Tag Archives: art

Zaragoza Graffiti: For the Women Who Gave Their Lives…

Penultimate post on this short holiday that already feels so so far away. I’ve finished a report, an executive summary for a second report, and edits on two short articles since then. So sad. Unlike the awesomeness of Zaragoza’s graffiti scene, which brought me immense happiness. This says:

En recuerdo de todas las mujeres que dieron su vida por la libertad y las ideas anarquistas | In memory of all the women who gave their lives for liberty and anarchist ideas

On this wall, with its many small fishes eating the large one, and long incredible figures almost disappearing into plaster:

There was so much that was brilliant, I miss this.

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A half-hearted look at a biography of Albrecht Dürer

We’re going to Germany! Nuremburg. The great keynote tour begins (not mine, you understand, I just tag along). And I found time somehow to read one solitary thing to prepare, and sadly very sadly it was this.I’ve already read Albert Speer, long ago, I am prepared for the massive architecture of awe and power. I’m more excited about Albrecht Dürer, still I’m sad to find there is a whole industry around him. I know I should have re-read Arendt, but instead…

A few fun facts about Nuremburg first.

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, said upon visiting Nuremberg in 1444 in the Imperial train:

What a splendid sight this city presents! What brilliance, what lavish views, what beauties, what culture, what admirable government! … what clean streets, what elegant houses! (6)

Luther called it ‘Germany’s eye and ear.’ I’m not entirely sure I know what that means. But it is the middle point of Europe, at the centre of European trade — amber, furs, salt fish from the Baltic; gold, silver copper, horses from Hungary and Bohemia; spices, silks, luxury goods from Venice, woolen cloth from the Netherlands. I love these ancient lists, the sense of distance and far away lands and precious things. Nuremberg itself made scientific instruments and metalwares — rather a splendid trade for a town.

This was a principal town of the Holy Roman Empire for a while, the city at the foot of the medieval fortress, a ‘free’ city directly under the emperor, the Emperors rarely there though — it wasn’t so comfortable the castle, especially in winter even though the Imperial coronation regalia was kept there. So effectively it was a City State, run by its own city council, and had reciprocal toll-free trade with seventy cities despite a lack of most things needed for a succesful city.

Albrecht Dürer was born here in 1471, his father a goldsmith, his godfather also. Anton Koberger though he shortly became a publisher, the most important in Germany with 24 presses.

At 13 Dürer created this in silverpoint — a process of chemical etching in which nothing can be erased:

I have little sense, though, am failing to understand Dürer here. Maybe because there are sentences like these”

Dürer’s sypathetic portrayal of his father, and his largely positive memories of his childhood are in remarkable contrast to Martin Luther’s recital of brutal beatings at home and at school…There can be little doubt that Albrecht Dürer must have been a more agreeable child that then great Reformer… (21)

We all know children are only beaten because they are not agreeable, they bring it on themselves really. Dürer instead seems a bit spoiled, possibly because almost all of his many siblings have died (and will die). Still, in 1490, his dad sends him off on what the author calls ‘a bachelor’s journey’. She tries to trace his movements, he may have been apprenticed, it is detailed guessing.

He did this, one of my favourite self portraits of all, in Paris. Albrecht Dürer with a pillow, age 22.

From the Met’s description:

Among the masterpieces of European draftsmanship, this iconic self-portrait study evokes the awakening artistic consciousness of the twenty-two-year-old German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. Probably produced with the aid of a mirror, the head and the hand were preparatory for his painted Self-Portrait of 1493 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), considered one of the earliest independent self-portraits in Western painting. Durer’s exploration of self-portraiture in several drawings and paintings is characterized by an arresting directness that was highly unusual at the time. The artist’s calligraphic precision and expressiveness of line is also found in the study of a pillow at the bottom of the sheet, a subject that he continued to explore on the reverse.

It was preparatory for this:

But what the author writes is how it is is:

showing the first tentative half-dozen hairs of what was soon to become Europe’s most famous and anachronistic beard. (Beards were not normally worn by young, or even by middle-age men in Dürer’s day–even the majority of elderly men, as Mark Zucker has shown, were clean-shaven.) (39)

I’m glad that’s been documented. Ever since Mark won my heart with the Engels’ moustache letters I have had a bit of a thing for historical facial hair. Still. I hoped for more.

On his marriage?

Neither the bride nor the groom had a great deal to say about their marriage, which was arranged, as was proper in the fifteenth century, by the two sets of parents to suit their own purposes. Such businesslike arrangements may often have been loveless, at least to begin with, but were in the long run at least as satisfactory in most respects, and a good deal more permanent, than those contracted by modern methods. (40)

No fear feminism will get in the way of the story here, then.

His fatherin-law was Hans Frey:

reported to have been a clever and charming man and the best harp player in town, as well as a good singer, had formerly been the city’s official gauger of honey and nuts. (40)

Within two months of the marriage, Dürer was off again, to Italy this time. Was he called by the Renaissance? Was it the marriage? Was it the plague, that had broken out in 1494? She asks but does not answer, maybe someone who read a different book might have a better idea.

I can’t imagine the plague, I feel like it fills all of his work. Death always seems close, no? Even when it’s not staring at you as a skull or a starving man or the horsemen of the apocalypse. Even then.

But back to the book. It doesn’t really go there.

She  goes on about the guilds, whose provision of increased security could limit an artist’s intellectual and social aspirations…we wouldn’t get on I don’t think, me and this author. Something tells me.

There are some uncomfortable passages on the expulsion of the Jews from Nuremburg in 1499, where Pirkheimer — patron and friend to Dürer, hired an armed escort. She notes it was to protect them as they left but could also be argued it was to ensure they were leaving. People did, of course, benefit from their leaving. Houses suddenly empty and that kind of thing.

Not that there aren’t interesting facts that deserve to be simple asides never to be explored further (unlike the explulsion of a large portion of the city population, the fear, the mob response, the plague). Like the fact that Pirkheimer had to leave law school BEFORE he won his degree, so he could remain eligible for the Nuremburg City Council. Like the fact that he opened a School for Poets, which lasted from 1498-1509. She writes:

Albrecht Dürer’s own authorship of quite a large quantity of truly dreadful poetry, all written in the years 1509-1510, he may perhaps have begun to attend this ill-fated institution, which was the distant ancestor of the more famous Nuremburg School for Poets of the seventeenth century. (55)

She does print some here, and for once we agree, it is truly terrible.

Still, you can see that it’s a bit hard to understand from all this where exactly the four horsemen came from between 1496 and 1498, though she does note some believed 1500 would usher in the end of the world:

The 1496 Prodigal son returning to kneel among the swine.

And look at those buildings… she makes the point that German architecture made these prints exotic in Italy and France, giving them cache on top of the incredible skill and splendour of the art itself. But surely there is more here.

I’d rather just look at his work…he loved his paintings and colours. Me, I confess I love the prints the most. He carried copies of them with him everywhere to sell in the markets, as did his wife. Imagine.

But I think I am going to stop here, because I couldn’t find what I wanted in this particular book. Not like Caravaggio. Maybe one day I’ll have time to read another, maybe the great book remains to be written on Albrecht Dürer. I don’t usually choose so badly. I confess, though, some of those terrible passage are rather enjoyable. Her apoplexies on his dirty letters to Pirkheimer are pretty awesome, but I am too tired to keep going…

Enda Walsh mostly, and Dublin

Enda Walsh… we didn’t know what to expect at the Smock Alley Theatre. We didn’t set our expectations high enough for Disco Pig and Sucking Dublin in this space that I loved quite uncritically, and M liked with rather more critique of highs and lows being lost to us as was a bit of the stage. Bright and violent and shining, seventeen and the world before them when, if, they were able to emerge from the world they had created with each other. Pig and Runt as an us versus all of them, a bit terrifying, a bit beautiful. The sea as a birthday gift. Blue the colour of love. Still babas awakening from a violent innocence. It is also all about how awakening means wanting more, knowing that the other will always hold you back even if you love them. It’s about getting out. Seems like one working class world is so very much like another, a bit glorious, a bit terrible, all we have to differentiate ourselves is our language and the nature of the music that calls us and the drugs that get us through, or our trajectories out and away from grinding work and reproduction. The language was fucking amazing. Of course anything about getting out always rips my heart out, and he threw heroin and some violence against women in there as well so Sucking Dublin finished the job.

Smock Alley Theatre

I know too there is more than this, that getting out isn’t required. Getting out scars you. A lucky one. An unlucky one. I don’t know.

A lovely, flying, terribly-timed weekend trip to Dublin on the grounds that M was examining a PhD on Friday, both of us studiously trying to ignore the crushing sleep-withdrawing pressure of deadlines and just enjoy, which wasn’t too hard although the weather was baltic and I earned myself the nickname of old face-ache.

So we didn’t walk around too much, just saw a few things. Ate Pho. Climbed down into the crypts to see the mummies in St Michan’s, which were quite amazing. I’m rather glad you can’t touch them anymore. I took this before seeing the no pictures sign. Waste not want not.

Dublin

The Sheare brothers are also here, hanged, drawn and quartered after the 1798 uprising, and maybe just maybe Robert Emmet. And above, a rather wondrous organ that Handel played the Messiah on.

Dublin

The Dublin of contrasts.

Dublin

Friezes of household items, notably fish and carrots on the old market building

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Posters of Irish women writers:

Dublin

We walked through Temple Bar, bookshops, the book market in the freezing wind.

Dublin

Dublin

The Little Museum of Dublin, crowdsourced and one of the best little museums I’ve been to and couldn’t recommend more. If we could have had our guide Patrick escort us through the streets of Dublin the whole weekend we would have done. For his story of the duck keeper of St Stephen’s Green during the Easter rising alone I would have paid an entry fee. Ground floor was all George Bernard Shaw…I have my mixed feelings about him, usually want to punch the Fabians, but a GBS posing as the thinker in the buff was quite extraordinary. And I love these old Georgian houses, though I know they were the housing of colonial rule.

Little Museum of Dublin

Second best behind Patrick and the ducks, what they believe to be Flann O’Brien’s chair hanging from the ceiling.

Flann O'Brien's chair? Little Museum of Dublin

I pretended it was his policeman leaning there rusty against the wall in the next room.

Went to the Long Hall, once patronised by an excess of 150 Fenians. I don’t know if you can have an excess of Fenians, but perhaps. There were certainly an excess of loud shoppers on a horrible Saturday afternoon and our pints were cold. Jesus. It was beautiful but still we fled. Walked past the big pointy thing again.

Dublin pointy thing

Across from our hotel the blessing of the taxi cabs.

Shrine

And the An Bord Pleanála, which google tells me is an independent, statutory, quasi-judicial body that decides on appeals from planning decisions made by local authorities in Ireland. All I know is that it has a wonderful sculpture of cleaning women, and I love this building dearly.

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By night, seagulls on the Liffey.

the Liffey and a row of seagulls

Last day, Sunday, National Gallery day,  surprisingly enjoyable. Malta has made me enjoy those rooms of medieval and Italian Renaissance paintings so much more now that I’ve realised they have spurting liquids and batshit crazy demons and angry horses.

Dublin National Gallery

Dublin National Gallery

But Caravaggio is here! Not even pictured on the brochure, honestly, but here is The Taking of Christ. I first saw it at the National Gallery in London along with a number of the pictures in this room. I had forgotten — maybe never knew, who can tell as old as I’m getting these days — that the canvas was thought lost then found here in Dublin in the 1970s. There is a whole room dedicated to his influence, it is splendid. The Irish rooms are also splendid, including one of the most beautiful pieces of stained glass I have ever seen.

Dublin National Gallery

And there were fish men.

Dublin National Gallery

A final view.

Dublin

I was sad to leave.

I am now going to resume writing about homelessness in Wales. Because life is a bit shit and I have so much to do before Friday and mum arrives tomorrow and I have duvets airing and the rubbish needing to go out and clothes folding and I haven’t hoovered and I am still overdue with that film review and there is no way that article that has been almost done for months is getting out before Christmas. But Dublin will be remembered.

Tories Out: Manchester 2017

It’s been a full-on few days of action hosted by the People’s Assembly, as it should be with the Tories busy sticking knives into each other at their annual party conference as people die from their benefit cuts, sanctions, mental health cuts, NHS cuts, housing sell off and etc. That’s what my sign would have said — or some snappier version of that — had I made one. Danielle and I did a lot, though not even close to all.

Saturday night? The Dancehouse, to see much-loved Maxine Peake (OMG Maxine Peake!) and Mark Serwotka (OMG Mark Serwotka! How much do I want to be able to join PCS? Let me count the ways…), to love for the first time comedian Barbara Nice (OMG Barbara Nice!).

People's Assembly Saturday Night Live

Sunday was the protest of the Tory conference proper. It’s kind of funny, remembering back to the first time I ever visited Manchester, on a bus up from South London to protest Tory Party Conference in 2011. I confess I was a bit unimpressed with everything but the canals and the Peak of Peveril Pub — but I was here. Doesn’t feel it could possibly have been as long as 6 years ago. We could get closer to conference then, but they are still using those silver walls. 2011:

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The anti-Brexit contingent, and ‘Boris’ on a unicorn singing busily, 2016:

Protesting Tories: Manchester 2017

We headed down Castlefields way, heard Mark Serwotka again (OMG Mark Serwotka again!) speak by chance. Then we ran into Jon and the next few speakers were yawny in the way lefty men of a certain generation can be, so we took a short break for art.

Alongside us in the Museum of Science and Industry was Nikhil Chopra in the second half of his 48-hour performance art piece, performed in front of one of the engines built in Manchester, but sent to India and used during the partition. This ink drawing, a re-imagining of passage. This sleeping and camping and being in public for 48 hours — it is what refugees undergo, isn’t it, part of the horror wrapped up in horrors of this thing, being a refugee. Always in public. Always moving. Always somewhere you don’t belong. And it challenged me in watching it, the shame of being comfortable in the face of this discomfort, in the memory of this tragedy. I lowered my eyes to give privacy to this figure on the stage, then took a picture to remember the provocative nature of this intervention because after all it is ‘art’, it is a gift and a challenge thrown at us by someone who is also not here under duress. A challenge I don’t know quite how to live up to, but I hope to. Through my work around homelessness perhaps, through struggle. I don’t know if that is enough.

Nikhil Chopra

That left us pensive, subdued, strange to go back out into a crowd. But it fit. As in all damn marches we stood and we stood and we waited and we waited. I didn’t get many pictures, but a few. The highlights were absolutely the drums, I enjoyed myself, and then…we left them behind.

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It was all right, the march. They always are.

And then we had to find food and drink and wait and wait, because we had been promised Captain Ska and Lokey, and finally they were on and finally we danced. For me this was…amazing. The power and passion and incredible words and beats. Damn.

Amazing night.

I hurt the next morning. First time exercising since holiday, then a march and then dancing? Shit.

Still, I went to work. And then in the evening off to Manchester Cathedral to see John McDonnell speak in conversation with Gary Younge. Because I promised Danielle. To be honest, were it just me, I would have headed straight for bed with some Horlicks. But I went. And I was glad.

First we had some workers… From the strikers at McDonalds! so amazing, I remember my minimum wage fast food /Kmart days, I know just how amazing these folks are for carrying off a strike.

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

RMT! Strike across the North East for passenger safety!

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

Careworkers! She almost had me in tears.

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

Communications union — our postal workers! Anxiously awaiting ballot results when he spoke, but today we know the vote is to strike.

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

And then, John McDonnell!

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

I’m sad Gary Younge didn’t get to make a speech too. But ah well, McDonnell said Labour was in full support of the workers, they would re-nationalise the trains and the post, they would fully fund the NHS and support careworkers, they would implement the living wage. I never thought, to be honest, I’d ever hear anyone in a position like that of shadow vice-chancellor ever say such things. It solved all the problems expressed earlier in one sentence.

Last time I saw him speak was in 2011 (the parallels between 2011 and 2017 are only now striking me), at the People’s Assembly in Brixton that we organised as Lambeth SOS. He was a little less formal then, but sounded just the same.

John McDonnell

I jotted down a few notes, some sound bites and I don’t even care because they were brilliant, all in response to some really good questions.I can’t swear any of these are exact quotes, so don’t quote me.

We’re not just a party we’re a movement again … if owned by the people change becomes unstoppable…

(I am a bit skeptical about whether the old left can deal with democracy and youth and people of colour and women, but, you know, I have hope).

This is not a free market but a rigged market of the 1%.

We need to wipe out UKIP.

In response to a good question about why this change is so damn long in coming and so resisted (someone yelled out Tony Blair and we all laughed because we knew it was true), he brought it on with Gramsci — the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism (also true).

Never again should we pay for their crisis.

Education is a gift from one generation to another, not a commodity.

Then he went on about a new education service, starting with sure start, a new approach that pays teachers but also respects them, support for apprenticeships, scrap tuition fees, EMA returned, debt forgiven, support for lifelong education.

And the end? I was wondering when this would come up — the focus on climate change, on developing the economy through green tech owned by workers cooperatives, on decarbonising the economy,  ending fracking. It was like the Hallelujah chorus.

A brilliant night. A night of hope. We need those, I feel privileged to have enjoyed one because it has been a very long time…

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Impossible Presence: On Art and Photography

It’s so interesting to read a book that is for the most part so far outside my area of expertise — Impossible Presence is a collection of essays and art criticism that overlaps

The intro is from editor Terry Smith, full of questions I have never before asked myself….

why is it that the visual image continues — according to an inscrutable but seemingly invisible geometry — to become more and more powerful, proliferative and pervasive at every level of public and private life, promising more and more openness…while at the same time its power to communicate concentrated meaning seems to decline…?

What has been the fate of the image in modernity, modern art, popular visual cultures, in postmodern art and in postmodernity? Has the procession of the simulacrum reached the point of purity, of unconditionality? Or has the real returned to those intersections where abject aficionados of post-humanism that what we must, again, call presence remains powerfully present in the art of this time, just in its persistence despite its putative impossibility? It does so, I would argue… (1)

I like pondering such questions so far outside my normal range of questions that I am not entirely sure what all of them are questioning.

Literally returning to more solid ground, there is a wonderful quote from Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, on the First Photograph.

No hint here that this is the first quiet note of … an unstoppable torrent of pictures … haunting and unforgettable, hideous and beautiful, pornographic and revelatory, pictures that will create the very idea of the Modern, that will overpower language itself, and cover and distort and define the earth, like water, like gossip, like democracy.

And who knew Heidegger had characterized modernity as the ‘age of the world picture’? Probably lots of people, I know. But not me. My inability to avoid Heidegger in all of his phenomenologyist splendour continues.

I like this idea of ‘presence’ — being new to all this it fascinates me to find this long history of its discussion. Smith writes:

I wish to interpret ‘presence’ here in a way different from its previous lives in art-critical and art-historical discourse, where it stood, in the 1960s, for the implacable physicality of materials, and in the 1970s, when it signaled an ethics of social commitment. (7)

I’m such a 70s girl. Smith links

‘presence’ to ‘impossibility,’ not in a spirit of defeat but of possibility. Presence despite apparent impossibility, tangibility against the prosthetics of cyberbeing, or, as Heidegger would put it, authentic Being against the grain of seeing/knowing — the eye — of an age which can only see itself for its own loss of being. (8)

I don’t know, I find the first two much more intriguing. He continues.

Presence, for the kind of modernism I value, is a quality of insistence. It insists differently at different times.

It insists against empty space, white noise, dematerialisation, infinite replay.

Interesting.

Marshall Berman is in here! ‘Too Much is Not Enough: Metamorphoses of Times Square.’ Lovely. He writes, having discovered this through his criticisms of the criticisms of others around New York’s Times Square:

I’m a partisan of happiness. I believe more joy will give people more power to change the world for the better. My vision of the good life includes both bright lights and critical thought; it demands a critical thought that knows how to love the bright lights. (41)

Yes.

He describes how the authors and poets of the city know and celebrate its contradictions, the way it drains and yields energy. Non-fictional authors? Only a few — he names Georg Simmel, Lewis Mumford, Paul and Percival Goodman, Jane Jacobs. The Goodmans? Never heard of them, that is always exciting. Berman then goes on to describe Times Square through the imagery of the whore of Babylon from Revelations, and as he always does, inspires in me a tremendous desire to read another classic text — The Persian Letters by Montesquieu. Balzac said this book taught him everything about urban life. My god. I have not read it.

For Berman, it creates a vocabulary for understanding the city, explores the value of the urban to

nourish personal authenticity, mutual opennesss, intercourse and communication between people. Out in the street people can feel free, can imagine new ways to live, can experience the joy of mutual recognition. (50)

He moves to Engels writing about how people move quickly and stay to their right in Manchester, shows wonderful saucy old postcards. As a side note he describes a process where immigration has transformed the face of the US just enough to make people a little more comfortable in city centres like Time Square, to make it marketable to try and reclaim them. The irony.

This is my territory. A brief stop and on to the rest of the book — all new. I loved Tom Gunning’s piece on early photography and the role of amateurs in ‘New Thresholds of Vision: Instantaneous Photography and the Early Cinema of Lumiere’. This must be one of the best things I’ve seen, embodying the mystery within the everyday, the mischievous natures captured in these photographs from the early days of film as it was transitioning into new processes that did not require long exposures:

 

 

 

There was Jacques-Henri Lartigue, whose photographs

display the era’s fascination with freezing a moment and capturing motion in full flight, as well as a youthful mischief and delight in the often ungainly bodily postures the instantaneous camera could discover, bodies filled with mobile vitality and a sense of fun. Indeed, the image of the small boy armed with a camera capturing moments of indiscretion became a staple of the comic narrative revolving around the “bad boys” in this period… using it to unmask the order of the adult world. (92)

There was a new knowledge that Zola was a photography enthusiast. Ah Zola. I will look that up.

An essay on Benjamin — I always prefer Benjamin to essays about him or using him, but I loved this photograph from Atget.

 

 

 

Two essays on Warhol in here — I have come to appreciate him more. I liked Baudrillard, liked this:

Warhol was the first to introduce into modern fetishism — transaesthetic fetishism — the fetishism of an image without qualities, of a presence without desire. (184)

I liked Silverman’s essay on Warhol, and it taught me the word ‘chiasmatic’. Relating to the intersection of the optic nerve fibres at the bottom of the brain.

Elizabeth Grosz wrote a fucking splendid essay on nakedness and orchids and desire and all sorts called ‘naked’. She describes the difference between facing nakedness in person and in ‘art’.

One is, in Levinasaian terms, called, called upon by the open giving up of a certain vulnerability that the other offers to us as naked. It is this that we are protected against in observing the work of art. We are not called to protect, or to bare ourselves to, this other that we observe. Our observation is given free range. We are liberated from the impulse towards reciprocity. (218)

What I really loved though, was her skilled debunking of definitions of the gaze, its suppressed anger and intelligence of the kind I most admire have given me a bit of an author crush.

We don’t just have two modes of looking, on that illuminates the soul (art) and one that is salacious and perverse (pornography)

How fucking limiting that would be.

What is needed instead is a typology of looking, a mode of thinking of spectatorship that does not rely on the vast apparatus of projection, identification, fetishism and unconscious processes that psychoanalysis has offered to film theory and that theorists of the visual arts have borrowed as their primary model of spectatorship. Voyeurism is not the only modality of looking: seeing has many particular forms, well beyond the purview of the gaze, which is, in psychoanalytic terms, necessarily aligned with sadism, the desire for mastery and the masculine privileging of the phallus. (218-19)

I imagine her punching Zizek in the stomach, mostly because he makes me angrier than most people drawing on psychoanalytic theory (admittedly, a field I have so far mostly stayed away from apart from Fromm, who is the antithesis to this). But she doesn’t need to punch anyone physically, that sentence does it all.

I would suggest that seeing needs to be retrieved by feminists, and that vision needs to be freed from the constrictions imposed on it by the apparatus of the gaze. (219)

I would like to be part of that, I hope she does so, this is so useful for thinking about art and photography, particularly in activism and studying the ‘urban’. I am about to read much more of what she has written. There is more in the volume, the other to stand out was on aboriginal art — a really fascinating interdisciplinary change of pace which is perhaps what I most like about this book. But of course, I know I am blinkered by the things I am working on now, this will richly repay a visit.

Smith, Terry (ed) Impossible Presence: surface and Screen in the Photogenic Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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John Berger on Ways of Seeing

John Berger Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger is a most wonderful wonderful book. Told both in words and pictures, what follows is a lopsided collection of sentences that does some violence to the whole I confess. I was particularly interested in photography, but found myself swept away into other places and didn’t mind at all. It is a book I look forward to reading many more times — and hunting down the series as well. I so wish I had been lucky enough to have been given this to read in the high school Art History class that has remained with me all through my years. Better late than never.

It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. (7)

Nothing is ever settled. I love this unsettling. Love this sense of history:

The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently, fear of the present leads to mystification of the past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. (11)

Just a sentence and then off he goes in another direction. I want to think more about this alongside Trouillot and the erasings and the silences, but later perhaps.

Because we are off to Frans Hals, always one of my favourites:

Hals was the first portraitist to pain the new characters and expressions created by capitalism. He did in pictorial terms what Balzac did two centuries later in literature. (16)

The regentesses of Haarlem’s almshouse, such an unforgettable picture but never had I thought of it this way:

Frans Hals — Portrait of The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse Haarlem, 1640s?

And this, my favourite statement of the power that images hold, the potential they carry, a statement that makes me think of things quite differently though I have for a long time been thinking about this — like the wonderful obsessions of Otto Neurath and his isotypes:

If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose. (33)

I don’t know why Berger’s passages on oil painting struck me as they did, I think because they represent what a profoundly different way this is of understanding painting as it sits within its context — I love it.

Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. All reality was mechanically measured by its materiality. … Oil painting conveyed a feeling of total exteriority. (87)

I can see this exteriority, feel the velvets and silks under my fingers in these paintings. That always struck me, the incredible details. I think there was such a love of these sumptuous textures in themselves, but yes, also this:

Works of art in earlier traditions celebrated wealth. But wealth was then a symbol of a fixed social or divine order. Oil painting celebrated a new kind of wealth — which was dynamic and which found its only sanction in the supreme buying power of money. Thus painting itself had to be able to demonstrate the desirability of what money could buy. (90)

And then there is the section on advertising, the co-optation of art (not that that was anything new, as can be seen in the quote above) and this unapologetic reading that made me happy:

The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, among other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day dreams. (148)

So to end with photography, which sent me here in the first place and of which I found but little, though I did not care in the slightest.

First, something that seems so simple, and yet… before thinking about it I might have said as a reflex that photography was somehow more ‘objective’, I might still lapse into that feeling. But really,

The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject.  (10)

On the other hand, I had not before thought through how the camera changes our perspective, how it differs from painting, how it decentres us from time and space:

The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless. Or, to put it another way, the camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings)….

This is not to say that before the invention of the camera men believed everyone could see everything. But perspective organized the visual field as though that were indeed the ideal. Every drawing or painting that used perspective proposed to the spectator that he was the unique centre of the world. The camera — and more particularly the movie camera — demonstrated that there was no centre.

The invention of the camera changed the way that we saw. The invisible came to mean something different to them. This was immediately reflected in painting. (18)

This is something I need to think much more about. It’s interesting how this is one of the major differences between Western and non-Western art, it doesn’t surprise me at all that it is Western art of a certain period that put human beings always at the centre. It must be a good thing to destabilise that, but I’m not sure I entirely grasp how photography and film do that. Our own private viewings into the world of others.

But there is so much joy in art and pleasure in thinking about it here…

Viking Ships

The Viking Ship Museum — incredible. Despite hordes of elderly French tourists in colourful anoraks and sensible shoes fresh off the coach, following a diminutive tour guide in a bright yellow jacket who propelled her footstool through the crowds, leapt upon it, declaimed, and moved on to the next-notable-thing. They followed her at speed, seemed to linger longest in the gift shop — but that’s probably prejudice speaking as I was transfixed and not really paying attention.

The wonder of these ships. To be built with such care, to be eminently practical yet also crafted and made most beautiful, from their great curves and curls to their meticulous carvings. To be buried in honour of certain members of the community. The most beautiful, the most decorated ship carried two women to their afterlife and with them their weaving tools — multiple looms, weaving tablets, yarns, precious cloth. Agricultural tools were found here too, plowshares, sickles, scythes — at least the wooden handles. If only there had been more, they could have joined my collection of medieval illustrations/ implements still used in everyday life.

Two women and their weavings. In this.

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

What love and honour shown to them. The Oseburg ship, build around AD 820 and in use before the women were buried in 834. 22 metres long, 5 metres wide, could reach a speed of over 10 knots under sail. The most lavishly decorated ship yet found.

A picture of its excavation:

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

There is the Gokstad ship, found in 1880, built around 890 and buried around 900 with a full complement of shields. A warriors ship.

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

The third ship, the Tune ship from 910, is almost in ruins, only the base of it remaining preserved. Still beautiful.

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

The only hint of humour here — the remains of a peacock were found — ‘It may have been a gift from some foreign dignitary or perhaps a ‘souvenir’ brought back…’

Also within the Oseberg ship this cart:

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

Carved bedstead:

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

Soft leather boots:

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

five amazing carved animal heads, four in the burial chamber, they seem to have been meant to be mounted or carried with a thong passed behind their teeth, their purpose unknown.

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

I would have loved to have been here quiet and alone, but amongst these objects so weighted with beauty and an entirely different way of viewing the world and living within it, those coachloads didn’t matter quite so much. But we got there early before the real deluge started I think. It would have been intolerable with a few more coachloads by the time we left.

We also took the ferry, which meant we were able to continue our tradition of disappointing boat rides in European cities. A picture of the Akershus fortress from the water:

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It emphasizes the importance of sturdy boats. But the Vikings built beautiful ones.

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Khadambi Asalache: poetry and place finished unfinished

We went to see Khadambi Asalache’s house today, and it was wondrous indeed. Poetry carved into wood, crafted into space. From the National Trust:

575 Wandsworth Road

This small, early nineteenth-century terraced house was the home of Khadambi Asalache, a Kenyan-born poet, novelist and civil servant. In 1986, he began carving wooden fretwork to disguise a persistent damp problem in the basement dining room. He went on to embellish almost every wall, ceiling and door in the house with fretwork patterns and motifs which he hand-carved from reclaimed pine doors and floorboards found in skips. Over the course of a twenty year period he turned his home into a work of art.

He did not like for his friends to take pictures, because pictures mediate between you and the experience of place, and they also mediate your memories. Nothing could give you a true sense of what it means to be physically present in this house, so if you have the ability to come to London, to stand here, maybe stop reading now. Don’t look. But if you cannot get here, then a pale reflection can help you understand what follows.

I confess I liked being in this space without taking any photographs. But I also like these photographs from the website, for they frame and capture scenes in this place of almost overwhelming detail that allow you to isolate small portions and spend more time over them, to gain access to someone else’s framing of the space to see what others see.

A few things that struck me the most about this incredible place.

First the ways in which this incredible 20-year labour of detailed carving and fretworking and painting carved a space out of London that had nothing to do with London at all. Not an escape perhaps, but an alternate universe, a sidestep through a carved door into a place of beauty and safety and memory. Complete in itself, indifferent. It’s only the garden out the back that it calls on, its mimosa tree repeated and made soft, forever muted green in paint. Asalache created a completely different world of shadow and light and wood, maximised every last glimmer of sunshine in this often gray and gloomy place through glass and porcelain, through subtle and hidden touches of gold paint.

Our guides also mentioned how this house reflected Asalache’s philosophies as he carved a work that was beautiful, harmonious, forever unsymmetrical (though containing much symmetry) and forever incomplete. I think creating such intricacy across the whole of the house meant that not designing in a symmetrical way was more difficult — though this provoked laughter I am still a little hurt by. I don’t know why. But simply to mirror one half across another is easy, a mechanical operation that surely would have cut the time required (though of course to do it with machine like precision might not be). Instead, balance and harmony must emerge from some level of deeper awareness and attention as new forms are created to form a larger sense of wholeness that does not jar, that feels right and fitting in its difference rather than its sameness. This seems to me infinitely harder, worth a deeper appreciation.

He started in the kitchen, and he finished this room before moving to the next. There is an aspect to this house that made me initially think of obsession, made me think of the Watts Towers meticulously crafted over decades in a work that would never and could never be finished. There would always be more to do, more to add. The edges of things were all left rough, splintery, though they often incorporated smooth wood carvings rescued from jettisoned paneling and furniture in Lambeth’s great 1980s wave of gentrification and rebuilding. Almost all of the wood was found in skips, saved from this Georgian neighbourhood being gutted by money and development.

I love that Asalache could finish, and that part of that finishing was to leave sections unfinished. There is one shelf in particular in the dining room where fretwork adorns one half but not the other — left deliberately along with the other aspect of unfinishedness so as not to overwhelm his friends according to our guides. I stared at it…wanted to finish it myself. It is provocative, makes you think about this shelf as it fits into the room, fits into the house, fits into an ability to be incomplete, imperfect. The house is full of other examples, but none so marked as this one I think. A topic for discussion at dinner perhaps. I loved this long table, the conviviality it implied and memories it must hold of collective talk and laughter and breaking of bread together.

I loved how each room was different, loved the floors with patterns mirroring the rugs (the rugs were there first and the patterns painted in harmony with them), loved the doors decorated on only one side, loved the figures dancing, the multitudes of animals and birds carved and painted delicately on walls. Loved the beauty of the objects and the precision of their placement. Loved how this still feels like a space to be lived in, despite its beauty and fragility.

   I loved this house. To be here on a tour of only six, guided slowly by people who love it too, who know it so well, who can point out the parrot with a looking glass, the ancient Egyptians with a telephone, the painting of a man falling that a friend had snuck upstairs to do. All wonderful. I hope to come back, this is a place you will always find something new.

I found some of his poems too, though his most famous novel, A Calabash of Life, is sadly long out of print despite his role in an important period of African literature in diaspora.

From Prometheus (found in African Arts, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1968), p. 66):

The shadow of sadness gently rolled down his tears
for now, between him and heaven, nothing but clouds
the grey procession moving into the silent afternoon
following a chink of light to close the path of escape.

His eyes followed this gloom, the puzzling fate,
like a drunken moment bringing its dark face
to come lower, lower, a fulfillment of stored hate
coming down to crush the hand of

From Conversations with a Suicide (African Arts, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1968), p. 67):

the mind’s vault is walled
like a lake that has frozen round its shore, looks
pure. This is the frozen heart of the crystal
and the wind that blows hardens on
its face, shadowless

like a row of empty chairs in a waiting room
when you arrive the blank face of the wall
look away to avoid your stare-if you stop
to hit back you see only yourself, a dream
nothing more

if you were born under the sign of Neptune
the secret of your life is with stars
there is no answer for you here. Up
in the sky clouds gather to build
their own strength without fear moving
to make a search

And finally, just a curious little letter he wrote on the subject of ujamaa, which I am interested in from afar as a technique for collective liberation that parallels Freire’s popular education or what I learned about Friday in Denmarks Common Third, I find it curious that this is his reaction to it (written from a different house as you can see):

Dear Sir,

I have just been reading Messrs. Omindi and Mboya’s letters in your issue No. 11. Mr. Mboya’s article on African Socialism begins to be clearer. From afar mountains are misty. He must know what he says when he writes ‘these leaders . . . are those most likely to know what philosophy and principles underlie their policies?’ Many would take the point and feel suitably told off.

Once I thought Socialism was a political theory of society but now I hear the African brand is being adapted from our traditions of Ujamaa. Producing ‘African Socialism’ from Ujamaa is chasing a wild goose: poor wazee in the villages will no doubt be flattered when they are told that their humanity and friendliness arising from ujamaa is the ‘twentieth century African socialism.’

Yours sincerely,

KHADAMBI ASALACHE.
120 Hurlingharn Road,
London S. W.6.

Letters to the Editor
Lennard H. Okola, Gary Gappert, Khadambi Asalache and Jan Knappert
Transition No. 13 (Mar. – Apr., 1964), pp. 5-7

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Public Art of All Kinds, NY

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The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on the Lower East Side

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is amazing. Its very existence, its declaration of ongoing resistance against gentrification and displacement, and the many wonderful urban spaces to be found on the Lower East Side. A testament to all those who have fought to build community and to preserve it in that face of brutal development pressures driven by the commodification of land.

Ah, the Lower East Side…

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For so long it was only known to me through Neil Smith’s work, his descriptions of the battles over Tompkins Square Park and a vibrancy in the squatting/camping/we-will-not-be-moved-from-these-spaces organising that I always found so inspiring.

I saw it on the map, saw this museum marked there and so we headed that way after the inspiration of Harlem — where better to go?

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

As a living history of urban activism, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) chronicles the East Village community’s history of grassroots action. It celebrates the local activists who transformed abandoned spaces and vacant lots into vibrant community spaces and gardens. Many of these innovative, sustainable concepts and designs have since spread out to the rest of the city and beyond.

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

We wandered through the small museum staffed by volunteers — hardly a museum, a wonderful community space of two rooms, one ground floor and the basement where a video is running. The walls of both are lined with pictures and stories of the people who squatted these buildings to create and save housing, transformed vacant lots into vibrant gardens and community spaces, developed movements to push for political will in support of bicycles over cars, as well as cycling lanes, bike racks and respect. This building itself was squatted, which is how this place can exist at all. Every community should have such an accessible shopfront space telling such important stories, with people wandering in and out.

I got a birthday present there! The Architecture of Change , edited by Jerilou Hammett and Maggie Wrigley, an amazing collection of 36 articles from DESIGNER/builder magazine describing movement and struggle around space, design, art, architecture, education and justice (so far, I am only a quarter of the way through) around the country. I opened it up and within the first few pages found a picture of the Vilchis brothers lounging around Boyle heights which made me so happy.

I was less happy that the article failed to mention Union de Vecinos, co-founded by Leonardo and one of the grassroots organisations in LA that I love and admire most. Opportunity lost, they have so much to teach. Ah well.

Tompkins Square Park is still a cool public space full of life and people (though perhaps too much concrete), a very different one than Smith described if I remember rightly (but so much bigger than I was expecting! So maybe my memory is faulty…but still closes at midnight, so no one is welcome to sleep here). And look, Charlie Parker Place.

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A public park alongside a medley of community gardens, they are everywhere, and I was truly smitten. Especially after reading the love and fierce resistance it took to first build and then keep them.

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I wish we’d have had more time here to see some of the other radical spots here, but we were heading over to Williamsburg to meet my cousin. We had a quick walk to the metro — and a quick stop in Bluestockings bookstore on the way. I sent them a lot of emails in my PM Press days, and their amazing selection did not disappoint. Two of the books I’ve worked on under Postcolonial Fiction (!) by Gary Phillips and James Kilgore — seeing that is such a pleasure:

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On the way — Joe Strummer saying know your rights:

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Housing co-ops:

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Such cool city streets and a wealth of things to see and places to eat (omg the best pastrami sandwiches ever at Harry and Ida’s Meat & Supply Co), we loved this place:

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New YorkAnd finally, a wonderful map of the radical spaces of the Lower East Side produce by the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space — I wish we had had more time to explore! Get the pdf here.

 

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