, nevertheless the loss of a cultural artefact as great as the Medical Frieze is the loss of a life-enhancing part of wonderful, grotty London town.

Given these photographs, it would not be difficult to reconstruct Epstein’s frieze. It would give worthwhile employment to some British sculptor with a talent for pastiche. Nor would it cost much. Mr Cameron might allocate some petty cash from the British government to repair its former damage to Rhodesia House. Or Mr Mugabe might divert a tiny trickle from Zimbabwe’s tobacco-and-diamond revenue toward Africa’s great heritage of Bantu sculpture, employing African sculptors to restore (or even add to) the wonders of Zimbabwe House.

Pigs might fly.

Read the third of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in Cavendish Square

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 1: Bloomsbury

The first of seven photo-essays by Dr Nick Maroudas on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London

Prologue

I had read Epstein’s Let There Be Sculpture in South Africa, along with many other books, when I came to Imperial College of Science and Technology in 1956. I vaguely recalled some passages: a penetrating judgment on Rodin (Rodin had no sense of architecture); a strong view on patina (in favour); a rant against dealers (they prefer their artists dead); a complaint that a major work had been purchased only by a freak show. But like most people at the time I was not interested in Epstein sculptures either; I much preferred Rodin and (seduced by all those pretty madonnas) my first love, Italian art. In my blinkered Ph.D. ignorance I did not even know that Epstein dwelt less than 500 yards from where I was proudly slaving over my little thesis, and that the sculptor was completing a statue to the deceased prime minister of my own country. But even among those more aware of what was going on around them, few could have predicted that the old man still had it him to create two of his greatest works for London. Within three years both were in place, but only gradually did I begin to register their presence. They permeated into my consciousness as threads in the tissue of experience, which a great city weaves in the minds of those who live in her.

And that is how it should be.

Bloomsbury – for the Trades Union Council

Epstein Sculptures
figures 1 and 2

In 1956, the aged sculptor took up his tools to begin carving a huge block of stone, which had been set up before a volcanic backdrop of veined Italian marble in the forecourt of TUC House (figure 1). By that time Epstein had grown, in the words of Kenneth Clark, from “a master of style” to “a master of truth”. This monument to the dead of two world wars is really a first artistic vision of the magnitude of the powers unleashed by science and technology – and thus a fitting archaeological treasure to be excavated from the rubble of London in some remote future after World War 3. Everybody knows Einstein’s horrified prediction that, if WW3 is fought with nuclear weapons then WW4 will be fought with bows and arrows. Much less well known is the reaction of Edwin Muir to this prediction of wars being fought with bows and arrows: thank goodness, then we shall get back to The Horses (– a poem which T.S. Eliot described as the first poem of the Atomic Age). Epstein’s vision is less Arcadian (or Orcadian) than Muir’s, and more cosmic.

His volcanic marble backdrop dwarfs even his huge stone figures, it spears upward like a rocket launching into outer space (figure 1). The figures are not human – (at least not Homo Sapiens sapiens) and yet their gesture is the essence of what we humans call “human” – what the Bantu call “ubuntu”: fellowship and sympathy.

By the time Epstein conceived this sculpture he was long experienced in two opposing aspects of pictorial art, which he now combined. The first is the massive, impersonal public statement in an open space and on a large scale, with an emphasis on setting the work into its architectural and civic context. The other aspect of his art is the small scale portrait bust: an intimate exploration of an individual psyche, revealed by the set of a head and by fleeting expressions over a face. Now, in this colossal statue Epstein has combined a massive statement about public disaster with a haunting exploration of individual suffering. His two creatures are human enough for us to sympathize (figure 2). The dead one is as dead as dead can be; look at the limp arm (copied from Michelangelo’s pietà in St Peter’s, a public image instantly recognizable), the thin paralytic leg and the head flopped back. The ineluctable drag of gravity on the corpse is underlined by downward streaks of sooty patina, in a way that Epstein surely foresaw while he was carving the white stone. The creature who carries the corpse stands like Lear with Cordelia dead in his arms (another public image, “as instantly comprehensible as the clink of ready cash”). But the sculptor has given to the lives of the two creatures a facial expression and a psyche, which reflect not only sorrow but also a philosophy and a faith, which transcend Shakespeare’s concept. Shakespeare’s Lear, reduced by elemental exposure and grievous loss, ends up a bewildered, beaten animal:

Howl, howl, howl, howl!

Any philosophy in Shakespeare’s play is either a cynical nihilism:

As flies to wanton boys, so are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport

or (as T.S. Eliot pointed out) a sententious stoicism:

Men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither. / Ripeness is all.

to which Eliot opposes the Christian philosophy from Dante’s Paradiso:

E ‘n la sua volontade è nostra pace.

With this in mind, I think the bereaved creature’s face reflects a psyche nearer to the Judeo-Christian faith of Epstein and Dante than to Shakespeare’s stoic humanism.

Though He slay me, yet shall I trust in Him.

This is a vision of survival on an astronomic scale; and it sits there in prosaic commercial London, in the Trade Union office block, not a hundred yards from the YWCA where I used to take my English children for their swimming lessons.

Epstein sculptures
figures 3 and 4

The Renaissance archaeologists who dug up Classical Antiquities for the booming Italian art market were well aware that no Greek sculpture is complete without something missing; so a marble Bacchus by young and promising Michelangelo had a protruding front bit drilled out, to give it an air of greater antiquity. On this ground alone, one might say that some works of Epstein became classical antiquities during the sculptor’s lifetime (see the essay on Epstein’s sculptures for the British Medical Association). The memorial figures have not been mutilated, but when I visited London in the 80s, Epstein’s carefully planned backdrop of volcanically veined marble (figures 1 and 2) had already been replaced by monotonous ceramic tiles in a ghastly glassy green, the colour of cheap boiled sweets (figure 3). The stone figures had been scoured back to deathly white, and the patina that reveals their form to the eye of time (figures 1 and 2) had been wiped clean (figure 3): reset to time zero. Anyone who has read Let There Be Sculpture will know what a sin that would have been in Epstein’s eyes. The vandals seemed untroubled by guilt, as witness this proud postcard (figure 3). Resignedly I inquired the motive of the misdeed, and was told that the vandalism was official: it had been committed in the interests of Health & Safety (see also BMA essay). “Who will protect me from my friends?” No doubt the figures are more hygienic after a good scrubbing; and as for their architectural background in the atrium of TUC house, it is safer (and cheaper) to stick up blue-green swimming pool tiles than to attempt anything so tiresome as mundane maintenance on the sculptor’s massive slabs of polished marble. (I wonder if any craft union member lodged a protest against such skimping of the work.) Here is a note from the papers of the late David McAll RA, who assisted Epstein on the monument: 
 “It was carved from a 10 ton block of Roman stone and was originally backed by green Carrara marble running up to the roof; this decayed and has been replaced by green tiles as an economy measure”.

When nations grow old, the Arts grow cold
And Commerce sits on every tree

I hope that my amateur photographs (or preferably better ones) might survive to the 4th or 5th millennium for future archaeologists to reconstruct the architectural setting as the sculptor intended it, and as Londoners of my generation saw it – the way archaeologists of today know from traces of paint that Greek sculpture and its architectural setting were intended to be enhanced with colour, not remain coldly neo-classical white.

I was unable to photograph from near because a glass wall separates the atrium, but figure 4 is a finely expressive closeup of the statue by Geoffrey Ireland (sans patina because photographed when new). It was scanned from the catalogue of the 1980 Epstein centenary exhibition, of which more later (see part six of these essays on Epstein’s busts).

Epstein TUC
figure 5

TUC headquarters are fortunate in having a good piece of sculpture outside as well as in (figure 5); both sculptures are on the theme of solidarity, comradeship and goodwill: a reminder from bygone times, before the Left fell into the arms of Mrs (“there is no such thing as society”) Thatcher and begat Thatcher’s Children – “intensely relaxed about becoming filthy rich”. Woe to the country whose rulers ape the profiteer!

Read the second of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in The Strand

PK: BibliOdyssey: Amazing Archival Images from the Internet

Reviewed by Sourav Roy

BibliOdysseyHow does one review a book like BibliOdyssey? This is not just a rhetorical question to open a book review, but also a genuine query. Because though BibliOdyssey feels like a book and looks like a (very handsome) book, is anything but.

It started its journey as bibliodyssey.blogspot.com/ a cabinet of curiosities of visual Materia Obscura, collected and curated from the depths of public internet archives, by PK from Sydney. When reborn in a book form, it retains most of the serendipity and adventure of its original form. The glorious randomness, the free association of thoughts, genres and timelines and above all the obsessive-compulsive joy of hopping from one breathtaking visual to the next. For all practical purposes, it’s hardbound internet with a gilded cover.

The kind of entity we all hoped internet would be when it grew up. A boundless sea of beauty, wisdom and surprises, where all you need to set sail is a blue boat of hyperlink.

The review tries to mirror that experience. Picking ten random pages from the book, I have paired them with ten random bookmarks from my personal collection. The only connection between them: those pages prompted me to look up these links, afresh. This is kind of coming full circle, as BibliOdyssey too, started its journey as a list of random bookmarks in PK’s computer.

May you bump into more and more wonder as you sail on the blue boat of hyperlink.

Bon Voyage!

[Please note: all images are hyperlinked to their sources. Happy clicking!]

 

Page 12: A Flying Ship and Alice’s Flight of Fancy

Flying Dutchman
Flying Dutchman, © Sergey Tyukanov, 2000

Formally trained as a graphic artist in the far east of Russia, Sergey Tyukanov combines elements of myth, folklore and fantasy in his unique etchings and paintings.

Tyukanov is an artist fixated, among other things, on Alice in Wonderland. And who can blame him? Even Salvador Dalí could not resist the siren call of it. Here is an excellent hyperlink about a rare edition with original illustrations by Salvador Dalí.

 

Page 72: Victorian Music Sheet Covers and a Parisian Love Story

Matrimonial Galop and Tabby Polka
Matrimonial Galop, 1860s, and Tabby Polka, 1880, Spellman Collection, Reading University Library

Music sheet covers were big business in the 19th century. Changes in technology and social habits fuelled demand for illustrated sheet music, particularly among the Victorian middle class. Innovations in piano design meant that by the middle of the century, upright pianos became a focus of family entertainment in many homes, in a similar manner to the television set in the 20th century. At the same time, people were attending more choral society performances and public concerts, and informal pub sing-songs were giving way to dedicated singing saloons. There was a growth in purpose built venues – music halls – that greatly contributed to the appeal of certain songs and artists. People clamoured for the music sheets so they could hear the popular music of the day in their own homes. The development of the lithographic printing technique, in which images were drawn with greasy crayons onto lime stones, made reproducing vivid colour illustrations easier and cheaper. Subject matter for the covers ranged from the nationalistic and political to absurd and humorous. Satires and comical images were especially prevalent as a reflection of the often light hearted nature of the music hall songs.

This page made me think about the circular nature of things, i.e. music album covers being a modern day avatar of music sheet covers. It eventually brought me to book cover art. This hyperlink celebrates first edition book covers in the famed antiquarian books section of Shakespeare and Company, Paris, via a love story between a skeleton and a vampire victim. Directed by Spike Jonze, stunningly felt-animated by Olympia Le-Tan.

 

Page 86: Sleepwalking into a Orwellian Nightmare a.k.a. Robida’s Future

Albert Robida
La Guerre au Vingtième Siècle, 1887, La Vingtième Siècle, 1883, Albert Robida, The Robida Association For The Future

French illustrator, Albert Robida, combined humour with an undercurrent of foreboding, in a trilogy of prescient futuristic books published in the last two decades of the 19th Century. He anticipated social advancements in the status of women, public transport and the quality of prisons; alongside improved mass killing machines, a polluted atmosphere and environmental destruction. His books were populated with imagined technologies and gadgetry – including installations of ‘television’ and ‘videoconferencing’ – but he seemed to suggest in his writing that there was no real progress ahead in the quality of life for the people. instead, there would be a continual need to adapt to a perpetual onslaught of unnecessary new devices. Robida’s ambiguous portrayal of a dystopian utopia suggests that he can be cast as either a luddite or a technophile, depending upon your point of view.

[The third book in the series was called La Vie Électrique (Electric Life) from 1892].

Robida’s predictions for a technological dystopia made my mind wander and latch onto this reader’s comment on a Guardian article about the future of books. While I am all for e-books, this comment makes my mind break into a cold sweat. May it never come true.

 

Page 94: Pre-History of Surrealism vs. the Future of High Art

Giovanni Battista Braccelli
Bizzarie di Varie Figure, Giovanni Battista Braccelli, 1624, Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library Of Congress

Giovanni Battista Braccelli was an obscure Florentine artist who produced an enigmatic series of nearly fifty etchings for his 1624 suite, Bizzarie di Varie Figure. The paired acrobatic characters appear through the book to be fashioned out of random household and mechanical bric-a-brac such as plates, screws, rags, geometric shapes and even tennis rackets. Although associated with the tradition of mannerist grotesques, Braccelli’s playfully stylised figures were true originals. They are more closely connected to the cubist and surrealist movements of the 20th century than with any contemporary influences, except perhaps as parody. The capricious forms resist a single, or even necessarily, a simple interpretation. As human simulacra, they evoke a correspondence with puppetry, dance and pantomime scenes, and they have even been touted as precursors to man-as-a-machine cybernetic culture of more recent times. For whatever reasons after it was published, Bizzarie di Varie Figure drifted into a mysterious stream of esoterica known only to a select minority of artists and bibliophiles (Horace Walpole noted in his copy in the 1700s that the author had a ‘wild imagination’) and wasn’t rediscovered and republished for a wider audience until the mid-20th century. Consequently, there are less than ten original copies known to exist and only two of them are complete.

Is there a genome embedded into each piece of art that helps the eye map a connection between two pieces of art even if they are generations apart and look nothing like each other? If Braccelli can be related Picasso and Dalí, there are definitely more genome strands to be unfurled. art.sy is doing exactly that. It might change the business of art forever.

 

Page 109: When Maps are Not Just Maps

William Harvey (Aleph)
Geographical Fun, William Harvey (Aleph), 1869, The Map House Of London

The story goes that the brother of a certain fourteen-year-old girl was sick in bed and needed cheering up. The enterprising girl found an image of Punch (from Punch & Judy) riding a dolphin which she transformed into a comical map of England. This became the inspiration for her series of a dozen maps of European countries made out of stereotype caricatures and published in 1869, along with a short descriptive verse for each picture by the author, Aleph. In the introduction, Aleph tells of his hope that the amusing drawings will encourage young people to be interested in geography. Whether or not a fourteen-year-old girl was capable of developing all the sophisticated political and caricatural nuances portrayed is perhaps a moot point. Aleph was later revealed as the pseudonym of the journalist, William Harvey. Russia is formed by Tsar Alexander II standing back-to-back with a brown bear; Scotland is formed by the kilt-clad piper ‘struggling through the bogs’; and mainland Italy is represented by the revolutionary patriot, Giuseppe garibaldi, waving the flag and wearing the Cap of Liberty, while standing tall over the diminutive opponent of Italian unification, Pope Pius IX, as Sardinia.

Compared to the maps above these maps are science fiction. They track the tourist traffic in the whole world via geotagging the holiday photos on the net and colour codes it to help you travel off the beaten path. But both do the same thing actually , that is add a lot of fun into the drab life of maps.

 

Page 110: Elephants of Alphabets, Horses of Nudes

Kufic Script Animals
Kufic Script Animals, anonymous, 19th century, Professor Frances Pritchett, Columbia University

Arabic scripts have an intrinsic flexibility making them perfect vectors for a diverse range of calligraphic expression. Their curvilinear nature and and malleability inspired radical experimentation throughout history, but it wasn’t until about the 15th century, when the restrictions on religious iconography were loosened, the artists in Iran began to conjure shapes such as birds and animals from the script. The figural or zoomorphic calligraphy has traditionally incorporated text from the Koran. In the process of artistic abstraction of the letters into visual word forms, new layers of nuanced meaning may develop, where knowledge of the language is undoubtedly required for a complete understanding. The lion, bird and elephant images here are thought to be from a Kufic script from the 19th century.

Muslim script animals apparently are neighbours of Hindu animals made up of nudes (point 2, nari ashva). Why else would they share adjacent alcoves in my mind? Though they have completely different spiritual interpretations, we should love all the animals equally, irrespective of their religion.

 

Page 120: Napoleon, the king of cliches

Napoleon
Blicke in die Vergangenheit und Zukunft (Views of the Past and Future) and Das ist mein lieber Sohn, an dem ich Wohlgefallen habe (Thou Art My Beloved Son, In Whom I Am Well Pleased), anonymous, 1814, Division Of Rare And Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

At the beginning of the 19th century, a unique array of political and artistic circumstances conspired to produce one of history’s great targets for the caricaturist’s pen in the figure of Napoleon Bonaparte. Although subversive cartoons were hardly a new phenomenon, the military campaigns threatening Europe and the Middle East, combined with the megalomaniac and self-promotional tendencies of the great man himself and the widespread belief that an invasion of England was imminent, fuelled an industry of satirical illustrators led by James Gilray. English anti-Napoleonic caricatures in prints, newspapers and handbills were very efficient in arousing national patriotism, and the thematic and stylistic elements significantly influences the popular illustrative response in Europe. The rare German prints seen here date from the year prior to Napoleon’s eventual defeat at Waterloo. They are fairly vicious in their symbolism, casting Napoleon as the devil’s spawn and suggesting a legacy built on the deaths of his victims.

From Napoleon caricature to a Napoleon painting is not a big leap. But it brought back all the memories when I was standing in front of this painting in the Louvre and the excellent guide was doing a vivid art historical sketch about how the king was a royal arsehole and the painter was no better, despite being magnificent at their respective jobs.

 

Page 122: Reading with Taccola and Eating with Vinci

Mariano Taccola
De Ingeneis, Mariano Taccola, 1449, Kinematic Models For Design Digital Library, Cornell University

Mariano Taccola was known as the Archimedes of Siena and produced some of the earliest examples of the new illustrated style of engineering and machine manuals, that came into vogue during the Renaissance. Taccola’s training as a sculptor honed his drafting skills, and the social realities of Siena – lacking a stable water supply and being in a semi-permanent state of war – provided the technological subject matter for his imagination. The sketch book images here are details from De Ingeneis (The Engines), and Taccola was not averse to including whimsical drawings alongside the more serious creations. He has been variously credited with inventing pumps, bridge building and transmission systems, underwater breathing devices, water and windmill axle mechanisms and less likely, the trebuchet and catapult. Despite any difficulties we have now in attempting to identify specific inventions by Taccola, his manuals are important for their documentation of the innovative excellence of the Sienese engineers of the time period. Leonardo da Vici was known to have viewed some of Taccola’s manuscript work prior to sketching his own series of machine technology masterpieces.

A foiled plan to visit Vinci, Leonardo’s village of birth, while I was in Tuscany is what is behind this bookmark. If you are ever there, don’t forget to dine well. I will be sighing over here.

 

Page 143: The Cat Out of the Bag and into the Rain Cloud

The Comic History of Rome
The Comic History of Rome, John Leech, 1852, Poaner Memorial Collection, Carnegie Mellon University Library Special Collections

Many ancient history students will be familiar with the parade of visual gags displayed in the 1852 classic, The Comic History of Rome. This was the second collaboration by two members of staff at the humorous Punch magazine: Gilbert a Beckett and John Leech. Their first outing had similarly combined fact and satire in retelling the history of England. Beckett openly pitched the texts at people ‘willing to acquire information [and] in doing so as much amusement as possible’. Leech was very much a contemporary of George Cruikshank, and another inheritor of the caricaturist mantle from the school of Hogarth, Rowlandson and Gilray. His illustrative output for magazines and books (including Dickens) tended to be a little less severe and sarcastic than the work of his predecessors. The image here of Fulvia, the Roman political operative and third wife of mark Antony, is one of a large number of amusing intertextual details dotted throughout the book.

It’s one thing making up fake histories behind proverbs and it’s quite another to actually believe in them. Snopes shreds these urban hoaxes to pieces.

 

Page 156: Of Ghost Tracks and Bird Clouds

Thought-Forms
Thought-Forms: Mendelssohn and Gunod, Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, 1901, The Culture Archive

Annie Besant was a prominent advocate in Britain for social reform and the advancement of women. Her intellectual development took her from Anglicanism to workers rights and strike organisation, through Fabianism and socialist politics, to birth control promotion, secularism, theosophy and home rule campaigning in India. She was a friend to the likes of Shaw, Krishnamurti and Gandhi and became both president of the Theosophy Society and the Indian National Congress Party.

Her theosophical beliefs were influenced by a meeting with Madame Blavatsky and the present work – Thought-Forms – was an attempt to depict ‘the forms clothed in living lights of other worlds’ and “changes of colours in the cloud-like ovoid, or aura, that encompasses all living beings”.

The thought-forms reminded me of many paintings of Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Miró but this one by Lyonel Feininger is, dare I say, spiritually the closest? They would have liked each others company too, I guess. Or not.

TV Eye: BBC Fours’s All American season

BBC Four American

Jacob Knowles-Smith sits down for a TV dinner with Tom Wolfe

Thankfully BBC Four hasn’t been demolished just yet. If it had been, we wouldn’t have had chance to enjoy its recent ‘All American’ season. They say that BBC 2 would absorb the channel’s role, but doubtless this would come with – if not dumbing-down – half as many documentaries as they currently produce. And, indeed, they’ve produced a near-dazzling array of films for this latest season focusing on US culture – but this is no paean to American hegemony, and the more I tried to absorb the schedule, the more I wondered if perhaps Tom Wolfe hadn’t been given some role at the Beeb. The subjects covered over the last couple of weeks have been like a cross-section of that writer’s brain; there’s been high culture, low culture, kitsch culture, surf culture, diners, journalism, nomads, hookers and civil rights. Any fan of Wolfe will no doubt be able to pluck a volume up and thumb through almost all of those subjects in one of his collections, but then I began to wonder, how would Tom Wolfe write a TV review? Well, for starters he probably wouldn’t title it anything nearly as banal as the above, but he might call it something along the lines of…

The Electric Blu-Ray Acid Mind-Bath: America is Over There!

‘Why’s all this paint here?’ You can see Andrew’s mind ticking over and his puppy-dog eyes begin to twinkle with his excitement – Yes! Pollock painted here! And they’ve preserved it, an encrusted monument to that great man’s drips. Great man? You can make up your own mind. Andrew Graham-Dixon has made his up in the Art of America and, as the BBC’s finest regular documentary maker – now that Attenborough stays out of frame, we can cut him a little slack. He deftly traces – with his infectious enthusiasm and never-patronising dulcets – the history of American art from pilgrims to present. All American art is here: Rockwell, Hopper, Warhol, The Simpsons?… and all of it, it seems, is about the loneliness of being one among many in a great big country full of people. After all, can’t Manhattan at rush hour be the loneliest place in the world?

Hopper’s popping up all over the place, and his most famous work – ‘Nighthawks’ – gives us a lead into the next show and the lonely fat-clogged heart of America in Stephen Smith’s America on a Plate: The Story of the Diner. This is where we sit down at that democratic counter and look across into America’s short-order soul… French fries pancakes sausages coffee doughnuts shakes steaks turkey clubs plastic seats – top you off? – cheeseburgers blueberries coffee onion rings eggs over easy – warm you up? – French toast roast beef meatloaf coffee gum chewing waitresses truck stop bacon coffee. What more can you say? What more can anyone ask for!?

Now this cat’s crazy, he’s touched the hem of death after all – or, at least, skirted around the edges – and who wouldn’t be a little spooky kooky cuckoo? James Ellroy’s Feast of Death (BBC 2) – with some strong language! – delves into the murder-centric mind of the author and we meet the embodiment of obsession. Kim Bassinger? She’s alright. But forget the movies – what the fuck good are we to him? Who are we to ask anything of this guy? This modern Beethoven! (Just ask him… why listen to anyone else?) Did the bitch overcook the steak again, James? Nah – It’s sexual power. That’s murder. Right there. If you don’t believe him, then why else do we care about serial killers? Men think about sex more than women, so they kill more. Ellroy is clearly obsessed by his mother’s murder; perhaps he sees himself as a failure – a not-quite-Beethoven – because he couldn’t protect her, but, if that’s not it, then he still has every right to be obsessed because, he says it, closure is bullshit. What’s a dyke bounty?

Now we’re with shutterbug Rankin in America in Pictures: The Story of Life Magazine. He’s indulging himself in a bit of hero worship – mutual snapshotting of these wily old coots that chronicled America. And, sure, maybe these guys aren’t exactly the man – but they were working for a Luce publication! Think Fortune, think Time. Think middlebrow America. But that’s, perhaps, not entirely fair, Life was, as Rankin’s film describes, a great unifier of the people – all of America could ooooooohhh and aaaaaaahhh at the pretty violent shocking beautiful celebrities/dead soldiers/famine victims but – look over here, America! – you could be looking at those photos next to this fridge, in this new kitchen or on this new lawnmower (in your fourth floor apartment) and, boy, now here’s Rita Hayworth. Call me an elitist or a cynical bum, but Life always seemed pretty cheap.

So, that’s all American, and, if that’s not enough for you, some of the most delightful chocolate chips to be found in this rich cookie came in Old Jews Telling Jokes. It’s pointless to tell the one about the rabbi or the gentile here, but these rascals have their own website and you have a few minutes to spare.

Jonathan Walker and Dan Hallett: Five Wounds: An Illuminated Novel

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Five Wounds

Not every book looks and feels like an artefact when you pick it up. Oftentimes it is just words printed across cheap paper, the literal form of it separated from its content, cased in a merely functional cover with some gluey binding. But with Five Wounds, an “illuminated novel”, the very object itself is part of its mythology and there is a sense of something big, something heavy within it, if you have the time.

It is not very often that a review of a book demands also a review of its physical presence. Crossing genre and classifications, both narratively and visually, and switching tone between allegory and playfulness, the book is clearly a labour of love for its writer, Jonathan Walker, and its illustrator, Dan Hallett, in what is the pair’s second collaboration. It is undeniably a sublime thing to behold. The first time you pick it up and turn it over in your hands is, as Walker and Hallett have intended, like reading the first lines of its mystic story. An impressive hardback almost biblical in feel, its appearance matches, too, its biblical layout of chapters and verses.

The story follows the escapades of five fairytale characters inhabiting a composite Venice made of historical and modern snatches of the city, strikingly illustrated by Hallett based on, among other things, Goya’s etchings. The designs are impressive and densely detailed throughout, with a glossy series of 18 plates in the centre pages occasionally referred to in the text. We are first introduced to Cur, a beast-like man and leader of a pack of dogs, being photographed by Magpie, a thief and daguerrotypist. An interweaving, lattice of a story emerges which involves a devious ‘saviour’, Crow; the hero origins of Cuckoo, a gambling man with a face of wax; as well as a de-winged angel, stolen identities, kidnapping, murder, and some questionable cuisine.

Five Wounds makes the admirable move of not taking itself too seriously, which certainly works in its favour. There is a vein of quaint humour that runs throughout; revisions and asides are scribbled upon the page as if the work was still incomplete; arrows point at things and comment upon them matter-of-factly (“Not a whale”); surreal events transpire through droll, imaginative wording; and it is all set off by a dedication that reads: “To whom it may concern”.

But intermittently there seems inhibited intrigue to a story built as if by Calvino dealing tarot cards at random, that stakes everything on its desire to be deciphered. By so blatantly attempting to lure the reader into interpretation, the result is a story that has a hint of hollowness if insufficient effort is dedicated in reading to create an interpretation. Too often we become aware of Walker’s knowing lack of intention. Events go from one to the other in a sometimes repetitive, staccato rhythm reminiscent of faux parables and, though it reads like a writer having fun, it occasionally ends up giving the story an odd dashed-off feel that is incongruous with the meticulous nature of the book as an artefact. The book is now leering at me accusingly, for being too lazy.

Of course, all of this could work in the book’s favour, to add to its ‘world-building’ design. We know that the story has the purpose of creating multiple meanings, and its style possibly works as a part of that. But as a storytelling experience, something seems missing. This illusiveness makes the story of Five Wounds somehow less exciting to read, somehow less absorbing, as we are too aware of the writer’s and the reader’s roles though perhaps this method, in theory, functions as a comment on the book that it imitates and, conceivably, parodies; the Bible.

But this comes in waves. For the majority of its telling, particularly warming into the second part, the writing alternates between robust allegory and surreal, comical fantasy, with the highlight being Cuckoo’s journey to claim himself a face. His tale is something ghostly, like the daguerrotypes of the long ago buried, with Walker’s words taking on some of the lore the book is torn from, as he deals in his grainy haunted images.

If you have the time to commit to this book, there is surely reward for what you put in. And you know a writer is doing something right when you seek out his previous work, hints of which are revealed in this novel, where the historical accounts are genuinely fascinating and always communicated with gusto. The punk history biography, Pistols! Treason! Murder! also illustrated by Dan Hallett, about the 17th-century Venetian spy, Gerolamo Vano, was the first part of their developing partnership. It is waiting patiently on the shelf.

Further Resources:

  • The design of Five Wounds at Spike Magazine
  • Jonathan Walker’s incredible Five Wounds website
  • Jonathan Walker’s blog (including a free sample chapter of the book) and further fascinating insights

100 Artists’ Manifestos – From the Futurists to the Stuckists: Selected by Alex Danchev

Reviewed by Ben Granger

100 Artists Manifestos1. The purpose of politics is to inspire art. The only useful thing it has ever achieved

When Marshall Brennan argued “The Manifesto is remarkable for its imaginative power… It is the first great modernist work of art”, he referred specifically to The Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels. While the Diggers and Levellers before them had already captured for the people the format of dramatic declamation previously used only by noblemen and clergy, it was Karl and Friedrich who were to craft it into something resembling literature, with its “opiates of the people” and “icy waters of egotistical calculation”. These were cadences which spoke on as aesthetic as well as an instructional level, more scripture than stricture. But if Germans were the forefathers of bringing an artistic sensibility to the manifesto, it was an Italian who was to take it to the next level, to make the manifesto a work of art in itself. Fillipo Marinetti was a man whose life’s work was dedicated to hammer at the block of his own bombast in the hope it was battered into something resembling genius. His diabolically dynamic screed ‘The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism’ was published on the front page of leading national newspaper La Figaro in 1909, and was to set the tone for many of the hundred manifestos Alex Danchev has compiled in this fascinating collection: it takes pride of place as the chronological first. Taking in his own Futurists, through their British counterparts and bitter rivals the Vorticists, to their bastard offspring and political foes the Surrealists and Dadaists, it was his supercharged oppositionalism which set the template.

2. Substance is for abusers. Style is king, subjects are mere subjects

Futurism’s bad reputation proceeds it, but should not supersede it. With its adolescent worship of speed and war, cars and explosions, and with the knowledge of its noxious later association with fascism, one returns to Marinetti’s original manifesto expecting a risible gaucheness at best, (a kind of Top Gear for intellectuals), or a repellent mania at worst. And yet its evil beauty can and does still thrill today. From the orgasmic opening scene of his car crashing off the side of the road (“Oh mother of a ditch! … How I relished your strength-giving sludge that reminded me so much of the saintly black breast of my Sudanese nurse…”) the narrative itself roars off into the distance, crashing repeatedly through its audience’s senses and sensibilities. Later comes the firecracker destruction of all established art and history:

“We want our country free from the endless number of museums which cover here like countless graveyards… admiring an old painting is just like pouring our purest feelings into a funerary urn, instead of projecting them far and wide, in violent outbursts of creation and action”.

Then the zealously phrased, totemic proclamations: “There is no longer any beauty but the struggle. Any work of art that lacks aggression will never be a masterpiece”.

This is the word as weapon, where the pen is power (or penis power given Futurism’s obsessive virility: penis mightier than the sword). It is absurd, illogical and immoral, but it is as much a manically brilliant, endlessly fascinating creation in itself, as it is a tyrannical statement of intent for the magnificent paintings which were to follow.

Other manifestos from Futurist followers follow in the collection, including Boccioni and Carlo Carra (perhaps the greatest Futurist painter, railing against “the cube, the pyramid and all other static shapes” and hailing “Red, rrrrrrreds, the rrreddest rrrrrrrrreds that shouuuuuuuut”), but it was Marinetti who remained poet provocateur in chief. Yet while this was a movement founded by a priapic misogynist, it took two women followers – Valentine de Saint Pointe and Mina Loy – to make manifestos which contained enough jagged aphoristic gems to match those of those of the Futurist founder (“Misery is the disintegration of joy. Intellect, of intuition. Acceptance, of inspiration”). They bring a lightness of wit lacking in Marinetti, which reminds us that another forbear of the manifesto tradition is perhaps the un-credited Wilde, whose paradoxical ‘Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young’ (“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art”) can also be traced here. A greater wit than Marinetti could also be found in his great rival Wyndham Lewis over in Britain, whose Blast manifesto contained all the acidic bombast of Futurism with a greater realisation of its own contradiction and absurdity.

While this is a form rooted in politics it can graduate into a purer aesthetics of the soul and mind, and it is perfectly possible to wander its waywardly beautiful walkways without being corralled down the shady political alleys many of its practitioners ended up skulking. With the deliberately self contradictory rhetoric of Blast, this is positively invited, political rhetoric is a mere tool for internal implosions of the mind and senses (despite Wyndham Lewis’ own later rightist dalliance). The Russian Constructivists, and later the multinational Dadaists and Surrealists, were undoubtedly inspired by Marinetti’s manifesto, but were to take sides at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, some Communist, some Trotskyite, (not many anarchists despite what you might expect) though their own thought experiments clearly inspired many way beyond this ideological milieu. All were to understand the importance of rhythm and cadence in channelling the grand chaos of their ideas. They also understood the importance of having an enemy to kick out at, a hate figure at which to throw their artful darts. Whether their politics ended up on the far-left or the far-right, the tone of absolute rebellion, the stance of heroic David in creative revolt against a moribund art establishment Goliath is often markedly similar in spirit, though not necessarily in execution. The Dadaists after all were to cast the Futurists themselves as just such a rigid, fusty old relic, despite Marinetti’s crew arriving not five years before them. And despite, or perhaps rather because of, the clear inspiration they gleaned from them.

3. We never saw an opposite that didn’t attract. All hail MC Skat Katt!

As early as 1923 we see reactive statements against political ‘control’ of art in Theo Van Doesburg’s ‘Manifesto Prole Art’, which explicitly renounces the existence of a “proletarian” art in an of itself – “Every proletarian work of art is nothing more than a poster for the bourgeoisie”. While the contemporaneous ‘Manifesto of the Union of Mexican Workers, Technicians, Painters and Sculptors’ of the Mexican David Alfaro Siquieros shows the stale, nullifying uniformity which came to dominate the degenerate art in the “actually existing socialism” which became known as “Communism” to the world. “Exploiters of the people in concubinage with traitors who sell the blood of soldiers who fought for the revolution” etc etc. By contrast, Breton, Riviera and Trotsky’s later ‘Towards a Revolutionary Free Art’ from 1938, (one of the few manifestos here with input from a “real” politician), displays a beautifully stated commitment to absolute freedom of expression “No authority, no dictation, not the least trace of orders from above!” It’s perhaps surprising to read the one time brutal overseer of the Red Army and butcher of Kronstadt sounding positively anarchistic. And yet earlier manifestos here from artist supporters such as Mayakovsky and Rodchenko show in its earliest days the Soviet Union was both a wellspring and a haven for artistic rhetoric of the most rapturously absolute intellectual freedom, though this very quickly curdled into the gruel of “socialist realism”, little of which is worth reproducing today.

If Futurists were in revolt against tradition, Dadaists were in fuller revolt against established thought: anti-sense. This made their output more knockabout, pranksters as much as revolutionaries. Pranks are always hit and miss, and this approach can often grate to modern eyes as often as it delights. (“Honour is bought and sold like ass. Ass, ass represents life like fried potatoes” says Francis Picabia’s 1920 ‘Dada Canibalistic Manifesto’, and on it goes). Of course the Dadaists would argue this was the very intent, storming the bourgeois boundaries of our sensibilities, twanging the elastic until it snaps. The later Surrealist manifestos here are comparatively stately in their assaults on political, spiritual and mental establishment, take the sublime statements of the movement leader, Andre Breton: “This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass. The earth, draped in its verdant cloak, makes a little impression on me as a ghost. It is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere”. Far more, and greater works of art emerged from this more elegant swipe at the accepted.

4. Those who can, paint, those who can’t, write manifestos

Though they may have dabbled, neither Marinetti nor Breton, the movement maestros, were painters nor sculptors, their manifestos were their art. This leads us to the half truth above. At least in many cases there does seem to be a kind of inverse relationship between the artistic success of the author and the brilliance of the manifesto. There are no manifestos from Picasso, Miro, Magritte, nor later from Pollock or Francis Bacon. Carlo Carra and Wyndham Lewis were relative exceptions in excelling at both the written and pictorial form. Certainly Dali’s ‘Yellow Manifesto’ from 1928 is rather flimsy and derivative thing in comparison with its Dadaist forbears, with little of the flair at work in his painted phantasmagoria , while the sculptures of Picabia are wonderful grotesques which do not begin to translate into the language of his writing. Art is absolutely subjective – fly forward to the book’s more recent manifestos, and Gilbert and George’s words are dry recitations of the banal (in contrast with what – to me – are the dizzy delights of their images), while the Stuckist Manifesto written by Billy Childish in 1999 – a declaration of war on conceptual art of the Young British Artists, Hirst, Emin et al is a fabulously angry and witty slice of excoriation, expertly honed (and far more interesting – to me – than anything he has ever drawn). Kandinsky meanwhile, perhaps the greatest painter writing here, has a manifesto written with Franz Marc which is not a striking piece of art in itself, and does not aim to be, but is instead an expertly clear and ordered explanation of what the new non figurative art aims to be. Sometimes the manifesto is simply a piece of meticulously crafted description or statement rather than an exhibit in itself.

There are other quieter, thoughtful manifestos here, such as Takamura Kotaro’s ‘Green Sun’ from 1910, grasping the joins between traditional Japanese art and the new Western abstract style. There are wry pieces like Michael Bettancourt’s ‘The —————– Manifesto’ from 1969 (i.e., fill in the —————- yourself), and there are inroads to far more all encompassing and revolutionary philosophies such as Guy Debord’s ‘Situationist Manifesto’ from 1960. Danchev’s selections in this to-and-fro across the century are eclectic yet exhaustive, and his introductions to each piece are highly informative, managing a fine balance between an impassioned interest in the subject and the aim not to overwhelm with his own point of view. As always in art, true objectivity is impossible, and he cannot – for instance – disguise his contempt for Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement, but then a little of the combative spirit redolent in so much of the material here is quite welcome.

5. There is no one true path to the sublime. The road may be painted in ink as well as oils.

100 Artists’ Manifestos is both an intriguing history of art in the 20th century, and an art exhibition itself, artists using words not canvas. And this is art, not literature. It seems to me it is possible to signify a separation between the two, the teleology and order of the former, and the amorphous, weightlessness of the latter. In one of the quieter pieces here, Apollinaire claims the new (in 1912) non-figurative art is “purer” as, like music, it reaches parts of the soul beyond description. In the best these manifestos, the melange of aphorism and idea, of barbed incongruity and graceful lyricism, can entice and sooth the nameless contours of the soul just as much as Miro’s ‘Ciphers and Constellations’ or Kandinsky’s ‘Composition VIII’. There is a genius at work in these words-as-art which cannot easily be imitated, as my own piss-weak pastiches here no doubt amply display. The manifesto is an insistent form, one that makes demands. Read the selection here, and see where the orders take you.

Hit By The Eidôlon: Abstraction as Phenomenal Experience

Manic Episode 2MANIAC (Multi-media Artist Network Idea Exchange and Collaboration) is a loose collective of twenty-three international artists connected principally through social media. Thyrza Nichols Goodeve introduces MANIAC’s second exhibition, first shown at Sacramento’s Brickhouse Art Gallery in June 2011. Manic Episode 2 explores the relationship between image, material and space in media such as site-specific sculpture, formal abstract painting and cutting-edge video. Many thanks to the author for permission to reprint

When the very first perception of an image is linked to a structure of reproduction, then we are dealing with the realm of the phantoms.

— Jacques Derrida

Democritus’ theory of perception depends on the claim that eidôla or images, thin layers of atoms, are constantly sloughed off from the surfaces of macroscopic bodies and carried through the air… the object seen impresses the air by the eidôla, and the compacted air thus conveys the image to the eye.

— Sylvia Berryman ‘Democritus’, Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy

I can only channel and find out how these forms want to be arranged to reveal themselves. It is not only the forms that are important but also the emptiness in between them. Emptiness, is not a background, it is an active force that gives birth to shape and forms. Emptiness creates the conditions for the existence of forms and their relationships.

— Waltraud Wahida Azhari

Jean Scott Mirror Mirror
Jean Scott 'Mirror Mirror' (2010) Oil and hair on acrylic, 12" x 24", copyright Jean Scott

Is anything there, we ask of the world of phantoms, the eidôlon that hover over and in us: images, ideas, abstraction. How rude, imperfect, or false are our experiences of perception? 1 Put your hand through the image and what is on the other side? Plato believed we were akin to subjects chained to a wall in a cave whose reality consisted only of the shadow-projections of things that were passing in front of a fire behind them. The Pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus (460-370 BCE) used the term eidôla (Greek for eidos “form”)—where we get the word image—to describe perception as the result of films or “air imprints” that emanated from objects to eye. An Atomist, he believed matter consisted of indivisible particles that were indestructible and in constant motion. “These images, or ‘eidôla’ fly through the air and bang into one’s eyes, from which one learns about the properties of the objects that threw off these eidôla.” 2 Empty space is what lies between atoms. In other words, emptiness is palpable because “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.” The shapes and size of atoms differed, depending on the object and “connections were explained by material links in which single atoms were supplied with attachments: some with hooks and eyes others with balls and sockets.” 3

In a way, Democritus’ remarkable account of eidôla reminds us of the living physical substrate of our perceptions. Imagining a film, fire or “husk” that floats from object to eye is a way to move through MANIAC’s Manic Episode 2: Hit by the eidôlon. It is an exhibition that delights in the reanimation of the physical interaction of object and viewer, as if the gallery space is filled not with objects but with the eidôla emanating from them.

Much of the work has roots in Hard Edge or Geometric Abstraction and Minimalism yet these works contain an added conceptual twist. For instance, Roland Orepuk’s 4 bright yellow and white rectangles are all in state of distress and exposure. It is hard not to see them as surgical interventions into the master himself, Josef Albers iconic Homage to the Square: With Rays, 1959. The paintings are flayed and deconstructed, turned into a materiality of flayed flesh (canvas) and bone (wood frame). The bright yellow and white painted rectangles bleed or rip as they are exposed for what they are: not abstract images but constructed objects hanging on a wall. Eidôla as force of revelation and destruction.

Abstraction emerged in Modernism as a withdrawal from figuration, but today our lives are so abstracted, that any image (of art, of thought, of reality, of dreams) is a comment on the texture of representation itself. In other words, as books, relationships, photographs, and even the process of mechanical reproduction itself, are all made to live in the virtual realm of 0s and 1s, revelation emerges in the “matter” of any object or image’s production.

Waltraud Wahida Azhari’s 5 paintings, originally drawings on paper, were transferred as “exact copies” onto canvas “using pencil, charcoal, adhesive tape, and white to keep the forms from bleeding… The green geometric shapes are slightly raised and appear as a little ‘relief’ above the primer… ” In between the image and the eye is the hint of physicality (the “relief”). Perhaps it is also a ball and socket that floats and makes an impression on the eye.

The image of Saddam Hussein’s Italian suited torso “giving one of his endless televised speeches” in Ayad Sinawai’s untitled painting of 2010 was impressed on him in childhood. The image returns here: he decapitates the phantom and turns the blunted torso into a grid of silence: the body as “meat,” butchered like many of Saddam Hussein’s constituents.

On the other hand, Kevin Daly’s simple decals—plastic, manufactured imprints of his paintings, or reproductions as moveable phantoms, are placed along the edge of the architectural space where they fold and reveal the physical space. The space between becomes his subject. They are not flat demonstrations of paintings so much as markers of the territory in which art is displayed.“I’m becoming more interested in the actual architectural space (material space) outside the painting without completely abandoning its image or picture quality.” 6

Naro Oran Oblique Commonality
Naro Oran, 'Oblique commonality 1' (2009) mixed media, digital art, 8"x10", copyright Naro Oran

All of this is about the reframing of perception, the DNA of Modernism. Discover the new, the never-has-been; break from the old, the wizened, the weary. But today art is produced in the self-conscious context of capitalism’s hunger for the new and the recycling of prior movements and themes. Researching for this exhibition, I accidentally wrote “Geometric Expressionism” instead of “Geometric Abstraction,” since so many of the painted works seemed to quote from this tradition, and discovered that there really is an odd, singular movement of the 00s—manifesto and all—labeled “Geometric Expressionism” concocted by one lone individual.

It [Geometric Expressionism] doesn’t propose everything is a social construct that must be regarded in order to see the truth. Instead of rejecting all that has gone before, Geometric Expressionism seeks to learn from it. In other words, while taking giants down at the knees is one way to get a different view, so is standing on their shoulders. 7

Indeed, what shoulders is the work in Hit by the eidôlon standing on and why? Steve Baris’s Nested Forms, are acrylic paint on irregularly shaped Plexiglas panels, which “address my long-running fascination with the intersections of form, structure and notional space” [emphasis added]. He is working with the skeletal refraction of the illusion of three-dimensional space achieved not simply through mimicry but through the “juxtapositions of opaque, metallic surfaces with more translucent paint.” This activates the physical tension of geometric abstraction—“the different spatial registers, one projecting forward, the other inward,” so that “a painting is finished when it seems to occupy two places at the same time.” 8

Dynamism. The back and forth between image and eye, viewer and object, object and the process of witnessing one’s own self- construction as if the image is a thing—a husk emanating toward the eye. Let’s face it, our perceptions are rude as Democritus suggested. They exist within a history of recycling and echo as in Kevin Finklea‘s humorous re-use of the broken off “limbs” and paint from his previous work. He reuses parts of old pieces as living forms, almost as though they have an idea or will of their own: “I actively let these reminders suggest the form of what I made.” 9 Attached to the wall, they reach out like abstract versions of Robert Gober’s phantom limbs.

Finklea stresses what many of the artists in this exhibition believe in: the will of form to find or make itself. Suzan Shutan uses recycled material to “comment in part upon the accumulation of cultural debris,” but like Finklea, her fluid linked paper loops “become their own subjective universe… ” as they hang like bulging vines from the ceiling, penetrating the space. She too lets the form create the image as an experience of the space.

Susan Knight does not make images but relationships. Knight reminds us of the fragile state of our ecological context, in particular, water, by transforming minimalist sculpture into an ecological insight. The tube in her piece references “scientific collection apparatuses” that are made with red acrylic ink “because water is life blood.” 10 She takes us out of the gallery.

Karen Ostrom The Hunter
Karen Ostrom 'The Hunter' (2005) Chromogenic print, 30" x 60", copyright Karen Ostrom

Hit by the eidôlon is about transforming abstraction into a physical dialogue, reminding us of the physicality of perception. In this sense it is really one of those shows you must travel to and in as if slipping along the globules of perception in the phantom image of eidôla because every image is in action and reaction: canvases are not flat, space is not a static site for viewing. Even seemingly hard edged shapes do more than just sit there. They are meant to make us “part of the space.” (Waltraud Wahida Azhari)

The point of Hit by the eidôlon is to feel the abstraction of materials, not as formalist exercise but as dynamic “things” or concretized relationships between self, object, space, world where the tension between armature and its content constructs the very notion of revelation as dialogue with the space. Where abstraction is the hit that meets and “hooks” the eye with the very materiality of our perception as if “material links… were supplied with attachments.” In other words, abstraction as phenomenal experience.

Further Resources:


  1. Eidôlon is from eidôla: Greek for image, phantom, apparition, ghost. “He (Democritus] distinguished between a rude, imperfect and therefore false perception and a true one.” www.iep.utm.edu/democrit ↩
  2. www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Epicur.htm. The author is referring to Epicurus, a student of Democritus.  ↩
  3. Democritus, Testimonia, DK 68 A 80, DK A 37, DK 68A. ↩
  4. On his website there is a reference to his belonging to a genre known in France as Reductive Art. ↩
  5. Waltraud Wahida Azhari, Artist’s statement: “Experiences in space, emptiness and light.” Email correspondence with author.  ↩
  6. Kevin Daly statement, email correspondence with author. ↩
  7. Hiromi Yamamura, “Geometric Expressionism and the Progression of Moderinity,” www.lonelycolours.com/files/geometricexpressionism.html. As a “movement” it is full of contradictions and has little to offer except as symptom and testament to the author’s laudable desire to theorize his work. It is basically a combination of Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Geometric Abstraction, retaining a link to recognizable form,” and “it doesn’t seek to liberate emotion, it seeks to restrain it in order to heighten emotional tension and facilitate a more logical consideration of a concept.” ↩
  8. Steven Baris, “Statement, Nested Form #8”. Email correspondence with author.  ↩
  9. Kevin Finklea, “Statement for Sacramania”. Email correspondence with author. ↩
  10. Susan Knight’s statement. Email correspondence with author. ↩

Dream Team: The Brothers Quay

In 1995, Thyrza Nichols Goodeve interviewed twin brothers Timothy and Stephen Quay about their beautiful full-length debut Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life. Many thanks to the author for permission to reprint in full.

The animated-puppet worlds of the Brothers Quay have entranced art cinephiles since 1979. Seemingly made by miniature shadow-fairies rather than the actual tall humans the Quays are, their films – Nocturna Artificialia, 1979, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, 1984, Street of Crocodiles, 1986, Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, 1987 – and music videos, including the award-winning ‘Sledgehammer’ for Peter Gabriel, take us eyeball and eardrum through fantastically handcrafted architecturally impossible visions of lost modernity. Deeply intellectual, their work is suffused with moodiness, patterned after the writers who inspire them: Franz Kafka, Bruno Schultz, and the Swiss novelist Robert Walser, whose Jakob von Gunten, 1908, served as the armature for their first live-action and full-length feature film, Institute Benjamenta, which premiered at New York’s Film Forum in March.

Institute Benjamenta – the Institute is a school for servants – is smart and beautiful. Each shot is its own still; each edit, a dazzling transformation of narrative space. As such, Institute Benjamenta is as much a foray into the memory of film itself, a sensuous evocation of the cinema of the miraculous (Jean Cocteau, Luis Bunuel, Maya Deren, Sergei Paradjanov), as it is a fairy tale of spirits crushed by the soul-killing monotony of rules, repetition, and subordination.

In reputation the Brothers Quay are wrapped in mystery, including whispers about their dense and dark London atelier (Koninck studios, which they founded in 1980 with their producer, Keith Griffiths), rumored to be crammed with such things as antique dolls in bell jars and stacks of crumbling insect wings. I half expected to find them a pair of wizened gnomes with rusty screws, butterfly dust, and cobwebs dangling from their hair. Nothing so exorbitant – only two disarmingly friendly, whirling personas of elegantly rumpled charisma, who just happen to have turned their accidental birthright as identical twins (born outside Philadelphia in 1947) into one of art’s most ingenious and visionary collaborations. The following conversation took place amidst New York’s blizzard of ‘96, as though the environment were duplicating the atmospheric wonder that the brothers’ films so effortlessly provoke.

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve: A beautiful quotation opens Institute Benjamenta:

Who dares it – has no courage To whom it is missing – feels well Who owns it – is bitterly poor Who is successful – is damaged Who gives it – is as hard as stone Who loves it – stays alone

What is “it”?

The Brothers Quay: “It” is the riddle, the enigma. The quote isn’t from Robert Walser’s novella but from an anonymous folktale, a conundrum, that Carl Orff set to music and that we’ve had a cassette of for 19 years. Our initial ravishment was the music; we’d never had the text translated. Yet it utterly intrigued us and so we began corresponding with the Orff foundation to trace the text’s origin – which of course remains unsolved.

TNG: Music seems almost as primary as the visual for you. You once described it as “just the darkest blood imaginable.”

BQ: Actually, we’re failed composers. What we try to do is create a visualization of a musical space – we want you to hear with your eyes and see with your ears. It’s like saying, What kind of decor, in what parallel world, would evoke that music? So Lech [Jankowski, composer for many of the Quays’ films including Institute Benjamenta] wrote the music before the film was shot. He read the book and wrote suites, which he gave mysterious titles – not ‘Jakob’s Theme’, or ‘Lisa’s Theme’, but ‘Chorale’, and ‘Waltz Z.K. Minor’. He made no direct reference to the book whatsoever, at least to our knowledge.

TNG: Filmmakers are often interested in character, but what’s most alive for you is the depth or “animation” of sets and objects. Humans seem like an afterthought.

BQ: Not exactly. It’s just that they’re no more important than anything else. In Institute Benjamenta, what is most magnetized is the space itself. The Institute is the main actor, or the main character, and as a character it exerts a dominion and sway. We wanted it to carry the essential mysterium of the tale, as though it had its own inner life and former existences, which seemed to dream upon its inhabitants and exert its conspiratorial spells and undertows on them. We were looking for that Walserian notion of a world half awake, half asleep, in between.

TNG: Could you map the Institute for me? I mean, does it really exist as phenomenal space, or is it more a miraculous space?

BQ: With the puppet films, we came to terms with conceiving of space: whether it was to be stylized (the great privilege of animation) or realistic, a metaphysical space or a fantastic, nongeographical space, a mental configuration. There could also be analogic spaces, created in the editing process, or abstract spaces, created by massive close-ups and deficient depths of focus – by violations of scale. Whatever form the space took, it was always firstly a poetic vessel through which the fiction would course.

We’ve tried to explore different aspects of space in all our films. In Institute Benjamenta, we searched particularly for mental spaces. Since our location – a dilapidated old mansion – had to be a “found” space (unlike in our puppet films), we had to free it of its own geographics. The Institute seems to be positioned in a city traversed by trams. It’s also beside a port, and it’s also encroached upon from behind by a forest. In fact the forest is slowly invading it, like the tides.

To every space is allied its own quality of light, and this too should be a poetic conception. Light creates the essential Stimmung, the metaphysical climate, those “thicknesses” in the space itself. For Lisa [Alice Krige], the Institute’s instructress, the building is a realm of light. Light swells, advances, becomes like liquid myrrh, glows and invades her. At other times it may be a trapped, fetid, dead light, or an annihilating, corrosive light. What happens in the shadow, in the gray regions, also interests us – all that is elusive and fugitive, all that can only be said in those beautiful half-tones, or in whispers, in deep shade.

TNG:In the puppet films, you controlled every aspect of production; you can’t do that in live action. Yet you’ve managed to translate your miraculous space, and your whole point of view. To be honest, I was surprised at the effortless transition you made.

BQ: Though the puppet films hadn’t prepared us for the social aspect of ensemble work, we’d worked in theater and opera before [the Quays have designed stage productions in England and Europe], so we knew the value of collaboration, and we realized that we’d have to stop mumbling between ourselves and make ourselves intelligible to our team. We seemed to have earned everyone’s loyalty – that, or they all felt sorry for us.

For the mise-en-scene, we worked with our friend Alan Passes, a writer. We approached the novella with a free hand, trying to conceive it from an imagistic point of view – almost like a silent film. Camera, quality of light, decor, objects, sound and music, dialogue, voice-overs: we tried to create a synthesis of all these metiers. And that’s exactly how we’ve worked all these years in our puppet films.

TNG: I have a personal question about you guys as identical twins.

BQ: Oh, that one.

TNG: I know there’s frustration with the question, but it’s also a logical one: you do experience an entirely different metaphysical existence from the rest of us. This struck me because Lisa’s isolation is a big theme in the film. So I want to know – do you ever experience loneliness? Could you? Or is that outside your experience?

BQ: It would take one of us dying to know what that would be. Until then it’s a mystery.

TNG: Do you know how profound that is in terms of us “singulars”? We go through the world –

BQ: – always alone, searching for some possible other…

TNG: For most of us, encouplement only comes through the lover.

BQ: Yes, in some way our relationship is a reproach or challenge to marriage in the sense that you have to find your soul mate, whereas we had –

TNG: Your soul mate from the very beginning?

BQ: From the very beginning. It was just something that was natural. We always went around together; we couldn’t even help it. I guess the proper thing would be to get a life, get married, break up, but film has actually brought us closer, because of the collaboration. We did each do our own drawings when we were in art school, though.

TNG: Did you draw similarly?

BQ: We both drew with our right hands.

TNG: Okay … but did you have different interests in what you drew?

BQ: We always had a similar, literary interest. We constantly absorbed the same material. There was no way one of us could discover something the other one hadn’t already seen or read or heard about.

TNG: So you really are a unit; more one than two.

BQ: Yes.

TNG: And that’s why it’s frustrating when people want to –

BQ: – search for the dissonance. They want to say, Which one’s who? We always say it’s just the twins, just the Quays. The films aren’t made by Timothy or by Stephen, or by Stephen or Timothy.

TNG: You seem born to make your puppet films, as though you were making puppets and environments as children. But you apparently got into puppets almost as a kind of eccentric dare.

BQ: The British Film Institute said they would give us money for something experimental. We said, We’ve never done puppets, so why not – it was the most experimental thing we could think of. We’d only been illustrators at that point. And we figured if we failed, it would at least be a beautifully slow suicide.

TNG: Suicide?

BQ: Because there were no great expectations. Also, in our huge ignorance at that time (1979), puppet films not for children seemed virtually extinct. But then we saw quite a few puppet films made for adults, and they intrigued us. It was just an intuition that this was something we wanted to explore.

TNG: How do you conceptualize what you’re going to shoot?

BQ: We can bluff a storyboard, but we know from experience that when you’re confronted with the physical space itself (whether it’s puppet space or live action), the space blossoms. You might say, Let’s use a 50-millimeter lens here, but by mistake the camera has a 105-millimeter lens on, and you say, That’s it! We have a great belief in accidents. We sort of nurture them and trap them and build upon them. We’re appallingly open to the chance encounter. We always have a drift, an arc, for a project, we know where we’re going – but it’s a thread, a shimmering web. Things happen as we go along. We’ll discover things.

TNG: As oblique as your work can be, I do see a theme. It has to do with meaningful versus alienated labor. You seem to revel in artisanal craft-like puppet animation, where the hand is utterly involved and you’re immersed in the material process. For you, work in a modern or postindustrial capitalist society is soul-killing.

BQ: Our work is so close to us it isn’t work – it’s a way of rendering life at its fullest. And in puppetry your hands do a lot of thinking. As for Institute Benjamenta, it’s a metaphor at zero degree, of course, in which millions are already enrolled. An image of Kafka’s comes to mind: he spoke of chewing on the sawdust already chewed on by thousands of others. But suspended over the story of a school for servants there’s also a fairy tale – essentially Sleeping Beauty. Walser himself talked about his book as a “senseless but meaningful fairy tale.” There’s a ward with a deer-hoofed wand (Lisa); an ogre (Lisa’s brother Herr Benjamenta [Gottfried John]); seven dwarfs (the students); and the princeling, Jakob [Mark Rylance], who arrives with a kiss.

TNG: What’s the significance of all the antlers and stag imagery in the Institute?

BQ: They’re not in the book. But we thought, the Institute had an existence before it trained servants. So we imagined it had been a factory for making perfume. Musk comes from the male deer – actually from a deer without antlers, but we took a little poetic license.

We also imagined that the man who had run this factory had had a Wunderkammer room where he collected somewhat pathological deer imagery. This is the museum that Jakob discovers. Like the Institute, it’s a maze. On one side of it there’s a hell jar of ejaculate of stag, from when they’re rutting. We got the idea when we were sawing antlers one day and as the horn fell onto the paper it smelled of sperm. Did you know that when an antler deroutes, they presume – it’s not really known – that it’s because the deer’s been shot in the testicle? When a deer is hunted, it turns its behind to the gunshot to run away. If the bullet hits the testicle, that – possibly – deroutes the antler.

TNG: Which means what – that it falls out?

BQ: No, that it becomes aberrational. We have collections of antlers with these extraordinary detours and florescences – a flowering of the testicles in the opposite direction.

All of that was a subtext. We were interested in this contamination of the Institute by the dead perfume factory. Herr Benjamenta closes himself down into this world of deer memorabilia – almost as though it was he who’d been wounded in the testicle. Then the Institute itself, in that it’s for teaching servants, is like a reservation of young bucks – eunuchs. These guys are learning the art of demeaning repetitive labor. They’re being taught an abstraction, an ideal code or system: “Work more, wish less.” And all those elements come together with the animal kingdom in the film’s layer of fairy tale.

TNG: Walser himself attended a school for servants, didn’t he?

BQ: Yes, though not for long. For us, Jakob is a quiet portrait of Walser. He spent the last 26 years of his life in an asylum. At the beginning he still wrote; then he stopped. He said, “I’m here to be mad, not to write.” He died on a walk in the snow on Christmas day. That’s why Mark Rylance does that gesture at the end with his hat – because Walser was found facedown in the snow with his hat falling off, one hand on his heart. It’s the most fairy tale-ish ending. In one of his earliest novels he talks about coming across a poet dead in the snow.

TNG: Is that landscape of death the same landscape that ends Institute Benjamenta?

BQ: Oh yes – in a sense we just tried to create that final realm. We actually took that last walk of Walser’s when we were in Switzerland – we had this photograph of him dead, and we were wandering around trying to position it in the landscape. We never asked Mark to make that gesture; he just did it, and it was only when we were looking at the rushes that we went “@?!@?!!,” because we had shown him the photograph.

TNG: Your description of walking, looking for Walser, suggests how you inhabit the world as flâneurs – wandering around, looking not for something specific but just for what the world will give you. That’s how you build your esthetic.

BQ: Absolutely – walking in the street, we’re always taking photographs of strange still-lifes, the conjunctions and little epiphanies that life supplies. You can miss them but you shouldn’t. We want to uncover those quiet, elusive moments, those drifts that just go off.

TNG: There’s an impression of you as these hermetic souls, like watchmakers laboring at your fantastic miniature constructions. Actually, though, the phenomenal world is as much your laboratory as the music or literature that inspires you.

BQ: Exactly. In a way, Street of Crocodiles was just us documenting Poland, the Krakow and Warsaw of 1974 to ‘86. We’d walk around and photograph, say, a little shop window, empty except for a high-heeled stiletto with little cleats going around it. We generate material just by walking about. An event happens and we tuck it away.

TNG: So though people often bring up the “s” word with you, you’re really materialists, not surrealists.

BQ: Yes, because the material is generated, not invented. We just see it. People do sort of want to stick the label “surrealist” on us, but the world gives these things up to us – they really happen. Mostly, we want things to remain true to themselves. The object can speak in whispers if you let it.

TNG: Which reminds me of the forks in Institute Benjamenta – in the opening scene, the actors make them “sing” by tapping them before using them to eat. Though those moments are live action, they’re actually about animation in the deepest sense: endowing the inanimate with life. You make it seem as if using a fork just to eat is like making people into zeros in their job. In fact your work is furious at how not just humans have been made inanimate, but objects as well: they’ve been stripped of their magic, their “soul,” which you give back to them.

BQ: We knew the fork was part of the enigma. It’s a fantastic thing! We adore forks – part of a ritual, yet so practical.

TNG: And the fork is potent thematically, because so much of the Institute’s teaching is the kind of empty social forms typified by those codes about using a fork properly. So what a wonderful subversion when Jakob “plays” the fork – one of those quiet, sly moments that the worker develops within a space bound by rules. The same with that lesson on how to present a napkin, which you choreograph into a beautiful somnambulistic ritual.

BQ: That scene was conceived to Lech’s music. We worked it visually like a musical cadenza.

Walser was attracted by all that was hard, gray, and lowly. He liked to take the circumference of something small and insignificant – a button, an apple, trouser cuffs, things that were a kind of degree zero – and to show that by passing through the zero, as Jakob does, one could be liberated. That’s why Kraus [Daniel Smith], the servant, who is the perfect zero, is also the pearl in the oyster – the pearl permanently secreted by the Institute.

TNG: At the end of the film, when Jakob and Herr Benjamenta leave the Institute, is it supposed to look like they’re in one of those snow-filled glass-ball paperweights?

BQ: Yes. At that point we wanted it to appear almost as though Kraus were telling the tale. He’s feeding the fish, and the food falls into the fishbowl; so it’s as though he’s making snow for the fish. Having Jacob and Herr Benjamenta in the snow, which looks as though they were in a glass bowl, gave it that slightly fairy-tale ending.

TNG: Herr Benjamenta tells Jakob, “I’ve pronounced the Institute dead. We are free… Follow me out of this world forever.” Yet Kraus remains. Lisa is dead – killed by the Institute, or, better, by her evolving inability to enact its rules.

BQ: These people course through the film in strange trajectories: Lisa is slowly arcing down, Herr Benjamenta is rising euphorically, and Kraus will be the pearl secreted by the Institute. He’ll be there for all time, with the fish in the goldfish bowl, just turning these endless circles. And Jakob is the princeling who should have woken Sleeping Beauty with a kiss of life, but he’s brought the kiss of death.

TNG: Jakob says at one point, “As long as I obey her, she will live.” But he has instigated in Lisa the desire not to be obeyed, the desire to move beyond this world in which, a sign reads, “Rules have already thought of everything.” But why is it Herr Benjamenta who gets to leave with Jakob at the end?

BQ: In his final speech, he says, “Once I was crowned with success, the world smiled on me. But I hated the world. Hated existing. Hated those I taught to take orders… But no longer, now that I am not a king…”

TNG: “… Now I want to live…”

BQ: Yes, “Now I want to live.” But the film in fact ends unexpectedly, with Kraus – the genuine work of God, the nothing, the servant. Earlier, Lisa has told Jakob that God gives a Kraus to the world in order to entrust it with an insoluble riddle. This line is an echo of that fiddling opening quotation from Orff. And so, ending with Kraus, the film ends as it begins, with a riddle; the circle is reformed. And maybe we’re no wiser, because, as Lisa’s voice from the heavens says in the film, “Things unfathomed still occur. And this fairy tale will tell you last.”

Performance and the Art of Lesley Dill

Lesley Dill Rush
Lesley Dill, 'Rush', 2006-07. Metal foil, organza, and wire; dimensions variable

Lesley Dill’s work begins with language and extends, through many shapes and forms, to the body and the community. Thyrza Nichols Goodeve’s essay ‘Words have Wings that Fly from the Mouths of Others’ (1, see footnotes below) first appeared in the catalogue for Dill’s 2009/2010 retrospective I Heard a Voice. Many thanks to the author and Hunter Museum of American Art for permission to republish

In the end, then, we’re all readers. And the act of reading is an active choice to receive – and also to participate, to imagine, to interpret. It’s a kind of gift we make to writers, in fact – just as much as their writing may seem a kind of gift to us. We choose to let their words in. To let them “flame amazement” in our minds, where they may indeed prove incendiary. – Stephen J. Bottoms (2)

I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again. – Roland Barthes (3)

Poesies (Greek): to make or to create.

There is the moving image. There is the sculpture. There is the pull of a ribbon. There is the photograph. There is the sculpture of an open hand, long colored threads attached in bunches to the fingertips, pulled by gravity to the floor. There is the wire that is woven, the photographs that are scratched, the foil that is cut, the obsessive repetitive gestures of the making, the duration and the weeks and months it takes. There is the text, the words, the repletion. The constant push and pull between, and yes, among images and words, reaching beyond the frame. Nothing is ever quite content to rest. Hesitations, requests and suggestions of movement and meaning. Diaphanous spectacles and shifting displays, in the gallery and the museum and elsewhere in live performance and opera. All in motion. All about language. All as visual art.

Lesley Dill has made art in collaboration with the poetry of Emily Dickinson since 1990. Correction, Leslie Dill has made art out of, and with, Dickinson’s language, not her poetry, since 1990. Rarely does she work with an entire poem but instead culls line fragments –

A single screw of flesh is all that pins the soul. (4)

A single screw… is part of a poem that is 20 lines long. But for Dill its power is as a solitary sentence which becomes a kind of cloth, or a ribbon, draped and reprocessed.

Dill drinks in the intelligibility that teases from the tips of comprehension. Her disregard for the literary tradition of the poem as a whole puts her in the same hashish garden where Baudelaire dreamed modernity and Dickinson drew large breaths. The garden without paths where, “in prose and poetry she explored the implications [of language] breaking the law just short of breaking off communication with a reader”. (5) Dill “breaks” or surgically separates lines of poems like slices of skin, recycling and repeating lines, reusing them, a bit like a lyrical, less narrative, Gertrude Stein. Stein may seem like an arbitrary connection but the first chapter of Susan Howe’s landmark book My Emily Dickinson, actually discusses Dickinson and Stein as literary mates, who were “…clearly the most innovative precursors of modernist poetry and prose”. (6)

Of interest for our discussion is Gertrude Stein’s notion of language. For Stein, language was not a vehicle of communication or expression but was a material with volume and mass like clay or paint. Decoration was not what counted, i.e., the razzle dazzle of description or vocabulary, but the way meaning could be built by accretion over time by what she called “repetition as insistence.

[S]ometime there will be a history of all of them, that sometime all of them will have the last touch of being a history of being, a history of them can give to them, sometime then there will be a history of each of them, of all the ways any one can know them, of the ways each one is inside her or inside him, of all the ways anything of them comes out from them. (7) – Gertrude Stein

Dill’s use of repetition is not formal like Stein’s. It works like a mantra. Dill is a mystic with an interest in Buddhism, Judaism, and the work of the American Transcendentalists. Stein’s method pounds meaning from the rat-tat of simple pronouns, nouns, prepositions signifiers, edited frame by frame. She does not use descriptive language. Meaning is never made by metaphor, but by physical accretion of word by word, amassing like the rings of a redwood tree at is ages from year to year. Repetition builds, insists and history is written. (8)

Stein, the writer, makes from language.
Dickinson, the poet, creates language.

Lesley Dill, the artist, is a creature of language. She grew up in it. She inhabits it. She is and becomes it. But it pushes her to something else. To perform Dickinson’s poems across, in, and, as a range of materials;

walls
voice
lights
sculpture
photograph
live performance
paper
video
textile
installation
opera

This is repetition as insistence across media as well as language.

The Pleasure of the Text

It is the abrasions I impose on the fine surface:
I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again. – Roland Barthes. The Pleasure of the Text. (9)

In his book The Pleasure of the Text published in France in 1973, translated into English in 1975, Roland Barthes discusses texts of “pleasure” – plaisir – and texts of “bliss” – jouissance. Dill’s experience of reading the volume of Dickinson’s complete poems, given to her by her mother on her 40th birthday, is clearly jouissance (ecstasy, bliss). Ecstasy is a theme that returns again and again in Dickinson’s poetry, and is in Dill’s experience of reading Dickinson. “I had imagistic epiphanies that almost frightened me they were so strong”. (10) What Dill describes, and re-enacts in her art, are moments of reading, when a writer’s words implode inside and out and through the body in a manner only poets have been able to capture.

Reading is a verb. At its best, it expresses communication and connection of such exquisite recognition and contact that it is love, but not just love, it is being in love, but not just being in love, it is the beloved: mirror, soul, essence giving flight in those words. For Barthes, reading, which is writing, is like a drug; it is why readers are always addicts. This is why Dill returns to Dickinson several times and why it is never a return or a repetition. She is always after the language as transcendent action on and in the body: desire, insight, bristling, burning, ecstatic, implosion, spinning-moment of mind-altering (brain changing) engagement where text and body are pierced, made into one, obliterated, fused.

Dill is about poetry as text, entering the body from page into the body, and then out again into objects. She acts it. Not just in performances but also as a drive, the gesture of affect and meaning, spreading its way like a band of light. Her art is made of delicate materials and ethereal images that breathe through language, taking us elsewhere and roughing us up. The phrases she has read, and that are her material, carve into what cannot be seen, what cannot be touched, what cannot be understood, but are what is felt in a flash (jouissance) –

reading as contact
as gift
as performance
a poem as a Punch, 1999 in the mouth or a Flinch, 2000.

Like Walt Whitman, Dickinson’s partner in time, he says, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”. Dill too, contains multitudes. And contradictions. Her performances are like poetry readings but in them the human body replaces paper, and the poems are repeated as well as written on scrolls that are pulled from mouths and attached to eyelids. Her sculptures are made of paper and materials such as horsehair and wire, yet wire is then woven into poetry for her photographs, Dill treats bodies as a kind of paper, and the process as a form of reading:

I’d paint on people – friends and volunteers – and then I’d photograph them. I am attracted to photography because it literally makes a human being into a human piece of paper. It makes them frontal. It makes for a reading. (12)

Lesley Dill Hunger and Desire
Lesley Dill, 'Hunger and Desire', 1998. Oil, thread, wax on photo; 49 x 77 inches

The Object as Bridge

Fragile Bridge (2005), made out of horsehair and wire, is a visceral piece. (13) The piece hangs on the wall yet one does not feel it as a wall piece. We approach it and feel it. The horsehair droops from the wired text to the floor. It is attached to woven words that stretch in awkward “handwriting” from left to right across the wall. The piece is at once mural, sculpture, poem. As we walk, we read – absorbing both the tactility of the piece, the smell or the olfactory associations we have with horsehair and the images and feelings of the words. We are reading in action – bodies in motion. “reading was a connective tissue,” (14) the fragile bridge of creation and connection Dill had with her father. In the beginning was not the word but the reading of a word that had several personalities in her family. Dill’s mother taught speech at the high school the artist attended, so for Dill, words were not just things that communicated meaning but things that sounded, carried melody, that had their own physicality and skins. A word could be clunky or impatient; a sentence as lyrical and crisp as the sound of snow. From her father, Dill discovered language wore many outfits. What he said was layered and shifted, conflicted, came and went from elsewhere because he read and heard and spoke to the world as a schizophrenic:

but do not tense up. He was beloved, a very kind man…
He knew I understood. He would slant the language towards me. I feel that I grew up in a psychologically bilingual family. For me words existed naturally in duplicate, triplicate and quadruplicate context. There was an inherent meaning, a secret meaning, and a surface meaning.
(15)

So for the young Dill, words did not greet the world like dutiful citizens but scratched at the tips of the tongue, drifting and colliding into new territory, making new worlds. Language was not just story or communication but sound and split crystal. It could not only travel along multiple tracks, but breathe and thread itself into material.

And when her mother gave Dill the book of Dickinson’s poetry, reading it completely atomized her world.

Dickinson’s language released something in my unconscious mind. My response was not tied to her content, but to the immediate sense of feeling ‘lined up’ with the experience of her words. I’m interested in the ‘alchemy’ of language, the uncertainty of meaning and the resonance within our bodies when a metaphor clicks.

But also

It’s when you eat something
I felt the words were in my body the words came I felt my life from within.
(16)

Words are digested. They become flesh and skin. Words heal and scar. They are the skin. They are what slice it off. We are blood and light. a poem.

Flash
of brilliance
of knowledge
of transcendence
of knowledge
out of body

Dill exteriorized and interior experience of language and returned it to the audience as a fragile bridge she and we walk together through museum, gallery, book, live performance. And “We choose to let their words in. To let them ‘flame amazement’ in our minds, where they may indeed prove incendiary.” (17) And she has been set on fire to create outside of this art arena, this self of hers and ours and Dickinson’s, to a different kind of performance and reading. The kind of reading that becomes a listening, to be read, heard, released and brought back in from.

And your very flesh shall be a great poem. – Walt Whitman (18)

Tongues on Fire

In the year 2000 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Dill produced an extended community project created from research, listening, singing, writing, and reading, that has had an effect on all of Dill’s work in the ‘00s. The project, called Tongues on Fire was different , quite special and carried its own aura. As Arlene Raven states,

We ponder an explanation of sacred language that Lesley has found while preparing to launch her community project in Winston-Salem. Language itself, as consecration and prayer, is three-dimensional and rooted in the yet unsaid. (19)

Dill was invited to the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art [SECCA] to participate in a residency program sponsored by the museum’s Artists and Community series. Since 1994 this series had brought artists to the Piedmont region of North Carolina to work with the community on collaborative projects. Dill was an interesting choice because her work is generally so private and hermetic. What would an artist who makes such intimate works as White Threaded Poem Girl, 1996, Punch, 1999, or Girl With Crown, 1998, do with a community, especially one as diverse, urban and Southern as Winston-Salem’s? Dill turned to the community and treated it like a collection of poems.

Dill has always referred to herself as a “word collector”. A collector does not read in the traditional sense, but selects and cuts, like a gardener weeding from bushels full of possibilities. In order to collect the words of this community, Dill integrated her skills as a reader of texts into the skill of a listener of people. She visited schools, libraries, churches, bookstores, placing articles in local newspapers, did interviews on the radio, hung posters in neighborhoods. SECCA also set up email and voice mail boxes for the community to leave responses.

Public tongues. Others’ tongues. A community instead of a book. Dill had been mining, for the most part, from the same personal volume of poetry for a decade, poetry from one of the most lauded introverts in American literature. But in 2000 Lesley Dill became an actor out in the world. Her words were not epiphanies driven from her reading poets, but via performance within the language of a community. This was no simple new assignment but a transformation of her work from the infinite interiority of the one (Dill, Dickinson or the poet, the viewer) to the performance of a profoundly public interiority. At each event, Dill worked with the language of intimacy to break down barriers. She shared her visionary experience, turning it into a mode of research, becoming a collector of visions:

It’s the language of visions – be it in dreams or unusual sensory experiences, spontaneous vocalizations, or uncontrolled body movements – that I was interested in investigating in the community of Winston-Salem… (20)

She received 700 visionary statements. Those were not her own, nor of dead poets, but voices – alive.

These stories revealed how complex and how simple this mysticism is. Each shared experience had a context of complication with acceptance of the range of life. It’s neither sweet nor sentimental… it’s not one pure point of understanding. It’s rich – it mirrors life that way. (21)

One particular community in Winston-Salem: the Emmanuel Baptist Church (22) whose Reverend John Menedez, part Apache, part Yoruba was himself a particularly gifted spiritual “seer”, collaborated with Dill. The diminutive New York City female artist-outsider – white, blonde, reserved New England archetype – from a mystical, Buddhist, Episcopalian, Jewish tradition, collected experiences of inexplicable bliss or all-knowingness, and then had an African American choir “that can be traced to slaves of Gullah descent who arrived on the continent from Sierra Leone West Africa, as captives destined to work on the South Carolina rice plantations” (23) transform them into performance, into song. Yes, as the Reverend said to her, “Lesley, we accept you as you are”. They met and through a series of conversations and shared experiences, created the most ecstatic aspect of the collaboration.

A huge and varied amount of work evolved from Tongues on Fire – billboards, spiritual sings woven of the community visions, a documentary film, two publications, including the original 700 vision statements and, in many ways, all subsequent exhibitions, from Tremendous World, 2007, to the opera Divide Light, 2008. (24)

After this community project, pieces such as Rise, 2006-07 [originally created for the exhibition, Tremendous World, 2007], are metaphor for the way performance has become more central to Dill’s work. The lone sculpture or hanging wall piece, or specific line of a poem, is no longer unattached, isolated, standing on the floor on its own, but attached literally, to voices and a public that are trying to take it elsewhere. (25)

As far apart in time and mode as Tongues on Fire, 2000, and Tremendous World, 2007, are – one an entire project, exhibition, and all-encompassing range of media, the other a series of sculptural installations – Dill has spoken about both as crucial aspects in the evolution of the most significant commitment to performance she will make in the ‘00s: her opera Divide Light. Although in content, Divide Light features images, language and works only from Dickinson and Dill, the entire process of making the opera is of course a community project, and a public exhibition in front of an audience. In Divide Light, the private voices of the gallery and the poet, the personal and the hermetic are shifted to a grand operatic display of interiority itself.

In the end, it is the tension in post 2000 exhibition works – performance culled from a community rather than just in front of an audience, or in the gallery, on a page, or from the poet’s private language – that has allowed Dill’s work to become a melody that fills rooms.

Lesley Dill Rise
Lesley Dill, 'Rise', 2006-07. Laminated fabric hand-dyed cotton paper metal silk organza; dimensions variable

Footnotes:

  1. Lesley Dill.
  2. Stephen J. Bottoms, The Act of Reading (and the Fire Next Time), www.readreader.org.
  3. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975). (38)
  4. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Emily Dickinson #263 edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown & Company. 1960).
  5. Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books. 1985). (11)
  6. Ibid.
  7. Gertrude Stein, Negotiating an Hospitable Sublime, The Sublime of Intense Sociability: Emily Dickinson, H.D., and Gertrude Stein. Contributors: Shawn Alfrey (Lewisburg Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press, 2000). (118). From www.questiaschool.com.
  8. Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (1906-08).
  9. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text. (38).
  10. Leslie Dill quoted in Tom Patterson’s essay, Opening to Unknown Nourishment: The Singular Trajectory of Lesley Dill; exhibition Tremendous World, Neuberger Museum of Art, 2007.
  11. You May Laugh but I feel
within me suddenly strange
voice of god and handles
Dont’s thirst and message
Of slow memories that disappear
Across a fragile bridge (Salvador Espriu)
  12. Lesley Dill, quoted in exhibit catalog, Lesley Dill, A Ten Year Survey, Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, 2002. (11)
  13. It is a sister piece to Ann Hamilton’s 1993-1994 Tropos.
  14. Lesley Dill: “Reading was a connective tissue. With my father, there was reading on a different level. There was reading by inference, by listening. The kind of listening where you hear not just one word, the spoken word, but you hear underneath it and behind it; like tonality that one finds more in Asian languages.” We are all Animals of Language by Ed Robbins, 2007.
  15. Lesley Dill quoted in Dede Young’s conversation in exhibition catalog Tremendous World, Neuberger Museum of Art, 2007. (21).
  16. Lesley Dill quoted in Susan Krane’s essay, Read Me Like A Book; exhibition, Lesley Dill: A Ten Year Survey, Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, 2002. (49)
  17. Stephen J. Bottoms.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Arlene Raven, Tell It Slant, in exhibition catalog, Lesley Dill: A Ten Year Survey, Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, 2002. (12)
  20. Dill in Krane, Lesley Dill. (49)
  21. Lesley Dill quoted in Singing Forth the Spirit, by Terri Dowell-Dennis in Tongues on Fire, SECCA, 2000.
  22. Ibid. (7)
  23. She also worked with 400 high school students in the Governor’s School West program, a special summer institute active since 1963, attended by selected students from all over the country. In 2001-02 her project, Interviews with Contemplative Minds, evolved out of a collaboration with the University of Colorado, the Naropa Institute, and the choral group Ars Nova in Boulder, Colorado.
  24. Dowell-Dennis in Tongues on Fire. (13)
  25. Divide Light is an extended and insistently repeatable operatic re-reading of Dickinson and Dill.
  26. The language embroidered on the banners in Rise are quotes from Tongues on Fire.

I Heard a Voice: The Art of Lesley Dill
Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, Tennessee
January 17-April 19, 2009

Female Stockholm Syndrome: Beauty CULTure

Vanessa Libertad Garcia drops into Los Angeles’ stunning Annenberg Space for Photography for an exhibition exploring how processed imagery influences our notions of beauty

Beauty CULTure

In Los Angeles, we drive a lot. It can take anywhere between half an hour to two and a half hours depending on traffic to make it from one part of the county to the other. During these car rides, Los Angelenos think a lot. We ruminate over the economy, worldwide government corruption, and the “ugliness” or “prettiness” of people in surrounding cars. We also text and, without looking up, instinctively hit the break to avoid slamming into the bumper ahead of us. Most of all, I think, we check out of our excruciatingly slow stop-and-go drives by drifting off into the countless images that overrun our town like cockroaches. While flipping between radio’s NPR news updates and K-Day’s Old Skool Hip-Hop, we ingest thousands of ads lining our walls, billboards and bus stops. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to skim past the screaming Miller Lite and Scientology signs and catch sight of a banner promoting a magnificent new art exhibit. In any case, that’s how it played out for me this summer.

Stuck in my truck without air conditioning, I checked out of the heat by drifting off into ads, many promoting the Beauty CULTure exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography. Varying types of feminine beauty stared down at me in self-assured poses that said, “I am beautiful. You, however, need to lose a hundred pounds and get a girlfriend who looks like me”. Those arresting images of “beauty” transfixed and tormented me as they had done in my teens. I thought, “Oh, hell. Another superfluous showcase of soullessness by the criminally vapid fashion industry.” Nonetheless, I couldn’t pull my eyes away from all those pretty faces and so, I finally noticed that accompanying them were revolting images of a lip injection and an overly done beauty pageant queen. The phrase “Beauty CULTture” headlined each photograph. That title in combination with the images relayed the impression that the ad understood the crippling ideologies they were reinforcing in me, within all of us women stuck in traffic.

Beauty CULTure

Finally this past Saturday, I dropped my last $10 in the gas tank and drove from tha’ hood to the other side of LA County – The Westside. The exhibit was free, parking only $1 and the locale was as gorgeous as the featured models. Kohle Yohannan, the exhibit curator, investigated the beauty cult created and propagated by the fashion and make-up industries from multiple angles. He screened several short documentaries, which discussed the concept of beauty with regular girls, modelling agency heads, fashion photographers, supermodels, plus-sized models, actresses, beauty pageant contestants and their stage moms, and old women with horrifying amounts of plastic surgery. They discussed western culture’s definition of beauty, their personal relationship to it and its damaging and/or beneficial implications on their self-image and lives. I found the display necessary, refreshing and entertaining. I especially liked Lauren Greenfield’s photographs, which manage to combine the entire exhibit’s varied and contrasting ruminations on beauty in one perfect shot. Mostly, I loved that it inspired me to, yet again, question my beliefs about ideal beauty and the knee-jerk reaction I have during traffic to deem people in surrounding cars as “prettier” or “uglier” than one another. Last year, I read about two young Argentinean models, the Ramos sisters, who died of anorexia within six months of each other. The older one collapsed and died on the catwalk. When it comes to beauty in western culture, it seems as if we women are suffering from Stockholm’s Syndrome. We have been taken hostage by abusive, damaging and unrealistic ideologies that are killing us, but have fallen for them, defend them and most disturbing of all, continue to pass them down to the next generation of women.

Top image: Lauren Greenfield. Bottom image: found in a vintage photography magazine accompanying the exhibition

Beauty CULTure runs until November 27, 2011. Directions and further details here

Further Resources:

James Barsness: Icons of Comic Relief

James Barsness I Am Discovered
James Barsness 'I Am Discovered' (detail), 1994, mixed media on paper; 46.4cm x 38.7cm; from the collection of Mickey Cartin, Florida

Drawing on comic strips to explore “crackpot ideas” about social interaction, the Barsness universe recalls the playful chaos of Bruegel. In this catalogue essay from 1997, Thyrza Nichols Goodeve considers drawing and doodling. Full thanks to the author and the gallery for permission to republish

“For all drawing depends, primarily, on your power of representing roundness. If you once do that, all the rest is easy and straight forward; if you cannot do that, nothing else that you may be able to do will be of any use.”

– John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing and the Elements of Perspective (1857)

Drawing for James Barsness is more than the power to represent. It is an activity and a subject, a tradition to mine and a medium of discovery. Approaching each canvas as a kind of two-dimensional laboratory for experimentation, he is a craftsman and a highly seasoned aesthetician. In a style that recalls the mastery of Bruegel laced with the whimsy of turn-of-the-century cartoons, Barsness’s canvases are thick with evocations of a sensorial universe.

As an activity, drawing in the universe of Barsness is ruled neither by the preciousness of the canvas (“I like working on a surface that’s already been screwed up” (1, see footnotes below) nor by false separations between fine art and populist traditions such as the comic strip or caricature. Drawing is as much an elegant, translucent rendering of St. Christopher against a backdrop of the Sunday comics (St. Christopher) as it is the crayon sketches made by his own children and collaged onto the canvas of Allegory of Good Government. With its double nature as both verb and noun, high art and popular form, drawing is his material and palette. (“Even when painting,” he says, “I’m mostly filling in drawings.”) It is for him an action and labor, a process of exertion as well as of discourse. (“I try to hold myself to certain big ideas, but if something wants to go in another direction, I tend to let it go that way.”)

Key to Barsness’s style is the sensation of roundness, what Ruskin noted in his mid-19th-century treatise on drawing as the skill most necessary for an artist to master. Harsh edges, crosshatching, or geometric angles do not characterize Barsness’s canvases so much as a general air of roundness: round shapes, bulbous figures, and, most importantly, the sheer feeling of circular motion. Ruskin privileged “roundness” because it endows a shape with a sense of dimension and weight, of being an object in the world. Barsness indicates an interest in achieving such an effect “in the tactile sensibility that arises from trying to make something look as though it once really existed in space”. But he takes the artistry of drawing into another realm, into fairy tale-infected caricature and cartoon. Wedding Bruegel with R.F. Outcault or Rudolph Dirks – originators of turn-of-the-century comic strips The Yellow Kid and The Katzenjammer Kids, respectively – in such works as L’Economie, Barsness seeks to create a relationship to the canvas that is as much about contact and sensation as it is about the autobiographical scenes, moments from everyday life, portraits, mythic and religious subjects drawn from art history, and tableaus of social commentary that pervade his canvases. In fact, the articulation of such themes may be of less importance than the arousal of a “tactile sensibility”. It is such an awakening of touch that he is really after and why the rounded, bulbous feel of early 20th-century cartoons often crops up in his work. “When you see those cartoons,” he says, “it is as though you can really feel them. The closer I can get to that tactile sensibility, the better.” In his large story-evoking, as opposed to storytelling canvases, The Monster’s Progress, Allegory of Good Government, and In The Neighborhood, the feel of the action of his drawing, the physical presence of scratching on a surface, is most pronounced; here the larger theme of social unrest and conflict is transferred from mere two-dimensional imagery into tactile meditation.

His most political work in the exhibition, Allegory of Good Government, is Barsness’s statement on the luckless structure of government. The canvas is saturated with a thick layering of paired oppositional creatures that dance upon the surface in a cacophony of elements at odds with one another. The paired images are borrowed from folk culture, e.g., salt and pepper shakers, cats and dogs, a lion and a mouse, and redesigned into nightmarish yet amusing symbols of paradox and aggression. Yet while the rendering of gnomelike comical oppositions is powerful and frenetic in and of itself, the effect of chaos issues as much from his “destructive method” as from his virtuoso odes to Bosch and Bruegel’s folk iconography.

Barsness The Allegory of Good Government
James Barsness 'The Allegory of Good Government' (detail), 1995, acrylic, ink, ballpoint pen, gold leaf, and newsprint on canvas; 214.0cm x 183.5cm

Barsness does not do preliminary drawings. What you see is both practice mat and finished form. In other words, he resolves the various permutations of his studies on the very canvas upon which he is working. When a stroke or form appears that he does not like, he erases or sands through it rather than beginning anew on a fresh piece of canvas: “The whole idea is to get through all these different permutations until you get to the most attractive”. As a result, his canvases resonate not just with the themes that interest him but with the very act of making the drawing itself. And here we come to a central attribute of Barsness’s aesthetic. His is a version of obsessive drawing developed from the most debased or at least most underregarded modality of drawing – the doodle. By definition, doodling is the process, not the completion of a work. In this sense, it is the perennial abandoned stepchild of all modes of drawing, whether one is doodling in preparation for a comic strip, a portrait, or a Renaissance study. In itself it is not considered a focused or serious activity, for one doodles while in a state of preparation or absent-minded inattention. One does not spend the day working on one’s “doodling”, for instance.

Doodling, then, is best understood as the art of distraction or of the distracted, a mode that might trouble some but which Barsness puts to work as the very basis on his technique. “I’m too distractible for the kind of complete narrative storytelling of, say, a novelist,” he explains of his tendency to build fragments into thematic structures but never completed stories. For instance, three works in this exhibition belong to his “Little Monarch” series: I Am Discovered, The Good Citizen, and The Boy King. The whole series, of which there are only seven finished pieces, is based on the idea of a boy monarch “involved in all these fragments of stories”. I Am Discovered celebrates the moment of his birth, The Boy King shows him wrestling, and The Good Citizen depicts him “rather like George Washington”, confessing to having burned his house down. Nothing in these images suggests or necessitates that they be linked to one another; their derivation from the “Little Monarch” series is utterly beside the point for Barsness. They evolve from the fragment of an idea, filled out via a process of distraction, doodling taken into the realm of the finished work of art.

Familiarity with Bruegel’s method is helpful in uncovering the symbology of Barsness’s work, for he, like Bruegel, constructs a cartoonish lexicon out of the visualization of proverbs. For example, Bruegel’s painting The Blue Cloak (1559) is made up of scenes true to the tenor of 16th-century Flemish everyday life while simultaneously illustrating a variety of Netherlandish proverbs. Similarly, Barsness explains the image of the burning boot in The Good Citizen: “In Mother Goose, the boot is the symbol of home. So, I use that symbol every once in a while. You see the boy monarch is burning his house (boot) down in this scene”. Such symbolization makes a kind of language out of the culturally encoded doodles both artists draw upon from fairy tales, proverbs and nursery rhymes.

The art of refined doodling is also central to a founding moment in Barsness’s development as an artist – when, in the sixth grade, he entered a “Draw Winkey” contest. Sponsored by the Famous Artists Institute in Minneapolis, advertised on matchbook covers or in comic books, the contest invited children to “Draw Winkey” (a lumberjack or baby deer). Barsness’s rendition of Winkey won him a $300 scholarship toward the $600 tuition for the Famous Artists Institute correspondence school. But after a representative of the school appeared at the Barsness family home drunk (“I’d never smelled anyone like that before”), his parents decided against investing the $300 balance. Nonetheless, the experience was pivotal for Barsness who recounts it tongue-in-cheek as signifying something notable about his relationship to art.

Barsness’s affection for “Draw Winkey” and its role in the formation of his artistic identity, is representative of his attachment to popular tradition where doodling invades the world of fine art. From the monumental The Monster’s Progress, St. Christopher, or the more colloquial Boy On Horse or L’Economie, a pop-culture “Draw Winkie” glee suffuses and mixes with the studied artistry of his conceptions. The Monster’s Progress, made after the Los Angeles riots in 1992, privileges giant Bruegelesque figures amid a rolling landscape of cartoon antics. As in many of his pieces, comic strips provide a background on which his impish, in-motion characters scoot about. Figures in duress beat one another with spoons; or an oversized diaper pin. Others race at one another, one with a shopping cart, while another disappears over the edge of a hill, clutching the prize of a gift-wrapped package in hand. It is a study of social chaos where looting and urban riot are drawn into a scene part fairy tale, part nightmare, laced with the rectitude and whimsy of doodling.

A quite literal act of doodling served as the genesis of The Little Bible. Barsness had given himself the assignment to draw on the pages of various books he was either reading at the time, Lucy Lippard’s collected essays on Minimalism, for instance, or discovered by accident in the trash, such as the portable Little Bible, until their original texts were layered with his own images. Commuting via subway to a job in Greenwich Village from his home in Brooklyn, Barsness spent the time sketching and drawing people he saw until all of the pages of the Bible were covered. He then placed these pages, produced in the interstices of everyday life, into a grid, framed with gold leaf. The impromptu act of sketching, in transit, from everyday faces around him became a kind of monumental elegy on the human face, gold and all. Exaltation meets the common and the base. In many ways, this could be the best way to summarize Barsness’s work, which is always about mussing up the sacred truths of society and art history as, for instance, the legendary nude Lady Godiva (Godiva) gallops heroically out against a sea of cartoons?!?

The humor and tension produced by pairing the colloquial – doodling, comic strips, children’s drawings, and scenes of everyday life – and the monumental – references to art history, lives of saints, and exalted themes and materials – are a characteristic of Barsness’s aesthetic that Bill Berkson calls to our attention in reference to the artist’s signature use of ball-point pen: “[B]allpoint ink oxidizes,” Berkson notes, “leaving an iridescence like that of a grease puddle on a dirt road, a deep dazzle. If the blue ink slides up to gold leaf in a sweet reprise of 14th-century spiritual glamour, it’s no accident. Barsness is after exactly that passage from one human affirmation to the next.” (2) At once playful and earnest, informal and polished, the pieces on view in Icons of Comic Relief demonstrate just such a “passage from one human affirmation to the next”. Utterly without pretension and with a skill as refined as the 14th-century “spiritual glamour” his work can sometimes reflect, Barsness is both trickster and master of the art of drawing. As much the courtly cartoon jester of his canvases as the boy monarch, he is not “hick” (3) but the arbiter of a contemporary version of disegno, Leonardo da Vinci’s notion of drawing as both deity and science, where the scratch of a pen materializes at once into spirit and sensation to create icons of culture and agents of comic relief.

Footnotes:

  1. James Barsness in a telephone interview with the author, January 1997. Subsequent quotations from the artist are also from this conversation.
  2. Bill Berkson, “Jim Barsness [at] Susan Cummings Gallery”, Artforum 19:2 (October 1990), 176.
  3. Asked what tradition he placed himself in, Barsness said, “My wife says I’m a humanist which is kind of nice but is also an insult. I like to think of myself as a populist”. He pauses and laughs, “Even if that does make me a hick”.

James Barsness: Icons of Comic Relief (February 9-April 27, 1997) was curated by John Michael Kohler Arts Center curator Andrea Inselmann. JMKAC acknowledges with gratitude The George Adams Gallery and James Barsness for making this exhibition possible. JMKAC also expresses its deep appreciation to the 175 corporations and foundations and over 1,350 families providing the ongoing support of the program and operations. Our profound thanks go to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wisconsin Arts Board for their vital funding for this project.

John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 608 New York Avenue, PO Box 480, Sheboygan, Wisconsin 53082-0489

The Design of Jonathan Walker’s Five Wounds

Five Wounds is something of a contemporary classic: a manuscript crossed with Kit Williams’ playful imagination, informed by the language of graphic novels. Although very much a book, in the tactile sense, it has half an eye on what a book might be in a digital era. Jonathan Walker, the author of Five Wounds shares the secrets of the design process and how his text weaves around Dan Hallett’s illustrations

Imagine that the appearance of a book is part of the story it tells, as if it was an artefact created by the imaginary civilisation it describes. Book design becomes an aspect of what the science-fiction community calls ‘world-building’, and as such it applies the principle of ‘Show, don’t tell’ to the surface of the page itself. My fantasy novel Five Wounds uses design in exactly this way. What, then, does the page design in Five Wounds show us?

The first thing you might notice is that the text is divided internally into books, chapter and verses, as if it reaches us only via the hands of priestly interpreters. It is also surrounded by several different kinds of image, in several different visual idioms: miniature heraldic coats-of-arms, woodcut- and etching-style illustrations, and, more disturbingly, neurotic doodles, including handwritten scribbles and corrections added on top of the typeset text, as if it has been defaced by an editor who is not no longer certain of its canonical status. Perhaps this is the same reader who has coloured all the coats-of-arms in an enthusiastic but incompetent manner. Below is a sample page from Five Wounds, which shows some of these features.

Five Wounds Sample Layout (right)

Five Wounds describes the intertwined fates of five freakish protagonists: Gabriella is a crippled angel; Cur is the rabid leader of a sect of dogs; Cuckoo is a gambler with a wax face; Magpie is a myopic thief in search of the perfect photographic subject; Crow is a leper trying to distil the essence of death as an antidote against dying. Their stories constitute a kind of alternate history of Venice, although we don’t know where we are in time; or rather, we seem to be in several different historical periods simultaneously.

Wherever we are, the Bible is still the exemplary book, but the boundary between sacred text and perverse marginalia has become unclear. Five Wounds looks like Holy Scripture, but the events it describes are more like those of a fairy tale. Indeed, ‘world-building’ is perhaps a misleading term in this context, since the novel’s setting, like that of a fairy tale, seems both distorted and imprecise: more like an image in a fairground mirror than a realistic portrait. In any case, the book’s design helps to describes this grotesque imaginary landscape.

Plate 6: Cuckoo's reflection
Cuckoo’s Reflection

Following a single motif through its various manifestations in the text, the illustrations and the design may help to explain how this works. One of my five protagonists is Cuckoo: a gambler whose wax face can be reshaped at will. Cuckoo’s dilemma – Who am I if I have no face of my own? – drives several incidents in the plot, but it is also dramatised in the illustrations, in which Cuckoo’s face is always scratched out. He is literally defaced, as in the illustration above. His scratched-out face also links Cuckoo by analogy to the scribbled corrections on the typeset text. Like the blacked-out text, his face is ‘under erasure’, and the revelation of his true self is continually deferred.

Cuckoo is obsessed with his reflection, precisely because he cannot identify with this unrecognisable double of himself. The text that accompanies the portrait above comments on this motif:

  1. AS Cuckoo angled his mirror, the candle flame flared off the blade, obliterating his reflection.
  2. He imagined the glass as a recording device, which would retain only the movements of the knife’s point and edge across his face, reducing his efforts to a simple pattern of lines.
  3. What was his face now but the summation of these tiny, accumulated motions?

In fact, I added this passage only after seeing Dan’s image. Thus the interaction between the various elements works both ways in Five Wounds. The images are a commentary on the text; but the text is also a commentary on the images. As the artist R.B. Kitaj put it, ‘Some books have pictures and some pictures have books.’

The broader point here is that key ideas should be present throughout the DNA of Five Wounds, and as such, they should be manifest in every aspect of its production. My job as art director was to ensure that these ideas circulated freely between the text, the illustrations and the design.

Perhaps this all sounds rather abstract, but in every case an emotional question precedes and generates the formal questions. In the case of Cuckoo, the original question was, ‘What does it feel like to have no face of your own: to be alienated irrevocably from your own body and your own emotions?’ The design of Five Wounds doesn’t just help to describe the world in which the story takes place. It also shows what it feels like to be Cuckoo.

 

 

Further Resources:

  • Jonathan Walker’s incredible Five Wounds website
  • Jonathan Walker’s blog (including a free sample chapter of the book) and further fascinating insights

Self Made (Gillian Wearing)

Declan Tan finds the artist Gillian Wearing lives up to her surname in the full-length film project Self Made

Gillian Wearing has a history of getting people on camera and making them open up. In the 1990s, she placed an advert in Time Out asking people to “confess all on video”. Now, she is doing it with a group of people – the focus still on individuals and their pasts, but in feature-length documentary form. The result is an anaemic piece of work, simultaneously annoying and manipulative.

The premise for Wearing’s debut feature is another advert placed in publications all over the country, something to the tune of: “anyone who wants to appear in a film, contact me”. And Self Made begins somewhat promisingly with a long tracking shot of a disgruntled gentleman seemingly on the edge of a breakdown. We find out more about him later. This is followed by a definition of method acting which flashes up to inform us on what is going on. We then meet a method acting coach, the enthusiastic and slightly new-agey Sam Rumbelow. We are also introduced to a group of seven people, all, we are told, with interesting or affecting back stories. And this is where the trouble with Wearing’s documentary begins.

As it unfolds, the group go through a kind of therapy in the method acting class, under the harsh lights of some nondescript warehouse. Here they act out scenes somehow related to their lives, their worries and their pasts. They are then given the opportunity to film their ‘end scenes’, which are professionally shot, with additional actors and an entire crew to produce a glossy, stylish bit of film. For now we will ignore the fact that none of these really work (with a few of the candidates even cut out of the film altogether, and without explanation).

Unfortunately, Self Made is the kind of insipid documentary filmmaking that seems to say that people are not ‘real’, ‘human’ or worthy of compassion until some artist puts a camera on them and makes them discuss their distressing experiences, then making them cry on screen. Is this for our entertainment? Because they certainly don’t seem to be coping any better with their problems by the end credits.

Wearing also seems to be saying that what we watch is immediately ‘good acting’ when someone manages to shed some tears. To cry is not to act. Are we to think that a distraught person releasing a solemn tear is art? Or even entertainment? Or perhaps this is Wearing’s point, to point out the mixture of reality and art for this reason; the mere ability to well up when the director shouts “action”. This might be true if the film did not carry with it this swagger of arrogance and self-righteousness.

The first of these ‘end scenes’ to be shown sums up this problem. A girl in her early-twenties drones out some Shakespeare (we are supposed to be impressed she remembers all the lines): King Lear on a moodily lit stage sat around a dinner table, with some hammy fellows supporting her. The scene wears on, until we finally reach that moment. The teardrop comes and rolls down her cheek. Bravo.

Other end scenes involve a seriously disturbed but discerning and genial guy called Asheq, who decides his scene should be about kicking a pregnant woman in the gut. Then there’s the one with the cringe worthy depiction of Mussolini, hanging upside down after he’s been executed. His scene lasts for about three seconds. And that is it. Oh, and the guy who used to get bullied. Now he is a belligerent and bitter man-boy. Then there’s another one with the middle-aged woman, Lesley, who actually comes to be the heart of the whole documentary, but her film also fails to blag any emotion. Who knows what happened to the others. Must have been especially tasteless.

The problem is not that we don’t feel for these people, of course we do, but that Wearing tries to manipulate us into a reaction with such cheap trickery. So just look out for those ads asking you to “confess all on video”.

The Shape of Sound: Shannon Novak

Sourav Roy interviews New Zealand artist Shannon Novak about the history of synesthesia and how his practice focuses on the relationship between sound, colour, form, time, and social context

Just what shade of orange is a hemidemisemiquaver? If you could hear a Mondrian, what would it sound like? The works of Shannon Novak, an emerging artist from Auckland, New Zealand will not answer these questions but will raise plenty more, one more fascinating than the next. His work explores the multiple strands that link sound, colour, form, time, and social context. A pianist since a very young age and an instructional designer for a significant number of years, his abstract paintings of simple shapes and colours, sometimes accompanied by his own musical compositions are anything but simplistic. His exploration of these connections have taken him places: musical and silent installations, piano albums and even a global sound/art project which resonated across ever-expanding ring of participating galleries in locations including, Belgium, Iceland, Nigeria, Italy, the UK and the USA.

How do you compare your work that has an audible sound component to work without?

The inclusion of audible sound in a work is determined by whether or not it supports the investigation at hand. In The Four Dimensions of a Note, I explored the relationship between four integrated dimensions of sound. Given the focus of each work was on an individual note in isolation I opted not to add an audio component, as it would have taken away from the simplicity of the work. In contrast, Semitone Shift considered multiple notes moving from one state to another therefore added an audio component to compliment and energised this complexity.

How has your work as an instructional designer influenced your work?

The influence is heavy if we consider instructional design as designing the optimum learning experience for a given audience. In The Four Dimensions of a Note works were displayed in three major groupings or phases: introduction to the dimensions, the conceptual framework, and the four dimensions realised. This design follows an instructional design principle where an idea is revealed stage by stage to help learners construct knowledge. It was envisaged that if a viewer walked around the works in order through the three phases, they would arrive at a deeper understanding of the underlying concept than if they chose to view works in random order. Another aspect of instructional design that influences my work is the layout of information in a way that best focuses the learner on what is most important. In Semitone Shift, the works were designed to focus the viewer on particular forms and colours.

How has your childhood influenced your work?

I grew up in a small coastal village called Oakura on the west coast of the North Island, New Zealand. My mother is an artist so I grew up in an environment full of creative energy that never wavered and was always challenging. We lived a short distance from the main city New Plymouth where public art thrived in multiple forms and I distinctly recall feeling a pull to the works of two well-known New Zealand artists, Michael Smither (who is now a mentor of mine) and Len Lye. Michael Smither had created murals using colour and form to represent sound related investigations whilst Len Lye had created alarmingly loud kinetic sculptures. I was encouraged to explore ideas through both art and music from a young age, many of which have helped form investigations present day.

What is your take on synesthesia?

There are many forms of synesthesia and I seem to have a blend of a few. One form I haven’t seen thoroughly documented is a ‘form-to-beat’ synesthesia. I look at everyday objects like buildings, and can hear a percussive beat. Different objects will have different beats. I recently connected with a leading researcher in synesthesia about this and was told this was rare and that there wasn’t enough data on this form to draw any solid conclusions at this point in time. The other form I have is the more common and well-documented sound to colour (and vice versa) synesthesia.

One of the most obvious visual representations of music is a musical note. Do the abstract forms in your works somehow refer to the forms of musical notes?

The forms I have been using lately are largely rectangular and circular. I have attempted to deconstruct these forms into motifs that allude to sound events and in the process have avoided using literal representations of musical notes. Circular forms were used in the works from Semitone Shift to represent the activation of sound, whilst rectangular forms were used to represent sound qualities such as pitch, volume, and timing.

What about the use of colour? Does a specific colour represent a specific note?

There have been many studies throughout history that link a specific colour with a specific sound from Isaac Newton’s colour wheel, to George Field’s Chromatics, to Alexander Scriabin’s ‘colour hearing’. Present day and new studies are emerging that extend this view such as the colour to sound correlations made by harmonic scientist Richard Merrick in his text Interference. Merrick maps colour relative to a key based on harmonic function as opposed to mapping colour absolute to a sound frequency or pitch. In my own work I do not select a particular colour or colours to represent a given note, rather colour is used to represent my synesthetic response to sound. It creates a tension in the work between the measurable aspect of sound (pitch, volume, and timing) and the more immeasurable (the synesthetic response).

Have you thought about the visual representation of music genres such as country, rap, and pop?

One concept I developed last year that never reached fruition was called “Music Shop”. I wanted to create an experience where viewers would walk into the gallery and experience a range of synesthetic responses to different musical genres as works augmented with audio components. The consideration of music genres is something Michael Smither has explored and an example of this was present in his exhibition Shared Harmonics. One work titled DAG was based on a common rock guitar chord progression.

Do ideas come to you first as music or visuals?

When developing a work I begin with a sound, and let the sound guide the composition. This can be a wrestling match at times as I often experience a strong desire to create geometric forms first, then compose sound around the forms. From experience this is usually an unsuccessful strategy so always return to the sound and let it lead the way.

Which artists past and/or present have inspired your practice?

When I think about those who have inspired me, I think not only of artists in the field of geometric abstraction but those in other fields, as I am inspired by both visual and behavioural practices. For example, Victor Vasarely’s use of colour is visually inspiring, whereas Claude Debussy’s act of challenging the traditional methods of composition inspires my behaviour. Key New Zealand artists that have had a major influence on my work to date include Michael Smither, Gordon Walters, Roy Good, and Michael Parekowhai. Key artists outside New Zealand include Jasper Johns, Bridget Riley, Victor Vasarely, and Piet Mondrian. Key influences in other fields include Richard Merrick (harmonic science), John Stuart Reid (cymatics), Neil Ieremia (dance), and Michael Nyman (music).

What role do installations play in your practice?

Installations are integral to my practice as they are one of many ways to extend the reach of my ideas. I was recently commissioned to create an installation called Sonic Meal that commented on how the digitisation of sound has diluted the experience of spirit in sound. The replacement of live sound with electronic substitutes is like the processing of food from its raw form into the seemingly more palatable. I set up a dinner table in front of a well-known New Zealand cathedral and placed chopped up musical instruments on plates with a single figure sitting at the head of the table. The instruments were painted a block colour that alluded to a type of food. The figure wore headphones connected to one of the plates and a piece of music I had composed was playing in the background (chopped up and reassembled). If I were not engaged in creating installations, this idea may not have been the multi-sensory, three-dimensional experience I had envisioned.

Sonic Meal image gallery

Last year you led a global installation called Sound Fragments. What was this about and what were some of the challenges and highlights?

Sound Fragments was inspired by research I was undertaking at the time in the field of harmonic science, in particular, the analysis of sound waves. It started out as a few circles on a piece of paper then slowly evolved into a global event. The installation represented sound waves that spread outwardly from a New Zealand gallery, to other galleries around New Zealand, then to galleries around the world. Fragments of sound (works) were left in each gallery as the sound wave passed by, so over time, works appeared locally, nationally, then internationally. One key challenge was the project management of multiple stakeholders in different countries with different time zones, different etiquettes, and different languages. Another key challenge involved getting potential stakeholders to see geometric abstraction as a valid form of communicating an idea. Key highlights included a successfully executed installation despite the risks, contribution to the field of geometric abstraction, and promotion of New Zealand art. It was also interesting to see how the work was treated differently in different contexts around the world.

What are you reading and listening to now?

I am about to read a book called Movement and Balance that delves into the art of Sophie Taeuber-Arp and I have been listening to the works of New Zealand composer Jack Body.

Further Resources:

The Queerest Of The Queer: What It Means To Be A Queer Punk

Luke Velazquez on the singular experience of the queer punk scene, reflected in the work of sculptor Fernando Carpaneda

In our society, people are expected to behave in a certain way. To grow up, go to school, work a soulless dead end job, squirt out a few kids for the good of the commonwealth and do so without question. But occasionally, a person, or a group of people, comes along and they pursue their own path – a path that draws the ire and the contempt of the masses, but also spawns jealousy and the desire for their lives to be so free of monotony. Eventually, these people find one another, and their numbers grow, turning into a community with its own set of ideals, values, beliefs and aesthetics. They turn their backs on the masses, which in turn, peek over their shoulders to catch a glimpse of their lives, and their ways, to see why they are so content to be living a life so different from all others.

Whether you’re a queer or a punk, it means that you’ve got an attitude that the masses disagree with, and that you’ve dedicated yourself to a life of constant scrutiny. But to be a queer punk means that even among your own kind, you can still be an outsider. As lines are drawn and ideas are solidified, people have been pushed out of either community. This happens for the sake of preserving everyone’s best interests, or to keep the scene ‘pure’. Despite this, however, we exist, and we walk the line between fringe groups, too gay to be a punk, too hardcore to be a fag. And even though discrimination happens, for every hater you’ll meet ten times as many supporters in the gay community or in the punk scene. No other social circles out there can say that they are as open minded or accepting as ours. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what side you stand on, as long as you’re proud of who you are.

The works of Fernando Carpaneda show us a world of carnal desire, where the line between queer and punk is non-existent. Here, we see men unafraid of embracing their libido and all the dark alleyways it may take them down. His depicts his punks, stripped of their studded leather jackets, tight pants and chains, bared naked to the world, so that we can see who they really are. This is done, less as an act of sexual depravity, and more an expression of their overt and undeniable masculinity. Fernando’s works serve as a reminder that sexuality is a pillar on which both the gay scene and the punk scene have drawn on for support, and despite all the differences, the two scenes will constantly look to one another for inspiration. So whether you’re gay, straight, bi or otherwise, a punk rocker or a scene queen: stay proud, stay true, stay queer.

—–

Fernando Carpaneda:Queer.Punk.
Open daily, June 26th to July 2nd,1-6pm
The Leslie/Lohman Basement Annex
127-B Prince Street, New York City, NY 10012

Carpaneda’s sculptures reflect the extraordinary side of the human element. Hustlers, rent boys, punk rockers, unknown artists, junkies, thieves and outcasts are recreated to the minutest detail in clay.  Parts of the artist’s own clothing are hand tailored into miniature wardrobes. In the style of the17th-century paintings of secular subjects, human hair and modern day relics are incorporated into each piece to reflect a sense of capturing a moment in time.The artist takes his inspiration from the urban element and uses the language of the street along with his own experiences with drugs and street life. His bold artistic statements  as a gay activist are painstakingly expressed through this controversial work. Often sexual in nature, his ‘in your face’ approach to the acceptance of gay sexuality and the Queer Punk lifestyle are recreated to provoke and inspire the observer.

Further Resources:

Reflections On An Omnivorous Visualization System: An Interview With Matthew Ritchie

This dialogue between Matthew Ritchie and Thyrza Nichols Goodeve first appeared in the catalogue for the artist’s exhibition Proposition Player, organized by Lynn M. Herbert, December 12, 2003-March 14, 2004, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in association with Hatje Cantz Publications

Many thanks to Thyrza Nichols Goodeve for permission to republish

I always thought the best magic tricks were the ones you knew how they worked but, the trick was so perfect you still couldn’t help believing it. There are seven kinds of magic trick. the disappearance, the production, the transformation, the mentalist, demonstration, the anti-scientific demonstration, penetration, and the transportation. Now imagine if one trick did them all at once.
– Matthew Ritchie, 2003

As the story goes, I’d like to begin with a brief history of the project. How did it all begin?

In 1995, after many years of working as a building superintendent and not really making art, I got started again by making a list, and then the list turned into a map, and the map turned into a story, and then the story turned into a game. Since then I have typically worked episodically, through a series of site-specific projects that cumulatively described elements of a system or, more accurately, a way of working. I think this accumulation sometimes created the illusion of a progression, with a hierarchy of meaning. But it turns out that impression is even less than half the story. This show is a good time for me to evaluate the truth of that first impression and how closely it is related both to the true intentions of the work and to the physical forms it has taken on over time.

What was the initial list?

It was a list of everything I was interested in. It was grouped as forty-nine categories arranged in a grid of seven by seven, things like solitude, color, DNA, sex, everything I could think of. Each element on the list was represented in seven ways: as a scientific function, a theological function, a narrative function, a color, a form, a dynamic function, and finally through a personal, hidden meaning. But once they started crossing over from their little boxes, which happened immediately, that’s when it turned into a map, like a place, as if all the elements had become little cities one would like to visit. And then it became a story, almost automatically.

What was the function of the forty-nine characteristics? I mean, ultimately, what were you trying to get at?

The forty-nine characteristics were originally an attempt to simply represent the conditions of any system. Light, color, mass, space, time, etc. are aspects shared by painting with any cosmology or any representation of the universe. The many shows that followed were an exploration of the possibility of building consensus, or form, from contradictory narratives. Cape Canaveral and Morris Lapidus for Miami, the Brockton Holiday Inn and glacier climbing in Svalbard for the shows in [respectively] Boston and Oslo, the geological oddity of the Seven Cities for a show in São Paulo. Each show added physical details to the overall information architecture, trying to extend the idea of an open system to the physical form of the work.

The more I’ve looked at and thought about your work, the more it has become about manifesting structures of information and the information age, not just about painting. Or better, you’re using the medium of painting not to represent the issues and ideas of the information age but to translate them into another order, an order that is physical, where, as you put it, everything is there all at once.

I want to be able to see everything. It’s a fathomless desire, a weakness and a strength. But to do such a thing, you have to turn information into a physical form.

Which is so interesting because one of the most dramatic distinctions between the information age and the pre-information age is the increasing invisibility and non-physical form of things, like subway tokens becoming metro cards; coins and paper, credit, and ATMs; films into digital streams, etc.

Yes, so we need to make a visual metaphor for all the things we cannot see. I grew up with the information age. When I was in high school a digital watch was a rare trophy. Now a tidal wave of information engulfs us. They have just introduced a unit of measure that calculates planetary information flow. More information was exchanged in the last five years than in all human history. How do we deal with all this? How do we create a meaningful information environment? How can we learn to see information as form? I’ve always been interested in this idea of anthropomorphizing information and have wanted to use painting to prove one of the fundamental premises of information theory, that any sufficiently complex system will acquire its own internal meaning. Not only can you see all of it, but it can see all of you. I have also wanted to see if I could introduce certain fixed relationships into painting that would allow it to acquire the status of language. Then maybe this thing could talk back. I don’t know much about linguistics, but once I came across a list of the properties of language, and painting has all but one.

Which is?

Intertranslatability. It fascinated me that painting could be considered mute. In language the word “blue” can be translated into any language and will still always mean “blue”. But in painting there is no way to translate Picasso’s blue or El Greco’s blue from painting to painting. Pigments can’t be translated; they are specific, never general, never translatable.

In 1997, in an interview with Jennifer Berman for BOMB, you said, “… there are a lot of artists… who are doing work that I feel close to, and it evolves around ideas of treating art as language, and consequently inventing narratives, but not in some sixties way…” [Matthew Ritchie, quoted in interview by Jennifer Berman, BOMB Spring 1997, p.64.] Could you elaborate on that?

I guess what I was getting at is any discussion of my personal narrative must be closely linked to the personalized global practices that emerged in 1995-2000, where cosmologies and mythologies were a common tool for artists as divergent as Liam Gillick, Gregor Schneider, Manfred Pernice, Andrea Zittel, Kara Walker, and of course Matthew Barney and his Yale classmates Katy Schimert, Michael Grey, and Michael Rees. Shows generated by these artists and others often used complex titling and installation strategies like books, super-graphics, and implied narratives as part of their fundamental structure. The overall effect was a collection of closed worlds, a house of doors. I was very interested in the possibilities this opened up, and after the collapse of the master narratives in the eighties, it seemed inevitable that artists would turn to a self-contained practice again. Typical of these projects was an implication of a larger vision, which underlay any given project. My own project was established both to take advantage of that desire and simultaneously to counter it. I created narrative structures which manifested themselves as a nonhierarchical game space, a magic square, open to multiple contradictory readings and based on an open source material from subgenres commonly relegated to the backwaters of historical curiosity, such as Gnostic angelology, unified field theory, conspiracy theories of all stripes, creation debates, and evolutionary arguments – in short, every field where the desire for a universal taxonomy, a context outside all contexts, had outweighed truth, proof, or consensus. My project was hopefully a generous construction of arguments that was always intended to be impossible to be read as any kind of closed Wagnerian master myth and to be more a kind of open, porous toolkit for thinking.

Unlike Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle, which is often described as Wagnerian.

Barney was among the first artists of my generation who was not worried by his desire to include everything he wanted into his art. I had seen the work of [Robert] Rauschenberg, [Joseph] Beuys and [Sigmar] Polke and found them similarly freeing, but somehow that moment seemed lost to my generation. That was what I thought was so liberating about the early nineties: everyone seemed to say, “I’m interested in all this stuff and I’ll do it all at once, from Rikrit Tiravanija’s cooking to Andrea Zittel’s habitats. And that was fantastic. I was never attracted to this idea that art was somehow under siege or that preserving ideas of conservative technique was some kind of resistance. Nor did the myth of infinite progression seem particularly truthful either. I think something much more interesting has happened since then. An enormous space has opened up where we can see the possibility of these radicalized, spectacularized individual projects to change and evolve, to escape from the cultic and predictable obligations of art historical expectations. Instead of accepting a relationship to the Wagnerian model, which is based on the the model of traditional cult worship, I think we should be thinking about Milton, whose work was based on ideas of intellectual honesty, individual freedom, and responsibility. The ubiquity of cheap, low-res technology allows every artist to become their own NASA.

In other words, for me, the original idea that any sufficiently complex system would acquire its own internal meaning (information theory) has mutated into an omnivorous visualization system constantly generating multiple meanings. This system is not really being generated by me; it is a story by, for, and about everyone and everything. And so, without either falling or concluding as scheduled, my project has taken on an internal life. It has escaped. The separate characters have become highly individualized characters, places, landscapes, and organs, all competing and dreaming in an endless conceptual war consisting of endless victories for all. None of the work in the current show corresponds to the initial table of characteristics, colors, names, or functions. Instead the works all contain multiple and polluted variants and offspring of the original structure. One way to describe what I am doing is I am trying to describe and include what cannot be systematized. The classic regressions of [Bertrand] Russell’s set of all sets, or the Binding Problem, or the question of a priori consciousness, or the origin of source material for the Big Band, are all ultimately about asking what can and cannot be known. They are outside context questions.

What do you mean by “outside context questions”?

How can we perceive the structure that contains the model of our perception?

Do you think you have successfully given back to painting the idea of translatability? If so, isn’t it only within your system?

I think I have sort of, but the result has turned out to be a kind of conjuring trick with only one useful function: to show that all language requires an internal consistency, not only to function but to have integrity.

Does critique enter into your work? Is that even a relevant question? Or desire to get out of your work?

Could you expand on that a little?

About critique? What I mean by that?

Yeah.

The belief that art is less about creativity than it is about questioning art, society, power, money, master narratives. I came out of that tradition through academia and the Whitney program in the 1980s. But the more I got to know and write about art in the ‘90s after I left academia, the more narrow that view became, which is why Barney’s, yours, or Ellen Gallagher’s work became of such interest to me. In this more generative kind of work, critique is not the impetus so much as generating new systems. Creativity returns but through the lens of a very diffracted (post-Derridean / Haraway) space.

It’s an interesting question because the third thing I was interested in at the beginning of this project was the idea of the Ius Utendi, the model of law proposed by William of Ockham (one of the first proponents of intellectual freedom), which concerns the structures and questions that underly any self-critical, self-sustaining, open game of thought.

How has he appeared in your work?

Well Ockham is most famous for Ockham’s razor, a deductive mental tool.

Which is?

The simplest solution is the likeliest one. But determining the simplest solution requires an understanding of the entire context. In Ockham’s time, the simplest solution was to assume God was responsible for everything from wood floating on water to the motion of the planets. But that led to heresy because it conflicted with the idea of free will and to idiocy because the basic laws of observable science were constantly being challenged by this idea that they were “against the will of God”. It’s the same kind of thinking that opposes stem cell research today.

But Ockham is most interesting as an example of the power and limits of logical thinking – what you could call critique. He single-handedly challenged the rights and limits of the papacy at a time when it was the unchallenged arbiter not only of the present, but of the spiritual future of every Christian. He won through the force of logic on what he called the “right to use”, the belief that each of us has both rights and responsibilities that no larger structure can mediate for us. In short, he presents the individual as a moral ecology. Real critique must begin with an understanding of the entire system and one’s personal relationship to it.

Okay, so now I’ll come in from that other side. Your generation’s reliance on baroque internal myths, or even baroque public myths (science) in your case, has been interpreted as this kind of irresponsible system, because you could be interpreted as saying, “Well, everything is meaningful and everywhere, and it can go anywhere”. If that’s the case, then nothing means anything, and everything’s up for grabs, and it’s that awful postmodernism stuff, right?

Well, science is hardly a myth and like any truly complex system, it demands internal integrity. But I usually get asked the opposite question instead.

Which is?

“Why do we even have to know what it means?” I’ve heard that thousands of times. Most people don’t want to know that there’s an internal architecture, or background information, and that it all holds together.

That’s so depressing. Why can’t people understand that this is what makes the art so interesting. Certainly it’s what is strong and breathtaking about yours and Barney’s.

The criticism of the complexity is based on this unfortunate idea that we in the visual arts should be afraid to make big, beautiful, complex things in case we somehow “alienate” a frightened and timid potential audience. I do not underestimate the audience in that way. It’s so odd. The same people that worry about contemporary art in this way are completely unafraid of the Sistine Chapel, or The Matrix, or jet planes, which are much more complicated. Part of the premise of this show was the idea of shared and lost information, so to make the heads for The Fine Constant, I worked with ten-year-olds in Houston and New York, and they were not alienated by the complexity; they embraced it. They were less confused than anyone I worked with. So I think any audience can and will rise to the challenge of complex work as long as they feel they can trust the artist’s integrity. This is the most important thing, because only an internal integrity can guarantee an implicit order than transcends these kinds of questions.

That’s excellent.

There are also big differences between the various types of work that suffer from the criticism of complexity or hermeticism. You are the Barney scholar here, but it seems to me his work is based on the idea of constructing a mythology that builds upon itself. He’s forcing a kind of concentration on the viewer. Someone like Beuys was interested in placing himself at the center of a postwar absence, and his meaningful system was a conduit with himself as the social lubricant. Kara Walker, on the other hand, seems to be more interested in an epic David Lean-like portrayal that focuses less on one individual than on articulating the giant voice of moral betrayal. Whereas what I’m interested in is an opening up of consciousness, a reversion, a reversal, so that what happens to viewers is they think about things from the outside through the context. Information becomes the material, the form. So I see the paintings and all the things that I’m making as parts of something like a telescope. I’m trying to create a class of objects whose main property is that they turn the viewer’s consciousness back out. All the information in my work can be found in the public realm, on the internet or in any public library, but what I try to deliver is the idea of personal intellectual freedom, the right to think any thought on any scale.

In previous interviews you talk about how important it is that the systems you are exploring are real, i.e., part of the public or social order. The abstract, self-made, total fantasy system of the Cremaster is your exact opposite. You start with the rules in the universe that determine us as a game and watch the story grow.

Yes, we are all an expression of the game. We are part of a particular spread of cards, and those cards are going to be reshuffled tomorrow and the day after. This is the hand you’ve been dealt, so it’s up to you to make a story out of the random insane collection of things that are happening to you right now.

It seems like your story of life has an awful lot to do with rules, doesn’t it? Would you say, for you, rules are almost the primary material?

Wow, that’s a really rich question. Especially since a good part of my life was about circumventing rules. [Laughing.] And I’d really like them to answer it for you. [Ritchie hands her “The Rules of the Game”.]

Are you kidding?

No. You are right – the relationship between the rules and the information, between signal and noise, is the question. It’s the question for everything. Not just for art making, but life. Life is about rules. You can say you “don’t want to learn”, but you have to learn about gravity. You have to learn about food and water, and then you have to learn about social life to keep getting food and water. The rules that we tend to think are the most important end up being, in the larger picture, nothing compared to the fundamental rules in your own life. Like when you will die. The whole point about rules is that they are what allow you to play the game. But just because you know the rules doesn’t mean the game is any more predictable, or any less fun, or any less absorbing. You know you’re going to win and lose, and that’s what counts.

Most rules aren’t about learning, just obeying. One doesn’t have to understand or even know about gravity, but one does have to obey it.

Yeah, that is certainly what we have been told. But who told you that, and why? The new show is very much about this. Like, in the end, is a story really more about its rules? Is it all about the setup? Or can we look at all the rules at once?

Of any one moment in time, a person – or anything? Why is that important? What does one get by seeing all the rules at once?

Everything. All those rules are conspiring in a nonhierarchical space, where everything is potentially observable at the same time. Maybe the rules are just another way of asking what will happen next?

Which is the fundamental structure or definition or narrative. But what you are talking about is more about breaking through all the dimensions and seeing everything at once. Maybe it’s the word “rules” that throws me. Is there another word for what you’re talking about?

Yes, there are lots because I don’t even think what I’m interested in is about “rules” in the narrow sense. I’m really looking at the fundamental properties in nature (that are sometimes called constants) that underlie everything. Laws tend to express the relationships of constants. But the other thing that’s specifically interesting to me, in terms of what you’re asking about, is that every individual person is building his or her own information mass, and although each mass is derived from the laws underlying most of the universe, everybody becomes their own set of dice – or their own pack of cards. We are all making our own rules – in defiance of the underlying ones.

The difference between the pre-information age and post is precisely this issue of pen access to “all” knowledge. We suffer from what William Gibson calls “information sickness”. Survival, of the fittest is no longer who is the one who knows everything, because everybody can do that to some extent via the internet and technology. But power or success or achievement or breakthrough comes form the ingenuity in how one makes sense of the information. In your model, it is what roll of the dice or division of cards each person develops.

Yes, when you have a new experience, the hippocampus actually rebuilds itself. Information, new information, literally makes the brain change shape. They’ve been doing these studies recently with monks that show the alpha brain waves calm down during meditation. The hippocampus actually changes shape. Buddhist monks and people who don’t meditate have brains that actually work differently. It’s actually a physical change. So every day we’re making a map of our life in our brain. We’re doing what we’re talking about in a very abstract way, processing everything into a physical object, inside our heads, every day.

So one can look at your work as much as a kind of map of the brain, and not just the idea of the universe and the cosmos? You put it beautifully in 1997 in the Jennifer Berman interview: “… you’ve got hundreds of competing impulses – your skin is itching, you’re responding to pressures and thoughts of your age, your body is deteriorating, you’re going to the gym. It’s a mess. This temple of activity. This hive. The heart’s beating, you can hear it ticking in the back of your mind. And your brain, god knows what’s going on in there. No one’s even close to figuring that out. And so this is an attempt to try and map what it is like to be a person”.

Yeah.

Have you ever experienced the sense of your brain growing?

Oh, God, yeah! And not just taking drugs. If you pay attention, you can feel it all the time.

But isn’t that amazing? I remember the point when I felt my brain matter growing. There was this feeling, literally, of more stuff going in and growing, and I could understand things I couldn’t before.

Yeah, that’s amazing. And then the real trick is you’ve got to figure out a shape for it all. Like will the form the information takes become a useful tool – like a personal cosmology – or more important, can you make it into something you can use or at least tolerate?

Tolerate is an interesting word. It’s about finding a level we can tolerate in the sense of a threshold we make, manage, and use. Otherwise information saturation becomes painful, and as Gibson says, we get sick. Is that what your paintings do? Are they ways of tolerating information overload?

I think so. Raw information has the ability to cause real disorientation. Information has to be cooked. The paintings are a kind of immune system; literally pictures of thinking.

Like what hydrogen actually looks like if it turns into knowledge?

Yes.

And yet, color and line are your vocabulary. Color’s the most important element, in a way, right? Are there specific associations with each color?

Well, originally there were seven colors with very specific hues that were in fact directly related to certain ideas I had about color theory. But then as they started to bleed and cross-mingle and procreate with each other, it was like all these children emerged. Children in the form of really dirty colors. But in truth, I would say that formally the paintings rely as much on the idea of “fill” as they do in color.

Territories.

Yes, in a way this goes back to the map and to the problem of how to contain or shape information. There’s actually a mechanical model of how much information one can contain in a space, based on the number of colors and how dense they are. It’s why maps look the way they do. They’re not brightly colored all over because, if so, you wouldn’t be able to look at and read them anymore. So when I was figuring out how to make these paintings, I had all these books on color. There was this book called Envisioning Information, which is very famous. It is all about how to make good and bad models for presenting information.

And yours, are they good or bad models?

I think mine are terrible models. [Laughter.]

Now why is that? Why would that be more compelling for you than doing “good” models?

Well, a “good” model for information is one where it’s totally legible to any person, for instance, a train schedule. Such models shouldn’t be confusing but completely ordered.

So, good models for presenting information are by definition not very interesting art. If so, where does your work stand? Or why work within these boundaries, which seem to contradict one another? What I’m getting at is, you seem caught between representing or modelling information via painting and making art. Art and information seem to be totally at odds, and yet those are the two things you are working with!

Well, a train schedule is very limited – its presentation of order relies on the absence of all other information. The real world is also a terrible model for presenting important information since it includes everything. But this project, as it stands in the Houston show, represents a kind of crisis, climax, or collapse of the earlier way of working precisely because of this conflict. For me this is an attempt to take advantage of the energy released as the first wave generated in 1995 comes crashing down. From this conflict, an alternate ecology, an ecology of information, has emerged, casting spaces against time, matter, energy. This ecology, rather than the initial rules, has emerged from inside the whole project. Rather than an episodic recapitulation of previous stories and structures, this show seeks to collapse all the categories, characters, and stories into one moment – a moment where the viewer can enter and begin to play the game him or herself. This entire show was also built around the idea of participation from the very beginning, not only from the side of the viewer, but also from the side of the maker. I wanted to explore how information as a material could be scaled and worked with by different kinds of collaborators using different technologies. I wanted to see how much could be lost and then regained as I scaled the different elements. So I worked with a totally diverse team of collaborators around the country who were each making a component, like the programmer making the game in California, or mold makers casting dice from prehistoric elk bones at the American Museum of Natural History, or ten-year-old children making the heads in Houston from Sculpy, or the water-jet cutter putting the sculpture together in his barn. I wanted part of the process to be about breaking this system of mine into parts and surrendering it to chance in the hands of others. This way the idea of a scalable language could really be tested out in practice. And their independent decisions ended up directly influencing the paintings and drawings, returning me to this idea of an endlessly opening, collapsing and infinitely generous structure. In terms of the viewers’ experience too, I have made it participatory. For instance, there is an interactive digital craps game, and there’s this pack of cards that I’m making. It’s a pack of all the characters, the forty-nine characters. So everyone who comes can play the game. [Ritchie pulls out a pack of cards.]

You have the pack of fifty-two most wanted Iraqi cards. Wait, this is your color – these are your colors?!

No, these are the US government colors.

Give me a break!

Funny, that is. [Laughs.]

So, you did dodge the question about the meaning of your color scheme, because there is a kind of army green throughout your world of color.

No, it’s just coincidence.

It’s just a coincidence?

People use these colors because they’re heavy on white. They’re cheap.

Okay, so talk about your craps game and cards. How do they function in the show?

You come into the show and are given a playing card with a character on it. But the show is not about all the characters. It’s not like they’re all over the walls or anything. There are also four suits in a pack of cards. So, now you’ve got forty-nine characters, and they’re divided into seven families each, and then they’re divided into four suits, which splits them up into their functionality. And the four suits represent the basic forces of the universe. (Which, by the way, were never included in the original seven families or the basic characters or properties, because I didn’t know enough to include them. Thank goodness.) So now, literally, these characters build the stories, but the stories are only a superstructure placed on top of the underlying structure, which is these four basic forces of the universe, and they then build through the craps game into a central figure, “the swimmer,” that ties everything together.

You mean these forces are undeniable?

We describe the universe through four forces that make up everything. The Weak Force, which is radiation, the Strong Force, which holds atoms together, Gravity, which holds the universe together, and Electromagnetism – most commonly understood as light.

Is that four because there are only four? Or have you chosen just four?

No, I hardly ever need to make anything up. There really are four forces that combine to make everything, including the four constants represented here: e = the elementary charge, c = the speed of light, G = the constant of gravity, and h = the constant of actio. For this book we made those letters each of of the four colors.

So according to Big Science, there are four?

You’re having a hard time with this aren’t you. Well, the theory is that they were all once one force – before the Big Bang, but there are lots more fours, just as there were lots of sevens when I needed them. You know, four seasons, four directions of the compass, four suits of cards. They’re all actually dependent on each other. The four forces also generate the four fixed units of measurement. So they’re all completely contingent on each other.

So, how does all of this work in your show?

The viewer walks in, gets one of these cards and then gives it to a guy at the gaming table. He then gives them the digital dice, which are four-sided dice cast from prehistoric animal bones, and then they play the digital craps game. And as they play the game they build the paintings.

Literally? During the show? How does that happen? Where’s “the painter”, meaning you? And why are the dice prehistoric animal bones?

The first dice ever used were astragals – ankle bones of a cloven hoofed animal. They are four-sided and were what were first used as dice, so in this case they’re cast from prehistoric giant elk ankle bones. They have four sides. One dice has four numbers and one has the four symbols of the suits: spades, clubs, hearts, diamonds – and they’re colored. Blue is spades, green is clubs, and so on.

I also made a one-person craps table that serves as a projection surface. You throw the dice onto the table and they have tiny computers inside them that register what you throw and send a radio signal to a computer above. The computer then builds and projects random animated elements from a digital game onto the surface of the table, depending on your score. The evolution of the game resembles the main sequence of the paintings. Another version of the game, based on the same dice throw but using the random quality of the game to build a different image, is being projected on the wall as you play.

The game has five levels, because it’s also based on the voodoo universe, which has five levels and because voodoo is the only chance-based religion that I could come across.

This is all sounding like mad associative ranting.

And yet this is how I think. In voodoo you pray to a certain kind of god, but you might get another god coming in and at you. It’s also the only one where the universe invests itself in you, rather than you having to pray to it; it’s an inverted religion. And it’s sort of related to Christianity, which is something that I think is a legitimate context for me, if you do all these strange things in the gaming room, alternate versions of the structures of the paintings will build themselves in front of you each time.

How does one win?

Winning has to do with acquiring enough light and gravity and mass to get to the next level. It’s really just about play.

What if the first person who comes in ends up playing the whole time the show’s up?

Well, that’s great! But there is an end to it. Proposition Player goes through five stages, evolving from the first diagram, which is the underlying structure of the universe, to a painting, which is the evolution of atoms, and then, at the end, a figure emerges out of all of them, built out of the same parts.

Is there another metaphor besides “game” that works for you?

I think “life” is a good metaphor. [Laughs.] Or going back to the word I used before: “context”. Because all rules are interdependent on each other, they build a context. Light is dependent on nuclear fusion, which is dependent on the space / time structure of the universe, which is dependent on gravity. In other words, everything is linked together in a chain, in a context, which is the game. The game is much more than just the rules of the game. It’s the whole thing. If you talk out one part, one rule, the whole game collapses. So if that happens, how do you represent the context?

Like an organism. Is context another name for history?

The real context is the structure that contains the model of our perception that we think is the context – it is the framework that allows the rules of the game to be rule. So, how do you step outside a context that includes everything? This is the thing that I’m always talking about. it is the defining problem: context as theory. How do you represent the presence of the defining absence?

Defining absence, there’s a great definition of God. In a way for you to talk about history is off the mark because history, as a system for making sense of events of experience, is really just another kind of perception?

We can only see 5% of the universe. We’ve called another 25% “dark energy” and the remaining 70% “dark matter”. We’re working from a model with 95% of the information missing – so no wonder everybody’s acting like they’re in the dark. So the big question for me is: how do you visually represent that absence?

In The Fine Constant, each of the heads is based on a sculpture made by a ten-year-old in Houston who participated in a workshop based on my stories. The heads were decimated by a computer: we scanned the original head, turned it into polygons and reduced the polygons by 95%. This whole fabrication process was intended to represent the radical and persistent information loss that characterizes human experience and to show how in a way, it doesn’t matter.

Yikes!

And despite the fact that these heads derive from a story told to a child, who made a sculpture of the story that was then reduced by 95% in detail and then cast – we still have enough to understand it as a head! So the universe is still legible. It’s still working for you, even when you can only see 5% of what is there. But truthfully, as human beings, we can probably only even grasp about 5% of that visible universe. So we discard another 95% and make our daily decisions based on 5% of the available information we have left and yet we still feel the rightness of it all. Even though we’re only able to see only one quarter of one percent, we still feel we are connected to the underlying order. We can go further and further down in resolution, but as long as the underlying grain remains true, we can be convinced we are connected to the whole – we can ignore the overwhelming absence.

Sounds like the Bush administration.

But it’s how all of our information is produced. It’s like, how can you think about your own consciousness from outside your brain? I was making yet more Sculpy heads at a charity event and another ten-year-old came up to me during the workshop and said, “I want to make a model of the universe.” And I though, “Did someone send you to me? Is this a setup? You know, Candid Camera?” And then she said, “No, okay, the universe is too big. Let’s make the solar system.” And I was like, “Okay – phew!” And then she said, “But what does the universe look like anyway?” And all I could say was, “Good question.” I mean, isn’t that it? There she was, age ten, standing outside the universe going, “And so, what does this look like? How can I put it altogether all at once?”

And to her it wasn’t a game.

No, to her it was just like, life.

Matthew Barney 95

Aimee Mullins in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle

SUSPENSION [Cremaster]
SECRETION [pearl]
SECRET [biology]
by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

“…what others call form I experience as force” – Roland Barthes

LAYER 1: SUSPENSION
Begin with iridescence and force. A force without form or home or convention, almost more like “a diagram without a will” (1) – suspended and hung. Send it at a line, ask it to organize a sport, watch it seek out – discover – form. And then you might begin to discover the medium Matthew Barney works from. Another word for potential, force is, after all, measured in its effect. Mutability is the hidden elixir here. Ever, ongoing, endless, metamorphosing mutability. If force is the substance of transformation; mutability is the secret of its success. Think of a squeeze; flesh responsive to the pressure. Think of a pass; player beholden to the ball. Think of a hydraulic jack pumped to its maximum pressure, held against vaseline-encrusted skin: danger, potential, eros, lyric. Think of a straight-jacketed Houdini suspended miles above, hanging from a moving plane. Think of the fall into the Isle of Man after a series of rituals and extended gracings of the floor. Tap. Friction. Hole. It is the restraint and tension that alters. Shape is only the end result of contact and suspension.

LAYER 2: SECRET
Reductive – not to mention unfashionable – as such a comparison is, biology can be likened to art. Biology and art take as their medium the manipulation and development of form; both depend upon the revelation and production of secrets as their modus operandi. Fiddling about in the sticky fascia separating and connecting the familiar and unfamiliar, biology and art, share the affinity for tackling what is most uncanny in life. Think of the genesis of species crafted out of nature’s own highly stylized and bizarre laws to produce visionary beings no one could predict; species transformations which tax the mind. In this sense, “nature” is just another way to name the sheer madness of biological generation.

But where science is hell-bent on denuding and taxonomizing precisely what is most strange and inexplicable in nature, one saving grace of art, I hope, is its desire to thrash and journey into the corridors of as yet unperceived realms. So imagine when the artist becomes biologist, unlocking the secrets of DNA sequences of which s/he is the very progenitor. Matthew Barney’s meticulously crafted bio-aesthetic projects are accreted from just such an impulse.

Like the pearl. Try to shave off a slice and put it under a microscope. You’ll only find layers formed in earlier pieces; genetic mutations from piece to piece. Narrative is biology here – physical transformation. Watch as a wrestling mat becomes a piece of flesh; a field dressing shifts from bandage to vaseline-field plugging orifices, to ubiquitous Barney icon (2) or watch as athletic equipment is turned into a seeping, dripping creature – denuded of function – reborn as suggestive organism.

LAYER 3: SECRETION
A nacreous concretion formed within the shell of various bivalve mollusks around some foreign body (e.g. a grain of sand) composed of filmy layers of carbonate of lime interstratified with animal membrane; it is of a hard smooth texture, of globular, pear-shaped, oval, or irregular form, and of various colors, unsually white or bluish grey; often having a beautiful lustre, and hence highly prized as a gem; formerly also used in medicine. (3)

Sometime after my first viewing of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 4, I dreamt I was born inside a pearl held in the fingertips of one of the Loughton Candidate’s whimsical, caring, yellow-taffeta’d Faeries. It was a dream of sensation not plot. There I was, squeezed into some dream condensation of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who spliced with – I only realized while writing this article – a 1991 Artforum cover featuring Barney’s work. But the focus of the dream was the textured substance of the pearl’s skin separating me from the world. Although I was made from the friction of a piece of sand housing inside a perfect form – tiny, at the whim of a Faerie, in danger of being dropped, last seen drifting off a yellow exercise mat, perhaps, into the sea – it was the material of the pearl’s wall that I remembered. As well as the feeling that the “I” in the dream was in the process of gestating into something-elsehood formed by the bio-aesthetic laws of the guiding Faerie’s – not conventional biology’s – rules.

LAYER 4: A PEARL DROPS, RISES, SUSPENDS – THE SECRET OF THE CREMASTER
The mollusk’s defensive formation around a foreign body, a pearl – like a secret – is a secretion of vulnerable, interior form hardened, layer by layer, over time. Once upon a time the secret was a fragile but potent cultural entity. Think of its formative presence in the nineteenth century in everything from psychoanalysis, detective fiction, archeology to Houdini. To uncover a secret – Tutankhamen’s tomb, the hysteric’s repressed conflict, Dupin’s purloined letter – suggested that one had found a key to unlock labyrinthine histories, confusions, lost cultures, narrative mysteries. The secret was sought after, courted, cherished, precisely because it was an agent of magic and revelation. Today the secret is chipped and tarnished, lacking in intelligence and vitality, reduced from pearl of wisdom to tabloid-encrusted excretion.

… Until Matthew Barney showed up in 1991 presenting an installation of video-taped memories of his secret trek across a gallery space (Mile High Threshold: Flight with the Anal Sadistic Warrior) or his two-hour loop for The Jim Otto Suite (1992). A gallery space heaving with the residue of effort. A ghost space – a world of creatures and objects and forms hunting, haunting. These are pieces not just about physical, sexual, and material force but which, in their video-taped state, include the shuddering suspense of witnessing secret rituals. Removed from public performance (which would make them just acts of spectacle and bravado), shelled instead inside the video-view, they are strenuous, touching, luminous choreographies of private acts of danger, eros, thrill, epistemophilic exploration, and sheer lyrical strain.

To revive the charged thrill of the secret as sensuous, public display – what Barney’s work shares with his mentor Houdini – in these times in which we live, is no mean feat. I mean, would Houdini have caused such a stir today? Imagine:

In Chicago Houdini escaped from a huge sealed envelope without breaking the paper. He released himself from the interior of a giant football laced with metal links and fastened with padlocks in Philadelphia. In Boston he penetrated the chained carcass of an embalmed “sea-monster” and left no clue to his method. (4)

Maybe, but I sense he’d need something else: the metabolizing secret – secretion – suspension into which Matthew Barney’s world asks us to escape.

Notes:

  1. Matthew Barney in conversation, March 1995.
  2. Like the hydraulic jack, or Loughton Ram of Cremaster 4 with descending and ascending horns, his interest in such forms is the simultaneity of open and closed / descending and ascending fields.
  3. Definition of “pearl”, Oxford English Dictionary.
  4. Christopher Milbourne, Houdini: The Untold Story (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1969), p.4.

This essay originally appeared in Parkett 45 (1996). Many thanks to Thyrza Nichols Goodeve for permission to republish.

Giving and Taking: Arts Funding and Philanthropy

In the wake of this month’s funding announcements by the Arts Council of England, Joseph Spencer offer an American perspective on the philanthropic model for the arts

As the arts in Britain undergo significant changes to their funding structures, debates are sparking up as to alternatives that could save the hundreds of galleries, orchestras, theater companies, music academies, and dance theatres that rely on the government, at least in part, for their funding. With the recent enforced cuts of up to 15% the head of the Arts Council England (ACE), Liz Forgan has been expressing her regrets in the press. The ACE is the decision maker when it comes to who receives, or does not receive continued or new funding from the British Government. In several articles Mrs Forgan has been quoted as stating how difficult the decisions have been.

One of the decisions that has made some art and culture aficionados in London and the surrounding areas ripe with ire, is the now common practice of the ACE that instead of reducing all participating organizations’ budget by 15% according to the originally proposed method, they have controversially enacted selective grant endowments that pit arts organizations in a battle for funding in order to survive. The process smacks of entitlement and favoritism with artists, institutions and supporters alike. Although there are no blatant examples to be held up at this time, the system through which one would apply for entitlements and funding seems an easily corruptible one. While the procedure used to select those companies, orchestras, groups and individuals is not inherently biased, it is thought by many that special consideration will be given to those that could be favored by the Council.

According to Art Council England’s disclosures they have received 1,350 applications to date, worth close to £1.5 billion (GBP) or ($2.449 billion USD) with a budget of £950 million (GBP) the Arts Council England has had to reject or alter funding, and in some cases the effect has been dramatic. Poetry Book Society (PBS) has responded harshly. They have been subject to a complete withdrawal of all funding by the Council. Being one of the most prestigious and respected poetry societies in the world, they have enjoyed a steady funding source for decades. However, with the already strained financial situation in Britain, the British Government by way of British Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt, and the ACE decided to relinquish all monetary support. This move lends credence to the idea that selective funding attrition, rather than an across the board reduction of 10% to 15% in funds, is not only biased and unfair but culturally destructive. The result of which is the loss of integral parts of the social and cultural landscape in Britain.

In America the arts are primarily supported through philanthropic endowments. There are some funding parameters that are defined through government subsidies such as the Public Broadcasting Networks. However, they are jointly funded through viewer contributions. One specific source for raising capital is the annual pledge drives every year in which businesses that are in the region of a designated Public Broadcasting Station, donate discounted service packages, and/or product bundles that callers to the pledge drive can ‘bid’ on incrementally so as to get maximum returns for the station holding the drive.

Kari Robertson is the President of North Country Arts Council (NCAC) an American education and advocacy non-profit organization encompassing music, theatre, dance, literary arts, visual arts, and crafts. When asked what advantages, if any, are there to a philanthropic funding structure as opposed to a state, Mrs Robertson responded, “One advantage that has been repeatedly expressed to me in conversations with many members of our art community is the fact that we do not have the tight regulatory policies of state sponsored art programs, such as those in some Asian countries”.

In order to justify expenditures, organizations that manage financial aspects for the arts – acquiring a majority of their funding from government grants or endowments – must keep detailed and intricate files accounting for each and every transaction. Often these files must be arranged in triplicate form with only upper management signatures allowed as authorization. This often creates a situation where artists are hindered in their creative process. It can be the case that they are restricted to certain expenses which deprives them of needed materials. It can also be the case that managerial staff and artistic members have very different priorities when concerning what is vital and what is not.

Culturally speaking, the more free and unfettered an artist is, be it in dance, theater, music or literary, generally the better the outcome for observer and performer. This is sometimes made more difficult when the artist is bound by regulation or policy.

According to Mrs Robertson, another advantage to the philanthropic model is that agencies giving financial support to the arts often have a limited view of what is art and an expanded view of what is considered illicit. Nude photography is considered quite tame in today’s artistic landscape. However, if an artist decides that his expression of what art involves or entails anything to do with a perceived desecration of religious text, this is often seen as not in line with what the government deems as artistic. Even with the supposed separation of church and state in America, funding for organizations that advocate such acts often see their financial attributions vanish quite quickly.

It can be concluded that the philanthropic model of financial support for the arts does allow for a much freer form of expression. This does little in the gap between government funding and obtaining economic support from individuals or private organizations. In the coming months it would be fiscally sound for those seeking to continue or newly acquire private financial means to support their artistic organizations, to begin the ever continuous process of courting investors in the arts.

Even with Jeremy Hunt stating that cuts are only affecting ‘Front Line’ arts organizations, with the demise of funding for such prominent institutions such as the Poetry Book Society and the Northcott Theatre Exeter, it would behoove all arts organizations to incorporate a greater amount of time and energy into soliciting philanthropic means of financial support.

There is much to be said for the application of cultural astuteness. Especially in the economic climate that is facing Britain today. It may be one day very soon that the very thing that put the arts at risk may be exactly what society will be looking to as a comfort when engaging the masses.

Further Reading:
Arts Council England website
Philanthropy and the Arts UK
Poetry Book Society (PBS)
North Country Arts Council (NCAC)
Northcott Theatre Exeter
I Value The Arts website

Creative Industries: Bookbinding: Saviours of The Lost Art

Jeanette Hewitt learns about a different kind of book technology from Judith Wiesner

In a time where digital technology appears to be taking over the world, I deemed it necessary to pay closer attention to a more hands on, artistic approach to our crafts, to find out if our paper bound books are a dying art or even if they still exist at all, and I went back to where it all began: bookbinding.

Scrolls and clay tablets go back in history as far as time, the Ten Commandments were written on two stones tablets in the Old Testament, Exodus 20:3. And as the centuries rolled on words, sayings and scrolls became more intricate with wooden covers and leather spines. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, books became more elegant with rounded spines and covers made of paper rather than wood. Different colour leather started to become more popular rather than what had been brown calf or pigskin. In the twentieth century adhesive replaced the sewn bookbindings and mass production is now fully mechanical.

As we can see, even going back thousands of years, the world was moving forward at a fast pace just as it does today, for only one century later bound books are being replaced by a small, hand held computer, upon which hundreds of books can be stored and read at will. Not a bad thing by any means; saving luggage space when one goes on holiday is certainly an ideal, and books available on the Kindle device are usually less than the cost of a paperback. Is the technology pushing out old ways of creating books though? My question led me to the small village of Rendlesham in East Anglia, and a meeting with Judith Wiesner, bookbinder and book and paper conservator.

As I entered Judith’s studio, all my notes and research flew out of my head as I looked around in awe. For a book lover such as myself this building was my idea of personal heaven. Books line most of the walls, beautiful, old books that must have seen so much history. I spied cases of tools that look suspiciously like the ones that my dentist uses, vice-like machines and a separate room that houses a huge bath for ‘washing’ the paper in the restorative work. Judith’s passion for her work was clear from the start, the day we met was a Sunday, the day of rest, yet she had been at the studio meeting with a client before my appointment.

As we settled down with tea and biscuits, Judith told me her story. From 1992 Judith was based in Prague, just after the collapse of communism, working with many cultural institutions such as Prague Castle, the Decorative Arts Museum, the Fine Arts Gallery and the Jewish Museum to name a few, all the while gaining invaluable experience into preservation and conservation. Although Judith would be far too modest to say, I could tell that she was rightfully proud of her work in helping these people raise and run their own companies, after being under communist control for so long. During the devastating floods in 2002, Judith told me how she watched the basements fill with water and ultimately destroy so many historical items. After doing what she could to help, Judith moved onto Florence in 2004. Ironically, Florence was another site that had been severely damaged by the catastrophic floods of November 1966. After my visit I looked at some photographs on the Internet of this time, and one would be forgiven for thinking they were looking at a photo of Venice. After Florence and the Institute of Art and Restoration, Judith returned to England and graduated from the Camberwell College of Art with a Distinction in Paper Conservation. Here she has remained in Rendlesham and her studio for the last five years.

Judith told me that when she first opened her studio it was quite hard to locally source the equipment that she needed, and how she actually found almost everything on the Internet. An interesting parallel here, I thought, the use of modern technology to enable one to save the historical items. Items such as the architect’s drawers would cost hundreds of pounds, but on the internet and the wonderful world of eBay, here was one in antique oak that was on the verge of being thrown out by the owner. The light table was another difficulty, as apparently everyone is now using Macs as a replacement, but again, one was eventually found. As they say about one man’s trash, it certainly can be another man’s treasure.

We broke off from Judith’s story and I asked about a particularly large book that lay on the side. It was slightly smaller than A3 paper with hundreds of pages and looked very old and fragile. It was, Judith told me, a Monastery Prayer Book, dated from the year 1489, only around 40 years older than the famed Guttenberg Bible. Judith showed me the painstaking task she faced, of cleaning up the spine, which had a chunk out of it, which she would restore using calfskin and Japanese paper, cleaning the pages, which were stained, and filling any holes in the pages. I asked her how long she anticipated this particular job would take to which she replied “two years”. At this point I had to sit down again!

Having a guided tour around the studio it quickly became apparent that this is not so much a lost or dying art at all. Judith showed me piece after piece of work, including numerous book restorations, and a picture from a church. It became apparent to me that here technology has not taken over, working by hand and eye, with passion in the heart, the art of bookbinding and restoration is very much alive. In fact, as I spied the up to date computer in the corner and the Blackberry that beeped with no doubt more requests for restorative help, technology and crafts are working very nicely side by side. However, Judith did admit that unlike when she started, there are no apprenticeships that are up and coming. In the world of ‘blame claim’ culture, the issue of insurance whilst using the different machinery and tools prevents the younger generation from pursuing what could be a wonderfully rewarding career. There is a student at the studio however, a young lady who has studied Greek and Latin, a helpful tool in identifying the books that they are working on. Judith’s workshop classes have also really taken off (I left the interview with full intentions to sign up for one myself.) Perhaps the reason that the studio is so busy is because years ago there were around twenty specialists in Cambridge alone, but today there are just three.

The large picture that had been left for restoration intrigued me. Bought to the studio from a church, it appeared to be very old and I asked Judith what work needed doing. She pointed out to me the paint spatters where somebody had decorated the church and had not covered the picture, bat poo adorned it in places and apparently spiders lived within the painting as well as damage through general wear and tear. She mentioned taking it apart and I was keen to know how one would go about this, as I had presumed that one would work simply on the surface. With a gentle but firm hand and the ‘dentist’ tools, Judith showed me that the painting, although only half an inch thick, is actually made up of several layers which will all need to be taken apart, restored and preserved before being put back together. Restoration is not just putting a pretty face back on the object; it takes it back to the heart and bones of the piece, working from within and not just a cover up.

We moved on to the materials room, where I was shown the Japanese Paper that features so heavily in restoration work. Fine rolls, wafer thin cotton wool-like paper that must demand a steady hand to work with that is delivered straight from the mountain regions of Japan. Marble Papers, decorative material that is used for detailed book covering is all made in England. Here again, we see an art that is being whittled down. Judith told me that there are only three ladies left in England who produce the Marble Paper, in Somerset, Norwich and Cambridge.

As well as restoring books, Judith also makes books from scratch of which I was privileged to see all of the stages that the book goes through. The pages, which are all sewn together at the spine (everything is sewn by hand, there is no mass producing here), the paper used as the pages is an art form in itself, from thin pages to the highest quality paper, thicker sheaves suitable for watercolour painting and paper ordered directly from Italy. Quality is of the utmost importance, as Judith explained whilst showing me the Italian paper. She used to get it from Devon but was never quite happy enough with the quality. The covers are then bound with the marble paper, or one of the many rolls of different leather that are stacked up in the material room and one can witness the precision that is involved; how the book should be entirely straight to the human eye and should be able to stand up on its own. The finished products are flawless, and are for sale at Browsers Bookshop in the neighbouring town of Woodbridge, and also direct from the studio. These items are also what the workshop students get out of the session, mastering everything that they learn throughout the course of the days training and each goes home with a beautiful notebook that they have made with their own hands.

The recession doesn’t really seem to have hit here. Looking around at all the work in process I can see why the studio needs a student in house to help. Book collectors, museums and church patrons all bring their restorative work here. I asked Judith if it is mainly recommendations and she assured me that all of the work she receives is through word of mouth. In this industry, which is more work of art than fix and repair, books, culture and handmade crafts are very much alive.

As we went back into the main studio I asked about the bookcase that held some beautiful books, not the sort you would find in Waterstones, but hardback leather covers in greens and red, original first editions of A.A Milne and the like. These are books that Judith has collected over the years or rescued from being thrown out during a house clearance, or that have been passed down through generations. One that caught my eye was a gorgeous Hebrew bible encased in a metal jacket. The thought that the Kindle might take over such an object of beauty sprung to mind, and although it may turn out to be a space saver for my holidays, it can’t replace such a work of art like the ones I saw today.

As I prepared to return to my technological world of the internet and 50-inch televisions, I was somewhat comforted in the knowledge that here, in a small corner of England, our history is all wrapped up in materials that come here from across the globe in the form of Japanese and Italian paper, the finest leather, the greatest books and religious icons. And it was nice to know that if I needed to return back to a more aesthetically pleasing place, I could, as Judith urged me to keep in touch and I left with three invitations, one to the Woodbridge Book Fair, where she assured me there would be books aplenty, old and new, second hand and collectors items, and also the Woodbridge Metro Fair which houses anything from vintage clothes, antique furniture, books and retro items, and the workshop day where I will experience a small part of the wonderful world of bookbinding.

And as I thought back over the day and all of the beauty that I had seen, I realised that sometimes, it is absolutely okay to judge a book by its cover.

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Judith Wiesner can be contacted via her website: www.bookandpaperconservator.com.

Jeanette Hewitt is author of Freedom First Peace Later, available from BlueWood Publishing.