Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Snails in Outer Space

"Originality" is a much prized but highly-questionable property (or, if you prefer, it is a highly-contested category). In art, the relationship between "originality" and "quality" is especially difficult in times like these, when the former trumps the latter in the really high-stakes games of aesthetic judgement. Indeed, Originality may even be said to have successfully launched a hostile takeover bid for Quality, with the confusing result that the two are now trading under the same name; let's call it Novelty.

The cult of Novelty means that "value" attaches more easily to new things than to good things, not least because no-one can agree which the good things are. It's a hell of a lot easier to agree which are the novelties, and slap a price ticket on them. I'm sure you can think of your own examples.

The awkward twin of Originality is, of course, Imitation, a.k.a. Influence, Admiration, Appropriation, Plagiarism, and Downright Copyright Theft. I think it was Victor Lewis-Smith who declared that "Imitation is the sincerest form of being an unoriginal thieving bastard". Few things make the art world more unhappy (and its lawyers more jubilant) than to accuse a well-regarded artist of "unacknowledged appropriation" -- it's regarded as the height of bad manners. It's all very well for Picasso to say that "good artists borrow, great artists steal" but, as someone else said, "show me a hit tune and I'll show you a copyright infringement lawsuit". Hey, ask Richard Prince or Shepard Fairey...

I only mention this because I came across some work on the web that, in another universe, might have me speed-dialling my lawyer (needless to say I neither have a lawyer nor any speed-dial settings on my phone). A long time ago, when the Recording Angel's camera still used film, I started experimenting with circular imagery. I would scan film, and play about with masks, layers and selections in Photoshop to produce imagery that resembled (OK, ripped off) the "look and feel" of the work done by Emmet Gowin in the 1960s, when he put a lens for a 5" x 4" camera onto the lensboard of an 8" x 10" camera, capturing the whole image circle on the negative, edge distortion and all. I would produce this sort of thing:

Very Emmet Gowin, wouldn't you say? Those who know my Mysterious Barricades series will see the family resemblance. Anyway, as I proceeded in the direction of Originality from Influence, m'Lud, I began to make a series of images I conceived of as "planets": round sections of natural patterns floating in black space. Like these:

I especially like the polar cap on the second one, which you'll notice is actually a photograph of those wiggly trails that snails rasp away as they snack on algae. But in the end I thought they were a bit gimmicky and just simple-minded novelties, so after showing a few at a local gallery in a group exhibition in 2004 I just used the odd one here and there to liven up a sequence. Again, you may recognize them from my White Crow Telescope book.

But then last week I stumbled over this website. I was astonished. I am pretty sure I have never heard of Elaine Duigenan, though she's clearly working up a bit of a career for herself, and I'm even more certain she's never heard of me, or visited the ArtSway Gallery. The resemblance is more than a little striking. But, all paranoia aside, it has to be a clear case of parallel evolution, or a convergence on what, in retrospect, is an obvious idea. Though I do wonder what sort of meal m'learned friends might have made of it?

She's welcome to them. I still think it's a gimmicky and simple-minded idea. And, frankly, flying one of your "planet" pictures into space on the Space Shuttle Atlantis and having it photographed by an astronaut, as Elaine Duigenan has done, is beyond gimmicky, though it does show good use of contacts at a level most of us cannot even aspire to and, above all, an eye for that all important Novelty factor.

Elaine asserts that "The round images encourage the viewer to consider Earth and the implications of our existence." Well, maybe yes, maybe no. I get the impression that originality of thought may not be her strong suit, though some of her other sequences, for example "Bottle", are visually very striking and strong.* Just don't ever tell me how much her pictures sell for at the aptly-named Kerching Klompching Gallery in New York.

*Though whether the Keith Arnatt of "Canned Sunsets" might have a view on the originality of their striking-ness is another question.


Bronislaus Janulis said...

Snails indeed!

You can't be too original; nobody will get it.

As to the "foundations" that all artists build on, thieving or not, it just is.

There is something in the collective unconscience that has us unknowingly doing similar projects.

Nice post, Mike.

Struan said...

I think everyone goes through a snail trail phase. I combined mine with the marram-grass windscrape trope. And a twig, of course.


I like round pictures. In my teenage years I would escape from family shopping trips to the city art gallery in Southampton, and first stop was always the school-of Botticelli tondo in the entrance hall. Raging hormones probably had as much to do with it as any advanced aesthetic sense (B's angels are *hot*) but the preference stuck.

Round photographs remind me unavoidably of looking down a telescope or microscope. They induce a sense that the thing depicted should be interpreted scientifically, not just as art. Your crow pics work well in this way.

Duigenan's snail trails just don't work for me. The titles and surrounding apparatus just reinforce the sense that the photographs are clever constructions aimed at the market, with accompanying special pleading to make it look like she's done some real work. Real gastropod ecology papers are far more interesting.

Mike C. said...

"Real gastropod ecology papers are far more interesting" ...

Indeed! I have a much neglected interest in scientific illustration -- when I was a boy I was a natural history enthusiast, loved to draw, and spent hours gazing at illustrations in nat. hist. tomes, so it seemed a natural way to go. I love the techniques of "rendering", and the vocabulary of "Fig. A", etc.

Do you know the work of Rosamond Wolff Purcell? She has made the photography of biological museum specimens all her own -- if you don't have it, I highly recommend the book "Finders, Keepers", co-authored with Stephen Jay Gould.


Mike C. said...


"You can't be too original" -- at first I thought you meant this in the spirit of "you can't be too thin or too rich" ...

There are certainly a lot of similar projects out there -- the Web seems almost designed to expose how like each other we really are. A good thing, really.


Bronislaus Janulis said...


Bronislaus Janulis said...


Here is a fine example of "ungettable"art:


I mention this due to a curious conversation with an art curator; the chairs came up, and I mentioned that I didn't think most people saw how odd they are, with only 2 legs. He was a little surprised that he didn't see that in a conscious way himself.

Artist's statments, and I don't exclude myself, can be some of the most cringeingly fatuous writing.

Mike C. said...

The chair is very beautiful, Bron, and looks like it might be fun to use on ice. I envy your ability to craft things with wood -- something I wish I could do, but tools and I just don't get on (being left-handed is my usual excuse, but I can't even plane a square edge...).

Mind you, I think the Health & Safety people would have things to say about those instep-piercing rear rockers -- ouch!

Yes -- if I'm feeling down and blue I don't give a little whistle, but read a few artist's statements! One day someone will collect some of them into a big fat anthology and make a fortune in the Christmas humour market...


Struan said...

Purcell's work looks interesting. I'll have to see if I can find her books - they're oddly absent from amazon-uk.

I'm a big fan of C18th and C19th scientific engravings. The pure-line style of drawing and shading really stands out now that everything is smooth and anti-aliased for online presentation.

I've seen older chairs that low described as 'nursing' chairs several times, although I'm not sure the spikes are baby-safe. It does look like a nordic 'spark', as designed by Arthur Rackham.


Mike C. said...

"they're oddly absent from amazon-uk"

?? You must be mispelling - it's Rosamond Wolff Purcell, just "wolff purcell" should do it. Double ff.


Paul Mc Cann said...

Rosamond Wolff Purcell

"Finders, Keeper"


A search under her name and the book title turns up various copies for sale around the world

Struan said...


I never could spell.

Bronislaus Janulis said...


"Nursing chair". Yes, thanks, I'll add that to my site.

For my foundation on the chairs, see Sam Maloof, and Rackham and Earnest Shepherd, as well.

Struan said...

I see a bit of Hieronymus Bosch in there too :-)

AJP Crown said...

Thank you for the "Finders Keepers" recommendation. If you find the book on amazon uk, you can look through it & see some of the photographs.

I don't find any of the round pictures look much like planets. The lines and patterns don't make them appear spherical; they're flat. They'd make a good Flat Earth Society show. But yours don't have to look like like planets, they work fine as what they are. Her snails are a bit of a problem, because if they aren't planets, then why are they round? In general, I thought Elaine Duigenan's presentation of her own work was very pretentious, which is too bad for her.

I like your site!