Saturday, 31 December 2011

Materiality, Surface and Illusion

If anything links the diverse approaches seen in the work of Gerhard Richter currently on display in an extensive retrospective at Tate Modern it would be materiality, surface and illusion. One thing pretends to be another - a photograph is a painting - a sky is a sea. Seascape (Cloudy), (1969), offers a view it would be impossible to see, the horizon being below eye level. Some of the early work appears crude (Himalaya (1968), Folding Dryer (1962)), and the dry brush scraped over wet paint becomes a little tiresome. In the first few rooms there is a sense of relief when one comes upon a painting which uses colour – there is only so much grey one can take. And even the first colour chart is poorly executed (192 Colours (1966)). But the sheer variety of styles, often painted alongside each other, shows Richter to be a painter exploring all aspects of his chosen medium with the attention of a serious artist. 

Richter is not an artist with clearly defined ‘periods’ depicting linear progression, he moves from one approach to another and back again with seeming ease, merely adding to his oeuvre over time – photo-realism, abstraction, abstract expressionism, figurative, landscape, and with his Grey paintings and colour charts the introduction of random processes. The colour charts improve with a switch to enamel paint (4096 Colours (1974)) where the surface becomes flatter and more pure. In Double Pane of Glass (1977) a change of surface (glass as opposed to canvas) transforms the quality of the paint (oil) and therefore the surface of the painting and the quality of the brushwork. A change of tool (roller as opposed to brush) does the same (Grey (1974)). Richter’s approach is that of a scientist changing a single parameter of an experiment to see the change in outcome. This is most clear in the Grey paintings.

There is something very clinical about even his ‘loosest’ paintings. The meticulous nature of the work makes the minor deficiencies more apparent, imperfections on the surface (cracks, blemishes, a thumb print, staples and folded canvas visible on the sides of unframed paintings) break the illusion momentarily, offering the work a fragility and impermanence that they otherwise seem to be denying. And across the two canvases of Moonscape II (1968) the colours are ever so slightly wrong.

By abstracting photographs almost beyond recognition as he does in Tourist (With 1 Lion) and Tourist (With 2 Lions) (both 1975) is Richter trivialising an event (the mauling of said tourist by lions), or guarding the viewer from the horrible reality, or does the fact you have to work harder to ‘see’ the image heighten the horror? Similar could be asked regarding his portraits of Nazis and the 18th October 1977 series.
The Cloud paintings of 1970 are beautiful and manage to avoid the slight frustration felt by his other smooth surfaced photo-realist paintings. Richter’s most iconic painting, Betty (1988), also achieves this. This painting, a portrait of his daughter, could be regarded as Richter’s Mona Lisa, except we are denied her beauty as she is facing away from us and once again all we can do is wonder at the surface, stepping closer in an effort to break the illusion. This is the one painting that looks no different to its often seen reproductions. This is the slight frustration of which I speak – the reproductions (photographs of paintings of photographs) are always smoother and flatter than the actual paintings and so the ‘real’ painting, being merely a painting, although a marvel, is almost always a slight disappointment.

The only work on display here where the audience isn’t aware of the surface is Mirror (1981) (which, as the title suggests, is a mirror hung in the place of a painting). Here the viewer looks beyond the surface to see only themselves. The relationship between viewer and work is made explicit in Mirror, the artist is saying look at my work, or indeed any work of art, and you will see only yourself.

In the 1980’s Richter, an artist always at odds with fashion, momentarily joins in with the popular style with his large brash abstracts. The abstract paintings have everything the majority of the photo-realist paintings lack – texture, thickness, and vibrant colour. Interestingly, Richter’s early abstracts (where he blows up and reproduces details of other paintings) retain the smooth surface of the rest of his oeuvre. His 1980’s landscapes however are a disappointment, well executed but uninteresting. They are reasonable paintings of badly taken photographs, neither good photographs nor good paintings. 

In his 1990’s abstracts Richter starts to cut into the surface of his paintings, revealing other surfaces beneath, other potential paintings, partially revealing also the processes behind the work.

In the late 1980’s Richter, who has spent so much time replicating photography in paint, began a series of small scale works applying paint directly onto photographs, personal family snapshots and portraits obscured by often a single brush stroke. Providing respite from his monumental paintings these ‘sketches’ are simple, quick and intensely beautiful. There is an apparent casualness to them unseen anywhere else in his body of work, almost as if he simply picked up the photograph to wipe his brush clean (I know this is not the case and these pieces are far from casual, but they successfully give that impression). These pieces are direct, they contain less illusion than much of his work, they are not paintings manifesting as photographs, or vice versa, they are what they are, a photograph daubed with paint, the successful merging of two media Richter has spent so much time questioning and separating. 

Maybe he finally realises the limits of painting with September (2005), in which he obscures a painting he had begun, depicting the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre as they were destroyed on September 11th 2001. It is a modest painting but it shows his failure. His painting of an atrocity fails to evoke any of the powerful emotions - dread, fear, awe - that the photographs of the event so successfully induce. Why did he abandon this painting, deface it and then choose to exhibit the defacement? Is he, after a lifetimes work pushing at the limits of painting, acknowledging his failure? Is there nowhere else to go? Is the photograph of the painting, no matter how wonderful the paining is, always going to be better than the painting itself? This, ultimately, is the question we always return to with Richter’s work.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

When It Ceases Dripping From The Ceiling

It was reported today that an artwork by Martin Kippenberger, on loan to the Ostwall Museum in Dortmund, Germany, was last month damaged beyond repair by an over-zealous cleaner. The installation, ‘When It Starts Dripping From The Ceiling’, is described by as “a tower of wooden slats under which a rubber trough was placed with a thin beige layer of paint representing dried rain water.” The cleaner apparently mistook the beige paint as a real stain and conscientiously scrubbed it “until it gleamed.”  She failed to recognise that what she had wiped clean was an integral part of an artwork which insurers estimate to be worth over $1 million.

Maybe Kippenberger would be flattered that the unfortunate cleaner was taken in by the verisimilitude of his work. Maybe the late Kippenberger’s talent was so great that she, a humble cleaner, believed in the truth of his stain, and did only what she was paid to do which was to clean it. Maybe the private collector who loaned the work to the museum will be grateful that through her innocent actions the cleaner has proved the worth of the piece, even though by unconsciously causing this damage she has reduced its value immeasurably. Or maybe the cleaner isn’t so ignorant after all and her actions were a conscious and piercing critique of the artwork in the vein of the man who urinated in Duchamp’s urinal.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Just Do It

Just Do It: a Tale of Modern Day Outlaws, a new documentary by Emily James is one of those films which leaves you in turn feeling inspired, fired-up, angry, ready for action, and then guilty that you are not doing enough in your own life to address the issues it raises, realising you do not have the courage of the young people it depicts to do battle with the unfair and unsustainable capitalist system they are fighting. The film follows for a year a group of people (mostly young although one of the most amazing characters is the middle aged Marina whose personal revolution began with a desire to serve everyone tea) involved with the environmental direct action groups Climate Camp and Plane Stupid. Emily’s camera follows her protagonists to the G20 summit in London, to attempts to shut down a coal fired power station, to setting up a camp on a roundabout outside a wind turbine factory in which the workers, threatened with redundancy due to a lack of government funding for sustainable energy, are staging a sit-in, to a suburban village threatened by the expansion of Heathrow, and to the COP15 climate change summit in Copenhagen. It is unashamedly sympathetic to its subjects and their cause.
I guess the reason I felt guilty was that I used to be involved in the protest movement back in the mid-to-late 1990’s, and the film made me realise how far I had travelled from that idealistic anarchist of my youth, who thought nothing of hitching the length and breadth of the country to attend demonstrations and Reclaim the Streets parties. I can’t say I was ever as involved and committed as the people depicted in James’ film, but I believed in it and wanted to do something about it. I truly believed I was part of a generation that was going to change the world.
I want to mention two questions raised during the viewing of this film: one was in the film itself, and one was in the Q and A session held after the screening with the director. The question in the film was put to Marina. She was asked: ‘Do you think what you are doing is futile?’ To which there was a very long pause while she thought about it, struggling deep within herself to come up with an honest answer, which was eventually: ‘well I can’t do nothing. It may be ultimately futile, but I have to do something.’ And it was clear over the course of the film the vast difference in scale between the two sides in this battle: huge global corporations, banks, governments and police forces against a rag-tag (though well organised) fleet of colourful, carnivalesque pacifists. I know who is right. But I also know who is winning.
The second question was put to the director after the showing: ‘how did the arrests and subsequent legal proceedings affect the protesters and did any of them regret getting involved?’ The director replied that one of our heroes, Paul, was arrested five times over the course of the film and spent the following year and a half attending court dealing with the legal ramifications, the result being an increased reluctance to place himself in the line of fire and a dropping off in his activism. She also stated that she thought the way protesters were dealt with in court was specifically designed to demoralise them in just this way. This is the tragic truth when these noble courageous young people challenge the system.
Which brings me back to my own experiences. A number of things led to my own retreat from activism, other than getting older and settling in to a ‘real’ job. I was arrested at a Reclaim the Streets party in Bristol in 1997, which in itself was no terrible thing, I was held in a cell for a few hours until the party dispersed and released without charge, but it did make me a little more cautious. It was at the G8 summit in Cologne in 1999 where the size of the foe became apparent. There were snipers on roofs listening in to conversations amongst the crowd with high powered directional microphones attached to their rifles and huge numbers of police on the streets armed to the teeth. I became quite paranoid. But the final nail was the march against the war in Iraq in 2003, when between one and two million people marched in protest at an unjust and illegal war. The realisation that so many people could say no to something and be completely ignored led I think to the so called apathy many people felt in the next few years towards politics. I justified my retreat as a change of tactic, making the changes in my own life rather than actively going onto the street to protest, I told myself. But really I just became more cowardly.
I understand, as I have experienced it, the feeling one gets in a crowd of people all shouting at the same enemy. It is a constructed situationist moment of authentic life, where the reality of the spectacle is temporarily exposed, yet remains ultimately futile, and it stands in stark contrast to the riots which so recently manifested on the streets of several cities in England, which were of a more spontaneous and ugly spectacular nature. Although I can empathise with the hopelessness of the perpetrators of those riots, I cannot agree with the nihilism of them. Whereas the direct action movement is a positive and life affirming howl against the crimes of global capitalism, the riots which so recently scarred our streets are a direct and logical result of the greed and despair caused by it.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Constellations - Gathering Dust

Constellations, an exhibition on at the Cornerhouse in Manchester until 11th September, brings together four artists who all deal with the ephemeral and the transitory. The exhibition is split over two galleries with two artists in each gallery. The first gallery shows the work of Kitty Kraus and Takahiro Iwasaki. Kitty Kraus shows one piece and Takahiro Iwasaki shows four.

The piece by Kraus, Untitled, is a repetition of a previous work first shown in Berlin in 2008. It comprises of a light bulb encased in ink filled ice which over the course of the exhibition melts to leave a black inky trail on the floor. It sits somewhere between sculpture, intervention, installation and drawing, where the artist controls the initial parameters and leaves the work over time to make itself. Although in itself quite pleasing and fitting the mood of the exhibition it is the least interesting piece on show.

The works of Iwasaki are all mini landscapes constructed from everyday objects. In Out of Disorder (three of Iwasaki’s works are so named) tiny towers and buildings rise out of landscapes of socks, towels, dust and hair utilising the threads and fibres of each material. And in Differential/Integral Calculus the landscape is made up from carved erasers and electrical tape while it is filled with telegraph poles made from technical pencil lead. The works in their materials and subject matter are a metaphor for the human struggle to construct solid objects of permanence in an ever changing natural wilderness. But the fragility of the works and their towers is a reminder that nothing human beings will construct is ever going to last forever, except for maybe the detritus, the socks, the towels, the dust and hair. Just consider the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, an incident which the work of Iwasaki rather abstractly and unexpectedly brought to my thoughts.

It is in the second gallery of Constellations that, to my mind, the best work is contained: two works by Katie Paterson and one by the best known artist in the show, Felix Gonzalez-Torres. In Earth-Moon-Earth an automated piano plays an altered version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. For this work Paterson translated a portion of the Sonata into Morse code and transmitted this translation to the moon. The signal was then reflected by the moon back to earth losing some of the information on the way. The version of the Sonata played by the piano in the gallery is the result of this process, with gaps where the information is missing. With this process of reduction Paterson has composed a new piece of music. Watching the ghostly player-piano I found myself wondering: where did the missing notes go? Is there somewhere individual musical notes floating through space waiting to be intercepted by someone or something? How far will they travel? Our picture of the universe is incomplete, just like Paterson’s Moonlight Sonata.

In 100 Billion Suns Patterson replicates a Gamma Ray explosion with a confetti canon and thousands of small coloured circles of paper that look like the residue of a hole-punch. The array of paper on the floor of the gallery resembles a star map with a mixture of dense and thinly distributed patches of colour. The precise physical force of the canon results in a random dissipation of matter resembling the seemingly random dissipation of stars in our galaxy. Paterson succeeds in her use of simple recognisable objects to make us consider the cosmic.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ posthumous contribution to Constellations is a re-showing of his 1991 Untitled paper stack, large scale reproductions of a photograph of the surface of water, an ephemeral moment captured and mass produced, which visitors to the gallery are invited to take away. This work balances perfectly with Paterson’s with its uses of reduction and again random dissemination. The paper is disseminated depending on who goes to the gallery, where they live or choose to exhibit it - if they exhibit it at all. There could be many copies of this image rolled up, sitting in corners, gathering dust. For those that take one, the image is a physical embodiment of memory, a reminder of their visit to this exhibition.

Other than Iwasaki’s all the works on display are the result of some random process instigated by the artist. Choosing the initial parameters and the process, the artists have all taken a step back from the work, allowing the process to unfold of its own accord, thus distancing themselves from the result. Only Paterson’s work directly relates to the title of the exhibition, Constellations, although Kraus’ work could be seen as a drawing of the inky black night sky, but the curators Karen Gaskill and Michelle Kasprzak have succeeded in creating a quietly contemplative exhibition from the work of artists who use the small and the everyday to provoke thoughts of the grand and the cosmic.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Either and/or Or?

In the preface to his book Either/Or Soren Kierkegaard, through the name of another, speaks of a deception. Either/Or is a two volume work, written under three pseudonyms, the Either being written by the aesthetic ‘A’, the Or written by ethical idealist ‘B’, and the whole presented to the reader by its impartial and equally pseudonymous editor Victor Eremita. Either is a series of essays extolling the philosophy of a young romanticist, Or is a series of letters written as a critical response directly addressed to the author of Either. Kierkegaard regularly published his aesthetic works under a number of pseudonyms, saving his own name for his religious philosophy.

Kierkegaard says of his use of pseudonyms that they are more than a mouthpiece for his own views, “behind each pen name lies a “subjectively actual personality””[1], a view that sounds very similar to Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s use of ‘heteronyms’. Over the course of his writing career Pessoa utilised over seventy names, preferring the term ‘heteronym’ to the more familiar ‘pseudonym’, “since they were not merely false names but belonged to invented others, to fictional writers with points of view and literary styles that were different from [his own].”[2]

Fernando Pessoa’s most celebrated book, The Book of Disquiet (a series of reflective vignettes, or Texts), was ‘written’ by Bernardo Soares, who, in Text 193 of that book, says: “I am, in large measure, the selfsame prose I write...I’ve made myself into the character of a book, a life one reads.” Another of Pessoa’s heteronyms, the poet Alvaro de Campos says “Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist.”[3]

One of the reasons Pessoa, an intensely private man, used heteronyms, was to hide, from the public and from life. But it was also a philosophical stance, as he believed each person to be capable of holding many contradictory thoughts and opinions, and he didn’t want his works to be limited to the one self. Each name provided him with a different voice. He wrote, through Soares: “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.”[4] And again, Alvaro de Campos: “Be what I think? But I think of being so many things!”[5]

Is Pessoa’s deception then more honest than Kierkegaard’s? Kierkegaard’s deception is most clearly carried out in Victor Eremita’s preface: “I, who [has] simply nothing to do with this narrative, I who am twice removed from the original author.”[6] And again, “I am neither an author nor a professional literary man.”[7] But, like Pessoa, Kierkegaard’s work also contains a confession: “During my constant occupation with the papers [of Either/Or], it dawned on me that they might be looked at from a new point of view, by considering all of them as the work of one man...Let us imagine a man who had lived through both of these phases, or who had thought upon both. A’s papers contain a number of attempts to formulate an aesthetic philosophy of life...B’s papers contain an ethical view of life.”[8]

Kierkegaard seems to agree with Pessoa’s view that a self is comprised of many selves, and that each self may carry within it contradictory beliefs. This, surely, cuts to the quick of what it is to be a human being. We are all of us a mass of contradictions. And the ‘I’, this seemingly singular identity we so stubbornly cling to, is the sum of these contradictions. This can be expanded, I believe, to include the creations of human beings, such as the work of art and the text. (Again this can be extended to encompass the whole body of an artists’ work or the entire oeuvre of the writer.) Why should the work of art or the text be considered to be the work of a single author? Surely a large part of the point of a work of art is to explore and expose these contradictions, these multiple selves.

In his seminal essay on authorship and authenticity, Roland Barthes states “…a text is…a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”[9] Our work is the culmination of all we have read or witnessed or lived. It follows that this is an ever evolving process. And the same, I believe, can certainly be said of the self.

[1] Howard A Johnson, quoted in his Foreward to the Princeton University Press 1971 paperback edition of Either/Or

[2] Richard Zenith, from the Table of Heteronyms in the Penguin Classics 2002 paperback edition of Fernando Pessoa The Book of Disquiet

[3] Quoted in Richard Zenith’s Introduction to The Book of Disquiet

[4] Text 396, The Book of Disquiet

[5] Quoted in Richard Zenith’s Introduction to The Book of Disquiet

[6] Preface to Either/Or

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

Friday, 6 May 2011

What's it all about?

Last night I watched Wim Wenders new film about late choreographer Pina Bausch at the cinema. It reminded me of how good art can provide me with such pleasure. The film Pina follows the ensemble of the Tanztheater Wuppertal, the dancers that Bausch worked with for the last twenty odd years of her life. The majority of the film shows the dancers performing their contemporary form of dance not only in the theatre itself but out in the streets and landscapes surrounding the area. There are interviews with the dancers interspersed throughout, but during these interviews the audience is looking at the silent face of the dancer whose voice is heard speaking.

The dance that Bausch worked with is very physical. In her ensembles performances there is no clear plot, no direct story or narrative, there is no definitive meaning. Like all successful art it is about nothing, and it is about everything. There is joy, pain, suffering, the intricate interplay of relationships, power, control, love, loss, none of which is explicitly stated, all expressed through movement and the human body and all interpreted by the viewer. It is simultaneously funny and serious, meaningful and pointless, profound and ludicrous, and it is always obsessive.

I am reminded of a scene in the film Factotum, a fictionalised account of the life of Charles Bukowski, where Matt Dillon’s character Henry Chinaski is in the office of his boss and his boss has discovered that Chinaski is a writer and is working on a novel. The boss asks Chinaski what his novel is about. Chinaski replies “Everything.” To which the boss asks “Is it about...cancer?” Chinaski: “Yes.” Boss: “How about my wife?” Chinaski: “She’s in there too.”

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Places, Strange and Quiet

As a film maker Wim Wenders has been somewhat hit and miss. Early works, such as Alice in the Cities were remarkable, and mid-career Paris, Texas beautifully shot and enigmatic, whereas the more recent Until the End of the World is truly awful, badly scripted, badly acted, unconvincing, confused, sprawling and self indulgent. Even Wings of Desire, which I used to rate as one of my favourite films, upon a recent revisit I found to be problematic and a little awkward, containing moments of true poetry and deeply resonating beauty but coupled with elements of farce and ridiculousness. But I still rate his work interesting enough and his grasp of the visual strong enough that when hearing he had an exhibition of photographs at the Haunch of Venison in London I thought it would be worth a look.

Spanning the duration of his film career Places, strange and quiet is an equally hit and miss affair. Some of the images are striking but many are simply average. The strength in most lies in colour, bright and bold primary colour. But the misses are such that when he does produce a successful composition, such as his shot of a street corner cut neatly into three bands of colour - the right hand third is red, the top third of the rest is bright blue, and the remainder a sandy yellow, you feel it is merely the happy accident of an amateur.

The photographs are large in scale and considerately spaced throughout several rooms. One of the best images is of an empty outdoor stage in front of which lies row after row of bright red plastic chairs, a palm tree growing out from the middle of them to the right of the image. Another is of a disused and delapidated ferris wheel standing alone in a wide expanse of waste ground, misty low hills on the horizon. On the opposite wall of the gallery is the same ferris wheel seen from the other side and close up, through which a tired looking housing estate can be seen in the background. One of the strongest technically is of an old car in what could be a desert or simply a quarry with a dog standing on the roof. The dog is a pure black silhouette, wild and threatening. This is one of the few photographs in the collection to inspire an emotion other than melancholy.

The subject matter comprises mostly of abandoned places and forgotten things, objects that have seen better days and lost their usefulness. Some suggest narratives, such as the woman in the red dress standing before military battlements and the wall pockmarked with bullet holes that have since been painted over in red (Wenders is obviously drawn to red). But most are simply mundane. Many, unsurprisingly I suppose, have the sense of film sets about them, stumbled on accidentally by an opportunistic collector of images. There is no accompanying information, none of the photographs are provided with titles or indications as to where they were photographed, but it is clear that these images have been collected over a long period of time and from all corners of the globe.

I'm not saying Wenders' photographs are bad, I have seen plenty which are worse and one or two of them are exceptionally beautiful, I just wonder if he would have been given such a large and prestigious exhibition with the interest that this garners if he didn't already have a reputation as a respected film director to back him up.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Nothing Much Happens

I am rather fond of films in which nothing much happens. Police, Adjective, by Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu is such a film. In it the main protagonist, a policeman by the name of Cristi, spends most of his days alone, outside in the cold, desolate urban Romanian landscape, following suspects and attempting to be inconspicuous. The case he is on concerns a teenager suspected of supplying hashish to his school friends, a petty crime, but one which carries a potential prison sentence of seven years. Cristi is troubled by his conscience. He sees his target as just a kid who smokes a bit of pot, who poses no harm to society, but Cristi's superiors want the teenager arrested.

The majority of the film shows Cristi in silence pursuing his victim along city streets a discreet distance behind, hands in pockets, head hunched, long grey shots where nothing much happens. When he is not walking Cristi is standing outside buildings, smoking cigarettes, waiting for his target to emerge. We discover his character through his movement and body language. Other scenes show the drudgery of the Police offices, meetings Cristi tries to avoid, paperwork and bureaucracy he can't avoid. It would be tempting to describe Police, Adjective as Kafkaesque, because it deals with bureaucracy, but that would be too easy. This is not as sinister as Kafka, merely bored people going about their daily routines, keeping busy with meaningless tasks because that is what they have to do to earn a living.

Our hero attempts to delay the inevitable sting operation by trying to prove the kid is not the supplier, it’s his older brother, who is out of the country at the moment, and they should await the brother’s return before acting, but in a crucial and brilliant penultimate scene where Cristi faces his Captain and his conscience we learn through a Romanian dictionary the meanings of the words ‘conscience’, ‘law’, ‘moral’ and ‘police’, and Cristi is finally convinced he has no choice but to carry out the sting. Police, Adjective is a beautifully shot, superbly paced study of absurdity and bureaucracy and the traps in which we all allow ourselves to be placed within our ordinary everyday existence.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011


On the 7th August 1974 Phillipe Petit walked a wire stretched 450m, 1340ft, or 1/4 mile above the ground between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, an illicit act which had taken many months of careful planning and the help of several accomplices to achieve. After 45 minutes and 8 crossings of the wire suspended high above Manhatten Petit stepped back onto the roof of one of the Towers to be immediately arrested. One of the arresting officers, interviewed straight after the event, was noticably moved by what he had witnessed and admits on camera that although illegally carried out he thinks it to have been an astonishing and wondrous act.

A film, directed by James Marsh, Man on Wire, uses interviews with the protagonists, contemporary photographs and film footage, and reconstructions to tell the tale of the heist like build up to Petit's incredible wire walk. I recently watched Man on Wire a second time, the first being last year at the cinema when it was initially released. It is a beautiful film of a beautiful act.

In the film Petit, a street performer from Paris, refers to himself as "a poet conquering beautiful stages." The word 'death' occurs frequently throughout, Petit says the act was "framed by death". As does the word 'passion'. "If I die," he states, "what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion." There is a fire in his eyes and a seemingly limitless energy to the man as he tells his story. Those close to him are visibly touched by the experience, a number of them weeping at the recollection. His girlfriend of the time, Annie, says "everyday was a work of art to him", and his American accomplice, Albert, says of when he saw Petit practising on a wire "he had an ageless mask of concentration...he became a sphinx." A childlike joy and a childlike seriousness pervades the group of collaborators.

The images of the wire walk itself (there is no surviving film footage, only photographs) are so intensely poetic, the fragility of this tiny human being surrounded by the vast expanse of air and the enormity of the steel and glass of the Towers themselves, that the first time I saw the film I thought to myself 'no matter what I produce in this life as an artist I will never create anything so profoundly beautiful as this act.' One of the most common questions Petit has been asked regarding his wire walks is 'why?' Why does he do it? Why does he risk his life for something so apparently pointless? His answer to this question is an answer only a true poet or artist would offer or maybe even understand. His answer is simple: "There is no why."