Monday 28 November 2016

Book Club 2016

Here we go again. Christmas is coming, and the papers are full of "books of the year" lists. Those lists can be very strange, especially in the heavyweights like the TLS, where the choices are often not so much recommendations as competitive confessions of irredeemable bookishness. Although the Le Carré and Springsteen autobiographies do get quite a few mentions this year – times have changed. Maybe that Dylan Nobel has been having an effect, or maybe it's the main symptom of the changes.

I've been trying to resist book-buying this year, which means I've still probably bought rather more than a normal person buys in a decade. In the interests of relieving pressure on shelf-space, though, I've tried to restrict myself to small books wherever possible (and Kindle books are really small). I've never really enjoyed BIG books, anyway, and can't understand the hunger for them (I think I've mentioned before how Richard Misrach's Chronologies, too big to fit on any shelf, just hangs around waiting to trip someone up).

So, for what it's worth, here are a few of my recommendations:

1. Tom Phillips has produced what he is declaring the Final Edition of his magnum opus, the "treated Victorian novel" known as A Humument. If you don't know this book in its previous editions (including a superb app for the iPad) you have been missing one of the most brilliant, sustained, amusing, and inventive acts of disruptive imagination ever committed. You simply have to buy several copies, one for yourself and a couple to give as presents. It's currently only out in hardback, I think, but very well-priced from Thames & Hudson (ISBN 978-0-5005190-3-5).

2. For something totally gorgeous at a ridiculously reasonable price, you can't beat Nick Turpin's On The Night Bus, from Hoxton Mini Press (ISBN 978-1-910566-16-9). Buy direct from the publisher: their packaging is quite something. If you've ever felt the magic of a night bus ride through a city, and that odd, dreamlike state you sometimes enter when surrounded by strangers, then this book will speak to you.

3. & 4. I very much enjoyed two books of "altered" photography from small landscape photography publisher Triplekite, Valda Bailey's Fragile (ISBN 978-0-9932589-4-7) and Chris Friel's Framed (ISBN 978-0-9932589-0-9). Both are destined to be classics, I think. You can buy them direct from Triplekite. Small, square, inexpensive, unusual, and beautiful; perfect.

5. Amusingly, given my comment about Chronologies above, one of the most interesting, innovative and smallest books I've come across this year is Baptiste Lignel's lengthy interview with Richard Misrach, published as Richard Misrach in the "Photographers References" series (ISBN 978-2-9543839-27). It's quite hard to describe the novelty of the approach in this series, so have a look at the video here. I bought my copy direct from the publisher, and had the surprise bonus of Misrach's signature on the title page. I'm not sure if this is a standard feature!

6. Once again, let me persuade you to buy, read, and inwardly digest Luigi Ghirri's The Complete Essays 1973-1991 from MACK (ISBN 978-1-91016-414-3) – inspirational writings from a truly great photographer. I don't recommend their Luigi Ghirri Postcards, however; it's an odd selection of images, not terribly well reproduced.

7. Finally, for something a little bit special (if you can find a copy, which may be difficult now, as there were only 800 printed): Japanese photographer Kou Inose's Complete Works was brought out in a really fine volume by Getsuyosha (ISBN 978-4-86503-024-2). If your taste runs to the Dark Side (and the Japanese really do Dark like no-one else) then look no further. Monochrome studies of autopsies, and gnarly landscapes that look like autopsies? Josef Koudelka-style panoramas of abandoned industrial and domestic clutter? It's all here, beautifully printed and bound. Be warned, though: it is very dark in places, and one of those books that you need to take a deep, calming breath before opening.

By the way, if you want to keep on top of all the new photo-book releases, and be in with a chance of scoring a copy of soon-to-be-scarce items like the Kou Inose, my two main book-pushers are Beyond Words and Photobookstore, both of which are small, committed enterprises worthy of your support, with a regular email-distributed newsletter you can sign up for. Only if you can withstand temptation, that is, and can afford the habit.

Of course, if you want something really special, you could direct your attention to the My Blurb Bookstore section over there on the top right corner... But be aware that Blurb's Christmas delivery deadlines are getting close (standard December 9th, express December 13th, priority December 14th).

Saturday 26 November 2016

Practice Makes Perfect

Many of us, rightly, resist the use of the word "practice" when applied to the activities and output of artists. It's self-regarding and pompous, and the implied comparison with the medical and legal professions is both silly and, essentially, insecure. Those of us in the less "established" professions – teachers, lecturers, librarians, musicians, and the like – would never refer to our "practice" and, notably, it's snake-oil merchants like aromatherapists, homeopathizers, reiki-ists, and allied trades who generally do refer to their mysteries in that way. I must admit I used to wince whenever I heard my fellow librarians refer to their "teaching", when talking about instructional sessions for library users. The desire to big-up one's skill-set is, I suppose, universal, but it's insulting to arrogate the sexy-sounding vocabulary of other professions to one's own. Certain words do attract attention to themselves, though: I'm told that, if you want to be inundated by hundreds of unsuitable job applicants, putting the word "research" prominently in the advert is like putting a lamp next to an open window on a summer's night.

I suppose, when considering the output of those of us who do not earn a living from our artistic activities, even the word "work" can sound a little pretentious. Though at the same time to dismiss it as "my stuff", "my efforts", "my scribblings", "my daubs", or "my snaps" strikes a smug note of false self-deprecation, which is probably worse. "Work" is what it is, though, even if essentially playful, unpaid, unshown, and unsought, and it's my word of choice. So sue me.

My artistic work, therefore, has always included drawing. I'm quite good; there's no denying it, and always have been. But facility is not everything when it comes to the business of self-expression, and the day I discovered photography was the day I finally discovered I had both something to say and the means to say it. Before then, I had merely been spinning my wheels; action, noise, but going nowhere. In fact, before photography, for some time I had been feeling that I might as well let my expressive urge lie fallow. It had begun to seem as pointless as being quite good at some sport, but not good enough to make worthwhile the sacrifices in time and effort – that "90 per cent perspiration" – required to be really good. But, like a natural sportsman, I felt bad about letting my artistic musculature run to seed, so to speak, and photography saved me.

Two meetings 2007

Three meetings 2009

Mind you, for most of my 30 years of working life, you might say my main and most persistent "practice" was doodling during meetings. I accumulated a mighty corpus of biro-illuminated agendas, minutes, and handouts, expressing the boredom, bafflement, and suppressed hilarity so typical of professional life in a large organization. Conscious that I was regularly binning some of the best things I had done, around the turn of the century I started using A5 blank hardbound notebooks to record my bureaucratic magnum opus (plus, of course, the odd actual useful note). One day I'll scan the best of the pages from these dozen or so volumes, and the sheaf of ornamented A4 pages I brought home with me on retirement, even though it seems the estimable (and rather more talented) Tom Phillips has beaten me to it with his book Merry Meetings. With any luck, between us we may establish a whole new genre.

However, in recent times drawing has been coming back into my life. To continue the sporting metaphor, it's a bit like jogging. To sit quietly in the evening with a small hardbound sketchbook, a few pencils, and various other implements (an eraser and a paper stump are always handy) is like running for a few miles at an easy pace through a familiar neighbourhood. Fun, addictive, incredibly cheap, and a significant contribution to well-being, but nothing more serious than that. Although, like a jogger whose main sport is tennis, I'm sure the regular exercise of certain hand-eye-brain "muscles" must be having a beneficial effect on my handling of line, composition and tone in photography and photo-collage. And, occasionally, I'm getting that little thrill that says: there's something good here, have another go at finding it.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Passing Clouds

I suppose an obvious feature of all "celebrity deaths" is that although many of us will have been aware of the person concerned, to a greater or lesser extent, hardly any of us could ever actually have known them, personally. At most, we will have known the ins and outs of their legend and their works, and thus had a small personal investment in their "passing" (another of those evasive euphemisms for death and dying I dislike). If nothing else, they're a useful dress-rehearsal for the real thing.

Another, less obvious feature is that we all get to know of, say, Leonard Cohen's death at more or less the same time. It's an event, a talking point, an opportunity for reflection and self-definition. This, I have come to realise, is untypical. I recently described how, purely accidentally, I got to hear of the death of an old friend, a year later. In fact, had I not actively sought to satisfy my curiosity about her and made certain enquiries, facilitated by the internet, a whole decade later I might still be under the illusion that she was out there in the world, doing whatever it was she had found to do with her life. It was, after all, a very one-way process: I have since passed on the news of her death, but never once have I heard the sad tidings from someone else.

Similarly, I recently wondered what was up with frame-maker, tempera-painter, and all-purpose curmudgeon Bron Janulis, a frequent commenter on this and various other blogs. Commenters do come and go, but Bron had been a constant presence over the years and, to be honest, in my self-centred way, I was concerned that my posts had become sufficiently boring for someone like Bron to stop visiting, not least because he also failed to show up in my recent poll of regular visitors. But a few seconds on Google revealed that Bron had died in March 2015. I haven't summoned the courage, since, to investigate the fate of some other commenters who have fallen silent. My hope is they did simply get bored (not true: if I'm honest, I'd much prefer that they stopped reading because they were dead).

By contrast, I very recently received an email from the wife of photographer Graham Dew, telling me that he had died. I knew Graham was dying, as he had sent an email to his contact list, more or less apologising for his lack of communication in recent months, and outlining a tragic sequence of medical discoveries culminating in an incurable cancer (Graham was just 57). But, the thing is, I barely knew Graham. He arranged my talk at the Arena Photography Group back in 2012, and we subsequently commented intermittently on each other's work and blogs and exchanged the occasional email, but we never actually met again, despite our geographical proximity (Graham lived in Winchester). My point here is that I heard about his death simply because I was on his email contact list, which he must have passed on to his wife. No contact list; no email; no news.

This made me think about the way the internet has changed things. For example, you, like me, may be wondering what has happened to Mark Woods, who runs (ran?) the estimable wood s lot blog. There hasn't been a new post on there since July 2016 (coincidentally, marking the death of poet Geoffrey Hill). Is he ill? Is he dead? Or has he just lost interest? I'm told he isn't replying to emails ("Hey, Mark, are you dead?"). Which raises the interesting point: who manages our online affairs after we are found slumped cold over a keyboard? Graham Dew managed this supremely well, but most of us won't. How could Bron's family possibly have known the identities of a scatter of people, world-wide, to whom his death was not a matter of indifference? Does anyone – your partner, say – have access to your email, or a list of your main online activities, from Facebook to your bank account, with the relevant IDs and passwords? Do you?

This could be an awful headache for executors in the future, especially now all the banks want you to go "paperless". It will be an online Catch-22: how will you figure out what accounts grandad had, without first already having access to them? How will you know you need to get access to them, without a paper-trail to show they exist? Did he forget to pass on his email password? Oh, dear...

Handling the accounts of the recently-deceased will become a major issue for all online companies, and not just banks. "Grandad just ordered a ten-foot TV, but, ah, won't now be in to receive the delivery, morning or afternoon. No, I don't know his password. No, I'm afraid I don't know the make of his first car, or the name of his primary school, either".

And all those precious family photos conscientiously stored in the cloud? That bit of the cloud just evaporated. Forever. Unless, of course, grandad is one of the minority who bothered to make a will that, these days, needs to include all those access details. Over 55? Got email, bank accounts, a blog, an Apple or Facebook account, etc., etc., all with more than a few IDs and passwords? Make a list; on paper. Just do it. And keep it up to date. If nothing else, I'm sure your friends would like to hear that you're dead.

Monday 21 November 2016

Diving Bell Experiment

Sorry, I have no idea what this is about, it just sort of happened... Though I think we've all been there, one way or another.

Saturday 19 November 2016

Named and Numbered

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.
But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.
Matthew 10: 29-31
One of the more curious Bible passages, that, especially when viewed from 2016. Viewed from 2016 in Britain, I should say, where the farthing is long gone, as is the slaughter, sale, and consumption of small wild birds. (Though this is a vice to which our continental cousins are still prone. Ever read about the eating of the ortolan by French gastronauts? Blimey! Exterminate all the brutes! And I don't mean the ortolans...).

For example, that suggestion of some kind of quantum entanglement of sparrows with your father. Sparrow falls over, Dad falls over; and possibly vice versa? And why is the link with just one of the farthing two-fer pair? Can the other one fall down whenever it feels the need, without paternal consequence? Although it's possible the translation is lacking something. Like comprehensibility, say.

What a disturbing thought, too, those numbered hairs! I've run a sample of mine through a microscope a few times, half-expecting (like that scene in Blade Runner) to come across a maker's mark, but... Nothing visible, at least to the human eye. How short can a hair be cut, I wonder, before an angel can no longer read its unique barcode? Unless, of course, the ID runs through it, like seaside rock, rather than along it? One for Thomas Aquinas, I think.

And that "many" in verse 31... Not "most", or even "all", but "many"! You mean there are some sparrows, perhaps a significant minority, that are worth more than a human – you, specifically – either in monetary terms, or (given Jesus's tendency to stretch his metaphors) morally? And this has something to do with how many hairs you have on your head? Or their numbering? Now that's an even more intriguing linkage, and it's no wonder those appalling French bird-gobblers cover their balding skulls in shame.

Did you know there is a toll of twenty-five million migrating wild birds every year trapped and killed by "hunters" around the Mediterranean? Twenty-five million! Of course, at a rate of two for a farthing, that's a mere £13,000-worth. Although I suspect that inflation since around 30 CE, both monetary and moral, will have raised that valuation more than somewhat. But, whatever its market value, that astonishing butcher's bill must mean there are an awful lot of fathers unexpectedly falling over somewhere.

Thursday 17 November 2016


Well, what do you know? The starlings are making a comeback.

I remember being stopped in my tracks, back in the early 1980s when I regularly used to find myself at Temple Meads railway station in Bristol at dusk, by the spectacle of tens of thousands of tightly-massed starlings pulling astonishing liquid shapes in the sky, as if controlled by a single whimsical intelligence, determined to have a bit of fun before allowing them all to drop under the shelter of the station roof to roost for the night. The first time I saw it I thought I must be hallucinating, as I was standing there, open-mouthed and amazed, but nobody else seemed to be paying the slightest attention. They never did. Then someone filmed starlings doing their bedtime sky-writing for a TV programme, and suddenly everyone had permission to notice them. I'm told you could sign up for starling-watching trips out to the Somerset Levels (despite the fact that this spectacle was happening every evening over most large city centres). People's ability to blank out the extraordinary never ceases to amaze me; mind you, I expect there are distinct evolutionary advantages in not standing around gawping at the way a charging lion's mane is catching the sunlight.

Mysteriously, starling populations crashed either side of the millennium, as did those of other very common birds, in particular the house sparrow. No one really knows why, but for many years the sight of either species – formerly so ubiquitous as to be a bit of a pest – was cause for comment. I never once saw a house sparrow in Southampton from 1984 until about three years ago, when that unmistakable monotonous cheeping sound started to be heard again in garden shrubbery. This year I keep seeing small flocks of starlings – about 50 birds – exploding out of trees as I do my regular walks across the Common and the Sports Ground. It seems they are recovering, and maybe soon those small flocks will be coalescing into one enormous flowing organism over this city, too. I really look forward to it.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

External Topography Of A Bird (Ventral Aspect)

I've been in London for a couple of days, primarily to see Jan Garbarek in concert at the Royal Festival Hall, but I also took the opportunity to make that much-postponed visit to the Natural History Museum. It seemed like a good chance to catch up with my son, so we met up at the museum, which we had last visited together in 2001.

Not much has changed there in the intervening 15 years, and not in a good way. The NHM, like all the major museums, has made no entry charge for more than a decade (government policy), and while this is to be applauded, the inadequacy of any compensatory income from the Treasury is showing. Pretty much the same dinosaur displays, animations and interpretations are on show as were grabbing attention back in 2001, and are beginning to look their age. Not just dog-eared and faded, but technologically dated. Even the magnificent full-size animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex – surely the source of many a toddler's nightmares – is looking a bit static by modern-day standards. Nothing looks quite as shoddy as yesterday's novelty when the shine has gone off it.

Of course, the real NHM – the one I experienced on school trips in the 1960s – is long gone. Just one cabinet of the earlier type of display is preserved as an example of how things used to be done. I think we're meant to think, "How pedantically academic, how uncompromising, how gruesome!", but I thought, "How fascinatingly informative, how challenging, how spellbinding!" The two photographs here are both from that single cabinet. If you can be bothered to read the labels, to look and learn, they convey real information, in the real language of biology. I couldn't even bring myself to enter the hall boldly labelled Creepy Crawlies, though I'm sure there's some good stuff in there. Creepy Crawlies! How those Victorian naturalists, with their mission to educate and inform the public in an uncondescending way, would have loathed that. Somewhere I still have the booklet I bought in the NHM shop around 1963, containing clear, unsqueamish instructions on how to remove, clean, prepare and preserve birds' skins and skulls. I'm hoping something of that true, uncompromising spirit lives on at the NHM's Tring Museum, which is next on my museological list.

Rook-pattern baldness explained

Jan Garbarek, by contrast, has simply got better with the passing years; his slightly chilly, plangent, signature sound has matured into something with much more force and coloration, and he was in superb form. There can't be many 69-year-olds capable of sustaining that much puff over a ninety minute set with no interval. As a unit, the lineup he is touring with is very tight. They can really build a fusion-style groove, and then suddenly change the dynamic of a piece into something delicately fractured and dreamlike in an instant.

Mind you, I always have a problem at live concerts; I can find myself being distracted from the music by the appearance of the band members, and by the interactions and chemistry between them. Why does the bass player continually seek eye-contact? Why does the keyboard player look like he's expecting an important visitor offstage? Why is there a metal bucket behind the percussionist? I also become restless if I can't think who it is each band member is reminding me of. It took me a while to realise that Garbarek has a disconcerting resemblance to Dr. David Owen, with his widow's peak and dubious frown, and that charismatic Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu's mobile, full-featured face is a mash-up of Tom Stoppard and Klaus Kinski.

I prefer my jazz with as little ego on display as possible. A big ask, I know, but if a solo adds nothing to the flow or direction of the piece it interrupts, then it is a worthless display of technical facility (even if does give the others a rest and a chance for a drink). In this respect, Garbarek is admirable, but – while accepting that Trilok Gurtu is something of a superstar – I do think that three drum solos is two too many (besides, hasn't there been a by-law forbidding drum solos on the South Bank since 1976?). Oh, and it turned out that the mysterious bucket was full of water, and a key part of Gurtu's third, toy-strewn percussion party-piece. Ho hum.

I suppose it's inevitable that virtuoso musicians will want to show off a bit, but – having seen Jaco Pastorius in his prime with Weather Report – I think Brazilian bassist Yuri Daniel (who looks like a bullet-headed mafia enforcer trying to be inconspicuous in a nightclub) still has a way to go with the fretless electric bass to warrant quite such a lengthy, repetitive, and (I thought) uninventive solo. Keyboardist Rainer Brüninghaus, on the other hand, is so oddly uncharismatic and professorial as to seem sheepishly unconnected to the awe-inspiring power being channeled down his arms in some solo work that easily rivalled that of that monster of ego, Keith Jarrett.

But then, as I have written before, playing the piano is impossible, and the intervention of some higher power is a prerequisite. Who knows whom it will choose to favour?

Charles "Professor Piano" Darwin

Saturday 12 November 2016

British Art Show 8

There's a big show on at the moment in our local municipal gallery, the Southampton City Art Gallery. In fact, the entire gallery has been cleared of its permanent collection, in order to make room for British Art Show 8, a touring exhibition of contemporary art, put together every five years by the Hayward Gallery. The Southampton permanent collection is one of the best provincial art collections I know – a bit of the best of everything from mediaeval altarpieces to Antony Gormley – so you have to trust that the curators believed the effort was worth it. The John Hansard Gallery on the university campus is also hosting part of the show. It's big!

Now, I like art. I am prepared to go a long way down the road of defending some of the loonier "practices" that contemporary artists choose to indulge in, against the factitious huffing and puffing of  philistines and Daily Mail readers. But – and I concede this may be just another of the symptoms of the onset of old age – it's a disturbing sensation, when you have spent most of your life believing you are involved in the great human project called Art, whether as a producer, consumer, or engaged bystander, to feel inclined to call out a major show like this as in large part a collection of tales told by an assortment of idiots, signifying nothing.

Consider It A Valid Job
Ciara Phillips

The trouble is, contemporary artists have been repeating the same moves now for the last several decades, if not longer, and it's getting really rather boring. It's not just the conceptual art (I've talked about this here or here); most contemporary art strategies have been hanging around for far too long, and have lost any intrinsic impact. Video, installations, ironic appropriation, shock tactics... It all pretends to be so new, but it's all so old. Do you recall Carl Andre's "Equivalent VIII", for example? That was put together in 1966 and the work was acquired by the Tate in 1972. Seems like only yesterday, doesn't it, that the tabloids were working themselves up into a frenzy over the Tate buying "a pile of bricks"? (There's an interesting discussion of some contradictions inherent in this sort of work in this Tate Paper). This exhibition does, of course, have its very own, um, equivalent equivalents: rolls of carpet on the floor, a disassembled car, etc. No surprises there.

Now, there are some extremely valid points that need to be made about the nature of "art", its production, value, and place in society, but these have become over-familiar and are now transmitted as an uncritically-received dogma, taught and absorbed in art schools in the way life-drawing once was, to the extent that the meta-commentary has replaced the thing itself. "Art about art" has become just another style. Also, weirdly, artists (or at least those artists cultivated by gallerists and exhibition "curators") have come to regard themselves as thinkers, primarily. And yet – let's be honest – this is not a game they are suited to, or have been trained to play. Sadly, to have strong feelings about certain issues is not the same as having original thoughts about them.

It's probably not entirely fair to draw attention to the collection of artists' statements that enliven this show, but then without these statements what on earth would you make of the work itself? Consider Stuart Whipps's work and words above. Really? What possible light on the industrial relations of the Thatcher Years does this cast? What benefit are the ex car-workers deriving from this artistic "intervention"? I speak feelingly, as two uncles were made redundant from the Vauxhall car factory in Luton in those years, as was my father from his engineering factory a few years previously. In 1979 I was myself a politically-active trades unionist, opposing Thatcher and all her works, in the public-sector union NALGO. Needless to say, Whipps was born in 1979.

Too many of these artists mistake intention for action and aesthetics for agency. Their language is all about "provoking discussion" by "gesturing" at issues, "exploring" those issues by making tenuous linkages, "challenging" our presumed complacencies, "making reference to" areas of important but totally unrelated activity and knowledge, and "drawing out" cultural, social and historical resonances, while doing no such thing. W.H. Auden famously declared that poetry makes nothing happen; well, double that for self-important, self-declared "political" art. It also seems that many artists either lack a sense of humour, or are smoking far too much weed. A few quotes will do:
The mop heads in Kentucky (2010) – dyed and woven together in the manner of a modernist tapestry – make reference to both labour and trade.
Choosing to treat clay as "a versatile and democratic" sculptural medium, rather than one reserved for craft, Aaron Angell constructs ceramic works whose amateur appearance belies the highly-skilled processes involved in their production.
Nicolas Deshayes's floor-based sculptures ... explore industrial and anatomical infrastructure that usually remains out of sight. Closely resembling pipes laid out on a construction site ready to be placed underground, they also recall the body's internal pipework.
Laura Prouvost's films and installations feature objects and narrators that order, coax, and cajole their viewer. While previous works have seen her stage a conversation between an electronic cigarette and a block of butter, in Hard Drive (2015) she gives voice to floors, lighting and electronic devices – things that we usually take for granted.
That's probably enough, although there's plenty more where that came from. It just brings out my cruel streak; some expression about breaking butterflies on the wheel comes to mind. I swear I have made none of that up.

Most of the artists represented in this show, I suggest, are actually the current-day equivalent of the forgotten painters, etchers and linocutters who poured out of art schools in the middle decades of the last century, repeating the same old moves and the same old "thoughts" because, well, that's what art looks like, isn't it? If these works are a representative sample of the best in British contemporary art – even if very much a curator's-eye view (a curator's egg?) – then we are clearly stuck in an ever-repeating recycling loop not unlike the one that has reduced pop and rock to their current sorry state.

There's an amusing online questionnaire you can fill out, intended to gather and calibrate reactions to the show. One of the questions is "How did the exhibition make you feel?", to which only one of the following list may be chosen:
Happy, Amused, Inspired, Excited, Peaceful, Impressed, Proud, Connected to other people, Sad, Annoyed, Intimidated, Bored, Angry, Confused, Uncomfortable, Isolated from other people, Other, please specify.
Definitely "other", I think: "happily annoyed" might cover it, or perhaps "peacefully bored"? That may be a little unfair, as there were some pieces that I enjoyed. There is some good video work, in particular, if you've got a couple of hours to spare (though, again, of the sort that makes you wonder when the "experimenting" with form will stop, and the actual serious work begin). There is a surprising amount of fabric and textile work (usually done in collaboration with professional carpet or textile makers), which I find oddly comforting: it reminds me of the sort of shaggy, woolly, woven things that a friend's mum, a secondary-modern-school craft teacher, used to produce and hang on their living room wall in the early 1970s. But there was nothing that made me feel "inspired", "excited", "impressed", or even "intimidated" or "confused", despite the curators' claims that the show is "a series of works that demonstrate the strength of art practise [sic] in this country today". No, it was mainly what I believe the young people call meh. Wouldn't it be nice to seem something inspiringly, excitingly, intimidatingly, confusingly new?

Most of the work on show seems to be trying too hard to find the sort of new "angle" which, when found, is too quickly exhausted. "Novelty" is a temporary, trivial phenomenon, quite different from the "new". This is particularly the case for the conceptual crowd. Listen: if the only idea you really have is, "Hey, look, anyone can be an artist and anything can be art", then I hear you; thanks for the permission! It seems I've got my very own houseful of installations at home. Two rolls of carpet on the floor? Check. Disassembled car? Check (I may reconsider having it towed, despite neighbours' complaints*). Art is everywhere, you're right! But, wait... You want someone to buy these particular rolls of carpet? For HOW much? So, let's get this straight: you want to be famous, and you want make a good living, simply from telling the rest of us, over and over again, that "anyone can be an artist and anything can be art"? Or "women are oppressed by patriarchy"? Or "the poor are exploited by the rich"? Or "things are more complicated than you think"? Guys, these are not startling insights, these are starting points. And, with the greatest possible respect, no one is really expecting any artist to have startling insights into such matters, anyway. Get over it, or get into a different career.

For me, the issue of sales raises a crucial point. Setting aside the questionable price-tags, virtually none of the works on show could ever be displayed or experienced in a normal domestic interior. I'd be surprised if even the super-rich can accommodate a gallery-sized installation, even a modest, disassembled family hatchback. These are choices of medium and scale that proclaim, in the face of any political posturing: admire but do not touch, no point in even asking the price, this is not for you, move along. Perhaps there is an anti-bourgeois strategy going on here: don't even think you could own or re-contextualize my work in your ticky-tacky 30s semi! Well, fair enough. We used to do that back in the day, too. But I doubt this is the case. In fact, the only viable clients for this art-that-expands-to-fill-the-space-available are wealthy corporate entities  – many of these works would definitely add a certain tone to the lobby of an international consultancy firm  – or the permanent collections of major public art galleries. In other words, either the artist is looking to live off the big bucks of global bad guys, or wants to short-circuit the route to state-supported immortality, like modern entertainers who go from zero to global hero overnight, bypassing the "gigging out of the back of a van" stage. The problems and contradictions arising from either are surely too obvious to point out, aren't they?

Finally, though, let us consider those price-tags. Despite the pretentiousness of the supporting statement of intent, I rather liked the look of Simon Fujiwara's "Fabulous Beasts (Desert Hide)" above, with that agreeable range of warm tones, and those bold faux-naive marks, so reminiscent of an Aboriginal bark-painting or an American Indian teepee (but which, sadly, are not being "referenced" here, it seems, so scratch that idea). I wondered how much one would cost; not because I was contemplating buying it, but – idiotically – because here was something I could imagine making and selling myself. So I found out which galleries represented him and had work from this series available, and asked the price. I was told 22,000 Euros. Which, I think you'll agree, is quite a lot for a shaved fur-coat stretched onto a frame. That is, until – of course! – you realise these "apparently abstract surfaces reveal each coat's laborious production methods", thus exploring "grander narratives about history and society".

But, as I say, this onset of philistine cynicism may be just another of the symptoms of approaching old age. And at least "Fabulous Beasts (Desert Hide)" would hang on a wall.

* Statement: In the site-specific work Allegro Ma Non Troppo (2016), the collective known as Mike Chisholm draws ironic attention to petty-bourgeois notions of rectitude, by staging an ongoing provocation and intervention. By replacing wheels with bricks, he draws attention to the decline of both car-making and construction work in Britain since 1979, the year of Thatcher's triumph and this car's manufacture. The "square wheels" also echo and amplify the metaphoric power of the notorious square steering wheel of this Austin Allegro, produced in the nadir of the British car industry. Algae and moss are being allowed to colonise the rusting bodywork, referring both to a post-industrial, indeed post-human future in which nature and natural forces of entropy reclaim the humanist, humanized landscape, and a post-colonial, globalized present in which heavy industry is relocating to the developing world.

Price: On enquiry, but if you have to ask, you can't afford it.
Please do not touch.

Friday 11 November 2016

Who By Fire

If anyone was ever prepared for his own death, then Leonard Cohen is your man. You might even suspect that he felt just a little grim pleasure in the anticipation of – finally – discovering what, if anything, awaits us on the far side of this journey. Sad news, but at least we can hope we've got someone over there who won't now be distracted from reminding the angels to pray for us; we're going to need it.

By the way, Who shall I say is calling?

Wednesday 9 November 2016

Own Goal

I suppose we in Britain, of all people, should not be surprised at how easy it is to miss what is, apparently, an open goal, or to accidentally put one in the back of the wrong net.

But, good grief, America, what have you done? Are you sure about this? I'm not one of those who arrogantly dismisses anyone who disagrees with me politically as "stupid". And I don't presume to understand the politics of a country that has the colours red and blue the wrong way round. But I do worry about the whole "post-truth" thing. Anyone who seriously believes Trump's promise that he can bring coal and steel and car-making back to their rust-belt town – including Trump himself – is a victim of truthiness, of choosing to believe what they would prefer to be the case.

We are right to be concerned about the foreign-policy implications of an "America first" stance, especially those of us living next-door to Putin's Russia and just down the street from the Middle East. But what concerns me more is what happens to American politics post-Trump, after it transpires that coal and steel and car-making won't be coming home after all?

Sunday 6 November 2016

It Ain't Me, Babe

I have shared much of my life with two extraordinary women – my partner and our daughter – both of whom, as true contrarians, hate being photographed. This aversion seems to reach right down into that lizard-brain place that enables you catch a falling pencil, or blink just before some insect hits you in the eye. Somehow they can always tell when they are being photographed, however stealthily, and instantaneously turn away, or pull some unflattering grimace that tells you nothing more about the state of their soul than that, yes, they genuinely dislike being photographed.

I've recently been watching my way through successive series of House, M.D. on Netflix, with Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House (great scripts, great characters, appalling sexual politics) and have just watched the series 3 episode "Fetal Position": When a celebrity photographer's unborn child endangers her health, the team must take action before it's too late to save either of them. The main patient being a photographer, the scriptwriters – who have clearly been on that course that insists that all story elements must contribute in some way to the development of the broader story "arcs", some of which are spread over the entire series – have cleverly built in some familiar photographic tropes. It's what makes the best serial soaps so watchable, although sometimes you do yearn for an incident that does not cast a revelatory side-light on this episode's problematic diagnosis, Greg House's character, or the interpersonal dynamics of the hospital staff. Similarly, I bristle a little when a photographer is shown effortlessly capturing character insights into House's team from her hospital bed (toting some gigantic pro Canon DSLR which seems mysteriously to spawn 8" x 10" prints like Polaroids – I'd like one of those), insights which the team themselves do not have about each other until they have seen the photographs. It's what a gifted portrait photographer does, isn't it?

Well, hmm, I don't know about that. For a start, I'm not a huge fan of portraiture, as a genre. Looking through my rather large collection of photobooks, very few of them are primarily books of pictures of people knowingly presenting themselves to a camera in a studio setting. There's an interesting book from way back, Portrait : Theory, from the same Lustrum Press that yielded Landscape : Theory, Contact : Theory, and the two excellent Darkroom books. There are always some nice, semi-formal portraits of unglamorous people posing in their own environments in thematic projects like Chris Killip's Isle of Man, or Alec Soth's Sleeping By The Mississippi. There is a very interesting book of portraits of literary notables by Jonathan Williams, A Palpable Elysium, and a similar but lesser collection of Philosophers by Steve Pyke. I have a couple of the inevitable Avedons (I love In the American West). Oh, and I remember two brilliant collections of tintype portraits, one of surfers, the other of American prison inmates, which I regret not buying, although the "contemporary tintype portrait" has already become something of a cliché. But I can see nothing that required careful makeup, studio lighting and reflectors, or the building of that fabled collaborative rapport with the subject, designed to catch their best, most mysterious smile or their wackiest, off-guard laugh, all with the eyes in sparkling focus. Not one book; it's just not my thing. Most such photos end up in company reports, glossy magazines, or models' portfolios, anyway.

What I'm questioning here is not the authenticity of that temporary human engagement – a cynical misanthrope like Greg House could never earn a living as a portrait photographer – but its intended result: the capture of some revelatory expression, an unsuspected window opened onto the subject's soul. In a way, this is the key aesthetic conundrum of portrait photography: can a perfect rendering of the light reflected from a person's face in a tiny instant of time tell us anything about what is going on behind that facade of skin, muscle and nerve, those tricksy currents flowing through a living fabric of thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, and attitudes? Which is, I suppose, almost (but not quite) the same as asking: can a person's expression tell us anything of those things? It's not quite the same question because, first, expressions take place in time and, second, some of us are better at reading faces than others. An instant snatched from a smile-in-progress may capture something of interest, but never the whole smile. Indeed, it may actually misrepresent the whole expression, even if it does so in an interesting way. And there's an entire area of scientific research dedicated to placing an individual's ability to respond to faces on the various spectrums of EQ, empathy, and affect; some of us are really, really bad at this, and some of us are spookily good.

Although, weirdly, a lot of this research seems to depend on using still photographs of actors. Studio portraits, in fact, of simulated emotions: I'm sad! I'm so happy! Stop bothering me, creep, I'm busy! God, I'm so bored... I don't think it would be controversial to say that such photos tells us absolutely nothing about the real state of mind of the person portrayed; they are about as psychologically penetrating as an emoji. Though I suppose it's possible they may give us an accurate read of the viewer's EQ, should they ever get into conversation with a consummate con-artist. Dr. Greg House, of course, would insist on eliciting the real thing, purely in the interests of accurate diagnosis. "Not so close, please, doctor... Hey, what are you doing with that tripod?? Nooo! Aaargh!!" See? Now that's fear! Curiously, there's another decent TV series with an English actor in the lead – Lie To Me, with Tim Roth as Dr. Cal Lightman – which is entirely based on the proposition that our true emotions are masked by these gross, easily-simulated facial expressions, and are only revealed by reading micro-expressions, using the Facial Action Encoding System. Much more tricky to photograph, and – allegedly – virtually impossible to fake.

In short, I think any claims to display insight into personality by means of photographic portraiture are wildly over-stated, and probably nonsense. Just as stage scenery can convince us we are on the battlements of Elsinor, and an actor can persuade us he is horrified-yet-intrigued by the appearance of his father's ghost, a good portrait photograph can satisfy us that we have seen something insightful, ideally something that the subject would have preferred to have kept concealed. It's what we want to see, and we don't need to resort to psychology, pop or proper, to explain this desire. Rather than Hamlet, let's go to "The Tears of a Clown", by Smokey Robinson:
Now if there's a smile on my face
It's only there trying to fool the public
But when it comes down to fooling you
Now, honey, that's quite a different subject

But don't let my glad expression
Give you the wrong impression
Really I'm sad, oh I'm sadder than sad
You're gone and I'm hurting so bad
Everyone knows about putting on a brave face, smiling through the heartache, and accidentally-on-purpose letting the mask slip. Everyone hopes for a privileged glimpse of the vulnerable person hidden behind the facade; it's our reward for caring about that person (hmm, it seems I may be turning into cynical Dr. House, here). That's in real life, of course. But the problem is that it is entirely the viewer who brings their interpretation to a mere picture. A picture is nothing more than some marks, a set of cues for the viewer to pick up on, and this is so much easier to do when the cues are the components of a human face. Unlike a Rothko colour-field painting, say, which takes some specialised, acquired aptitude to "read", we all already know everything there is to know about faces. But, in truth, we know rather less about the psychology of a flat piece of paper, covered in dots of pigment. I mean, who knows what a photo is thinking or feeling? I certainly don't, but my guess is: absolutely nothing. So, unless the person portrayed is known to you, and you have real feelings about them to bring to the picture, I'd suggest a photograph of someone else's face is actually all about you. It is prompting you to ask yourself: how would I be feeling if I were that person, if I looked like that? And how do I react to that?

In one sense, this is nothing more than a working definition of "empathy". Empathy is what a psychopath, or a drug-dependent misanthrope like Greg House lacks. It can be taken further, however. In Gestalt therapy "dream-work" there is a commonly-used strategy designed to subvert our tendency to view our dreams as a story, one in which things happen to us, and we encounter other people, known, unknown, or uncannily hybrid. This strategy is: everything and everyone in your dream is you. If you dream about a scary room, then it was you who put the scary room in the dream: you are that scary room. It's not a symbol for anything, it's not a prop. So tell me, says the therapist: what does it feel like, for you, to be that scary room? Not to be in it, but to be it. Obviously, a picture made by someone else is not like one of your own dreams. It carries no innate significance provided by you, for you, uniquely. But, perhaps the scope of our taste in art, and maybe even in people, might amount to whatever we are and are not yet prepared to accept as elective aspects – good, bad, and downright ugly – of "me"?

In straight photography we can only work with appearances, and where people are concerned appearances are almost always deceptive. I have already described my experience of being photographed after some time shut in an anechoic chamber back in 2009 (Thoughts From An Anechoic Chamber) and have had no reason to change my mind since. As Dr. House likes to say, everybody lies. Diseases have symptoms, but people have attitudes and secrets. Besides, does anyone any longer believe that appearance correlates, in any way, with internal states of mind, or with personality? That a beautiful person with a bewitching smile must be a good, happy person, and a plain person with crooked teeth and a weight problem must be a bad, unhappy person? If so, these would probably be the same folk who believe that ill-health is the consequence of bad attitudes and inadequately aligned domestic feng shui.

One of the oldest myths of photography is that non-Western peoples shun the camera, because the device is seen as a stealer of souls. I suspect the converse of this is why many people hate to be photographed: their inner sense of self has been violated too often by the images of their physical presence they have seen before. Their "soul" is precisely what is not portrayed in a photograph. It's rather like that disturbing experience of hearing a recording of your own voice; it can bring everything into question to discover that you do not sound and do not look the way you think you do, or at least hoped you might. To be told "but it looks just like you" – even by someone who loves you just the way you are – is no comfort; the cognitive dissonance is too unpleasant. Karl Rove said of Avedon's portrait, "Avedon was an elitist snob who deliberately set me up. The portrait is foolish, stupid, insulting. It makes me look like a complete idiot." No, Karl, that's just the way you look.

Anyway, this is a good opportunity to offload yet again a favourite anecdote from Dr. Picasso. There must be someone out there who's never heard it.
"Just then my eye was caught by an unframed canvas standing on a shelf above Jacqueline's head and to the right. It was a portrait of a girl—Jacqueline, I would have said—in tones of green and black and white. She was shown in profile, looking off to the left, and Picasso had given the face a mildly geometrical stylization built up of triangular forms which emphasized the linear treatment but at the same time preserved the likeness. I pointed to the painting. 'How would you explain to a person whose training made him look on that as deformation, rather than formation, why you had done it that way?' I asked him.

'Let me tell you a story,' Picasso said. 'Right after the Liberation, lots of GIs came to my studio in Paris. I would show them my work, and some of them understood and admired more than others. Almost all of them, though, before they left, would show me pictures of their wives or girl friends. One day one of them who had made some kind of remark, as I showed him one of my paintings, about how 'It doesn't really look like that, though,' got to talking about his wife and he pulled out a tiny passport-size picture of her to show me. I said to him, 'But she's so tiny, your wife. I didn't realize from what you said that she was so small.' He looked at me very seriously. 'Oh, she's not really so small,' he said. 'It's just that this is a very small photograph. ' "
—Picasso, interviewed in The Atlantic, July 1957
In the best version of the story, which I've never managed to source, Picasso then turns over the photo and exclaims, "My God! You poor man! She's also completely flat!"

© 2011 John and Teenuh Foster 

Wednesday 2 November 2016

Monkey Gone To Heaven

I know Hallowe'en was on Monday, but I was in the Horniman Museum in south-east London yesterday, looking for more "museology" photographs, and couldn't help noticing how, in the right (or wrong) frame of mind, a clear-eyed presentation of anatomy can easily turn into a little house of horrors.

I suppose the presence of parties of primary-school children may have been a factor. The insensitive little souls were gawping and giggling at the cabinets of ghoulish secrets laid bare, untroubled by the anatomist's insistent revelation of the skull beneath the skin. I suppose that, even though you can feel your own skellington hiding in there, it takes a few more years before you truly realise: that's you, that is, always waiting, always trying to get out of your very own squidgy cupboard.

Monkey contemplates an alternative destination