Tuesday, 23 May 2023

The Tourist from Mars Returns

In 2014 I was pleased to be invited to put on a solo exhibition at the FotoForum Gallery in Innsbruck, Austria by its director, Rupert Larl. As it happened, this would be my second exhibition there: the previous one (Der Widergänger / The Revenant) had been held 11th September to 10th October 2009, and was by all accounts a success, but unfortunately pressures at work (yes, in those days I had a proper job) meant I had been unable to attend in person. But in 2014 my upcoming retirement meant that I was free to travel to Innsbruck that summer, and so the gallery generously funded a ten-day residency for me during the first two weeks of the exhibition (6th June - 5th July).

I printed the ninety or so A3-sized images for the show myself and shipped them to Austria a month in advance of the exhibition's opening, but – just as a precaution against postal mishaps – I also sent the gallery a DVD containing the image files, so that as a last resort they could be printed locally. In the event everything arrived safely, and the backup was not needed. I myself arrived in Innsbruck on the day of the opening of the exhibition, "A Tourist From Mars" [1], and had an exhausting but memorable day being interviewed and filmed for the local TV station and newspapers in the afternoon, then in the evening reading out my statement-cum-manifesto at the official opening, something I had drafted in my schoolboy German, but which was then brushed into grammatical and idiomatic shape by a local teacher and photographer, Heinz Jürgen Hafele. It was the closest I have ever felt to "celebrity" before or since. Then for the following ten days I simply got on with exploring Innsbruck and the surrounding area in search of photographs. It was all an enormous pleasure, and a fitting climax to that phase of my life, and I will always be grateful to Rupert Larl for making it happen.

Then just a year later my computer suffered a backup drive failure and, despite the best efforts of a data recovery team, a great deal of my older work was lost, including many of the image files that had been shown in Innsbruck. Luckily, all of the photographs I had actually taken in Innsbruck during June 2014 had survived on the laptop I had taken with me, but I was kicking myself for not having kept a copy of that DVD. It then occurred to me that Rupert might have held on to it, so I emailed him, but it seemed that he hadn't. Oh, well, too bad; such is life with computers. But then, five years later in 2020, I got an email saying that he had after all found copies of those exhibition files on his computer hard-drive when tidying things up in advance of his own retirement from FotoForum, and would they still be useful? He was kind enough to transfer them to me, and I made several safety backup copies, but then – having no immediate use for the files – promptly forgot all about them.

In recent weeks I have been having one of my periodic book-making binges (there are at least three in the pipeline) and it occurred to me that – although at the time I did make a book from the blog posts I wrote and illustrated during and shortly after the Innsbruck residency – it might be worth compiling the pictures from the actual exhibition into a book in its own right. These were, after all, the best work I could muster from the productive five years following the 2009 show, and have held up pretty well, I think. Reassembled they would make a sort of retro retrospective, but – rather than attempting to recreate the layout of the two rooms of the exhibition itself from memory – I would arrange them using the folders as found on the backup DVD, which essentially contained selections from the sequences I had either already put into book form or was actively compiling at the time. For example, the largest selection, "Avalon", was still two years away from becoming the book England and Nowhere.

So a new "Tourist from Mars" publication is the result, and is available now as either a 108-page "magazine" at £26 or as a PDF download at £5.99. As always, I recommend the PDF as the closest rendering of the actual photographs, although the magazine is a much more satisfying object to handle and browse through [2]. You can click through on the image below to see a flip-book preview on Blurb (be patient, it can be slow):

It's a sobering thought that this exhibition was nearly a decade ago, now. Although I've had pictures in various group shows since (most notably, perhaps, I sold out the editions of two of my digital prints at the 2017 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition) and have produced a ton of work subsequently, that second solo Innsbruck exhibition at age 60 seems to have been something of a high-water mark. The clear lesson, forcefully pointed out to me in 2014 by Rupert Larl, is that it's simply not enough to make work, however good, and just wait for interest in it to materialize. It also requires persistent and time-consuming effort to be put into self-promotion, backed up by an unwavering, bullet-proof self-belief bordering on the sociopathic.

However, to acknowledge the truth of this is not the same as acting on it. I, like so many self-motivated amateur artists, have found it hard-to-impossible to turn myself into the kind of attention-seeking self-publicist who can unblushingly exploit the undoubted efficacy of pester-power. Rupert was surely right, though: if as an "unknown" you really want to get your work out there, you've really got to make that supplementary effort. But, even then, you'll still have to put up with more disappointment and frustration than any normal individual with a healthy instinct for self-preservation can be expected to bear. Is it really worth it? For a youngster hoping to make a living as an artist, it has to be; otherwise, get yourself a proper job. For the rest of us, I doubt it, and the older you are, the more I doubt it. Why put so much effort into making yourself unhappy?

But, cheer up, that's no reason to stop making the work! Although if making work neither makes you happy nor earns you any money, you probably should stop doing it. As for me, did I mention I've got another three books in the pipeline? And, actually, I've just thought of a possible fourth... I mean, really, in the end who has time for all that exhibitionist-publicist malarkey when there's so much fun to be had without it?

Mirror, mirror, on the tree,
Show the fairest view to me...

1.  Unlike 2009's "Der Widergänger" this was actually not my idea for a title, but borrowed by Rupert Larl from a post on this blog.
2. Relax... I realise you have no intention of buying anything! Hardly anyone ever does. The prices simply reflect what it costs to indulge in this low-risk (and addictive) form of vanity publishing, which I recommend. It's true that I have almost certainly produced more individual titles on Blurb than I have ever sold copies of them, and I've definitely given more away as gifts than I've sold (hmm, talk about "content wants to be free"...). But every year I am able to add a volume or two to the shelf of my stuff that has been accumulating in my old college's library and, who knows?, maybe future generations will find them of interest.


Martin said...

“ I, like so many self-motivated amateur artists, have found it hard-to-impossible to turn myself into the kind of attention-seeking self-publicist who can unblushingly exploit the undoubted efficacy of pester-power.” I get it, absolutely. I know a few people who have had novels published. Usually it’s a two or three book deal and all the stuff that goes with it. Pressure to open up and exploit all social media platforms, book signings, occasionally book tours. Radio interviews, etc, etc. A good friend was recently a guest on Woman’s Hour were she went through the hoops for an allotted ten minutes, explaining the background to her debut novel. I am incredibly pleased for her but nah, not for me. I’ll continue to write with the required self confidence/belief, but I appear to have developed an overwhelming fear of success. You’re dead right. When it starts to become a chore, it’s probably time to look elsewhere. Good luck with the new books, by the way! Those that I’ve seen look great!

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Martin. I'm beginning to suspect that the desire and pursuit of fame / celebrity / recognition beyond the desserts of any actual talent is a modern-day madness. In fact, I know it is. "You can be anything you want to be! Follow your dream!" are pernicious lies that will have wrecked many young lives that could have been ordinarily happy...


Stephen said...

"I'm beginning to suspect that the desire and pursuit of fame / celebrity / recognition beyond the desserts of any actual talent is a modern-day madness. In fact, I know it is. "You can be anything you want to be! Follow your dream!" are pernicious lies that will have wrecked many young lives that could have been ordinarily happy..."

~ You're exactly right there Mike.

Slightly off-topic but Janan Ganesh had this to say about failure and it's perhaps pertinent to those with artistic ambitions (Me, for example):

"“For many people, failure will be just that, not a nourishing experience or a bridge to something else. It will be a lasting condition, and it will sting a fair bit.

Look again at that list of names who have minted smarmy epigrams about the utility of failure. It is, you realise, a kind of winner’s wisdom. Those who overcome setbacks to achieve epic feats tend to universalise their atypical experience. Amazingly bad givers of advice, they encourage people to proceed with ambitions that are best sat on, and despise “quitters” when quitting is often the purest common sense.”"

Mike C. said...


All true. But "failure" is a very relative term. If someone is hoping for fame and a show at Tate Modern, then they're pretty much guaranteed to fail. Ditto earning a decent living from their efforts. OTOH if they can learn to take satisfaction in doing what they do in its own right, then failure doesn't come into it.


Unknown said...

Hi Mike,

A curator of many years experience told me that the formula she had developed, from her observations, was that artistic ability/originality was inversely proportional to the ability to self-publicise..

I know of an extremely successful and award-laden artist who would adopt different personae to ring up influential critics and gush about a wonderful show she'd just seen - the show being of her own work, of course!

I always had a fantasy when I was lecturing, that one ay I would put a short PowerPoint together, illustrated with Scrabble letters, which initially read 'net-working' but which changed a letter every time I turned my back to the screen, until it finally read 'ass-licking'. Sadly never got round to doing it :-)

Mike C. said...


You have to wonder how she ever found anything worth curating, following that formula... ;)