This was splendid, how lucky we were. There was loads here about housing, but more on that later, but it was amazing. Red Vienna was amazing. After the electoral victory of the Austrian Social Democratic Worker’s Party (SDAPÖ) in May of 1919 Vienna, the new socialist council accomplished great things to improve the lives of workers. There was a moment of reactionary violence in 1927. Then in 1934 civil war, Red Vienna crushed beneath violence and bloodshed by the Nazis and I had never heard of a civil war…I know I keep discovering my own ignorance.
But the exhibition is a moment to look at all they dreamed and all they accomplished, and their bravery in the struggle to keep it.
This was perhaps one of my favourite concrete things:
A one piece cast-concrete kitchen scullery designed by Margarete Lihotzky to conserve as much space as possible for the new housing units. She did it based on observation of how women worked and what they needed — something that had not been done before (surprise surprise). She would go on to design the Frankfurt kitchen (which I will get to see in Berlin!), and then fight Nazis and she still lived to 100. She is marvelous, I will be writing more about her I think (but more is here). Her plans are below.
She is one new hero, there were others on these walls.
Marie Jahoda, psychologist, fighter for freedom, incarcerated by the fascists, set free in 1937 and left for Britain. I found her career interests here (how cool is she):
Career Focus: Unemployment; positive mental health; anti-semitism and prejudice; psychoanalysis; non-reductionistic social psychology; field methods.
Her study of the effects of long-term unemployment on mental health:
Adelheid Popp, feminist and socialist.
Käthe Leichter, feminist, economist, journalist. Murdered by Nazis. Her women’s network:
Otto Neurath again — I’ve written about his work developing isotypes, making knowledge visual — the photographs and charts covering all of these walls are the results of his work. Splendid.
But perhaps most splendid this little elephant that he often used instead of a signature to sign all of his letters.
But he is one of teh driving forces behind these amazing infographics, this one exploring everything that goes into the building of a home. Damn. Awesome.
A selection from their library, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Ship of Fools by B. Traven.
Paul Robeson needs no introduction, this is one of the best covers ever.
Otto Neurath’s efforts to visualise and make intelligible data continues on in current illustrations — I love these social network diagrams.
It’s possibly this book that was my favourite non-concrete thing. More precisely the fact that there exists a book on the riots in Vienna which has been stamped with the word lies. I think I would like such a stamp myself.
There was also an array of brilliant political posters.
Inspiring. If you’re lucky enough to be in Vienna before next January, go see it.
I’ve not been well at all, have had no time no heart for writing much. But I’m off for a while, find this soothing. It’s 21st of June and I am only now able to look back, put up some thoughts about these amazing few days. And so I am following the timeline of memory creation, not of its documentation…
A quick break from writing and reading and writing to think for a minute about Grayson Perry’s The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! at Bristol’s Arnolfini. It started life in the Serpentine down in London I believe, and was so nice to see something like this outside of the capitol — I loved the Arnolfini focusing on one exhibition as well, it really opened up the space, made it feel larger than I remember it being. The official description of the exhibit:
[The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!] tackles one of the artist’s primary concerns: how contemporary art can best address a diverse cross section of society. On show for the first time outside of London, the exhibition is central to the autumn season at Arnolfini and a programme of events inspired by Perry’s irreverent take on contemporary culture.
In the exhibition, Perry continues to explore many of the themes and concerns that recur in his practice, drawing from his own childhood and life as a transvestite, as well as wider social issues and his abiding interest in his audience. The works in the exhibition examine masculinity, class, politics, sex religion, popularity and art, as well as contemporary issues such as Brexit and ‘Divided Britain’.
My favourite piece was this I think, Red Carpet. I love everything about it. I love that it is a tapestry, love fabric, love the rich textures of it that fit so well the highrise buildings that form its backdrop. I love its squiggly lines, its noting of the many boundaries and main thoroughfares, how it reflects back at the nation its own maps of us and them inscribed upon hearts and minds — safe and dangerous places, useful places, places marked in different ways by class and culture and kind of dwelling and our reception there. I love how this map resembles the kinds of maps Kevin Lynch uncovered in trying to understand how people visualised and understood and traveled through their everyday cities. It is such a beautiful object, yet does not make the discourse (and what it says about Britain in this particular time) all that beautiful, as it isn’t beautiful at all.
Grayson Perry himself describes it thus:
The title evokes the most formal and reverent of welcomes and the style is influenced by some of my favourite material culture – Afghan war rugs. This is a map of British society as evocative and inaccurate as a geographical one made by a medieval scholar. The distortions partly reflect the density of population rather than the lie of the land. It is covered in words and buzz phrases that I felt typified the national discourse in 2016. The background weave is made from photographs of tower blocks.’
The second map is no thing of beauty, which…perhaps if he had spoken to other people on the estate it might have been, but this rings pretty true for young men. Here we have the Digmoor Tapestry.
Grayson Perry writes:
This work is my reaction after talking to a group of young men from Skelmersdale, Lancashire. They are the victims of poverty, chaotic parenting, bad role models and disrupted education. They hung around street corners selling weed, riding motorbikes around parks and getting into fights with rival groups. They were at an age when a hormonal need to assert their masculinity was at its freshest. Deprived of acceptable badges of status, job, money, education, power and family, they exercised their masculinity in a way that seemed to echo back to the dawn of humanity – they defended territory. That territory was the Digmoor estate, a quadrant of a 1970s new town bounded by dual carriageways. They seemed prepared to kill for it. The Digmoor Tapestry is a map of the state the defended. The style was inspired by traditional African fabrics and the graffiti is taken directly from the boys’ environment. On seeing it one of them commented, ‘It looks like it’s been used to wrap up a body’.’
There is ‘Animal Spirit’, a different kind of mapping, very different elements, and oil everywhere oil. A foretelling of our own destruction and the death of our future in the entrails as the Greeks used to do…
”Animal Spirit’ was a phrase that cropped up quite a lot during the commentaries after the financial crash of 2008. It seemed to be used as a way of offloading responsibility for the human chaos of the meltdown onto some mystical force, when in fact the men controlling the market are prone to irrational behaviour as anyone. Some of the symbolism within the image of Animal Spirit – the abandoned baby, the three black crowns and the hanging man – come from the names of the traditional patterns in Japanese candlestick graphs used by traders in the city.’
Maps…I so love maps. He has a map of days, a map of nowhere, a map of an englishman… I long to see them. Someday.
He loves shrines as much as I do! Though I prefer mine in the wild. There were bikes! And there were ceramics. This one evoked both phallic symbol and skyscraper and banking district, here we have Object in Foreground which provoked this headline from the Evening Standard: ‘Artist Grayson Perry has created a huge glazed ceramic penis he says is inspired by the City of London’s bankers and traders’. Funny that I too have always thought of them as giant penises. His description was quite provocative:
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of masculinity to examine was its pervasive effect on the power structures and unconscious bias within the City of London financial industry. Men working there are well-educated, confident and operate in a culture of their own making, so it was difficult to pick out the dominant threads of masculinity from the dense and perfect weave of their business. Object in Foreground was inspired by the bland lobbies of their corporate towers. The decor expresses imperial neutrality, but I saw them as bachelor pads write large.
My favourite though, was this one: ‘Luxury Brands for Social Justice’
Because it felt so good to be so angry and yet be able to laugh at this shit all at the same time:
We went to see Henrik Ibsen’s home on Friday. In Oslo. We were in Oslo! It was cold for a summer day, quite rainy, never did really stop raining the whole time. So all my photos have a tremendous background of grey skies and water. Still, Oslo is a lovely place.
Reading Ibsen again was good too — I confess I read him too young. I read The Doll House I think, long long ago. Didn’t really understand it, what could I know of bourgeois emptiness and the disfigurement of women under hypocritical middle-class moralities? Like another planet, and a fairly boring, if not downright nasty one. I remember not liking it.
I like Ibsen so much better now — I worry, perhaps, that I know too much now about bourgeois emptiness. But still only from the outside. I can see, though, why Eleanor Marx would work so hard to translate them into English, why she wrote of seeing Hedda Gabler (1890) in the theatre and emerging transfixed. It was my favourite of these three. There are women here who save, and women who destroy, but all of them feel like real women. Rounded. Fighting their boundaries and the customs that hem them in, even if like Hedda, they don’t have the self-awareness to fight well. This is the tragedy of women who have not found meaning in life, but know that it is missing. Know that the narrow role allotted them is not enough. Hedda wasn’t brave enough to strike through to the centre of things — maybe she wouldn’t have been a nasty bully if she had. I wonder. But she was too brave to live constrained under the power of a man.
The there is The Pillars of the Community (1877). Here Lona has returned from the New World to the Old to shake out the stuffiness and the hypocrisy. She knows just what she wants, is comfortable in her own skin. The New World continues to be a place for Europeans to reinvent themselves, escaping the constraints and disfigurings of middle-class society. Here, the possibilities it offered and the woman who has grasped them, win a happy ending for everyone.
It felt a bit didactic, but I quite loved it as exemplary of that Victorian capitalist who long ago ceased to exist — the one who grew rich on others’ misery yet who was firmly anchored in position and place. This led to a paternalism, a sense of duty, a sense of being a pillar of the community. While it is entirely hypocritical to say that their investments were disinterested, they still had a care to ensure their investments could be seen as building and growing their community.
Hell of paternalistic and hypocritical though — here he has secretly bought up all the land where he is trying to bring a railway line in:
Karsten Bernick: See, I have risked this for the good of the community.
Lona Hessel calls him on it. You have to like her.
Karsten Bernick: And isn’t it the community itself that forces us into crooked ways? What would have happened here if I hadn’t dealt secretly? They would all have thrown themselves into the concern, divided it, scattered it, mismanaged and bungled the whole thing…That’s why my conscience absolves me in this particular case. It is only in my hands that these properties can become of permanent benefit to the many people they will provide with a living. (97)
He is, of course, in the process of replacing workers with machines, forcing them beyond their capacities, and almost commits murder. But at the last moment he is saved from his own self, which allows him to see himself truly and repent. Come out to the community he has felt so constrained by, even as he comes clean. A nice moral.
I liked the The Wild Duck (1884) better. Liked that the wealthy idealist in this play does more damage than good. Is as blind as his avaricious father, but in different ways. I loved how this play turned The Pillars of the Community on its head in a sense, complicated the value of truth, showing its destructive power. I particularly loved this interchange:
Relling: While I remember it, young Mr Werle — don’t use that exotic word ‘ideals’. We have a good enough native word: ‘lies’.
Gregers: Do you mean the two things are related?
Relling: Yes. Like typhus and typhoid fever. (244)
I’m still thinking about Relling’s ‘medical’ use of the ‘saving lie’. Just another way towards misery, but whether more or less miserable is a difficult question. Hjalmar Ekdal is a vain, weak man. Perhaps What was best was whatever kept little Hedvig and the wild duck alive.
Ibsen’s house and the museum attached was by far the priciest thing we saw in Oslo, apart from perhaps Engebret Cafe, where Ibsen ate on occasion along with Grieg and Bjornstjerne Bjornson and etc (and where Munch was kicked out of, after accusing staff of stealing his gloves and scarf). It was delicious however, and all paneled wood, which you know I loved.
I failed completely to get a good shot of Ibsen’s home’s exterior… here is an oblique shot, where this wonderful statue faces the park where the palace sits:
What it once looked like:
We had walked across the park to get to the museum from one of the precisely ten thousand Scandic hotels scattered across the city. It was bought when Ibsen was old and famous and rolling in funds — and so he ended his days in a setting very much like one of his plays:
In face he did all the decorations himself, like his own stage set. It is quite opulent. The dining room and salon (with colours all off due to the light):
His amazing study — his wife used to sell tickets to see it after he died, people would line up. She lived here until her death in 1914. It was turned into dentist offices before being returned to almost its original state:
They even rescued the bath from a farmer’s fields.
Ibsen wrote five hours every day. Exactly.
One one wall of the study, Ibsen hung a huge portrait of Strindberg — his mortal enemy. I read Strindberg before our Stockholm adventure, and never got round to blogging that. While I quite liked The Red Room, his plays had me raging over the treatment of women. I prefer Ibsen.
Suzannah died in this chair (on the right behind glass) in the lovely but very little library, sitting up as she had wished
In addition to his plays with interesting women, there are the lovely hand drawn certificates he made for his wife Suzannah on special days:
That was from the museum, full of fascinating odds and ends:
We didn’t go direct from his home to the Grand Cafe, where he went every day. But we did go. Here is Munch’s drawing of Ibsen at the Grand Cafe:
It has changed quite a bit, but still feels very expensive and rather glamorous. We drank wine.
While wandering we also accidentally passed the location of his first house (I think, it’s in Norwegian) that his wife Suzannah hated, said it was cold and all corridors…
I could end with his grave, which we found in Vår Frelsers gravlund…
But instead will end with the cafe, where we actually found a very decent cup of coffee:
The exhibition of The Prix Pictet shortlist and winner at the V&A was superb.
Prix Pictet is a global prize that aims to highlight sustainability and environmental issues through photography….The theme for this cycle is Space.
The winner Richard Mosse for his series entitled Heat Maps — enthralling pictures, only two of them on display here. Huge composited black and white film pictures and heat photographs showing refugee camps, showing metal cars glowing and human bodies incandescent, this use of military technology against military technologies to bring alive the scale of the camp, but in so much detail… Like a Bruegel Mark said and it was exactly what I had been thinking but the technology of it also means it comes in and out of focus a bit, like an enormous charcoal with sections in crystal clarity but but others blurred as though a careless fist rested there. Figures also burred white but caught in fragile intensely human moments and motions, there is a vividness here, a humanity unvarnished, a poverty not picturesque. These are landscapes of tents and metal and ripping wire, and a fragile battered environment of water, trees.
Carceral spaces at scale, but with humanity foregrounded. They were incredible. A visceral call to dismantle all of it, a recognition of the spirit of those within it.
The full list of photographers, all of their work is wonderful.
Mandy Barker (United Kingdom) Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals
Saskia Groneberg (Germany) – Büropflanze
Beate Guetschow (Germany) – S Series
Rinko Kawauchi (Japan) – Ametsuchi
Benny Lam (Hong Kong) – Subdivided Flats
Richard Mosse (Ireland) – Heat Maps
Wasif Munem (Bangladesh) – Land of Undefined Territory
Sohei Nishino (Japan) – Diorama Map
Sergey Ponomarev (Russia) – Europe Migration Crisis
Thomas Ruff (Germany) – ma.r.s
Pavel Wolberg (Russia) – Barricades
Michael Wolf (Germany) – Tokyo Compression
Another set of pictures of the migrant experience from Sergey Ponomarev, pictures of this massive movement of humanity that seems so remote to London even as I read of camps and deaths, even as I contribute food and money, even as I cry over boats tumbling over themselves and spilling children into the sea.
Most of the refugees reached Europe. They began to conjure up and build new living spaces for themselves, forever changing the face of Europe itself.
I loved the recentering of the world onto these journeys that these pictures achieved. This new world they are creating.
Pictures of faces against glass in Tokyo’s subway, condensation, patient suffering. It feels infinite here.
Shinjuku Station is used by an average of 3.64 million people per day, making it the most crowded train stations in the world in terms of number of passengers. I spent more than 60 weekday mornings photographing passengers during their commute into Tokyo. All portraits were taken at one train station along the Odakyu line, during rush hour between 7.30 and 9 am. At intervals of 80 seconds, a train already packed to the absolute limit pulled into the station. Even more people pushed their way into the compartments until the commuters were jammed like sardines in a can. Day in day out, millions of commuters must endure this torture, as the only affordable housing is hours away outside of the city center. Is this a humane way to live?
The collision of housing crisis, work, public transport. The everyday pain of it.
Saskia Groneberg’s pictures of plants filling offices, curving towards light, peering round blinds. They start banal and by the end of the series have given you a feeling more ominous than that, as though humans are not just absent but gone.But I think that is very much my own impression, too many movies, too many references to the Triffids.
Benny Lam’s pictures from Hong Kong, staring down at people in tiny rectangles — the length of our vertical axis — only enough room to sit and barely enough to lie down. The rooms’ heights stacked vertically, the sum of people’s possessions around them. I remember my tiny room in London on New Park Rd, spacious in comparison (you could have got three or four people lying down in there, a new spatial measure), similarly stacked high, this feeling of being trapped yet also of safety because it is still yours… Nothing to this. I am humbled. Again we must question just how this is the world we have created.
The tiny space in this house compels you to do everything on or around the bed: sleeping, washing vegetables, having meals, writing letters, and watching TV. For some people, it is also where the children do homework and play games. Living here is like being trapped in a cage. Dilemma is what it’s all about. If you need to catch your breath, stay in this trap and entertain yourself.
Sohei Nishino’s amazing montages of London and San Francisco, space expanding again. Myriads of images collaged together into a larger sense of the city, a vertiginous wandering through cityscapes that resemble the city you know but with some jarring differences.
Rapid cultural and economic development creates a continuous process of amplification and accumulation within cities. I walk through these cities, camera in hand, capturing multi-facetted [sic] views that I then combine,in accordance with my memories, arranging them into a map that portrays all the singular aspects of the place. The result is quite different from the denotative expression of a map; it uses photographs of concrete objects or shapes as units to recreate a geographical representation, expressing the city through human memories and images. This means that the finished work is anything but an accurate map, it is simply the town as seen through the eyes of a single individual, a trace of the way in which I walked through it, an embodiment of my awareness, a microcosm of the life and energy that comprise the city.
Fascinating exercises in psychogeography, though perhaps a little too stripped of situationist rebellion…
There is earth being scorched by fire, tied to agricultural ritual and both literal and cyclical space in Rinko Kawauchi’s pictures. I loved this hill, this sense of rebirth and the barrier between life and death, the theme of connection across space in this kind of time.
Beate Guetschow. Brutalist concrete crumbling against landscapes that I had to be told were composites to create new landscapes. That needing to be told…that fascinated me.
Her statement brought together a lot of the things I have been thinking about (I mean, she quotes Georges Perec, she is clearly playing with the idea of city here as well…):
Cities grow, and in doing so they occupy increasingly large amounts of space – the built environment is the greedy counterpart of the natural realm. A space is defined only by differentiation from another space, for which it needs walls that serve as barriers or borders. These are mainly conceived and put in place by man. The walls and virtual boundaries around spaces usually have some form of opening that define one’s own position and allow one to enter a different space. Georges Perec describes this perfectly in his book Species of Spaces: “To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself.”
In the S series I investigate urban space, whereby I am particularly interested in architecture as a representation of ideology and in the international equality of built structures. My photographs present cities that do not exist in reality. I use computer software to assemble new cityscapes from buildings I have photographed all over the world. The resulting images are visual utopias that reflect modernist thinking, its desire for structure and its idealism. A key characteristic of modernity was an unshakable belief in progress – the idea of a process of sustained growth that would ultimately lead to a perfect society. In terms of its clarity and functionality, modernist architecture symbolises this faith in rationality. In my images, these very structures are shown to be crumbling; their substance is rotten.
Mandy Barker’s study of plastic, a Victorian labeling within a tiny glass cabinet combined with these pictures of wonderful circles — views through a microscope, new views on the plastic that is filling the earth and all the living things within it beginning with plankton.
Micro to macro, Thomas Ruff’s pictures of Mars. Proper space:
The chosen area of land in this series is a mere observer of nearly a hundred years of land disputes, which saw colonization, 1947’s divide of the Indian subcontinent and mass-migration with Partition, and 1971’s liberation war of Bangladesh which created the current border tension with the neighboring country, India. Absence of any profound identity for its existence never diminishes its presence, and its body carries the wound of aggressive industrial acts, such as stone collection and crushing. … Wasif’s work is not a definitive act of understanding the totality of deeds, rather deliberately ignorant of them with the help of an unconscious camera, to merely show land’s lone existence over a period of time.
The barricades are architectural elements that instantly appear and change existence around them. They are made out of tiles, barrels, blocks, and sacks of sand against which human beings seem to blur And become insignificant.
The barricades are the instant, moment-to-moment, concretization of separation of lives, identities, and ways of being. It is here that political, social and above all, religious believes are conjured up into a violent confrontation frontline made out of piles and multitudes. These barricades become turbulent focal points in the landscape where space is constantly reshaped and re-conquered and always remains chaotic.
Brilliant exhibition, and we caught it on the last day and almost didn’t see it at all as there were lines to main entrance — the security guard we were talking to told us of the other entrance round the side — not a soul around. good thing too, as who wanted to see fucking Pink Floyd or the Balenciaga exhibition? Everyone else apparently, which was all the better.
We also took this opportunity to enjoy a view of Tipoo’s Tiger. Worth stopping by even if you don’t see anything else there at all.
A crazy, packed weekend in London, that involved the launch of the 4th issue of Salvage and meeting Andreas Malm (and friends, lots of friends), catching up with my friend Tucker who just passed his viva with no corrections, The Robots exhibition at the Science Museum and much more… and still there was much left undone, friends not seen, stones left unturned.
Throughout history, artists and scientists have sought to understand what it means to be human. The Science Museum’s new Robots exhibition, opening in February 2017, will explore this very human obsession to recreate ourselves, revealing the remarkable 500-year story of humanoid robots.
It did make me realise that the closer we get to actually making robots real, the less I am fascinated by them. Really it is the old automata and clockwork things I most love. It opened with old clocks, and this, on the subject of orreries:
Possessing a model of the universe became a mark of politeness and respectability in the new, rational world of the 18th Century.
I almost laughed out loud. As I did seeing this:
An incredible and absurdly intricate automaton which they called ‘rose engine’ lathe created about 1750 — this produced a small complicated pattern cut into a round piece of wood. The exhibit notes it was made for someone wealthy – no shit.
I spent a while staring trying to work out where they could add another flourish of metal.
But even better was this automaton monk, made in Germany or Spain about 1560:
This monk prayed, walking across a tabletop while moving his lips, raising a crucifix and rosary, and beating his breast in contrition. He was built as an offering on behalf of King Phillip II of Spain, in thanks for his son’s recovery from a bad injury.
Just one of a whole collection of wonderful (and absurd) Catholic automata, that I suppose given the current state of catholic decorations for the home should hardly surprise me:
In this crucifix above, Jesus’s head would roll from side to side and shed wooden tears of blood while the Mary’s and other mourners raised their arms up to him.
They had this amazing, tiny, mechanical spider
They had the wondrous Silver Swan finished in 1773, originally found in the Mechanical Museum of James Cox, and with an internal mechanism by John Joseph Merlin:
These little silver fish swim up and down when the mechanism is in motion, and the swan endlessly succeeds in catching them, releasing them (you can watch it here, I am sad we did not see it in motion):
But on to the real robots. Maria, from Metropolis, happiness:
Cygan, George and Eric (Britain’s first robot, rebuilt here):
These mad composites of plastic and metal and wood and wire:
And on to a present that is feeling like the future:
In chatting over what we had seen, I realised Mark had the same nostalgia I did walking through the space for the utterly amazing Cosmonauts exhibition, which is the last thing we saw there. Not even robots could displace the memories of awe and wonder. But it was pretty awesome.
We went to see Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter today at Bristol’s RWA — I love Angela Carter, one of the true greats. Her amazing words snake round you, drag you in so it is impossible to emerge from the spectacular quality of the worlds she builds and the strangeness of the images that she gives you. No one is whole, no one normal. The struggle of the surreal, the damaged, the hybrid, the brilliant linger long after the novel is done.
She has always filled me with wonder, love and extreme envy in equal measure. Ah, to write like that.
It is hard to imagine what could do justice to her, but this exhibition came close, it was such a pleasure to be in such an evocative space, to encounter these wondrous things. was curated by Dr Marie Mulvey-Roberts of UWE, and the artist and writer Fiona Robinson of the RWA. Friday evening we’d been to an event at the Arnolfini — a talk about Ken Adam by Christopher Frayling and then a showing of Dr Strangelove, which Adam had worked as set designer on. We then had a lovely night of it over dinner and drinks with Marie and a few others. It felt like serendipity to come to this today.
A major exhibition that celebrates the life, work and influences of Angela Carter twenty five years after her death.
In bringing together art and literature, Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter explores the enormous impact of author and journalist Angela Carter – one of the most distinctive literary voices of the last 100 years.
Echoing Carter’s recurring themes of feminism, mysticism, sexuality and fantasy, the exhibition includes historically significant works by Marc Chagall, William Holman Hunt, Paula Rego, Dame Laura Knight, Leonora Carrington and John Bellany, on loan from major national collections.
One large room is full of art influenced by Angela Carter, some of it recently commissioned. I confess this was my favourite room because rarely have I loved so much so deeply. It makes me long for disposable income as few things do.
A few of my favourite pieces. Like Sarah Woodfine‘s ‘Untitled‘ (Forest).
She had three pieces in the exhibit — I always feel a bit constrained in taking pictures, so I am missing the other two, but loved them equally. I would buy anything she did.
Also included were two of her exquisite linocuts. I would buy any of them too. Then there was this extraordinary mobile, called ‘The Forest Assassins‘ by Tessa Farmer. The label reads that it is created of banksia seed pods, crab claws, crab eyes, wormshells, birds’ legs, fish jaws, insects, plant roots, crocodile skulls, bird skulls, snake ribs,snake teetch, mouse bones, taxidermy birds, Portugues man ‘o’ war plyps, hedgehog and porcupine spines, whelk egg cases. There is more going on here. Everything is manned by tiny winged figures and ants.
Off there to the right there on the wall is ‘The Follower‘ by Simon Garden. Amazing. One of our other favourite paintings in the room, and on his website, well, I love all of his work.
Then there was these illustrations by Juli Haas, with windows to open on other worlds…
There was Lisa Wright’s ‘After the Masked Visitor‘, which is the featured image here, and Eileen Cooper’s ‘Tail of the Tiger’:
Then there was the amazing Ana Maria Pacheco, particularly ‘The Banquet‘, a massive sculptural installation, which appears incredibly and terrifyingly surprising as you open a dark curtain:
I am leaving people off this list not because they were not brilliant, but because my mind is full to bursting. Because after leaving the great room of art inspired by Angela Carter, you continue on to a second room of art that inspired Angela Carter. Like Marc Chagall, ‘The Blue Circus‘:
The “Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” (1846) by Joseph Noel Paton, that only became interesting when you look quite closely:
Some Leona Carrington — my favourite ‘The Amateur of Velocipedes‘
Then there was still more and even more — another room of illustrations and covers for Angela Carter’s own books. From the presentation as written on the wall:
Angela Carter was a writer who proclaimed to ‘think first in images, and then grope for the words’, embracing the complex relationship between words and images — art and literature.
I loved Eva Tatcheva‘s cover artwork for Sea Cat and Dragon King.
This very cool collection of posters produced in a contest:
It has been a long time since I enjoyed an exhibition this much — and it was particularly exciting to have so many artists still working that I now know to watch out for. And so many of them women. This fails to do it justice and to name all the necessary names, but there is a book available to you.
Walking up the great hill we stopped in the remainder store, and I just happened to buy Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife‘. The first poem in it is Little Red Cap, and I read it waiting for our post-gallery cake and coffee and what another piece of serendipity, because it brought poetry to the prose and to the art we had just been drinking it. I felt lucky to read it for the first time like this.
At childhood’s end, the houses petered out
Into playing fields, the factory, allotments
Kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men
The silent railway line, the hermit’s caravan
Till you came at last to the edge of the woods
It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf
He stood in a clearing, reading his verse out loud
In his wolfy drawl, a paperback in his hairy paw
Red wine staining his bearded jaw. What big ears
He had! What big eyes he had! What teeth!
In the interval, I made quite sure he spotted me
Sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink
My first. You might ask why. Here’s why. Poetry
The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods
Away from home, to a dark tangled thorny place
Lit by the eyes of owls. I crawled in his wake
My stockings ripped to shreds, scraps of red from my blazer
Snagged on twig and branch, murder clues. I lost both shoes
But got there, wolf’s lair, better beware. Lesson one that night
Breath of the wolf in my ear, was the love poem
I clung till dawn to his thrashing fur, for
What little girl doesn’t dearly love a wolf?1
Then I slid from between his heavy matted paws
And went in search of a living bird – white dove –
Which flew, straight, from my hands to his open mouth
One bite, dead. How nice, breakfast in bed, he said
Licking his chops. As soon as he slept, I crept to the back
Of the lair, where a whole wall was crimson, gold, aglow with books
Words, words were truly alive on the tongue, in the head
Warm, beating, frantic, winged; music and blood
But then I was young – and it took ten years
In the woods to tell that a mushroom
Stoppers the mouth of a buried corpse, that birds
Are the uttered thought of trees, that a greying wolf
Howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out
Season after season, same rhyme, same reason. I took an axe
To a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon
To see how it leapt. I took an axe to the wolf
As he slept, one chop, scrotum to throat, and saw
The glistening, virgin white of my grandmother’s bones
I filled his old belly with stones. I stitched him up
Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone
Artists and Empire, the Tate’s description of the point of it:
At its height the British Empire was the largest empire in history and the most influential global power. originating with a few overseas possessions and trading posts, it grew to encompass dominions, colonies and protectorates rules or administered by the United Kingdom. In 1922 the Empire covered almost a quarter of the world’s total land area; by the end of the century it had diminished to just a few overseas territories. During this contraction, ‘Empire; became a highly provocative term.Its history of war, conquest and appropriation is difficult, even painful, to address but its legacy is everywhere: not just in public monuments, but in social structures, culture and in the fault lines of contemporary global politics.
This is what the booklet says. No slavery. Empire become provocative only as it contracts? It seems unlikely that a project of Empire was not provocative at all times, especially amongst those being Empired. The blurb on the website is slightly different:
In 21st century Britain, ‘empire’ is highly provocative. Its histories of war, conquest and slavery are difficult and painful to address but its legacy is everywhere and affects us all. Artist and Empire brings together extraordinary and unexpected works to explore how artists from Britain and around the world have responded to the dramas, tragedies and experiences of the Empire.
A bit better, that. Hard for Britain to do, but something that must be done. It was a thought provoking collection. It mostly filled me with rage, sat with nausea in my stomach. I confess, though, that is knowledge and rage I myself brought in through the door. I am not sure that there was too much open critique offered of Empire here in the Tate Britain, founded by Sir Henry Tate with all of his money from sugar grown in the colonies by slaves. From comments by the elderly middle class people seeing the exhibit with me, I got little sense there was too much critique going on in their minds either. Even though they sat staring at art deriving from a history of murder, occupation, exploitation, enslavement, genocide, extinction. Fairly neutrally curated given the subject.
So there were curiously neutral descriptions of paintings like this one:
‘Portrait of Poedua 1777-85’ by John Webber. The caption on the wall went on to say that she was painted by Webber while being held captive by Captain Cook, a hostage to force her father to round up some runaway sailors.
So this guy took a women being held against her will, stripped her, wrapped her in a rather British sheet and painted her.
But I am ahead of myself. I found the first two rooms most interesting, though the last room was my favourite. But we shall start with 1. Mapping and Marking. Because I love maps. And it behooves me not to forget just how they were used to control not just territories but also how we think about them. This was a stunning example of London at the centre of the world, and its lines of communication (England’s empire in Red):
They also had Crane’s map of Empire — from before the real ‘scramble’ for Africa, so it’s not quite as pink as the later map above.
I also learned that when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza (Portugal) in 1661, he got with her Bombay and Tangiers. They were painted and etched meticulously for him, fortifications and all.
A picture of bucanneers, explorers, men I once knew as heroes Cavendish, Drake and Hawkins (that guy who chose to have a slave as part of his new coat of arms given his promotion by Elizabeth I). These were not display.
2. Trophies of Empire — the art, artefacts, and natural history. I love natural history. Again, force myself to remember what so much of these beautiful paintings of flora and fauna mean — the control and exploitation of nature, the constant ‘discovery’ of what native peoples knew already even as their knowledge was being erased. This history was present here to some extent.
In light of this, this portrait of Banks becomes chilling — such a key figure in botany, part of Cook’s voyage, President of the Royal Society, here wrapped in a cloak from his travels to the South Pacific, more exotic weapons collected beside him…these too were to be found here on display.
The collection of wild animals, the founding of zoos. The beginnings of collections such as that at the Grant Museum of Zoology.
3. Imperial Heroics. This is a rather disgusting room, but what is fascinating is just how many last stands there are. Not of those peoples fighting for their homes and sovereignty, but of British soldiers being brave. Being portrayed as the victims. Being shown as the face of determined masculine civilization standing against the savage. I think this needed a bit more reframing, as these pictures tend to reinforce the dominant narrative of Empire. I liked the mocking installation of such narratives in the centre of the room, but it wasn’t really calculated to awaken the consciences of the people sharing the room with me I thought.
There was some interesting looks here at ‘historical’ paintings though, a lot of them focusing on Mysore, the war of conquest there repainted in a very different way, particularly this scene of a ‘kindly’ taking of hostages.
Robert Home has even painted himself into the canvas as an eyewitness. This was most interesting, this claim of authenticity and this stamp of one version of events over something that was clearly of a very different nature.
4. Power Dressing? The appropriations and subversions of European dress were interesting, but Europeans decking themselves out in the finery of colonised peoples? We still see that every day.
5. Face to Face — portraits, and some chilling ones. Both European looks at the ‘other’ but some very welcome looks back at Europeans. I particularly loved this view of Queen Victoria.
I particularly hated the portraits made for Queen Victoria’s collection so she could better know her Indian subjects, though they were beautifully done. One of them forms the exhibition’s marketing materials. Men brought over for an exhibition of traditional crafts, though they were in fact trained in those crafts while in a Colonial prison.
6. Out of Empire and Legacies of Empire
Art of the diaspora, critical art, quite wonderful art. ‘Trophies of Empire’ by Guyanese Donald Locke, his compatriot Aubrey Williams’ powerful work. Sonia Boyce, Avinash Chandra, Ronald Moody, Ben Enwonwu and others. A very good way to end the thing I think, it left me liking it more than I expected, expelled some of the anger building up as I wandered through the rooms.
One of my favourite things — the title of Sonia Boyce’s ‘Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain So Great’ (1986).
I found the exhibition overall immensely thought provoking and moving — yet the presence of many of these objects in a British museum at all is a problematic thing, particularly for the objects of art and worship that were stolen, like the beautiful heads from Benin. A lot of this shit needs to be given back. Their very presence shows there is a lot more needing doing than just facing the past, so while this call for restitution had some voice here it was oddly discordant with the rest. Walking through, I did find these objects a powerful way to understand better the nature and impact of empire, even knowing their presence here in London is a troubling legacy of empire itself.
Particularly emotive given my own recent interests were the donations of several statues of beautiful African art by Sierra Leonan Krios — descendants of former slaves and Black men who fought for the British in the American Revolution, all sent by English abolitionists to colonise a piece of Africa. Their history was missing from this, I brought it with me. On one of the pieces donated, it noted the intent of the donation was probably as an attempt to show the richness of African culture to a European audience. An effort to find empathy, respect, understanding.
I found that donation encapsulates many of the complexities of empire, of museums, of just such collections as this. It did indeed face Britain’s Imperial Past, was even perhaps more critical than I might have expected given the probable pressures to refrain from critique. But it remained something of a mixed message, and in too many ways Britain still isn’t truly facing its Imperial Past.
If you are looking for any hint of actual anarchy or anarchism, a better grasp of how Morris’s work and art and design connected to his politics or dedication to Socialist struggle, or the ways in which this connection or a political legacy continued on through the years, this exhibition will make you just a little sad. The very limited exhibit brochure states:
…this major exhibition illustrates Morris’s concept of ‘art for the people’ and highlights the achievements of those he inspired.
And this really was about ‘art for the people’, and much of the later part of it about ‘art for the people to look at from afar’, which perhaps explains why to me it missed the greater point which always was art by the people, of the people, and how this connected to everyday labour and struggle. From his pamphlet on Art and Socialism, as paraphrased by E.P. Thompson:
Art is Man’s expression of his joy in labour
Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers
the only healthy art is ‘an art which is to be made by the people, and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and user’
William Morris became political and turned to Socialism because of and through art, because he firmly believed in these things. He wrote ‘…neutrality is impossible in man’s handiwork…a house, a knife, a cup, a steam engine…anything that is made by man and has form, must either be a work of art or destructive to art'(646 – ‘The Socialist Ideal: Art’). I think it’s telling that E.P. Thompson’s massive biography is nowhere referred to, though the earlier biography by Mackail features heavily, and the exhibition is curated by Fiona MacCarthy who has written biographies of Morris, Eric Gill and Edward Bourne-Jones. I have read none of these others so can’t be too critical I suppose, and I am sure there are some things Thompson got wrong (Janey Morris for example) but this exhibit certainly somehow stripped so much of struggle away. The description beside the photograph of George Lansbury, for example, said nothing about his prison sentence for refusing to pay rates as head of the Poplar council. I can’t help but feel that is the principal reason he is remembered and still beloved today. As for anarchy — well, I will come back to that.
All that said, I loved the first half of the exhibit where the focus is William Morris himself, because his huge personality and the different aspects of his work demands the inclusion of it all. Perhaps most of all I loved the discovery of just how many wonderful little drawings of Morris there are by Edward Bourne-Jones, who actually features very little in what I’ve read, but a great deal here. I knew how close Morris was to Edward’s wife Georgiana Bourne-Jones from long excerpts of their wonderful letters used by Thompson (she’s represented here by only a portrait sadly), but Edward was his working partner and friend for just as long, and his caricatures of Morris at work and play are grand and give so much insight to their characters I think. Do a google search and you will see! I like the one above, from 1865, Morris reading to Bourne-Jones. The one shown in the exhibit is this:
A picture of William Morris demonstrating weaving, from 1888. His rotund little figure gets up to all sorts of antics, he’s even shown in the bath. The dates give an idea of the longevity and awesomeness of this close personal friendship, and also, I think, how Morris just could not have taken himself too seriously. There’s another, and not so kind, caricature of Morris from Rosetti, The bard and Petty Tradesman from 1868:
It encapsulates quite clearly what Rosetti thought of Morris’s arts and crafts designing and selling things nonsense. If he couldn’t paint, poetry was the thing.
I loved seeing Morris’s old satchel, and the huge and beautiful Prioress’s Tale Wardrobe, painted as a wedding present by Bourne-Jones. I had no idea Morris kept a ‘Socialist Diary’ for three months — the only period he kept a diary. They had it, there to read the one open page, three month’s worth of ‘a view of the Socialist movement from the inside, Jonah’s view of the whale’. Awesome. I want to read it (and can online here). They had the beautiful Hammersmith Socialist Society Banner, made (or designed and crafted through the business) by May Morris, and I learned a little more about her relationship with her father, both as head of the company’s embroidery division and in politics. They had Morris’s wonderful copy of Marx’s Le Capital, specially bound after his original had fallen apart through his study (I love that fact!), and several of the beautiful books from Kelmscott Press, including the giant Chaucer:
and a lovely cabinet crafted specially to hold it by Charles Voysey. Of course, this beautiful piece of furniture that I love also highlights the fairly elite nature of much of the arts and crafts movement and ‘the people’ who are in engaging in it inspired by Morris’s work. Not quite ‘the people’ Morris referred to, spoke to, worked with and fought for, which this exhibit does not really reflect on at all.
I found out more, saw more of the Red House. Really, I so love the art and the craft of Morris, I confess this exhibit shows a good sample of those beautifully. To me the house is indeed one of ‘the beautifullest place on earth’, designed by Phillip Webb and William Morris and both inside and out full of lovely handcrafted things. It was also wonderful to look at a full size print of the famous picture by Hollyer (seen on the cover of the book at the top of this post), pictures of him and his family, pictures of the Hammersmith Socialist Society as well as the portrait of him by George Frederic Watts below. How interesting too, to find out that WB Yeats had a copy of this over his mantel.
The way that so many figures of the social movements of this time intersected with the arts was also fairly revelatory. I had no idea that Sylvia Pankhurst was such an artist and craftswoman, designing the WPSU’s logo, badges, and beautiful silver brooches given to women who had been incarcerated for the cause. There is a wonderful site — sylviapankhurst.com — full of resources on her life, struggle and art. Many more of Morris’s contemporaries have art and portraits on display here, and that I loved too. It’s as the exhibit moves through time that it becomes more and more about artisanship, the arts and crafts aspect from which all connection to labour and struggle has seemingly been stripped that I didn’t like so much.
There was quite a lot about the garden city movement, again art for the people, and while the original dream of the garden city had political content, the reality as built had very little. A superficial reading of the ideals of Morris may be somewhat reflected in the ‘cultured cottage style’ of so much of the residential building at Letchworth, which is a centre of one of the exhibit sections. Yet I rather wish I could hear the explosion of his famous temper were he to be thanked for the end result of fairly highly priced suburban accommodation that only achieved a shadow of the original ideal for building working class, sustainable communities.
What happens, I think, is that artisanship and hand-crafting is portrayed as inherently radical, that a bunch of wealthy people absconding to the country to live their ideals should somehow be in Morris’s revolutionary tradition. Morris hated more than anything the Victorian architectural tradition of using a superficial mishmash of gothic ‘features’ rather than understanding the relationship of work and art that he felt was truly gothic, he railed against it. I feel that the cultured cottage style, and many other arts and crafts objects, are themselves just such a superficial reference to a very different ideal that combines art and socialism. One of the last objects is an erotic garden roller designed by Eric Gill to maintain grass tennis courts:
Cool enough, but individually owned grass tennis courts make my lip curl a little, not exactly part of a simple life. In News From Nowhere, Morris imagines a society of plenty where everyday objects are things of great beauty. There would be plenty of time to create such a tennis lawn roller for community use. But under capitalism? Morris struggled after converting to Socialism with how best to live simply and according to his ideals, run a workshop and employ workers, create things that a wide number of people could afford while still providing pleasure in labour to the craftsman, whether he should give all of his money away (a sacrifice he seemed willing to make but hesitant for his family though who can really know) or use it to employ workers and fund the movement. The second of which, in the end he did. Honestly, I doubt many things could be further from this interior struggle than such a roller — though it is strangely the primary focus of the short Guardian article on the exhibition by Mark Brown, who clearly cares little and knows less of Morris himself. Gill was a Fabian and then a Socialist, so perhaps I am being too hard on him, but nothing here really connected his work to his politics (or the controversies over his claimed sexual abuse of his children and other revelations, which make me uninterested in anything else about him really).
So how does this all this connect back to anarchy? I still puzzle over the use of that word in the title. Perhaps if I could have afforded or wanted the book, it would have been made more clear. One thing I love about Morris is that he partially bridged the growing split between Socialism and Anarchism in his life and work. That’s nowhere here. Anarchy here seems to to be referring to a very general and minimal revolt against society, and its limited use emerged most when it was looking at Morris’s connections to women’s and queer liberation — and those are only explicitly through his influence on the arts really, I have no idea if he ever openly pronounced on matters of sexuality. Artistically though, there’s Edward Carpenter, a pioneer of gay rights, and his workshop crafting artisanal sandals (you can see a pair of his sandals here). C.R. Ashbee was another, with the Guild and School of Handicraft and his bisexuality. Yet Morris’s own prizing of women’s liberation both in work and freedom within relationships that might make more sense as part of the tradition of ‘anarchy’ or radicalism is missing for the most part. You can never tell how much men actually practice of their rhetoric around women’s liberation of course, but News From Nowhere is at least an openly expressed preference for fairly open relations between the sexes, as well as a variety of living arrangements with little desire for a nuclear family. I loved that, even if women tended to ‘prefer’ domestic duties. Anyway, in this exhibit there was a lot of beauty, no real anarchy at all.
So in the end I have mixed feelings, and wonder what people take away from this who don’t know much when they walk in. As I say, though, the materials themselves relating to Morris and the early arts and crafts movement are brilliant to see and read about, so it’s probably worth going.
(All coincidence in terms of timing, but I’ve just been reading all about this, reflections on E.P. Thompson’s biography can be found as Part 1 and Part 2, and thoughts on News From Nowhere are here)
Some thoughts on the exhibition at the Barbican. Constructing Worlds is on the photography of architecture, and it does indeed excel in capturing the relationship between two dimensional pictures and architecture, how photographs can reveal not just a new vision of our built environment, but an aid to experiencing our vision of it differently. As a whole this inspired me to go out into London and take pictures again, to see my city in terms of shapes and shadows, surfaces and depths. To pay attention to structures and the space that they create. It has been so long since I’ve just taken my camera out, and with a camera in hand you see the city in a very different way. The next day walking in Lambeth, I thought to myself of Lucien Hervé, with his studies of shadow and light. Staring at the estate on my corner it came in and out of phase, from blocks of space to details of material and lived-in-ness to blocks of space. Gave me chills. I like that form of seeing, but only in combination with other forms of seeing. Just as I would have liked this exhibition more if it had combined the western white male gaze with others, incorporating more diversity of not just subject but also of viewer. There were four women featured here, one Indian, one white South African and another born in Nigeria, and one Japanese photographer.
I am so tired of the ubiquity of this gaze that rests on the structures of privilege: who gets to become a ‘photographer’, who amongst those are considered an artist, who gets shown in galleries, who can earn their living this way if they need to. I didn’t really bother once going to exhibitions, because what do those people have to do with me? And then I would go because I realised that at their best they make me think and see new things, and I’d shrug off the uniform nature of the artists because that’s how the world is. Now I sometimes go (but sometimes I just don’t) and usually emerge thinking new things, but also a little upset.
Anyway, that critique aside I would still go again. In the Barbican’s own words:
Constructing Worlds brings together eighteen exceptional photographers from the 1930s to the present day who have changed the way we view architecture and perceive the world around us.
From the first skyscrapers in New York and decaying colonial structures in the Congo, to the glamorous suburban homes of post-war California, and the modern towers of Venezuela, we invite you on a global journey through 20th and 21st century architecture.
Featuring over 250 works, this exhibition highlights the power of photography to reveal hidden truths in our society.
And it did that, but again I ask, who gets to change the way ‘we’ view things? Those looking at photography in the Barbican aren’t generally the group I am imagining when the words ‘we’ leave my mouth. For example, the three public school youths clearly just there because a fairly stunning arty girl said she wanted to go. How much are they really challenging our view of society? I wonder.
But the photographs were wonderful. Just some notes about some of my thoughts on the artists in the order you find them in the exhibit, I definitely hope to follow up with more on their work at some point:
Thomas Struth: He set up his tripod in the middle of the street each time, and tried to create a set of pictures that removed the focus from composition, allowed for a ‘more scientific grid’. The best you can see here on his website, they are oddly compelling. Across time and space the pictures here gave you a sense of some of the differences between Chicago, NY, Berlin, Naples, Tokyo. Pyongyang, Rome, Lima, St Petersberg, Beijing, Geneva.
Berenice Abbott: Oh man, these made me fall in love with NY all over again, and like Walker Evans, only exist as part of the New Deal programs to put artists to work. I love the New Deal, wish the US still had those programs in place because they opened up art for a little while. Of course, she’d been already been the proteget of Eugene Atget (considered the grandfather of photographic modernism? For further investigation) in Paris and brought back his archive to the US in 1929 before being hired by the Federal Art Project. This long thin amazing view between skyscrapers with people down below is one of my favourite pictures of the exhibit (so so few of these pictures contained people, as if spaces were pure, to be seen and aesthetically enjoyed as separate from being lived in). There was another of a man reading his paper with a cat which I loved, and a picture of the first model tenement house in NY with rows upon rows of washing. Extraordinary.
Walker Evans: I liked that he was included here because these were pictures of cities and towns of the South, and I liked the Barbican applying the term architecture to them — from steel mill towns to the ‘Negro’ section. There was a wonderful series of wooden frame churches, almost exactly alike and differentiated by only small decorative details and amount of peeling paint.
This was followed by Julius Schulman, a little Southern California modernism as the photographer for mostly L.A. architects of note and merit. The Stahl House for example, is stunning (but oh. my. god. when you go from black and white to orange and white in colour!). I liked this set up, with the case study home program, the set of magazine articles the pictures appeared in in glass cases in the middle. Of course, these pictures would go on to define the ideals of wealth and suburban living, and I wish I had had them for my thesis. Modern architecture. Women in the kitchen. Swimming pools. Refined parties with guests reclining on expensive furniture. Entirely white, as any self-respecting suburb was given the harassment ranging from eggs to bombs keeping non-whites out. But that’s my thesis. I just don’t think that part of ideal should be left unsaid.
I think Lucien Hervé impressed me most, at least his mastery of showing mass and space, shadow and light stuck with me. I am also fascinated by his relationship with Le Corbusier, their partnership which brought these two mediums together in a very different way than the other photographers. I’ll be coming back to Le Corbusier, his visions for society and the city, the visions he built in Europe but on such a larger scale in Chandigarh and Ahmedebad. I find them extraordinary. In many of these latter pictures (and I loved the showing of the annotated contact prints) the human use of the space returns without losing the architectural sense of the space. The re-appropriations (to the extent possible) of these huge brutalist symbolic spaces of government by the poor I found inspiring to some extent, and very curious about the role of government, the functioning of government in this kind of space.
Ruscha’s photographs of LA parking lots were…no, I didn’t much like them. I did like the images of industrialisation by Bernd and Hilla Becher, the idea of industrial archeology. I loved an entire wall of the most amazing water towers. The collection from Stephen Shore was all right, looking at his website I actually feel that his work loses some of its impact just focusing on those that arguably deal with architecture. I love the moments, people, everydayness that he captures and the way that he captures them, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m from Arizona and that’s a lot like Texas. I did laugh with joy to see the wigwam motel though.
That’s the top floor, by then I was seriously losing steam, just as I am now. The bottom floor was more modern, more installation based, only a few pieces for each artist. Luisa Lambri’s interior didn’t really work for me, but the smudged iconic shapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto I liked. Luigi Ghirri‘s photographs were tiny and exquisite, I would have liked more. Hélène Binet and more wonderful use of darkness and light and describing architectural photography as a pas de deux between building and camera. The monumental and amazingly detailed photo of collective behaviour enclosed in space of Andreas Gursky. Bas Princen with an extraordinary view of garbage strewn across the complixities of slum rooftops in this place geared to living off of the recycling of waste. Guy Tillim walking through Patrice Lamumba’s dream in the Congo. That hurt my heart, but the pictures are incredible. Simon Norfolk’s pictures of war’s effect on architecture — both in terms of destruction and speculation. You should go just to see the wedding cake building. Nadav Kandar, who combined people’s everyday lives as lived underneath and around the huge bridge across the Yangtze. And the best way to end? Iwan Baan, because I loved the subject. A huge flagship building in Caracas, never completed and then squatted, and these pictures show the world created there by its inhabitants. Such vibrant re-appropriations of space, they made me so happy, and their own views through glass-free ‘windows’ onto the incredible cityscape sat in my head alongside those of the staid Stahl house looking out over L.A.
The photographs are wonderful. Go see it, or check them out where you can.
Wednesday evening I visited the Black Cultural Archives for the first time, though I’ve been meaning to stop by since I missed their grand opening on July 24th. Windrush Square is much better without those big huge sidings that have been up for all the years I’ve lived here, but more so because now we can finally enjoy the gem they hid inside.
In the turbulent spring of 1981, as the streets of Brixton seethed with rioters and the shops burned, a small group of black artists, activists and teachers met in the midst of the conflict. Their common goal was to create an archive that commemorated and educated people on the forgotten history of black people in Britain and offset the violence with understanding and education.
At the beginning there were just eight of them gathered in a small shopfront on Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane. But last week, after a 33-year long battle, the permanent home of the Black Cultural Archives finally opened its doors to the public to a gathered crowd of thousands.
33 years. Damn. Thanks to their efforts there is now this truly extraordinary thing standing proud in the centre of Brixton, more important now than ever as rents keep going up and the heart of the community is at risk.
I met up with Sean and Helen, Kevin and Niall in the cafe, which has affordable coffee and cake and is such a good space! The building is beautiful, and a display on the wall describes its long and fascinating history from a large home of wealth and privilege to a school for boys to a dancing school to the Liberals Club to London’s first coach station! With some other things I have forgotten in between. A huge touch screen in the corner allows you to explore some of the many documents they have in the collections and we looked briefly through a series of leaflets from the 1970s and 80s with campaigns that ranged from how cuts affected black women the most to stories of deaths in custody and denunciations of police brutality. Inspiring, but also sad to think that we could just photocopy and hand out those same documents today with as much relevance as they had then. You can also see a range of their collection online here.
Adewunmi describes the purpose of the BCA through the eyes of the director:
It is the only institution of its kind in Britain, a place to bring together objects, documents, publications and oral histories of the black people of Britain over centuries, and, as the BCA director Paul Reid says, enable the black community to tell its own stories and its own history in its own voice for the first time.
What a beautiful place this is. And their first exhibit shows how they are going about it, the Re-Imagine: Black Women in Britain exhibit was amazing. Here is the blurb for it:
Long before the Empire Windrush arrived on British shores in 1948 there were women of African descent in Britain. Black women were here to witness the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain and everyday life over the centuries, in the markets and music halls, homes and factories.
Re-imagine gives us a glimpse of some of these women, the traces of their lives lying in vaults of archives, libraries and museums across the United Kingdom and brought together for the first time.
Side by side. Face to face. Courageous women who, throughout generations have been brave. We invite you to ‘re-imagine’ their lives, to create a tapestry of stories that paint a picture of the many and eclectic roles of Black women over time.
I love that you stand there face to face with them, honour and know them in this way. The exhibition room is a small place really, but they make brilliant use of the space, and it was with some awe that I read how much historians have been able to uncover. The inspiration maybe goes without saying, but I need to say it anyway. You walk out of there happier than when you walked in. So many women graced those walls who have transformed our world for the better, from Mary Seacole to Marian Anderson to Olive Morris and Claudia Jones. The folks working there loved those exhibits, too. Not like most museums where there’s someone standing there to keep an eye on things, tell you not to get too close. Here they were excited to share this history with you, make sure you took away with you as much as you possibly could.
The exhibit is open until 30th November, go if you can.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.