Tag Archives: art

The Wrong Raven

A Friday off, with hopes of a giddy odyssey during the forbidden daytime. In the event, there was more sloth than expected, and I didn’t set out until quite late in the afternoon. What was that woman signing to her unseen friend, at Leytonstone, on the Hainault branch train, I wondered? Whatever – we departed first, so we won. The first destination was a new one for me, the Tintype gallery in Islington, for the group show Bench. My favourites were the Michael Simpson drawings and paintings, Anna Lucas’ montage and the metal bench constructed by the Turner Prize-winning Assemble, which included Art Deco features from the ex-cinema just down Essex Road, as the owner of the gallery explained to me. I wandered down, to the building that is now serving a religious purpose, and sat on a concrete bench, to re-tie my errant shoelaces and take photos.



Walking to and from the various bus stops, I heard the same Radio 3 Free Thinking intro to their programme about Dada three times, because my podcast program had been unusually prodigal in its downloads. The stand-out quote here was from one of the Dadaists who said that:

“Only imbeciles and Spanish professors are interested in dates”,

in the context of trying to agree the timeline of Dada.

From Islington to Clerkenwell, and the Frameless gallery show The Black Bubbleicious, by Paul Deller. The collages downstairs worked best, though I did like the nods to Matisse’s cutouts in the overlaying of small strips of black vinyl and cloth on the ground floor. The poignancy of the ancient Ferguson Videostar advert snippet, and the testament to classroom boredom that was the collection of rubbers (“erasers”), including the messages written on their ephemeral sides.



Vacillating over where to go next, I travelled to the road Raven Row instead of the gallery Raven Row, which is not on the road Raven Row, and is sufficiently near that I stupidly did what the erroneously-informed Citymapper told me to do. Bah. Still, now I know where the Whitechapel Mission is, should that ever be needed. On the way to the actual Raven Row, for my second visit to the impossible-to-contain Inoperative Community show, I heard a man exclaiming to his companion:

“The first thing the doctor asked me was, have you been anywhere exotic?”

which implies at least an interesting ailment. The gallery should be thanked for their audience consideration, in that they provided a comprehensive timetable of all the film screenings, even including variations for each day of the week. This meant you would also always know what you were watching in each room, which isn’t always the case. Up the stairs and across to You the better, which has its own special multi-colour flashing light in the alcove outside the screening room itself. As the audience you end up as confused about the rules of the various games the characters are trying to win as they are themselves, which is the point, of course. A happy surprise for me was the 808 usage in the music co-composed by the artist. A few people peered into this film while I was watching, but weren’t tempted to stay.



Down and across from West to East for Luke Fowler’s Depositions, which ranges across Orkney and Shetland to encompass Travellers who “think they’re better than the rest”, a marvellous quote which I didn’t fully catch but which was something like:

“Never has human asininity been displayed with such extravagance…”,

clashes between Science and folk beliefs, DNA, the BBC Infax system “with the names of contributors redacted”,superstitions about predicting marriage, and the consultation of “clairvoyants and other sensitives” for a futurist’s book Future Tense. Television is referred to as a:

“cultural silicon chip through which you can experience the flickering half-life of someone else’s dreams”.

Both times I’ve been to this show it’s felt like I’ve been member of a strange temporary community of seekers after art films, with earnest discussions between friends and couples of how to accommodate themselves to the film schedule.

“We could go and see the end of Melancholia” (another immensely long Lav Diaz film) “- it’s only on in full for another day”.

Life is indeed Very Hard.

After a reassuringly displeasant journey to Fitzrovia (the carriage being so crowded it was comical), a walk past the braying hordes outside the pubs and bars (strangely similar to the braying hordes in Shoreditch) to Carroll/Fletcher for the Experimental Writing event with Nick Montfort with Manfred Mohr. People were standing outside, phone fiddling, and someone told me they’d been told to wait, but I brainlessly tried the door and someone inside let me in. A man sitting in front of me impressed the woman next to him (nearly everyone else knew nearly everyone else) with his VR device, which turned out to be a 3D-printed plastic version of Google Cardboard.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect, having been tempted by the mention of Commodore 64-based poems in the mailing list announcement. Nick Montfort’s first reading was Round, a poem created by a Python script that calculated digits of Pi and represented them in word form. After reading excerpts of the output, he explained and showed us the source code. Left to itself, the program would keep running, slowing down as the calculations took longer.

Next was Taroko gorge, which was in effect a nature poem generator, based on Montfort’s visit to Japan. Again, it was “boundless” i.e. it would keep generating lines of poetry until interrupted. Because it was deliberately designed as a single HTML page that could be downloaded and altered, others took it and changed the input vocabulary, an example being Tokyo Garage. There were other versions that showed the source code alongside the poems, and a meta-remix that included the output of all the other remixes.

The Two has been translated into different languages, the complication being that the ambiguity over the referents of the pronouns is easy in English, possible in French if you choose appropriate nouns that begin with a vowel, hard in Spanish etc. Apparently it’s rude in Japanese to use so many pronouns in a sentence. He distinguished between repetition of sounds across lines (in a strophe) and within a line.

He is also interested in celebrating and preserving older computer poetry efforts, on his Memory Slam site, which again allows you to save the source and alter the output of the scripts. Changing loyalties from Python to Perl, he showed his series of Perl scripts that generate poems using only 256 characters of code. Naturally the constraints meant he had to take a flexible attitude to whether the generated words actually existed in English or were just English-like. In the second version, he emphasised structural variation more than vocabulary size. A side-effect of the smaller set of words was that there were more rhymes. The final part of his performance comprised some poems running on the Commodore 64 (in this case, because his actual machine doesn’t support PAL, it was in an emulator running on his laptop). As well as a one-line Basic program which applied colours based on the rhyme scheme of a Rimbaud poem, he showed a couple of machine code poetry generators, that were very reminiscent of the old demo scene in their concise prodigality, operating in only 32 bytes. The size of text you might use as a password for a wireless network, as Montfort pointed out.



After the performance, there was a discussion between Nick Montfort, Manfred Mohr (whose show has just opened at Carroll/Fletcher) and Matthew Fuller. Asked about his definition of “experimental“, Montfort referred to the difference between experimental and theoretical physics, and the importance of “working through doing“. Mohr noted that the people who made the first visual art on computers weren’t themselves visual artists (at this point, he pointed to someone in the audience, but I’m afraid I don’t know his name).

Mohr went on to ask whether the rational comes from inside or outside a person. He had found that after he developed his  programs, he became a different person. The process had permanently altered the way he perceived everything, because he was thereafter
always looking for the algorithm“. He had undergone “professional deformation“. A comparison was made between twenty consonant poetry and Schoenberg’s twelve tone music, when considering the importance of constraints in experimental writing. Mohr gently chided Montfort for what he felt to be his sentimentality for old technology, while Montfort noted that there was little support for international characters in the old 8-bit systems (so Spanish and French poems generated on them lacked accents, for example), while there are still a lot of biases in computing towards the Latin alphabet.

Montfort referred to the ubiquity of “textual grids”, while Mohr declared that

“An artwork has to be strong enough to defend itself”.

I liked Montfort’s concept of “Plagiarism by anticipation“, when someone copies from you a few years before you write the original, and his blunt assessment of the financial rewards of poetry:

“You have no hope of earning money as a poet.”

He cited Derek Walcott, a Nobel Prize winner, “who didn’t teach because he liked it, he taught because he needed the money”.

I thought it was very pleasingly unusual to be able to recreate a performance at home so directly (by running the poetry generators) and it was also quite bracing to see an artist using a laptop running Linux, rather than ever-present Steve.


Bank Holiday Sussex

Sometimes it’s good to develop and then adhere to your own traditions. One of mine is to justify my Gold Card by excursing to the south coast, around the time of the last Bank Holiday Monday. It takes ages, because the trains aren’t very fast and they have weird filigrees in their route, splitting the train once and then again, backing into and out of Eastbourne, so that you go through Hampden Park twice in a single journey etc. Not even mentioning the multiple different ways of reaching the same destination, the angst over whether you’re in the right segment of the train, or whether you’ll end up in Littlehampton by mistake. One cause of my pre-departure pfaffing was trying to optimise the journey to include both Hastings and Bexhill without going back over old ground too often. (Later I discovered that if you make it to all three of the Coastal Culture Trail galleries in one day, you can claim 20% off in the shop. A just reward for those blessed by sinister levels of organisation).

At Clapham Junction a trio of men in suits and a woman in a formal dress boarded, replete with wine and plastic glasses. They seemed to be attending a wedding reception and there was a complicated rehearsal of the various family topics and social taboos, to avoid upsetting Flossie during the meal. She thanked the “guys” for coming along, while the lead male said “he wouldn’t have missed it for the world”. What about the tea in China? I had to move carriages before Eastbourne, so I didn’t hear their conclusions about the Labour leadership election. In the other carriage, a family boarded, to the chagrin of my table neighbour, reading his Andy McNab book (“author of Bravo Two Zero”). When they were alighting, the blithe eagerness of the daughter with her balloon led to a bashing incident with my glasses. In truth, the parental apology might have been more fulsome.

One advantage of these seaside towns is that you can use simplistic navigational heuristics and fail to go badly wrong. I.e. head for the sea/noise of seagulls and go along a bit. Half price entry thanks to my Art Fund pass, which always adds a frisson of parsimony achieved. Not having read much about what was actually on, I was very happily surprised by Rachel Howard’s At Sea. Claims of doing something new with oil paint usually fall short, but in this case Howard has succeeded, I think. When I looked at the paintings and then the blurbs, it was hard to believe they were just “oil and acrylic on canvas”. There were tendrils that could also be craquelure or spider webs, signs of scraping and heaving, wallpaper-like patterns and textures. In the pieces I liked the best there were spare backgrounds in which dashes of faint colours stood out very effectively, alternately evoking the sea horizon, billowing coral or a hilltop of city buildings. One of the invigilators extolled to a visiting couple that there was a video interview with Howard by Will Self, in which she explains some of the techniques she used. I deliberately haven’t watched that yet because I wanted to write down my own impressions. In the accompanying room that she curated, my favourite was Paul Feiler’s Chrome & Lemon.

Upstairs there were a couple of rooms showing Lowry By The Sea. Ancestral loyalty means that I defend Lowry, though I’ve always found him more interesting than his art, very strange person that he was. Reading that he considered his seascapes to be purely an “expression of his loneliness” was revealing, as was his identification of himself with isolated and vulnerable objects, subject to the relentless buffeting of the sea. Two of his renderings of waves were very pleasing, in Stormy Sea, Tanker and Grey Sea. In fact, rather as with Bacon after the recent trip to Norwich, I’ve thought a little less of Lowry after seeing some rather disturbing pictures at The Lowry in Salford. Not an enlightened reaction, I know.

Next door was Quentin Blake’s Life Under Water – A Hastings Celebration, pretty much the obverse of  Lowry’s outlook. It’s hard to maintain any form of self-indulgent melancholy in the face of Blake’s playfulness. Here he ringed his characters with fish and creatures, mouths gaping, and strange probosces dangling in some cases, all washed in marvellous colours (there was a display of his paintbox – one child told his mother that he must have liked that particular blue a lot because it had run out). His characters appeared mostly to reflect a benign view of England in the past, fortified by cheeky irruptions from the present.

Walking back, I noticed that one of the seafront restaurants had a sign on the wall in French and in German, which seemed to be a pragmatic concession, rather than an idealistic attempt at cosmopolitanism. At the station, some device failure was causing a heroic grump-on by a child, stolidly pulling a face on a bench while his mother insisted that “they said it can be fixed if it’s the fan”. “But who broke it in the first place,” he wanted to know.

Just a couple of stops, and no reversing or splitting, to reach Bexhill. I like the way they have very specific instructions about where dogs can be relieved from their leads, referring to the groynes. A word that surely only exists for Geography lessons. The beginnings of a barbecue were visible in the garden of one of the beachfront houses. “The two extremes, side by side”, someone said. Merely seeing the Art Deco De La Warr Pavilion is a joy. While I was too late to see the dancing workshops, there was a banjo-based band attracting polite applause in the amphitheatre like space beneath the gallery. The main exhibition was a consideration of the curve in Bridget Riley’s work. In the past I’ve worried about Riley over-exposure but she’s always burst through that concern. There’s a very specific memory of seeing her Crest at Tate Britain many years ago and feeling rather disturbed by the autokinetic effects. It was included in this show and was still just as powerful, compelling because it’s elusive and the movement can’t be encapsulated. What I don’t recall seeing much of before were the preparatory drawings, including a Matisse-style cutout, in which were very precise instructions – “entire canvas to be shifted by one width” – and the key to her colour coding system (or at least, one of them). Neutral rose and Light Turquoise. What I sometimes worry about with Riley is that the returns have diminished, as the shapes and designs she uses have become more elaborated, but when you see the paintings themselves such qualms seem frivolous. One person described a piece with an unusually light colour scheme to be “uplifting” but I think they’re all optimistic, in a way. Rajasthan, covering an entire wall, was one I hadn’t seen before and very impressive. Two students thought that “the green, the red, the orange and the white” were “so nineties”, while they also asked what the “green did to your eyes”. A retired man exclaimed to anyone in the general area that “they’re a bit peculiar, aren’t they”.

In gallery 2 upstairs there was an exhibition “Towards an alternative history of graphic design Schmuck, POP, bRIAN, Assembling“, which looks at experimental publications loosely associated with the art world, from the 1960s and 70s. I’m afraid that, in spite of my tedious dedication to these things, I did not in fact read all the pages of each publication, printed as they were in rows across the walls, though I did (I think) at least look at all of them. There probably isn’t any way around that, if the artefacts are to be both displayed and preserved (there were some in display boxes). At first they look like fanzines from the 1980s, but I suppose that must be in part because those fanzines were directly or indirectly influenced by such examples as these. I liked some of the arch quotes that stood out:

Every celestial body loves Saturday night


He’s the kind of a guy who doesn’t pick up the seat when he takes a leak.

Both Fluxus and COUM were involved (the usual suspects), and there was a poem “Smitty”, which (sadly) didn’t refer to Mike Smith. Kurt Schwitters appeared, though I could only recognise his photo and references to Merz, because that text was in German, eheu. Would he have approved of being discussed alongside Dada, I wonder? Another excerpt that stood out was the text of a performance entitled:

Your unhappiness with me is no concern to readers

an advert for which can be seen here. It was quite entertaining to see they way they experimented with typography and layouts, and apparently this was a direct result of the golf ball typewriter. Ed Ruscha, who seems to turn up at almost everything I see at the moment, was represented by his Famous Chocolate Smudge.

Finally, in the rooftop foyer was a small display by Silvio Meier – Drawings, Objects and Paper Cuttings. The intricate drawings, enamelled boxes and eggs were very pleasing, reminding me of the game Machinarium, in part.

Hastings / Bexhill August 2015Outside on the sea front, the band was still playing, and there was fraternisation between locals and German schoolkids; the stilted curiosity that comes from polite solicitude.

Those beach houses are lovely, aren’t they Especially the ones with the long gardens

said some friends in the De La Warr shop. Even at the seaside, the same concerns dominate. Hastings / Bexhill August 2015

A barbecue in full smokey effect in one of those admired houses was a reminder that people did actually live in them – they weren’t placed purely for the visual entertainment of metropolitan visitors.

After this visit I heard David Hare on Radio Four, lamenting his childhood in Eastbourne and Bexhill, places whose beauties he now savours.

Flickr album

Stratford bears witness five times in one day

Norwich 11th July 2015

Self-knowledge has been a theme in at least one conversation lately. One finding well attested in my own domain is that I can’t be trusted to catch a specific train, leading to the appeal of flexible tickets. Various aspects of the long-term economic plan mean that flexible tickets are unpleasantly aligned price-band wise. Hence, to meet my desire to see some of the visual arts-related events in the Manchester International Festival, I had planned a bracingly early train this morning back to my home town. After various recent contrariwise success, I reverted to my own mean and missed the intended train. Rather, I set out from my flat knowing I would miss it, refreshing Citymapper to see by how many minutes I would miss it, all the while nearing Euston slightly. It’s so tragic to arrive at Euston and see your train disappear from the departure board before you’ve even negotiated the pitiful interface of the ticket collection machines. Alighting at Stratford, I crossed over the platforms to go back whence I’d come, all the while wondering how I could rescue a Saturday that looked to be manifesting itself in all the wrong ways.

One expedition I had been planning was to Norwich, for the Francis Bacon and the Masters exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts. A summary of two reviews I’d skimmed through was that the main effect is to permanently relegate Bacon to a much lower artistic tier. Nevertheless, if nothing else I wanted to see all the loans from the Hermitage that had never been here before. The intention had been to leave work early on a Friday, having started early in compensation, to travel there for the late openings. Sir Humphrey might have described such an arrangement as “brave”.

It felt like going there was the best I could do to salvage the day. Arriving at my home station, I crossed over the bridge to take the next train back West, thereby passing through Stratford for the third time in an hour. Wonder what TfL’s data brains will make of that blip in their records? A slight saving grace was that I could use my Gold Card for the trip to Norwich, with its pleasing discount, meaning I didn’t feel like quite such a chump. Hmm.

A mother and daughter were in my carriage and ended up taking the same bus as me from Norwich station. “He texted me, and I was like, I know you are forgetful, but you’ve got to keep in touch with me”, was one of the latter’s complaints to the former. Life is, indeed, very hard. Going through Diss reminded me of attending the 1996 edition of the Big Chill, when the conductor, in a fit of extemporisation that wouldn’t be countenanced today, gave his

“welcome to the hordes who have joined us at Diss. And they are hordes. But they’re just as welcome”.

The Google directions on which I was relying were a little hazy, and I lamented that the bus didn’t have the enunciations of each stop that are so handy in That London. There was also something on the SCVA site about the normal bus route not working, so I was prepared for some emergency yomping. It did drop me off on the campus, eventually, and unlike CERN there were plenty of signposts, so it was easy to find the venue.

The first room includes large photos taken of Bacon’s studio in South Ken, which makes me wonder if I used to walk near there when I worked in that area. It looked like a six-year-old child’s idea of a good painting studio, which is probably a good thing. A husband, coming down the spiral stairs into this room with his wife, having waited for people coming up to pass, informed her firmly that it’s “much easier downstairs on the outside, upstairs on the inside, because of the wider steps”. The self-portrait by Cézanne did indeed shine compared with the neighbouring Bacon.

After hearing the same thing about Modigliani, it was noteworthy that Bacon too had a very high regard for ancient Egyptian art, and I liked the examples of statues and death masks. One of the very pleasing things about the venue, which I hadn’t visited before, was that it was quite spacious, meaning that there was plenty of room to see things at your own pace without being jostled by audioguide-wearing dullards.

Michelangelo’s Crouching Boy was cited as a specific inspiration for Bacon, and was displayed on a large circular plinth, with the protective detectors around it making erratic clicks. The boy makes you crouch in order to see him and his despair properly. Trying to avoid some chatterers, I went around the corner to the Rembrandt section.

Two ladies were particularly impressed with the way brushstrokes had been used to create the impression of veins in the hands of the old man. In one of the blurbs they found the word “verisimilitude” unfamiliar and mis-pronounced it. Ever keen to be helpful, I offered both a pronunciation and a definition. They looked back from the old lady portrait to the old man, who looked “so Jewish”. Both of these were startlingly full of psychological depth, rendered in Bacon’s words by:

“Non-rational marks, a coagulation of non-representational marks”

The Bacon portraits next to them did look pretty amateurish and thin in comparison, not an observation I savour, because I’ve always liked Bacon. The two Velazquez royal portraits were nearlya s good as the Rembrandts. I came around to the Crouching Boy again
and decided that it’s actually better that you can’t easily see the face.

There was a better juxtaposition between Bacon’s portrait of Lisa Sainsbury and a Picasso portrait of a woman, in the next room. Bacon referred to a specific Van Gogh work repeatedly, but again I preferred the ‘originals’, though there was a strange landscape, Landscape near Malabata, Tangier that stood out more successfully than many of the other Bacons. The link that was claimed to Ingres seemed tenuous, at least the actual Ingres painting that was included (there was at least one book on Ingres in the display taken from the contents of Bacon’s studio). Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X was particularly favoured by Bacon. Did I imagine that I saw it in the fairly recent National Gallery show about colours? Hmm. I was pleased to have realised that one of the Greek sculptures was of Hercules before I read the caption, which must mean that my recent visit to the Greek art show at the British Museum had implanted in my mind after all. Overall, it is a very satisfying show, albeit mainly for the reference points cited for and by Bacon, rather than his own works. Who indeed would shine next to Rembrandt and Velazquez, though? It does confirm that I need to visit the Hermitage, which is an easy thing to say…

Given the travails of my travels, it made sense to explore the rest of the gallery. In the Tony Birks: A Passion for Pots, I did find the earthenware violin notable, and I liked a display of The Backs by Matisse, on loan from the Tate. Upstairs was Abstraction and the Art of John Golding, comprising a small set of abstract 20th century art then several series from Golding, another new artist to me. Hans Arp, who was referred to in the Bacon show, appeared again, as did Hepworth (whom I saw recently at Tate Britain). To me it was a very satisfying survey of abstraction, one of my favourite types of art and I really liked some of the Golding. Apparently a proper retrospective is in preparation.

Taking lunch outside, I saw some Scottish visitors, one of whom took a photo of the rest from behind a Henry Moore sculpture. “That’s very rude” was the comment. Walking back to the bus stop through the campus, the various noises from building cooling systems and plant seemed very familiar, even in their variety. Something of an academic environment universal. On the way out of the campus there was a board with flyers, one of which was for Shed Seven and Inspiral Carpets. Repetitions of what I could have seen twenty five years ago does not feel like a healthy sign.

Next to me in the carriage was a group of three train spotters, the defence of whom John Peel was always keen to make, I remember. One of them was getting married, with the “stag” organised by his step-children.

“Some people walking down the platform, I could do with a whistle, lean out of the window and blow it. Might get in trouble, though”

mused one of them, in response to a female student (with backpack) and her mother walking along. The conductor was quite cheery and savoured the pronunciation of Manningtree in his roll-call of stations. It was on this service that I went through Stratford for the fourth time. Instead of the awkward formulation of trains “terminating”, he referred to “Liverpool Street, where this train completes its journey”, which is much more soothing.

Back on the Central Line again, on which a man ostentatiously packed away his laptop when I took the neighbouring seat, then started reading his Kindle. Perhaps he was worried about the trade secrets of his consultancy business. On this journey home I passed through Stratford for the fifth time. Eheu.

Link to Flickr album

To avoid making it six Stratford encounters, I went to see Amy at my local Odeon. Just as with Senna, you hope that somehow it will be alright, even as you know it won’t be, which is testament to how cleverly Kapadia draws together the archive footage with the audio interviews. Using her lyrics as the armature was an inspired move, given how directly she wrote about herself. How could anyone sustain that kind of life, especially with the nature of the circus that attached itself to her? The saddest and most apposite comment in the film came from Tony Bennett, someone she idolised, who said that

“Life teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough”.

Talking about Modigliani

After the usual internal, unoptimised travelling salesman calculations, I went to Finsbury Park first, to catch the last day of Beyond the Interface at the Furtherfield Gallery. On the way there from the station, I walked past a group of dog owners being trained, in dog ownership. Was the trainer using the Barbara Woodhouse approach, or is it verboten even to mention her now? Perhaps they were troublesome dogs.

As with the last time it happened, at the Whitechapel, I was glad to see Heath Bunting’s work. Here there were maps and booklets describing the requirements and entitlements of notional classes of people to various official statuses and documents. We’re all at some point along many flowcharts. In the same room on a stand was an enticing Apple power cable. Printed on the perspex case surrounding the innards from which the cable emerged was a waiver of rights, applicable if you plugged in your device to sup the power. The system grabbed images from your phone if you did connect, uploaded them to a remote server and then projected selections from them. Of course, generally we just agree that these terms and conditions are annoying and move on to what we want.

In the same room was a laptop with a connection to an instance of LambdaMOO. The cave I was in was pretty smoky, so I climbed the ladder to the next space. Staying here too long might not be wise, according to the text, and I moved elsewhere. It made an interesting point about the need to “enter a country in the right way”. It was incredibly tempting to tell Gandalf to go away, as I would have done in The Hobbit. Zach Blas’ “Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face” was a clever rumination on the prevalence and implications of facial recognition, including a pink mask which didn’t attract the tell-tale algorithmic rectangle in the video footage. Like encrypting your e-mail, this act would naturally attract a lot of attention from the authorities. To be fully effective we would all have to wear the masks. Jennifer Chan’s Grey Matter captured the gaudiness of teenage online interactions and included these comments regarding a distinction that’s sadly eliding away:

Envy is wanting what someone else has
Jealousy is not wanting them to have it at all

On the way to the station there was lots of ominous walling-off and fencing activity, obstructing the way you wanted to go. This all turned out to be in preparation for the Wireless Festival.

Flickr album.

At the Estorick Collection there were lots of people taking tiffin on the tables outside, which was unusual. Quite pleased with myself for coming one week before the closure of the Modigliani exhibition, I saw at the entrance that there was to be a tour/talk in an hour and a bit. This didn’t fit in with my original schedule, but seemed appealing. Something to consider while I walked around.

There were a few quotes from Modigliani printed on the walls:

Your real duty is to save your dream. Beauty too has some painful duties; these produce, however, the noblest achievements of the soul.

Life is a gift, from the few to the many. From those who know and who have, to those who do not know and do not have.

An observation I’ve made before and which applied doubly here was that his confidence was shown through the economy of line, capturing his models with only what was essential. As usually happens at this gallery, I went around the two rooms again, to revisit my favourites, before going upstairs to see Shaping the Image by Lino Mannocci. The manipulation of postcard-sized images was a good idea and quite funny in parts. The main effect on me, though, was to remind me of a similar project in the Gerhard Richter show at Marian Goodman last year. Boccioni, one of the artists referred to, was mentioned in passing in the Oliver Hoare catalogue. Hoare said he preferred Severini, primarily because he never allied himself with Futurism.

Almost the perfect Islington cliché moment occurred when I heard a couple mention

Jeremy Corbyn.

Yes, he was in G2.

After Furtherfield, I was conscious of the face detection features of my camera, which were activated by some of the drawings. Even though it clashed with my arrangements for later that day, it would have felt mean-spirited not to attend the talk/tour, especially when I saw the host, Richard Nathanson, trying to attract custom in the garden in the most polite way possible, adding that

“If you drift off before the end of the tour, I won’t be at all offended”.

Most of the pieces in the show were attributed to him, so either he was a millionaire collector or very well connected. After all my self-indulgent deciding process, the talk was marvellous. It’s easy to forget the pleasure of genuine knowledge and appreciation, sincerely conveyed. One of the first points he made was that Modigliani’s corrections become part of intrinsic design. There were no rubbings out in the drawings and he kept at an idea until his expression was completed. The artist’s childhood was unusual, including a strong influence from his grandfather, descended from Spinoza. A critic described him as the most knowledgeable artist he’d ever encountered.

“What I am searching for is neither the real nor the unreal, but the subconscious, the mystery of what is instinctive in the human race”

Nathanson stressed the Gargantuan labours that allowed him to draw with this freedom, addressing my naive reaction about confidence through economy. The Blue Caryatid was:

“Like a single barely audible violin note held at a perfect pitch.”

while another was “like a piece of Chinese calligraphy”. He thought that lots of meditation was required before starting each drawing, and that Modigliani made instinctive additions (such as small designs in the top corners to balance the composition), which ultimately arose from sober reflection. Referring to some of Modigliani’s relationships and encounters, he pointed back at the large photo of the artist by the entrance, and highlighted to us that he’d attempted the same outfit himself, corduroy trousers and a sweater. He was hoping for the same level of success.

Nathanson kept wanting to refer to the relevant pages in the catalogue, and when he had some difficulties someone in the audience shouted out the page number. He came to rely on her assistance and relied to the “very kind lady with the page number”. Even though the drawings betoken a very intimate relationship between the sitter and the artist, Nathanson said that Modigliani “needed distance” and mainly composed his drawings at home, by candlelight. He had to “draw back from the immediate characters to find their angel spirits”, creating a “fusion of primordial quality with the mystery and beauty of human beings”. The most surprising revelation for me was the artist’s interest in Egyptian art, which was indeed very clear in some of the drawings. Apparently he wanted his art to accompany souls into the next world like Egyptian art surrounding the sarcophagus of a king. This explains in part why he didn’t engage with the art world movements of the time (Cubism, Fauvism etc.). He saw himself as part of a timeless tradition, within which these stylistic fads were irrelevant.

Our guide was able to add lots of biographical detail about the artist and the sitters, including one “cat-like lady”, who seduced Jean Cocteau, the latter writing a virulent piece about her afterwards, in revenge. Nathanson thought that obscuring a single small feature on one of the drawings, such as by holding your finger over it, would radically change the balance, indicating how carefully composed they were. One portrait of a “jeune fille” was only included because of an encounter at a dinner party, when he was discussing his preparatory work on the show. As a result, it wasn’t in the catalogue.

Estorick Collection 21st June 2015 - Jeune Fille

Other memorable comments were that “happiness is an angel with a grave face” and that the markings on one drawing were like those of a “slow burning Catherine wheel”.

A few people were speaking to him afterwards in front of the portrait of Dr François Brabander, which was is part of the permanent collection at the Estorick. The eyes looked on the verge of tears, showing the man’s compassion, while the tension created by the unusually high starched collars reflected the man’s suffering.

Estorick Collection 21st June 2015 - Jeune Fille

It was a very entertaining and enlightening talk, and there was a big queue outside the small Estorick shop afterwards, including me.

Flickr album.

The Second Grotto

Every year, or at least for the second year running, which I think we can regard as meaning every year, I seem to end up walking through Waterloo when it’s Ascot. This meant the concourse was full of neophytes uniting bewilderment, over-dressing and inebriation in their persons. I wanted the quickest train to Twickenham, for a visit to Pope’s Grotto. As it turned out, this innocent 11:20 service served double duty as the “Royal Ascot Express”, indicated by a specially printed sign on platform 20. The racegoers tottered and swayed towards this goal, the furthest away of all platforms, and I joined them. It’s not often that I’m mildly jostled by the idly swaying top hat in the hand of the man in front, while surging towards a train.

Because I went for a distant carriage, there was a hiatus, until the gaudy horde arrived. When the carriage was pretty full, an American lady asked if I could swap seats with her friend, to allow them to sit together. When I agreed and moved, she displayed an ordinality error in her over-effusive gratitude:

Would you like an orange juice or something?

I feel like I have to bribe you, for being so sweet.

Normally the bribe is offered first. Pfft. I was now sharing a group of six seats with three lekking men and two American women.

“I told myself I wouldn’t drink on the train,” said one of them, who appeared to be leading their conversation. They were all drinking their mini-bottles of champagne or beer, and eating their sandwiches. Mind those expensive clothes… Tips about Ascot, and bottle openers, were shared. I think the best way of distilling the nature of their interactions is this quote:

Adam plays much better golf than I’ve seen, but the moment he hits a pressure situation…

Ah, golf. One of my long dead grannies used to advise an interest in golf, tennis and bridge, in order to Get On. Hopeful people wearing similar Ascot uniforms at Clapham Junction and Richmond had no chance of boarding, and it was a little awkward squeezing past to the doors at Twickenham. Outside, two marketing ladies asked “Are you interested in cooking, Sir?” “Not really,” was my terse but polite and accurate reply.

Nearly two years later I still haven’t written about my visit to the Margate Shell Grotto. Auto-tsk. Pope’s Grotto is all that remains of Alexander Pope’s villa by the Thames.  Reliant as ever on IanVisits, I knew it was open that day, which was likely to be a much better experience than going during Open House in September. Radnor School has built up around the grotto, so it had a slight air of a visit to a polling station, albeit an unusually well situated and appointed one. In addition to guides with the locations of specific rocks and features, they lent us small torches. There’s something very appealing about the sustained labour and interest represented by a grotto, though I suppose it’s not an enterprise many of us can indulge. It was only near the very end that I bumped my head on one of the dangling outcrops. Bah.

Pope's Grotto

“Well, that was an unexpected treat, wasn’t it,” was one comment, while I heard a wife chide her husband:

You’re just treating it like a treasure hunt now, aren’t you.

because he was ticking things off on the printed sheet. My only disappointment was that I couldn’t really spot the bit of Giant’s Causeway that was supposed to be there.

Flickr album.

Next it was quite a schlep to Golden Square, to the Frith Street Gallery for one of their two Fiona Tan exhibitions. After much pfaffing from District to Piccadilly, I ended up sitting opposite a middle-aged couple with his and hers Steve Watches, which he couldn’t resist using for some function or other. Soon the second swamping of the day transpired, this time a gaggle of Italian schoolkids learning English. “Move Language Ahead” it said on their white satchels. The woman corralling them with her stern teacher voice counted them all back again on the platform, like Brian Hanrahan.

Inventory consisted of six projections of footage taken in the Soane’s Museum. Something about the close-ups of the statues seemed to animate their faces and make them more poignant. You wondered about the histories of the objects, how so many of them came to be damaged (noses especially), and the histories of those people or gods they represented. There were different qualities and sizes of video/film and she cleverly edited them to provide simultaneous different views of the same object, with variations in texture as well. One thing I found interesting, but which perhaps should only have been remarked by a projector salesman, was that when they weren’t projecting anything, i.e. there was just a blank image, they ranged from a variety of greys to blacks. Did this mean some of them were better than others? Was it meaningful variation?

In Soho Square there was a very different show, Ghost Dwellings, the three rooms all bearing the lived-in look that’s quite familiar to me. “It smells like an old house,” was one comment and the first room was indeed rather fusty. It was pleasing to see some rock samples, after the grotto, and an owl statue, after Inventory.

Fiona Tan - Inventory and Ghost Dwellings

The video footage here was of decayed Detroit. Good, but as always just a reminder of Mike Kelley’s marvellous Mobile Homestead. Next door was a cramped bedroom, with footage of unfinished premium housing developments near Cork. This was less powerful than the others, because it represented unfulfilled potential as opposed to actual loss or deterioration. My favourite was the room downstairs, which was partially a working area, with vacuum formed model parts, WD-40, dangling cables and other oddments. At the other end of the room was a video of Fukushima and the surrounding area after the tsunami. Objects that stood out for me included a telescope labelled Family 1000 and the blasted trees on the coastline, plus the train tracks already submerged under weeds.

Flickr album.

Fitzroy Square next for Every Object Tells A Story. The slight problem here was that the objects only really made sense with the large catalogue and addendum, though I suppose there wasn’t really room for a lot of blurbs on the wall. Some of the descriptions were mini-essays and one of a trio of Americans read out the whole thing for her companions. She was delighting in ringing a large gong when I came in. “Does it call people in for dinner?” It’s good to see opinionated collections, I suppose, though I do think it’s a problem if the main interest in the object is the story behind it, however interesting that may be.

Flickr album.

Disturbingly close to work though it was, I wanted to see rooms 4 and 5 of Forensics at the Wellcome Collection, having seen the first 3 a few weeks earlier during their late Friday opening. As I’d been warned, there was quite a large queue, headed by a member of staff who kept commiserating with and chatting to new arrivals. Behind me was a group of two couples. The men kept making a big joke of stealing over to sofas so they could have a sit down, their places being kept in the queue by the women, until they caught up with them. Bracingly transgressive though it was to be able to breeze quickly through the rooms I’d already seen, it was of course also very busy in the remaining 2. The volume of people meant that the cooling fans in one of the exhibits had failed and the experience of watching footage from Bosnia in the forensic fridge was a little diminished. The interviews with the barrister and forensic anthropologist were very good, as was Orson Welles’ radio dramatisation of the “Brides in the bath” murders. Right at the end was Taryn Simon’s The Innocents. Someone was asking a staff member, bizarrely, if this was “just political correctness”. The Wellcome person was very patient with him… I was glad I managed to see the whole thing, overcrowding notwithstanding.

Final excursion of the day was to Curzon Bloomsbury to see London Road. For some reason there were a succession of wrong seat incidents. Not sure why the Phoenix screen should be such a focus of recalcitrants. The film was very good, albeit also a reminder of the greatness of The Arbor. Very unusually, I recognised a couple that I’ve seen more than once on the Central Line, normally full of anonymised travellers.

Final observation of the day was that at this point in the year, at the right time of night, if you’re sitting on the right, there’s a lovely view of the sunset in the clouds at Leyton. Lovely poetic Leyton.

Cities of Modernity

Owing to recent employment-related changes, the RIBA building on Portland Place is now only an invigorating 13-minute walk from work. Their Tuesday Lates are pretty good events (I still need to write about the most recent one), whereas last night was a one-off related to the current Mackintosh exhibition. On the way there I planned to buy a meal-replacing naughty flapjack, but the main counter in the shop was unmanned. At the rear of the shop, there was someone who would cheerfully fiddle with your phone, for money, not that this was a service I required. Hmmph. Nak’d bar it was then, for pre-talk sustenance.

The title of the evening was “Modernity: European Art and Architecture 1880-1914”, making it a real-life compressed equivalent of the series Alistair Sooke presented, at least the Vienna edition. The RIBA building itself is always an Art Deco treat. What I haven’t managed is to see the current exhibition yet – there’s still a month remaining. At the entrance to the lecture theatre we were given surprise gifts, which didn’t include a companion to the free Tunnock’s Caramel wafer of a few weeks ago, sadly.

The first speaker, Alan Powers, covered Glasgow. He explicitly didn’t have too much to say about Charles Rennie Mackintosh, covering instead people I didn’t know about such as John James Burnet and James Salmon, showing photos of their buildings. One painting he displayed depicted a “Whistlerian view” (Whistler was mentioned again during the panel) while another showed the “thrumming” of Glaswegian industry. The Glaswegian architects were clearly aware of contemporary work in Chicago, he claimed, and he noted that one of the prime motivations in the city was to rival Edinburgh, contests with London and other cities being of secondary importance. Some of the buildings he described had been demolished, but the striking Templeton Carpet Factory by William Leiper remains, and I’ll definitely try to find it the next time I’m up there.

Next came Vienna, its advocate being Daniel Snowman. He concentrated on Viennese culture, though he did point the importance of the demolition of the city walls and their replacement by the Ringstrasse, with buildings of wildly varying styles appearing along its route. He referred to the risk of “ghastly Schrammel musicians entertaining you” and then stressed the importance of the Secession movement. Writers such as Hofmannstahl and Schnitzler were among many working in Vienna, which he described as a “self-regarding and incestuous world”, riven with “very trendy suicides”, all to be destroyed by Gavrilo Princip.

Barcelona was described by Greg Votalato. His first photo showed the development of the Eixample area, with the internal courtyards of the buildings and the practicality of the chamfered corners, so designed as to allow the large trams to turn around corners. He sought to link commerce and culture in the city, noting parallels between the vertical crypts of the Montjuic cemetery and the modern ubiquity of shipping containers in the port. Gaudi was described, of course, but he stressed that many of his famous buildings were the result of collaborations with people whose importance tended to be ignored. Finally he posited a thread between the architecture of that period and the later International Style.

The final advocate was Stephen Smith, talking about Paris. I’d particularly enjoyed his BBC Four series about Art Nouveau and he covered some of the same ground here. (I still want to visit a chapel or building he mentioned in this series, somewhere in Surrey (?), but stupidly I didn’t make a note at the time – the Watts Chapel?). Ever keen teasingly to leap between High and Low culture, he said that while the evening wasn’t a competition, nevertheless his team of “galacticos” would triumph – Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Seurat, Degas etc. The eleventh player was Gertrude Stein, as much for her stimulating effect on other artists as her own writing (in the panel discussion later, Greg Votalato emphasised her importance, even if her books weren’t particularly readable). He extolled Cezanne’s “matchless pippins” and went on to talk about Art Nouveau, with the repeating images of dragonflies and metamorphosis. Mackintosh himself moved to France, as support of her thesis, and he wondered whether Nicola Sturgeon would campaign to retrieve his ashes for the Nation. Castel Beranger felt like something “built by swarms of bees driven mad by Royal jelly”, perhaps as a result of the curators’ over-eager buffing. As in the programme, he lamented the demolition of most of the extravagant Metro entrances, which were described in Modern Architecture magazine as a combination of “rational planning, to non-rational intent”.

All the speakers formed a panel on stage, considering questions such as which contemporary cities might be included in a modern list, and whether the indeed the nature of culture still supported such physical foci of endeavour. London was defended as somewhere that could have been included in the original list, and in an updated one, with the warning that artists are being priced out. Diaghilev’s ballet was cited as a potent “carrier of culture”, during the discussion about the extent to which the turn of the century artists/architects were aware of developments around the world, while EasyJet and Airbnb are “key enablers of cultural production” today. Alan Powers stressed the need to differentiate between “modernity” and “modernism”, and he mentioned E. W Godwin, who was a new figure to me. The final audience participant said that Glasgow could be included as a city with great cultural importance today, which led one panellist to feel sad about the changes in UK art education, which is now largely restricted to the wealthy.

The speakers were entertaining and clearly knowledgeable, and I now have a small list of new things to see and people to investigate, which is a good test of an evening expedition.

Post-penultimate post

Still catching up on the fag end of 2014, we find ourselves admiring the coordination of two Chinese ladies on the Central Line, who were wearing exactly the same grey boots with fur trims. We’re on our way to Osborne Samuel for the last day of The Photographers 2014. It seems to be in the spirit of The Illustrators, that I saw around Christmas 2012, a very different time. Apparently, there had been difficulties with the permissions for some Cartier-Bresson works, but they’ll have a show by him in 2015 anyway. Other people were partly appraising based on price and whether the photos fitted in with what they had in mind for *a particular space*:

“That’s how I want our house to look.”

It’s perhaps simpler to admire what was on show at Osborne Samuel, with the patina of history and canonisation, (e.g. Girls in Windows New York, 1960) than the much more recent works at Beetles + Huxley itself, though there was lots to appreciate there, too. My favourites were Alex Maclean’s aerial views and Michael Najjar’s Netropolis. Every time I go there I’m re-irritated by my being too late in attending the Martin Parr show about the people in the BBC2 programme of people showing off their homes to pick up a copy of the catalogue, in the 1990s. Modern Times – that’s it, which has just been resurrected. There’s a link with all the photos here.

Something of a change of pace at the Royal Academy for Giovanni Battista Moroni, which I was seeing with unusual prescience, a whole month before it closed. A daughter was walking around explaining the context of some of the paintings to her mother and at one point, with some relish, she described that one had been commissioned by a “society of flagellants”. The first thing that I noticed was the way that he seamlessly integrated the content of religious visions with portraits and landscapes – just garden variety saints or martyrs lolling about. As I think has been well recorded, he captured the foibles and weaknesses of those he was painting, the rough edges of their characters, beyond any neat image they might have wished to project. One young woman looked back at us most censoriously, while an older woman appeared to be a real sternchops. He also departed from the usual strict formality of the occasion, including the depiction of the magistrate, who looked like he’d just popped around for a portrait. Some of the use of colour stood out, including a painting of a woman in a red dress that I’d seen before in the show about colour at the National Gallery, the odd pink of St Catherine’s shawl which shimmered as you moved around, and the yellow-orange loincloth in his crucifixion. One of the blurbs referred to

“Apotropaic powers”,

not a concept I knew before. Sometimes I need to be lulled into appreciating these Old Master Types, but not with Moroni.

That evening was The Grandmaster at Curzon Soho, which had the moments of visual beauty you’d expect from Wong Kar Wai, but was rather incoherent. Apparently the edit that’s distributed in the West is much inferior to the original one. What he’s produced since 2046 has been disappointing, generally.

After a hiatus of a few days, known for its festivity, I went back to see the remainder of Constructing Worlds at the Barbican. The first visit had been a free members’ private view, when I’d invited along a friend, and we’d listened to Owen Hatherley, one of the Owens I always confuse, the other being Owen Jones. That time I mostly looked downstairs, whereas this time, without the need to rush, I followed the approved scheme, which was to start upstairs then make your way around and down.

Berenice Abbott’s Night View seemed very familiar and I wondered whether it had been in The Photographers. Someone around me referred to the “total absence of curves”. One photo by Walker Evans also reminded me of another US Depression-era item in The Photographers. People do get around. Julius Shulman’s capturing of the Case Study House Program caused a flicker in my mind about satires on that programme that I’d seen at Tate Liverpool, possibly during the Triennial, spiced with a hint of Jacky Treehorn’s house in the Big Lebowski. His collection includes that view of Los Angeles spreading out down below that’s part of all our visual inheritance, even if we’ve never been there. Lucien Hervé’s views of Le Corbusier’s buildings in Chandigarh were especially good.

At this point I realised I had a very different impression of the exhibition than during the private view event. It felt a lot more substantial, and less gimmicky. Definitely worth the second visit that my Barbican membership afforded.

Extolling car parks seems like a beyond-cliché position to adopt, but Ed Ruscha’s aerial photo of the parking around the Dodgers’ stadium transformed it into an ornate flower or alien creature, while conveying the ridiculous amount of space needed for the cars, compared with the actual working space of the baseball field.

Bernd and Hilla Becher were also famously concerned with superficially mundane structures. I’d seen a show of theirs at Sprüth Magers a few months earlier, accompanied by the chants of a demonstration in the street outside. In this case there was a collection of their photos of water towers, with an incredible diversity of form, situation and location. One was even in someone’s back garden.

Recognise administrative beeps and noises of different venues eg walkie-talkie noises of staff
I liked the fervid pragmatism of the Bellevue church in Alberta, as captured by Stephen Shore, with the sign:

“Drive safely – drive with God”

Moving downstairs, one of the most impressive sets was from Nadav Kander, capturing the bleak transience of architectural change in China, such as the burnt-out monument to peace and prosperity. A short time before coming to this exhibition I’d read an article in the New Yorker (a few months out of date, as usual) about the men who recycle rubbish in Cairo, and Bas Princen had a picture of that very area. Guy Tillim was one of the photographers whose work I remembered from the curtailed first visit and it was just as powerful this time, bringing to mind the shattered optimism of the play A Season in the Congo, that I’d been fortunate to see at the Young Vic, and the Afro-Futurism that featured in one of the Deutsche Borse prize shows at the Photographers’ Gallery.

While the more arch photos downstairs left me sternly unmoved, overall I do think this was one of the best shows of the year. There’s a selection of photos taken from it on the Guardian, as well as two proper reviews, from professional people who write such things properly.

At this rate, I’m not sure when I will have caught up with the dense end of last year.