Monday, 20 June 2022

A Message in a Bottle


I recently bumped into a fellow pensioner in the supermarket, someone whose line-manager I used to be, and we had a pleasant catch-up chat about this and that while blocking the aisle with our trolleys, as is the right of all pensioners. It was enjoyable, and made me realise quite how much I miss the everyday human interactions of the workplace, despite not missing the workplace itself at all.

But it also prompted the thought that, unless you are by nature extroverted and gregarious, or perhaps just single and child-free, you will most likely have stopped making new friends in mid-life. Sure, there are the people whose company you enjoy at work, and there are the parents of your children's friends, as well as the odd congenial neighbour – let's not even think about social media "friends" – but these are not and will never be friends like the friends of your childhood and youth. You won't ever share a first cigarette or heartbreak at midnight in the park with these people, you'll never listen to their music or their secrets in their bedroom, and you will never have so much in common with them that you are all in effect just different avatars of whatever circumstances and influences you grew up with or grew into. You don't choose those friends any more than you choose your parents: they are a given of your most formative years. As I have said before, they are your elective family.

In an idle minute some while ago – there must have been a reason, but I can't now remember what it was – I started to make a list of the names of everyone I could recall whom I would, at some point in my life, have counted as a friend. It took a while – surnames can be annoyingly elusive – but in the end there were about 80 solid names in the list. Like most state-educated kids, I imagine, a few friends have been a constant from primary or secondary school right up to the present day, but I was surprised to discover that I am still at least "sort of" in touch with over a quarter of the listed names. I have no idea whether that is typical or not.

At least a further eight have died that I know of, but most of the rest are probably still out there somewhere, and revisiting the list put me into a sufficiently nostalgic mood to think of posting it here, as a sort of message in a bottle, floating on the internet. Who knew? Maybe the next time one of them googled their own name, or that of a mutual friend, they'd find this post and get in touch. What harm could it do? But then I realised: there are some very good reasons why I'm still in touch with some people, and not others. For a start, you don't necessarily like the people you once counted as friends, nor they you. You didn't really choose each other: you were simply there when it counted. The fact is that it was more the custom casually to lose contact in those pre-internet days than it was to stay in touch. A simple change of address would do it, and I myself had something like fifteen addresses between the ages of 20 and 30, which is probably fairly typical. Besides, the harsh truth is that fifty sometime friends had presumably never felt the need to get back in touch with me, either. I'm not difficult to find, after all.

That said, it can take a fair amount of searching skill to triangulate the right person on the internet. A name that is unique in one setting can be extremely common in another, and the internet has a way of obliterating all meaningful context; you're not so much looking for a needle in a haystack (and what a curious expression that is), as a needle in a haystack of needles. Take my own name, for example: it seems there are dozens of men called "Mike Chisholm" out there, especially in Canada, some of whom are also photographers, or artists, or librarians, or bloggers; although I'd hope no-one would confuse me with the bagpipers, politicians, and ice-hockey players. Scrutinising the sort of passport-quality photos that turn up online doesn't help much, either: it's very easy to convince yourself that some ageing, balding, jowly visage is a possible mutation of the fresh-faced young person you once knew, even though it usually isn't. The opposite can be true, too: I have at least three times stood face to face with old friends or work colleagues and not recognised them for who they were (OTOH I concede that I must start wearing my glasses).

In the end, all forms of nostalgia are a hunger that cannot be satisfied, a nagging pain that can never be assuaged, which is why it's best to avoid them. Someone else now lives in your childhood home, the fields you played in have been built over, and your old friends are as old as you and as irreversibly changed by their lives as you have been by yours. The chances that you still have anything in common are small. Probably the only real remedy is to have done the hard work of staying in touch, and to have gone through life's changes in parallel; otherwise your elective family, like those blood cousins you never see now except at family funerals, will become at best polite strangers, with rather less to say than the ex-colleagues you occasionally bump into in the supermarket.

The most surprising people can be afflicted by nostalgia, though. How about this curious extract I came across this week, from Situationist Guy Debord's last film, made in 1978, called In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni? That bizarre title, incidentally, is both a Latin palindrome and a riddle, which translates roughly as "We go round and round in the night and are consumed by fire" (spoiler: the official answer is "moths", not "drunks at a bonfire party"). It's well known, apparently, but something I'd never heard of before (a large category, admittedly); once you start digging into that haystack of needles, it quickly emerges as an extremely popular text within a certain demographic, including makers of indie music and bearers of pretentious tattoos. Hmm, Situationists, moths, night, circles... OK, I admit I could be in there, too, now, somewhere.


Wednesday, 15 June 2022

IHS

The weather has taken a summery turn (well, it is summer), and I took a walk across Southampton Common to the Old Cemetery earlier in the week. The Old Cemetery is a classic Victorian burial ground, crammed with crumbling tombstones and the sort of elaborate memorials that few, if any, would contemplate as a worthwhile expenditure in these days of low expectations where personal survival, resurrection, judgement, and the whole Christian after-sales package is concerned. Although it's true that in the still active Hollybrook Cemetery there are now some very large memorials erected recently by traveller families, which include photographs, fenced astro-turf enclosures, and even benches. From a photographic point of view old cemeteries are a well-worked source of clichés, but when the light is right they are irresistible.

Something that has always intrigued me, but which I had previously always forgotten to look up by the time I got home, is the frequency of the letters "IHS" at the top of many of the standard-issue tombstones, often as a gothic-looking interlaced monogram. I had presumed it stood for "in hope of salvation", or something of the sort. For once, though, I did remember to look it up, and was intrigued by what I found.

It seems that despite being so universally present, there is no actual agreement on what it means. That may be going a little too far – it clearly doesn't stand for "Idiotic Hat Services" or "Indecipherable Handwriting Syndrome" – but there does appear to be more than one interpretation. The most basic version is that this is a "Christogram", i.e. the first three letters of Jesus Christ’s name in Greek: iota eta sigma (when capitalised, the letter eta looks like an "H"). However, the memorial masons were clearly not classical scholars, and often rendered the letters in a gothicky black-letter lower-case (lower-case eta does not resemble "h", more a swashed "n"), so it can also be seen as a Latin initialism for Iesus Hominum Salvator (Jesus saviour of mankind), or In Hoc Salus ("Salvation / Safety in this"), or In Hoc Signo (sometimes expanded to IHSV, for In Hoc Signo Vinces i.e. "In this sign you shall conquer", a reference to the vision of Constantine before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge). Alleged English-language interpretations include "In His Service" and "In His Steps", but I prefer my instinctive "In Hope of Salvation". In the end, I think the words we are looking for here are "overdetermined" and "backronym".

Whether or not this symbol on a headstone marks a Catholic grave is debatable, but I find it hard to believe the population of 19th-century Southampton was quite so numerously un-Protestant, unless I'm just drawn to the more decorative headstones, which happen to be in an area reserved for Catholics. Certainly, in both the Old Cemetery and Hollybrook there is a reserved Jewish section, whose gravestones have their own conventions. The most admirable of these, to me, is the custom of placing a stone or pebble on the grave whenever it is visited. Like all customs, the origins and purposes behind this are obscure, but I like this explanation which I came across on the Web:

A beautiful answer takes it cue from the inscription on many gravestones. The Hebrew abbreviation taf, nun, tsadi, bet, hey stands for "teheye nishmato tsrurah b’tsror ha- chayyim", a phrase usually trans­lated "May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life".

Yet tsror in Hebrew means a pebble. In ancient times, shepherds needed a system to keep track of their flocks. On some days, they would go out to pasture with a flock of 30; on others, a flock of 10. Memory was an unreliable way of keeping tabs on the number of the flock. As a result, the shepherd would carry a sling over his shoulder, and in it he would keep the number of pebbles that cor­responded to the number in his flock. That way he could at all times have an accurate daily count.

When we place stones on the grave and inscribe the motto above on the stone, we are asking God to keep the departed’s soul in His sling. Among all the souls whom God has to watch over, we wish to add the name — the “pebble” — of the soul of our departed.
(Why Jews Put Stones on Graves)

Other methods of "disposal" are available, it seems...

Friday, 10 June 2022

Squaring the Circle


When it comes to digital imaging, I tend to have intermittent but intense bouts of productivity. These usually develop from some simple seed of an idea that somehow takes, germinates, and proliferates into a series of variations, which often seems to involve recycling elements of old work into new configurations. There's something analogous to evolutionary "pathways" about the way it works, and I imagine this is how most creative types who aren't working to commission get new things made. You feel a push or a pull in a certain direction, and just see where it takes you; sometimes nowhere, of course, but the ride is always fun.

In one of these bursts of activity over the last few days I have made about thirty new images – quite a few of them in several satisfactory alternative "states", so more like eighty – all stemming from the simple observation that the background of much of my digital work often has as much standalone visual interest as whatever figurative or decorative business I might have plonked down in front of it. So I started going back over old work, stripping out foreground detail and laying bare and re-emphasising the underlying colours, shapes, and patterns. In effect, I was de-cluttering; if only I could bring the same impulse to bear on our house...

It is very satisfying, and I can sense a new "pathway" forming. Inevitably, after a while this speculative, minimalist approach morphed into something less exploratory and more focussed, and I have had to resist the temptation to re-clutter. What seems to be emerging is a series mostly linked by the simple visual appeal of combining a square and a circle, one enclosing the other: "squaring the circle" and "circling the square", so to speak. Whether this is going to go somewhere or nowhere remains to be seen, but constructive fun is being had, and in the end what more can you ask?








Sunday, 5 June 2022

Whole Lotta Logging






In the woods out near Romsey, there's been a whole lotta logging going on. We were in Spearywell Wood at the weekend, and large areas of tall, straight beech and pine trees have recently been felled, leaving stumps and "brash" everywhere, and creating huge piles of logs. Many of the woodland trails have been churned up by tractor-sized wheels, leaving deep, water-filled tyre tracks. In places it looks rather like a war zone.

Trees can just fall over all by themselves, too, of course, even without anybody around to cause or witness the event, or to process the resulting vibrations into "sound" (there, solved that old philosophical chestnut for you). When they do fall over in an uncontrolled way, however, they have a habit of not reaching the ground, as in the example below. Or, worse, they leave large snagged branches behind dangling on neighbouring trees; a dangerous condition known to forest-workers as a "widow-maker".





Someone has a sense of humour...


Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Swifts

Does sitting here feel weird to you?
I have this sudden urge to fly to Africa...

Swifts are extraordinary birds. Many of us wait anxiously for their return in early May each year as evidence that, despite their declining numbers, "the globe’s still working, the Creation’s / Still waking refreshed" (Ted Hughes, "Swifts"). Our swifts – "ours", as in the ones that choose to fly over our street, and presumably nest somewhere nearby – turned up on the 10th, five days earlier than last year, but a full fifteen days later than in 2020, which was exceptionally early (I keep a phenological notebook of such things). Welcome back, guys!

There is an article on dwindling swift populations in the current RSPB magazine – down an appalling 58% since 1995 – which includes this rapid-fire recital of swiftiana:

Everything except nesting is done on the wing: eating, drinking (scooping raindrops or making low passes over still, open water), mating, sleeping (dolphin-like in part torpor, up near Earth's stratosphere), and preening and bathing (cruising slowly through rain). When they arrive at their nest, it will usually be the first time they've touched anything solid in 10 months. In the case of young birds (which begin breeding at four years old) it could be three years or more.

Three years on the wing! It is estimated that in an average lifetime (5.5 years) a swift will have flown 4 million miles, sometimes at speeds nudging 70 m.p.h., and all fuelled by nothing more than airborne spiders and flying insects. There must be some dietary secret they're not telling us, although it would take a lot to persuade me to eat flies and spiders ("Southampton residents are going crazy for this one weird energy diet"). Besides, as I have never yet seen a dead swift, I suspect that they eventually simply explode from an excess of fizz somewhere up in the stratosphere.

That recital of swift Fun Facts reminded me of a track on an album I bought back in 1980; in fact, one of the very last vinyl LPs I ever did buy. The album was Miniatures, a compilation of fifty-one one-minute tracks assembled by Morgan Fisher (one of those influential but uncelebrated been everywhere, done everything, worked with everyone types), and the track was "A Swift One" by the drummer of The Pretenders, Martin Chambers. If you listen to the track – it'll only take a minute – you'll see why it came to mind.

It seems the Miniatures album had a follow-up in 2000, and they have attracted something of a cult following. Which is not surprising: it's exactly the sort of thing that would. I see Morgan Fisher has even been blogging about it in recent years. The list of participants is extraordinary: from R.D. Laing and Michael Nyman to Fred Frith and Robert Fripp, via Gavin Bryars and Ivor Cutler. If you have never heard of any of those luminaries, then you were clearly never the target audience for the album. That's what makes this a cult record, of course, along with the unifying concept, the DIY aesthetic, and the small-label limited distribution. It's a perfect piece of cultish, "underground", alternative art-making from the late 1970s. It's also utterly self-indulgent, and remarkably boring. I think I listened to it twice. I still have it, however, complete with its poster, as it seemed destined to become a "collector's piece" (my shelves are full of such white elephants waiting for their moment).

In retrospect, I think that album marks the point when I finally realised and came to accept the difference between what I thought I should like, and the things that I actually liked, which is a sort of maturity, I suppose. In 1980 I was 26, coming towards the end of my first contract of employment as a "graduate trainee" in Bristol University Library, and at that critical stage when one has finally to choose between, on the one hand, the vague hope that a hedonistic youth based on an "alternative" lifestyle might be an infinitely extendable condition and, on the other, taking a long, sober look down the rocky road ahead in order to make some decisions about life as an adult. I chose the latter, not without regrets, but in the process seemed to free myself from the sort of snobbish group-think that used to emanate from the pages of achingly hip, fashion-forward music weeklies like the NME. The fact was that at 26 I already felt too old for punk and its aggressively adolescent posturing (despite the fact that most punk acts were actually around my age), and I was ready to admit that I really didn't care if I never heard Trout Mask Replica, "free jazz", Miniatures, or any atonal music ever again in my life. Or, indeed, anything whose sole attraction was its rebarbative cleverness or difficulty, like a high fence topped with razor wire, surrounding nothing very much at all.

But something I liked then and still do, is to watch those high-flying, high-performance birds, the swifts, swallows, and martins. Just to stand and watch them. There's a meadow next to the Itchen Navigation canal near Winchester where you can stand on the waterside path and be buzzed at high speed by them as they flicker in low for a sip of water or to take mayflies. It's an amazing, mesmerising experience, and one that I enjoyed amplified to the max in 1981, on a narrow path halfway up the Cares Gorge in the Picos de Europa of Northern Spain, where an open aqueduct has been engineered into the rockface, and swallows zip in to dip their beaks within feet of your face, like a living museum diorama. If I had to think of a musical equivalent to what it might be like to be one of those birds, I suppose it would have to be "A Short Ride in a Fast Machine", by John Adams. Whoosh!

Do you ever get the feeling that none of this is real?


Thursday, 26 May 2022

Tides



There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Julius Caesar, Act IV, scene 3
Over the centuries, the words of Shakespeare's Brutus, quoted above, will have struck a plangent chord in the hearts of many who somehow missed an important boat for which they had a ticket in their pocket, or at least thought they did. If you don't pick yourself up pretty smartly, you really can spend a lifetime hanging around on the dock of the bay, gazing at the horizon, watching the tide rolling in, wondering whether that ship will ever return – it won't – and what life might have been like had you only stepped aboard when the opportunity presented itself all those years ago.

I have no real complaints about my own life; shallows and miseries have not been my lot, and I am only rarely haunted by what might have been, had I but known the scope of ambition that once lay open before me. To be perfectly honest, I had very little idea what serious ambition was, or how you were supposed to go about pursuing it, at the time in my life when it might have made a difference. I can't speak for the privately educated, but aspiration as an extreme sport has never been taught or encouraged in state schools, even in the old grammar schools; your horizon was set at low-risk, achievable goals, defined by hard work, exam passes, and well-trodden career paths. Anything else was terra incognita, a mapless waste, a place to be avoided where dragons roamed, and the bones of reckless adventurers lay scattered on the ground.
 
There was a wisdom in this. By ignoring the existence of the Chancer's Boat, the one that goes on risky voyages to parts unknown, legions of us made it instead onto the ferry that crosses on a regular timetable from the world of precarious wage-work to salaried, well-pensioned comfort. Result! In fact, I'm pretty sure places on that Chancer's Boat cannot be guaranteed or reserved; there are no tickets, travel agents, or tour guides that will get you on board. Apart from the occasional innocent, fatefully or accidentally embarked on an astonishing adventure, getting aboard takes a special kind of motivation, the sharp-elbowed sort that takes no prisoners, brooks no opposition, and whatever other clichés of ruthless self-interest you care to mention. Even a Shakespeare or an Einstein must have had 3 a.m. twinges of regret at the betrayals, backstabbings, and outright thievery that would, I'm sure, have seemed entirely necessary along the way.

The thing about "exceptionalism" – the conviction that the normal rules don't apply to you – is that it quickly becomes a murky business, however pure its genesis. Despite what the "follow your dream" gurus would have us believe, to be gifted with game-changing abilities is not a career choice, an option open to anyone; not even to some clever narcissist endowed with over-abundant self-belief like our current Prime Minister. I'm sure a Shakespeare or an Einstein must have known who and what they were; that they were truly exceptional, the Real Thing, generation-defining geniuses. But, even so, raw talent is never enough in itself. Realising outstanding potential, like crime, depends on opportunity, motive, and means. 

Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard" (1751) is rightly regarded as one of the ornaments of English literature. At its core, the poem can be boiled down into a simple message: an awful lot of people with great potential have had to live simple, constrained lives, but this may have been no bad thing, given the harm done by ruthless power-seekers, and besides we're all gonna die, innit? (Trust me, I'm an Oxford-trained literary critic [1]). As a piece of ideology Gray's poem is open to all sorts of retrospective sniping – its melancholy quietism is pretty conservative – but its heart is sound and its sheer quality as a piece of verse keeps it buoyant in the literary charts. But it does raise the question: how many "mute inglorious Miltons" or "village-Hampdens" (nothing to do with football, apparently) still live unacknowledged and unfulfilled among us? And, provided they promise not to "wade through slaughter to a throne" – always a risk – what could or should be done about it?

To my mind, there have only ever been two answers: better schools and better social housing. "Better schools", that is, in the sense of safe, creative, and stimulating environments, staffed by excellent, well-paid, child-oriented professionals, who are capable of recognising and nurturing the many varieties of talent, but are also dedicated to bringing the best out of perfectly ordinary children. It doesn't seem a lot to ask. Such schools exist (apart from the "well-paid" bit) but that should be the description of all state schools everywhere. Sadly, it isn't. And "better social housing" means good, safe, well-maintained homes at an affordable rent for everyone who needs one, provided and managed by the local authority. The greatest and most consequential 20th-century crime in Britain was the selling off of our council housing, and the prevention of local authorities from remedying the situation by building more. I do not think this is an exaggeration. Without the good schools and council housing that came as standard with life in a British "New Town" in the 1950s and 60s, my life and those of everyone I grew up with would have been very different.

But, beyond those essential basics, we also need to shift the focus of aspiration within our neglected and under-resourced communities. Far too much attention is paid to the exceptional: the Premier League footballer, the champion boxer, the TV show host, the popular musical act, and all the other celebrity poster-people for improbable, lottery-scale "success". It's understandable, but nothing constrains social mobility as effectively as the idea that life is an all-or-nothing gamble. The true nature of the systematic, embedded privilege of the well-established, well-placed, and well-to-do is well-hidden behind the attention-grabbing blind of these wild-card outliers. By focussing ambition on flashy careers in broadcasting, music, and sport, too many young lives are doomed to disappointment – "shallows and miseries", indeed – their eyes having been diverted from the true prize: regular places on the ferry that leads from the world of precarious wage-work to solid middle-class professional jobs, secured by pursuing those low-risk, achievable goals, defined by hard work, exam passes, and well-trodden career paths. Boring, but true.

So, come on: the tide is in twice a day, and the boat leaves according to the published timetable. All aboard!




1. I think I've complained before about the "[university name]-trained" formula, encountered so frequently in journalism and popular literature. Other universities may differ in their approach, and things may have changed in more recent decades, but at the three universities at which I happened to study, "training" in any meaningful sense was not on the curriculum. In fact, I would suggest that the more prestigious the institution, the less likely anything resembling the "training" I would expect a plumber or an athlete to undergo will be taking place.

Friday, 20 May 2022

Sea City


Heh... I really must stop giggling whenever I see the words "Southampton City of Culture", which – given we're in the final run-off for that bizarre and temporary title – I see quite often around here. It's not big, and it's not clever, Michael: this is a serious business. We really don't see what is so funny. So, what do you say to Mr. Southampton?

Sorry, Mr. Southampton.
Louder?
Sorry, Mr. Southampton.

Anyway. To continue the subject of open exhibitions, there is going to be one in our wonderful City Art Gallery, one of the true bastions of actual culture around here, and I will naturally be entering a couple of submissions. My hopes are not high, though, as it's linked to the City of Culture bid, as you might expect, but themed as answers to the question: "What does culture mean to you?". Which, you have to suspect, really means, "Look, world, at what a bright, bushy-tailed, diverse, and vibrantly multicultural city we have here!" Which is hardly my stock in trade. I also suspect there won't be many pictures of people on a sofa watching Strictly, Bridgerton, or Sky Sports, which is what, I'm pretty sure, "culture" means to the vast majority of my neighbours.

However, in the process of looking through my files for possible entries, I've come across a number of overlooked photographs which – although hardly serving as any sort of answer to that particular question – struck me as worth sharing here, as they give a decent impression of life with a major port as your next-door neighbour, and the sea a few doors down.










Chim chiminey, chim chiminey... On the rooftops of Sarfampton, cor, wot a sight! (Apologies, if you find you can't get that out of your head in a hurry...).

Sunday, 15 May 2022

Salon des Refusés

This post might well have been titled "Rejection, an Ode" (with apologies to S.T. Coleridge). I like showing my work in public from time to time, which means submitting entries to whatever suitable "open" exhibitions come up during the year which will accept digital images or photographs (too few, and a question of prejudice, frankly, a subject on which I have already vented) and are also neither too far away nor too demanding in terms of presentation. Inevitably, this means being prepared to deal with rejection, and to swallow the "wasted" costs of entry, framing, and travel.

These days, most open exhibitions hold an initial online submission round, which is obviously no problem at all for those of us working digitally, but must be a pain for painters and sculptors: getting a decent photograph of artwork is a skill in its own right, although as I discovered in the Holborne Museum in Bath recently, a good phone camera and a steady hand can do a pretty good job. From that first round a shortlist is produced, and artists are then requested to deliver their actual work, framed, labelled, and ready to hang, as per the (often very detailed) instructions. It's then a question of whether whoever is doing the "hang" likes what they see. I always get the impression that it's not so much the quality of the individual works, as such, that guides the final selection but more what will go with what, and what won't, especially if some submissions (e.g. from members of whatever society or organisation is doing the show) are guaranteed wall space.

It can seem more like an exercise in decorating a room than anything else. I mean, look at the way those pictures have been chosen to surround the enormous Anselm Kiefer canvas at the Royal Academy like a frame, below, or the way the others have been tiled into a dense floor to ceiling "salon hang". The lack of respect rather qualifies any sense of achievement, doesn't it?

Annoying as outright rejection in that initial round is, even more annoying is the experience of getting shortlisted, going to the trouble of framing and delivering your work, and then being rejected, which happens more often than I'd like. For example, the picture I took up to Bath last week didn't make it onto the wall. Why not? Well, I suppose I shouldn't presume my work looks as good to others as it does to me – de gustibus and all that – but, to be honest, I suspect that the widespread prejudice against digital work and photography often comes into play. Sure, we say we'll accept digital and photograph submissions, and like enough of what we see to shortlist it, but how many of those giclée things do we really want on our walls? I mean, are these people really artists, or just camera clickers and computer jockeys?

So I thought it would be nice to put together a gallery of some the digital collages I have submitted in recent times and had rejected, after the model of the classic Salon des Refusés. Welcome! Take your time, look around, and if anything takes your fancy I'm sure we can come to some sort of arrangement. OTOH, if nothing does, well, that might even be a tribute to your taste and discrimination.











Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Bath Time


On the train to Bath, in disguise

Despite a long acquaintance with Bristol, I am far less familiar with its more upscale, tourist-infested, and smaller neighbour, Bath. I've been there, of course, but never felt inclined to stay any longer than necessary. Like, say, Oxford, you get the impression that beyond the historic town centre there is nothing of much interest for the non-resident that cannot just as easily be had at home. Bristol is, by comparison, much larger, multi-faceted, grimier, more diverse, and more diverting.

But, as I had to be in Bath on Saturday to deliver a shortlisted picture to this year's Bath Society of Artists Open Exhibition at the Victoria Gallery, we thought we'd make an afternoon of it and visit the Holburne Museum, which is hosting a touring exhibition of Tudor portraits from the National Portrait Gallery. So, for the first time, I crossed the famous Pulteney Bridge, and walked up Great Pulteney Street, which is wide and awesomely grand, and easy to imagine thronged with carriages and elegant Regency types looking for whatever passed for fun in those days. This undoubted architectural splendour with its Jane Austen-ish resonances is one of the main reasons tourists flock to Bath (although Austen herself hated the place, apparently). Bristol has Georgian architecture, too, but much of it was built by speculators looking for a quick profit, and is in a poor state of repair now.

I like Tudor portraiture – Holbein's drawings, especially – so it was disappointing to discover that this was a relatively small exhibition (just one modestly-sized room) and that many of the paintings (and nearly all of the Holbeins) were, in fact, later copies done by less skilful hands. Never mind, it was still worth the opportunity to get really close to some intricate work. Historical interest aside, the thing that can't help but strike you is that these painters – or rather, the patrons for such paintings, and the purposes for which they were intended – were far more interested in clothing, symbols of office, and bling than they were in actual faces, bodies, and hands. Women, especially, and Elizabeth I in particular, come off as shop-window mannequins draped in statement clothing, an impression not helped by the fading of certain red pigments over the centuries, leaving female faces and hands as just smooth, plaster-pale shapes. But those clothes! That bling! So intricately wrought, and so carefully and convincingly painted.

Henry VII

Elizabeth I

Some guy, probably a peasant

One thing I learned though: a phone is superb for use in the semi-dark and uneven illumination of gallery conditions. I've always found it a bit unreliable, trying to use a "proper" camera to photograph paintings in museums and galleries, hand-held, but the iPhone delivered every time. So I have made a mental note not to sneer at those odd folk assiduously photographing the entire contents of some museum with their phones, unless they keep getting in my way.

Thursday, 5 May 2022

Hyperventilation


High time for another rant, I think.

The following quotation is the actual description of a photobook published recently by a highly-reputable specialist publishing house. I've substituted personal and place names on the advice of my highly-paid legal team, but it is otherwise exactly as found:

In the early 1990s, Taylor Swift began working on and off in the small southern German town of Kaum zu Glauben, compiling a documentary and fictional portrait of a place inhabited by historical apparitions. April employs polaroids made between 2001 and 2006 to explore the liminal existence of images that would seem documentary but were actually premeditated and treated with the tools of studio photography. Aware of the demons and pitfalls of historical authority, Swift probes at the space between identification and critique in posed, referentially layered portraits which evoke the performative traditions of fetishism and uniform and the place of history between distance and desire.

Artists' statements and publisher's blurbs are easy targets, but I think this one is something of a minor classic.

Where to begin? Well, for a start, by looking at some actual sample images, which are – really? – mainly affectless monochrome snaps of bare-chested youths wearing or holding items of military gear, at least one of them tarted up with a feather boa to suggest, rather limply, a Night Porter-ish Nazified decadence. I find it hard to imagine who would find these distinctly dull and utterly unerotic pictures of interest, or why a major publisher would go to the trouble of publishing them. The notable thing, though, is that this book, like so many, is being pitched entirely on the basis of the photographer's declared intentions: she is "exploring" and "probing", she is "aware" of certain pitfalls and is setting up a sort of trap for what are presumed to be our expectations. "Damn, I though these were documentary photos, but – doh! – they're all staged!" I mean, south German youths are notoriously in the habit of lounging about with their tops off and posing listlessly with peaked caps and steel helmets, aren't they? Not actual Nazi stuff, obviously; that would be illegal, as opposed to merely tasteless. But it's hardly surprising that we might mistake these for documentary photos! So clever.

Any photographic project that has to explain its intentions in order to be appreciated is off to a bad start, really. Worse, such descriptions are typically riddled with the sort of artspeak that seeks to imply that some art-school graduate who has cobbled a visual sequence together is somehow engaged in a solemn philosophical investigation simply because they say they are or, more likely, has been told that they should be. Photographs of nothing in particular are said to "gesture at", "embody", "reference", or to "evoke" abstract concepts that are not actually present in the frame (how could they be?), in the same way one might say that a series of completely blank, unexposed frames imply everything that might have been photographed but wasn't, as the artist probes and enacts the void created by the contemporary ennui of inaction, faced with overwhelming anxieties about climate change, social injustice, fossil fuels, dairy farming, and whatever else is on the approved list of exhausting and triggering stuff out there.

Of course, something very like that has already been done, and rather a long time ago. Rauschenberg's "white paintings" (literally blank canvases, painted white) were done in 1951, swiftly followed in 1952 by John Cage's 4'33" (that is, four minutes and thirty-three seconds during which the assembled musicians do not play their instruments). Crucially, though, the point of both of these works was not to "gesture" at some factitious significance – to point up how "hideously white" the art world is, perhaps – but to focus the attention of the viewer or listener on whatever ambient light and sounds were happening at the time: to be here now. Very Zen, John. Just ignore the musicians and attend closely instead to the revelatory sound of your neighbour shuffling restlessly in her seat. The Wikipedia page on 4' 33"  contains an illuminating art-historical passage:

Since the Romantic Era composers have been striving to produce music that could be separated from any social connections, transcending the boundaries of time and space. In automatism, composers wish to completely remove both the composers and the artist from the process of creation. This is motivated by the belief that what we think of as "self-expression" is really just an infusion of the art with the social standards that we have been subjected to since birth. Therefore, the only way to achieve truth is to remove the artist from the process of creation. Cage achieves that by employing chance (e.g., use of the I Ching, or tossing coins) to make compositional decisions. In 4′33″, neither artist nor composer has any impact on the piece, so that Cage has no way of controlling what ambient sounds will be heard by the audience.

It's an interesting question why anyone thinks there is a "truth" independent of and corruptible by the artist's social being – as if the only truly truthful visual work of art would be a perfectly transparent, randomly-located window – but perhaps not as interesting as why such self-cancelling artists persist in making a career out of and putting their name tag (not to mention a price tag) on work from which they had allegedly been trying to eliminate themselves. Somehow, whatever the philosophical justification, I don't think a self-declared electrician who left a house without any wires or sockets, or a hands-off doctor whose practice was always to let nature take its course, would be able to pay any bills, or indeed escape prosecution. But, through the efforts of 20th century pioneers like these, artists have managed to lay claim to an oddly privileged status, whereby whatever they do (or don't do) is art, simply because they say so. This inevitably leads to an obsession in some quarters with art as a form of intellectual enquiry, and to meta-gestures that "interrogate" the nature of the medium at the expense of "mere" skill and subject matter.

The trouble with meta-gestures is that they can't really be repeated: each one is its own evolutionary dead end. Finding yet another way to declare, for example, that "This is just a flat surface with marks on it!" gets pretty boring after the first fifty years. It is essentially a version of "The Emperor's New Clothes", except that in this fable a tiresome kibitzer points out repeatedly not that the emperor is naked but that the emperor is naked beneath all his fine clothes. Well, sure, but...

The other, more pernicious problem is that this peculiar privilege, once established, gives permission to any second- or third-rate mind with an MFA degree to posture as an Important Thinker, something no actual philosophy graduate would ever contemplate. Yes, you say these photographs "probe at the space between identification and critique in posed, referentially layered portraits which evoke the performative traditions of fetishism and uniform and the place of history between distance and desire", but I'm not seeing it, and I'm not sure I care. Got anything more colourful to go with my new sofa?

Here's another publisher's puff, less pretentious, perhaps, but equally annoying:

Paris Park Perambulations features spectacular images from a dozen public parks and gardens in and near France's capital city. Exploring many of the same places that photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927) made famous a century ago, Peter Plodder references the pleasures and pitfalls of wandering alone amongst trees and plants and sculpture, unkempt and formally designed places, tempered by the knowledge that the modern world with all its congestion is only a few short steps away. Few people venture into the frame of Plodder's photographs, but the promise of a renewed sense of hope and community resides in the details of his visual encounters and the moments of his heightened attention. Each picture speaks to us as a moment in time, even as the sequence suggests a choreography of place, one that can vary daily along with the changing moods and light of each park. Paris Park Promenades is presented in a bilingual English/French edition and concludes with an afterword by Riverine Po. Of note is how the book's design is inspired by Walker Evans's 1938 classic work, American Photographs, making Plodder's book of immediate interest to photo and book collectors.

 In rather fewer words, this is a book of fairly ordinary monochrome photographs taken in some Paris parks. That's it. Pretty much everything else that is asserted about the book is pure projection, wishful thinking, and the sort of hyperventilated puff that expands to fill the space available. To be fair, I suspect it may have been translated from French, in which language pneumatic hyperbole is mandatory. But in what possible way could the declaration that "the promise of a renewed sense of hope and community resides in the details of his visual encounters and the moments of his heightened attention" be true of these particular photographs that is not equally true of any other collection of urban photographs? Are we really to imagine that the sheer force of Plodder's gaze invests a scene with socially transformative potential? Wow, that's some superpower! And what photograph has ever not been "a moment in time"? Above all, when faced with words that have designs on my responses such as "spectacular", "speaks to us", and "immediate interest", I'm afraid my reaction will always be: Well, I'll be the judge of that, thanks.

Namedropping is another common but high-risk strategy. It's a variety of marketing by association ("people who enjoyed Jane Austen also bought Barbara Cartland"), a way of inviting the reader to join some cultural dots and thus place the work in question within a certain cultural lineage. In this case, though, you can't mention Atget and Walker Evans – two very big dots to join with a single line – and not invite suspicions of hubris. Although I can't help admiring the desperation of the idea that to borrow the design format of one famous book is to guarantee the desirability of another. If you enjoyed American Photographs...

As I say, these are easy targets. But, as someone with an abiding interest in both photography and photo-books, I object to being subjected to this constant clamour for attention by so many prematurely-published photographers who are neither creating visually striking photographs nor breaking new artistic ground, but who instead hope to invest their dull, derivative work with the borrowed gravitas of entirely spurious, non-visual points of reference. Not to mention this curious desire to appropriate the dowdy glamour of the academy and its headache-inducing jargon. In the end, you can talk your way onto an MFA programme, you can talk your way into a commission, you can even talk your way into getting published, but you can't talk me into liking your pictures, no matter how sympathetic I might be towards the issues and causes you want to persuade me to associate with them. I'm always going to prefer the good art of an unreconstructed devil over the bad but well-meaning art of a saint.

Rant over. That feels better. Time for a restful and contemplative four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence in front of a blank white wall. I'm sure I've got the Cage CD somewhere. Or maybe I'll hire some musicians to play absolutely nothing, live, and then only pretend to pay them. As artists they'll appreciate the gesture, I'm sure.


Saturday, 30 April 2022

Easter Gallery



It's a beautiful day, get your boots on, we're going for a walk!

Do we have to?

Looking towards Penybont

Ominous cloud over Radnor Forest

Bright morning near Dolau
 
Meanwhile, back in Bristol...

Avon Gorge, Portishead Branch Line

Clifton Village jeweller