Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Iconic Panopticon

I couldn't resist posting this picture today, on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's kickstart of the Reformation with what our very own Archbishop of Canterbury – along with many, many others – has described as an epic series of 95 tweets that went viral.

I took the photograph in the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur, situated on the highest point of Paris, the butte Montmartre. You probably know that Luther's main bone of contention with the Catholic Church was the selling of "indulgences", a sort of advance loan against the forgiveness of sins (perhaps a more contemporary parallel would be the offsetting of one's carbon footprint in Britain by investing in trees in Brazil). What the picture shows is a row of coin-op vending machines selling assorted souvenir medals (just 2 euros each!) ranging from Pope Francis to Jesus Christ lui-même arrayed in the hushed heart of the church. Hilarious, no? But I can't help thinking that neither Jesus nor Luther would be much amused.

Motmartre seen from the Pompidou Centre

Sacré-Cœur is symbolic of the contradictions in the Parisian spirit in another way that is perhaps not so obvious to the thousands of tourists making the obligatory ascent of the butte, whether on foot up through the narrow streets of Montmartre, packed with shops, bars, and restaurants, or by riding the funicular (in either case, primarily for the spectacular view). For the basilica is, as it happens, no ancient monument, neither does it sit on some long-hallowed patch of ground. In fact, it was begun only in 1875, finished in 1914, and finally consecrated in 1919. Impressionism, Fauvism, and even Cubism were pretty much over before anyone got to celebrate Mass in there.

You can read about it here, but in essence Sacré-Cœur symbolises the re-assertion of dominance by the conservative Catholic establishment after the turbulent years of French revolutionary fervour, and in particular the ignominious defeat of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Paris Commune of 1871. The building was quite specifically conceived by those reactionaries as an act of penance to expiate what they perceived as a Gallic fall into moral turpitude, and it was placed like a spiritual panopticon (salut, Michel Foucault!) at the heart of that rebellious city's most rebellious quarter.

Montmartre by night

And yet, you ask, is not La Marseillaise still the French national anthem, and Marianne, in her revolutionary liberty cap, the most prominent national symbol? And isn't laïcité (separation of church and state) a fundamental article of French constitutional faith? All true enough, hypocrite lecteur*: they are nothing if not complicated, conflicted, contradictory people, yer French.

But then, aren't we all? In Luther's terms, we are all irredeemable sinners, redeemed, whether we like it or not, by unearned, unbought, unasked-for divine grace. Which is probably not the way most of us in Europe look at ourselves now. Largely, it has to be said, because of the way the door marked "Reformation" led along a smoky, corpse-strewn corridor to the sunlit plaza named "Enlightenment". But 500 years of heritage counts for a lot, and Europe is still a place where it can make quite a difference whether you are a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist.

Other religious heritages are also available, of course, and – in principle, at least – equally welcome in Enlightenment Square. Just behave yourselves, for goodness' sake.

Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie comparée

* Famous last line of last stanza of Charles Baudelaire's poem "Au Lecteur": 

C'est l'Ennui! L'oeil chargé d'un pleur involontaire,
II rêve d'échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
— Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!

[Boredom! He smokes his hookah, while he dreams 
Of gibbets, weeping tears he cannot smother. 
You know this dainty monster, too, it seems — 
Hypocrite reader! — You! — My twin! — My brother!]
Roy Campbell translation

Sunday, 29 October 2017

We'll Always Have Paris

Ah, Paris. It's never really been my favourite city – I'm not sure that I have one – but it always repays a visit at any time of year, at any age. My partner had a few days' business to do at the OECD, so I tagged along for the week, together with our daughter, now 23 and living in that other not-really-favourite city, London. I won't bore you with our itinerary, meals, and so on, but will share some observations and a few of the 400-odd photographs I took. This may take most of this week.

I found one problem with Paris is the way this gigantic pylon thingy keeps interposing itself into the view, like some annoying selfie-bomber. It's inescapable; wherever you go, there it is. The tourist board should do something about it.

One very good reason it's so visible is that the city authorities have clearly banned any further high-rise developments from the centre of town. Unlike, say, the post-modern architectural horror-show that is central London, the Paris of 2017 would not be unrecognisable to the generation of 1917. The other reason it's so ubiquitous is that the thing is so monstrously fucking colossal (pardon my French). I mean, srsly:

It's also a very odd colour, seen close up, a sort of undercoat colour, somewhere between rust and military desert-camouflage beige. Maybe it's being repainted; if so, what a job! May I respectfully suggest doing the job properly, this time, and to use a fluorescent pink paint to make it really stand out, and also so that it resembles more closely some of the souvenir versions on sale nearby.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Tanto Tanto Tanto!

All being well, travel-wise, I should be away next week in Paris. I may make a post or two, but will only have an iPad with me, which is frustratingly limited as a device for creation, excellent as it is for consumption (does anyone have experience with the Microsoft Surface?). I'm looking forward to a visit to the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, which is just stuffed to the rafters with stuffed stuff.

Talking of Le Continong, I really like this video and song, which I first saw on that reliable treasure trove, the Doonesbury Video Archive. If your Italian is as shaky as mine, there's a handy translation here. It's good to be reminded that decent pop culture happens in languages other than English, though, oddly, not so much in French. Somehow, there's always something a little too slick and style-conscious, a touch too sérieux, even a bit bourgeois about the French pop I've encountered. It always reminds me of those well-groomed pop-pickers on the dance-floor of Top of the Pops. Mind you, I did stop paying attention somewhere around Oxygène and Ça plane pour moi, so I'm prepared to be proved wrong. But, oh la vache, was 1977 really 40 years ago?

Perhaps I'll check out the scene (albeit from a discreet distance, in my scruffy Dad anglais clothes). À bientôt!

Les toits de Southampton

Wednesday, 18 October 2017


There's some kind of parable in this shot of Southampton Docks, with its empty parking lot, the ranked vehicles awaiting export, and those impressive heaps of metal scrap beyond. Here's a closer look:

As mentioned in earlier posts, a casual visitor to town could be forgiven for not knowing the docks were there at all, apart from the giant hint visible at the end of many streets.

Again, here's a closer look:

Admittedly, I've fallen into the habit of walking around with moderately wide lenses (a 40mm equivalent on Fujis, and a 28mm equivalent on the Ricoh GR), but it's interesting how much better – for me, anyway – the "zoomed in" view conveys the psychological equivalent of the view ("Crikey, look at the size of those cranes!", and, "Wow, is that all scrap metal?") despite the fact that the full picture angle does accurately reproduce the actual view.

This discrepancy is nowhere more evident than in pictures that feature the sun or moon. Setting aside the unsettling coincidence that both heavenly bodies appear exactly the same size when seen from planet Earth (spooky!), the fact that both represent about half a degree of arc in the sky means that even the most striking lunar or solar manifestations are, like Auden's Icarus in the poem Musée des Beaux Arts, tiny events on a much wider canvas. Take Monday, for example: the outer skirts of hurricane Ophelia brought a thick sampling of Saharan dust into our atmosphere, creating an eery yellowish-orange half-light, somewhere between dawn and a solar eclipse. At its height it was downright apocalyptic; the picture below was taken at 3:00 in the afternoon, as the phenomenon began to recede. What caught my attention at that moment was the reappearance through the thinning cloud of the sun as a pinkish blank disc, extraordinary to behold, but impossible to represent with a "normal wide" lens roughly equivalent to the eye's angle of vision. It's a nice picture, and it's what I saw, but it's not really what I was seeing.

I can't be the first person to observe that narrowing the angle of view is a useful way of representing the brain's ability to concentrate on and isolate a detail within the visual field. Your eye has no "zoom" facility, and yet it feels as if it does. And that is one reason why, when it comes to making artistic statements and gestures, I'm currently finding it is more effective to construct images from photographic components than to seek out whole real-life, ready-made photographic scenes that express what I want to say. It is also more efficient, as I can trawl my backfiles looking for the bits and pieces I need, or if necessary go out hunting for them. I wouldn't say it's easier – have you ever tried extracting something as elaborate as a crane from its context? – but, once you've got your cranes, boats and planes ready, you're all set to play a very enjoyable game.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Little Altars Everywhere

When I was a young boy of 8 or so, a whole gang of us used to run around the streets, woods, and empty spaces of our little bit of town, mainly playing shoot-em-up games that went on for entire summer days, until, by some mysterious telepathy – none of us owned a watch – we were all "called in" for our tea*. We were probably the last generation to play unsupervised in streets still relatively free of traffic, and without constant parental worry about "stranger danger". Grazed knees, bruises, and the odd chipped tooth were the marks of days well spent, not neglect or abuse.

That was us, the boys. The girls, too, played all day, but had their own mysteries. There were elaborate skipping games with chants passed down for who-knows how many generations, and self-induced trances of make-believe that animated dolls and soft toys, and – well, actually, I have very little idea what they were up to, in those giggling, shrieking gatherings. Occasionally, though, when laying an ambush in the woods, or looking for a tree to climb, you might come across a solemn little group of girls gathered around some tiny corpse, generally a bird, which they were ceremonially burying, covering the site with grass and flowering weeds, and marking it with an improvised cross of twigs. Who knows what sort of hedge-witchery was being rehearsed there, but it always made a deep impression on me.

Something of the sort may lie behind these bird altarpieces I have been making. Dead birds do have a strange quality about them; that something so nervily restless, so ready to fly away, should have become so still, such that the beautiful subtleties of the plumage of even the plainest bird lie open to close inspection. And, if you dare to handle some dead thing, how oddly light they weigh in the palm, as if made of some paradoxical substance like polystyrene rather than flesh, bone, and blood. It's not surprising that people have always reached for bird metaphors when trying to account for death and the flight of the "spirit". One fine day, I'll fly away...

* For non-natives: "tea" is how Brits from the lower social strata in the south of England refer to their main evening meal. "Dinner" is the midday meal, as in "free school dinners". It was a primary marker of my giddy rise through the social ranks when I started, rather self-consciously at first, to refer to "dinner" as "lunch" and "tea" as "dinner" (although in this classless bohemian household, we tend to refer to "what we're having to eat this evening"...).

Friday, 13 October 2017

Solent Soul Suite

For some time, I've been intending to produce a series of works that have something to say about Southampton and the Solent region. Now, I have strong emotional connections to various locations – most obviously North Hertfordshire and East Anglia where I grew up, Oxford, Norwich, Bristol, and parts of London where I studied and worked, and various habitual holiday destinations such as mid-Wales and Dorset – but I have actually spent most of my adult life in Southampton. I moved here at the age of 30 in pursuit of a job in 1984, and have been here ever since. In fact, since 2014 over half of my life has been lived in Southampton, and yet I would never think of the place as "home". Indeed, I rarely find myself thinking of "my" city as a place at all.

Why? Because, despite its location, size, population*, and historic and economic importance, it seems to lack the strength of identity that other, comparable cities have. It is certainly no Liverpool or Glasgow, though it probably once might have been; it is not even a Brighton, or a Winchester, smaller places with stronger characters. It has more in common with those large, long-established but anonymous dormitories around London like Reading, Basingstoke, or Luton: endless streets of Victorian housing, 1930s semis, and could-be-anywhere estates and high-rises shading into a town centre ruined by insensitive post-war development and hermetic shopping malls dreamed up in some architect's office in London.

Of course, places like Liverpool and Glasgow are like this, too, but have nonetheless built and kept something extra: let's call it a soul. So why, then, have I stayed here so long? As an old friend bluntly wondered out loud recently. The best answers I could come up with were:
  • Having got a decent job here in 1984, I ran out of ambition when our son was born in 1991.
  • I wanted to give my kids the experience of growing up in one town, something I had (and valued), and my partner hadn't.
  • We could afford a house here, but not in more congenial places within commutable distance of London like Winchester. (My partner's London-based career took off just around the time mine stalled; I usually say her star was on the rise, but mine chose to stay in bed).
  • It's situated within range of interesting South Coast landscapes, and is not Portsmouth.
  • Did I say it's not Portsmouth?
  • Inertia. Inertia. Inertia.

Part of the problem is the isolation of the city as a whole from its main source of prosperity, the port. The docks are like a thin, hard shell, a few hundred yards deep at most, formed around the city like a chemical reaction where it makes contact with the water, and sealed off on the landward side by railway lines and high, razor-wire topped fences. You could be forgiven for not even knowing the docks were there, were it not for the clusters of gigantic cranes that can be seen from miles away, and which loom at the end of any street heading downhill towards Southampton Water. Another clue is the endless traffic of container-lorries and car-transporters heading in and out of town from the motorway (apparently more cars are exported from Southampton than any other port in the country). Oh, and then there's the sudden dearth of taxis at the railway station when one of the big luxury cruise-liners is in port.

So, my self-imposed challenge is to go in search of Southampton's Soul, and render it pictorially. I'm already pretty sure straight photographs like these won't do: few things are as visually unstimulating as hundreds of identical cars parked in orderly rows, awaiting export, although stacked containers do have a certain something, and just look at those amazing heaps of scrap. No, this is going to have to be a full-on digital collage job, triptychs and all.

* Around 250,000, strictly speaking, although the whole "South Coast Conurbation" adds up to about 1.5 million.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Greatest Hit

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, this image (which I had the good fortune to show at the Royal Academy this summer and which I called Golden Wasp Game #7) has proved exceptionally popular. All fifty copies of the RA edition sold out on the first afternoon of the Summer Exhibition, and I have been fending off demand for further copies ever since.

However, because I had promised copies of the print to various people, I decided to make a separate, unlimited "Friends & Family" edition, which is what you see above. This version is smaller (image size 20cm x 15cm on an A4 sheet), is signed but unnumbered, and has a rather natty red signature "seal" at bottom right.

If you would like a copy, I will be selling them until Christmas for £50 plus post & packing (£6.50 in mainland UK). Just send me an email (my address is in the "Since You Ask" profile at top right), and I will invoice you. On receipt of payment, I will send you the print, fresh from my very own Epson inkjet printer, and defensively packed in a clear bag between corrugated cardboard sheets within the finest rigid envelope known to humanity.

If you should happen to prefer its RA companion, Golden Wasp Game #3 (below), then that, too, is available in a "Friends & Family" edition, at the same price. Should you fancy buying both of them, then that will be £90 plus post & packing (£7.50 in mainland UK).

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Something Even Grander

With a little more tinkering, I think this is better. I was alarmed to discover, however, that the full, multi-layered Photoshop file is now slightly over 1.5 gigabytes in size. Now that's grand.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Something Grand

Printed at 300 dpi this thing would be 120cm x 58cm: it's quite big. Properly framed, it would be even bigger. In fact, by my standards it's monstrous, and way beyond the capacity of my A3+ printer. But I either had to choose between those two kingfisher pictures, or put them together somehow. The idea of a triptych seemed an obvious way to do it.

If you think this picture is a little strange, either in concept or in execution, bear in mind that Hieronymus Bosch's famously weird Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych, designed to be used as a folding altarpiece. I used to have a poster of the full triptych blu-tacked onto my teenage bedroom wall – believe me, in the 1970s Blu Tack was a really exciting new innovation – and it probably exercised more influence on my imagination and subconscious than I'm prepared to admit. The Bosch, I mean, not the Blu Tack, obviously.* I love the fact that, when closed, the reverse sides of the triptych's outer panels combine to show an image of a flat, foggy world spellbound within a translucent bubble, rather like those plastic balls in vending machines that contain toys, sweets, and other gimcrack delights.

All I need now is a patron prepared to have the thing manufactured on an appropriately grand and luxurious scale. I'm thinking a hand-made hinged frame, and gold, lots of gold. It's at times like these that one truly feels the absence of the deep and generous pockets of the mediaeval church. Thanks a lot, Martin Luther!

* Although only now do I realise that I've used a repeated blob of BluTack for the border of the central panel... Thus worketh the subconscious mind.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Home Alone

From: "Co-parented by popular culture: why celebrity deaths affect us so deeply" by Michael Hann, Guardian 18/9/17:
In effect, those born in the 1950s and 1960s were the first generations to be co-parented by popular culture. They were the people, who as Bruce Springsteen put it in No Surrender, “learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school”. They drew life lessons not from fireside chats with parents, but from David Bowie or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. They were entertained not by parlour games, but by The Generation Game. When they wanted to understand why they felt as they did during adolescence, they didn’t speak to their families, they listened to the Smiths, or whoever answered their particular need.
   They did so in homes in which, often, both parents were absent much of the time. Millions of kids spent more time with pop stars and film stars and TV stars than with their parents. (Not for nothing were the children’s TV presenters of the 1960s and 1970s usually presented as surrogate parents, like John Noakes, Peter Purves and Lesley Judd on Blue Peter, rather than the matey older siblings of the late 1980s and onwards) They were also the first generations for whom adulthood was deferred, by the expansion of education, by the postponement of marriage. There was no pressure on them to loosen their bonds with the people they had grown up listening to or watching.
Yep, that's me (but delete "The Smiths" and "The Generation Game" and insert, let's say, "The Kinks" and "Monty Python").  You, too?

I'll never forget those dark winter afternoons around 1965, coming home from school to an empty house, and turning on the TV in anticipation of a daily dose of The Magic Roundabout. It was great! I believe the sociologists back then called us "latchkey kids", and feared we were prone to behavioural problems, smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity. As if! No, that was all strictly for the weekends...

Latchkey chicks

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Genuine Imitation

These are disturbing pictures. Why? Because they reveal to me just how far I have strayed from what once seemed like the One True Path.

I was looking through the image files hanging around on my antique iPad 2, bought second-hand back in 2012, and which I have been using as a convenient "media consumption" device ever since. Back then the screen quality was a revelation, and it's still pretty good by most standards, but the device only has 16Gb of storage, so periodically I look for unused apps and data to delete in order to free up some space. As I was swiping through the images I saw these two, and thought: now those are a lot better than I thought at the time I made them.

As you can probably tell, they are the result of the sort of app-driven instant effect that everyone loves (whatever app it was I can't recall and it is long gone). The Web's image-sumps like Flickr are full of them: imitation Polaroids, fabricated faded snaps, simulated glass-plate negatives... In the first rush of iPad enthusiasm I downloaded some photo-manipulation apps – they're so cheap! – and had a go; I thought it was fun but the results seemed way too easily won, and I moved on.

In the meantime, of course, I have become a bit of a forger myself, and this has affected my judgement. Or rather, it has altered my judgement; I like these now, in an uncomplicated way. I think I am probably sufficiently removed from the ease of their making (talk about "You press the button, we do the rest"!) to see them purely as pictures and, well, they're rather nice, even if they are still "fake" in some sense.

I've a feeling this is confirmation that I'm not really a "photographer" any more. Or at least not the sort of photographic purist who would automatically sneer at a shortcut to an interesting result. What, after all, is a photograph, when compared with a painstakingly hand-made sketch or painting, if not a convenient, instant shortcut to an interesting result?

The great advantage of sticking to the One True Path – the way of authenticity, of quality, of skill – is that it makes moral judgements so much easier. Like, say, a vegan, you can always neatly position yourself on the angels' side of any debate. The trouble is, it also means rejecting most of the technical developments of recent decades, despite the fact that approved "authentic" art practices clearly include techniques like screen-printing, lithography and engraving which, in their day, were themselves innovative technical processes intended to facilitate mass production. Having become obsolete for their original purpose, they nonetheless have pictorial qualities that are attractive to the "artisanal" picture-maker. They are also quite laborious, difficult to learn, and involve the use of expensive, hard-to-obtain kit, which always adds virtue to any artistic endeavour. See the darkroom v. digital debate.

Therein lies one of the dilemmas of our contemporary world, which finds expression in many ways, but which boils down to those eternal questions of authenticity, quality, and skill, and the value we put on them. In what way is a hand-crafted chair that costs £6000 a better chair than a factory-produced item selling for one percent of its price-tag? Is a hit record made by a singer using pitch-correction software and synthesised instruments a work made by the "artist" or by the producer, and is it "real" music? What is the value of a bought degree, or one earned using essays from an essay-bank? If it makes a company's products significantly cheaper, and thus available to the mass market, does it matter that they are made in sweatshops in the Third World, or by robotic manufacturing processes that have put thousands out of work? Most difficult of all, Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?

Essentially, these are questions that have been around since the Industrial Revolution, but intensified by mass production and "mass" democratic societies, and brought to urgency by globalisation and IT. When is the real thing the wrong thing? Is the best the enemy of the good? If everybody has something (e.g. clean water) does that devalue it, or merely create a niche market for a more expensive, bottled version? If only a few super-rich people can afford hand-made goods, does that make them an intrinsically regressive social evil?*

Most of us have no choice in these matters, of course: I mean, six thousand pounds for a single chair? The one I'm sitting on right now is quite real enough, thanks. Which doesn't mean I wouldn't like a classy chair, or to buy my clothes skilfully tailored to fit (if only!); as the saying goes, if wishes were horses then beggars would ride. Sadly, there will probably never be a William Morris-style utopian socialist future, where every household sits down to a meal prepared from fresh, organic, and locally-sourced ingredients on chairs handcrafted in the workshop of a skilled artisan. Even if, ironically, that was once-upon-a-time the only world anyone knew. Most of the world's population today, I'm sure, would settle for recyclable plastic furniture, clean water, and at least one nourishing meal a day, even if it came pre-packaged and included some kind of meat-substitute. Which doesn't mean they wouldn't like to get their knees under a table at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons.

You might say this comes down to the difference between a fake chair and a fake chair.  You can quite happily spend the evening in your snide Eames lounger, but nobody will ever try to sit on a fake chair without regretting it. So, these pictures may not be quite what they seem, and may have been made with less labour and skill than their appearance might suggest, but they are pictures, without a doubt: you can sit in them, so to speak, with complete confidence. Whether or not you value the experience is another matter, and entirely up to you.

And notice how I've written this whole thing without once using the word "skeuomorph".
But I'm a substitute for another guy
I look pretty tall but my heels are high
The simple things you see are all complicated
I look pretty young, but I'm just backdated, yeah...
I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth
The north side of my town faced east, and the east was facing south **
And now you dare to look me in the eye
Those crocodile tears are what you cry
It's a genuine problem, you won't try
To work it out at all you just pass it by, pass it by.
The Who, Substitute

* I mean the goods, not the people, though the same goes for both, obviously.
** If anyone can provide a convincing explanation of this baffling line, I'd be very surprised.