Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Attention



A late afternoon walk along the Itchen Navigation canal.  A reminder that photography -- or, at least, a certain kind of photography -- is all about the quality of the light (and, of course, "f/8 and be there").  I confess that I'm starting to wonder whether I'm gradually turning into a "landscape porn" practitioner, if one working at the softer end of the spectrum.  Worse, I'm not sure I really care too much about that accusation any more.


Still, on the other side of the motorway, at the Hockley Viaduct, I did find this sinister little puppet theatre of shadow play going down...


I like to think that far fewer people would have noticed that, much less given it the same quality of attention that the first two scenarios obviously command.  In between "quality of light" and "f/8 and be there" falls the more difficult and idiosyncratic matter of "seeing".

Monday, 17 November 2014

Here Comes Everybody

James Joyce aficionados (or maybe Pogues fans) will recognise the title of this post.  For reasons I have long forgotten and have no wish to be reminded of, the pattern HCE crops up throughout Finnegans Wake, and "Here Comes Everybody" was the title of an early draft.  However, relax, this post does not concern that eternally baffling dead-end of literary endeavour (that Highly Compacted Encyclopaedia,  Heavily Concentrated Entertainment, Highly Confusing Ennui, Higher Camp Exemplified, et bloody cetera).

I'm drawing your attention to another book with that title, Here Comes Everybody: Chris Killip's Irish Photographs (Thames & Hudson, 2009).  As you probably realise, I have a bit of a photo-book habit, and buy them more readily and more frequently than is normal or necessary.  My collection would not compare with that of, say, Martin Parr (whose would?), but is substantial, and I like to think it is made up of carefully chosen, unusually interesting and valuable items.


"Value" is a relative and highly negotiable term, of course.  It is a matter of principle for me that I don't pay "collector's prices" for books, which can be extremely silly.  I either buy them new, or search for overlooked bargains, like an antique dealer at a car-boot sale.  One of the prizes I obtained quite early on was a hardback copy of Chris Killip's Isle of Man, a quietly powerful collection of monochrome portraits and landscapes of his native island published by the Arts Council in 1980, which is fairly scarce in paperback, and very rare in hardback.  In good condition, signed, copies sell for a lot of money -- sometimes in excess of £500.  I have no idea why someone would pay £500 for a book published in 1980.  Mine cost me £25.

But, at the risk of sounding pious, true value is not measured in money.  One of the books I take down most often is Killip's more recent Here Comes Everybody. Price-wise, in collector's terms, the regular hardback edition is worth next to nothing.  The cheapest copy on Abebooks right now will cost you £6 plus postage.  It clearly didn't sell well, too many were printed, and "as new" copies are everywhere.  But it's a book that I think has real magic and I recommend it to you.

It's essentially a facsimile of an album of postcard-sized prints made by Chris Killip on visits to Ireland between 1993 and 2005.  On the left-hand pages are monochrome images of the famous (and much photographed) Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, and on the facing pages are colour images of the scenery and people of the west of Ireland, many of which are among the most evocative and visually-exciting colour landscape photographs you could hope to see anywhere.

Many have complained that the images are "too small", but they're missing the point: this is photography as memory, images compiled into an album sequence as practised by everyone, but brought to a pitch of perfection by a major contemporary photographer.  It's moving, exciting, encouraging and intriguing, all at once, everything a photo-book should be.  Did I say you can pick up a copy for £6.00?

One intriguing note.  Killip writes in his introduction that
I had previously resisted going to Ireland since Markéta Luskačová, the mother of my son, and Josef Koudelka, who introduced me to her, had both photographed there, and I felt that it was not my 'territory'.
I hadn't been aware of this connection between three of photography's "celebs".  You will probably know Josef Koudelka's work (you certainly ought to), but may not know of Markéta Luskačová.  Not so long ago, I used to recommend her retrospective collection, published by Torst in 2001, as the greatest photo-book bargain currently available.  It's "humanist" photography of the highest order, in a beautifully produced volume, and could be bought absurdly cheaply, like Here Comes Everybody.  No longer.  And I see even the little paperback catalogue of her exhibition Pilgrims, held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1983, is hovering around the £200 mark.  Curse you, collectors with deep pockets!

As to the idea of "territory", it's a very real thing, and deeply felt, absurd as that is where photography is concerned.  I recall recently being down by the docks one weekday morning, and crossing the path of another photographer, who was encumbered with a tripod and some weighty "L" series Canon lenses.  Not your casual snapper.  As he checked the Fuji X-E1 slung round my neck -- also not your casual snapper -- you could almost see the thought balloon above his head, "Hey, what are you doing here?  These are MY docks!"  No, my friend, I'm afraid they're MY docks, now...


N.B. If you want a cheap introduction to Chris Killip's work as a whole, there's a decent selection in one of those cute little "Phaidon 55" books (a nice series, all of which are worth getting hold of, I think).

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Heads Up



There's something about the colours of the hedgerows, the shapes of the vegetation withdrawing into winter dormancy, and the tricksy lighting effects at this time of year that can bring out a Border Ballad sensibility in even the most stolidly rational observer.  There's an eeriness, a faint folk-memory of tales of enchantment and abduction amplified by more contemporary, tabloid anxieties; it all presses some atavistic button that puts the mind onto constant, peripheral alert.  A sudden blackbird, a falling acorn, a snapping twig...  Wait, what was that?


Usually, of course, it's nothing.  But in the photograph below a small herd of fallow deer has just run from left to right, pattering through the undergrowth like a shower of rain.  I was too busy photographing the uptorn chalky tree roots to catch them in time.  I suppose it might have been the Wild Hunt, or Tam Lin, but...


Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Root and Branch


Southampton Water

It won't have escaped your notice that I have a thing about trees.  In a world where we measure everything exclusively by human standards, and where other life-forms are getting pushed hard to the periphery (unless they are good to eat, ineradicable, or highly adaptable -- crows score a laudable two out of three here), trees are a reminder that there are beings longer-lived, stronger, more essential to the ecosystem, and fundamentally more rooted than we are.  Trees are playing a longer game.

The discovery of the so-called Seahenge on what is now a Norfolk beach -- an inverted trunk buried roots-up within a wood circle -- seemed to confirm a widely-held belief that our ancestors held trees as sacred.  I'm not so sure about that, but it's clear that a tree makes a pretty good spiritual metaphor, in all sorts of ways; and wood, of course, makes pretty much anything.  It's brilliant stuff, wood, and knowing your trees and timber -- which ones burn well, which grows the best axe-handles and spear-shafts, which can be woven into baskets or carved into a bowl -- would have been essential knowledge for thousands of years.  These days, "oak" and "ash" are little more than different shades of laminate in IKEA.

Southampton Common

One Sunday afternoon recently, not feeling terribly energetic, we decided to go for a stroll around the grounds of Mottisfont Abbey.  As I have described before, I have had a long-standing relationship with this National Trust property near Romsey; it was where I held my first serious one-man exhibition, and it has been the site of two series of photographic work (you can see the resulting books Downward Skies and Water Gauge on the My Blurb Bookstore link over on the right).

However, it's been the same old story: a place that had been allowed to get interestingly ragged at the edges came under new management and all the interesting bits were tidied away, season by season.  I don't blame them: far more people visit the Abbey now, to the extent that it can be difficult to park at weekends.  "Footfall" is the measure of all things, in heritage circles.

Things can go too far, though.  It seems that the most desirable footfall at Mottisfont now comes in the smallest sizes: in the many months since we last visited, there have been artist-led interventions (uh oh!) in the grounds, designed to attract families with children in tow.  Adventure playgrounds, themed activity trails and the like have been constructed all over the place by the sort of enthusiastic Big Kids who, in more enlightened times, would have been usefully employed as primary teachers or, in extreme cases, safely quarantined in the asylum that is children's TV.

Mottisfont Abbey

It got stranger, though.  There has been a circle of beech trees in the grounds at Mottisfont for some time.  Originally, they surrounded the 19th century ice-house, but were replanted next to a tennis-court, now gone, in the 1960s.  I have always enjoyed the utter pointlessness of this feature, stuck over in a corner of the grounds that most visitors never saw; I don't think the word "henge" would ever have crossed the mind of its original planters, any more than "ley line" or "earth energy".  You could sit in the middle, gaze out across the surrounding fields, and enjoy a pleasant sense of free-roaming, undirected focus (I always think of Wallace Stevens' poem "Anecdote of the Jar").

But Macedonian artist Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva has been employed to improve it.  You can read all about it here.  Basically, she has constructed a new inner circle of inverted dead trees, with applied gilded patterns derived from the main house's "Whistler Room" (that's Rex Whistler, not James Abbott McNeill Whistler).  This intervention has turned a harmless, meaningless folly into a stage-prop temple to... Well, what?  Neopaganism?  Dutch elm disease?  Ornamental inversion? The dionysiac ecstasy of publicly-funded art practice?

To me, this work (Resuscitare) seems an example of what I call "heavy breathing" -- big on promise and reference and allusion and alleged implication, but disproportionately small on actual delivered significance. It's really not so much a site-specific response to the site, as a site-specific illustration of some off-the-peg ideas.  But I suppose the same could be said of most, if not all, commissioned art.

If bodies like the National Trust are to be the new patrons of art, I wish they'd put a bit more effort into finding their Michelangelos.  They're out there, but might not be as good as regular public arts commission and competition "winners" at filling out the necessary forms and preliminary statements of intent. It's the difference between "talking the talk" and "walking the walk". Though in an environment where so much art is a self-declared confidence trick, it's always going to be tough, as emperor, choosing a new suit of clothes.


Resuscitare

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Price of Everything



When I was a youngster, politics was all about changing the world.  Or, at least, that's how it seemed.  Best of all, politics used to be simple.  There were clever, easy to remember slogans that summed up a whole alternative worldview, and saved you the trouble of reading any tedious books.

One of the best was, "We don't want a bigger slice of the cake, we want to own the bloody bakery!"  There, in a nutshell, is your rough-and-ready, industrial-grade, trades-union activist's Marxism.  Or, if you were more anarchistically-inclined -- and the anarchists always had the best slogans -- there was "Don't vote, it only encourages them!", or its variant, "Whoever you vote for, the Government gets in!" Or, for the feminists, the mystifyingly surreal but ever-popular "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle!"

As a consequence, I still like my politics simple.  As do 99% of the population, I'd guess.  Apart from a handful of headlining names, I have no idea who currently runs most government departments, and I don't really care enough about the nuances of, say, the European Union even to read a book on the subject. I just about care enough about my ignorance to feel a certain free-floating guilt, of the same order I feel about not having redecorated the house, or cleared the junk out of the garden shed.

Caring about such stuff is the province of policy wonks.  The problem is, The Way of the Wonk is also the way to power.  Passion, sincerity and the "vision thing" can all be faked; a thorough knowledge of people, parties and policies cannot.  I suppose this has always been the case, but it seems particularly acute in an era when simple "gut" politics have mutated into a choice between managerial styles.  You need to know who your rivals are for the post of Head of Regional Sales.

This began at some point in the 1980s, and coincided with the disappearing act of the political left.  It seems that, right across the broad "centre" of the political spectrum, the current consensus took hold, which I would summarise like this:
  • We are living beyond our means
  • Demand on public spending is growing, and exceeds our ability to pay for it
  • High taxes lose electoral support; low taxes win it
  • Henceforth, we must manage scarcity, and provide fewer public services from a shrinking budget
I think that's it; have I missed anything?  The rest is just detail -- managerial wonkery.  You know the sort of thing, debating the benefits of privatisation versus "private finance initiatives" and all that Ed Balls.

Now, I was brought up in the belief that there was enough money for everything, it was just a question of setting priorities.  The business of politics, as I understood it, was persuading those in control of the national wallet that it was in their best interests to give us (for various competing definitions of "us") what we wanted. What my particular "us" wanted was nationalization and across the board state-led solutions.  What counted as acceptable "persuasion" towards that end was what defined your position on the political spectrum.  At some point in the 1980s, however, the senior ranks of the Labour Party must have seen something, read something, or eaten something (Opposition Pie?) that changed their collective mind.  The eventual abandonment of "Clause IV" as a political embarrassment was the symbolic end result.

The downfall of Militant in Liverpool was exemplary, and equally symbolic.  Their ultimate crime was not being -- gasp! -- radical socialists, or -- yikes! -- bumptious scouser scallies (though that probably didn't help), but to set an illegal council budget, in pursuit of the philosophy that services should be delivered now to the people of Liverpool who urgently needed them, and how to pay for them could and should be sorted out later.  Big mistake, it turned out.

Ever since, the electorate has been faced, every four or five years, with an unappetizing choice of "responsible" managerial styles and strategies claiming to do more with less, but actually always doing less with less.  It's a political puppet show played out against a lurid media backdrop, behind which some truly awe-inspiring self-enrichment has been carried out by a tiny group of kleptocrats.  Anyone talking a political language outside this Consensus of the Suits, whether of the left or the right, has been branded an irresponsible, ill-informed loony.  Which is why the suits are now getting bitten on the arse by the likes of UKIP, who really don't care what they are called.

But, here's the thing.  Now I'm all growed up and have stopped believing in Revolution as a one-stop solution to society's ills, I need to know the answer to a few simple questions.  In fact, one simple question, with some supplementaries.  A lot hinges on the answers.  My simple question is this:

Is it true that we can't afford to pay for excellent public services out of the public purse any more?  I mean, really true?

If it's not true, then people have a right to be very angry with our political class.  It's "string 'em up!" time, no?  But if it is true, then:
  • Is it a consequence of the Low Tax Genie having been let out of the bottle?
  • Is it a legacy of decades of unsustainable borrowing?
  • Is it a failure of political imagination, will, and courage?
  • Is it a result of choices between, say, defence spending and local council spending?
  • Something else, so terrifying that no-one dares speak its name?
I don't know the answers. I know the answers I would prefer to hear, obviously.  But I will switch off once any answer -- however worthy -- stretches into a third paragraph.  I will get impatient with answers making use of metaphors drawn from household and small business financial management (I really don't believe the nation's banking arrangements are like mine, overdraft and all -- I wonder how much HSBC charges to write a letter to the government?).  I don't want to hear about any all-or-nothing utopias -- yes, there are so many ways the world could be better if only people were better, too, but we don't have time for that any more.  And, no matter how fervently you believe it, no answer that lays off the blame onto convenient scapegoats (single parents, immigrants, benefit scroungers, the EU, freemasons, street musicians, left-handers, et al.) will be heard out; financial speculators, however, are fair game.

If the answer -- as I suspect it might be -- is "yes, to all of the above" (except possibly that last one), then maybe it really is "string 'em up!" time, after all. Perhaps it's time for a new slogan.  Let me think...

How about: "A government needs the fish vote like a bicycle encourages a bakery!"  Confusing, but in the words of that great Parliamentarian George Clinton, "Free your mind, and your ass will surely follow".  It could work...

Or we could all simply agree to pay lots more tax -- and, yes, we're looking at you, Amazon -- and stop living like selfish, miserly, status-obsessed blockheads.  Duh.

Lobby of the offices of The Economist

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Monument



Out on Twyford Down, someone erected a bit of a monument to those responsible for the deep cutting into the chalk hill that takes the M3 motorway past Winchester.  It took the form of a rough-cut but smooth-faced monolith, about five feet tall, and beautifully lettered with an inscription that reads as follows:
This land was ravaged by
G. Malone
L. MacGregor
R. Key
J. Major
D. Keep
C. Parkinson
C. Patten
M. Thatcher
C. Chope
Quite recently, it either broke (I'm pretty sure it was made of concrete, not stone, and was not weathering well) or was persuaded to break by someone, and now lies, face up, in the grass close to the rim of the cutting. It is somehow more effective in its prone position, rather less pseudo-megalithic, and reminds me of the inscribed stones at Ian Hamilton Finlay's "Little Sparta" garden.

Motorway?  What motorway?

Friday, 7 November 2014

Supermarket Trolleys Go Boating



A trip down to the town centre to post a parcel and do a few other errands, including the eternal, fruitless search for clothes to replace the ones that have finally worn out.  What a pleasure it must be, to be the same shape and size as the clothes on the racks!

I eventually returned to the carpark and ...  Wow, look at that!  This is why I keep a camera in my backpack.  Such moments can redeem even the dullest afternoon of riding the escalators in overheated department stores.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Mr. MacGregor

The Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, has been turned into a bit of a National Treasure by the BBC.  After the success of his innovative series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, his exquisitely-enunciated aperçus (no-one is posher than a posh Scot) have become a bit of a fixture.  His latest series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, is taking the "100 objects" approach to German history, and German-ness.  I'm not sure why Britain currently seems to be having a German Moment, but we clearly are, and that suits me fine.  I'm learning a lot about a people I ought to know rather better than I do.

But, the main thing I have learned from MacGregor's programmes is how bloody annoying it is to give every German word and name -- place, personal and corporate -- its precise and proper German pronunciation.  Yes, of course actual foreign-language phrases should be given at least an approximation of their standard pronunciation.  It is very bad indeed to hear the surname of Albert Camus rhyming with "Seamus" on a nationally-broadcast arts programme.  But, there is really no need -- no need at all -- for an English radio broadcaster to pronounce the "r" in "Brecht" in the German manner (a uvular fricative, since you ask).

Now, I have often been guilty of this infuriating sort of one-upmanship myself, but have taken note, and will stop doing it immediately.  I should really know better, as the following two anecdotes will illustrate.

Non-German speakers may not realise that the vowel marked by the letter "a", when "short", is often pronounced rather like an RP English "u".  Thus, a word like "Mann" is pronounced "Munn", and an annoying English-speaking pedant might refer to the writer Thomas Mann as "Toe-muss Munn".  This can get tricky. When I was in the sixth form, we were taught German by a brilliant but eccentric man, whose ability to turn on a sixpence from mischievous fun-filled provocateur to outraged vengeful tyrant could be disturbing.  You learned to read his mood quite closely.  One day, this man -- who was nothing if not a pedant* -- decided we needed to know a little about the philosopher Immanuel Kant.  I think you can probably see where this is going.  Few things are as painful as forcibly-suppressed mirth, so you can imagine the plight of seven 17-year-old boys, as their teacher prowled the blackboard, solemnly intoning on the philosophy of a man whose name, in his fusspot rendering, now rhymed with "blunt".

Later, at university, a non-German-speaking friend, who was studying politics, economics and philosophy, mentioned the difficulty he was having getting hold of something called the "Grundle Gung".  It sounded intriguingly Tolkien-esque to me.  "Grendel's mother" from Beowulf and "Gunga Din" were the only things that came to mind.  Of course, when he showed it written down, it turned out to be the single word "Grundlegung", German for "foundation" or "groundwork", and pronounced rather differently.

My mirth went unsuppressed, that time, but in retrospect I was a little ashamed of having taken such derisive pleasure in another's ignorance.  Not least because there have been many occasions when my own loud ignorance has been quietly ignored in the interests of civility.  As I later realised, to my embarrassment.  Which may be why I'm finding Neil MacGregor's punctiliousness more irritating than I probably should.
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
An' ev'n devotion!


from To A Louse, by Robert Burns

No connection that I can contrive, but the
 hawthorn berries are a fine sight this year

* He was the first person I ever heard pronouncing the word "questionnaire" as "kestionnaire", which struck me then as risible, and still does, on a par with those ultra-posh types who put a hard "g" in "margarine".

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Strangers on the Shore


Fossil-hunters at Charmouth

There's often something special about the light, just before it begins to fail in the late afternoon, down by the water's edge.  That weird glowing effect in the Thames is the warm setting sun finding its way between the buildings opposite the South Bank near Waterloo which, paradoxically, are in the west, due to an acute bend in the river.  I have no idea why a band of musicians decided to congregate on that narrow shore, rather than up on the embankment, but they were making a rousing racket down there.  It's a Balkan thing.

Balkan musicians by the Thames

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Suburban Roadwalk



After a night and morning of incredibly heavy rain yesterday, the sun finally appeared in the afternoon, so I went for a walk down one of those long arterial roads that reach not from the edge into the centre of town, but run from point to point on some imaginary midway circle, what in geometry is called a "chord".

I'm not sure why, but I have always felt drawn to these anonymous suburban edgelands, where the traffic is heavy, and pedestrians are few.  They're the roads kids walk along to and from school, where the buses stop, and where most houses either face away, or are concealed behind sturdy fences.


In the photograph above, I like the illusion of broken continuity given by the shadow of the walkway up to a pedestrian bridge on this side of the dual-carriageway matching the slope of the one on the other side, seen through the gap in the trees.  In the picture below, the low sunlight brings out the pink of conifer trunks and the vivid green of algae-covered fence panels, which -- if you are of a suitable age -- might evoke the covers of either Elvis's first album or of the Clash's London Calling, a token of the suburban roots of most rebel rock.


Places like this are where most of us spend those memorable, adolescent years, mainly yearning to get away to somewhere -- anywhere -- a little more exciting.  And they're where we generally return to, later in life, because it's the best we can afford and -- let's be positive -- perhaps also in order not to deprive our own children of the rocket fuel laid down by that aching youthful sense of frustration.  Go on, if you can, kid, run!

Monday, 3 November 2014

Grafitti Colour Supplement


Brighton laines

Although a lot of my photography is what might be classified as "urban landscape", I tend to avoid grafitti, even spectacular examples like the one above.  Most "bombing" is plain ugly, and even the more elaborate work is, in the main, pretty crass: insensitive to context and witlessly imitative of models which are now at least thirty years old.  I find there is something quaintly classical about much grafitti; it's almost as if taggers are obliged to work from an approved sample book.

There is also, ironically, more than a tinge of American and Japanese "soft" cultural imperialism, an accusation most street artists would angrily reject.  But you'll seen the same cartoonish imported tropes dribbling down the facades of buildings worldwide, and the conclusion is hard to avoid.  It's McStarbucks by other means.

Southampton Common. Yawn...

Brighton station. Hardly an improvement...

 But, by Kobra, when it's good it's very good.  I am sometimes stunned by the facility and vision of an artist's panel of work.  It is a curious contemporary paradox, that our galleries are full of poorly-realised high-concept work, for sale to the hyper-rich at the price of a luxury car, while artists of real skill and imagination are adorning our public spaces free of charge.

Photographically, the challenge is the usual one: I want to make work which is worthwhile in its own right from, not of, what I see.  I'm not really interested in photography as documentation.  This is particularly acute when the subject is someone else's intentional artwork, whether it be a wall of spray-painting or a sculpture in the park.  I recently mentioned the work of Abelardo Morell, and I think his work with paintings in galleries is a very creative response to the problem, and exemplary of what I mean by making an image from a subject, not of it.

But, sometimes, you just have to make a record of something amazing, simply because it's there.  And may not be there for very long.

 Southampton Common

 Brighton laines

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Degrees of Separation

As regular readers will know, I have recently taken early retirement, paradoxically, in order to spend more time with my work.  Time is precious, and I need to use my remaining stock wisely.  My long-postponed break-in at the House of Fame -- prise open the window of opportunity, sneak along the corridors of power, look for the room where they keep the glittering prizes -- will require careful planning, ruthless determination, a packed lunch, and quite possibly a fast getaway car and a good lawyer.  These I can provide.  But I need to get a move on, and there's one area where I could use your help.

I have noticed that hardly any new visitors come here via the "social media" route, i.e. following Facebook or Twitter referrals.  That suggests that my posts are rarely, if ever, getting "liked" or linked out there, even by regular visitors.  Fair enough: you may feel that's more than I deserve.  Or you may think I have no interest in attracting more attention to my efforts, but you would be wrong; I would very much like my work to be seen by more of the movers and shakers of the photographic world  -- I'm convinced there are some who will like what they see -- and one indirect route to this end may be via the friends of the friends of the movers and shakers. Sure, you may not count Alec Soth or Martin Parr among your followers, but maybe someone you know knows someone who does; the effectiveness of just a few "degrees of separation" cannot be underestimated.

So: below each post there is a little row of social media icons, unhelpfully grey, including ones for Facebook and Twitter.  If you are a social media user, I'd be very grateful if, once in a while, you'd use them: any time you find yourself particularly liking it here, why not invite all your friends?  Don't be ashamed!  We only swear a little, and there is hardly ever any nudity.  And I promise I won't let success change me one bit.


Friday, 31 October 2014

Pyramid Sales



I was visiting one of those huge retail barns on an industrial estate this morning, down near the docks and very near to a main entrance for container lorries.  After I'd given up on shopping -- I need a new waterproof jacket, but not at that price -- I thought I'd see if I could sort of accidentally-on-purpose wander into the dock area, all casual like...  But not a chance.  They've even blocked off the view from the entrance bridge with blinds attached to the parapet.  It's seriously off-limits, even to idiots who can't read, or somehow didn't see or ignored the first few "No Public Access" signs.  So I contented myself with a stroll around the crumbling industrial "units" on the estate, and was excited to find the improbable but pleasing arrangement above.

I have a love-hate relationship with such places, where light engineering and the grittier service industries huddle together, like smokers, behind the car dealers' showrooms.  If not for a few extra brain cells and some lucky breaks (like being born in 1954 and not 1984), it could easily have been my fate, too, to work in a concrete-floored workshop with a set of spanners and a grimy parts manual.  But there are worse things than banging and bending metal into shape, or fitting replacement windscreens.  And selling outdoor gear to people like me is definitely one of them.



Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Cranes That Ate London



Central London is currently one enormous building site.  In Southwark, on the corner of Stamford Street and Blackfriars Road, yet another monster crane stands in the rubble of whatever was there before, and is putting up yet another high-prestige monster building.  I'm not sure what message the illustrated hoarding is intended to put across, unless it is that from the top of our monster prestige building you'll have a terrific view of all the other monster prestige buildings.


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Pretty As A Picture


Southbank Centre

Upper Ground Street

I meant to mention the Sigmar Polke exhibition catalogue yesterday, if only to say I didn't buy one.  Fifty pounds?  You jest...  I think I'll wait for the vast pile of remainders in a year's time.  I did see a couple of German photography books that excited my interest as I exited through the gift shop, though, but I simply copied the details into my notebook (Christmas is coming).  You might fancy them them, too:

Atlas / by Gerhard Richter (Walther König, 2011, ISBN 978-3863350567; also Thames & Hudson, ISBN 978-0500970171)

The Düsseldorf School of Photography / by Stefan Gronert (Aperture, 2010, ISBN 978-1597111362)

An interesting contrast with a "challenging" show like the Polke at Tate Modern is always to be had by visiting the Bankside Gallery, just along the embankment to the west of the Tate. The Bankside is the home of the Royal Watercolour Society, and usually has a show of members' work.  It is free to enter, has a well-chosen bookshop, and -- ahem, quite important to us ageing gents -- has clean, well-equipped toilet facilities which can be used without asking.

In yesterday's post, I made a slightly sarcastic contrast between "art" and "interior decorating".  A visit to the Bankside after the Tate always raises this comparison in an interesting way.  The paintings on display range from the utterly conventional to the mildly experimental, having in common only a medium and a professional level of competence in using it, and they are there to be sold, not to mess with your head.  They are therefore uniformly nice; unthreatening, harmonious, skilful, and often rather beautiful.  After all, if you want a picture for a domestic room, you will generally have a size, a colour range, and a particular "look and feel" in mind.  You are unlikely to be shopping for a Polke-style twenty-foot-square shocking pink abstraction sprayed onto bubblewrap, or a looped video installation.

Of the paintings on display at the Bankside Gallery yesterday, I found about 70% filled me with impatience:  please, why are you people still doing this?  The year is 2014, and yet in style, technique and choice of subject matter, so many of these painters are reproducing the moves and motifs of the previous century; for example, those faux-naive assemblages of domestic and natural objects with (crucially) cats that sell well as greetings cards for your more sophisticated friends and relatives, or the kind of dry, sub-photographic rendering that was all the rage in the 1980s.

It's primarily interior decoration, for sure, but I suppose it sells, and nobody joins the Royal Watercolour Society out of seething revolutionary discontent, after all.  And not everyone can make a living out of scribbling over "appropriated" porn with a biro...

Not a painting... (Rennie Street)

Partly a painting... (Blackfriars Road).

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Random Connections


St.Paul's in the South Bank

Another week, another prominent contemporary German artist. As I mentioned in the piece on Anselm Kiefer, Tate Modern has just opened a major retrospective exhibition of the work of Sigmar Polke.  Although I had booked a ticket for this afternoon, I almost didn't make it.  A painful shoulder problem ("rotator cuff tendonitis", ow...) compounded by a painful steroid injection into the affected area -- don't you love it when a doctor says "This may sting a bit"? -- had caused me to clear my diary over the weekend, including what had promised to be the most spectacular 60th birthday celebration yet (apologies, Alasdair R.!).

I'm glad I did, though.  Apart from the obligatory South Bank photo-hunt -- it was a perfect day for it -- it's a good show, stimulating in that creatively antagonistic way of art that is purposefully provocative.  If I'm honest, I found 80% of the work on show pretty negligible; without Polke's name attached, you would probably dump many of the paintings into a skip without a second thought if you found a stack of them in your attic.  You wouldn't want them on your living-room wall.  But then, that is largely the point.  This is art, folks, not interior decorating.

Now, Polke did a lot of acid and, in the immortal words, smoked an awful lot of dope, and it shows.  The sections dealing with his work in the 1970s made me feel quite nostalgic but also, after a bit, quite annoyed.  In one dark room there is a video of Polke and chums looning about in a vaguely arty way, mixed anarchically with footage from a TV programme about Nazis and from Polke's visits to Afghanistan and South America, overlaid with a soundtrack that is basically a Captain Beefheart live album (I must admit I didn't know there were any).  It's fascinating, but in the same dot-to-dot way that the visuals were fascinating on The Old Grey Whistle Test.  It's all a bit art college, self-indulgent and basically lazy, and relies on the viewer's capacity and willingness to make significance out of random connections.

I remember meeting those serious-minded German stoners, back then.  You'd be looking at some of them for a very long time before concluding that wit, whimsy and lightness of touch were their natural bent.  They were intense, sometimes in a scary way.  I recall spending several days camped on a beach in Greece, in 1973, where a bunch of them had established a sort of commune around a bar.  It was a heavy scene, man.  You can tire of hedonism as a competitive endurance sport surprisingly quickly.

Although in later decades he was able to mix with a better class of party animal,  Polke's art has clearly emerged from a succession of such scenarios.  You can't help but feel, looking at these riddling, deliberately under-achieved paintings, "Well, I suppose you had to be there"...  Behind all the work you sense the absence of key in-jokes and private references that, being withheld, create empty mysteries of an intriguing but nihilistic kind.  As so often in the more disillusioned wings of contemporary art, the innermost secret is that there is no secret.

 Stamford Street, Southwark

BFI IMAX cinema and Waterloo Hospital

Monday, 27 October 2014

The Waves



Different waves on different seas ...  It doesn't quite come across in this pairing, but I was struck by the extent to which the remnant of the "old pier" at Brighton could be the wireframe for a model reconstruction of St. Catherine's Hill.  The resemblance is strange, though I may be the only person in the world in a position to notice it. There's a point there about timescales, processes, and our temporary but persistent presence on the planet which makes itself, once the connection is made, without me drawing it out further.


Apart from the broad compositional parallels, my original point of comparison was the breaking surf and the frozen wave of chalk, but then I remembered the smudge of bonfire smoke on the hill's right shoulder, which was what had drawn my eye in the first place.
Visual impressions often communicate thus briefly statements that we shall in time to come uncover and coax into words.  I note under F., therefore, "Fin in a waste of waters." I, who am perpetually making notes in the margin of my mind for some final statement, make this mark, waiting for some winter's evening.
Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Saturday, 25 October 2014

A Quieter Brighton

A few more images from my recent Brighton visit.  Sometimes, once you've got over the impact of the standout frames, it's the quieter pictures that start to emerge more strongly.  Same stormy day, different perspectives.






Friday, 24 October 2014

Not Venice



Yesterday afternoon had the quiet but interesting light that is just right for photographing water.  I needed to top up various supplies -- printer ink, again -- so headed down town, and after doing my shopping walked down to a waterside park, where a good view of the docks may be had.

When I first came here, thirty years ago, you could access the dockside area pretty freely, if you had the necessary chutzpah: no-one would challenge you.  I shared a house just over the railway line from the dry dock (with this guy, now in Australia, who has some interesting things to say about the state of universities), and you could cross over a footbridge and wander alongside the gigantic moored hulls and busy cranes.  Now, with heightened concerns about public safety, theft, terrorism, and the smuggling of contraband and people, the place is inevitably shut off behind gates and tall fences topped with razor wire.


Venice it ain't, but there is a certain serenity to a broad view of the docks.  But, I hear you ask, what is that silver dome that keeps cropping up in these pictures of Southampton Water?  Why, it is the Marchwood Energy Recovery Facility.  Not everything around here is about polluting the seas with fossil fuels.  In fact, there are a number of eco-friendly energy schemes, including the Southampton Geothermal Heating Company, right in the centre of the main shopping area.


The sea and ships and the shoreline have a mysterious pull, and even on a chilly mid-week October afternoon a few people can be seen sitting around -- on benches, on the grass, in parked cars -- staring contemplatively out across the water.  A waterfront park is one of those liminal places where the normal rules are in suspension, and it's OK to spend the day quietly doing nothing in public.
I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away
I'm just sittin' on the dock of the bay
Wastin' time...

Thursday, 23 October 2014

A Morell Moment

Our house is orientated roughly north-south, with the front of the house facing east.  At this time of year, as the days shorten dramatically and the weather takes an autumnal turn, opening the front door to fetch in the milk first thing in the morning can present a very different spectacle, day by day, especially now that my rising hours are varying so much.  If I'm up at 6:00, there are stars in the sky; if I'm up at 9:00, the day is already in full swing.  Will there be frost, will there be fog, will there be rain?  Will the rising sun announce itself with a dazzling blaze of orange light, or be obscured by clouds?

This morning, around 8:55, I was sitting in the kitchen, listening to Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time (he's started to sound both bored and tired, don't you think?) when my eye was caught by a vision.  On one of the white melamine cupboard doors beneath the sink, a brightly-illuminated geometrical shape had formed, with that insistent optical sharpness and clarity that says to the brain, "This is real!"

Now, the Prof is always amused by my susceptibility to the uncanny, which she attributes to a certain unwise level of, ah, chemical indiscretion in my youth, which is compounded by my reluctance to wear spectacles.  I'm afraid the world is not yet ready for the story of the monkey I saw riding a tricycle in a Caen carpark, while waiting for a car ferry home on a family holiday.  But she was still upstairs, waiting for a cup of tea, so I took my time scrutinising this apparition.

It was familiar.  It was ...  Surely it was the decorative leaded lights from our front door, but upside down, and somehow shining through the closed kitchen door?  I then realised what was going on:  the rising sun was shining brightly through the glass panel on the front door, and passing through the keyhole in the kitchen door, which was acting as a pinhole and projecting a virtual image of the pebbled glass and lead cames onto the handy white melamine screen opposite.

I ran to get a camera, but the crucial alignment had started to go by the time I returned, so all I have to show you is this over-processed grab-shot of a fading vision:


If you're familiar with the work of Abelardo Morell, you'll know what a travesty this image is, but it's a tribute nonetheless to one of the most creative photographers working today, who took a single, simple idea and really ran with it.

It may happen again tomorrow, at a slightly later time, or it may not -- a neighbouring roof or chimney pot may intercept the necessary alignment of elements.  Or it may be cloudy.  Maybe next year...  One thing's for sure, though: I won't be sealing the kitchen doorway tomorrow morning with black plastic à la Morell just to see what the front of the house looks like projected onto the back of the house.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Big Show


U-boats over Mayfair

I was up in London yesterday, primarily to see the Anselm Kiefer show (girls! music!) at the Royal Academy of Arts.  As an amateur Germanophile, I have taken an interest in Kiefer's work ever since a copy of Mark Rosenthal's catalogue of the Art Institute of Chicago's 1987 exhibition passed across my desk.  He is an artist who has taken on the big German themes like no other; from the very beginning he was tackling taboos such as Hitler, the Holocaust and the roots of Nazi ideology in German culture in a very confrontational way. However, until yesterday afternoon, I had never actually seen any of these fabled works in real life, merely as reproductions in books and magazines.

So, wow...  They are BIG.  I mean, I knew they were big, but they are ENORMOUS.  To see something you have previously contemplated at postcard size occupying 18 x 12 feet of wall space is a disconcerting experience, to say the least.  The RA is just the right space for this sort of gigantism, though: it swallows it whole without a problem.  After all, this is the space that Hockney attempted (and, some say, failed) to fill with his sprawling A Bigger Picture exhibition in 2012.

Now, I say I have taken an interest in Kiefer, but that is not to say that I like his work.  I don't think it's work that wants to be liked. Seeing it hanging there, it reminded me of certain people I have known, whose identity is constructed around an abrasive and unforgiving self-awareness; "Sure, I've got problems; so do you, if only you'd face up to it.  Why pretend otherwise?  Don't like it?  Then fuck off!"  It's a lonely space to inhabit, carrying the burden of the entire German past as your personal baggage.

Despite his standing, Kiefer maintains an outsider's perspective.  In fact, he reminds me of those classic "outsider" artists, borderline guys with no formal training or education who have a set of idées fixes, gestures and mannerisms that they repeat over and over, building vast edifices made out of drink cans and concrete, or painting weird, repetitive scenarios out of a personal mythology.  You can imagine him cackling away, building yet another tunnel or tower at his grandiose derelict silk factory workspace down in Barjac in southern France.

My problem (as if Kiefer could care less what I think) is that the work seems big in declared ambition, yet small in achieved substance.  Not literally, clearly: the famous lead books and submarines and vast impasto paintings and sculptural assemblages are all substance: gloweringly and overbearingly so, insistently material.  But it is not enough, surely, to paste layer upon layer of paint and acrylic and ash onto lead sheets and then lightly scribble the names of German Romantic poets and other notables onto the result.  Yes, Novalis, Hölderlin, Heine, Celan, Bachmann... Check.  Yes, I've read them.  And your point is?  I'm not keen on this kind of cultural dot-to-dot game of allusion.  The work exists in an interesting but frustrating place somewhere between conventional depiction and conceptual art; it is that unsatifying thing, painted ideas.

Also, I have to say Kiefer's drawing is of a similar standard to that of Tracey Emin i.e. it is dreadful.  Now, I am not naive enough not to realise that there is a solid point to be made by deliberately drawing badly.  Take that, Sunday painters!  But when an artist of this stature takes up watercolours and paints more or less conventional nudes, even if they are compiled into gigantic bound albums, I think we are entitled to stand back and say:  Whoa, Anselm...  These are bad.  You really can't do this, can you?  Stick to collage!

I did love the lead submarines in the courtyard vitrines, though (despite -- or perhaps because of -- the theme music from Das Boot playing insistently in my head), and there is a site-specific work in an enclosed, round, inner gallery, Ages of the World, that is truly extraordinary, a meditation on the constructs of geological time derived from and imposed on the trash heap we inhabit, and worth the price of the ticket in itself.

But, next up on the German entertainers front:  Sigmar Polke is in town!