Saturday, 13 December 2014

(Not Yet) Five Gold Rings

Something for the tree...

Generally, people react favourably to my "rings", even if they are sometimes puzzled by their purpose, or troubled by these departures from "straight" photography.  For me, they're a welcome excursion into the world of graphic design, a congenial place where I probably should have spent more of my life.  This year, I produced a (very) limited run of a calendar featuring twelve rings, and it has been well-received by the lucky recipients, I'm glad to say.

People who have come late to this story (or who have not been paying enough attention!) ask me about the "What?", "Why?", and "How?" of these images, so I'm putting in this post the account that will feature on my (forthcoming) revised webpage.

Here it is:
High fever, hallucinogens, and penny-plain imagination can all reveal the demonic visages and intricate patterns that seem to lurk just beyond everyday reality, grinning and gurning at us from behind the one-way mirror of our perception.  Our minds make faces where there are none, and delight in complex, repetitive, interlocking patterns.  These are the universals of folk art and decorative culture.

I have always felt ambivalent about the appropriation of "folk traditions" by suburbanites.  Like any suburban adolescent since the 1950s, I learned to swim in the deep post-modern waters of inauthenticity.  Is it really any less authentic for a British teenager to sing about Route 66 in an accent borrowed from Muddy Waters (via Mick Jagger) than about Ratcliffe Highway in an accent borrowed from Bob Copper (via Martin Carthy)?  I wonder. Advocates of “authenticity” tend to be reactionary.  The appeal of natural materials, the fit and finish of the hand-made, these all invoke a way of life pre-dating the industrial "mass" culture that released most of us from relentless toil into suburban comfort (released us, too, from the oppressive "idiocy of rural life").

And yet, obviously, even the inhabitants of wired suburbia have ancestors. Local cultures persist, despite globalisation.  The obliteration of minority languages is surely as tragic as the extinction of animal species.  The idea that certain cultural traits and combinations "belong" to certain peoples is a powerful one, but at the same time a dangerous one; the attraction of the “authentic” needs to be balanced by an awareness that we are formed by our social and economic lives far more than by our biology.  Otherwise, that way nationalism and racism lie.

All this to explain a simple fact: in an idle moment in 2004 I began to take my images of the natural world and the landscape and run them through a series of digital manipulations and symmetrical repetitions, rendered into a variety of shapes.  I found circles and hollow "rings" were the most satisfying of these.  Invariably, I found a kind of pagan, decorative imagery emerging, replete with grotesque inversions, couplings and transformations (the smiling faces that became demonic backsides), and exciting colour patterns.  Many cultural boxes were ticked -- Saxon jewellery, Tibetan mandalas, North American medicine wheels, African baskets, Mayan calendars, etc.

A narrative started to tell itself around these objects.  I amused myself by imagining and elaborating the discovery of a hoard of magical, impossible objects by a detectorist, the back-stories of how they got there, and their subsequent conservation, analysis and display.  Some rings were clearly artefacts manufactured by ordinary, if highly-skilled, craftsmen, wrought from recognisable materials, worked with familiar techniques, and used and well-worn over long reaches of time. Many are now in need of conservation and care, but some are as indestructible as a steel hubcap.

Others would seem to be the work of magicians, conjuring impossible, other-worldly things.  For example, a torus of bright, mobile water in which two miniature trout swim, eternally.  There's one cabinet in the museum that won't need hydration, at least; just a supply of fruit-flies, to encourage the trout to leap periodically into space and fall back into their watery domain, to the delight of younger visitors.  In another case, a ring contains a roiling furnace of crystalline, cold fire, full of shape-shifting faces and figures:

   In what distant deeps or skies
   Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
   On what wings dare he aspire?
   What the hand dare seize the fire?
   William Blake, The Tyger

To paraphrase Ted Hughes' Crow, "Mine, evidently".  [Cue maniacal laugh...]

One day there will be a book, possibly an exhibition, but I’ve been playing around with these for a decade, and feel no need, yet, to stop.
Of course, the exact "how" will have to remain something of a trade secret, but anyone with a degree of skill in Photoshop will see no great mysteries there.

Mr. Blake's clocks


Zouk Delors said...

Our minds make faces where there are none

That's called ideo... ideo... ideosomethingorother

PS No credit for Blake (wasn't it?)?

Mike C. said...


"Pareidolia", is the word.

No, no credit needed, if you mean the bottom rings -- these are all 100% made out of my own photographs. No additives!


Mike C. said...


Sorry, you meant the quote from "The Tyger" didn't you -- simple oversight! Fixed now.


Zouk Delors said...

That's it.

Another quote for your spiel:

"'Cos we're the fishes, and all we do:
A-move about is all we do", Syd Barret, Terrapin from The Madcap Laughs