Feminist Avant-Garde

‘They changed your way of thinking.’

The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s was the title of an exhibition held in the Kunsthalle, Hamburg in March 2015: a timely show of significant works made in the 1970s by a range of feminist artists. Timely because, increasingly these artists are being recognised in contemporary exhibitions and collections of twentieth-century art and therefore constitute an important historical context but also because more of these artists are dying.

Chantal Ackerman. Source unknown

Chantal Ackerman. Source unknown

The death of the experimental filmmaker Chantal Ackerman in October 2015, is the most recent of artists of this generation who have left an important legacy of innovative work which question issues of representation and gender through generating new forms of formal and material inquiry. Described in one obituary as an ‘extraordinary artist of the everyday’, Ackerman’s work included fiction, documentary and essay films. Contesting and investigating ideas such as relationships between duration and narrative, she is recognized as a ‘cinematic radical’: her 1975 work, Jeanne Dielman used a combination of real time, fixed cameras and shock and is featured in Sight and Sounds’ poll of one of the greatest films of all time. Hotel Monterey (1972) was a 65 minute ride in a lift and in News From Home (1977) images of the New York subway and streets were shot against the soundtrack of Ackerman’s readings from her mother’s letters. A retrospective of her work was held at the ICA in 2014 and an exhibition of her video installation work is due to be held at the University of Westminster this month.

Alexis Hunter. With kind permission Charles Thompson

Alexis Hunter. With kind permission Charles Thomson

Alexis Hunter who died from motor neuron disease in February 2014, was an important artist whose work contested the power relations of patriarchy. Her ongoing series of photographic works, Approach to Fear and Sexual Warfare constituted immaculately bejeweled nail-polished hands holding burning high-heeled shoes, tinkering with car engines, grasping revolvers or wielding axes and were shown at the Hayward Annual of 1978. The Marxist Housewife (Still Does the Housework) (1978) depicts a woman’s hand dusting a framed photograph of Karl Marx where it is unclear if the image is being cleaned or erased. Her works drew on advertising, documentary form and film storyboards, and many were sequenced in mock storylines or explored alternative forms such as slide presentations, colour Xerox, silver bromide printing, hand-coloured photocopy, double exposures, laser copy on archival paper, the use of hand-written text and ‘retro-collage’. A retrospective of her work, Alexis Hunter: Radical Feminism in the 1970s was held at East Gallery, Norwich in 2005.

The feminist art historian Rozsika Parker who died in November 2010, was described in her obituary by Ruthie Petrie as focused on women’s struggle for recognition within the art establishment. In 1973 with Griselda Pollock she formed the feminist art history collective and their books, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (1981) and Framing Feminism: Art and the Womens’ Movement 1970-1985 (1987) continue to be key texts in art history and the political contexts of images. Old Mistresses was a re-reading of the historical significance of women artists and their containment by focusing on art history’s values, categories and the nature of its discourses. These books mapped new frameworks for art through demonstrating different approaches to historical processes. The Subversive Stitch (1983), a radical history of embroidery was republished in 2010 and is a unique text in the understanding of relationships between gender and power through the history of material culture.

Rose Finn-Kelcey who died in February 2014, worked in photography, installation, performance and video, experimenting with formal concerns and conceptual approaches. She claimed that continual re-invention is crucial to art which could be made from anything. Her work is impregnated with her  humour: Here is  Gale Warning (1970) was a flag of black bunting and silver tissue text installed in the grounds of Alexandra Palace, London with its ‘message’ visible only when a fierce wind blew; Power for the People (1972) consisted of flags installed on the outside of Battersea Power Station until Chelsea residents opposite complained and had them removed; Divided Self (1974), was a photograph of Finn-Kelcey having a conversation with herself at Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park. The significance of her performance work has been recently discussed by Eleanor Roberts in ‘Restless Images: The Feminist Performances of Rose Finn-Kelcey’ in Oxford Art Journal.

FAVThe Hamburg exhibition included work by some well-known artists such as Lynda Baylis, Valie Export, Mary Beth Edelson, Ana Mendieta, Cindy Sherman and Carolee Schneemann as well as Alexis Hunter. Featuring over 30 international artists and over 150 works drawn from the Sammlung Verbund collection in Vienna, which focuses on international art from 1970 to the present with a unique emphasis on the feminist avant-garde, it was a valuable living document of a period of art history. The challenge of social norms, contestations of ‘traditional’ images and female sexuality, concepts of identity and violence against women were key issues of the exhibition. Martha Rosler’s Kitchen Diaries is well known, but the exhibition drew attention to other works such as Birgit Jurgenssen’s Hausfrauen-Kuchenschurze in which the artist tied a cooker around her neck like an apron, and the work of Rita Myers and Ewa Partum which addressed culturally constructed ideas on perfection and beauty.

If indeed there is such a thing as post-feminism perhaps it is in the self-assurance of works of artists like Joana Vasconcelos whose martial arts practice informs her approach to her work and who once ran a squad of female karate-trained bouncers at a Lisbon nightclub. Monumental, yet has been described as ‘homespun pop’, her work has drawn on the Valkyrie, the mythical warrior goddesses who give life. Her vast installation at the Palace of Versailles in 2012 was however, censored by the curator when she was refused permission to install her ‘tampon work’, The Bride in the bedroom of Marie Antoinette.

Or Kubra Khademi who in March 2015 gave a ten minute street performance in Kabul, where women are expected to cover every part of their bodies, wearing specially made steel armour which emphasized her breasts and torso. The performance, which consisted of a walk along the main road in her neighbourhood, was ‘aimed at the people who were harassing women every day’ and was a dangerous enterprise. The audience, mainly men, throw stones and insults. At the end of the performance, after jumping into a friend’s waiting car, it was immediately attacked and within minutes, Khademi received online death threats.

Or Durban-based performance artist, Tracey Rose whose work confronts political and social taboos. Drawing on Edelson’s 1972 photo-collage Some Living American Women Artists, her video Ciao Bella was a feminist parody on Da Vinci’s Last Supper in which she plays 12 female apostles including Lolita, Josephine Baker and the water-spirit Mami Wata and shown at the Venice Biennale in 2001. Describing herself as a militant artist she aims to leave a legacy: her art, she says is for the future.

Further reading:  WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (MIT Press, 2007); Chantal Ackerman Obituary; The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain, 1966-1976 (Camerawork Gallery, 1997); Eleanor Roberts, ‘Restless Images: The Feminist Performances of Rose Finn-Kelcey’, Oxford Art Journal (October 2015: available online), Rose Finn-Kelcey (Ridinghouse, 2012)

The Studio

The subject of the studio seems to have generated a lot of attention recently. Even the mildly informed has garnered that one of Bridget Riley’s studios is in her house whose interior is painted entirely white to enable her to assess colour more accurately; that Rose Wylie’s is a room in her cottage in Kent where huge canvases are piled up without supports to save space or that Tracy Emin’s occupies over 4 floors in an East London industrial building. If all of this information entered the public domain over the last 12 months, it was part of a wider fascination with the artist’s studio which was manifested in different forms and from different perspectives. In November, Barry McGlashan’s exhibition The Burning Heart and Other Artists’ Studios at the John Martin Gallery consisted of paintings of 25 (re)imagined artists’ studios including those of Monet, Hieronymus Bosch, Georgia O’Keefe and Cezanne painstakingly rendered and including recreations of artworks leaning against the walls, or of the artist themselves at work.

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In June last year German photographer, Matthias Schaller held a photographic exhibition of over 70 artists’ palettes at the monastery of San Giorgio in Venice. Each image was 2 metres high to emphasise a relationship between the palette and the artist’s paintings which Schaller proposes echoes that between the conscious and the unconscious – the frantic scrabblings behind the pristine, finished works. Cy Twombly’s consisted of scratch marks where he had applied paint with his fingers; Miro’s of separate blobs of red, yellow and black circles; Kandinsky’s of overlapping harmonies of blues, oranges and whites; Yves Klein’s of shades of ultramarine on a broken white plate. They suggested an evolution from that well used trope of the studio – the floor – the mess left behind which inadvertently becomes a work in itself, a mirror image of that which ultimately is seen outside but in controlled conditions. What has become an accepted norm of the image of ‘the studio’ emanates an internal frenzy through the spattered paint, filthy rags, newspapers and piled up shelves. In fact a need for order reigns over (and rein in) frustration, anxiety, disappointment, fear, anticipation, desire and ambition.Blogpic2

Atelier by Gautier Deblonde is a book of panoramic photographs of 60 artists’ studios published by SteidlDangin in 2014. These images, it is claimed are ‘portraits’ of space without people. They have no captions and the reader is forced to guess which studio is that of Gerhard Richter, Callum Innes or Pina Bausch, etc. by visual clues which inevitably become props, including the marks on the walls, items on the shelves, the type of furniture or, in the case of Zang Dali, the stuffed animals.

Blogpic3Lucien Freud’s former assistant, David Dawson made detailed descriptions (and photographs) of his studio in A Painter’s Progress published in 2014, a place where Dawson felt he ‘could (metaphysically)find everything’ and no longer had any need to go anywhere else. One photograph depicts a corner of the room with Freud’s unlaced boots, bare floor and paint clotted walls. There is an attempt to re-create the space through the book even though Freud’s studio itself has not moved or been moved, but has, according to Dawson, been sealed up in its location at the top of his house. Behind the words and images there is an underlying recognition and poignancy that the studio no longer exists.

In July, Barbara Dawson, the director of the Hugh Lane Gallery gave a talk at the Whitechapel Gallery in London about moving Francis Bacon’s studio from London to Dublin, a process which took place over three years between 1998 and 2001. Involving archaeologists, conservators and curators this transpired to be a forensic exercise and the removal of the original walls, doors, floor and ceiling, tagging dust and cataloguing over 7,000 items. A digital database including 1,500 photographs, 100 slashed canvases, 2,000 materials and 1,300 pages torn from books as well as letters, newspapers and vinyl records has been created and made available as an archive. The relocation it is claimed, has changed the focus of exhibitions of Bacon’s work ever since: presumably, now that we can see what lay behind the work, it can inform how we see the work itself?Blogpic4

In December 2014 Walead Beshty’s exhibition at the Barbican, A Partial Dissembling… consisted of 12,000 photogram cyanotypes made over a year from items lying around in his studio. Tools, objects, bottles, wire, boxes, tapes appeared as silhouettes, absences or inverted shadows in the painterly washed-out surfaces of bits of cardboard, newspapers or rolls of paper. The emphasis was on the discarded, the leavings or what normally would be used for making or supporting something else and exhibited en mass in close proximity reminiscent of a nineteenth-century Royal Academy salon.

If these examples represent a widespread fascination with working methods, the detritus and evidence of the creative process and of the tortured process of making, the black and white photograph of Frank Auerbach in his studio by Jorge Lewinski taken in 1963 must be one of the few images which comes close to successfully communicating something in this vein. Sitting on a stool in the cramped space and striking the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker, with his back to a paint-encrusted canvas indistinguishable from its spattered surroundings including Auerbach’s overalls, the only untouched, pristine surfaces are the skin on his face and arms. Tightly cropped and posed, the image has a claustrophobic intensity which emphasises the human, rational figure set against the chaos: separate from it yet bound up within it.Blogpic5

‘Writers’ Rooms’ was a series in The Guardian newspaper published intermittently from 2006 whose unstated aim was to enlighten on the relationships between space and creative thought. Photographs by Eamonn McCabe of the writer’s workspace (normally a desk and chair in a room) were accompanied by a short text by the writer describing in about 300 words an aspect of the space or the significance of the objects. Some described the necessary attributes needed in order to write – stacks of notebooks (Clive James), a view of the garden (AS Byatt), just getting hold of the right kind of chair or inspirational object (Wendy Cope), or the need to have separate offices (Justin Cartwright). The images themselves were a kind of mise-en-scene where props – books, objects, chair, desk, window, bookshelves all came together or signaled something just out of frame, to indicate a kind of ironic theatre of thinking. Will Self describes ‘the council block through the greasy windowpane, the map stapled to the blind.’ JG Ballard talks about the copy of a painting The Violation by Surrealist Paul Delvaux which dominates the room he has written in for 47 years and ‘the Paolozzi screenprint which acts as a cat barrier…They come into the room and churn up my papers and are my fiercest critics’. Martin Amis mentions the clock on his desk in his study at the end of a concrete garden that he is afraid of breaking, belonging to his father and left unwound; and Frances Spalding reflects on her bench, previously owned by the artist Elisabeth Vellacott and once ‘thick with oil paint and the grime of charcoal.’

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One could argue that the idea of The Studio represents a form of supplement – where creativity and its understanding represents both excess and lack. The thing these examples have in common is that although fascinating they rarely offer any insights whatsoever into the working process or of the works themselves. There has recently been proposed a history of The Office in four objects, perhaps there should be one for the studio?

Mapping the Terrain

Photo0440 Ways of mapping seem to have become a potent area of consideration recently. Ever-changing urban environments and technologies that facilitate new ways of comprehending them perhaps constitute the background to a range of recent projects that probe the ‘lost dimension’ of space and our place in it. According to some, the ordering principles of maps offer a possible antidote to the trauma of displacement.  Forms of mapping create potential ‘trajectories of becomings’ where certain ‘modes of knowing’ enforce a boundedness in a world of potential boundlessness. Cone One the one hand maps generate new perspectives on the known, on the other they allow a voyeuristic take on the unknown. Everest base camp, Angor Wat and the Great Barrier Reef have all become recent ‘internet tourist destinations’ on Google Street View where ironically mapping has become interchangeable with walking. Morphed from Google Maps which in its turn has expanded to treks to remote sites (indeed the 15 cameras necessary to create the panorama of images to simulate a virtual site is known as the Trekker), the viewer clicks through a series of images and virtually ‘walks’ through the Grand Canyon, Disney World or Red Square from their living room.047

Walking according to others, though is synonymous to a form of belonging to place and space.  Artist Emma Smith, founder of The School for Tourists is concerned about relationships between walking and the experience of place. She sees walking as an act of agency. In an age of alienation, a range of strategies to establish ‘realms of coherence’ in relation to ‘mapping the self’ have evolved through walking. American writer Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: a journey from lost to found (2012) documents her struggle for self-respect after suffering ongoing bereavement, divorce and childhood abuse. Walking the Pacific Crest Trail on the west coast of the United States alone, over the crests of 9 mountain ranges, with little previous experience of the demands of long distance walking, she overcomes fear, isolation, pain and countless setbacks over many months until she completes the journey of over 2,000 miles from California to Oregon. The film version of the book is one of several recent biographies of endurance where extreme walking maps an odyssey of lost (and found) identity.

049Mapping is bound up with experience and there is an interchangability between maps and journeys – literal or metaphorical. Photographer Annie Leibovitz’s recent project Pilgrimage was a form of mapping. Photographs of still lives and interiors and the material traces of her subjects – letters, clothes, pressed flowers, beds  – belonging  to, amongst others,  Emily Dickinson, Georgia O’Keefe, Eleanor Roosevelt and Virginia Woolf were photographed in natural light which gives the images an eerie presence. Began, she admitted ‘as a way to save my soul’ following the trauma of the death of her partner Susan Sontag and her parents soon afterwards, she embarked on a trail which followed a series of connections between one subject and another and which subsequently revealed other networks. We are reminded that Julia Margaret Cameron was Virginia Woolf’s great aunt; that she lived next door to Tennyson; that Martha Graham choreographed a dance about Emily Dickinson; that Barbara Morgan’s photographs of Graham represent a turning point in the representation of dance. In the book, an image of Annie Oakley’s Native American blankets are seen adjacent to an account of Leibovitz’s journey to O’Keefe’s studio in New Mexico; and Darwin’s garden in Kent follows on from an image of the interior of Freud’s study in London.Busstop

Revealing the hidden is arguably part of the task of the map-maker. Other forms of connections are formed between Leibovitz’s subjects in her photographs of their objects not normally on view: Emily Dickinson’s dress is kept away from her house in a museum; Elvis Presley’s TV set and record player are in the storeroom of Graceland; Martha Graham’s props are packed in boxes in a cramped New York warehouse.

Part of the process of map-making is piecing together fragments which then become part of a comprehensive whole. Travelbydrone harvests material made by amateur drone pilots and its thousands of edited videos cover areas from Nova Scotia to Namibia to the Arctic Ocean. The potential for tourism is obvious, but the technology could genuinely change the way in which we see and comprehend the world through a series of aerial moving images. In digital artists Aaron Koblin and Ben Tricklebank’s forthcoming installation, Light Echoes to be held in the Curve, Barbican, visitors will enter a dark environment where the tracks of the disused Eagle Mountain Railroad in the Mojave Desert, filmed by a drone, will be ‘mapped’ onto the gallery floor frame by frame. 028 Japanese photographer Sohei Nishino creates intricate map-like photocollages of London, Tokyo, Paris, Istanbul, Delhi and Berlin and many other cities by collaging together thousands of detailed images from various perspectives that he made by walking through the cities’ streets and re-photographing the result. These thousands of fragments come together to form panoramas which evoke the naïve flat perspective of medieval maps or cubism whilst constituting the extraordinary detail of 21st century cities. The minimalist glass towers of Canada House, Canary Warf and the City soar above the melee in London whilst patches of sky recorded over time appear in painterly palettes of greys.031

George Georgiou’s photographic series Last Stop can be seen as a visual map of London made by images taken from windows of double-decker buses. He called it a way of knowing the city after  his 10 years absence, where he felt disorientated by so much urban change. Random events are held together through the predictable nature of bus routes which coalesce the fleeting and the intensities of human interactions. 022

The continuous redevelopment of urban space on a global scale has created an immersive emphatic, authoritative environment.  The city is an ever- expanding interpellation – a regulated space of authority and privilege, where, subject to long-term infrastructure projects or large-scale building developments, pedestrians are continually re-directed and re-routed through space that is privately policed, picking their way through corridors of billboards between prohibited areas, edging through dangerous conduits of the new.026

The simulated leafy ivy-clad hoardings of Crossrail beyond which thousands of tons of earth are being removed to be replaced by poured concrete, create a simulacrum of space where truth and fiction merge. Projected streets are populated by avatars in space smoothed out from the chaos of long-term transport construction in the heart of the city. There’s no time to become familiar in such provisional spaces where builders’ boardwalks and temporary billboards proclaim access to new iconic squares and architectural privilege. Where it doesn’t join up, the awkward spaces that remain are filled with leisure sculpture. New forms of orientation will be required to negotiate between the blandly universal and the nostalgia of the known (and lost). The map has become an archive. An A-Z of London published before 2012 will not include the Emirates-funded cablecar, King’s Cross will be obsolete, streets around Crossrail  hubs will have disappeared, be re-drawn or re-named and the Elephant and Castle (in central southeast London) will be missing landmark postwar buildings and historic spaces of human interaction. These pre-modern A-Zs will become historical documents or collectors’ items.

034 Perhaps new approaches to mapping are called for in such changing times. In 2013, The Folkestone Centipede Project was a site-specific artwork funded by the European Regional Development Fund and developed by staff and students of the MA Fine Art, Canterbury. Apparently the installation, in an abandoned shipping container, was a reconstruction of a 1970’s research project which developed a ‘Nonlinear Para-Spectrometry detector’ to find unknown archaeological sites, and which claimed to have identified an ‘area of magnetic dissonance’ in Folkestone Harbour, South East England. Various instruments had mapped a ‘transitory structure’ resembling a massive spoked disc ‘levitating’ over the Folkestone ferry terminal which was observable for 4 minutes a day. Researchers at the time, according to the catalogue of the work, had proposed that this and similar objects were remnants of a technology lost ‘during the last interglacial period’, whilst others were somewhat skeptical of the basis and findings of the ‘research’.

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It has been noted that mapping gained whole new sets of perspectives and possibilities when poststructuralism came along. As Marcus Doel proposes via Dr Seuss, ‘like a gust of fresh air, the Cat in the Hat’s antics sweep through the sedentary…With a wave of his paws everything that appeared to be settled and fixed into places become once again mobile elements in a delirious movement of immanent and expressive creation…’ (M. Crang, N. Thrift eds. 2007). So many critical topologies / multiple diversities / trajectories of becomings / productive entanglements / heterogenic spaces /spaces of experience / constellations of affects / performative knowledges / modes of knowing – all generating ever-new perspectives. 051 Further Links: travelbydrone.com, The School for Tourists, Light Echoes, George GeorgiouCats, Glunks

Drawing on Landscape: 2

In the film Reaching for the Moon, the poet Elizabeth Bishop is on the deck of a ship travelling from New York to Brazil, anticipating the bell which sounds to mark the crossing of the Equator.  Afterwards, late-coming passengers join her at the rail and ask her how it felt and she replies, ‘it was nothing really, only a slight bump’. 854 The relationship between the body and space or of landscape being melded with bodily and subjective experience, and the two as interchangeable has been variously addressed in culture.   There is a correspondence between belief and connectivity in the chaos and changing states of elemental space that can be felt as well as perceived.  The Scottish writer Nan Shepherd compares the heightened awareness of landscape to the experience of art: ‘pure and terrible … a newness that cannot be carried away in the mind’. In her writing there is reciprocity between the body and landscape where the body’s immersion in light, mist and dark expresses an immanence and unity – a sense of ‘life beyond the self’.814 In The Living Mountain, written in the 1940s and published thirty years later, Shepherd ‘writes landscape’ honed from many years of walking in the Cairngorms in Scotland. Landscape was for her, ‘matter impregnated with mind’, a place without destination and the need to look with love and with ‘humble privilege’ at the natural world.  In a series of intensely observed scenes, experience and writing coalesce as she describes a floating moon over snow, its green light shimmering against violet, rose and mauve; the opalescent blue of the hills above purple gullies; the sullen blackness of rain; the red, pink and grey of granite gashed with fragments of red; snowfields that burn indigo and blue; white wings over grey stones; an ashen and yellow sky. The words read like a painter’s diary or sketchbook – patterns of white on the edge of a plateau, iridescent drifts of veils of mist, the ‘astonishing’ transparency of water, streaks of ice ‘tearing the soil’, the vivid brilliance of the sky shadowed by rock. 827 Shepherd collapses and inverts perspectives through a series of visual of encounters: a tree hung with light underwater; a loch suspended high on a mountainside; falls of water into still pools; hanging summits of snow; fissures like ‘surface eddies’ in a distant plateau. Formal conflations shift emphasis of space with interplays of movement: blood /rock; falling /draining; glowing / fading; freezing / running. Verbal alliterations – scarfed, savaged, scooped, shattered, split – could be transposed and considered as methods or acts of painting or sculpture.  Shepherd’s writing permeates the remote immensity of the landscape with a deep humanity: dirty snow ‘tattered like a worn dress’, the ‘chill of sodden places’ and the sense of ‘long blue distances’ are living encounters with moments in time and space. Shepherd’s writing evokes landscape in the act of becoming through a process of returning again and again: experience observed over time. Films of light, broken plateau, bristling landscapes, gaunt, grim – her terms – imply continual change and movement. Behind the form of prose-poetry lies the rigour of thought, of ‘not getting lost’ that is purely ‘a matter of mind.’819 The concept of ‘writing landscape’, applied by George Bernard Shaw to the work of Robert Louis Stevenson in  the late nineteenth century has evolved into the contemporary genre of modern landscape literature of which Shepherd’s writing  is now considered a part. She emphasized the importance of quiescence, to know small places over time (a group of trees, a field edge, a view of moorland), returning again and again to reflect on their subtle changes – positions of the sun, light against frost, the interplay of water, the substance of moonlight – and the integration of the body, experience and the nature of writing. 836 The idea of uncontested ‘landscape’ though, is a subject seemingly close to heart of the British national character, especially the British landscape. Its place in national identity is apparently so treasured that it is emphasised in the new British passport.  Embedded within the pages reserved for visas and entry and exit stamps to and from other countries are images of pastoral idylls of the British countryside. ‘VILLAGE GREEN’, ‘BEACH’, ‘FISHING VILLAGE’, ‘WOODLAND’, ‘MOORLAND’ and ‘LAKE’ complete with local pub, beach huts, sundial and wooden bench are impregnated as if messages ingrained deep within the British unconscious. In an age of celebrity landscapes involving pilgrimage to places made holy by popular culture – Air New Zealand has scenes from the film version of Lord of the Rings as the livery on its aircraft (‘The Land of Middle Earth’) – these British passport images seem disingenuous.  These efforts to appropriate ‘landscape’ seem in denial of how it can easily tip into evoking feelings of despair, despondency and desperation.853 An ‘assemblage of moments’ is what a recent graduate of the MA Fine Art, Canterbury described her video-film work, shown at the Turner Contemporary and in the Whitstable Biennale in 2014. Inspired by Margate’s derelict Dreamland site and its archival footage made in the 1960s, it also drew on Edgar Allan Poe’s (1808-1949) poem of the same title where ‘By the lakes that thus outspread Their lone waters, lone and dead…, By the dismal tarns and pools…By each spot the most unholy – In each nook most melancholy…’ where the traveler ‘meets aghast, sheeted memories of the past’.  Helen Poulteney’s film was a powerful evocation of desolation, the nature of time, the fragility of place and the innocence of experience.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, ‘Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox’ found in manuscript form and published after her death draws pleasure and loss with words, where ‘in the block of honkey-tonks, cavities in our waning moon….drinks like lonely water-falls, in night descend the separate throats’(Chatto & Windus, 2011). Hers is the imagery of a human landscape collapsed with hope and observed through a reduced poetic language.

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How the infinity of space and its potential chaos can be invoked through a coalescence of restraint and reduction is explored in artist Vija Celmins’ work. Her works with charcoal, pencil and paper drawn from photographs of deserts, oceans, pebbles and galaxies investigate the nature of surface and time. She describes how light, the graphite of pencil and the paper surface ‘unfold together’ in subtle differences of perspective and pictorial space. Almost imperceptible shifts in emphasis between the image and how it was made hold a kind of tension and intensity (some took a year to complete). These works of the night sky, webs and the surface of the sea hold a kind of melancholy in their loss of boundaries.  Celmins spent a lot of time in the desert, where ‘you need to spend time to see things’, absorbing its light, and its simultaneously flat and illusionary surface. Conversely, Anya Gallaccio’s 2014 work, ‘Untitled Landscapes’ sited in the coastal nature reserve of Orford Ness facing the North Sea in Suffolk was based on magnified photographs of pebbles found there. Large billboards of intricately patterned and detailed images made from pebble fragments evoked a sense of turmoil and disorder, and had an eerie correspondence with the history of the site as a centre, in the 1920s, for  the development of aerial photography, radar and ballistics research.

Meanwhile, in Britain’s green and pleasant land, 450,000km of ancient hedgerows are threatened by the expansion of large-scale farming controlled by satellite. From the use of TNT in the 1950s to blow up trees and hedges to the removal of lone oaks that spoil the view from some bed and breakfast establishment, the historical fabric of the UK countryside is diminishing. Significant areas can now only been seen as ghosts – as bumps or ridges in the land, or as subtle differences in colour, visible (ironically) only from above. 1017 Further references and links: Elizabeth Bishop, Nan Shepherd, MA Fine Art Canterbury, Vija Celmins, Anya Gallaccio, Whitstable Biennale

Urban Grit: a (psycho)geography


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Over the last 5 years there seems to have been an expanding production of publications, exhibitions and artists’ monographs on the subject of the city and its growth or decay. Perhaps this is in response to or a way of dealing with unprecedented accelerated urbanization on a global scale. The Global Cities Index of 2014 cited London, New York, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong as occupying the top 5 places of global importance and according to the 2011 census, the population of London showed a record of 8m and is expected to reach 10m by the middle of the 21st century. Its power, status and significance have expanded so much physically and ideologically that, it has been proposed, the UK can now be perceived to consist of London and everywhere else: unLondon.  A geographic area which takes in Brighton, Reading, Oxford and Cambridge and possibly the whole of the South East is the new Greater Greater London, whilst postwar new towns can be considered as constituting a kind of ‘quasi-London’ where commuters trek to and fro to London workplaces (Matthew Engel, Engel’s England, 2014).460

These shifting parameters of the city seem echoed in the changing cultural boundaries which constitute reflections of the urban, whether in painting, photography, site-specific or public artworks, experimental film and video, performance or writing. Relatively new genres are gaining ground, such as urban architecture and street photography which explore themes such as urban decay, alienation and the struggle for occupation, possession and dominance.746

Similarly, there seems to be an ever-expanding literature of expression (and repression?) of some of these psychic dimensions of the urban. ‘Trespass: a History of Uncommissioned Art’, ‘Forbidden Places’, ‘Do Not Alight Here’, ‘Derelict London’, ‘States of Decay’, ‘Out of Sight: Urban Art & Abandoned Spaces’, ‘Modern Ruins’, ‘Building Pathology: The Thames & Hudson Book on Graffiti Techniques’, ‘Hidden Cities’, ‘The View From the Train’, ‘The Secrets of the Underground’ and The Abandoned London mouse pad all published in the last 5 years perhaps represent  a growing collective paranoid-schizoid position developing from a persecutory anxiety of the engulfing urban environment.  This, it could be argued from a Kleinian perspective, represents an expression of the fear of retaliation where split-off elements of the self, such as hostility and alienation are projected outwards to the city, finding expression in a multitude of proscribed practices.

753Or perhaps a denial of the growing spatial power relationships of the city and architecture is generating a parallel world of resistance through an ‘edgework ethnography’ of these ‘occluded topographies’ of the city. ‘Urban exploration’ is becoming the accepted parlance to describe the interrogation of public and private space via ‘place-hacking’. ‘Cultural Hijacking: a Do-it-yourself Urbanism’, ‘Access All Areas: A Users’ Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration’ and ‘Explore Everything: Place-hacking the City’ are all examples of a recent literature which implore gaining access to restricted places such as construction sites, abandoned tube tunnels and underground sewers. So-called ‘urban outlaws’ such as The London Consolidation Crew recently climbed the Shard, sat in a crane and attempted to board an ex-Soviet submarine moored on the Thames as part of their methodology of an ‘archaeology of the future.’457

Further recent examples of the merger of art and life in proposing different perspectives of the city have been explored by Layla Curtis’ work, Traceurs: to trace, to draw, to go fast where the artist trained in Parkour techniques involving breathtaking leaps from stairwells and buildings, jumps across rooftops and pirouettes over walls, and filmmaker Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s 2013 essay-film, Taşkafa told through the lives of Istanbul’s street dogs and narrated by John Berger.777

Reflections on the urban were also a feature of the recent John Moore’s 2014 Painting Prize held at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Mark Siebert’s ‘Homerton High Street’ depicted the scraps and details of a street surface of leaves and a discarded betting slip, and painted on a piece of cardboard found nearby. Mandy Payne’s ‘Brutal’ used the materials of its subject matter – concrete and aerosol paint – to consider temporality and displacement in Park Hill, a Grade 11- listed modernist housing estate in Sheffield. John McSweeney’s  ‘Legacy’, in an ironic ‘dejeuner sur l’herbe’, showed young people picnicking on a grass verge, sipping carbonated drinks and checking their phones against a backdrop of grey tower blocks in various states of demolition, whose grim signage indicated their provisional use: ‘EAT’, ‘PLAY’, ‘GET’, ‘SHOP’.  Painted on an empty crisp packet, Conor Rogers’  ‘88 Calories’ meticulously observed the cracked surfaces of garden paving adjacent to a yellow brick wall against which a synthetic – looking broom leant hopelessly. Themes and tropes of the sub-urbia and its detritus permeated throughout: flyovers, supermarkets, clipped lawns, overgrown stairwells, rows of isolated semis and streets of 1930s villas devoid of people.459

Artists’ takes on the effects of the London Olympics may now seem to be dated, but in The Art of Dissent (Marshgate Press, 2012) editors artist Hilary Powell and sociologist Isaac Marrero collected a fascinating compilation of incursions, excavations and displacements in or about the Olympic site which took place over several years. The book is document of a ’range of improprieties’ which challenge the consensus, drawing on Jacques Ranciere to describe a condition of disagreement. In this ‘assemblage of dissention’ artists, architects, curators, writers, poets and social researchers reflect on their interventions in architecture, film, installation, performance, writing, photography and drawing: a rogue torchbearer who made his own torch ran 5 minutes ahead of the official parade;  a series of nocturnal trespasses ‘performed’ in semi-derelict buildings; an unofficial viewing platform installed at the perimeter fence which stayed in position for 60 hours before it was removed by officials; a film-document of ‘absurd sporting activities performed under guerrilla conditions’ including discuss-throwing with old car hub-caps and trampolining on abandoned mattresses.316

In a catalogue essay of the work of Rut Blees Luxemburg’s nocturnal images of the city, art historian Régis Durand  intriguingly proposes ‘photography as suicide’ where, as in the repressed unconscious ‘what cannot be thought is thought… in fragmentary inscriptions …of shadowy spectral images and illegibilities’. Her work is included in the recent World Atlas of Street Photography (Thames and Hudson, 2014) which joins an enormous literature of photographic publications on the same theme which attempt to visualize the unknowable through the (contemporary) still image. From the constantly moving chaos of New York, Delhi, Moscow, Berlin and Johannesburg et al., photographers struggle to turn the banal into the extraordinary. Whether framed by intent, subject or through various formal devises  –  it’s all street, where humanity has become imprisoned in apartments or by the shrinking horizons of a diminished depth of field of trapped perspectives. But how to make sense of the visual chaos? Isolated pigeons in the Piazza San Marco attempt anthropomorphic versions of alienation emphasising the ontological condition of the human condition – alone…isolated.  Variations of ‘street portraits’: people photographed indiscriminately unawares, register how similar we are, hemmed-in by fashion and socioeconomic forces, or ‘reveal’ how restraints of style through culturally-defined tastes  determine our essential similarities (we are beginning to look like each other, like people and their pets). Photographic documents made in the 1970’s of Brick Lane and Spitalfields show a shocking poverty:  the homeless huddled around fires made in the street (yes it really was like that) and make Gillian Wearing’s subjects holding ‘Signs 1992-3’ on the following page look lightweight and in poor taste. Football fans, office workers, tourists, prostitutes are elsewhere herded  together and somehow taxonomised, remindful of why photography was such a potent area of critique in the 1970s and 1980s through the pages of Screen, only now accessible through historical anthologies of visual culture.

486In the exhibition ‘Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age’ at the Barbican, London (October 2014 – January 2015), 18 photographers of the city ‘from New York to Venezuela’ promise to ‘highlight the power of photography to reveal hidden truths about the society which we live in.’ Works by Andreas Gursky, Berenice Abbott, Ed Ruscha, Thomas Struth and Bernd and Hilla Becher seem to embody Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia as representations of states of order, as ‘other’.  If their images do create another real space as meticulous and well-arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed and jumbled (the laboratory-like perfection of Gursky’s work, the ordered horror of Bas Princen’s Garbage Re-cycling City, or the grid-like empty parking lots of Ed Ruscha’s bookworks), the architectural and ideological relationships between space and power (ironically on show at the Barbican),seem to be lost on the curators.561

Further Links: John Moore’s Painting PrizeRut Blees Luxemburg, John Berger, Place hacking, Andreas Gursky, Berenice Abbott, Thomas Struth, Melanie Klein, paranoid schizoid position

Archive Fever?

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The nature of the archive seems to be a compelling concept in current thinking about culture. Collections, images, files and documents of all kinds, objects, records, recordings – traces which constitute archival material have to be accumulated to be constructed and given agency by others. Something about the idea of the original constitutes an authority of primary research which can be borrowed, appropriated, interpreted, organized or assembled in the interests of creating new ways of thinking and making sense.

According to curator and writer Charles Merewhether, art represents a significant sphere where some of the most searching questions have been asked on what constitutes an archive and what authority it holds. Gerhard Richter, Tacita Dean, Ilya Kabakov and Susan Hiller are examples of artists who have created and used concepts of the archive to address a range of issues about identity, history and cultural meaning.

I was reminded of the currency of the archive in MA students’ recent final shows. The archive seemed to be embedded within a significant range of works such as collected domestic detritus re-assembled and preserved in textiles; spoken narratives, edited, re-framed and performed; a critique of the family album collaged into different ways of seeing; the use of archived information to create new hybrid objects; scaled-down assemblages made from fragments of stored furniture; casts from packaging waste made strange and displayed in vitrines as if drawn from excavated  archaeological finds.  Texts, and visual material come to rest in ‘final’ work, constituting a form of testimony to thinking and working through ideas.  Thus a biographical archive of practice forms an infrastructure to visual resolutions. Bibliographic material accumulated and considered over months support concepts and approaches which fabricate new becomings.

5Blog9An ‘archival turn’ appears to be emerging: a significant number of exhibitions it seems, are now determined by archival material.  As a portrait of Virginia Woolf, her ‘Art, Life and Vision’ (National Portrait Gallery) gathers together manuscripts, letters, paintings by Bloomsbury artists, photographs, posters and first editions to create a perspective on her life and work. The retrospective of Malevich (Tate Britain) defines the artist’s importance in twentieth-century art through its selection and presentation of his stage designs, painterly experiments and writings against the context of Russian history. The recent exhibition of selections from Kenneth Clarke’s collection which incorporated period reconstructions, textiles, prints, paintings and sculpture was more of a demonstration of patriarchal taste than of democratized art history.

The archive though, gives voice to the present. The Black Cultural Archives finally opened in July 2014 in London after long struggles with funding. Created from material amassed since 1981, it aims to review grand narratives of history and expand awareness of the presence of Africans in Britain over 2,000 years, not just since The Windrush.

Artist Leon Kossoff recently discussed his relationship to the National Gallery as an important archive of classical and modernist paintings by artists such as Poussin, Goya and Cézanne which have inspired and informed his approaches to drawing and composition for over 50 years.

The archive will always constitute a surplus: its boundaries will never be reached because new ways of thinking are always developing. The archive itself will always be in the process of becoming something other than itself, supplementing and be supplementary to something else. The archive both informs and generates new texts, its fecundity enables it to be constantly alive:  its animals are potentially frenzied, tame, innumerable, fabulous and embalmed.7Blog9

Collaboration is essential to the archive to enable it to become more than itself, sometimes temporarily or provisionally, but always being re-interpreted and re-imagined. It will thus always have potential. The archive constitutes a boundary between the pragmatic and the insightful – on the one hand, an organized assemblage, on the other, a rich field of possibility – both sides of which are embedded in chance. The archive constitutes connections and configurations waiting to be made; it is a shrine to the history of the unknown. Vulnerable to interpretation, always metamorphasising in a state of proposition, the archive’s fragments are suspended particles seeking expression and new relevance.

The archive is time-bound: historical and temporal, stabilised and de-stabilised by time, it is caught-up in past and future time. It is always waiting for its (present) time to come, to be contemporary and full of new insights. It can be added to, but it will still exist as historical and of the past. Etymologically, the archive suggests a derivative of the archaic: ‘that of a primitive, early period, not in ordinary use but retained for special purposes.’ The archive is of objects endowed with reverence, consulted, respected and deferred to, their import taken away and re-inscribed into new accounts, proposals, narratives or objects. Its materials collaborate with those who approach with care and patience, who revere the power of the archive and its potential to challenge and change how others understand and know.

1Blog9The archive is simultaneously overwhelming and intriguing, in suspension to scholars, artists and shamans who enliven its stasis with alchemy.  The archive is ingenuous, unaware of any processes of collusion, exploitation or alibis to history, yet is always a witness waiting to stand.

The archive’s fragments are borrowed, re-presented, connected and memorialized – it meets the mind’s fundamental need for order over a mass of chaotic detail. The archive frames identity: if it goes missing, is confiscated or made exclusive, trauma can follow.

Haunted by preservation anxiety, its contents’ disintegrated, neglected or forgotten, the archive is hence ever opportunistic to the potential of its future lives, willing to collaborate with new pathways to resurrection and to new identities, provisional or otherwise.

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Further Links: Gerhard Richter, Tacita Dean, Susan Hiller, National Portrait Gallery, Bloomsbury Group, Black Cultural Archives, Kenneth Clark, Kazimir Malevich

The Unbearable Presence of Objects

IMG_4021Some interesting equivalents of the ‘object’ have emerged recently in contemporary art and the ways it is displayed and curated. At a recent MA seminar some of these were discussed. The object, it was agreed is a concept worth attention, whether in painting, sculpture, time-based media, performance or photography. Indeed, on 17 July, curator and writer Antony Hudek will give a talk at the Whitechapel Gallery to launch ‘The Object’, the most recent publication from the Whitechapel and MIT Press series, Documents of Contemporary Art.

188Perhaps the seminar itself could be constituted as an object, since some terms which surfaced could apply to both: freestanding, part of an archive, more than the text, tangible, order, originality, consumable, narrative, fragment, limited, community, materialization, mobility, transient, configurations, contingencies, process. This appears to indicate that the object can never be separated, perceived or conceptualized outside culture.

‘The Photographic Object’, at the Photographers’ Gallery in 2009 showed contemporary photographs which tested the materiality of the medium. Wolfgang Tillmans, Catherine Yass and Walead Beshty et al. stitched, pierced, punched, scratched and exposed to the elements the photographic surface and its chemical phenomena. These approaches seem to suggest ‘object’ as noun, verb and adverb, implying emphatically and perhaps unconsciously, to the permeation, power and cultural ubiquity of photographic media in all its forms. The dimensions of such ‘regimes of value’ could be considered or find expression in other ways via some of the literature on the object: Donna Harraway, ‘Teddy-bear Patriarchy’ (1993); L. Holiday, ‘Kitchen Technologies: Promises & Alibis’ (2001); Bill Brown, ‘The Tyranny of Things’ (2002); Mary Douglas, ‘Purity & Danger’ (1985); Georges Bataille, ‘The Gift of Rivalry’ (1991); V. Margolin, ‘The Politics of the Artificial’ (2002); Esther Leslie, ‘Synthetic Worlds’ (2005) and Jacques Lacan, ‘The Gaze and the Petit Object A’ (1991).

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How objects become agents for power struggles and their potential to evoke ‘conflictual sites of political discourse’ is addressed in a forthcoming conference at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. ‘Curating Conflicts / Disobedient Objects’ includes speakers from the Interference Archive and Liberate Tate. How objects can become or be perceived as ‘disobedient’ and how the museum ‘deals’ with such a condition, sounds compelling. This insinuated deviance of objects seems to contest objects’ essential qualities of ‘thingness’ and by association, the nature of the archive.

Elizabeth Grosz has proposed that ‘the thing’ is where we perceive our limits and what we measure ourselves against – it is the mirror of what we are not. The perfected fabricated surfaces, kitsch colour and shimmering ‘thingness’ of Jeff Koons’ work are resistant to marks and traces of the past. His sculptures and paintings defy, what Grosz has argued, what we fear most: the enigmatic, the ‘revenge of the blob’, and the non-living. Shininess denies states of emergence, potential immateriality, decrepitude and the biological and unpredictable indeterminations of the body.

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The essential nature of the object could be considered to include matter and substance. The transfigurative properties of objects and borderline states of matter were explored in a work by an alumna, recently exhibiting in London. A ghostly sublime of ephemeral fleeting viral-like forms flowed across the installation space where cone-like structures dissolved in light. Transient, organic-like shapes constructed from tiny plastic packaging materials, transmuted through shadow, light and film. Slightly malevolent-seeming flecks, existing on the ‘threshold of the unnoticed’ appeared to be brought into the realm of the seen simultaneously making visible and transforming that which was hidden. The work suggested that a condition of perpetual flux and movement, mapping a space of continual change, is where objects ultimately disintegrate.

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In ‘Objects For…and Other Things’ Phyllida Barlow asserts that she is ‘still looking for the single object, the object that can exist on its own’, yet her work seems to be all about relationships – between colour, form, materiality, space and the body and subject. Hers is a relational practice, of presence, affinity and processes where matter is substance and surface. Barlow’s commission, ‘untitled: dock’ at Tate Britain de-familiarises its architectural space, seemingly to draw on the nature of interiority in its lack of edges and boundaries: literally one (damned) thing after another.

288Further Links: Whitechapel Gallery, Photographers GalleryInterference Archive, Liberate TatePhyllida Barlow, Elizabeth Grosz, Esther Leslie, Victoria and Albert Museum